I could write non-stop about all the things to do in Italy. Now that I’ve can safely say that I’m “settling in” living in Italy, I’ll be putting on my more adventure-worthy shoes and heading out to provide views and insights that hopefully are well off the beaten path.

Head to the beautiful heel of Italy – Puglia

A conversation from window to street

A conversation from window to street in Polignano a Mare

I’ve recently returned from a spectacular week’s tour of Puglia. A week is the minimum I’d recommend to feel as though you really have begun to get to know the magnificent heel of Italy. We did cover significant territory, but we returned home knowing much was still to be discovered.

Prior to our journey, my sister Shelley already had been visiting for two weeks. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport we retrieved my brother-in-law Ed, who had just flown in from the States. First, we made a quick stop at an Auto Grill to have a bite to eat, to have a caffè doppio macchiato caldo (“fuel” for the long drive ahead), and to load up on cold acqua frizzante (temps were high 90’s). Then we headed down from Rome towards Naples and then across Italy to Bari (I wish we could have stopped to see the old town of Bari, since I understand it is well worth the visit). Our first destination in Puglia was Conversano, south of Bari and just inland by 10 minutes from Polignano a Mare.

We chose Conversano because of its proximity to Polignano a Mare. August is the month when Italians head to the coast in droves to camp out with their friends and families, and to bake-in a good tan. Had we stayed in Polignano a Mare we constantly would have been fighting crowds and increasing our stress levels merely trying to find a parking space. To our delight, Conversano turned out to be a gem of a town, with incredibly friendly and welcoming people, and a quiet energy – even though we had arrived for the weekend of the Sagra della Mandorla – the Festival of the Almond. Follow this Conversano TripAdvisor.com link to learn more about this delightful little town. We stayed in the elegant and impeccable Corte Altavilla – literally in the heart of town. Initially, we struggled to reach the hotel, since the GPS in the car was taking us in impossible directions, and through incredibly narrow streets. Only later did we learn that we could breach the entrance to the square in front of the castle that was marked “no entry”, and the hotel would take my license number to give to the police so that I would not incur a ticket during our brief unloading of luggage (private parking with a shuttle was provided).

Conversano and Polignano a Mare

Long, cooling showers, and a lovely, relaxing dinner in Conversano, outside in an alleyway, were our just rewards for surviving the 5 1/2 hour journey from Rome. The following day we drove to Polignano a Mare (more on Polgnano a Mare at TripAdvisor.com), parked on the outskirts of town and walked into the city center. Shelley had her swimsuit under a swim dress with intentions of dipping into the Adriac and cooling off from the stifling heat. I had other plans and was armed with my Canon 5D Mark III and a short lens and a long lens. For me, wandering the streets of Polignao a Mare was like hitting an artist’s and photographer’s jackpot. Perfect vignettes and stories were constantly unfolding, and I found it impossible to be quick enough on the draw to capture all that I wanted. At times I wished I could be invisible so as to not alter the energy of a scene. We all know how people instantly change when they know a camera is pointed in their vicinity.

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Trusting life can yield surprising results…

The two "miracle" kittens are happily frolicking outside the house.

The two “miracle” kittens are happily thriving.

If you’ve been following my Italian adventures on this blog, you may have read my post “Courage, and building a new life” in which the challenging circumstances surrounding the birth of three feral kitten taught me about moving ahead in the face of uncertainty. When I last wrote, Micia finally had started producing milk and the two surviving kittens looked as though they had a fighting chance. This was almost two months ago, and I’m happy to report that they are thriving, and frolicking about in our little neighborhood. I named the kitten with the strong black and grey markings “Fonzie”. His little sister is still awaiting her name. You see, until a more careful examination recently, we didn’t realize she was a female. I’m particularly attached to her since I remember when I was huddled up with the newborns, warming them individually in my cupped hands. She was the one who wrapped her tiny paws around my forefinger, and started nibbling on the tip of my finger. She encouraged me to keep going, and she was the one who helped me understand that it wasn’t an inability to feed – it was Micia’s initial inability to produce milk.

These kittens, as well as our dear indoor cat children, Oscar and Francesca, are constant gifts leading me back to the present moment, and away from obsessing about the future.

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Courage, and building a new life.

CourageLeave it to the birth of three kittens to teach me about courage and learning to let life take you on a journey…

Seven days ago it was Sunday afternoon, and our sweet feral cat Micia was crying just outside our front door. Her water had broken and we knew her kittens would be born soon. Just two hours later we heard the faint cries of the hungry newborns coming from the room below our sun room, which houses the water heater, bundles of kindling, and some plastic tarp. I was sure Micia would take good care of her babies. I went to bed that night confident that all would be well when I awoke in the next morning.

