Notes on life and food in Italy from a Canadian in Rome.
This post was originally published on March 28, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
Burano is a strange kind of place. If you search for photos of it, you’ll mostly come up with shots of ultra-saturated rainbow-hued buildings bathed in golden sunlight and girls in sundresses twirling cheerfully in front of doorways. Any maybe it’s like that during the spring or summer, when it’s warm enough that your lips don’t feel numb with cold after a few minutes of wandering around – but I was there in winter, mid-January, the deepest part of the season where sundresses and warm sunlight felt like a long-lost memory.
So Burano, a tiny island in the Venetian lagoon, felt odd. Mostly empty, except for a few locals wrapped in heavy coats. Mostly shuttered, except for a bar off the central piazza that seemed like it was full of the town’s entire population. By now, tourism has become Burano’s main economy – and in January, without boatloads of tourists out exploring, it felt like the island was holding its breath, waiting until spring and the return of high season.
I think I preferred seeing Burano like this. I’m sure it’s lovely in the spring – windows thrown open and streets humming with activity – but I enjoyed the way the island’s colours took on a certain starkness in their winter version, bold and graphic and empty. It felt like stepping into a movie set, or into one of those modern paintings made up of a few swipes of primary colour and a lot of white space.
Burano, Italy Burano is a strange kind of place. If you search for photos of it, you’ll mostly come up with shots of ultra-saturated rainbow-hued buildings bathed in golden sunlight and girls in sundresses twirling cheerfully in front of doorways. Any maybe it’s like that during the spring or summer, when it’s warm enough that your lips don’t feel numb with cold after a few minutes of wandering around – but I was there in winter, mid-January, the deepest part of the season where sundresses and warm sunlight felt like a long-lost memory. Read more…
This post was originally published on February 2, 2019 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance at all. And yet, here is a city that is completely captivating and totally charming, even – or especially – in the middle of winter.
Most cities, even truly ancient ones like Rome, still feel to me like they’re firmly established in the twenty-first century. It doesn’t take much – a few cars go a long way towards setting a sense of time. Venice doesn’t really seem to exist in any particular era. The low-slung, bluntly boxy train station is definitely not ancient, and the wide and busy Strada Nuova with its touristy shops and chain restaurants advertising tourist menus and take-away coffees couldn’t be anything except modern. But as soon as I stray from these areas by even a couple of streets, time falls away. The laundry hanging to dry everywhere and gondolas sliding through the canals feel timeless – at least until I spot a gondola with selfie sticks protruding from every possible angle, a sight that brings me fully back to the twenty-first century.
Venice shows its age, but it does it in the most graceful, captivating way possible. Colours are softened with time and salty sea air into mottled pastel tones. Stone looks as smooth as silk. Doorways sag, rooflines droop, entire buildings lean towards the canals. A startling number of bell towers are not just slightly, but extremely crooked. If I think about the city’s underpinnings – wooden pillars driven into the silty lagoon floor hundreds of years ago as the foundation for all these buildings, walls that are attacked by waves, tides, seaweed and barnacles every single day, and bridges that are crossed by thousands of tourists each month – it’s impressive that the city is still standing at all.
What’s also impressive is the casual, elegant way that Venice puts hazards directly in front of an unsuspecting wanderer. Most cities seem to do a decent job of protecting residents and tourists alike from unnecessary dangers. Venice, on the other hand, is full of sidewalks running alongside canals, dark and narrow streets that dead-end directly into water, doors – even in hotels – that open into water, and slippery stone steps leading straight down into the canal. I spotted numerous life preservers attached to walls and doors, and even a long knotted rescue rope dangling into the canal beside a set of particularly algae-slicked steps.
I have to wonder: how many tourists walk directly into the canals each year, so distracted and overcome by the city’s otherworldly beauty that they forget to watch where they’re going? How often do people topple into the water after a long and wine-laden dinner or even just fail to notice where the sidewalk ends and the canal begins while walking at night?
