Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Dangers of Sweat and other Cultural Differences

I don't think I have written in any great detail of various cultural differences, misconceptions and customs that I have learned of since my first holiday in Abruzzo.  They amuse our Italian friends just as much as they do us and have caused lots of laughter over a glass, or two, of wine.  Here are a few examples.

Weather

Brits are known around the world for either shying away completely from the sun, or cooking in it until beetroot red/sunburned brown.  Many Brits assume the Italians love extreme heat.  This is not the case.  Our last few Summers in Italy have been insanely hot and the Italians don't know what to do with themselves either.  It makes for an interesting holiday when you are always trying to find ways to cool down and not move.  This explains the vast numbers of Italians crammed on beaches during ferragosto.  They literally don't know what to do, except go and lay down on a beach all day.  My idea of hell.  We are looked at with bemusement when we tell them we are going as high into the mountains as possible to cool down.

Summer.  Cooling down at the Ski Resort, Passo Lanciano


One thing we Brits are good at, is coping with rain and damp.  We have to.  We have a lot of that over here.  We put on our wellies and coats and go for a walk.  It's bracing.  Not to our Italian friends.  If it is wet/raining, there is not a soul to be seen in Abruzzo.  

Raining and we're the only people on the bridge


Raining. Pescara.  Empty

Everybody looks miserable in the bars, as if it is end of days.  Italians live in fear of catching a cold and will wear a winter coat and scarf when it is 18-21 degrees, which is a decent temperature to us Brits.  The older generation will tell you about the dangers of sweat too.  You must always mop your child down with a towel when they have been playing and have a change of jumper.  I don't really understand any of this.  If someone Italian can explain it to me, please do.

Spice/Hot Food

Many Italians will say that Italians do not eat spicy/hot food. This is true up to a point. We took one of Will's colleagues from Northern Italy out for a curry, at his request, when he came to visit England.  He asked for the mildest curry, a korma and he thought it was really hot!  Poor Emiliano drank four glasses of water after three mouthfuls. 

We took some Colman's Mustard over to one of our Italian neighbours to try.  We explained what to do with it and how good it tastes on roast beef.  She opened the jar with great suspicion (anything non-Italian, food-wise, is viewed with huge suspicion), sniffed it, pulled a face and put it in the cupboard. No doubt, never to be retrieved again.

 However, in Italy, if you have ever tried virgin olive oil laced with the hottest peppers, it blows your socks off!  Great in tiny doses on the right pasta dish, or pizza.  Also great if you have a cold you need to shift.  I also remember when Will and I first stayed in the Hotel Cercone.  We sat down to dinner that evening and the waiter brought us both a plate with a fairly large hot pepper on it.  We didn't really know what we were supposed to do with it.  It was put to the side of our main dishes.  We eventually found someone to ask, who told us that you take a bite after you finish each dish, to cleanse your palate!

Cafes

In Italy, a barista has pride in their job.  One barista will run a bar and serve ten people, who will wait no longer than five minutes for a coffee.  This coffee will taste amazing and will only cost €1-€1.10.  Coffee comes in two flavours.  Espresso, or cappuccino. There are no double skimmed, non-fat, syrups etc. Cappuccinos must not be drunk after 11 o'clock in the morning, or you will immediately be marked out as a tourist, or a person of questionable taste.  A cappuccino is a milky breakfast coffee.  At all other times of the day, espresso.  My best friend always asks for an americano, which is treated with disdain/bemusement.  An espresso should always be served with a glass of water.

Coffee, served correctly, in Pescara

In Italy, the barista is either exceptionally jovial, loud and chatty.....or wonderfully grumpy.  Either way, they make a great coffee.

Forget asking about tea.  That is a whole blog post in itself.  

In the UK, a coffee will set you back anything from £2-£4.  It will take 15-30 minutes to be served and very often the coffee has been burned (see how long I have spent in Italy that I know this!).  We met our architect at London Stansted, his first visit to England, and we frequented a well-known chain.  He could not get over the size of a 'regular' cup of coffee, nor the taste, or cost.  However, we do make a lovely cup of tea.