The next morning brought distraught cries from Micia. She was waiting for me at the front door, and she quickly moved in the direction of the kittens, looking back to make sure I was following her. When I entered the room housing the kittens, my heart sank. The three kittens were lying on their backs, they were not moving, and their tongues were protruding from their mouths as if they had painfully departed from this world. I picked one up and I felt a cold, stiff body. Micia looked up at me as if to implore me to “do something.” What could have happened in the course of the night?

I was convinced they were dead, so I put them in a basket and began the grim task of finding a proper burial site.

Then, I saw the faintest of movements. They weren’t dead, just on the verge of making that transition. My head was spinning. What could I possibly do? I ran in the house, read about hypothermia and dehydration of newborn kittens on my Ipad. I was going to have to wing it. So, I went back to the tiny room, and I took each kitten and held them individually in my cupped hands, stopping to stroke them and give them whatever comfort and warmth I could. Micia was steadfast, sitting next to me. She was confused. Her eyes never left me, and they conveyed a trust and hope as she watched me.

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Trastevere’s Antica Caciara delivers heavenly, fresh ricotta…and more.

Ricotta di Pecora - fresh sheep's milk ricotta

Ricotta di Pecora – fresh sheep’s milk ricotta

I’m going to gush. Fair warning.

Trastevere’s Antica Caciara is paradise on earth when it comes to gourmet cheese and cured meats. “Caciara” is an Italian word meaning “confusion, bedlam, hubbub, muddle; mess, disorder.” The experience inside this shop is full of energy – energy from customers queueing up to make sure they don’t miss out on the fresh sheep’s milk ricotta prominently displayed in one of the front windows. And, you’d better grab some when you see they have it, because it will definitely make you want to slap someone out of enthusiasm once you taste it. I can’t believe it’s less than five euro a kilo. No wonder it flies out the door.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

Antica Caciara is the absolute best place for cheese, prepared meats and baccala.

But, there’s more, loads more – a vast assortment of artisanal cheeses, and every variety of cured meat you could hope for. At one entrance you practically have to shoulder your way past a huge display of guanciale, which is made from pork cheek or jowl, and is an essential ingredient (a preferred cut over traditional pancetta) in Bucatini all’Amatriciana. In case you don’t know, Bucatini all’Amatriciana is one of Rome’s hallmark dishes, originating just outside of the city in the town Amatice in the Sabine Hills.

When I go to Antica Caciara, which is often, I load up on ricotta, a special spicy salame, and a salame with fennel. The people who run the shop couldn’t be more gentile. They recognize me now, and they always greet me warmly. What a great business to be delivering a big slice of culinary paradise to eager customers. If you’re in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, be sure to check it out, especially if you want to fill your bag for a gourmet picnic, and then head up the hill to see Bramante’s Tempietto, and one of the most spectacular panoramic views of Rome.

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

A profuse display of guanciale, an essential ingredient in Bucantini Amatriciana

Baccala - Another staple in la cucina Romana

Baccala – Another staple in la cucina Romana

Simplifying and Pruning Back

Cutting back the overgrowth in all areas of your life can free up space and energy for the things that really count.

Cutting back the overgrowth in all areas of your life can free up space and energy for the things that really count.

Friday, March 13. Today, I was furiously attacking the shrubbery in the front of my Umbrian home. How dare it be thriving so much that it would impede the amazing view of the surrounding mountains? But, why was I pruning with such fervor? Then I realized this was a metaphor for aspects of my life that have become so overgrown that the “view” to the rest of the world was becoming obscured.

I have a wonderful life. I live in italy, one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have a wonderful home and an amazing partner. So, what’s the problem?

I have been in Umbria for almost five days. I came here to tackle a ton of stuff to get the house in readiness for making it home base for most of spring and summer. An ambitious “to do” list for my six days here (I’m heading back to Rome tomorrow night) was heavily weighted towards purging and pruning. Simone recently has been steering me towards books and online resources for simplifying and “tidying up” one’s life. I think he was sharing this information as a form of intervention. You see, I’ve allowed parts of my life to become overgrown and I have not been traveling “light”. I’ve been a great example of consumerism, subscribing eagerly to the belief that by adding more material possessions I was nailing a key part of the formula for happiness. Now I realize the pursuit of more has been crowding out who and what is truly adding to my happiness.

While this isn’t an earth-shattering realization for many of you, it is for me. Making a public confession is cathartic. As I write this, I’m wondering why it has taken so long for me to wake up to the facts that I am a hoarder – not the extreme kind you’ve seen on the news or in documentaries, where people live amongst stacks and stacks of useless stuff while sharing their living quarters with dozens of cats or dogs. I’ve been a hoarder simply because I’ve accumulated more stuff than I need or use. When I open my closets they’re jammed with so many choices (shoes included) that I become overwhelmed and opt for something familiar and comforting. Could my happiness really be about quality and not quantity? Could I feel more spacious and centered with less things vying for my attention?

