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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Italian Coffee and Pesto Crises

It has been a stormy summer for Italy's pesto and coffee industries.

Storms, hailstorms to be exact, have literally been responsible for a pesto shortage. According to the AP, "Hailstones the size of tennis balls smashed glass panes on scores of greenhouses and pummeled fragile basil plants this month, wiping out entire crops near the town of Pra, west of Genoa, the capital of the Liguria region in northwest Italy."

While basil is grown throughout Italy, Pra is the heart of Genovese basil, which is considered the true ingredient in pesto, which was invented in the port city of Genoa. The University of Wisconsin notes this type of basil has the following characteristics: "...is a standard, flat-leafed Italian type commonly used for making pesto. The leaves are 3-4 inches long and 2-3 inches wide, with a sweet, spicy taste. Plants can reach 5 feet, but are more productive if kept pruned back."

With some 35 producers suffering $6.5 million in damages, high-quality pesto production is expected to suffer though industrial production of pesto should remain unaffected.

Mouldy coffee beans found in an Italian port are in part to blame for rising coffee prices in Italy, according to Beverage Daily. "Sacks of Robusta coffee beans stored at warehouses in the Italian Port of Trieste were still being held this week, as investigators tried to work out how much of the stock had gone mouldy," the publication reports. Apparently. Robusta coffee supplies are used as a benchmark for calculating coffee price futures.

The International Coffee Organisation reports coffee prices have risen significantly over the last couple of months and the ongoing problems in Trieste increase the chance of a continued rise in prices next month.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Shout Out to Our Friends at Nat Geo Traveler

If you're looking for another good travel blog to add to your list -- in addition to this one of course -- check out National Geographic Traveler's Inside Traveler Blog. Emily King and Jessie Johnson are the editors and come up with some pretty unique information and seem to be the queens of links - they find the coolest links for everything - something I don't have the patience for...Look under "Seventh Heaven" on the August 22nd entry and see comments from yours truly about Milan's new 7-star hotel.

Summer Read: The House of Scorta

There's nothing like falling in love with a book and this summer I fell in love with The House of Scorta. I devoured it over a long hot weekend, which seemed fitting given the novel's setting in the dry, hot region of Puglia in the southeast of Italy as described in the first paragraph of the book:

The heat of the sun seemed to split the earth open. Not a breath of wind rustled the olive trees. Nothing moved. The scent of the hills had vanished. The rocks crackled with heat. August weighed down on the Gargano massif with the self-assurance of an overlord. It was impossible to believe that rain had ever fallen on these lands, that water had once irrigated the fields and quenched the olive groves. Impossible to believe that any animal or plant could have ever found sustenance under this arid sky. It was two o'clock in the afternoon and the earth was condemned to burn.

Opening in 1870, The House of Scorta chronicles five generations of the rough Mascalzone family, doomed to live under the weight of a scandulous reputation in the town that bred them yet struggle to accept them. Laurent Gaude, the book's French author whose wife is of Italian descent, paints an incredibly detailed picture of the complex social rules and interactions in southern Italian culture. Gaude captures the dark shadows, age-old rhythms and brutal realities of southern Italian life in a way I have rarely experienced in prose, except maybe for the classic Christ Stopped at Eboli.

Throughout the twists and turns of the narrative, the themes of family, community, belonging, sacrifice, judgment and redemption are weaved together. Readers will gain an appreciation of the history of Italy, which was just a new country as the novel opens, and the prejudice that has long plagued the South. Here is another passage from the book:

After don Carlo's death, the village was once again forgotten by the episcopate. That suited them just fine. They were used to it. Sometimes when passing the closed church, they even muttered amongst themselves, "Better nobody than a new Bozzoni," fearing that the Church, in a kind of devine punishment, might appoint them another man from the North who would treat them like dirt, mock their customs, and refuse to baptize their children.

Originally published in French as La Soleil des Scorta, the book has won France's highest literary prize and sold over 400,000 copies in that country. While it is a shame the novel hasn't sold better in the United States -- consider yourself in on a wonderful secret.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

U.S. to Leave Sardinian Naval Base

After years of discussions, American and Italian officials have announced that the contested U.S. naval base in the beautiful Maddalena archipelago of Sardinia will be closed. This breathtakingly beautiful group of islands just north of the Sardinian coast might seem an unlikely place for a key American military base, but it has served as a port of call for all US nuclear submarines in the region since its establishment in 1972.

The base has long been opposed by inhabitants of the region due to environmental concerns. Worries about nuclear pollution have repeatedly been raised, particularly after a 2003 submarine accident, which, although not causing serious damage, made locals all the more wary about pollution. In fact, several recent studies have shown traces of uranium and plutonium pollution in the waters surrounding the islet of Santo Stefano.

