Up on the farm

Agriturismo L’Oasi del Rossese

Way, way up:  A precarious auto journey slowly, cautiously climbing a skinny, twisty road.  We passed a few houses clinging to the hillsides, others hiding below the road down treacherously steep lanes.  Lots of overgrown vegetation all around.  More curves, hairpin turns, and more of each  

This was rough, remote terrain in Italy’s Liguria region above the Mediterranean.  I was driving, and hoping we would not meet a car coming in the opposite direction. I am not skilled at driving in reverse, and this road was barely wide enough for two vehicles.   How much farther?  I was nervous.  Did we miss it?

Alas, a small sign.  “ L’Oasi del Rossese,” our destination, an agriturismo above the town of Dolceacqua.  Agriturismo is a combination of the word for “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian.  Agriturismi (plural) offer farm stay vacations and are very popular in Italy.  In addition to lodging, most offer meals featuring local specialties, often made with products from the farm.

Bob, Steve and Yoshie.

Farm hostess Marinella greeted us and showed  us to our rooms.  My brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie from Colorado were with us. First order of business was a welcome  coffee and cookies on the terrace overlooking deep green valleys, mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance.  Sadly, we had no sun to enhance the views.  Even with overcast clouds, it was splendid.

We heard English at a long table under a wall of balloons.  A group was celebrating a birthday.  I got up to take a photo and one of the gentlemen stopped me.  “I think I know you.  Are you a member of BA (British Association of Menton)”?   Yes.  We sat with Wayne and his wife Veronique, who was celebrating her 60th birthday, at a BA luncheon not long ago.   It was Veronique who told me about this agriturismo.  They have a farm nearby.

Marinella, husband Nino and son Stefano harvest grapes and olives on their 7,000 square meters of terrain.  The main farm product is wine, Rossese, hence the name, Oasis of Rossese, the noted red wine of Dolceacqua which we enjoyed with dinner.

Nino, Jordan (named after Michael Jordan), Stefano and Marinella.

We were hoping to see farm animals.  Their livestock consists of chickens and rabbits.  I did venture down to the chicken coop and rabbit hutch. The bunnies were big and beautiful.  I hated to think of their future.

Rabbit, Coniglio alla Liguria, is a local special and often served here.  Steve announced he would not eat it if it was to be our dinner. Luckily it was not, although I would have indulged.  The French are also fond of rabbit, and I prepare it occasionally. 

Yoshie and Steve hiked to the village of Perinaldo.

Food is a big attraction at agriturismi.  Our dinner was a never-ending, multi course feast.  Italian meals begin with antipasti. One after another, Marinella served us five different antipasti dishes:  Tomatoes with fresh sheep cheese, a slice of bruschetta, a frittata of zucchini and peas, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a tasty a slice of torte made with tiny fish from the Med.  This was followed by the pasta course, ravioli burro e salvia (ravioli stuffed with sage) – all homemade.  Instead of rabbit, for the main course we had both roast pork and goat with fagioli (white beans). The latter was our favorite. Dessert:  a strawberry tarte.  Plus, a bottle of Rossese.

Rossese (red wine) display in Dolceacqua

Marinella cooks, all from scratch. Nino lends a hand, stuffing the ravioli. They have a large vegetable garden, in addition to the chickens and rabbits, to supply the products for her cooking.  Stefano and Nino care for the grapevines and olive trees.  Stefano also makes the wine. Their production of both olive oil and wine is limited.  They only sell to guests and a few local clients.  

“People are happy here,” said Marinella.  She did admit that the first time is difficult due to the seemingly endless, challenging trek up the mountain. It is only seven kilometers, but they are long and very slow.  Many French come for the day from Nice just to eat, she said.   In August they have guests from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

Dolceacqua, photo by Yoshie.

Agriturismo began in Italy in the 1960s when small farmers were struggling to make a profit.  Some abandoned their farms and went off to work in cities.  However, agricultural traditions are sacred in Italy.  In 1973 an official agriturismo farmhouse designation was created to help prevent farmers from abandoning their farms, and to offer tourists a farm stay so they could learn about rural life.

In some regions, but not all, farmers need a license to take part in agriturismo. We have visited nearby Dolceacqua many times.  Every time it seems there are more “agriturismo” signs on houses in the village.   What do they have to do with farms and agriculture?

Steve explores the Dolceacqua old town.