Listening to Barry Schwartz’s TedTalk “The Paradox of Choice” was what initially help to wake me from my “gotta-have-more” slumber. Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is now helping guide me towards a less cluttered life.

As of today, I have officially donated and “retired” at least 1/2 of my clothes and shoes. This involved five giant, packed, heavy-duty garbage bags. I almost strained my back trying to get them out of the house. Mind you, this was already after divesting myself of about 1/3 of my stuff when I moved from the States. Obscene? Yes. And, I am tempted to make yet another pass. I won’t believe myself anymore when I tell myself that I’ll use something “someday”. It’s a lie.

Soon I will tackle other areas of accumulation – most notably my computer data. Don’t laugh. Now that I have a new MacBook Pro to replace my very old iMac and MacBook Pro (over six years old), I’m downsizing, and planning on working with only my new laptop paired with a larger monitor. However, I’m a bit more intimidated by this task because I am weighed down by data – files and files of photos and documents. Again, I’ve been kidding myself when I say I’ll use it all. Time for major data pruning.

The list for pruning goes on and on…including the prolific growth outdoors here in Umbria. AND, and last (and certainly not the least) are the contents of my overactive mind. That is a topic worthy of its own post.

Staying on top of all of these things, and not allowing the same accumulations to insidiously creep into my life, is a step towards a freer mind and heart. More time and attention for the things that bring authentic happiness – my partner, family, friends, art, writing, and this wonderfully inspiring country called Italy!

My Latest Italian Food Find – Agriturismo di Ivan

My new front runner of culinary delights is "Gnocchi di polenta", a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

My new front runner of Italian culinary delights is “Gnocchi di polenta”, a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

Thursday, February 5.

Today we visited friends in Udine, a two-hour train ride northeast of Venice. We left behind powerful, gusty winds, rain mixed with snow, and rising waters. I was happy to be inside the warm train, speeding out-of-town until the waters receded. Little did I know that our journey north would lead to the best dish I’ve had yet here in Italy.

Our friends took us to Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, deep in the countryside. This restaurant was heavily populated with locals and workmen. I felt as though I was slipping into a place largely unfrequented by tourists. In fact I felt as though I stood out quite blatantly.

Everything was rustic, and cozy. A mature fire was close by, and low, warm lighting made this a place where I wanted to linger well after the meal.

The menu was simple and incredibly inexpensive. I spied several items of interest. Our friends pointed out a specialty of the house, a gnocchi of polenta with smoked ricotta and speck (a type of ham) and insisted we try it. I shelved my usual low carb restrictions and jumped onboard. This turned out to be one of the wisest culinary decisions I’ve ever made.

I guess I was expecting typical gnocchi shapes, just made with corn flour. Instead, these gnocchi looked like little polenta “cubes” doused with shavings of the smoked ricotta and chunks of speck. I took my first bites and became speechless. I was so engrossed in this new culinary experience that my chatty left brain shut down. I just ate…and ate. I’ll be thinking about this dish for a long time, and a trip back to this area, just to partake of this polenta gnocchi, will be well worth it.

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

This in no way should indicate that Agriturismo di Ivan is a one-trick pony. The cheeses and prepared meats will knock your socks off. The table wines are tasty, and the other pasta dishes, secondi and contorni (particularly the spinach in butter) are delicious.

We’re back on the train to Venice and to yet another fine dining experience at a favorite restaurant there – Osteria Anice Stellato.

Personal Reflections on Making a Big Life Change

Even the best of big life changes can challenge you in unexpected ways.

Even the best of big life changes can challenge you in unexpected ways.

I’m writing a lot about the practical experiences of building a life in Italy. Now, I’d like to pause and talk about the incredible mind shifts and life shifts that have been occurring as a result of making a big life change. I’ve loved how the adventure has unfolded, but it has challenged some long-held beliefs and ways of relating to the world. I suspected the move wouldn’t just be a romantic, magical manifestation (though there has been plenty of magic). I suspected I really would have to see how comfortable I was in my own skin.

I had a wonderful career in creative marketing, working with many talented and kind-hearted people. Friends thought I was insane to leave such a great gig to venture into a world that didn’t provide me a regular paycheck, and a matured social network and support system. I can understand such concerns, because I knew I would have to weather the transition of suddenly living in a dramatically different place and culture – one in which I would feel like a complete novice, and one in which I would be have significantly more time for personal creativity, and reflection.

