Monday, December 15, 2014

Great Books VI

Woman Seated on a Sofa by Edouard Vuillard, The Art Institute of Chicago

Travel Oyster is back with the sixth edition of its Great Books series. This year's recommendations are all memoirs of a sort, but each book is infused with history: the history of a family, a language, a time, a cuisine. 

The Hare with Amber Eyes
A Hidden Inheritance
by Edmund De Waal 
2010, 351 pages

The Hare with Amber Eyes has all the qualities one hopes for with every newly-begun book. It's beautifully written, throughly engrossing and full of interesting characters. De Waal, already well-known as a ceramic artist before writing this book, is a descendant of the famously-rich Ephrussi banking family. When he inherits a family collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings called netsuke from his great uncle in Tokyo, he sets out on a quest to learn more about who made them and who owned them. 

De Waal is a discreet moderator and he has the wisdom and restraint to stand in the background and let his family history speak for itself. Their story begins in the 1850s, where the Ephrussi, a Jewish family in Odessa, have become the greatest grain exporters in the world. By the 1870s, the family has established a financial empire in Paris and Vienna. In Paris, De Waal's great-uncle Charles is friends with Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir.  An avid collector and art critic, Charles is also the first owner of the netsuke. 

As De Waal traces the history of his inheritance, he gives life to these small, inanimate objects and to the history of 19th and 20th-century Europe; its buildings; its people; its art. And, as his family fortunes turn in the era of Nazi Germany, De Waal reflects on loss and the importance of cherished family objects. 

From the very first page, I was entranced with The Hare with Amber Eyes and arrived at the last page with a small sense of loss myself that such a wonderful book had to end.

La Bella Lingua
My Love Affair with Italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language
by Dianne Hales
2009, 290 pages

Years ago when I began studying Italian, many people asked me why. In this charming book, Dianne Hales answers that question, weaving together the study of this beautiful language with the history and culture of the country. As a professor in her book remarks:  "You cannot separate our language from our culture.  When you learn Italian, you enter our history, our art, our music, our traditions."  

For more than 25 years, Hales visits the country taking Italian lessons and spending enough, she calculates, to finance a down payment on an Umbrian villa. We meet her friends and acquaintances, everyone from  the actor Roberto Benigni to a Roman cab driver who gives her a lesson in Italian cursing. On the road to fluency, she studies everything from the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii to the melodic beauty of Dante's Divine Comedy. And as she traces the evolution of the language, the history of the country, its art and its food, she serves up linguistic delicacies that give us a taste of what makes Italian such an emotionally expressive language.

Italian is number 24 on the list of the world's spoken languages, but it's the fourth most studied language in the world. So if you have ever studied Italian, dream about studying it or just want to know more about 'the world's most enchanting language," then this is the book for you.

Blue Highways, A Journey Into America
by William Least Heat Moon
1982, 411 pages

In the late 1970s, after losing his wife to another man and his teaching job at a Missouri college to budget cuts, Least Heat Moon decides that "a man who couldn't make things go right could at least go." And so begins his journey down America's back roads (printed in blue on old maps).  It's a three month, 13,000-mile trip that takes him through 375 mostly small and often forgotten towns - towns with names like Bug, Chucky, Grit, Snowflake and Nameless. (Click here to see all the towns he visited.) Along the way, he meets extraordinary people living often ordinary lives. They invite him into their homes and he, in turn,  tells their stories with empathy and wit, perfectly capturing the cadence and style of their language. 

Blue Highways is a wonderful road trip through an America that most of us never see from the Interstate, a book that remains as fresh and engaging as the day it was published more than 40 years ago.   