According to a spokesperson at the Dolceacqua tourist office, to be considered agriturismo they must show documents to prove they have land and crops.  Of course, many may have such up in the hills. But all of them?

Marinella tells me that today many agriturismo are just Bed and Breakfast accommodations and have nothing to do with agriculture.  I asked Arabella, my Italian friend with whom I study Italian. 

“E una giungla,” (It’s a jungle), she explained.  In Italian the expression refers to situations when laws are not respected, everyone does whatever he/she wishes  … a bit like Italian drivers.

Agriturismo breakfast — Bob, me and Yoshie. No one looks very happy, but we were very happy. The farm and surroundings are a treat.

AZ Agrituristica, L’Oasi del Rossese de Zullo Stefano, Loc Morghe, 18035 Dolceacqua, Italy, Tel. xx 39 347 8821298.

http://www.agriturismo.farm/en/farm-holidays/liguria/loasi-del-rossese-dolceacqua/33419 Double rooms with breakfast, 60 euro per night. Multi course meal with wine, 30 euro per person.

Siesta in Dolceacqua

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Bellissimo Lago di Como

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” That is exactly the way I felt during a September visit to Lago di Como (Lake Como) in northern Italy. It is sublime. Glittering waters at the feet of Alpine mountain ranges. Photo-opp villages with cobbled alleys and flowered promenades. Baroque villas and impeccably manicured gardens.

Like me, lots of famous people have been seduced by the lake’s beauty and charm. Artists, writers, opera singers and aristocrats have homes on the lake shores. Not to mention Hollywood stars: George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, Sylvester Stallone…

Varenna

My friend Karen, who knows the lake well, suggested we stop at Lake Como en route to her apartment in Croatia. I had fond memories of previous lake visits and was all in. She chose Varenna, considered one of the prettiest lakeside towns, as our destination for two nights. We enjoyed soaking up the vistas and the captivating ambiance of the lake and town.

The most heavenly time was high above the lakeside town of Tremezzo at the restaurant Al Veluu. Karen has friends who know the restaurant owner. She made a reservation mentioning her friends. We never did meet the owner. The waiter who greeted us was neither impressed nor happy to see us. It was close to 2 p.m.. The restaurant terrace was empty. He, no doubt, wanted to call it a day.

We had the spacious terrace and garden all to ourselves. The divine surroundings and spectacular views made up for the disappointing food. It was calm, peaceful, relaxing. We did not want to leave, but the warm sun was no longer so warm, and we needed to start the trek (taxi then 2 ferry rides) back to Varenna.

Karen chills out at Al Veluu.

Boats are the primary means of transportation for visiting Lake Como. Ferries of all sizes shuttle from town to town. The previous day we took a ferry to Bellagio, the “pearl” of the lake. Years ago husband Bob and I visited this treasure of a town. We visited the park and gardens of the grandiose Villa Serbelloni, hiked in the hills, took boat rides. It was all delightful.

Bellagio

Years later we returned with my mother who was overwhelmed. In addition to the gorgeous views and surroundings, she loved the shops. Bellagio, like most of the towns, has a plethora of boutiques and souvenir shops. On one visit, I purchased a large olive wood basket which I still treasure.

Varenna at night

In Varenna, we stayed at an Airbnb which promised a “bella vista” of the lake. What a joke. From a small bedroom window in a corner, if you twisted your neck you could spot the lake. Never mind. We had plenty of bella vistas as we climbed up and down the steep stairways in Varenna that lead to the lake, and strolled the path, Passegiata degli Innamorati (walk of lovers), along the shore.

Lake Como was the perfect start to my much-needed R&R break.

Thanks again to Karen, adventure in Croatia followed. Read all about it in an upcoming post. Don’t miss out.

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Bellagio

For more on Bellagio, read my report on a previous visit- click here.

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Taking the waters – and the mud

Volcanic mud is the attraction at Abano.

Hot! It was sweltering. The pool waters were warm. Taking a walk left me drained, clothes and hair glued to my body. Even lounging in the shade was unpleasant.

I blew it. Yes, I needed a week of R and R. Life as an Alzheimer’s caregiver is stressful. But a thermal spa is not the place to go in July when temperatures soar.

Unfortunately I had no choice on the timing. I wanted to take advantage of the July visit from Bob’s son and two grandsons who could take over care of grandpa. I should have opted for a cool mountain resort. Instead, I chose to spend a week at Abano Terme, a spa town in northeastern Italy recommended by friends. I have never been that enamored of spas, but I figured it would be good for my decaying body and uplifting for the spirit.

