Limoncello – the Perfect Combination of Rocks and Local Agriculture

When in Sorrento, you don’t make lemonade when life hands you lemons, you make Limoncello.  The lemons here are HUGE.  Grapefruit sized.  And they are sweet.


Locals claim it is because of the soil – the rich volcanic tuffs and alternating layers of limestone.  Despite Vesuvius looming in the distance, the volcanic layers are much older (37-12 million years ago from Campi Flegrei from north of Naples (Napoli)) – a much larger volcanic field that may have contributed to the demise of the Neanderthals.


Sorrento is the epicenter of these fabulous lemons and the production of a huge range of products, including Limoncello.  If you haven’t had a chance to taste Limoncello – it’s described as a ‘taste of sunshine.”  In its primal form – it is alcohol (usually vodka) infused with the taste of lemon rind.  It’s best when it is ice cold (we have some in our mini-freezer.)  The official recipe and history is here – but the recipe is a translation – and suitably vague on details.

There are all sorts of stories / myths / legends on how and where Limoncello was invented, and they center around three towns – Sorrento, Almalfi, and Capri on the Sorrento/Almalfi coast. Was it invented by fishermen trying to stay healthy, or to delight monks during their prayers?  The myths add to the fun.

Where ever  and however it originated, they certainly embrace it here today.  Lemons are everywhere – in the garden of our B&B, in groves in the center of town, and throughout the hills.


Local art celebrates the lemon, and the stores are full – not just with Limoncello in bottles that span a huge variety of shapes and sizes for collectors – but of any product you can imagine that can be made out of lemons.






Limoncello is now the second most popular (hard alcohol) drink in Italy after Campari according to Rick Steves.  It’s only been produced commercially since 1988, but is now readily available all over southern Europe, and it beginning to become available for the world-wide market.  Yummy!  Sunshine in a bottle.


Local Food – Esquilino Market – near Piazza Vittorio

We stumbled by the unassuming Mercato dell’Esquilino on our first afternoon in Rome, on the way to our apartment in the International District.  We almost didn’t notice it in its home in the former Sani Barracks.


It’s anchored the Esquilino neighborhood for over 100 years – the oldest neighborhood market in the new “Capitol City” – and today one of the most diverse.

Before I describe the market, for my planner friends I should mention something about the history of this neighborhood.  It was developed as part of Rome’s 1883 “Rome Capitale” Master Plan.  This master plan called for a complete redevelopment of this part of Rome, or cancellation (I think that means demolition) of all the 16th to 19th century villas in the area, as well as a new street layout.  (Can you imagine that sort of thing happening in the US today?)

The layout and new buildings were based on what was then the traditional European master plan – much like the Exiample neighborhood in Barcelona.  It was anchored by a  large central square/park piazza envisioned to be a meeting/gathering place for the common people.  The piazza was surrounded by six story buildings facing the square, all with large covered arcades.  Until 2001 the market was held in the arcades.  (Today many of the arcades are filled with stalls with clothing and various non-food items – all at discount prices.)



The piazza is laid out to highlight a view of one of the four major basilicas of Rome – Santa Maria Maggiore – in the distance just three or four long blocks away).


The piazza and arcades have seen better days.  Despite the efforts of the police and city’s clean up crew, the park has a lived in look.


They did leave some Roman ruins of part of the aquaduct system (pieces of this can be seen all over Rome).  Unfortunately the present-day fountains weren’t working.


I have to wonder if moving the market and the hive of activity it brought was a good idea.  The park would probably benefit from a greater diversity of activity.

The market is thriving in its covered space.  It’s a combination local farmer’s market and ethnic market – there are as many Indian spice/rice stalls as stalls selling fish or vegetables.





For anyone visiting the city and wanting to see a slice of real Rome, it doesn’t get much more real than this.



Ten Do’s and Don’ts of Rome – Tips from a Weary Traveler

Do walk in the neighborhoods away from the touristy areas.  There is so much more to see and enjoy in Rome than the main areas listed in guidebooks.