After reading this book, you may want to take to the back roads yourself. If you do, you will find that the Blue Highway America is still out there waiting for you. JR and I discovered that not so long ago when we took the back roads home to Ann Arbor from our cabin in northern Michigan. In the process, we stumbled on Trufant, “the Stump Fence Capital of America." Everywhere in this small town perched on the edge of a lake called Muskellunge, homes, gardens, parks and squares are enclosed with fences made of enormous stumps of long-ago-logged Michigan trees. In case you are interested, the town also has an annual fall jubilee where after your pancake breakfast, you can participate in the frog jumping contest or the greased pig scramble. 

My Life in France
by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
2007, 333 pages

This is a lovely, funny, charming memoir by the woman who introduced America to the art of French cooking. As Child herself puts it, it's a book about "some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating.

The book begins in 1948 when Julia arrives in Paris with Paul. She speaks not a word of French, knows nothing about France, and can't cook. Her desire to learn and her zest for life, however, soon take her to the Cordon Bleu for cooking lessons. For the next six years, her life in France unfolds in a series of vignettes which she infuses with her love for France, its people and most of all, its food.

Yes, Meryl Streep played a wonderful Julia Child in the film Julie & Julia, but for the voice of the real Julia Child, you'll want to read this captivating book.

Happy Reading, 

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Michigan Blue Heaven

                                          Morels and wild asparagus with the Pere Marquette River in the background

An American friend of mine in Paris, who is definitely a big-city kind of girl, shakes her head in disbelief when I describe our cabin on a river in northern Michigan. She knows that we spend two months in Paris and two months in Pisa each year and can't imagine going from the myriad offerings of those two cities to what she calls "wilderness." "What do you do there?" She practically wails when she says this.  

It's true that life at the cabin is definitely a far cry from the bright lights and big city feel of Paris or the medieval splendor of Pisa.  In fact, it's a pretty far cry from anything. The closest grocery store in Baldwin, population 800, is about six miles away on roads that are largely unpaved. There are no fancy restaurants, cafes, cinemas or art museums.  The town does have two canoe liveries,  a hardware store, a good little library with internet, an ice cream and fudge shop and, most surprising of all, twice-weekly jazz and blues concerts all summer long. There are lakes and streams for fishing and canoeing and hundreds of miles of forest bike and hiking trails. Lake Michigan, where you can find beautiful, secluded white sand beaches, is just 40 miles to the west.   

Our cabin is modest. At 720 square feet, it's just a bit smaller than the 80-square meter apartment we rent for two months each year in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. The screened-in porch adds another 200 square feet - and a view that many Parisians might envy. It's here that JR and I have our "offices," facing a bend of the Middle Branch of the Pere Marquette River, a national scenic trout stream. There are a few other cabins not far from us, but they are lost from view around the serpentine bends of the river. The opposite bank is federal land, where the only neighbors are forest animals, birds and butterflies. White oak, sugar maple, aspen and cedar trees fill the forest and tower over the cabin. 

Guests get to stay in the Love Shack - a separate building that was in complete disrepair when we bought the property 15 years ago. JR and I rebuilt it and restored it to its former rustic glory, and my sister Michele, one of its first occupants, named it. It's just big enough for a bed, a dresser and a chair, but its four big windows bring the outside in. A bistro table and chairs, a gift from my French friend Marcelle, bring a touch of Paris to the Love Shack's screened-in porch. The small espresso machine is a reminder of Italy.

The river up near our cabin is small, but deep and cold. Trout hide in the under banks and in season, steelhead and salmon spawn in its gravel bottom. The calm bends of the river are filled with mounds of watercress, whose slender green shoots spill out into the river, gracefully undulating in the fast-moving current. In springtime wild asparagus line the riverbanks. In summer,  bright orange Michigan lilies and startlingly red Cardinal flowers take their place. Spring through fall, mushrooms - morels, chanterelles and porcini  - flourish in places that will remain my secret.

Although not as obvious to the casual observer, life in the "wilderness" is just as busy and chaotic as life in the big city. It hums with activity day and night and its bucolic appearance belies the great dangers that lurk for the creatures who live there. When we arrive in springtime, though, love is in the air. An attentive observer can find the architecturally perfect nest of the hummingbird; hear the high-pitched cheeps of the Towhee nestlings; witness two wood turtles making love; or come upon a fawn bedded down in the tall grass.   