Food

Already in the know, I have never asked for, or expected to find spaghetti bolognese in Italy.  This dish does not exist.  It is a dish created in either America or the UK, but is not a proper Italian dish.  Ragu bolognese exists (the sauce hailing from Bologna, hence the name), but the ingredients are very specific and the right pasta must be served with it, which is not spaghetti.  To a Brit this may sound ridiculous, but the Italians are incredibly proud of their food heritage and cooking and rightly so.


Italians eat cake for breakfast.  Cake for breakfast.  A sweet-toothed person's heaven.  My friend and I threw a cafe into confusion by asking for a fiadone with our coffee, which is cheese.  We knew it was cheese.  We wanted something savoury.  The barista thought we must have had some sort of moment of madness.  The barista's husband was told off for serving us something savoury.

Our Italian friend told us how much he enjoys going to England for work.....so he can eat a fried breakfast, which he has fallen in love with!

Italian breakfast pastries

British wedding cakes are also looked on by most Italians as something they would really rather not eat.  Whilst an Italian wedding cake is a light, frothy affair, filled with a dreamy patisserie cream and topped with fresh fruit/chocolate, the traditional British wedding cake is a heavy dried fruit affair.  Quite honestly it could function as a doorstop.  It isn't even as though it is light in calories to make up for the taste.  Having married in Italy, I escaped the horror of a British wedding cake.

Sunglasses

If you are Italian, partly Italian, or Italian in your heart, you will never be without your sunglasses.  You will own several pairs.  You may even wear them indoors, in a shop, or on a cloudy day, or at night.

My friend Laura and I.  When in Rome wear sunglasses....

The average Brit thinks sunglasses are posey, even when the sun is out.  We have got better at this though.  Over the last decade, more Brits are sporting sunglasses than before.  I have always loved sunglasses, since I was eighteen and continue to enjoy any opportunity to wear them.



Indeed, there are so many differences and variations.  We almost bought our friend's poorly mother a dozen roses.  This was greeted with a look of abject terror. You must only buy an odd number of roses, or it is extremely unlucky for the recipient.  We were told to buy nine. 

All of these things make for a fun and interesting holiday in Italy.  I love seeing my boys experience all of these things and hope it makes them confident explorers and travellers when they are older.  I hope they embrace change and are pretty open-minded, most of the time.  Something I hope I am.  Although, there was that one time, at a festa, when I really did not want to chew on a pig's trotter........

My boys, loving Italy.









Friday, 29 January 2016

Guest Post: Cycling and Abruzzo

This is a guest post from my husband who started cycling as a hobby back in 2003.  I remember friends taking the mick out of Will for wearing lycra and shaving his legs, but they've all since joined the cycling craze!  Cycling has always been popular everywhere else in Europe, but has only become popular in the UK since 2012 when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour.  This post is about Will's experience of cycling in Abruzzo.  I'm not a cyclist myself, although I used to enjoy mountain biking before I had our boys and I really enjoyed reading Will's perspective on the sport.  I hope you enjoy it too!


My love of cycling started in a bizarre way.  I'd raced motocross for several years, from my early 30's and it had taught me about the reality of being a 'cocky guy that thought I could do anything' then entering an aggressive sport and realising that I was actually not as good as I had thought!

The ongoing injuries and the ravages of age meant that motocross had to be stopped at some point and the plans I had with Louisa all led to me becoming a respectable retired rider.

Unfortunately, that meant that, at 35, I'd put on a kilogram a month if I stopped doing any active sport.  So, I went out and bought an entry level £400 racer bicycle.  Back then, Mark Cavendish was a track racer and had a skinhead and chubby, boyish cheeks.  Lance Armstrong had entered World Hall of Real Life Heroes and cycling was very much a niche, minor sport with a couple of household names.

