Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hermitages and Churches in Abruzzo

Last month we took an amazing excursion with Daniele of to two hermitages of extraordinary beauty, two abbeys and a magnificent hill-town church. Included in his itinerary were:

• Eremo San Spirito a Majella
• Eremo San Bartolomeo in Legio
• Abbey of Santa Maria d’Arabona
• Abbey of San Liberatore a Majella
• Chiesa dei Santi Valentino e Damiano

They are not easy to get to using public transport, so going there with a knowledgeable guide like Daniele is the ideal way to visit them.

Daniele picked us up after lunch outside our rented apartment in Montesilvano. First we came to the Cistercian abbey of Santa Maria d’Arabona in Manoppello.

Rose window in Santa Maria d'Arabona

Lily pond outside Santa Maria d'Arabona
Next we saw the beautiful abbey of San Liberatore a Majella in Serramonacesca. We took the enchanting path behind the abbey along the Alento River past ancient rock tombs, pools and little waterfalls.

San Liberatore in Serramonacesca
Mosaic floor of San Liberatore
Ancient Rock Tombs behind San Liberatore

Chiesa dei Santi Valentino e Damiano

The striking church of Saints Valentino and Damiano with its twin belltowers is in the gorgeous hill town of San Valentino. The church, which was built from stone from the Majella in the second half of the 18th century, was designed by the noted architect Luigi Vanvitelli, who also designed the palace at Caserta near Naples. In front of the church, between the two flights of steps which lead to its door, is the lovely Fountain of Sansone.

Chiesa dei Santi Valentino e Damiano
If you are ever in the little hill-town of San Valentino, I recommend that you taste their homemade ice-cream 'Crema di San Valentino'.

Eremo San Spirito a Majella

The picturesque hermitage of Eremo Santo Spirito is immersed in the fabulous scenery of the Majella Mountains. Unfortunately it was closed when we got there. Had it been open we would have been able to see a simple church, sacristy, monastic complex, chapter hall, library, winter chapel and refectory. Celestine V lived there from 1274 to 1276 before he became Pope. With a car you can drive to within 100 metres of this hermitage.

Eremo San Spirito

Eremo San Bartolomeo in Legio

We had a very enjoyable half hour walk through the Majella National Park on the way to the Hermitage of San Bartolomeo, which was the highlight of our trip. It is in an isolated spot but the walk there is not too difficult and the landscape is absolutely stunning.

Majella National Park
The hermitages rises beneath a rocky spur that covers it completely. The refuge itself can also be reached from the other side by a 'sacred staircase'. The only furnishings inside are the simple altar holding a statue of Saint Bartolomeo and a few wooden chairs along the side walls.

Eremo San Bartolomeo
When we arrived the only other person there was a mysterious, bearded, long haired, barefoot man dressed in orange robes. He pointed to my camera and waved his finger as if to say not to photograph him. He had piercing brown eyes that I will never forget. He had lit some incense inside the small chapel which wafted through the air and contributed to the atmosphere of calm. I kept my sunglasses on inside because my eyes were welling up with tears with the indescribable sense of peace that I felt there. This place has an ancient energy and being there was truly a spiritual experience.

Sacred Stairs Eremo San Bartolomeo

(John took these two photographs with his mobile phone.)

For more information about this hermitage, go to Sammy's blog where she wrote a superb detailed account of her visit to the Hermitage of San Bartolomeo. Noel from added exquisite close-up photos of the wildflowers and butterflies that he took the time to photograph along the way in his post entitled 'A Sanctuary in the Majella'.

We ended the day with delicious dinner in Osteria Belvedere in Roccamorice. Passing through that town in the evening we could see many of the townspeople out on the streets, chatting and eating together at outdoor cafés and restaurants in a warm, lively atmosphere. It was beautifully lit up and was the kind of town that I'd like to spend more time in, to return to in order to get to know it better...

Last year we took other great tours with our excellent guide Daniele. I wrote about them here:

Journey to San Giovanni in Venere Abbey, Abruzzo
Trabocco Punta Torre, Abruzzo Coast
Cookout in Campo Imperatore
Spellbinding Santo Stefano di Sessanio

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Visit to Isola Maggiore on Lake Trasimeno, Umbria

We took the ferry from Passignano and entered the charming medieval village on Isola Maggiore. It is one of three islands on Lake Trasimeno, situated on the Umbrian border close to Tuscany. One of the great things about being there is that you can walk about without having to watch out for traffic. In past centuries fishing was the main occupation but now the main source of income comes from tourism.

Close to the arrival dock, the pretty main street of Via Guglielmi is paved with bricks and has beautiful buildings on both sides dating from the 12th century. The island’s inhabitants (all 35 of them) live in this group of houses.

The Chiesa del Buon Gesù is the third building you come to on the left.

Interior of Chiesa del Buon Gesu'
The adjacent building is the Casa del Capitano del Popolo which is the centre for the documentation of the history of Isola Maggiore.
Opposite the church is the Lace Museum. Surprisingly, “Irish Stitch Lace” was introduced to the island in the early 20th century by Irish nuns. The lace is of such high quality that it was even worn by Queen Margherita of Savoy. The art of lace-making has been handed down from mother to daughter and even today you can see some of the island women at work in front of their doors.
The next church we passed the Romanesque-Gothic church of San Salvatore.