Venice at night is incredibly atmospheric, but it’s also incredibly dark – the kind of inky, close darkness that I usually associate with being deep in the countryside. There’s something vaguely disconcerting – but lovely – about standing in the middle of a city and hearing nothing except the sound of rain hitting the canals and waves making soft kissing noises as they lap against boats and buildings. Where else in the world does an after dinner stroll take you up and down countless bridges, past boats bobbing gently and through a tangled web of tiny nonsensical streets with (at least during the winter) hardly a single person around? Venice is so unique that it almost feels unreal.
I always wonder what it would be like to live in Venice. At what point would it cease to seem charming to have packages delivered by boat, garbage collected by boat, a new washing machine delivered by boat? Would it get tiring to have to criss-cross a multitude of bridges – stairs going up, stairs going down – just to bring home some groceries? And at what point does someone learn the city’s labyrinth of streets so well that they stop coming up against watery dead-ends every few metres?
After even a few days in Venice, going anywhere else is jarring. It’s strange to see cars again, and asphalt and cobblestones instead of turquoise water. It’s easier to actually live in Rome – or anywhere else, for that matter – than in Venice. But it’s infinitely more interesting to imagineliving in Venice, the city that manages to be both entirely improbable and very real at the same time.
Venice, Italy If you ask me, a good portion of Venice’s appeal lies in that fact that it seems so unbelievable. Here is a city that regularly floods, seawater gushing out of canals and covering sidewalks, creeping under doorways to invade homes and businesses. Here is a city of islands knit together by over four hundred small bridges, a city where water replaces streets, where boats replace cars, trucks, scooters and bikes. Here is a city that seems hostile towards the very old, the very young, the disabled, the distracted, and anyone who has to pull a wheeled suitcase for any distance at all. And yet, here is a city that is completely captivating and totally charming, even – or especially – in the middle of winter. Read more…
This post was originally published on September 15, 2018 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
The first thing you need to know about Favignana is that this island might not be for you.
It’s not for you if you like your vacations to be mindlessly relaxing, full of kilometres of uninterrupted golden sand and no-effort beach days that’ll take you from your room to the water in a few easy steps. It’s not for you if you’re looking for lush green landscapes dotted with impressive villas or sleek five-star hotels with sea-view infinity pools, or if you’re after the dramatic cliffside luxury of Capri or the postcard-perfect multi-layered colours of Procida.
As far as islands go, Favignana is particular. It makes an imposing first impression; a steep-sided mountain with a castle perched dramatically on top looms over the port where the ferries from Trapani and Marsala come and go, and at its base is a massive old tonnara, brick smokestacks reaching towards the sky, testament to the island’s long history as a tuna fishery.
The port itself feels frenetic – at any given moment, cars loading onto one of the ferries cross paths with foot traffic from the hydrofoils, a group of old men sit on plastic chairs outside of a busy coffee bar, smoking and chatting and shouting out greetings to passing friends, and a couple of fisherman sell the day’s catch across from the bar while rows of brightly-coloured wooden fishing boats bob in the background. Bikes and motorini weave their way through everything and park anywhere; two town policemen stand at the entrance to the port, but their presence seems to be more symbolic than practical.
Then there’s the town, spreading out from the port: low, blocky sand-coloured buildings that look like they’d fit in just as well in North Africa as they do here, on a Sicilian island. The town is not picturesque in a postcard kind of way – but then again, it is. You just have to let it work its magic.
Take a stroll down one of the town’s buzzing main streets – lined with restaurants, bars, and shops selling local specialties – in the early evening, as the sun paints everything gold before it slides behind the mountain, and try not to fall in love with it. The next morning, fall for it even more as you pass an old man selling vegetables out of the back of a battered green Ape and another selling cactus fruit, carefully de-spined, by the side of the road as you make your way to the bakery. Buy a brioche filled with – no, nearly exploding with – pistachio cream, and eat it on a bench by the sea.
