Friday, May 3, 2019

NAIF museum in Washington DC on Italian immigration worth the time


Thousands of immigrants flood the USA every day. They are desperately poor, with virtually no cash or savings, and little more than their clothing for possessions. They speak no English, and some of them never will, because they will cluster into communities with other immigrants who share their language, customs and values. Many are illiterate.

But this is no border crisis—this scenario occurred between 150 to 100 years ago, when America’s industrial revolution was in full swing: Jobs were plentiful, workers from abroad were being recruited and border checks consisted only of health screenings. Passports were not even required before 1918.

This poster explains why many immigrants
did not teach their native tongue to their children.
The greatest number of immigrants came from Southern Italy, and a new free museum in Washington DC has been inaugurated to tell their story. I toured the Museum on Italian Immigration today, an outreach by the National Italian American Federation located at 1860 19th Street NW.

The self-guided tour includes some 70 numbered panels arranged largely in chronological order, telling first about conditions in Italy that caused so many to leave, then about the ships that carried them across the ocean to face uncertain futures, and finally about their struggles to adapt—along with stories of great tragedy and success.

It took an hour and a half to walk through and read all the panels in the three rooms. The experience was much like reading an illustrated textbook, and it is a well-written and appropriate tribute to the sacrifices and dedication made by these proud immigrants. While it could be criticized for lack of depth in its coverage, one must remember that it is a museum, meant to be absorbed in a reasonable time and designed to whet one’s appetite for the more in-depth coverage that can only be obtained by further study through books and videos.

The Rosie the Riveter song and illustration
likely were inspired by record-setting riveter
Rosina Bonavita, an Italian American.
I might give the museum a higher rating if not for the fact that in 2011, I viewed a fantastic special exhibition in Lucca, Italy, called Along the Wake of the Propeller. It covered the same topic but in an elaborate setting that recreated the experience of traveling on a steam ship and then coming into Ellis Island and going through the lines and inspections. On a scale of five, I’d give the NAIF museum a four—definitely worth the time to see—and the Lucca exhibition a five-plus.


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Finding more members of the great Spadoni family in Italy


Livio and me in his kitchen . . .
In the late 1800s, Francesco Spadoni, the brother of my great grandfather Pietro, moved from Pescia to Spianate, a little community just outside Altopascio, about eight miles south of Pescia. I knew Francesco had four sons, but many documents from Altopascio’s city hall are missing—I believe they were lost during World War 2—and I had been unable to locate any descendants.

and with Daniela in her kitchen.
Using the online white pages, I located Livio and Daniela Spadoni in Altopascio and paid them a visit a couple of weeks ago. With the information they provided, plus what I found in the books of baptism from the Spianate church, we determined that they indeed are the great great grandchildren of Francesco. They are brother and sister and live on separate levels of the same house. Although they are about my age, their late father Enzo is actually at the same level of descent as I and my numerous Gig Harbor first cousins. Enzo would be my third cousin, and Livio and Daniela are fourth cousins of my children (or my third cousins, once removed).

I was able to add their children, grandchildren, uncles and first cousins to the family tree we maintain on Ancestry.com, fulfilling a goal I set about five years ago to track down descendants of some of Pietro’s many siblings. I’ve now located three family lines located in Italy and one in Chicago.

I also paid a visit today to Simona Spadoni, a Facebook friend born in Borgo a Buggiano. She had commented that she didn’t have many relatives living nearby and wanted to know how she was connected to the greater Spadoni family. With my large data base developed over the years, I was able to place her in the family tree without much difficulty, once she gave me the names and places of birth of her grandfather and great grandfather. Simona and I are on completely different sides of the tree, with our common ancestor, another Francesco Spadoni, born around 1455.
 
Tutti Spadoni. Front: Simona and Elisabetta. Back: Massimo, Paul, Lucy.
Most of Simona’s cousins emigrated in the early 1900s, some to Uraguay and others to the United States. The only other local Spadonis in her family line are her brothers Massimo and Giovanni and her sister Elisabetta and their children. She does have some contact with second cousins Cindy and Calvin Spadoni, born in Illinois.

Alexa Spadoni
Lucy and I met Simona at the home of her mom, Mirella Rosellini. I told Signora Rosellini that Alberto Rosellini, whose parents were born in nearby Chiesina Uzzanese, had been governor of Washington from 1957 to 1965. We also met Simona’s sister Elisabetta and her husband Sanzio Natali and their brother Massimo and his daughter Alexa.