We took the path across the island through groves of centuries-old olive trees and bordered by cypress trees. You can also take a 2km lungolago walk around the perimeter where the pine and oak trees grow. There are hidden treasures all over the island and few tourists about.
At the highest point on the island stands the Chiesa San Michele Arcangelo. Inside are paintings by artists attributable to the schools of Giotto and Cimabue and a Byzantine icon of the Madonna and child.

Interior of San Michele Arcangelo
Guglielmi Castle also known as Castello Isabella was built on the grounds of a Franciscan monastery in the 1880s. Unfortunately we could not see inside because it is in the process of being renovated by the local commune; the works started in October 2005. I look forward to seeing it in the future, restored to its former glory.

We made our way to the rock of St Francis where the saint is said to have landed. Nearby is the small Chapel of San Francesco which was built around a tiny cave where St Francis slept when he stayed here during his Lenten fast in 1211. I was enthralled by the views across the lake from here and captivated by the island's peace and tranquility. Isola Maggiore has a charm that comes from the fact that it is so rich in architectural and artistic relics of a splendid past, set in a beautiful, natural unspoiled setting.
When early evening arrived we strolled back down towards the dock. What a surprise we had when we saw these harpists sitting in a row on the water's edge...

and beside them was...

…this pianist playing a grand piano! How did they manage to get it there I wonder? Evening sun rays streamed through gaps in the clouds like gateways to Heaven. The musicians were starting to perform a free two-hour performance specially created by Vincenzo Zitello for the annual ‘Music for Sunset’ series of concerts.

We chose a lovely family-run restaurant nearby called Ristorante L’Oso on the lakeside so we could have the pleasure of listening to the soothing music in the background as we ate. The restaurant had many recipes on the menu that included fish from the lake (perch, carp, pike, mullet and sea bass) as well as traditional Italian cuisine. We were also fortunate to witness a spectacular sunset before taking the ferry back. It was a magical, romantic setting and a perfect ending to an unforgettable day…

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Foods of South-Eastern Sicily

We spent almost two weeks in the beautiful southeast of Sicily visiting some of the dazzlingly beautiful Baroque towns of the Val di Noto: Catania, Ragusa Ibla, Modica, Noto and Scicli. The breathtaking architecture charmed us just as much as the exotic new foods that we tried there. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Normans have all influenced Sicily’s architecture as well as its cuisine and this is what makes it so different from the rest of Italy.

Here are my 10 favourite Sicilian foods:

1. Sicilian antipasti – they are full of contrasting flavours: caponata – a ratatouille of vegetables (usually aubergines, green olives and peppers) in a sweet and sour sauce, stuffed sardines, herring, salumi and a variety of cheeses.

Antipasti from Trattoria Iblantica in Ragusa Ibla

Antipasti from Trattoria  De Fiore in Catania
2. Pesce Spada (Swordfish) cubed and mixed with zucchini and ‘cavatelli’ handmade pasta.

Cavatelli, pesce spada e zucchine
3. Cassata Siciliana – a rich dessert made of sponge cake sprinkled with Marsala wine and filled with ricotta and chocolate chips. The sides are covered with marzipan and the top with fondant icing and then it is decorated with candied fruits.

4. Sicilian cheeses – especially Caciocavallo – a firm cow’s milk cheese, Pecorino – a sheep’s milk cheese flavoured with peppercorns and Provola dei Nebrodi - an aged cow’s milk cheese.

Caciocavallo Ragusano

5. Pasta dishes: Pasta alla Norma – fried aubergines (melanzane) with sweet Pachino tomatoes, basil, garlic, onion and ricotta salata tossed in pasta.

Pasta alla Norma
from Ristorante il Barocco - Ragusa Ibla

Another delicious pasta dish is Ravioli al pesto di pistacchi - ravioli filled with fresh ricotta and covered with a pesto made of pistachios from Bronte, then dusted with cocoa powder.
Ravioli ricotta al Pesto di Pistacchi

6. Gelato – Gelati DiVini in Ragusa Ibla serve wine-flavoured ice-creams. I had an unforgettable Brachetto d’Acqui along with mandorle tostate (toasted almonds).

7. Arancini - the much-loved street food called ‘little oranges’ are delightful golden balls of deep-fried saffron rice, stuffed with tomato ragu, peas and mozzarella cheese. The rice balls are rolled in flour, coated with beaten egg and covered in breadcrumbs and are best eaten hot. In Palermo they’re shaped like oranges and in Catania they're more pear-shaped. They make a quick, satisfying lunch.

Arancino from Catania
8. Cannoli – Sicily’s most famous dessert – fried pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta and chocolate chips then dipped in chopped pistachio nuts and a candied cherry is added to both ends. In Catania we found a pasticceria where we could watch them being filled at the last moment (preparati sul momento) so that the pastry didn’t have time to go soggy.
Cannolo Siciliano

9. Warm brioche buns filled with gelato made an indulgent breakfast treat – a Sicilian specialty.

Brioche Calde con Gelato

10. Risotto ai frutti di mare – with mussels, shrimp, squid and clams - the best risotto I’ve ever had!

Risotto from Trattoria Vecchi Sapori in Catania
This is just a small selection of the variety of sumptuous foods that you can find in Southeastern Sicily. No doubt I've  left out many more popular dishes that are worth mentioning. Which Sicilian foods would you recommend?

Here is a clickable link to reader Paul's great recommendations for food in Sicily - in particular the use of wild foods such as fennel, asparagus, prickly pears, capers, sweet chestnuts and mushrooms.