The departure date is tentatively set for September 2008, but no concrete plans or timelines have been established yet. The base will be transferred to another allied country, says the Italian minister of defense, Antonio Martino, but which one has not yet been specified. Many residents will surely be happy with the removal of this risk to the preservation of this beautiful corner of Italy, but many are also concerned about the economic implications of the removal of the base. Some 3,000 Americans are stationed off the Sardinian coast, including military personnel and their families, which provide over 150 jobs to local civilians and forms an important basis of the island’s economy. -- Cailin Birch

Read more about Sardinia in this back issue of Dream of Italy

3-Star Venice Hotel for $3 Per Night ?!?!

How's this for a deal? Stay at the 3-star Hotel Riviera Dei Dogi in Venice for just $3 per night. No, there's not a zero missing -- that's right just 3 dollars. I came across the deal on freetraveling.com, a Web site reporting the cheapest travel deals on the Internet, mostly hotel rate mistakes and airfare glitches.

Here's the fine print on the Venice hotel deal: The $3 rate is available for the nights of August 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 28, 29, 30 and 31 and must be booked on travelocity.com

If you're headed to Venice, don't miss Dream of Italy's Special Report: Venice.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Women-Only Beaches to Open in Adriatic Resort

In order to accomodate a growing number of Muslim tourists, officials in an Italian Adriatic resort town plan to create women-only beaches, according to The London Telegraph. The project in the town of Riccione, 90 miles east of Florence, will allow women to remove their headscarves and robes in privacy. Paritions will be erected to keep the women out of sight of men, as is dictated by religious custom. The 5-star Grand Hotel des Bains will open the town's first women-only beach next month.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Beware the Jellyfish

It may be prime time for Italians to be hitting the beaches, but that doesn't mean that the water is welcoming. The summer of 2006 may be remembered as the summer of the jellyfish on the Mediterranean. Researchers say some 30,000 swimmers in Spain, Sicily and Northern Africa have been bitten by jellyfish so far this season. Scientists blame a combination of global warming and overfishing for the invasion of the stinging creatures.

Jellyfish not withstanding, Sicily is a fantastic destination. Read more in Dream of Italy's Special Report: Sicily

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Lowdown on Visiting Italy in August

  • The entire city of Rome shuts down.
  • It’s difficult to find a spot of empty sand on any beach.
  • The heat is unbearable.
Although each of these statements is based on a grain of truth, these are some of the popular misconceptions about visiting the land of la dolce vita during the month of August, the most important vacation time of the year for Italians.

The average Italian citizen gets 42 days of vacation per year. Most Italians take at least a week or two off each August, and many are on vacation for the entire month. Businesses shut their doors for all or part of this vacation period. In fact, the productivity of the entire country takes a dive during the eighth month of the year. The Italian national statistics institute reports that production falls by approximately 50% in August and the volume on the national stock exchange reportedly diminishes by a third.

But just because Italians are on vacation doesn’t mean you can’t be. Here’s what August is really like:

It just might be one of the best times of the year to visit Rome. The streets are empty (half of the city’s population leaves town). All of the major sites are open. You’ll find many restaurants and shops still welcoming tourists, although most are closed for some portion of the month. If you ever wanted to drive in Rome, now is the time. Reservations at the city’s great hotel restaurants (see the January/February 2003 issue of Dream of Italy) are easy to come by. Because Rome is a major international capital, it must keep chugging along, even in August, but you can still enjoy it at a much slower pace.

Crowded beaches, yes, but a great time to visit inland towns. It might not be the ideal time to visit the beaches of Sicily and Sardinia, as many hotels are booked up as much as a year in advance. But this can be the ideal time to visit Italy’s inland hill towns, especially in the south. Southern Italians who left their villages for work in the north or even to move to the United States often return home in August.The streets come alive with summer festivals and the evening passeggiata (walk around town) is even more lively, and the weather in the hills is lovely.

Which brings me to the next point …

The heat? That depends on your definition of hot. For a visitor from Washington, D.C. (where the summer heat and humidity can truly be unbearable), Italy's typical August temperatures hovering at around 80 degrees Fahrenheit can be downright delightful comparatively. Your perception of Italy’s August weather all depends on where you are coming from. One way to ensure your comfort in case the temperatures shoot up is to make sure that your rental car and hotels have air conditioning.When all else fails, just take a siesta. In a sense, that is what the month of August is for all of Italy.

A final bit of advice, based on personal, frustrating experience. Don’t attempt to drive on any of Italy’s major highways, including the biggest, the A1, on any Saturday during August. Instead, flip on the television and watch as newscasters present special programming and live shots of the mass exodus of cars from the nation’s cities. Even if you can’t understand Italian, you will get the point that these traffic jams last for hours.You’ll be happy you’re not among those experiencing the August traffic nightmare.

This piece originally appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Dream of Italy.

Thoughts: Travel to Italy in the Near Future

Given today's events, I have been giving some thought as to how travel to Italy may be affected. I've also consulted with other Italy specialists on their thoughts and experiences today. It may be wishful thinking, but I'm feeling pretty confident that people won't be detered from traveling to Italy and that cancellations will be few.