And then you slather yourself in copious amounts of sunscreen, get on your bike – you’ll have rented a bike, of course, because it’s the best and also the most fun way to get around here – and head off towards the beach. Except that “the beach” is a bit of a deceptive term on Favignana. There are a couple of actual, sandy beaches on the island – one of them right on the edge of town overlooking the port; the best one about fifteen minutes away by bike if you’re pedalling at a relaxed, vacation-appropriate pace (ten if you’re feeling a bit guilty about the blob of pistachio cream that you ate for breakfast). It’s called Lido Burrone, and it’s got powder-fine white sand that almost looks pink where the waves curl in, limpid water in shades of perfect turquoise, and the possibility to rent a sun bed for the day.
Keep pedalling. You can come back here later. Follow the road as it curves along the coast; scruffy fields studded with prickly pear cacti and the occasional blocky house to one side, rocky outcroppings and the sea along the other. At certain points, you’ll spot clusters of bikes and motorini parked haphazardly off the edge of the road – that’s how you recognize the best places to swim, which, for the most part, tend to look so intimidating from afar that you almost certainly wouldn’t stop on your own.
The island’s residents and more hard-core visitors might spread out their towels on the rough rocks and find a place to wedge in their beach umbrella. You probably don’t want to do that. Save your sunbathing for Lido Burrone, where you can stretch out in the sun without a chunk of rock poking into the small of your back. Instead, pick your way gingerly over the rocks (you’re going to want something a bit sturdier than flip-flops here, if you’re not interested in tearing your feet to shreds), find a way to get yourself into the water with minimal bruising, and then… ah. This is why you came to Favignana.
The best places to swim are all concentrated around the eastern part of the island, interconnected by dusty, mostly-unpaved roads that meander their way through a strangely pitted terrain that looks like it’s been chipped away by a hammer and chisel. In a way, that’s exactly what happened – until relatively recently, the island was mined for its tufo stone, the ground transformed into a series of pits and tunnels, Escher-esque staircases dropping off into nothingness and fingers of rock pointing towards the sky.
Now the quarries are partially grown over, their hard corners softened by prickly pear cacti and caper bushes or transformed into lush, private sunken gardens. It’s these quarries that make some of Favignana’s coastline so interesting; both Cala Rossa and Bue Marino, the two most spectacular swimming spots, require near-acrobatic manoeuvres around imposing stone blocks in order to get in and out of the water.
It’s worth it though. You came here for that this, for the chance to swim in water so clear and so intensely turquoise that it looks like it’s been lit from underneath with neon lights or Photoshopped into blatantly exaggerated saturation in real life; that you have to scale a slanting stone staircase so narrow and precarious that handholds have been carved into the rock face in order to actually get into the water is a minor detail. This is just what you do on Favignana.
When you’ve swam until you’re thoroughly steeped in salt water, haul yourself back up the precarious staircase. Right at the top, in a low-slung tent of questionable hygiene, is where you’ll find the best food on the island. Inside, tomatoes bob around in big metal bowls of tepid water before being slashed open on a stained cutting board. The tomatoes are slapped onto sesame-crusted, oil-drizzled bread, copious amounts of anchovies are scattered over top, and a handful each of capers and basil are added. The sandwich – it’s called Pane Cunzato, and it’s a Favignanese specialty – is like a brick. Don’t think too hard. Just eat it. It tastes like sunshine and salt and earth, and at this moment, it just might be the best thing you’ve ever eaten.
The next day, explore the other side of the island, the part that begins after you bike through the tunnel that takes you under the mountain with the castle on it. There’s less here – some houses, some cows, vegetable gardens and a vineyard, but not much else. It’s beautiful, though, and there are more spots to swim; more rocks to scramble over on the way to the sea, more intensely turquoise, perfectly transparent water afterwards to convince you that it’s worth it.