Not all was negative. Just being in Italy, where joie de vivre is in the air, is therapeutic for me. I enjoyed speaking my broken Italian, chatting with the super friendly spa staff, and learning what a terme is all about.

Soaking in thermal waters supposedly does wonders for the body.

The entire town and numerous hotels are all geared to take advantage of thermal waters and volcanic mud from the surrounding Euganean hills. Hotels offer packages which include room and board and treatments. 

Fango, or pure mineral-rich volcanic ash, forms the basis of the mud which is said to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended for  strained joints and muscles, arthritis, rheumatism, as well as the stress of everyday life.

First step: Visit to the hotel/spa doctor. Before undergoing the mud treatments, a doctor must give the OK. He was a jolly chap who spoke four languages. After examining me and studying my MRI and X-rays, he asked questions. “Do you do Yoga?” No. “Are you a vegetarian?” No. “Thank God.” 

He said I was fit for mud, and advised I eat more protein, take vitamin D, drink more water and build muscle mass. He failed to provide details on the latter. Weight lifting?

He wrote a prescription for the type of treatments that would help my arthritic body. Next came a visit to Zoia, the charming and effervescent spa manager. She checked my package plan and the doctor’s rec’s, then devised a schedule for me which included gentle massages, mud, a fruit peeling facial.

Mud relaxation

I was a bit leery of the mud. I feared it would be more intense heat. Fortunately it was pleasantly warm, but I found the odor anything but pleasant. Carmela slathered a huge slab of mud on a bed which I then lain on. She smeared mud on my arms and legs, then wrapped me in plastic and covered me with a sheet. I was a mummy for 15 long minutes. The first time was annoying. I had an itch on my nose which was driving me crazy. My arms and hands were cemented to my body. For future sessions, I requested my hands be kept free to scratch if needed. 

About half way through the treatment, Carmela returned, delicately wiped my face with a cool scented cloth. After the allotted time, she returned again to unwrap me. I stepped into a shower and she hosed me down, washing away all the stinky mud. This was followed by a 10-minute soak in a tub of warm bubbling thermal water scented with therapeutic oil. I liked it all.

Aqua gym was intense

Water – thermal water – is also an essential part of the Abano experience. My hotel had five different outdoor pools, plus a large indoor pool. The most popular pool had all sorts of water jets and bubbling fountains. Since this is thermal water, it was warm – too warm for me. I preferred the lap pool, cooler water, not thermal, thus no healing benefit. 

Few swimmers in the lap pool.

Again I blew it. To get full advantage of the mud I should have spent leisurely days soaking in the waters. Not me. I spent a day trekking, wilting, through nearby Venice, another day slogging through Padua, and a half day hiking to and shopping at the market in Abano. None were relaxing. All were exhausting. But, I did see the sights and added some bargain Italian fashion to my wardrobe. More about those escapades in an upcoming post.

In between my sightseeing, in addition to the mud treatments, I enjoyed “gentle” massages from Joanna, another delightful staff member. We chatted as she massaged. “Only speak Italian while your are here,”she advised.

Hotel provides bathrobes, white to wear to the pools and blue for the treatment area..

According to Zoia, Abano is especially popular with Germans and Austrians, many who come two to three times per year. Italians are among the clientele, however, they “don’t spend so much on the treatments. They come for relaxation, the pools.” The British? “It’s not in their culture,”she said. 

My hotel, the Metropole, was less than half full during my stay – not due to Covid, but the heat. This was not spa season, but “the cheapest time.” Fall and spring are the ideal times for the terme, she said. Russians love it during the holidays, staying at the five-star hotels. The Metropole rates four stars. There are Americans who patronize Abano, but, like the Russians, they go for five stars. 

Classy dining at the Metropole.

My friend, Angi, British, is an exception to Zoia’s take on the Brits. Angi swears by volcanic mud, but that on the island of Ischia, just off the coast from Naples, where she spends two weeks every fall. She claims it does wonders for her aches and pains. Abano did nothing for mine, but I have myself to blame. Maybe I should try Ischia sometime, take both the water and the mud – minus sightseeing and shopping.

Red berry smoothie for a healthy terme treat.
Desserts were not for those on a diet. Masks are required indoors in Italy – strictly enforced at the hotel.

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Coming soon: Venice and Padua.