I think this has been the strongest year for travel to Italy since 9/11.It has been hard to secure a seat (planes are packed) and people have been planning their trips for months. I don't think they will cancel as readily as they have in the past.

I venture to guess that the flying public, while rattled by today's events, is getting more used to this new reality.We're approaching the 5th anniversary of 9/11, some travelers waited a few years to get back to Europe and Italy. I'm sure they are thinking, are we going to wait another few years again? Life is too short for that and if there's anything Italian culture encourages is to enjoy life today!

I think today's events will affect American tourism to the U.K. (which was already suffering because of the strong British pound - a trip to London can be far more expensive than a trip to Rome).

I've spoken to a handful of Italy specialists and travel agents and out of all of them, one had a single cancellation for someone who was flying to Italy through London and she cited today's events as part of the reason.
So flights through London to the rest of Europe, i.e. the budget airlines
flying out of London, may see fewer American fliers. Promising news: today some of the agents booked new trips to Italy.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bellagio: Shopping, Wine Tasting and More

This is from the July/August 2006 issue of Dream of Italy:

Bellagio, the most famous of Lake Como’s villages, is said to have been inhabited since prehistoric times. Today it is perfectly groomed with potted flowers galore, small winding streets and old world charm. Restaurants and caf├Ęs line the lakeside promenade, and luxury shops beckon. An important silk town for more than two centuries, stores offer stunning fabrics in unique patterns that can be purchased for creating one-of-kind designs. In addition to high- endfashion (Missoni, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana) and gorgeous silks, Bellagio is a shopping haven for pottery, blown glass, antiques and various arts andcrafts.

A new modern wine shop has opened up on the charming street Salita Serbelloni. At the Enoteca Principessa customers can purchase rechargeable cards (available in 5 euro increments) to insert into sleek wine dispensers. After a push of the button, the selected wine is poured into a glass. Though also available in some U.S. wine shops, this system was created in Italy and has revolutionized the experience of wine tasting. (There’s a similar wine shop in Greve in Chianti in Tuscany.) -- Danielle Caponi

More on Bellagio -- Where to Eat and Stay

Thursday, August 03, 2006

7-Star(!) Hotel Slated for Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele

Looking for a new place to rest your head next time you're in Milan? How about staying a 7-star hotel? That's no typo - when the Town House Galleria opens later this year, it promises to be Europe's first 7-star hotel. The only other 7-star in the world is Dubai's Burj Al Arab. As the eFlyer newsletter reminds us, there is no official global hotel system that awards stars, but hotels classify themselves by "piling on the amenities."

The new hotel will be housed in Milan's beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele - above the Prada store, no less - and feature fewer than 30 suites. While pricing hasn't been set (could be between $1,000 and $2,00 per night, the hotel is reportedly pre-booked for the first 90 days.

Here's more information from eFlyer: "The Town House group currently operates two other hotels in Milan, both four-star and costing between $380 (for rooms) and $600 (for suites) a night. The Town House Galleria, however, will be considerably more elaborate — and pricier. It’s being developed with a consortium of high-end brand names in Milan, some of whose designer products will be prominently featured. Guests will have their own individual butlers and, if needed, nannies. Cars and drivers will be at their beck and call. Caroli Health Clubs is part of the consortium, so private trainers and in-room massages could well become part of the package."

More on Milan from Dream of Italy:

July/August Issue: Special Report: The Lakes

Anxious to find out the best places to shop on Lake Como?
Want to know which restaurant offers a cooking lesson before dinner -- and will even send a staff member to pick you up at your hotel?
Did you know that one Italy's most unusual museums is in the Lakes region and not to be missed?
Wondering how to stay at a vineyard hotel on the shores of Lake Garda for as little as 50 euros per night?
Would you like to know the name of the historic island restaurant where George Clooney took guests Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt?
The answers to these questions and more are in the July/August 2006 issue of Dream of Italy - Special Report: The Lakes. Here are the articles paid subscribers will be reading (mail subscribers will receive their issues early next week):

  • Redemption on Lake Maggiore: The Borromeo Islands
  • The Gems of Central Lake Como ~ Tremezzo, Cadenabbia, Bellagio, Varenna and Torno
  • Lake Garda: The Largest Lake Offers Sun and Surprises
  • An Aristocratic Stay at Lake Como's Grand Hotel Tremezzo Palace

**Want to buy a single copy of this issue/special report? Click here.**

**Planning to visit Italy in the near future? Paid subscribers receive 10 issues per year PLUS online access to our archive of over 34 back issues of Dream of Italy. That's over 44 issues for the price of a one-year subscription! Less than $2 an issue! What more do you need to plan a once-in-a-lifetime Italian adventure? Click here to read about more subscriber benefits and to join!**