The city sounds of Paris are a world away, but like the big city, the woods are almost never silent. The wind whispers or sometimes roars through the trees; the river babbles; the chipmunks chip; the deer snort; the birds sing; and, this year unfortunately, the mosquitoes buzz.   

Melting snowpack from one of Michigan's coldest winters in decades coupled with heavy spring rains created a perfect storm for the breeding of mosquitoes and ticks. And then, there are the turkeys. A couple of weeks ago, while hunting mushrooms in the early evening, I was charged by a mother turkey when I inadvertently came too close to her nest.  I ducked behind a tree and the turkey and I - Walt Disney cartoon fashion, circled it - I right next to the trunk and she about 10 feet away.  My yelling got her to retreat, but as I made for home, she followed me for about a half-mile gobbling and squawking the whole way.  

I'm not sure how much damage a turkey can do, but I can tell you that being charged by a 30 pound turkey at breakneck speed is unsettling.  For a while it made me wonder why I was not sitting instead at a sidewalk cafe in Paris. 

But then as I made my way back to the cabin in the gathering darkness, a whippoorwill began to sing. The words of a classic Fats Domino song came to mind. 

When whippoorwills call and evening is nigh,
I hurry to my Blue Heaven.
A turn to the right, a little white light,
Will lead me to my Blue Heaven. 
To see more photos, click here.

Happy Summer, 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hiking the Metal Hills of Italy

                                                                                  Le Colline Mettallifere

The 25th of April is a national holiday in Italy.  It's the Festa della Liberazione, the day that marks the end of the second world war and the end of the Nazi occupation of Italy.

For the last eight years, it's also the time when JR and I join Italian friends on a hiking or biking trip. Since my trusty bike was stolen recently, there was no choice to be made.  We would be on foot for four days in the Colline Metallifere, the Metal Hills of the Maremma area of Southern Tuscany.  

The Colline Metallifere are little known today even among Italians, but from the 8th to the 13th century, they  were a major center of Italy and are mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy. As the name implies, the area was rich in minerals, including silver, which became the most precious metal of the Middle Ages when the Emperor Charlemagne declared a switch from gold to silver coinage in 781 A.D. Into the 13th century, feudal lords dug mines, exploited the minerals, became rich, and built castles and fortresses. Mining continued for several centuries, but today most of the mines are closed. 

In 1890, Buffalo Bill Cody crossed the area when his American Wild West Show toured Italy. Supposedly Cody and his men were challenged to a contest of skills by the butteri, the local version of cowboys, who herded the Maremma cows that still are raised in the area. There seems to be no actual proof of this event and since Buffalo Bill was a master of publicity, it's very possible that it never really happened.  Nonetheless, the Maremma with its rugged terrain and cattle culture is a region that could have produced riders able to challenge the Americans. 

The cowboys of the Maremma have all but disappeared, but medieval remains are still visible. A series of small fortified towns that sit perched on isolated hilltops dot the landscape. In between are dense woods and steep valleys. Many of the towns have histories linked to the Etruscans, who mined the area as far back as the 6th century B.C.

Our trip began in Massa Marrittima, a small beautiful city rich in art and architecture. Our actual walk began in Boccheggiano, a town of 800 people with one restaurant, which turned out to be good. There was also a fabulous bakery where JR bought so much that the baker gave him a bag of cookies as a gift. The next day, the 25th of April,  we walked to Torniella, a town of 400 people. When we arrived in the waning hours of this holiday afternoon, the young men of the village were playing handball in the main street with the old men of the town as spectators.  Roccatederighi, our next day's goal, has a population of almost 1,000, but seems bigger with its many markets and restaurants. Its series of winding streets culminates in a church built into the rock on the top of the hill.