They showed us photos of family members who had moved to other countries, and I gave them a printout showing their family tree dating back to our earliest known ancestor, Bartolomeo, born around 1430.

While it’s unlikely that we’ll have significant contact with any of these relatives in the future, I enjoyed the search, and as is my custom, I invited them to visit us in the United State should they ever get the urge. Some day one of our Italian relatives may even take us up on this offer.




Monday, April 22, 2019

Another free hot springs, the Fosso Bianco in San Filippo, not quite as satisfying as the park in Saturnia

Encouraged by a recent pleasant experience at Cascate del Mulino, I decided to try another Southern Tuscany hot springs even less widely known, the Bagni di San Filippo, known as the Fosso Bianco, or white ditch. Our wives wanted a day of rest at our air bnb apartment in Pitigliano, so Roger and I headed out for an hour drive north with our swimming suits on under our clothes. Turns out, we could have left our swim suits at home, as we didn’t do more than dip our hands and feet in the water—but that doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the visit.

The trail from the street comes in on the right side, and at first sight, the shallow
and muddy pools are not particularly inviting, nor are they very warm.
The location is gorgeous, with massive white calcium formations that look like frozen waterfalls, and for that alone the baths are worth visiting. Parking on the street is 1 euro per hour, and the trail is a short and easy 10-minute stroll. However, if one is expecting the warm pools and a gentle water massage of the Cascate del Mulino, this free outdoor park is not the best choice. We found either lukewarm muddy pools or some that were clear but cool. Since the air temperature was still moderate in spring, we decided to limit our enjoyment to the scenic beauty.


Above the trail entrance, we found this lovely pool. A traveler
from Spain had just come out, and he said he had been
disappointed because the water was only lukewarm, not
hot like a spa.
I’ve read that the park changes from year to year because of weather and human intervention on the soft calcium deposits, and our visit in mid-April may not have been the best time to go. Rainfall has been lower than normal, so the mostly clear creek passing below the calcium deposits didn’t have a lot of water—and even so, the stream itself is cool. The warm water trickles down from the white cliffs, but the shallow pools between the cliffs and the stream mix both cool and warm water, with the resulting liquid being mostly lukewarm, muddy and green-gray from the calcium.


Here you can see some of the stunning calcium formations.
But note also the small size of the stream and waterfalls.
The deeper pools in the stream are clear, but they’re also mostly cool. We could imagine that on a summer day, when the air temperature is typically in the 80s or 90s, these pools would be perfect relief from the heat. It’s worth noting that there are pools both above and below the point where the trail hits the stream, and in both cases these pools are better than what initially meets the eye. We met one group of travelers who were disappointed and appeared ready to leave without walking further, and it does take another 10 or 20 minutes of hiking to fully explore the park.


Note here the upper part of this mineral deposit, where
there are some inviting warmer basins.
Especially beautiful is the calcium deposit nicknamed the “white whale” at the lower part of the stream. We even saw several pools high on the formation that were deep enough to fully immerse oneself in water that would have come solely from the hot springs. The best pool was occupied by two teenage girls, who assured us that the water was warm, although still not as warm as the water at Saturnia, which they said they have sampled many times. As soon as they left, the pool was quickly filled by other bathers, so one may have to wait in line for the best pools.


This upper basin was occupied by two teenage girls,
who gave a good report about its warmth.
We saw other bathers climbing up the deposit with
little difficulty after the girls came down.
A traveler on TripAdvisor, Madeline of Chicago, said, “The rocky formation of the beautiful limestone formation is pretty easy to climb, but beware because the limestone does break off easily. Don’t settle for the pools at the bottom; keep climbing up because the closer to the source point of the hot springs at the top, the hotter you’ll be. Some of the pools are pretty shallow, but there are a couple that are pleasantly deep enough for one person to essentially treat as a bath with your whole body submerged. The white sand inside and the water itself feels amazing on your skin and is said to have healing powers. Also, there are dry spots on the Fosso Bianco where we could leave our backpack and towels in sight and not worry about them being stolen.”


These two had their own private pool in which to cuddle
at the lower end of the park.
Be forewarned that there are no bathrooms, snack bars or changing rooms, and your body and swim suit will smell a bit sulfurous when you leave. We recommend that you bring a picnic lunch and pack out your garbage. Also, do not park at the top of the hill when you drive into town, as you may find the parking spaces after the trail head are closer to the first ones you encounter. During the summer months, there is a pay spa available as well below the free park, with warmer water and some amenities, but it wasn’t open yet when we visited.


