Saturday, May 11, 2013
My dear friend Letizia has a beautiful B&B, a true oasis in the mountains above Assisi that gives the visitor the perfect break from the sometimes-frantic pace of travel.
And now, she has added a really lovely holiday apartment attached to the B&B where she and her family live! I recently had a tour of the new spot and it looks perfect: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an excellent kitchen that is fully equipped (naturally, as an expert cook, Letizia would pay close attention to the kitchen) to say nothing of all of her beautiful views across the valley to Assisi.
The furniture was selected with care and an eye to authenticity, as were the cool tile floors, linens and of course, new firm beds. The perfect escape.
In this blog post two years ago, Letizia explained how she and her husband Ruurd struggled to establish their B&B, and cooking school; and their most recent expansion.
Congratulations, Letizia! I'm only sorry that my photos don't do this beautiful new holiday rental justice. (Except for the top photo of her herb garden, which was taken by Letizia herself!)
Here's a photo of a plate similar to the original found in the farmhouse purchased by Letizia and Ruurd and which inspired the name of their B&B Alla Madonna del Piatto.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Recently, my friend Letizia took me to a very interesting, inspiring farm/mill/bakery just outside the Umbrian town of Bevagna.
From the field right onto the table, family-owned Granarium says it is committed to producing bread the old-fashioned way.
That means the Lucarelli family, working in the green heart of central Umbria, controls every step of the food production process: from planting to harvesting the grain, grinding it, baking it, and even selling it.
Their company, Granarium, is serious about the "zero-kilometre" production method - every step of the process occurs right on the farm - the way grandpa would have done it.
It has to be, for there really is no other alternative for a small farmer to remain financially viable and independent, says Gian Piero Lucarelli, who founded Granarium on the family farm with his sister Patrizia less than one year ago.
Their philosophy also offers real benefits to the consumer, who can buy flour, bread or other bakery products from Granarium and know everything about its origins, he adds. "Our goal is to offer the consumer a product of high quality, in absolute transparency of all stages of the supply chain," Lucarelli said as I visited his small, clean plant located a few kilometres outside the town of Bevagna.
"A chain that is shortened by connecting the consumer with the earth...because this is my idea of where it all started".
The Lucarelli siblings, whose company motto is "Where grain becomes bread", are so enthusiastic about their operation that they offer public tours of the facility, located next to the family home.
Granarium's small retail shop is open to the back production facility, so customers can see every step, including the point where the grain is ground into flour using two massive, 1929-era millstones made of natural stone.
That distinction is important because most "stones" used today for grinding grain into flour are artificial, rather than made of real stone, and as a result, these can heat up during the grinding process, tainting the flour with a scorched odour.
The grain also passes through various cleaners, sifters, humidifiers and other stages in the process of becoming flour and being consumed.
No chemicals or preservatives are added to the grain during this process, say the Lucarellis, sticking to their philosophy of creating a product that grandpa would have recognized.
Shaped by hand, the dough rests in rising trays until it is ready to be baked in a wood-fired oven fuelled by beech to get the best heat and aroma into the product.
Small sacks of fresh flour, from white to whole-wheat, are available as well as breads of all types, focaccia, ready-to-go pizza, sweet cakes, biscotti, and even gift packages.
Besides being sold on-site, Granarium products are also available at regional farmers' markets.
Out back, three tall green silos contained the grains harvested by the Lucarellis from 15 hectares of land where they also produce lentils and chickpeas that are available for sale in the Granarium retail store.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
My mother died this week after a long life and a short struggle with cancer. Although she was 87 and her health had been in decline, I am still in shock.
Mom loved plants, trees, flowers of all kinds, and gardening. I know she would have enjoyed these beautiful cherry trees that have been blossoming this month at the Parco Lago dell'EUR in the southern part of Rome.
The cherry trees were planted by the Japanese embassy in Rome more than 50 years ago.
When I saw them, it reminded me of the poem by A.E. Housman "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now".
