Things I Love (and Hate) About Rome in August

The calendar shows that Ferragosto takes place on August 15. The mid-August break coincides with the Assumption of Mary, in the way that Christmas conveniently takes place around the Winter Solstice.

The further south from Rome that you go, the more you’ll find towns that celebrate the Assumption. Romans typically use the old pagan name as well as adopt a libertine attitude towards the holiday, taking long breaks on either side of the fifteenth or even taking the whole month of August off.

I’ve talked before about what a traveler needs to have when visiting Italy in August. But now that I’ve spent two long, hot summers here in Rome, I feel compelled to share the reasons why I love and hate Rome in August.

Continue reading Things I Love (and Hate) About Rome in August

Renaissance Florence According to Rushdie

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

I was browsing a bookstore on the Upper East Side yesterday when I saw that one of the store employees had highlighted Salman Rushdie’s new work The Enchantress of Florence. Yes, the Nobel-prize winning author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses is now trying his hand at spinning a tale about Florence during the time of the Medici and combines this story with settings in India and the near East. Here’s a short clip from Michael Dirda’s review in The Washington Post (this review is also on Amazon.com):

Set during the 16th century, The Enchantress of Florence is altogether ramshackle as a novel — oddly structured, blithely mixing history and legend and distinctly minor compared to such masterworks as The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children — and it is really not a novel at all. It is a romance, and only a dry-hearted critic would dwell on the flaws in so delightful an homage to Renaissance magic and wonder.

In these languid, languorous pages, the Emperor Akbar the Great dreams his ideal mistress into existence, a Florentine orphan rises to become the military champion of Islam, and a black-eyed beauty casts a spell on every man who sees her. Other characters include Machiavelli and Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, Adm. Andrea Doria and Vlad the Impaler (a.k.a. Dracula), not to discount various Medicis and the principal members of the Mughal court of Sikri, India. The action itself covers half the known world: the seacoast of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the battlefields of the Middle East, Renaissance Italy and the newly discovered New World.

Yet whatever the locale, The Enchantress of Florence is bathed throughout in Mediterranean sunlight and Oriental sensuousness. Its atmosphere derives from the Italian Renaissance epic, especially Ariosto’s magic-filled Orlando Furioso, and from such latter-day reveries of Eastern splendor as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which features Marco Polo and Akbar’s grandfather Kublai Khan).

Here, then, is a gorgeous 16th century that never quite was, except in operas, masques and ballets.

Could this be the summer’s big beach read?

Swimming in Sardinia

An article today in the New York Times on Swimming Vacations inspired us to see if there were any swim adventure tours in Italy. In fact, one of the companies profiled – Swimtrek (located in London) – offers a one week swim trip around Sardinia’s Maddalena Archipelago. The tour features:

    Swimming from Maddalena to Spargi.
    The crossings between the three northern islandsof Budelli, Santa Maria, and Razzoli are inspiring.
    The swim down Caprera’s eastern shoreline is a great delight, ending at the beautiful beach of Tahiti (named after the South Pacific island!)
    Enjoying the abundant flora and fauna as we make tracks across the archipelago.
    Savouring the delights of the main town of La Maddalena.

For this season, there are still two dates available – June 14-20 and September 27-October 3. If you’re a swimming enthusiast, this is a wholly unique way to see Italy. As an added bonus, each day you’ll have a chance to work off all that pasta you ate the night before!

Eating Your Way Through Le Marche

Ladies and Gentlemen – start your appetites! Chowhound.com has begun a year-long series titled “Eating Your Way Through Le Marche,” starting with an entry about food festivals in the region during June 2008. If you’re in the area during June, vist Cartoceto’s Sagra dei Vincigrassi, a festival celebrating a marchigiana-style lasagna on the first Sunday of the month; Monte Porzio’s Sausage Festival on the third Sunday (and proceeding Saturday); or any one of the summer-long fairs in cities like Gradara, Gabicce Mare, and Sant’Angelo in Vado.

To learn about and discuss the food in Le Marche or other regions in Italy, see the Chowhound Italy boards. And stay tuned for more installments on Eating Your Way Through Le Marche.

An Unspoiled Beach in Abruzzo

Vasto Beach

Earlier today, we wrote about the travel potential of the region Puglia, this year’s emerging star of Italian tourism. Well, if Puglia is the new Tuscany then some years from now Abruzzo will be the new Puglia.