Overall, I much preferred the Cascate del Mulino, but now that I know what to expect, I wouldn’t mind returning to the Fosso Bianco on a warmer day with a blanket and some good food. A bit of advance knowledge can make the difference between a positive or disappointing experience.



Thursday, April 18, 2019

Exploring the Vie Cave, Etruscan roads with mysterious purpose

Roger, Rosemary and Lucy at the beginning of
Via Cava San Giuseppe.

I’ve seen many Etruscan tombs, walls, statues and pottery in my time, but until this week I had been largely unaware of the impressive roads the Etruscans built into the tufa hills around Pitigliano, Sovana and other ancient cities of Southern Tuscany. Some call them the Vie Cave (excavated streets), others Cavoni or the Hollow Paths—but by whatever name, these remains of pre-Roman civilization are well worth seeing.

Some of the steeper paths have carved steps.
The Etruscans were a well-organized society that occupied much of central Italy and reached their height of influence between 600 and 400 BC. A Via Cava is a man-made road excavated between two towering tufa walls. In Pitigliano, these long, shadowy corridors sometimes reach heights of 100 feet (30 meters) and wind through rocky outcroppings of light, crumbly volcanic stone. On the high vertical sides, carvings of symbols and numbers from various periods can be observed: Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and even more modern times.

Some controversy surrounds the purpose and origins of these pathways. Carlo Rosati, author of “The Etruscans and the Hollow Paths,” writes, “Techniques of excavation, period, function and symbology can all be discussed, but every new theory provokes another contradictory one.”
 
Here it is easy to see how the roads gradually became deeper. Each time the crumbly tufa wore down in the middle, the road would be re-leveled by digging down to the lowest level. You can see along the edges various higher road levels, as well as the foot- and hoof-pathways worn down in the middle.
A collapsed tufa boulder with a painting of San
Giuseppe in an overhead niche.
Some suggest that the roads were built to connect various necropoli, Etruscan burial tombs. They speculate that because a necropolis was designed much like an Etruscan city, the tombs were regarded as houses where the deceased lived on for eternity in an invisible realm. The city of the dead had to resemble the city of the living as much as possible, with well defined houses, squares and roads. Because a necropolis is almost always found at the top of a Via Cava, perhaps the roads were designed to allow easy transit for the departed souls.

Experts all agree that religion held a fundamental role in Etruscan civilization. “Every earthly manifestation, like the flight of birds, lightning, the passage of the sun, the hot springs or the sprouting of a tree was the expression of a particular deity manifesting his or her will,” Rosati notes. “The most powerful and important deity—and the one that attracted a following even before the Etruscans—was Mother Earth, responsible for life, and in this light, the Vie Cave can be considered as sacred pathways, carved into the earth as a form of penetration to get nearer to worship the mother divinity.”

This slippery and mossy road is part of the Gradone
Via Cava.
In addition, many sacred symbols and inscriptions were carved by the Etruscans along the rock walls of the Vie Cave. A sacred well is found in Sovana “inside which numerous bronze and ceramic objects of marked sacred symbology have been found,” Rosati points out. “You could say that no one would do a thing like that at the beginning of a Via Cava without any strong religious motivation.”

Other scholars hold that the Vie Cave were built for much more practical reasons: To connect cities with roads in which the grade remained as consistent as possible to facilitate easy passage. When the builders encountered a hilly outcropping, they carved a path through it instead of detouring around it or constructing a steep and dangerous grade that would be nearly impossible to negotiate with a loaded cart.

One can still see the hoofprints of donkeys as they
carried their loads up the Gradone.
I recently visited four Vie Cave near Pitigliano with my brother Roger, who has spent much of his life in the road construction business, and I’ve had some experience in this field as well. We noted that above and below the deep digs, the roads continued on terrain that was for the most part flat. The need for the excavated portions seems to us to be the obvious necessity of maintaining a gradual slope. Since tufa stone is relatively light and crumbly, it wouldn’t have taken an unreasonable effort to chisel through it. The Egyptians made similar excavations in much harder granite.