On our last day, we completed the circle, walking back to Boccheggiano. We left early, trying to beat the rain which threatened. Thunder and lightening dogged us and we could see storms to the north, which, unfortunately, was the direction we were headed.  By lunchtime, it was raining and we ate under the protection of a trailside water trough. Fortunately, the regular users of the trough - huge Maremma cows - were nowhere to be seen.

We walked 15-18 kilometers a day; stayed in ancient small houses or apartments and ate great local food, including lots of pecorino cheese, wild boar, and pasta with butter and sage. We encountered no other hikers in this land of incredible beauty as we crossed forests carpeted with wild cyclamen, asphodels and orchids. We strolled at night through town streets with the aura of the Middle Ages all around us. 

Perched towns are beautiful, but they are, of course, perched which means to get to them you have to walk up and down seemingly endless hills. In between, there are lots of small rivers and streams, most of which have no bridges. The trails are not always well marked and can end abruptly in a mass of impenetrable underbrush. And as we discovered firsthand, it does rain in Tuscany, sometimes very hard. A compass, a good map, good cheer and good friends are essential. We had them all.

To see photos of our trip, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

La Pineta and Bibbona

We emerged from the pine forest in Marina di Bibbona as the sun was beginning to set over the Mediterranean Sea. The beach was empty except for a few fisherman casting long rods and a dog romping in the sand. Nearby was a small building that resembled so many others up and down the Tuscan coast - a place where you might rent a beach umbrella and maybe grab a quick snack. Yet this strana baracca as Chef Luciano Zazzeri likes to call it, is home to La Pineta, one of Italy's great restaurants known for its wonderful seafood. The restaurant takes its name from the Tuscan coastal pine forests that were cultivated for their pine nuts as far back as Roman times. La Pineta, the restaurant, was the reason we and two of our friends were here.

Before going down to the sea, we had spent the end of the afternoon in the original medieval village of Bibbona that sits on a nearby hill.  The town's name is Etruscan in origin, but much of that early history is lost. Bibbona is first mentioned by that name in 1040. In the 1100s there are records of a dispute between Ugo della Gherardesca and the bishop of nearby Lucca over feudal rights in the area. 

The village - lovely and quiet on this weekday afternoon - is built in a series of concentric circles, connected by narrow streets and steep steps. Its center is the 11th-12th century church of Sant'Ilario. Like many villages in Tuscany, its position on a hill was not only for defensive purposes, but also to lift the town above the unhealthy swamps and marshes that covered much of the lowlands in ancient times. Today's Tuscany of vineyards and olive groves that most people know and love is the result of successive draining projects over several centuries. 

It was during one of these draining projects in the middle of the 18th century that Marina di Bibbona came into existence, but it was not until 1980s that any significant building took place in the town. 

When La Pineta opened there in the spring of 1964, it was just a little place on the beach with 12 changing huts and 12 umbrellas. Present chef Luciano Zazzeri was nine years old, but he was already in the restaurant's kitchen. He learned to cook from his grandmother, his mother and his aunt, who were preparing the dishes that attracted tourists just beginning to discover the region. In later years, the restaurant also attracted the attention of the great wine families in the nearby Bolgheri region, where Super Tuscans are produced. Among the diners were members of the Della Gherardesca family, descendants of the the same family mentioned in 12th-century records of the area. 

From the outside, La Pineta still looks like a beachside shanty.  Inside, however, the dining tables are covered in heavy linen cloths and the crystal and silver glimmer in the soft lighting. The view that fills the windows is the great expanse of the Mediterranean Sea.  