Don’t stop for a photo with the Gladiators in front of the Colosseum.  Arguably the worst thing about Rome, they will happily pose for a photo and then aggressively demand an outrageous tip.  We witnessed one couple being asked for 20 euros.  They argued back and left after giving the man 3 euros – but I’m sure it was one photo they deleted off their camera.

Do fill up your water bottle from one of the local water facets.  Unless it says “not potable”, it’s safe – and cold, and free.


Don’t take one of the many variations of a “Hop On – Hop Off” bus.  They aren’t allowed to drive in the city core – and the traffic is so bad, you’ll just end up frustrated.

Do reserve tickets for the Vatican Museum on line so that you don’t have to wait in line.  It can be hours long, and you’ll be hounded by unofficial ticket sellers relentlessly.

Don’t take a rose (at the Spanish steps, Trevi Fountain, or anywhere it is offered) from a man who says he just wants to give it to you.  It’s just a scam.  He will turn around and demand money from your partner.  If you don’t want to be rude, just stare blankly as if you don’t understand and turn away.  They should move on.

Do drop in to any church.  They are usually free, cool, quiet, and filled with great art.  Make sure your shoulders and knees are covered (men included) and enter slowly.  You don’t want to interrupt a service or wedding.

Bernini's masterpiece the "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" is in the church Santa Maria della Vittoria near Termini railway station.
Bernini’s masterpiece the “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” is in the church Santa Maria della Vittoria near Termini railway station.

Don’t buy a knock off purse from a street vendor.  It is illegal and you could get a huge fine, plus they are most likely just imports with a cheap label stuck onto them.  Besides, there are plenty of great purses available in the stores.

These policemen were looking for illegal vendors.  They look winded because they just finished chasing them.
These policemen were looking for illegal vendors. They look winded because they just finished chasing them.

Do wear good shoes.  You will be doing a lot of walking on cobblestone streets.   Use sunscreen and wear a  hat, and take lots of breaks. Don’t expect to walk from Point A to Point B without getting lost at least once.  Rome is not laid out in a grid, and can be very confusing.


Ken’s Field Notes – Santorini and Cinque Terre

Manarola Italy Small

Natural processes can have catastrophic consequences for communities.  This was true 3600 years ago when a devastating volcanic eruption occurred in the southern Aegean Sea (Santorini) as well as a few years ago when an unprecedented rain event induced debris flows and flooding in Cinque Terre, Italy

Full writeup: Field Journal 2014 Mediterranean Part 2

The Blue Bag Purse Caper – Just Another Sunny Day in Rome figuring out where the Knock-Off Purses Come From

It is illegal to sell or buy counterfeit designer purses in Italy.  In some cities – Venice for example – the sellers are fairly subtle – they aren’t in every public plaza – and they look like they are ready to run at a moment’s notice.  In Florence they are everywhere, intermingled with the vendors selling non-counterfeit – but cheap and likely made-in-China bags from street stalls.  In Rome, you can’t walk down a tourist street without tripping on one.

The vendors are from Senegal – and according to an article I found have the goal of earning money to bring it back to the holy city of Touba.  It’s clear they have a camradarie and are well organized.  The set up is the same – from the Canary Islands to Barcelona to Athens to Rome.  I’ve got to admit, it has me mesmerized.  Not the purses – but the idea of a world-wide street network that probably does more business than McDonalds.



I think I’ve stumbled on their suppliers in Rome!

Our apartment is in the International District of Rome – in an area not frequented by tourists.  (It’s a great, roomy apartment in a secure building.)

I’m not sure how to describe it, but I’ll try.  The streets around the apartment have retail on the first floor.  The shops are unusual.  They seem to specialize – polo shirts – high heeled shoes – nightgowns – socks and leggings – jean shorts – you get the picture – and have perhaps two racks of clothing in an almost empty store.  They are also clustered in groups based on what they sell – for instance all the shoe stores are on one part of a street.