We also saw much evidence that the roads were initially not nearly as deep as they are today. Tufa is delicate rock, and Rosati points out that every 20 years or so, the center pathways that man and donkeys created had to be re-leveled. Rather than trying to fill the impressions, the builders would lower the rest of the road bed. If each improvement process “resulted in the lowering of the floor by 30 centimeters each time,” he wrote, “we can conclude that it took centuries for the Vie Cave to reach their current level.”

Lucy peeks out after exploring
a cave in the Poggio Cani Via Cava.
While it is true that often necropoli were located above a Via Cava, we also noted that the roads continued on to connect one city to the next. It could just be that the Etruscans liked to build their necropoli at higher locations, which coincided with the upper portion of a road excavation.

Rosati presents both arguments before summarizing: “But perhaps the best thing to do to draw one’s own conclusions is to immerse oneself in a Via Cava, and, holding one’s breath, to listen and to savor in silence the spectacle before our eyes, trying to hear the voices of all the people who passed through here, trying to merge with the environment and imagining to jump back in time to touch the mystery and charm of the Etruscan culture.”

Good advice! Visiting a Via Cava is an evocative experience, prompting us to ponder the daily lives and activities of Etruscans and to study historical sources to learn more about this fascinating and once-thriving society that taught the Romans much of what they knew about engineering.
 
This old farmhouse is for sale, with a river on three sides and in walking distance of three Etruscan Hollow Roads. It also has a nice view of Pitigliano in the distance.
Rosemary found the missing signs.
We had some difficulty locating one of the important Vie Cave parking areas. The guidebooks said it was near the bridge over the River Lente, but they also said it was well-marked. We found no signage, but upon pulling onto a dirt road near the bridge, we found all types of signs lying in a pile—waiting for some construction crew to reinstall them. We found that from this parking area, we were able to easily reach three Vie Cave, two necropoli and a picnic area at the Fontana dell’Olmo, the fountain of the elm tree.

La Fontana dell'Olmo
We first explored the Via Cava di San Giuseppe, part of which is now a tunnel because one side of the tufa wall collapsed and leans against the other side. In more recent times, a contemporary artist has created a painting of San Giuseppe in a niche that once housed a fresco now completely crumbled away. The niche is inclined to match the angle of the subsided tufa wall, which occasionally needs additional reinforcing because of the crumbly nature of tufa. The image of San Giuseppe is linked to a typical regional festivity, the torciata, a torchlight procession which in Pitigliano takes place each year on March 19.
Visit to a cave in the Poggio Cani.

To reach the Via Cava Fratenuti, we had to cross a narrow stream on stepping stones, requiring some skill in balance and dexterity to keep our feet dry. It is one of the deepest of the digs. Near its beginning, we also found an abandoned farm with a sign indicating it is for sale. We walked around in the yard for 15 minutes, admiring the partly restored farmhouse, fields, courtyards and outbuildings while remarking on what a fantastic location this would be for an agriturismo or bed and breakfast. The Lente River loops around and through it, and it’s within a stone’s throw of three important Vie Cave—in fact, it in the middle of the intersection of the Poggio Cani and Fratenuti pathways.

As for the Poggio Cani Via Cava, we particularly enjoyed exploring some of the caves we encountered in the tufa walls, which easily allowed us to imagine what life may have been like for ancient people who used them as burial sites, homes and wine and tool cellars. We also drove to the Gradone Via Cava, which had a more pronounced grade on slippery moss-covered rock that was somewhat difficult to navigate. Here we were able to see hoof marks etched into the road bed that had been left by donkeys making the steep climb.
Pitigliano

Given more time, I would love to explore other excavated Etruscan roads in Sovana and Sorano, but we had only a few days, and the area has so many other attractions, such as a Jewish quarter in Pitigliano, hot springs, the ghost town of Vitozzi next to San Quirico and complex and elaborate tombs in and around Sovana. In addition, every medium-sized town in the region has museums which feature topics such as history, archeology, mining and minerology, nature, culture, wine, oil and various types of art. Even the city centers themselves are works of art worthy of days of wandering and exploration.