And it is worth it. A few days on this island are better than the best spa for melting away stress and tension. Within twenty-four hours you will be sunburned, despite your most diligent applications of SPF 30. You will be chaffed from biking in your bikini (you start off fully-clothed, but after seeing everyone else whizzing around in nothing but swimsuits you throw caution and modesty to the wind), your hair will be salt-encrusted and wild, and your shins will be battered from all those rocky entrances into the sea.
But you’ll feel relaxed. And happy – like you’ve managed to grasp onto a piece of pure summer – and exhilarated. How can you feel anything but exhilarated when you’re bouncing on a bike down a dusty lane, a castle towering overhead as you pedal through an almost surreal landscape towards a perfect crescent of the most enticing, inviting, electrically blue water you’ve ever seen?
Favignana is definitely not for everyone – but you just might fall head-over-heels in love with it.
Favignana, Sicily The first thing you need to know about Favignana is that this island might not be for you. Read more…
This post was originally published on October 21, 2017 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
Last week I picked up my renewed permesso di soggiorno, the little rectangle of plastic that is quite possibly one of the most valuable things in my possession given that it allows me to legally stay in Italy. I sat in a sparse, dingy police station waiting room where announcements from 1998 were thumbtacked to peeling blue walls and a crooked, gilded crucifix hung above the door, and then I sat in front of an unsmiling officer in a cramped office while she dug my new permesso out of a shoebox full of envelopes, sliced my old one into a few plasticky shards and had me sign an immense black ledger full of foreign-looking names. Permesso in hand, I headed home.
That the new permesso had taken nearly a year after the renewal appointment to show up as ready to be picked up on the immigration office’s supposedly accurate online system was, apparently, a minor detail; just part of the yearly headache-and-anxiety-inducing bureaucratic process guaranteed to weed out anyone who doesn’t really, really mean it when they say that they want to live in Italy.
* * *
I’ve been here for just over five years now. Five years! It seems simultaneously incredible and yet entirely natural – when I arrived in Rome, five years felt like a milestone I’d never hit. Even the one-year mark seemed hazy and far-off; when you throw yourself headfirst into a new culture, getting to the end of each week feels like a milestone. And then, somehow, time sped up and the years started to pile up, with each one that passed leaving me feeling more and more comfortably entrenched in my life here in Rome.
My actual five-year Italy anniversary slipped by completely unnoticed at the beginning of September, while I was in Palermo for a few days. I didn’t love Palermo as much as I thought I would (but that’s another story for another day), so arriving back in Rome a few days later felt particularly good. My city. Not mine in the same way as it belongs to a Roman who’s grown up here, but mine because I chose it. Mine because I continue to choose it, even when it confounds me, exasperates me to the point of tears or does its best to make me feel like an outsider looking in.
I remember, sometime in my first couple of months in Rome, going to one of those excessively awkward expat events intended to get people to meet and mingle. Not knowing anyone there, I wedged myself into a group chosen at random, which happened to be made up of people who had been living in Italy for years already – the kind of people who spoke what sounded like perfectly fluent, accent-less Italian, who knew the city inside and out, and who were extremely vocal about its downsides and shortcomings.
At a certain point, one of them asked me how I was liking Rome, and I launched into a long-winded, glowing monologue. Of course I just loved the city, I loved the people, the language, the cobblestoned streets, the chaos, the pizza, the inefficiency, everything. All of it. And the entire group exchanged a collective knowing look – a sort of subdued eye roll, really – before one of them turned to me and told me, in a rather snarky tone, that I should wait until my rose-coloured glasses came off before making such statements. This seemed unnecessarily harsh. Why couldn’t I love the city I had chosen to live in?
The thing is, though, that the rose-coloured glasses really did have to come off. As it turns out, you can’t actually live in a place for any length of time and maintain that kind of single-faceted, shallow adoration for it – the cracks eventually start creeping in. And creep in they did, during days when I spent hours trying to accomplish a single task and then failing, days when I felt boring and clumsy and irrelevant because I couldn’t even make small talk in Italian, and days when everything in the city felt dirty, broken and utterly outdated. Rome won’t let you mindlessly adore it for too long before it shows you a hint of its dark side; tourist Rome and everyday Rome are two different beasts.