At the back of each store is a small desk with someone (or a few people) sitting there.  Many of the stores are linked by side doors.  Either the stores are showrooms for factories (imports from China) or fronts for something else (such as the special massages advertised in one.)

The street across from us is the purse street.  Unlike the other stores, the purse street stores are stuffed with purses in plastic bags.  Shelves and shelves of purses in plastic bags.  Most are labelled “Made in China.”

I’ve noticed a steady stream of street vendors entering the stores and filling up their blue plastic bags.  It happens both in the morning and the evening.  The evening business is steady.  I took a few photos (from our window – it’s happening right now.)  There is even a “lookout” – see the guy with the white jacket – he’s there every night when the vendors are filling up their bags.


The only part I can’t figure out is where they are hiding the counterfeit purses.  I’ve walked into the purse shops, and there isn’t a designer label to be found.  I “window shopped” while the vendors were in the shop filling up their blue bags.  The bags looked like normal cheap bags – the type they sold in Florence in the stalls – not the type that are laid out on tarps in the street.

I found this article from L.A., where the author talked about having a label put into a bag while she watched.  Maybe that’s how it’s done.

I have another week in this apartment, and I plan to figure it all out.  Stay tuned!


What do Bananas, Lemon Beer, Cookies, Ice Tea and Pate have in Common? Our Day in Foligno Italy – Stage 7 of the Giro

What do Bananas, Lemon Beer, Cookies, Ice Tea and Pate have in Common?    They were all products of the sponsors for the Giro (think Italian Tour de France) and handed out during the event.  It made for an interesting lunch.   BTW – Lemon Beer and the cookies I’d try again.  The very sweet ice tea and pate in a tube – probably not.

The end of Stage 7 of the Giro was in Foligno – a small town in Umbria a few hours north of Rome .  For the first time since we started our adventure we were in a town without any other tourists.  Yes it was filled with visitors – but they were all Italians as best as I can tell.  (Turns out – if I keep my mouth shut I pass for an Italian.) Foligno has a walkable, medieval town center lined with shops (closed for siesta).  All were sporting magenta ribbons for the Giro.


The town square was filled with sponsors and spectators – as well as groups of cyclists of ages taking a turn on the official course (hours ahead of the real racers.)  Note the woman dressed up in an ice tea costume on the right – one of the many free products I enjoyed during the day!


There was also a small parade of people in costumes, and a flag throwing ceremony (if you’ve seen Under a Tuscan Sky think about the scene where the young Polish construction worker participates in a flag throwing event to prove he is Italian enough to marry the young woman – and ends up getting clocked by a flag.)


The celebration in the town was much more interesting than the Giro.  The racers sped past up in a matter of seconds.  I didn’t even manage to get a good photo – but Ken did.

Stage 7 Giro Sprint Small



Florence and Renaissance – How does Change Happen?


The Cathedral in Florence (il Duomo) was started before expertise existed to construct such a large free-standing dome.  They just knew they’d figure it out – and an architect name Brunelleschi did.  How such a large dome can be free standing and so well constructed is still a mystery today – some 6 centuries later.  This free thinking was thought to have sparked the Renaissance movement.

Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were creating art and sculpture in Florence at the time il Duomo was being finished.  Michelangelo’s David was originally commissioned to be part of the facade of the Cathedral, but when it was completed, was installed outside the Palazzo Vecchio – or the Town Hall of Florence (where a replica still sits today).  This shift between church sponsored to civic sponsored art was a huge shift in thinking that was another sign of the Renaissance.

The replica of Michelangelo's David sits in a public square - the original is in The Accademia a half mile away.
The replica of Michelangelo’s David sits in a public square – the original is in The Accademia a half mile away.

What spurred Florence to break away from the traditional?  Art went from flat two dimensional alter pieces (most creating the same scenes) to three dimensional (or art with perspective) pieces that touched on a variety of subjects, including Greek mythology.