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Saturday, March 30, 2013
On Good Friday last year, I was curious to attend as the Pope led the traditional Catholic "Way of Cross" procession around the Colosseum, and it was a wonderful experience.
But this year, I felt like a less crowded and more casual sort of day - so I met an Italian friend for coffee and language practice at the Piazza del Popolo.
For another change of pace, I thought I would photograph the statues around the piazza in a different way, getting up close to a few of the statues and even a few of the regular feline residents there.
That's the back of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea who watches over the oval-shaped piazza and below, one of the scary dolphins that assists him.
On the other side of the piazza, another fierce dolphin (why do artists make them look so war-like? I guess if you're a guard dolphin, you've got to be a fighter.) This one guards the patron goddess of Rome, Roma.
Here's the goddess Roma and a few of her sidekicks resting below the Pincio Hill and the Villa Borghese.
And of course there are the cats that live in the small parks and grass around the edges of the piazza. Some cats don't seem that interested in visitors....
Yet others are very curious and by the looks of the ribs on this poor little fellow, hungry for some food and affection, and willing to pose for both!
Saturday, March 23, 2013
In late 1992, Queen Elizabeth II described the closing year as an "annus horribilis" meaning a very horrible year.
So far, I'm seeing 2013 as my personal annus horribilis, although it is only late March and I have not yet lost all hope of turning things around.
Queen Elizabeth used the phrase in a speech, saying: "1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis."
A lot of very unpleasant things happened to the queen that year which led to that quote: several of her children endured very public marital breakdowns, and one of the queen's homes, Windsor Castle, caught fire causing seriously damage.
But I believe I can relate to her misery.
In mid-February, we were told that my 87-year-old mother's lingering stomach problems were due to an aggressive cancerous tumour growing beneath her liver, cutting off its functions. The prognosis? Terminal.
I wanted to rush to see her while I still could - but I was having my own stomach horribilis and for a month, could barely drink water or stand upright.
When that finally settled in early March, I rushed to Alberta. My brother Noel, at the same time, was arranging his flight from his home in the San Francisco Bay area. A few days later, his partner called. Noel's trip was cancelled because he had been diagnosed with liver cancer.
One week later, as we were helping Mom make her final arrangements, my brother died.
Mom is now in hospice care and, having written Noel's obituary, I'm now turning my attention to writing one for my mother. I will have some time to work on it, although the lesson from my brother is not to take time for granted.
I'm preparing for my mother's end and although I returned to Rome from Canada just four days ago, I'm looking into flights to Calgary again. Not a pleasant task.
But spring is arriving, the cherry blossoms are coming out, and I'm praying that there might still be some way to turn around 2013, from this present annus horribilis to an "annus mirabilis": a wonderful year.
BTW, the photos is of a cherry tree in blossom at the EUR park in south Rome.
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Today, Pope Benedict XVI delivers his final public address from his window overlooking the beautiful St. Peter's Square. I'm watching on television as the piazza begins to fill with crowds that want to be there for an historic moment.
But frankly, the pope and the upcoming conclave is second in my thoughts. My elderly mom has been diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer near her liver, so I'm making plans to go back to Canada to be with her. Also, trying desperately to get back to some healthy state so I'm fit to travel.
Still, it has been part of my job to write about Pope Benedict's doings and what will happen with the conclave.
Benedict shocked the world when he announced on February 11 that he would resign the papacy on February 28.
Suggestions are flying that Benedict may speed up the timing of the conclave, since this is quite an unusual situation where the pope - for the first time in 600 years - was able to give notice that he is retiring from office. Before now, popes died on the job, so cardinals needed 15-20 days to arrive in Rome to begin conclave.
So the Vatican is rushing to make everything ready for the Sistine Chapel when it hosts one of the most important events in the Catholic Church: the election of a new pope.
A team of 40 Vatican workers, officially called the "Floreria" is carefully following the pattern set in April 2005 when cardinals last gathered beneath Michelangelo's masterpiece The Last Judgement on the altar wall of the chapel, and voted to choose Pope Benedict XVI.