Getting to know the real Rome didn’t make me want to leave though. Some people pack up and move on when they see past the initial sparkle; I dug in my heels and held on. There is something so alive about this city, about the way it magnifies everything into extremes. Conversations in the street are a form of drama, emotions underlined for everyone around to notice. A pretty sunset here isn’t just a pretty sunset; it’s the kind of moment that makes you slow down and just watch the way the sunlight slants over the buildings before fading into a thousand shades of pastel pink. And seeing garbage bags slumped against the side of a historic building isn’t just unsightly, it’s infuriating, a glaring red arrow pointing to the government’s incompetence.
In this city, every day, around every corner, there are moments, scenes, and things that stop me in my tracks and make me say, “oh, Rome”. It sometimes comes out in the kind of tone a deeply disappointed parent might use on a disobedient child, accompanied by a frown or a head shake. But other times it’s more of a contented sigh, a smile, the acknowledgement of a small moment that adds something much larger to my day.
I’ve realized that Rome is many things to many people. Not everyone loves it. Some people hate it. I even hate it, sometimes, on one of those days when it seems like the entire city is against me and trying to get something done feels like rubbing salt in a paper cut. I think that’s a good thing, actually. I’ve long since moved past that unrealistic desire to feel nothing but single-minded adoration for the place I live. I prefer to feel alive.
Five years, and I’m still here. I’m here, and I see myself here for the foreseeable future, because when it comes down to it, I love Rome, and – more importantly – I love the life I’ve built here in Rome, the people around me, and the routines that make up my day. And Rome may be many things, but there is one thing that it is emphatically not: Boring.
Rome Last week I picked up my renewed permesso di soggiorno, the little rectangle of plastic that is quite possibly one of the most valuable things in my possession given that it allows me to legally stay in Italy. I sat in a sparse, dingy police station waiting room where announcements from 1998 were thumbtacked to peeling blue walls and a crooked, gilded crucifix hung above the door, and then I sat in front of an unsmiling officer in a cramped office while she dug my new permesso out of a shoebox full of envelopes, sliced my old one into a few plasticky shards and had me sign an immense black ledger full of foreign-looking names. Read more…
This post was originally published on July 29, 2017 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
I had never heard of San Nicola Arcella when I agreed to spend nine days there. Neither, apparently, had anyone else.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I saw a lot of blank faces whenever I mentioned where I would be travelling. Friends, the barista preparing my morning cappuccino, even a guy who grew up in the same region – nobody seemed to know about this place. I quickly came to the conclusion that it would turn out to be either one of Italy’s best-kept secrets… or one of its secret shames.
* * *
San Nicola Arcella is in Calabria, which at least partially explains why it’s not very well-known. The whole region is mired in a deeply murky history of corruption, earthquakes and the ubiquitous influence of the ’Ndrangheta, Calabria’s heavy-handed organized crime group. The region isn’t exactly a tourist hot-spot even among Italians, and most of the tourism attention that it does get goes straight to the town of Tropea – the Calabrian destination.
The sum total of my own experience with Calabria had been several hours of autostrada on the way down to Sicily last summer, and several more on the way back up. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had a certain vision in my mind: olive trees, whitewashed villages, crystal clear water and peperoncini. I was more or less envisioning Puglia, to be honest, but with the addition of chili peppers.
I was halfway right. The water was crystal clear, and the region’s famous peperoncini made several appropriately spicy appearances. But the overall feeling of the place was very different than the image I had painted myself. San Nicola Arcella feels – and I mean this in a good way – like it can’t quite decide if it’s a beach town or a mountain village.
The streets are a mix of the two, with those faded pastel tones typical to Italian seaside towns butting up against rough, bare stone; sunny colours and sombre greys thrown together. And when you look around, it makes sense – in front of the town, down a steep incline, there’s the sea, boats bobbing gently, brightly coloured umbrellas just visible at the edge of the beach. But when you turn around, there are mountains, wild-looking ones, covered in scrubby trees and brush. It feels odd to be in a place that smells simultaneously of the sea and of sun-baked pine needles, but that’s what San Nicola Arcella is.