I'd ridden my entry level Muddy Fox Road Glide a few times and enjoyed it.  At that point, we had bought our derelict house in Italy and the rebuild was soon to start.  Our dreams and aspirations would be very different at that time, we thought we'd be childless (due to a health reason) and a comfortable life together in Abruzzo was on the cards and a stress-free 40 years to death would follow as we dreamed of 'la dolce vita'.

Some documents needed signing, in order to start our rebuild, and I'd found an English couple running a bed and breakfast that offered free collection from Pescara airport.  Suddenly, the cost of a rental car could be offset against the cost of taking a bike in a bag.  It would be a new adventure and all I needed to do was ride up some mountains, into Pescara.  It would be easy for a hero like me!

The days leading up to the trip passed and I had watched some stages of the Giro d'Italia, which was the Italian version of the Tour d'France and the second biggest of the grand tours.

Then came the day of my trip.  I packed my bike, arrived in Pescara and was met by Ian, from the b&b, who told me that a race called the Giro d'Italia was passing through the mountain that day.  We got to the b&b, I assembled my bike and decided to go for a test ride on these little mountains that could be no more than the shallow inclined hills of East Anglia.

How wrong could I be!  The 'hills' were steep and went on for more than a mile, like 5 or 6, maybe even 10 miles, all uphill!  This was a shock, although at a certain point I came across painted names on the road.  By now it was late afternoon, more painted on names appeared.  Then, a brightly coloured team Skoda car came down, leaving the end of the race that had finished that afternoon.  I waved and they beeped, then another, I waved and they beeped.  More cyclists appeared and a wave of enthusiasm engulfed me as I carried on, uphill, as the multi-coloured cavalcade came downhill, beeping enthusiastically.  A professional sport un-encountered by Brits was unfolding in-front of me.  As I waved at more and more team cars, I was aware that I was becoming enchanted by the Giro and this new, weird, exclusive sport.


The green 'hills' of Abruzzo

Beautiful landscape of Abruzzo

During that visit, I rode from Serramonacesca to Pescara, then Pescara to Pretoro.  All of it was an incredible struggle, but all journeys I'd thought impossible without a car not a few months earlier.

I got back to Britain and the rain and joined a cycling club (VC Barrachi).  We'd ride 60 miles every Sunday.  Heroes we were, weirdos in lycra in the corner of the cafe.  Coolness in our own eyes.  Exclusive, rarities, skinny tyres and self acknowledged notoriety.  Life was good and I was fit.

More and more cycling trips followed in Abruzzo and the Majelletta became 'my' mountain, a challenging 'bitch' of a climb, graced by pros and determined amateurs alike.  Always tough, incredibly testing.  The challenge that makes you dig deep inside yourself to make it to 'that next switchback' and then the next.

The first time I cycled all the way to Passo Lanciano was two days after Louisa and I married, in 2006.  The relief of finally getting married and the house being completed was worthy of doing something.  I met a nice Italian cyclist on the way, who encouraged me to carry on uphill, suffering like a cyclist enjoys when a mountain confronts them.  The air was thin, the sun came close and the scenery became ever more expansive.  There are a great many glorious mountain ascents in the cycling world, many are revered in books.  The eastern side of the Passo Lanciano is one of the most unexplored, secret, unspoilt that there are.  Alpe D'Huez, the Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, all grab the limelight, but Passo Lanciano is a match for them all.


The Giro was a regular holiday excursion for us and we met many people and visited strange mountain top villages we would never had seen, had it not been for the race.  I had sold the Muddy Fox and bought  a Specialized Tarmac, which I used to disassemble and put in the boot of the car on our driving trips, then fit our luggage around it!  


My Specialized Tarmac

The Giro trips always included me bringing my bike and I'd soon racked up many thousands of metres of climbing during my visits.  On mountainous cycling trips, climbing metres is more important than miles covered.  Many of my cyclist friends came over to stay and enjoyed the mountains with me.  All was good. Abruzzo fitted in my life even more now as a cyclist.