Horses and riders taking an evening stroll in Pitigliano.
While we had read some guidebooks and looked at pictures prior to our visit, nothing can match personal experience. The lens of the eye is so much more revealing than that of a camera, and photos can’t compete with the sounds of rustling tree leaves, bubbling streams, bird songs, horses’ hooves clopping through the streets or snippets of conversations from the lives of inhabitants. Don’t let reading about our adventures and looking at these photos substitute from making your own excursion to Pitigliano and the amazing Maremma.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Another amusing language failure, but not entirely my fault this time

Just when I think my Italian is good enough to meet my needs for daily living, something strange happens. Could be it’s just a fulfillment of the Biblical proverb “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” I only wish all my falls could be humorous, like the one that happened to us two days ago in an enoteca in Pitigliano. Lucy and I were having dinner with my brother and his wife at the PanCaciUa, and we asked to have the bill split in two. “Possiamo avere due conti, per favore?” we said.

After we completed our order, the cameriera returned a few minutes later to verify that she had everything correct. Rosemary had ordered crostini and zuppa, Roger insalata mista, a mixed salad. Correct. Lucy and I wanted to split a lasagna bianca. A glass of vino bianco for Rosemary, and the rest of us would share a litro of acqua naturale. Tutto corretto. And then, due conti, vero? Yes, that’s right. Perfect.

We were about half way through the meal when two huge antipasti plates were delivered. What in the world was this? It was exactly what we ordered, the waitress insisted, reminding us that she had even returned to verify the order. She listed back everything we had ordered, ending with the “due conti.”

We didn’t argue, but I’m sure she could read the bewilderment on our faces. After she left, we discussed how we could have made such a mistake. Suddenly our looks of confusion turned to smiles, and then hearty laughter, and now we could see that the waitress, watching us from a distance, looked bewildered.

Note the second to last antipasto: Bruschettone del Conte.
The word for a restaurant bill is il conto, and the plural of conto is conti. But one of the antipasto dishes was named the“Conte.” The plural of conte is also conti. An Italian couple dining at the next table had been listening, and they understood exactly what had happened. They quickly explained to the waitress and the cook, and then we all had another good laugh. Lucy gratefully accepted one “conte,” and the waitress took the other back to the kitchen.

Italy is a beautiful place to visit, but we often find that one fantastic attraction blends with another, and a year later we can’t remember exactly what we saw. Instead, incidents like our “due conti” may remain with us for life and will make up our fondest memories. And that’s part of why we continue to be fascinated by travel.




Thursday, April 11, 2019

Looking back on the massacre of civilians in the Padule di Fucecchio


Albert Kesselring in 1940.
Part 4 in a series on the Slaughter in the Swamp of Fucecchio

What drove German soldiers to behave in such a frenzied manner when they killed some 174 innocent Italian civilians in the Padule di Fucecchio? The strongest reason is that they were following orders issued by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring. Nazi headquarters had issued directives for the “fight against the gangs” that stated anyone who supported partisans or found themselves in places of conflict could be punished. These directives also said to arrest and treat resisters as prisoners of war, without killing them, but Kesselring ignored or downplayed this aspect. He ordered soldiers to open fire without worrying about passers-by or any civilians in the area. He gave every soldier the chance to kill anyone suspected of complicity with the partisans, and he declared that such action would not result in any punishment, thus giving carte blanche to both commanders and soldiers under his jurisdiction.

Eduard Crasemann
German General Eduard Crasemann had been named commander of the 26th Panzer Division, stationed in Northern Tuscany, in July of 1944. In the ensuing days, he had seen his patrols ambushed and shot at by snipers. It was he who gave the order “Vernichten!” The German term Vernichtungskrieg has been described as “a war of annihilation in which all psycho-physical limits are abolished.” Captain Josef Strauch then led action on the field and supervised his lieutenants to carry out the orders.

Officers were under intense pressure, because the Gothic Line, just a few miles from the Padule, was collapsing, and they wanted to provide safe passage for their retreating troops. Their intelligence reported that bands of 200 to 300 partisans were using the Padule as an operations center, when in fact only a poorly organized group of partisans was active in nearby Ponte Buggianese. The massacre occurred only on the fringes of the Padule, where many civilians were living. German troops, apparently fearful of ambush by possible partisan encampments, never reached the inner areas of the swamp. In the end, three partisans were among the dead, but this happened only by chance.

Following the retreat of the Germans, both the British and American armies opened commissions of inquiry, collecting and recording 169 testimonies from those who witnessed the massacre, which detailed the weapons used, the non-involvement of the civilian population in the partisan movement and the identification of those responsible.