A real Fantasyland? (only in Italy)

toptownOnce upon a time, high in the Italian hills overlooking azure Mediterranean waters, a local gardener decided he would like to become a prince. But, he needed a kingdom – or at least a patch of land to rule. No problem. He did some research and figured a small portion of this mini paradise did not legally belong to Italy. (That is all a bit complicated.) He convinced the local population of his claim and managed to have them vote to give him the title of Prince. That was in 1963, and Giorgio Carbone, His Supreme Highness, ruled the micro nation Seborga until his death in 2009, when Prince Marcello I assumed the throne.

So, all 2,000 citizens of the fairytale-like kingdom have been living happily ever after? More or less, but with some political intrigue to muddy the waters from time to time.

I had never heard of Seborga.  When the American Club of the Riviera sponsored an event in the principality, a gala dinner following festivities for the national holiday, the feast of Saint Bernard, I signed up. And, did some Seborga research.

A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga's national festival.
A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga’s national festival.

Perhaps I exaggerated the part about Giorgio wanting to become prince. Who knows? For details on Seborga history, see Wikipedia.   In brief, from the 10th century, monks ruled the principality. They sold it to the King of Sardinia in 1729, a sale Giorgio and his followers claim was invalid. Italy, they maintained, annexed Seborga “illegitimately and unilaterally.”

The Principality of Seborga (14 square kilometers) calls itself a separate state within Italy’s borders, similar to Vatican City and San Marino.

A demonstration to show how Seborga's currency was made in days gone by.
A demonstration to show how Seborga’s currency was made in days gone by.

Italy ignores these claims and has jurisdiction over the territory.   . Nonetheless Seborga has its own army, flag, royal family and currency. The latter, as well as passport stamps, are popular with tourists.

Prince Marcello, a 38-year-old former professional speedboat racer, is protected by his eight-member, blue-bereted Corpo della Guardia who were on duty for the national day festivities. To the delight of spectators, the Prince and Princess made a ceremonial entrance to the town in a horse-drawn carriage following a parade of costumed locals and guards.

Princess Nina and Prince Marcello
Princess Nina and Prince Marcello

Marcello’s German born wife, Nina, serves as foreign minister of Seborga. The couple were formally received by Queen Elizabeth in 2011. On the world stage, Burkina Faso recognized Seborga as an independent state in 1998. According to one source, some 20 other nations also recognize the tiny nation’s  independence.  The U.S. has an ambassador to Seborga who attended the national festivities.

blog.1That is not enough, says Nicolas Mutte, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a shadowy, possibly French figure whose occupation is unknown.” He posted an online video this spring proclaiming himself “His Serene Highness Nicolas I,” Seborga’s new ruler. Mutte, who says he is a descendent of Napoleon, seeks a split from Italy and accuses Marcello of only promoting tourism and folklore.

Although the Prince, a local real-estate entrepreneur, was elected on promises to fight for independence, secession has taken a back seat as Seborga and its traditions have become a tourist magnet. Marcello does not seem threatened by Mutte. “Seborga is a free and blog.3sovereign principality that has elected me as its prince,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Mutte has no rights over Seborga.”

Even Giorgio had to fend off pretenders to his throne. In 2006, a woman calling herself “Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet” stated that she was the rightful heir to the Seborga throne. Giorgio dismissed her claims, calling her the “internet princess.”

All of this intrigue adds to the fascination of this secluded fairytale sovereignty snuggled aside a long and twisty road above the coastal city of Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. Throngs of visitors conquered the challenging journey to attend the August festivities. Flags, hundreds of the principality’s blue and white banners, set the scene for a parade, music, seborga+fone 069flag throwing demonstrations, costumes, dancing – and the dinner. ( I only hope Seborgans have better food than the definitely-not-delicious offerings we were served at this repast. At least there was no shortage of wine.)

Seborga, the eponymous capital city of the principality with a mere 337 inhabitants, is one of those ancient hilltop villages of skinny, cobbled streets that climb and descend, past old stone dwellings decorated with flower boxes.   Views of the Med and distant peaks from the town terraces are splendid. A visit to its privately owned gramophone museum is mind boggling.

So, too, is the Seborga story.  Could I overthrow Nina and become Princess Leah (think Star Wars ) ?

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We wore our finest for Seborga.

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Members of the prince’s Corpo della Guardia were happy to pose with guests for photos.