Richard Norton-Taylor writes about Vasto, a largely “unknown” beach on the Costa Abruzzese for the U.K.’s Guardian. And, believe us – if this spot is still largely unknown to sun-worshipping Brits, then it really must be unspoiled!

Even More Italian Beaches Get the Blue Flag

There are now 104 beaches in Italy that have been awarded the “blue flag” for clean water and sand. According to Italy Magazine, the Foundation of Environmental Education (FEE) found that the top beaches in Italy were in Tuscany and the Marches, each of which have 15 blue flag beaches. Liguria and Abruzzo came in second and third, with 14 and 13 blue flags, respectively.

For more information about FEE and to get a full list of blue flag beaches, check out fee-international.org and blueflag.org.

Beaches of Lazio

Continuing our series on Italy’s beaches, today we’re highlighting the beaches of Lazio. Most visitors to Lazio, Rome’s region, forget that the Tyrrhenian is as close as half an hour away. In fact, many Roman nightclubs relocate to beaches like Fregene. And, there are also some lovely strands south of Rome in Terracina and Sperlonga.

Province of Viterbo
The area known as the Maremma extends into the northern part of Lazio in the province of Viterbo. The sub-region is called the Maremma Laziale, and it has a couple of beaches worth checking out. The Marina di Montalto near the medieval town of Montalto di Castro is a modern tourist resort with hotels, campgrounds, and plenty of beach chairs to rent for the day. Further south, Tarquinia, which is known for its Archeological Museum of local Etruscan finds, also has a seaside area with similar facilities to Marina di Montalto.

Beaches of Rome
Did you known you can access Rome’s nearest beach by train? It takes about half an hour to ride the train from Piramide (Metro Line B), past Ostia Antica, to the Ostia Lido stop where you want to go. Rome’s local beach, which is also convenient to Fiumicino Airport in case you’ve got a long layover, has several large hotels and, in summer, a vibrant nightlife scene. Another summer favorite for Romans is Fregene, which can also be accessed by public transport (Metro Line A to Lepanto, then blue COTRAL bus to Fregene; travel time: 1 hour). While Fregene is known as the summer address of many big Roman clubs, such as Goa or Gilda, its also a great place to ride a bike and eat tasty seafood, as explained by this New York Times’ article on Fregene.

Elsewhere in the province of Rome are lesser-frequented beaches and extremely busy ports. If you’re taking a cruise that bypasses Rome, then you’ll be disembarking at Civitavecchia. This huge port is not necessarily where you want to plop down a beach towel, but it is here where you can rent a boat or catch a ferry to Sardinia. However, within the Civitavecchia municipality, there are a few stretches of sandy beach. Down the Via Aurelia from Civitavecchia is the seaside resort of Santa Marinella, which is geared more towards families than club-goers. Many other towns and beaches dot the coast of the Province of Rome all the way down to Anzio, a European Blue Flag (i.e., exemplary) beach with ferry connections to the Pontine Islands, and Nettuno, where you can not only catch some rays, but in summer also a little baseball. Of course, Anzio and Nettuno are well-known for being sites of major American offensives during World War II – and, consequently, of American Memorial cemeteries.

Riviera d’Ulisse
The coastline along the Province of Latina is better known as the Riviera d’Ulisse or the Riviera of Ulysses. Ulysses is the Latin for Odysseus, who is said to have landed here during his famous Odyssey. These are the beaches worth going out of the way for if you are staying in Lazio for a while. White sand, dramatic cliffs, and romantic grottoes make up the geography here, from San Felice Circeo to Terracina to Sperlonga. The area of San Felice Circeo is a hub for windsurfing and kayaking and the Parco Nazionale del Circeo is a favorite haunt for birdwatchers.

The Pontine Islands
Finally, the small cluster of islands off the coast of Lazio are known collectively as the Isole Pontine. Part of the Province of Latina, most of the Pontine Islands are uninhabited, save for Ponza and Ventotene. Like the nearby Circeo Park, Ponza and Ventotene are known for their wildlife and nature preserves, which make them a real getaway from the hustle and bustle of Rome (or crowded beaches). To read more about Ponza, check out The Independent’s article Ponza: Italy’s Secret.