The sea fades from view, however, when the food is set before you.  You can order a la carte, but there are also two seafood tasting menus served to a minimum of two people. Since we were four, we ordered both menus, giving us a taste of 11 different dishes.  Every one of them was wonderful. The fish is fresh from the sea, the pasta is perfectly al dente, and the vegetables are cultivated in the restaurant's garden. The dishes, although elegantly presented, are relatively simple. The flavor of the fresh fish is first and foremost, as in a baccala on a puree of leeks or in a simple baked fish with rosemary, capers, olives and tomatoes. The wine list is extensive and is heavy on Tuscan wines, including many of the best Bolgheri wines.

The atmosphere is relaxed and the waiters linger to chat when they take away the dishes. Chef Zazzeri stopped by as well to talk to us about the different fish and how they were prepared. When we were leaving, he walked us to the door and in traditional Italian style, lingered there with us for ten minutes or more, talking about the politics of Italy, the vagaries of the restaurant business, his family and his passion for food. We seemed to diverge a bit on politics, but we were in perfect harmony on the pleasures of good food. 

To see more photos, click here

A presto,

Via Dei Cavalleggeri Nord 27
57020 Marina Di Bibbona, Toscana, Italy
Telefono  (0039) 0586.600016

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Bicycle Thieves

In the film Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief),Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece of Italian neorealism, Antonio is struggling to support his family in post-World War II Rome. He has miraculously landed a job, but it requires a bicycle and his has already been pawned. His wife sells her dowry linens to retrieve it and the family's prospects seem to be on the rise, Then the bicycle is stolen. Antonio is devastated because the loss of his job means ruin for his family. One thing leads to another until Antonio himself becomes a bicycle thief. 

I thought of Antonio the other morning when I went down to get my bike and found that it had been stolen during the night. I suspect that it was just one of many because the bike rack was curiously empty and the only bikes left were those that were locked with heavy metal chains. 

Old-timers in Pisa attribute the thefts to people from Livorno, Pisa's ancient enemy in war and modern rival in soccer. Others accuse extracomunitari, people from outside the European Union, for the most part from eastern Europe. Harder for them to admit, but also likely, is the fact that among the culprits are ordinary Italian citizens, who like Antonio, are reduced to thievery by Italy's severe economic crisis. 

Whoever is behind it, bicycle theft is an enormous problem in Italy. In a recent surveyFiab, (the Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle) estimated that 320,000 of the four million bikes on the road in Italy are stolen each year. The numbers are especially high in university towns such as Bologna, where the 240 people interviewed by Fiab reported 275 bicycles stolen. In Pisa, the numbers of stolen bikes are also higher than one per person interviewed. At a high school in Pisa, 50 bikes, locked to racks in the school's courtyard, have been stolen in the last several months. In a recent article in the local paper, the principal of the school Andrea Simonetti, cried basta and called for the city to take action: "We cannot remain silent while our parking lots are regularly plundered in broad daylight," he said.  

Pisa has instigated a registration policy for bikes, and police have conducted some undercover raids at known selling points for stolen bikes. However, theft is still such a common occurrence here that most people don't even bother to report it. Antonio and I, however, both filed a denuncia. At the headquarters of the carabinieri, the officer who took my complaint was very nice, but like Antonio's police officer, he warned me there was very little the police could do. He gave me a copy of the report and suggested that I walk around the city and look for my bike.  If I found it, I could call for an officer and with my complaint in hand, it was likely my bike would be returned to me.  

So I've been walking around Pisa for the last couple of days. Bikes are everywhere - thousands and thousands of them - but there is no sign of mine.  In the film there is a scene where Antonio, who has been searching for his bike in the streets of Rome, sits on a curb and watches sadly as the world whizzes past him on bikes. I know how he felt.

If Hollywood made The Bicycle Thief, my part would be played by a young beautiful blond who would find her bike, aided by an incredibly handsome Italian policeman. They would fall madly in love and in the last scene, they would bike off into the sunset. In the gritty world of Italian neorealism, however, Antonio never does find his bike.  I suspect I won't either.