* * *
Most people come here for the beach. There’s no shortage of choice in the area, with the large stabilimenti balneari and their neat rainbow rows of umbrellas striping the sand directly underneath the town, and the smaller beach clubs tucked into coves beside ancient watchtowers or accessible only by winding paths and semi-precarious staircases.
When we arrived, the weather was hot and intensely humid, thirty-eight degrees of breezeless, damp sea air lying heavily over the town. The same weather that had turned the air still and suffocating had agitated the sea into oversized rolling waves that crashed onto the beach in a restless roar, the water stirred to a shade of turquoise so electric that it nearly appeared fake.
I wanted to rush directly into those waves, to try to wash off the tangible touch of that humidity, but the lifeguard stepped forward and stopped me before I could get more than ankle deep. By the next morning, the temperature had dropped and the air had been cleared by a fresh breeze. The water remained tantalisingly turquoise, the waves still agitated but in a decidedly more muted way. I dove in.
The beauty of having a relatively long stretch of time by the sea is the way the days sort of blend into each other in an exceedingly pleasant way. Time is measured in bottles of sunscreen consumed, tan lines progressively darkening, the way the beach towel gets stiffer and stiffer from all that salt dried into it. And being Calabria – Italy’s deep south – time just seems more fluid. You can never be in too much of a rush to soak up a little more sun.
* * *
If the beaches were one key part of those nine days I spent in San Nicola Arcella, the food certainly made up another. I’ve felt for a long time like the flavours in Italian cuisine get continuously brighter and more pronounced as you make your way down the country, the hearty but more uniformly rich tastes of the north giving way to bolder, sun-soaked ingredients and complex flavour combinations – think of Sicily’s penchant for sweet-and-sour – in the south. Calabrian food tastes exactly like the harsh, sun-baked climate it comes from.
Peperoncini are used liberally, showing up on pizzas and in pasta, infused into oil, served whole in little bowls as an optional add-on in restaurants, and, most famously, ground up with pork into the region’s firey and vibrantly red spreadable salumi, ‘nduja. I surprised myself, normally adverse to anything beyond the mildest level of heat, by thoroughly enjoying the ‘nduja. One night we cooked it into a pasta sauce, simmering it with sweet Tropea red onions until it began to bleed red oil, then adding in a handful of datterini tomatoes before tossing the sauce with long strands of fresh, handmade fusilli pasta. It’s hard to imagine another dish that manages to be simultaneously so simple and so packed with flavour.
One night we ate in a sprawling fish restaurant beside the beach, the last of the night’s sunset fading away as our group noisily arranged itself around a long table. Another night, we headed up into the hills behind the town for a distinctly different type of cuisine at an agriturismo – food so removed from the kind of seafood-centric dishes you’d expect just a couple of kilometers from the sea that it felt like it was from another place entirely. The antipasto course was a never-ending parade of plates, the table covered in cheeses and salami, vegetables fried into fritters, vegetables cooked into frittatas, vegetables sautéed with more vegetables. I’ve never been so totally and utterly defeated by an antipasto – by the time my pasta, a hearty recipe involving sausage and melted cheese, was set down in front of me, I couldn’t eat more than a few noodles. Moving onto a meat course was unthinkable. Calabrian food is as substantial as it is delicious.
* * *
What these nine days in San Nicolla Arcella did, I think, was to give me a taste of exactly what I’d been missing out on by not visiting Calabria sooner.
I know it’s a complicated region, and parts of it are surely as grim as some Italians like to make it out to be. Even the really good parts aren’t perfect, with terrible mob-constructed concrete buildings and decrepit-looking highways marring views and too much garbage piled up outside towns. But there’s also so much to love – unspoiled beaches and charming towns, never-ending dinners and the kind of flavours that make you smile. And then there’s that water, that electric turquoise water…
I’ll be returning to Calabria.