Giro d'Italia, 2007 - L'Aquila Province
Louisa (on the right), with her friend Rachel - Giro 2007
On my Specialized, a few hours before the Giro 2008 would pass through


Soon, I realised that transporting bikes over on Ryanair was getting silly and had cost more than a decent bike would have. So I decided to take a bike over to leave there.  I already had my Specialized, but wanted that in the UK and as money has been tight since having children, I refurbished an old 80's Raleigh.  I fitted a modern chainset, some leftover wheels and then it was ready.  My friend Nick was interested in coming over, so I decided to take another of my 80's steel-frame refurbed bikes over. 

 Soon we were on a plane, with the the two bikes in cardboard boxes in the hold.  We assembled the bikes at Pescara airport (to the amusement of watching Italians), disposed of the cardboard and then set about riding up the mountain to the house. 


Nick with our bikes at Stansted airport
Assembling bikes at Pescara Airport

 It was surreal to ride two British-made bikes around in the Italian sunshine and many bystanders admired them at various cafes.  We spent four days cycling around and up and down the peaks of the Majella.  By now, I was a seasoned cyclist and firmly believed in one of the few statements Lance Armstrong made that was true, "it's not about the bike".  An old steel relic can go up (and down) a massive mountain, just a bit slower than a modern lightweight.  


Passo Lanciano. One of many switchbacks!


At the wolf sanctuary on the Passo Lanciano
Nick descending on the Passo Lanciano


On Pescara's cycle and pedestrian bridge

It wasn't long after that I bought one of these bikes back and sold it.  I rationalised my growing collection down to three bikes; one in Italy, two in England.  My old Raleigh is fine for the mountains, forgiving and stable on the descents, with modern brakes whilst having a 34 x 28 gear ratio for the steepest bits like the North side into Bucchianico where the gradient is 18-20% for a while!

One one of my more recent trips (June 2015) my friend Pete came along, bringing his very nice carbon fibre Specialized Roubaix.  Pete is a new(ish) cyclist and has progressed to a good level very quickly.  He has a penchant for carbon fibre, but is also a fan of the many gels and recovery drinks, all the things I had dismissed before.  During the five days of riding we did together, I learned about the benefits of this expensive and sickly nutrition.  The trip was brilliant, although marred a bit when somebody stole Pete's Garmin during a lunch in Pescara.  

Then, last Summer, we took our main family holiday in August.  Nick and his family came also and followed us in their car, with Nick's bike in the trunk.  They stayed at Kokopelli Camping, near us and the dynamic worked well as Nick and I could cycle, whilst the girls drove with the children in the car and met us at various points, usually cafes.  It was 38 degrees most days so I made sure I took a recovery drink when cycling up the Passo Lanciano for the last time on this holiday and it made all the difference.  Nick, did not want to drink the recovery drink and ended up ill for two days because he had flushed all the minerals out of his body from drinking too much water.  I had learned a valuable lesson from Pete during our trip in June.

I hope to spend many more years cycling in Abruzzo.  We are planning on returning to mountain biking when our youngest son (now three) is old enough, as there are some superb trails in Abruzzo.  Our eldest son went to his first Giro d'Italia when he was 9 months old.  


Our eldest son at the Giro 2010




I hope my sons join me cycling to Blockhaus one day. It's in their blood.


Our boys - in Caramanico Terme









Saturday, 16 January 2016

An Aladdin's Cave

In Roccamontepiano there is a delightful ceramic shop, just above the piazza where the church is.  If you don't know the village/area, you could easily miss this little gem, tucked away.  

We hadn't visited for a few years so we thought it high time we returned on our Summer holiday last year.  I needed to buy my friend Jayne a gift as a thank you for watching our house in England whilst we were away.






When we entered the shop, the young girl remembered us and, as seems to be normal in Abruzzo, was delighted we had returned.