Walking down the halls of the Uffizi Art Gallery in the former quarters of the Medici family, it’s clear the influence wealth and prosperity played on artistic freedom.  Not only was art sponsored by the city-state governments, but it was also sponsored by rich merchants.

In the middle ages Florence was a merchants’ city – prosperous because of the cloth trade.  The Medici family founded the major bank, and created a multi-century dynasty in Florence that was almost – but not quite – Royalty  (although several Medici girls were married to Kings in France and Spain.)  They used the wealth to sponsor and collect art.

Walking down the corridors of the Uffizi – or offices of the Medici family – is walking in the steps of art patrons that have been able to gaze at the incredible collection since the 1600s.  Starting with an enormous collection of Roman statues (many carefully restored during the Renaissance) the Medici’s also sponsored contemporary art – and the collection contains all of the Italian masters – including a room devoted to Donatello.  The Medici’s didn’t stop there.  They traveled widely, and brought back great masterpieces from other European masters such as Rembrandt and Van Dyke.

Why Florence?  It was one of several city-states in the Tuscany region, rivals with Pisa and Siena (the only town I know with a crayon named after it – Burnt Sienna).

Siena's plaza around City Hall is the color of the soil. It's also one of the most pleasant plaza's in Italy where you can lay on your back and enjoy the sunshine.
Siena’s plaza around City Hall is the color of the soil. It’s also one of the most pleasant plaza’s in Italy where you can lay on your back and enjoy the sunshine.

What was the magic combination in Florence?  Was it having so many creative geniuses being nurtured – and in competition with each other – building on each other’s work?  Was it the addition of civic and private sponsored art that allowed the artists to leave the stricter confines of church sponsored art (although churches still played a huge role in the movement – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was pivotal).

Change is difficult and threatening.  There was probably public outrage as these shifts occurred.  It didn’t happen overnight – the Renaissance spanned centuries.  But why a smallish town in the middle of Tuscany?



Ken’s Field Notes – Barcelona to Venice

Fumerole and Etna_DxO (Small)

The geology of the Mediterranean is spectacular.  These field notes cover a wide range of features and locations starting with the Ebro basin and Montserrat (Barcelona Region), moving to the Calanques of Marseille, the granites of western Corsica, the volcanoes Vesuvius and Etna, the 1908 earthquake in Messina, and the sinking city of Venice.  In most of these locations natural geologic processes (tectonic and volcanic) have devastated local communities; the question is how have they adapted to living in such a geologically hazardous region?

Full writeup on Mediterranean geology: Field Journal 2014 Mediterranean Part 1

I Feel Like We Were Part of a Carol Burnett Skit – Checking into our Florence Hotel

We arrived in Florence yesterday.  The street addresses in Florence are confusing.  They use completely difference sets of numbers for commercial (red) and residential (black) businesses. Hotels, hostels, and B&Bs can be either.  Needless to say, the map on my phone didn’t work that well (Florence needs a good map maker to sort this out for them) and we ended up walking the wrong way again.


We had reservations at a place called Barbara House, with a street number of 20.  Black 20 looked promising (in terms of being some sort of accomodations), but didn’t have the right name (Soggiorno Livi and Burchi.)  The door was locked in any event.


Number 18 was the local hostel.  I couldn’t remember if Barbara House was a hostel with a private room, or something else, so we wandered down the alley (following a group of people with suitcases) towards the hostel.  A gentleman stopped us and asked what we were looking for.

“Barbara House” I replied.  At that point it was like we fell into a Carol Burnett skit – you know the one where Tim Conway plays a man that moves at a snail’s pace. Let me explain.

The man explained that Barbara House was indeed number 20 (black) around the corner.  Then he yelled up to a window.  I couldn’t understand what he said – but it was probably something like, “Hey Barbara there’s another set of lost Americans looking for your place.  Could you make yourself a better sign!  I’m sending them around – make sure you let them in.”