Calabria, Italy I had never heard of San Nicola Arcella when I agreed to spend nine days there. Neither, apparently, had anyone else. Read more…
This post was originally published on August 24, 2017 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
We had come to Ovindoli to escape.
It was the beginning of August, and as is tradition, Rome was beginning to empty itself steadily, disgorging its residents in the annual exodus towards other, more appealing holiday destinations while sweaty tourists flowed in to take their place. A heatwave named Lucifer (Italians like to name their heatwaves) was also set to descend on the country, pushing temperatures up beyond the 40ºC mark and well beyond the possibility of tolerance.
We headed for the mountains – not the taller, more famous peaks up North with the spectacular skiing in the winter and lush green meadows in the summer, but the older, softer hills in the centre of the country; Abruzzo.
A friend of ours has a summer home in Ovindoli, a small but not tiny town perched at the edge of a deep valley and overlooked by an oddly triangular mountain. She invited us to come stay for a while. We needed no convincing – the fact that the temperature there was a solid ten degrees less than in Rome spoke for itself.
There are, basically, two things to do in Ovindoli: Take part in nature-based activities, or eat. Arguably, if you want to enjoy the latter, you should also participate in the former. If you’re an outdoorsy person, or someone with kids, or even just someone who feels most at home when gazing out at pine-covered slopes, Ovindoli is pretty close to perfect. There are a million routes to hike, from sun-drenched meanders through meadows to nearly-vertical slopes to scramble up. There are rocks to climb. Mountain bikes everywhere. Horses to ride. More space than you’d ever need to spread out a picnic blanket. And there are children all over the place, running in packs, free to roam the town at will and congregate in the pinetina – the miniature pine grove on the edge of town – free to careen around the piazza at midnight on their bikes, free to be free in a way that could never happen back in the city.
Ovindoli is also one of the few places I’ve seen in Italy where everyone walks around in hiking boots and zip-off quick-drying pants, an extreme outlier in a country where women tend to wear high heels even on the most hostile terrain and probably don’t own many pieces of clothing that would fall under the category of “active wear”.
I am not a particularly outdoorsy person. I don’t have kids. I don’t own a pair of hiking boots, I find the idea of mountain biking off-putting, and there are few feelings I find more annoying than that of dust settling onto sunscreened and sweat-coated limbs. I am not at one with the mountains. There is not much that I find relaxing about a picnic blanket spread out in the middle of a sun-baked, cow-dung-studded field. To be honest, I’m just not part of Ovindoli’s target audience.
That being said, I do enjoy a good, hard hike; the kind that’s steep and challenging but also mercifully quick – sweat it out, get back down the mountain, jump in the shower, feel accomplished. I like the way the morning breeze is chilly even in the middle of a record-breaking heatwave, I like the view of that oddly triangular mountain framed by the bedroom window, and I like the way the smell of wood smoke and sun-warmed pine floats over the town in the evening. I appreciate falling into the slowed-down rhythms and the simplicity of small-town life, seeing doors propped open, bikes left unlocked and laundry racks set up along the edges of the street.
But most of all, I enjoy the food. You don’t come to Abruzzo looking for delicate flavours and light sauces, because the cuisine here is hearty stuff, intended for icy winter evenings and shepherds who’ve just spent their entire day outdoors. There is a lot of meat – grilled, stuck onto skewers, stuffed into sausages, cured, or stewed into falling-off-the-bone oblivion – and a lot of cheese, with a healthy appreciation for pasta (often with an intensely meaty sauce) to round things out.
There are a few restaurants right in the town of Ovindoli – one, La Stozza, is actually exceptional, the kind of place where you reserve a week in advance and then spend the days leading up to the dinner envisioning what you’re about to eat and preparing your stomach to be stretched to its limits. But in general, the best food in the area can be found outside of the town, in homely, casual little structures known as rifugi.
