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Remembering the Battle of Montecassino

About an hour and a half south of Rome lies Montecassino, an enormous Benedictine monastery whose environs witnessed a very costly battle of World War II. The Battle of Montecassino, which was actually a series of four battles, took place from January to May of 1944, and saw the loss of 55,000 Allied soldiers, which includes Americans and Commonwealth (British, New Zealand, Canadian, Indian, Gurkha and South African) troops, and  and 20,000 German troops. The monastery was also bombed to ruins by the Allied forces, who were convinced that the Germans were using the elevated outpost as a lookout station. Following the war, Montecassino was restored and reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964.

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‘An Irreverent Curiosity’ – An Interview with David Farley

An Irreverent Curiosity by David FarleyIf you know me, you’ll know that I am nuts about religious relics. And if you know David Farley’s book “An Irreverent Curiosity,” you’ll know immediately why that first line is a wee bit funny.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Farley in Manhattan to discuss his book, which has the tag line “In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.” What is the church’s strangest relic? I’ll tell you: it’s the Holy Foreskin of Jesus, also known as the “Santissimo Prepuzio” (Holy Prepuce) or the “Carne Vera Sacra” (Real Holy Flesh). Indeed, there is – or was – a relic that came from the body of Jesus Christ; the foreskin was the only possible piece of flesh that the Messiah could have left behind. How the church came to rediscover then later lose this most holy of relics – and how Farley came to live in the small, medieval hill town (now eclectic artist enclave) of Calcata to search for it – is the subject of his highly entertaining book which is out in paperback today from Amazon.com.


Italofile: How Did You First Learn About Calcata?

David Farley: Back when my wife Jessie and I were living in Rome for a few months, we would follow the suggestions of Time Out Roma (magazine) which had a small English language section at the time. One weekend, there was a small article about a day trip to Calcata, a town that sounded just strange enough that we wanted to visit.

Italofile: Did You Know About the Holy Foreskin Before You Visited?

David Farley: The Holy Foreskin was mentioned as a side note in the article. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that [this unusual relic] would make for an interesting book topic.

Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is the main subject of your book and a fascinating topic. But the hill town of Calcata, population 100 (!), is the other star of “An Irreverent Curiosity.” What Made You Decide to Relocate to Calcata?

David Farley Calcata

David Farley, author of "An Irreverent Curiosity," with Calcata in the background

David Farley: It was actually my wife’s idea. When we had visited a few years before on a day trip from Rome, we had enjoyed the weird Bohemian vibe of Calcata. Here was this medieval hill town full of artists from all over Italy and the world, with some people walking around in saris and Indian headdress. So it seemed like a bizarre place to spend more time in. Then, my wife reminded me of the relic, how it had been stolen. The book idea just fell into place.

Italofile: The Holy Foreskin is such a weird relic. Doesn’t it seem weird that this part of Christ was saved? And, in doing your research, did you come across other relics that were equally odd?

David Farley: The Holy Prepuce [another word for foreskin] had come up in relic research before. Saint Catherine [of Siena], the self-proclaimed “bride of Christ,” was known to have worn the foreskin around her ring finger. Other weird relics mentioned in the book include the Holy Umbilical Cord, Holy Bib (a “two-for-one relic…complete with breast milk stains from the Virgin”) and the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

Italofile: How Did You Come Up With the Title “An Irreverent Curiosity?” I’ve heard there were some more irreverent working titles of the book before you settled on the current one.

David Farley: My editor at Penguin/Gotham Books came up with a title that he was quite enthusiastic about, but I couldn’t exactly share in his excitement. I had wanted to call it “Holy Foreskin” because a title like that would most certainly get someone’s attention. But he convinced me that no one wants to be reading a book on an airplane or the subway with the word “foreskin” scrawled across the cover. So I gave him three other titles: “An Irreverent Curiosity,” because when someone asked why the pope had banned the speaking of or writing about the Holy Foreskin in the year 1900, a Church spokesman said they feared such a relic could cause “an irreverent curiosity.” The other titles were Godforsaken, which I feared sounded too much like a D&D/fantasy book, but I liked that both the relic and the village of Calcata had become godforsaken (and when you think about it, it kind of sounded like “god’s foreskin”). And the last suggested title was “The Messiah Flap,” which no one seemed to fully appreciate except for me.