A woman’s voice answered.  I assumed she was saying, “Sure – no problem.”  But in retrospect I think she was saying, “Stop yelling, I’m taking a nap.”

We walked back to Number 20.  Sure enough there is a tiny little sign that says Barbara House under the buzzer.


We buzzed.  Nothing.  We waited.  A few minutes later we buzzed again.  Nothing.  A man came up to the door.  He motioned at the buzzer.  He pressed it again.  Finally, we’re buzzed in.  We opened the door to a set of stairs.


There is a voice calling something from upstairs, so we haul ourselves up the stairs, and stairs, and stairs.


Upstairs, we’re greeted by a woman who looked like she just woken up.  She went into a long explanation about why it took her so long to buzz us in.  I  didn’t understand a word, but it was clear that it had something to do with her back hurting.  She took a few steps, and then went into another long explanation about something, then told us to sit down and wait (I think).

We sat.  And waited.

One ginger step at a time, she walked about 10 feet and picked up a few towels, walked back and put them on a dresser.  Then she went into another long explanation.

We waited.

One ginger step at a time, she walked about 10 feet and picked up a few brochures, walked back, and gave them to Ken.

We waited.

One ginger step at a time, she walked about 10 feet and picked up two little bars of soap, walked back, and placed them on the towels.

We waited.

One ginger step at a time, she walked into another room and picked up a set of keys, walked back, and placed them on the towels.

We waited.

The man who had been behind us on the street popped his head in the door and asked her something.  She yelled at him.  He gave me an exasperated look and shrugged his shoulders, then disappeared a little bit behind the stairs.  I think she said, “why are you bothering me when I’m so busy with these stupid Americans who woke me up in the middle of my nap and my back hurts.

One ginger step at a time she walked into a room and began to yell at someone.  There was a lot of back and forth.

We waited.

She reappeared and called down the steps for the man.  They had a long conversation – and from what I could determine, she offered him a room with a shared bathroom.  Then she turned to us and went into another long explanation about her back hurting – and probably about how rude it was for the man to ask for a room without a reservation – or it could have been about the weather.  I’m not sure – I didn’t understand a word.

She yelled up the stairs this time.  A man answered.  They had an argument.

We waited.

The man appeared and yelled at her a little more.  She yelled back.  He finally shrugged his shoulders, picked up the keys, soap, and towels, and told us to follow him.  I could barely suppress my laughter at this point, and Ken leaned over and whispered, “I think you’ve got yourself a blog.”

Now that we’re settled in we’re exploring Florence.  We’ve already paid our visit to David and the Accademia  (Michelangelo’s David – only had to wait in line 40 minutes without a reservation) the the Duomo (no line) and purchased tickets for the Uffizi museum for Tuesday.  We browsed the stalls filled with leather jackets and purses in San Lorenzo market (Iranian sellers, south american leather, and Italian tailors according to Rick Steves.)

Uhoh – someone is yelling.  I’ve got to run and see what it’s about – maybe someone else is trying to check in!


Cinque Terre Italy – Changing Demographics of Tourists – I’m Feeling Old and Missing my Kids!

Cinque Terre, Italy is the name for a set of five (cinque) towns that are nestled in river ravines on the ocean side of the mountains.  Historically, the area was accessible only by boat or foot.  A train and series of paths linking the towns was built in the last century, and in the 80s a series of roads were punched in.  This opened the area up to tourism, but it’s a world removed from the “cruise ship” demographic we were used to.  I think it’s because of all the stairs.

I’m not kidding.  Each of the towns hug the cliffs facing the sea.  There is little flat ground – although there is creative use of space, such as building flat areas above the train tracks to use as soccer fields – or using a beach for soccer.  The National Park service even built a playground on two former grape trellises.