My green and white Bianchi bicycle was already old when I bought it nine years ago for 40 euros. JR, however, kept it in good repair, and a vegetable crate, tied to the back rack, allowed me to carry wine and other heavy items. I never bought an official bike basket because I always assumed my bike would get stolen. Now it's happened, but I content myself with the fact that nine years is something of a record for continuous bike ownership here in Pisa. Friends always said that my bike was too ugly to steal, but I thought of it as distinctive and too easily recognized. I guess in the dark of the night, its distinctiveness was not apparent. 

Unlike Antonio, I can buy another bike, but I will miss my old one. It took me not just to the supermarket in Pisa, but also - on bright, sunny spring  days - along coastal roads on the island of Elba, through Tuscan river valleys red with poppies, and to the tops of the highest hills in Chianti.

(To see more photos, including places I visited on my bike, click here.)

A presto,

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Farmland below Peccioli and the town's contemporary sign on the road leading to Peccioli

Not far from Pisa is a beautiful Tuscan gem of a town called Peccioli. I first visited Peccioli in 2007 when I did some translation work for the town and have been back several times since. Located mid-way between Pisa and San Gimignano, Peccioli is perched high on a hill overlooking the valley of the Era River. The town boasts a perfectly proportioned Pisa-style 12th-century church, medieval buildings, modern sculptures, restaurants, shops, a theater, summer concerts and four museums. 

Recently Peccioli announced that it is selling shares in 2,200 acres of its beautiful, rolling, dream-inducing Tuscan landscape. The land, once part of an immense farm owned by the Medici family of Florence, also contains 40 picturesque farmhouses that were home to the peasant families who took care of the land. Realizing the value of its pristine farmlands with their white roads and rustic farmhouses, a partnership was  formed with the company Belvedere, to preserve the land for the common good. Belvedere estimates the cost of the restoration of the farmhouses at 50 million euros. If local people invest a part of their savings in the project, say company officials, they will not only protect the area from real estate speculation, but will also give jobs to local workers. It's an ambitious project whose success depends on local investment. Peccioli, however, has a history of success.

First mentioned in written documents in 793 A.D., Peccioli was a vital piece on the Etruscan chessboard of northern Etruria as far back as the 5th century B.C. By the Middle Ages, however, the town had become just a lowly pawn in the seemingly never-ending battle for political dominance between Pisa and Florence, passing back and forth between the two super powers. Through it all, the Pecciolesi made the best of a bad situation and continued to make, as they do today, great wine, honey and olive oil.

The town's modern claim to fame has been its ability to "make gold from garbage." More than 25 years ago when Tuscany faced a serious sanitation crisis, enterprising Peccioli, unlike its neighboring towns, welcomed the establishment of a nearby landfill.  Located about five miles from the town center, it has become an international model of good sanitation practices and a source of economic prosperity for the town.

Building upon this newfound wealth, the town administration made infrastructure improvements, bolstered social services and improved schools. It also sponsored an archeological dig, and restored chapel frescos painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the 15th century. Museums were opened, including an archeological museum of Etruscan art and a lithography museum with a superb collection of famous 20th-century Italian artists. 

Now, Peccioli hopes to attract more of the millions of people who visit Tuscany each year. According to their web site, about half of the 40 farmhouses, once restored, will be part of a tourist complex. The others will be sold on the international market to help finance the project. 

Owning a Tuscan farmhouse may not be in your future plans, but a visit to the town should be. Not so long ago, Peccioli earned the coveted Bandiera Arancione  from the Italian Touring Club, naming it one of the best small towns in Italy. So if you want to get there before the crowds, go soon. 

To see more photos of Peccioli and some of its 40 farmhouses, click here.

A presto,

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pisa 2014

On our last full day in Paris for this year, I went out early to buy bread and a final croissant or two. The city was still abed; the streets were swept clean; and everything was aglow in the early morning sun. It was a good day to be out and about in Paris.