Italofile: Forgetting the book and its success, would you move back to Calcata again if you had the chance? Why or why not?

David Farley: Yes and no. For me, ideal was a few months when I was living during the week in the apartment of my friend Paul Steffen, around the corner from the Trevi Fountain and then spending the weekends in an apartment I was renting in Calcata. It was the best of both worlds.

Italofile: What advice would you give travelers who wish to visit Calcata?

David Farley: Go on the weekend, when the village is at its liveliest. The artists who live in Calcata have admirably managed to inverse the work week: They work two days a week—during the weekend—and then have five days to do what they want.

Italofile: Are you working on any other Italy- or relic-related books?

David Farley: It’s not easy topping the Holy Foreskin, so I’ll probably let someone else conquer, say, the breast milk of the Virgin Mary.


Thanks, David! It was a pleasure getting to know more about you and your book.

An Irreverent Curiosity is available in paperback from Amazon.com.

Four Great Golf Courses in Italy


Golfing has grown increasingly popular over the past decade, thanks in no small part to one Tiger Woods, who has proven to be a diligent, exacting, and exciting player both on and off the green. Woods’ celebrity has meant a ton of new golf watchers and enthusiasts, who jump at the chance to work on their handicap, especially while on vacation.

Italy may not be the first place one thinks of for a golfing vacation, but it does have some terrific courses set in stunning locations, many of which are near the tourist routes of Rome, Florence, and Milan. So if you’re a golfer interested in hitting the links in Italy, you’re in luck!

Golf in Italy is still very much a wealthy (wo)man’s sport in Italy, but there are a number of public courses in Italy, too. As this is a travel site, this post is going to focus on some of the most beautiful golf courses in Italy, rather than the most challenging. Bear in mind that it can be difficult to obtain access to many of the private courses in Italy unless you are traveling with a golf vacation agency or are staying in the golf resort’s respective hotel. Ready to tee off? Continue Reading →

What’s On In Italy: April 2009

We missed March’s event round-up and we’re late for this month’s. So here we go…

Easter: Last month, we posted the Vatican’s Holy Week Calendar. The website whatsonwhen.com lists two of Italy’s most famous Easter celebrations: Florence’s Scoppio del Carro and Madonna che Scappa in Piazza (Madonna who runs in the square) in Sulmona (Abruzzo). Taranto, in Puglia, is also known for its hours-long Holy Week processions, a tradition from the days when Puglia was a Spanish territory.

Spring! A profusion of flowers and outdoor events usher in spring in Italy. Milan puts on the annual Fiori e Sapori gardening show and food fair on April 5. If you’re in Rome this month, you can expect to see the Spanish Steps abloom with flowers of pink, red, and white.

Food and Wine. In addition to the Fiori e Sapori fest in Milan (see above), there are a number of food festivals this month. From April 17-20, Genoa will  host Slow Fish, a tribute by local restaurants to fish and seafood done the traditional (slow) way. There will be wine festivals in Rome (April 25-26) and Porto Cervo in Sardinia (24-26) and, through April 6, Verona will host VinItaly, which brings together wine producers from all over the country.

Sport: In Rome, there’ll be the derby between Lazio and Roma (April 19). On the same day in Venice will be the Su e Zo per i Ponti, a sort of walkathon “up and down” the canal city’s bridges.

April also sees the celebration of Liberation Day (25) and the birth of Rome, which, on April 21, will be too old for me to calculate!

Rome’s Best Trattoria? You decide…

Choice Tables – A Debate Over the Best Roman Trattoria -NYTimes.com

How could I possibly let this headline from the New York Times pass me by? Apparently, the global recession has led Italians to rediscover their local trattoria. And where better than Rome to start the debate?