We arrived in the early afternoon and lugged our stuff up a huge hill to our hotel lobby.  Sidenote:  we have too much luggage!  Then we turned around and lugged it back into the town (close but down a huge hill) to our apartment.  The apartment was up one flight of stairs (around 20 steep stairs) down an alley, down another set of steep stairs (maybe 20 again), then down a blind alley with another set of stairs (maybe 6), then into the apartment and up another set of stairs. My deep sighs were enough to get the young man from the hotel to grab my big bag and haul it up and down all those stairs.  I’m already worried about toppling down those stairs on my way to the train station tomorrow.


Each evening our alley is filled with other people doing the same thing.  Sidenote: lots of people have too much luggage.  It’s painful to watch.  The good news for us is now that the cruise is over we can pack up a bag and send it home with the kids who are coming to visit in a week or so.  Shhh – don’t tell them they’ll have to lug home our extra luggage.  I’m certain they don’t read the blog, so the secret is safe.

Smarter than the average tourist are a bunch of young people with backpacks.  Large backpacks, small backpacks, these young people travel in large groups and race up and down the stairs like they are – well young.  They are all over the hiking trails.  I see them because they pass me.  A whole lot are from the US and have just finished studying abroad.  They are all so polite and happy.  We watched a group (I think from France) sun themselves while waiting in the town square for a train.  As one young woman tried to nap, her friend amused himself by throwing bread near her head to lure the pigeons in.  The rest of the group was cracking up.  This stuff doesn’t happen on cruise ships!

The other demographic here are the Rick Steves’ guidebook holders.  They are young, middle-aged, and older.  You can tell them because they have his guidebook in their hands, and are usually reading aloud a walking tour.  (Yup this demographic would include me.)  One couple said that they were doing a full Rick Steves’ tour – with a bus transferring their luggage for them.  They are smarter than the average tourist as well!

We also saw an 80 year old woman with her three daughters who were trying to see all five towns in one day.  One daughter was exhausted, but another was the energizer bunny.  “One more church and the harbor and we can move on to our last town,” she promised.  Her mom was tackling the stairs like a trooper.

When the towns were first built, the now main street was a river with little bridges over it.  Sometime in the last century the streets were paved over, with the river running beneath.  During 2011 there was a huge storm and flooding, and the rivers overflowed.  In one of the towns over 11 feet of muck flowed into the the shops near the harbor.   In the last generation many of the hillside terraces that have been let go to weeds, and the lack of maintenance contributed to the soil being eroded.  It’s hard work growing grapes on steep hillside terraces – and easier work renting rooms to tourists.  Thankfully the towns’ infrastructure was rebuilt and things were back to usual for the next season.


The trails the National Park maintain are hit and miss.  I suspect the higher trails are maintained by locals, because they are all open.  Of the four lower trails linking the five towns, only one was officially open.  A second one was officially closed, but actually open.  No one seems to pay much attention to the Park Service around here.  One part of the main trail did wash out last year – and is being repaired.  Any year now.  There are also elevators that someone built, but I can’t imagine any of them actually working.  I’m not saying the Park Service is inept  – but it sure feels like it.  There seem to be a lot of expensive projects that aren’t maintained.

But that all just adds to the character of this place.  The hikes are amazing.  A friend told me that when she was here a decade or so ago there were Italian women hiking the trails in high heels.  The National Park brochure has a “no high heel” sign on it.  No kidding!


We did two of the “low” hikes and one “high” hike.  I’m exhausted, but feeling like I’m getting ready for the Alps – one stair step at a time.  And it was worth it for the views.  Besides, hiking makes the local food take that much better.  Because of the limited “sitting” space, “take aways” rule in the town we are staying in.  The favorite seems to be assorted fish (catch of the day including calamari and anchovies) and fries in a cone.  Another favorite is fresh pasta and sauce in a box.  And there is no shortage of pizza.  All topped off with the local wine, and eaten on the rocks by the sea.



And then there are the sunsets.  Ahhhh.