My friend Marcelle invited me to lunch and we went to a nearby restaurant which I had always meant to try, but never had - Des Gars dans la Cuisine. It's a modern, glass-fronted restaurant on the ancient rue du Vieille du Temple.  It's a bit pricey a la carte, but like many restaurants in Paris, it has a very reasonable, very good lunch menu.  Afterwards, we picked up some pastries and headed back to the apartment for coffee and dessert. JR was there and opened a good, bubbly bottle of Vouvray to celebrate another great stay in Paris.  

That night, with the apartment all cleaned, we went off to a neighborhood restaurant, Page 35, for crepes.  When we left, the three owners gave us a card they had all signed, wishing us a speedy return to Paris.

The next morning, we left Paris' Orly Airport bound for Pisa. It's only an hour and a half flight, but it takes you to a world far from the big-city hustle and bustle of Paris. Here in the center of historic Pisa, life is slower; buildings are older and smaller; and change is less obvious - although a new giant IKEA did open during the last year on the outskirts of town. And, of course, Italy has a new government although that is a common occurrence. According to a recent article in The New Yorker, Italy has had 63 governments in the last 68 years.

Economically, the situation in Italy remains depressed and young people continue to leave in droves to find jobs in other countries. Still, for a visitor, some things, such as the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the landscape, seem never to change. Baristas, bakers and pizza makers welcomed us back. Friends called and on our first night in Pisa, we were invited out to the opera at Pisa's beautiful Teatro Verdi.

The opera Andrea Chenier was a perfect transition from France to Italy.  Written by the Italian composer Umberto Giordano, it is the story (tragic, of course) of the French poet Andrea Chenier who, along with the love of his life, goes to the guillotine during the French Revolution

The next day, to wash away our sorrows, we went to the thermal baths in Casciana Terme, a town about 40 kilometers south of Pisa. The numerous towns in Tuscany with the word terme or bagni in their names attests to the fact that the region is rich in hot springs. Their curative powers were heralded as far back as Etruscan times. The Tabula Peutingeriana, a 12th-century copy of a Roman map dating back to about 70 A.D., shows the thermal waters of the Tuscan towns of Volterra and Populonia. 

Legend says that the hot springs of Casciana were discovered by Contessa Matilde di Canossa, a famous and powerful noblewoman of the Middle Ages. According to this legend, a little bird told her. The bird in question - an old pet robin - would fly creakily off each morning to an unknown destination and would return in the evening rejuvenated. A bit of reconnaissance revealed that the bird was spending its days soaking in a natural hot spring. Matilde decided to do likewise. The water's effects on Matilde are unknown, but it is known that at age 43, she married the 17-year old Duke of Bavaria. She lived, reigned and commanded an army up until her death at age 69, which is a ripe old age for medieval times.

The thermal waters at Casciana surge out of the ground from a source 700 meters  deep (2,300ft) and have a constant temperature of 35.7 degrees celsius (96.2F). The spa at Casciana offers everything from mud baths to medical rehabilitation. We contented ourselves with three hours in the toasty warm outdoor pool.

In the evening, we drove into the nearby hills to attend a friend's Mardi Gras party.  "Fat Tuesday," the usual day of Mardi Gras parties and parades had long since past and Lent, the season of fasting, had already begun. Nonetheless, there were costumes, dancing and plenty of great food. As I said, in Italy, things move a little slower.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Paris Greeters - Belleville

Graffiti, rue Dénoyez, Paris

Parisien d'un Jour, Parisien toujours. I came across this phrase (Parisian for a day, Parisian forever) on the City of Paris tourist information page. The slogan belongs to the Paris Greeters, a group of volunteers that offers free tours of Paris and nearby areas. The volunteers are not professional guides, just friendly Parisians who love their  their city and want to share it with visitors by showing them the places and the faces beyond the city's famous tourist attractions. 