The problem with trattorie is that there are so many, so I hardly remember the name of my favorites. I do recall loving one local in the San Giovanni area around the corner from my flat. The best part is that my 7 year old charge (I was an au pair at the time) ordered a mezzo porzione of the spaghetti con vongole (yep..Italian kids eat clams!). I can’t remember what I ate (amatriciana, maybe?), but I do remember finding it charming that the trattoria was so accommodating to the little girl. Can’t find too many places like that anymore.

So, what’s your favorite tratt in Rome? Or, do you have a favorite in another city? I’m sure you do, so comment away!

Do You Know the Way to Pompeii?

About a year ago, I posted some information about going to Pompeii from Rome on a day trip. Just a few days ago, I was alerted of a new way to get there. When in Rome Tours has private and semi-private minibus tours to Pompeii. They’ll pick you up in Rome, drive to Pompeii via Cassino (site of the Montecassino Abbey) and Naples, take you to lunch, provide you with a Pompeii guide, and get you back to the Eternal City all within the same day (about 13 hours). They also provide walking tours of Rome and smallish bus tours of the Rome environs (no giant motorcoaches here!). So if you’re trying to put together a little jaunt down to Pompeii while visiting Rome, consider checking out When in Rome Tours. Thanks for the tip, Marie!

Photo by Paul Vlaar

Rome’s New Archeology Czar

News outlets are reporting that the Italian government has appointed Guido Bertolaso, of Naples garbage crisis fame, to head a new effort to address the poor state of Rome’s archeological treasures. According to the International Herald Tribune, Bertolaso will be in charge of whipping into shape some of Rome’s most famous – but crumbling –  buildings, particularly those on the Palatine Hill (including Nero’s Golden House) and in Ostia Antica. The czar will only have until December 31 to set a plan into action, so it’s not sure how much will get done. On the other hand, after he was appointed to handle the trash problem in May 2008 the emergency was over by July. Good luck, Mr. Bertolaso!

9 Romantic Spots in Rome


Thinking about popping the question in Rome this Valentine’s Day (or any other day)? Rome is certainly the place to do it; indeed, you couldn’t have “romance” without Roma. So, I thought I would share some of my favorite spots for lovers in the Eternal City. Of course, this is a highly subjective and non-exhaustive list. I chose 9 for 2009, and they are in no particular order. There are surely hundreds of others…

9. The Spanish Steps. An obvious engagement locale for tourists for sure, as it’s at the heart of the city and abuzz with people from all walks of life (providing a bit of a din for you nervous proposers). The Steps are lovely in the springtime when they are decorated with giant pots of flowers whose pinkish hue echoes the colors of the buildings around them. I also like the Steps in the early morning, when fewer are there to disturb a romantic moment.

8. The Pincio Hill. This area is only a few steps away from the Spanish Steps, but has one of the most evocative views of St. Peter’s and other churches’ domes that make up the Roman cityscape. The Pincio is a balcony for the Villa Borghese park and also looks over Piazza del Popolo. The Pincio is popular with lovers, but for a very good reason: the view from there is Rome in a nutshell.

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Farewell to an Italian Historian

I was hoping that with my first post of the new year I would look forward. Instead, with the passing of Christopher Hibbert, I thought it would be worth it to look back.

Until I read Hibbert’s obituary, I didn’t know too much about him, only that he was the author of one of the most prominent Italian history books on my shelf – Rome: Biography of a City. This book, along with The House of the Medici: Its Rise and Fall, established Hibbert as one of the English-speaking world’s foremost authority on Italy’s history.

Hibbert, 84, was working up until the end. His most recent book – The Borgias and Their Enemies – was published in October of last year. Like Hibbert’s other history books, The Borgias is set to be a definitive guide to the controversial Italian clan. In fact, the New Yorker included it in its list of notable books in the December 22, 2008, issue.

So, if you’re looking to learn more about Italian history in 2009, mark down Christopher Hibbert’s works on your reading list.