The depositions were all very similar. The survivors stated in general terms that they were in the swamps to take refuge from bombings or Nazi raids. Some escaped the action because they had returned temporarily to their homes, others because they managed to hide in ditches or penetrate the most internal areas. Still others managed to escape or were left free by some soldiers, while others, injured or not, pretended to have died to avoid being shot. Almost all claimed that neither they nor their dead family members were partisans or had helped any partisan organizations. They often said they had no time either to talk or to escape. The killings took place directly inside the houses, or in front of them, after all the inhabitants had been ordered out.

Witnesses identified as many as 45 Germans and three Italian collaborators. After ascertaining the details, the English commission held a trial in Venice with the aim of condemning the biggest war criminals. Only two were convicted: Captain Strauch was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and Commander Crasemann to 10 years. Crasemann died in prison in 1950.

Commander Kesselring was initially sentenced to execution for all the war crimes he committed, including the slaughter of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and a massacre at Fosse Ardeatine, but later the sentence was changed to life imprisonment. In 1948, however, the term was reduced to 21 years. A political and media campaign resulted in his release in 1952, ostensibly on health grounds. He died at age 74 in 1960.

An image from the Strage di Sant'Anna di Stazzema.
Family members of those slaughtered reported receiving some closure in 2011 when three ex-soldiers were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment after a military tribunal in Rome ruled they bore responsibility for the Padule slaughter. They were convicted, in part, from evidence gathered by British military policeman Charles Edmonson, who was determined to bring the culprits to trial. In 1945, a year after the massacre, he took dozens of statements in which survivors told him of villagers being shot by German machine gunners and of a two-year-old toddler, crying in the arms of its dead mother, being killed with a blow from a rifle butt.

“As the occupants walked out, they were mown down by machine gunfire,” he wrote. “Some who were uninjured by the first burst had the presence of mind to throw themselves on the ground. They continued to fire at the dead and the dying until everyone lay still.” Edmonson died in 1985, and copies of the witness statements, contained in his private papers, were sold in 2010 by an auction house in the UK. The military court in Italy managed to track the documents down and use them as evidence. The court tried Officer Ernst August Arthur Pistor, Marshall Fritz Jauss, Sergeant Johann Robert Riss and Lieutenant Gerhard Deissmann. The latter died at 100 years of age during the trial period, but the court sentenced the other former soldiers to life imprisonment. The Court of Appeal in Rome confirmed the sentence towards Jauss and Riss in 2012, while Pistor died at the age of 91. The convicted men did not serve prison time because Germany was not obligated to release them into Italian custody.

Prosecutor Marco De Paolis also called on the German government to pay 14 million euros to 32 surviving relatives of the victims of the massacre as a gesture of “civil responsibility.” However, Germany maintains that it is no longer liable for such claims because of immunity agreements drawn up with Italy in 1947 and 1961.

“Today, finally, justice was done, and even if the sentences took 67 years, there’s the satisfaction of seeing the legal responsibility of the accused and the German army recognized, said Rinaldo Vanni, president of the Center of Research, Documentation and Promotion of the Padule di Fucecchio.

Some may say Vannis statement is overly enthusiastic, considering that those convicted received no punishment, and that only four of the many soldiers and officers involved were charged. However, it is encouraging to know that even many years later, people havent forgotten and still want to do what they can to correct a wrong. History can be excruciatingly painful. We can’t change it, but if we face our past with courage, we can change the future. 

Go back to the beginning of the series

Monday, April 8, 2019

I’m dreaming of a white asparagus


I’ve heard about the legendary white asparagus of the Veneto for some time, having spent a year in Padova in the early 2000s, but only recently did I have to opportunity to sample this exquisite delicacy. We had the good fortune to enjoy a weekend visit to the home of expert chefs Stefano Mammi and Nancy Jenkins. Stefano is a chemistry professor raised in Padova, and he and American-born wife Nancy acquired their culinary expertise from Stefano’s mom; thus, we had the privilege of savoring a famous regional dish prepared in a truly traditional manner—and we can now testify that asparagi bianchi is renowned for good reason.

White asparagus is basically green asparagus that is grown under cover of dirt or straw to prevent exposure to sunlight, which deprives it of chlorophyll. This gives it a more delicate and less grassy flavor. Food samplers from America’s Test Kitchen said the white asparagus they tried resembled “a cross between peas and turnips,” but they were eating a product exported from Peru and added that its delicate flavor may have “faded during shipping and storage.”