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Celebrating Lemons and Bicycles

menton.9.aFruity floats, gigantic citrus creations, fabulous flowers. The annual Menton Lemon Festival (Fête du Citron) is an explosion of color, scents, and scenes in honor of the city’s prized small yellow fruit.menton..13

We were enthralled with it all during a visit many years ago, and returned a few weeks ago to survey the scene of dazzling orange and yellow sculptures once again.menton.15a

This Riviera city, the lemon capital of France on the border with Italy, has been celebrating the lemon with festivities every year since 1929. The festival attracts some 230,000 visitors who come to admire 145 tons of citrus fruits which make up the creations and exhibitions.

This year’s theme, the lemon in China, featured a mammoth dragon, a pagoda, a temple, animals and more all made of lemons and oranges.menton.2a

The exhibits are set up along the Jardin Biovès, a long promenade lined with the colossal fruit constructions. An elevated ramp in the middle is especially popular with the camera crowd who line the steps for overall shots of the scene. Stands selling the fruit, citrus liqueurs, soaps, jams and postcards do a brisk business.menton.17a

Menton’s microclimate with more than 300 sunny, temperate days per year is ideal for growing the tangy fruit. There are some 80 varieties of lemons, but it’s the Menton lemon that is prized by chefs for its perfume, distinctly flavored zest and pulp, and high sugar content. While the lemon gets top billing, oranges play a leading role in the gigantic creations.menton.16.a

We had previously visited Menton, my favorite coastal city, in January. See  post, “French Riviera: Magnifico Menton.” The city, which was originally part of Italy, became the property of Charles Grimaldi, Lord of Monaco, in 1346. In 1848 it broke away from Monaco, becoming a free city, and in 1860 it became part of France. By the late 19th century it was on the map as a popular tourist spot on the French Riviera.menton.1a

This time instead of staying in Menton, we crossed the border and spent three nights in Sanremo on the Italian Riviera. It’s just a 45 minute drive from Menton, and a lovely town on a coastal bike path. That was our plan – get back on the bikes.SR.5

Husband, formerly known as Bicycle Bob (BB), was an avid cyclist. He seems to have lost interest in pedaling, even though he invested in a snazzy, expensive bicycle a few years ago. His passion has become wine, so I call him VR (Vino Roberto). I miss biking and the great rides we have taken over the years — in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Holland and France.bobbike

Let’s not give in to old age. Let’s get moving again. He agreed and we had a wonderful, easy ride on the bike route from Sanremo to San Lorenzo al Mare, about 18 kilometers, then back to Sanremo and another 4 kilometers in the other direction to Ospedaletti.SR.blog.7.ajpg

Old railroad tracks were converted into the wide coastal trail, used by walkers and roller bladers as well as bicyclists. It meanders through Sanremo then down the coast. No hills. No need to downshift. There are plenty of spots along the route complete with benches where you can rest and enjoy the scenery. And villages (Bussana, Arma di Taggia, Santo Stefano al Mare) for a refreshment stopover.bike

We had a fantastic and bargain lunch at Café Emy by the beach in San Lorenzo al Mare. The insalata frutti di mare (seafood salad) was huge – a meal in itself. My spaghetti frutti di mare was the best I have ever eaten (see photo).spaghetti

A unique aspect to this bike route is tunnels – several. The most famous and longest is the Capo Nero tunnel along the section Sanremo-Ospedaletti, 1.75 kilometers long. It has been converted into a memorial of sorts to Sanremo’s most famous sporting event, the cycling classic Milan-Sanremo. For more than 100 years, the race has been the first important contest of the cycling season. It will take place on March 22 this year.

Every bay of the tunnel is dedicated to a specific year in the history of the race, with some basic facts about that year’s event written on one side, with tidbits SR.blog.9.ajpgand anecdotes on the other, in both Italian and English. I was too busy pedaling to read it all, but did try to catch some phrases to break up the monotony of the dismal tunnel trek.

Total ride: 45 kilometers. It was a success. And, so was the hotel where we stayed. Fabulous. With just four rooms, the Villa Rita can’t really be called a hotel. The house sits just above the beach within walking distance of the town center. Our room had a large terrace and lovely views. I was in heaven, lying in bed, enjoying the sea view from the window while listening to the restful sounds of waves slapping the shore — and contemplating future bike rides.

breakfastVilla Rita: www.villaritasanremo.it

Menton Lemon Festival: www.fete-du-citron.com/ The festival takes place the last two weeks of February.

Ristorante Bar Emy, Via Al Mare 1, San Lorenzo al Mare, Italy, ++ 39 0183-91314SR.1a

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