The general idea is that a rifugio acts as a mid-hike place of rest and nourishment, somewhere to refuel before you head out again. In reality, if you can manage to continue hiking after devouring a grilled sausage and pan-tossed broccoletti topped with melted, smokey scamorzacheese – all stuffed into a bun – then you are a stronger person than I am. I like to think that there’s a reason why all the rifugi have reclining lounge chairs outside; the only place I’d hike after a lunch like that is directly down the mountain.
The rifugio closest to Ovindoli offers a multi-course, fixed-menu lunch so abundant that it’s no wonder most of their customers arrive by car, not on foot. In the kind of building that looks like a converted barn – uneven cement floor, rough exposed beams, creaky tables and chairs crammed together wherever they’ll fit – you get a pasta, made freshly by the owner’s stoop-shouldered nonna that morning, tossed in a simple tomato sauce and served family style out of a massive plastic serving bowl. The pasta alone is more than enough for a decent lunch, but then the platter of grilled meat – steaks and sausages and skewers all glistening and still spitting hot fat – makes an appearance, along with bread and roasted peppers and the kind of rough and delicious red wine that has your head pleasantly fuzzy two sips in. The whole thing ends with slices of homemade crostata and cups of bracingly bitter espresso followed by little glasses of home-brewed elderflower liquor, thick and sweet and deadly.
The next morning, a hike seems (quite urgently) like a good idea. Movement, a hard uphill trail, kilometre after kilometre of putting one foot in front of the other. You ate all that food; now you have to pay for it. Although it just so happens that at the top of the trail you’re sweating your way up there’s yet another rifugio…
The real beauty of Ovindoli though, apart from the food or the scenery, was that while Rome – just an hour and a half away by autostrada – was melting under day after day of a brutal heatwave, Ovindoli was cool enough to permit activity other than sitting motionless in front of a whirring fan all day long. And so we came to Ovindoli to escape Lucifer, but we left with stronger leg muscles, stretched stomachs, and a dose of the kind of laid-back tranquility that only a small town in the mountains can provide.
Via del Ceraso 3, Ovindoli AQ • +39 08 63705633
A small, cozy restaurant on a side street off the town’s main piazza. Start with the venison carpaccio and bruschette with goose breast and truffle, then move onto the pasta with wild boar sauce (a classic) or the intensely flavourful pasta with porcini mushrooms, potato and truffle. Share the “stinco” – a slow-roasted, fall-off-the-bone veal shank draped in lard and smothered in truffle (note: You should call ahead to order this dish, as they need advance notice to prepare it. It’s well worth the caloric assault). Reservations, as much in advance as possible, are a must.
Campo Felice Ski Area, between the "Gigi Panei" and "Capricorno" slopes • +39 339 8980398
A small, no-nonsence rifugio with picnic tables and lounge chairs beside a small lake. They mainly offer panini – opt for the grilled sausage with broccoletti, and ask to add on the melted scamorza cheese. Accessible in the summer by hiking or taking the ski lift up from the Rocca di Cambio side of the mountain then walking down a small hill, or by hiking up from the Campo Felice parking area.
At the end of an unpaved street that begins where Via della Fonte turns an abrupt corner • +39 328 3448261
The €20 fixed-menu lunch includes homemade pasta, a selection of grilled meats, grilled vegetables and dessert. Everything is served family style and the atmosphere is boisterous and casual. During high season, be sure to reserve a table (there are also a few tables in a shaded overhang outside, which are pleasant when the weather is nice). Open at dinner on request for large groups of people.
Ovindoli, Italy We had come to Ovindoli to escape.
It was the beginning of August, and as is tradition, Rome was beginning to empty itself steadily, disgorging its residents in the annual exodus towards other, more appealing holiday destinations while sweaty tourists flowed in to take their place. A heatwave named Lucifer (Italians like to name their heatwaves) was also set to descend on the country, pushing temperatures up beyond the 40ºC mark and well beyond the possibility of tolerance. Read more…