Intrigued, I decided to investigate. I went to the Paris Greeters web site and filled out the form, requesting a tour for the following week.  Normally, you have to register a month in advance, but I got a message back saying my request would be posted and if someone was free, I would be contacted.  A couple of hours later, an email arrived from Annie Siauve, a third-generation Parisian, who lives in Belleville, a neighborhood in the northeast of Paris that most tourists never visit.

Once a small hilltop village, Belleville was a thriving town by the time it was incorporated into Paris in 1860. It was most famous as a destination for nighttime revelers, who crowded its huge drinking establishments, known as  guingettes (To read Travel Oyster on other Paris guingettes, click here.) Because mining caverns under Belleville made the land unstable, many of its buildings are only two or three stories high, which gives the area even today a village feel. The gentrification of Belleville is in full swing, but it remains a diverse, working-class neighborhood. Although best known for its Chinatown, its streets are lined with a United Nations of stores catering to the many different ethnic groups that call Belleville home.

This diversity was obvious as I waited for Annie outside the cafe La Vieilleuse. In spite of the grey weather, North African men stood talking in groups on the busy street corners - a custom more appropriate to the sunny climes of their homelands, but one that is obviously hard to break. Up the hill, decorations were being put up for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration and across the street, Belleville's huge outdoor French market was in full swing.

Annie found me easily in the crowd of men. Our first stop was the Belleville Market, which runs for blocks along the rue du Belleville. It's a big market with a reputation for some of the best prices in Paris.  Annie pointed out the various ethnic food, clothing and jewelry stands while merchants sang out their wares in several different languages. Everything looked tempting, but with a two-hour walk ahead of us, I decided to leave shopping for another day.

Next stop was Belleville's famous rue Dénoyez, one of the only streets in Paris where graffiti is not only legal, but encouraged. The street is a lively, ever-changing outdoor art gallery, where, as Annie pointed out, almost all the graffiti I photographed would be gone by the next day. 

From there, we walked up and down the streets of Belleville. Annie seems to know what is behind every ordinary door, opening them to reveal a world of small countrylike houses, beautiful little gardens, thriving artists' studios, and the remnants of the long-disappeared forest of Belleville. We also passed the house on whose steps legend says the famous French singer Edith Piaf was born. Reality is less romantic according to Annie, who tells me that Piaf was born in the nearby Tenon Hospital.

We hiked up to the Parc de Belleville, the highest park in Paris. Along the way, we passed several fountains that once supplied all of Belleville's water. In summer, the Parc de Belleville is known for its massive flower displays and its 100 meter-long waterfall fountain. In every season, it has an incredible view of Paris, which rivals that of the more famous Montmartre hill. At one time, Annie tells me, Belleville hoped to follow Montmartre's lead and fill the park with artists selling their wares and crepes stands on every corner. Unfortunately, or fortunately for local residents, the idea did not catch on. Instead, it remains a neighborhood park with winding walkways, lovely gardens and children playing.

Art, however, is ever present in Belleville. As we walked about, Annie, herself an artist, was constantly on the lookout for discarded objects that could be incorporated into her multi-matieral pieces. She, along with 250 other artists, participates every year  in the Portes Ouvertes de Belleville. The event, which has been running for 25 years, attracts more than 50,000 visitors. For information on this year's event, click here

With still lots to talk about, I invited Annie to lunch and asked her to choose a local restaurant that she particularly likes. She suggested La Queue de Boeuf. Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant is a perfect example of the diversity of Belleville. The chef Didier, a Frenchman from the Antilles, cooks up wonderful French food with a Creole touch, using only fresh products from the market.

After a full day of fun and good food, Annie and I said goodbye at the Belleville metro station, with plans to meet again - this time as friends.

If you are coming to Paris, Greeters is a great way to meet a Parisian and see  a part of the city behind the big monuments and museums.  Groups can be anywhere from one to six people. Annie and I spoke French, but tours are given in many different languages, which you can choose when you sign up.  Be sure to make your request at least a month before your trip.  To go to the Paris Greeters web site, click here.

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,