Stefano and Nancy, of course, used farm-fresh asparagus, first peeling it and then steaming it slowly for two hours. Then they served it with sliced boiled eggs, drizzling everything with olive oil and sprinkling with salt and pepper. Simplicity, freshness, expert preparation are the hallmarks of an Italian kitchen, and we appreciated the blending of flavors. Because Nancy had peeled away the tough outer skin, even the thick ends were soft, and the delicate tops were even more pleasing, melting on our tongues with a tangy delight. The only thing I might change is to add a couple of stalks of green asparagus for visual appeal and also to compare the taste of the two types.

White asparagus is not widely available, and it is expensive—but if you find yourself in the Veneto in spring time, it’s a luxury worth sampling, either in your own kitchen or even better in the hands of an experienced Italian cook.



Monday, April 1, 2019

Memories of our Italian adventure are still fond, fresh and sweet


Eighteen years ago, I fulfilled a life-long dream when I took a leave of absence from teaching high school journalism and graphic design to teach 5th grade for a year in Padova, Italy. My wife willingly and cheerfully joined the adventure. My two teen daughters, still in the stages of discovering themselves, acquiesced, but with mixed feelings. They cried and begged to be left in the States with friends, but we insisted they participate. Friends told us they would thank us later, but I can’t say we didn’t have doubts along the way.

We met bureaucratic, logistic and financial obstacles, but somehow we found our way through or around them all. We struggled, laughed and cried together. We got lost countless times and made plenty of other mistakes. We learned to compromise, share, adapt and adjust, to stretch ourselves and face our fears of the unknown. Eventually, I wrote a book about our experiences: An American Family in Italy: Living la Dolce Vita without Permission.

Lucy and I have returned to Italy for shorter stays many times since, and in 2015 we bought a home in Montecarlo, near Lucca. Daughters Suzye and Lindsey have also made short trips back, but until recently, never at the same time. This spring, we decided to help them come together, and they joined us in Tuscany for nine days of the sweet life. We dined with friends and relatives, lounged in the thermals baths of Saturnia and explored medieval cities together. Mostly, we just enjoyed each other’s company, creating new memories and reminiscing about our previous adventures.


The struggles, angst and mini-rebellions they experienced as teenagers are far in the past. They are mature, compassionate adults with successful careers, and we loved every minute of their too-short visit. A highlight of our shared time came on the last day, when we re-created the cover illustration of our book, this time using the Fortezza of Montecarlo as the backdrop. Suzye, Lindsey and Lucy have changed little in appearance. Though my gray hairs provide mute evidence that 18 years have passed, the memories are still fond, fresh and sweet.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Cascate del Mulino: Is it real, or perhaps just an exaggerated fairy tale?


Please don’t tell Rick Steves about the Cascate del Mulino! A few years ago, I saw photos on the web of people enjoying this picturesque hot spring, and I could scarcely believe my eyes. This couldn’t be real—a fantastically beautiful public spa-park, naturally occurring. And the cost per hour? Nothing, niente, nulla, totally gratis. Ah, there must be a catch. The water is probably too cold, or just lukewarm. Or maybe it’s scalding hot. Or you must walk two hours up a steep trail to get there.


Nope, not only is the park real and easily accessible, it’s every bit as stunning in real life as it appears in the photos. In addition, the water temperature is nearly perfect. Many spas I’ve used in the United States are heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, making them pleasant for the first 10 to 15 minutes but unbearable for longer use. One can easily enjoy the warm pools of the Cascate for hours, moving from one basin to the next to experience different levels of water depth and force of flow.
 
Few people had arrived before 9 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday in early spring.
The park is a delight to the eyes whether one bathes there or not. The larger falls tumble down a 20-foot drop next to an abandoned stone-walled mulino, or mill. Bamboo trees reach out and sway over the many layers of smaller falls, while swallows dip and dive just downstream from the bathing pools. The warm falls have been enjoyed by Italians, Romans and Etruscans for at least 2,000 years. The hot springs were said to be created by the god Jupiter, who threw lightning bolts at fellow god Saturn during a quarrel, missing him but striking the ground instead and causing hot water to spring forth ever since.
 

By around 9:30, the pools became more populated.
Anybody recognize the gorgeous blonde in the center?

Cascate mean waterfalls, and the cascading water provides a relaxing massage far superior to the jets in a standard hot tub, which usually concentrate their action on a single side of the lower back. Conversely, the falls at the park strike various level of the back and extend all the way across, from shoulder to shoulder. For a truly vigorous massage, one can stand under falls that plunge from as high as five feet (but be prepared to be fully drenched there). For a more relaxing massage, the lower falls drop only a foot or two, and other pools allow bathers to just drift, float and soak up the heat and goodness of the mineral-rich waters.
 