2008 Year-End Article Round Up

I am still trying to figure out how to manage a toddler and a newborn and find time to keep this blog up-to-date. But I have been keeping track of the numerous articles about Italy that have come out in the past couple of months. So, enjoy the following links and have a Felice Anno Nuovo!!

Boston Globe
Eating Up Miles, Drinking Up Scenery, Motoring From Nice to Tuscany
(road tripping between France and Italy)

L.A. Times
American Military Cemeteries in Europe Honor Heroes in Both World Wars
(profiles Sicily-Rome Cemetery)

The Globe and Mail (Canada)
Roman Holiday, Reconsidered
Your Palazzo in Florence Awaits
Escape From San Domino

The Independent (U.K.)
Madama Butterfly, Floria Tosca – They All Came From Lucca
Puglia Is a Food Lover’s Paradise

The Guardian (U.K.)
Flying Visit to Florence
Flood-Hit Hoteliers Offer Packages With Free Wellies (Venice)
Go With the Flow (Skiing on Mt. Etna)
A Taste of Italy at Harvest Time (Le Marche)
Turin On A Plate
On the Trail of the Leopard (Sicily)

New York Times
Florence, Then and Now
Venice: In Laguna Da Toni
Savoring Italy One Beer at a Time

The Telegraph (U.K.)
Mesmerizing Relics of Byzantine Brilliance (Ravenna)

Wall Street Journal
Starling Stalkers Try to Scare the Birds out of Rome

Water World

The Tiber breaks its banks.

Flooding in Rome.

Talks of Italy and flooding usually make one think of Venice. While Venice has suffered – and flooded – because of the latest bout of heavy rain, it’s Rome and its Tiber River that weather watchers are concerned about now.

The New York Times has put together an interesting slide show of the flooding throughout Italy, with most pictures of Rome and Venice. And, going beyond the newsy reports of the flooding is Canada’s Globe and Mail report Eric Reguly with a personal dispatch from the Eternal City.

As I write this, it looks as if the flood warnings have been called off for Rome, thankfully avoiding another Florence 1966. But it will be interesting to see what the rain has damaged. Hopefully, there weren’t too many masterpieces hiding in basements…

What’s On in Italy: December 2008

Dear readers,

I realize I’ve neglected you for a while now. But, for good reason. I gave birth to my second son – Leo – on November 19. So, since then, I’ve been recovering and getting to know the little fella. Blogging has been furthest on my mind, as you can imagine, but now I’m back (slowly but surely) to provide you with a very short list of some Christmas happenings in Italy this month.

Rome. Rome is magnificent around Christmas, not least of all because of the Christmas Market in Piazza Navona. This year, the Eternal City will also be filled with music, thanks to events like Natale all’Auditorium at the Parco della Musica. The Christmas festival, which will run for a month between December 6 and January 6, will feature numerous Italian acts singing holiday standards and will also play host to the Roma Gospel Festival, among whose acts will include Anthony Morgan’s Inspirational Choir of Harlem. Elsewhere in the city, from December 20 through 30 you can catch the Nutcracker (Lo Schiaccianoci) at the Teatro Nazionale. If you happen to be in Rome on December 8, you may be able to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI himself as he travels across town to lay a wreath at the Spanish Steps in commemoration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Milan. Milan’s annual contribution to the Christmas landscape is the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej” Festival, which happens around the feast day of the city’s patron St. Ambrose on December 7. Essentially, Oh Bej! is a traditional Christmas market selling artisanal crafts and local fare that the whole city comes out for. It is held annually at the Castello Sforzesco.

Venice. Christmas in the Lagoon, which takes place in the city’s Campo Santo Stefano, is Venice’s answer to the annual Christmas fair. There, you can pick up Murano glass, artisanal soaps and perfumes, and all manner of Italian snacks and sweets. This year’s fair goes through December 23. And, according to the Natale in Laguna website, the itinerary remains unchanged despite the recent flooding.

There are, of course, tons of other Christmas markets going on in Italy this month. For a more exhaustive run-down, check out this list from About.com or surf on over to whatsonwhen.com.

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