Photo by Mortimer

Beaches of Tuscany

With summer on the horizon, we’ve got sun and surf on the brain. So, in the coming weeks and months, we plan to highlight the beaches of Italy.

First up is Tuscany, which has some of the most pleasant beaches you’ll find anywhere. While Tuscany’s beaches are hardly a secret – for example, Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi can be PACKED in July – they are typically less congested than Florence, Siena, and the tourist routes. We can’t profile every single beach for you, but here is a run-down that we have compiled from our research for the Unofficial Guide to Central Italy.

The Riviera Versilia
Tuscany’s most famous stretch of strand, framed by the marble-topped Apuan Alps, is called the Riviera Versilia, and it features the chic resort of Forte dei Marmi (considered the “Hamptons” of Tuscany), the “Carnevale” town of Viareggio, and smaller seaside areas like Lido di Camaiore and Marina di Pietrasanta. Versilia is popular in the region because, unlike many coastal areas south, it has a sandy shore. Yet, despite its popularity, Versilia has a ton of blue flag beaches, too. For more information, check out the Versilia Tourism website.

The Tuscan Archipelago
Many travelers forget that Tuscany has its own little set of islands to explore. The Tuscan Archipelago includes Isola del Giglio, a moutainous island that has facilities for windsurfing and scuba and Isola di Giannutri, also rocky but suitable for snorkeling and nature treks. Another of the seven islands of the Archipelago is Montecristo, the setting for Dumas’ classic The Count of Montecristo; Montecristo is open to tourists only with permission from the Italian Government. Of course, the mother of all islands of the Archipelago is Elba, itself famous for being where Napoleon was once exiled. Among the other isles, Elba has the most hospitable beaches, plenty of restaurants and nightlife, and numerous connections to the mainland via ferry. More information about Elba and its sisters is available from the Arcipelago Toscano website. You may also be interested in these articles: Seeking Exile in Elba (The Washington Post) and Italy’s Undiscovered Islands (Travel and Leisure).

The Etruscan Riviera
Inland from the Archipelago, the Riviera Etrusca is the place to go in Tuscany if you’re looking for a more natural beach getaway. Stretching from Livorno to Piombino, this strand is mostly rocky, but has some sandy shores around Marina di Cecina and Castiglioncello. As the name implies, you can also spend time investigating Etruscan ruins along the coast and inland among the pine groves. For more info on the Etruscan Riviera, check out the Costa degli Etruschi website.

Coastal Maremma
While traditionally the Maremma is considered to consist of mostly farmland, it does have a number of seaside towns, most of which are frequented by beachhouse owners from Tuscany and Lazio. But, coastal Maremma does have a little something for everyone: families will like Follonica and Marina di Grosseto; chic resort-goers can choose from Porto Santo Stefano or Porto Ercole (both on the Promontorio dell’Argentario) or Punta Ala. Meanwhile, the interior pastureland and the Parco dell’Uccellina, which contains some untamed sandy beaches with craggy cliffs, are great for nature lovers. For more information on the beaches of the Maremma Coast, see the Official Website of the Maremma and the website for the Comune di Monte Argentario.

Photo by Roby Ferrari

Take Me Out to the Gioco…

It’s a fact that some of the greatest ever to play the game of baseball were of Italian origin: DiMaggio, Berra, Campanella, Rizzuto. But, Italian baseball? Who knew?

Apparently, the hotbed of Italian baseball is in Nettuno, not very far from Rome. According to ESPN, Nettuno and a few other Italian towns (e.g., Grosseto, Parma, Rimini) “play three games a week against the same opponent. The first game is played Friday at 9 p.m., and then two games are played Saturday, one at 4 p.m. and the other at 9 p.m. At least three umpires call the game (usually four); seven during the playoffs. Tickets cost about 7 Euro.”

It’s safe to say that you won’t get MLB-caliber play at these ballgames. But if you’re in Italy over the summer and craving a bit of the American classic, a trip to the ballpark isn’t a fantasy. Lord knows, with the way the Yankees are playing this season, a little bit of Italian baseball may be a breath of fresh air.

More information:
Italian American Sports Hall of Fame
Nettuno Baseball
Federazione Italiana Baseball Softball

Photo by Ilesino