In the afternoon on an unusually warm first week of spring, the crowd was moderate. But three months later, the place will be packed!
I came on a Monday during the first week of spring on an unusually warm day in the low 70s (about 21 C), and I shared the space with two of my daughters, a group of their friends and about 60 other people. We stayed for two thoroughly enjoyable hours. Because visitors are prone to move from pool to pool, we would have been able to try nearly every little basin and waterfall if we had been so inclined. I’ve heard that during the summer, the park can be seriously overcrowded, and also that the water flow decreases in August, so it’s best to go in spring or fall and to avoid weekends.

The temperature dropped dramatically overnight, but Suzye and I returned the next afternoon to see what the experience would be like on a 50-degree day. A smaller crowd is the first difference we noted. We shared the prime area with somewhere from a dozen to 20 people, and once again we stayed for two hours. Walking to and from the car in a moderate and chilly breeze, especially when we were wet, was obviously unpleasant, but once we emerged ourselves in the water, we judged the cold-day experience well worth our time. On the third day, we arrived before 9 a.m. on a sunny day, and the falls were nearly empty, though they were gradually filling when we left a half hour later.

The reason for the Rick Steves comment is that his popular videos on American public television and his books and website have brought hordes of travelers to places such as the Cinque Terre and Civita di Bagnoregio. It’s likely that if he featured the Cascate del Mulino on one of his shows, it would be overrun with Americans, forcing the Italian government to begin charging and regulating crowds.

I wish I could accurately report the temperature of the water, but I didn’t bring a thermometer. I thought I would be able to look it up easily on the Internet. However, this turns out to be not as simple as it may seem. Many websites report the water to be 37.5 C., or about 98 to 99 F. However, I’ve been in many hot tubs in the U.S., which usually range from 99 to 104 F., and the temperature in the stream is definitely lower than that. Further research indicates that the 37.5 degrees that others quote is the temperature of the water when it emerges from the underground hot springs about a mile upstream in Saturnia. I would guess it has cooled to the low or mid 90s at the Cascate del Mulino, just right for staying submerged for long periods of time. For those who want higher temperatures, a trail leads to the stream above the waterfall, and the pools there are warmer.

The snack bar, which also has a bathroom and showers. 
The park is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, but there is no lifeguard on duty. Parking is free, and there’s a snack bar which has bathrooms. Showers can be used for a small fee. The snack bar is not open year-around and at all hours, though, and when it’s closed, so are the bathrooms and showers. I’ve also heard that when the parking lot is full, people park along the street and are fined by the Carabinieri for doing so.
 
Friends hang out and socialize.
My 30-something-year-old daughters loved it. “I’d give it a 10 out of 10,” Lindsey said, “but next time I’d bring an inflatable bath pillow to cushion my head. A fluffy bathrobe to don after leaving the water would make it a perfect experience.”

Suzye practices her hula hooping techniques on the beach.
“I loved everything about it except for some creepy dudes in Speedos who invaded my space and that of my friends,” Suzye said. “Getting warmed and massaged by the different waterfalls and watching the grass and bamboo sway in the breeze is so pleasant, so relaxing.”

Not everything about our experience was perfect. The rocks are moderately slippery and sometimes sharp, so it’s advisable to wear water shoes or sturdy sandals. I went barefoot, but I had to move very slowly and carefully to avoid hurting my feet or falling.  Also, there are little reddish wriggling worm-like insects in the slower moving pools. They are harmless fly larvae, but this can be a major turn-off for some people. You can avoid them by staying in the faster moving streams.

Some people also dislike the smell. The water is full of minerals, including calcium carbonate and Sulfur, and the latter has a distinctive smell which may remain on your body even after a shower. While many believe it is extremely healthy to soak in mineral baths, scientific research to verify this is scant. Others believe that the mud along the river bank is good for the skin, and they cover themselves with it. One point on which scientists agree heartily is that lowering one’s level of stress is very healthy. Relaxing in a warm stream with friends in the middle of nature’s beauty certainly does that, so you should try it for this practical reason, if the warmth, beauty and pure pleasure are not enough to attract you.

Read also: Another free hot springs, the Fosso Bianco in San Filippo . . .