Without knowing the precise date of the conclave, the team is racing against the clock to have every detail perfectly prepared for the 116 cardinals who will be shut up inside the fortress-like chapel until a new pope is found.
"Until the date of the conclave, we live from day to day," explains Paul Sagretti, deputy director of the Floreria, whose office is charged with organizing most major events inside the Vatican.
No detail is left to chance as the Floreria workers carefully follow photos taken from previous conclaves, so that everything is arranged inside the Sistine Chapel in precisely the same manner as in previous conclaves.
That will include 116 chairs made of cherry wood for the voting cardinals, with seating assigned by place cards bearing the papal coat of arms, and 12 wooden tables covered with beige cloth and burgundy satin.
Six tables are placed on the right side of the chapel and six on the left, arranged in two rows of different levels. A 13th table is placed at front of the chapel, before the altar, where an urn is placed to contain used ballots as well as a Bible.
A wooden platform has been built about 60 centimetres above the Sistine Chapel floor, covered with a beige fabric, so cardinals won't walk on the tiled floor of the chapel but instead are elevated to the level of the second step of the altar.
A velvet bag contains the ballots which each cardinal will draw come voting time.
Finally, two stoves have been connected inside the Sistine Chapel, so after a vote, ballots can be burned with a coloured chemical. The relatively rare white smoke indicates that the conclave of cardinals have reached a decision on who will head the Catholic Church.
Black smoke sends the signal that another vote must be taken.
According to Sagretti, recent conclaves have been much easier for the Floreria to organize than those in the past.
Until the 1970s, the Floreria also had to arrange all of the accommodations for the cardinals arriving from around the world.
Fortunately, with the construction of the residence of Santa Marta to house the cardinals, that task has been lessened.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
I have been an absentee blogger lately - I've been so sick with a ghastly stomach virus that triggered some chronic stomach problems that have left me with barely the energy to drag myself through my shifts at the news service.
Still, it is impossible not to follow the developments at the Vatican - what an historic event! I'm not sure I would have believed the first reports if not for the fact that every TV station in Rome went live with story and updates through the day.
As the world now knows, Pope Benedict XVI, 85, has announced that because of his failing health he would step aside on February 28 so that a conclave of cardinals could meet in mid-March to choose his successor. It's believed that he is the first pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to do so voluntarily since Pope Celestine V in 1294.
Although his health had been a concern for some time, the abruptness of the announcement by Benedict, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, stunned the world.
Ever since his election on April 19, 2005, Benedict steered a steady, strongly conservative course for the Catholic Church despite protests from reformers.
Yet he was also willing to take advantage of new technologies, becoming the first pope to have his own Twitter account, which was followed by almost three million soon after it was launched late last year.
The outgoing pontiff belied his mild demeanour by strongly reaffirming resistance to non-believers and a secular society.
He drew enormous criticism over a 2001 directive when, as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the former Inquisition - Cardinal Ratzinger said that sex-abuse investigations should be kept in-house.
The Catholic Church is still reeling from the fallout of the clerical abuse scandals that came to light under Benedict's papacy after years of being hidden by some Church officials. Although the Pope eventually apologized for the abuse and met with victims, the Church remained branded for having shielded priests accused of molesting youngsters and hiding bad behaviour which in turn, prevented criminal prosecutions.
Another high-profile controversy involved the Vatican Bank which continues to struggle to overcome an iffy reputation and become included on the UN's list of countries with flawless anti-money-laundering credentials.
Most recently, Benedict's papacy was rocked by the so-called Vatileaks affair, when his butler leaked confidential documents to a muckraking journalist alleging corruption in the Vatican.
The pope settled the affair when he pardoned the former butler, Paolo Gabriele, who had been sentenced to 18 months in jail in December. (Gabriele now works as a clerk in a hospital in Rome.)
However, supporters consistently praised Benedict for the breadth and innovation of his theological writings and, even outside the Church, his first encyclical, God Is Love, drew widespread praise.
His best-selling trilogy on the life of Jesus also gained acclaim, while traditionalists welcomed his moves to reinstate the Latin Mass in a more user-friendly form.