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Christmas Lunch at Marco G in Trastevere

My first Christmas in Rome was celebrated with a wonderful Christmas lunch at Marco G in Trastevere. Simone’s parents have been here visiting and we had been searching these last few weeks for a welcoming place whose menu would include some tasty traditional dishes. After reading many reviews on Trip Advisor, we took it for a test drive a few days before. We left this first “test” evening with a hearty thumbs up and a reservation secured for Christmas Day.

A delicious Gewurstraminer from the Alto Adige, by Roca Savina, is just one of an impressive list of 168 wines.

A delicious Gewurstraminer from the Alto Adige, by Roca Savina, is just one of an impressive list of 168 wines.

Located at Via Garibaldi, 56 in the immensely popular Trastevere area, the restaurant has a quaint exterior (with tables outside for warmer weather) and is adjacent to a couple of eclectic looking restaurants. We were welcomed with big smiles and we were quickly seated. We began with a Gewurstraminer from the Alto Adige, by Roca Savina – a delicious wine, full of character, yet very reasonably priced. This was just one of an impressive list of 168 wines that Marco has been steadily building based on research and feedback from customers.

While enjoying our wine, we perused the menu. We chose from the antipasti, which included a couple of seafood choices, a trio of bufala, cured meats, etc. I had the “carpaccio di salome con riduzione d’arancia”, thinly sliced salmone in a reduction of orange, and served atop a bed of shredded radicchio and lettuce.

Carpaccio di salome con riduzione d'arancia - my antipasto.

“Carpaccio di salome con riduzione d’arancia”- served atop a bed of shredded radicchio and lettucse was my antipasto.

As for their pasta dishes, Rome should be proud, with an amatriciana that you’re sure to remember for a long time. Simone wisely chose that, and I was fortunate to snatch a small spoonful of the sauce.

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Moving Your Stuff to Italy

Photo courtesy of Kenn W. Kiser, morgueFile.com

Photo courtesy of Kenn W. Kiser, morgueFile.com

With reasonable certainty that you will soon have your Italian visa, it’s time to start thinking about moving your stuff to Italy, and llining up moving company candidates. In my situation, I had already furnished my home in Umbria with the basic necessities, and I was determined to pare down dramatically what I had in the U.S. It was time to free myself from the encumbrances of “too much stuff”. Watch “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz on Ted Talks if you want some perspective and inspiration for simplifying. This was a real eye-opener for me.

I had private garage sales (for friends) and Craigslist help me unload some furniture. In short, I edited down to about 30 boxes, including one for my beautiful Specialized road bike. This meant i would be sharing a container vs. having my own. This is something you will have to ascertain before you talk to movers. I had been talking to several companies, and interest waned with a couple of companies when they figured out I would be “small potatoes” and not worth the return on such a small shipment.

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Baylon Cafe – A Favorite Hangout in Trastevere

My favorite Caesar salad, with a orange mayonnaise dressing. Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta for Simone.

My favorite Caesar salad, with a orange mayonnaise dressing. Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta for Simone.

Baylon Cafe, at Via di San Francesco a Ripa 151 in Trastevere, has quickly become one of our favorite hangouts in Rome. Just a short walk up from the Number 8 tram stop on the Viale di Trastevere, you’ll find a welcoming cafe that has a wonderfully eclectic menu, great wines, and a very friendly and attentive staff. Lots of locals and tourists come here to have a coffee, a glass of wine, a light bite or something more substantial. The menu offers something for everyone, whether you’re vegan or vegetarian, or an omnivore like me. And, it’s pretty creative. My new favorite is the Chicken Caesar Salad (with an orange mayonnaise dressing). A close second is the Moroccan Eggs. Check out Baylon’s menu to get a sense for the artistry and variety of their culinary creations.

Both the decor and the music are eclectic. Old doors, saw-horses, and a mix of chairs create the tables and seating. I’m not sure how to characterize the music, but it has a definite jazzy, western influence.

It’s easy to find a place inside to park yourself with your laptop while using the wireless network. What a great place to have a glass of wine and get some work done, or catch up on emails. It’s reasonably priced. For me, it satisfies on all levels. It’s rated 4 out of 5 stars on Tripadvisor.com, with the only standout criticism I see being “slow service”. This hasn’t been our experience. Just the opposite. And, if you do have to wait just a bit, because this is a popular place, remember you are in Italy, and part of the journey is learning to not be in such a rush!

Baylon Cafe is Funky, Friendly, and Delicious

Baylon Cafe is Funky, Friendly, and Delicious

Outside Baylon

Artful tables and seating is made from old doors, saw-horses, and an eclectic mix of chairs.

Inside Baylon

 

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