Ceramic Shop in Roccamontepiano


Everything in the shop is handmade and traditional.  Each piece is made in the workshop at the back.  We were allowed to go through and see the furnace and then we spoke to the charming and talented lady in the workshop who was busy painting a large dish.  After a quick chat, we went back through to the shop as we didn't want to disturb her work.

Entrance to the Workshop

I could have bought so many things here.  For such pretty and unique items for gifts, they were reasonably priced.  I settled on a terracotta cinghalle (wild boar) for my friend and we also bought one for our garden back home in England.

Thankfully they also gift-wrap everything, which helped keep our purchases intact for our journey home.


Afterwards we went for a little drive and decided to take a route we hadn't used before.  You never know what you are going to find in Abruzzo.  The scenery changes all the time and we discovered a lovely agriturismo in this quiet little valley.  I would love to visit this place properly one day and investigate for friends and family.  In the meantime, I have found the website, http://www.anticotratturo.it/





The Agriturismo



When we got back to the house, one of our neighbours popped round with some fresh grapes and pears from their garden.  We put them in our ceramic bowl, which had been a wedding present....from the ceramic shop in Roccamontepiano.  

It had been a quiet family day, mooching about locally and I love days like these.

Monday, 4 January 2016

A Forest Hike

Our Summer holiday was bang in the middle of a heatwave again.  This does make holidays more of a challenge when you want to get out and see places, especially when you have younger children.  You know it's hot when the Italians are complaining!

We decided to go for a hike one afternoon.  I think the weather had dropped from 42 degrees to 35 degrees, so we thought as it was a little less hot we should be able to cope with it.  Our friends were on holiday with us and they were up for a hike too.

We thought there was a hike we could do that would lead to a waterfall in Bocca di Valle.  Kev at Kokopelli Camping confirmed there was indeed, although one route was more suitable for small children than the other.  We decided we would find the appropriate one on arrival.

Having arrived at Bocca di Valle, we parked the cars and walked to what looked like the start of the trail.  We couldn't really see more than one trail entrance so we assumed that the trail would split at some point and from there we would see which looked safest for the kids.  We filled our water bottles up at the spring and set off.



The trail was part dirt, part rock in places, or all rock in others.  You could manage this trail in sturdy trainers, but I would say hiking boots are preferable.  I was grateful I had mine on that day.



Parts of the trail were in a welcoming, dappled shade  and other parts were open and a little unforgiving in the sun.  We reached a stream and the children thought it was amazing and cool because we had to cross over on stones.  Half an hour in and we realised the trail wasn't 'straight' any more and we started on a gradual ascent.  






We ascended for another 30 minutes and reached the waterfall, although, being Summer it was more of a trickle than a full on waterfall.  Since the holiday, we have seen photos of how it looks when it is flowing and it is stunning. The children had done so well, particularly our youngest, who had only just turned three a week before.  The children certainly weren't disappointed in any way.  It was so pretty and peaceful.  Time away from the madding crowds is so good for the soul.





Kev at Kokopelli had told us there was a bigger waterfall than this and not to make the mistake of stopping at the first one we found, but there was no trail from this waterfall that would have been physically possibly with children as young as ours.  We wondered if we had taken the wrong trail to begin with.  No matter, we all thought it was a lovely place to visit.





After a rest and the children splashing each other, we began our descent.  The descent was harder than the ascent because of the loose rocks on the trail path.  This is where it was more difficult for our three year old and my husband carried him in the more dangerous parts.

At the end, when our friends' daughter Molly pointed out a butterfly, our eldest son said 'Yeh, but I've seen like at least ten snakes'.  He 'saw' a lot of snakes on this holiday.  He is pretty desperate to be the next Bear Grylls, whom he thinks is as cool as James Bond.....  Throughout the walk, the children were pretending they were on some sort of quest and storytelling.  Abruzzo feeds children's imaginations and thirst for adventure and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.