Valentine’s Day in Romantic Rome

Sunset over the Colosseum from the Hotel Manfrdi

The Colosseum from the Hotel Palazzo Manfredi

There are so many beautiful places in Italy, it is hard to choose which location is the most romantic, but Rome is certainly a top contender. After all, Roma spelled backwards is Amor or Love. So it is the perfect place to spend Valentine’s Day, especially if you subscribe to the story that St. Valentine was Roman.

But, who exactly was St. Valentine? According to legend, a priest named Valentinus lived in Rome in the 3rd century AD, when Claudius II (also known as Claudius the Cruel) was Emperor. Valentinus refused to obey an edict from the Emperor outlawing marriage between young couples. Claudius sentenced him to death but before his execution, he was able to smuggle a note to a young woman  and signed it “From your Valentinus.” The rest, as they say, is history. Although there are several other Valentines in history, for this particular legend, St Valentinus’s skull and bones are kept in the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (where the Mouth of Truth is located). They are brought out on his feast day – February 14, also known as Valentine’s Day

SEVEN OF ROME’S MOST ROMANTIC SPOTS

If you are lucky enough to spend Valentine’s Day in Rome with the love of your life, here are seven places that are likely to make you feel romantic.

A couple in the Giardino degli Aranci, Aventino

Giardino degli Aranci, Aventino

The Aventine Hill

On top of one of Rome’s seven hills, across from the Circus Maximus, is the Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of the Oranges). Surrounded by the 12th-century walls of the Savelli castle, the Garden offers magnificent views of Rome through a grove of orange trees. In season the aroma fills the air. Next to the Garden is the medieval Basilica of Santa Sabina where St. Dominic lived in the 13th century. He is credited with planting Rome’s first orange tree.

Ponte Sant'Angelo leading to the Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’ Angelo

One of the most famous and beautiful bridges in Rome, lined with ten beautiful sculptures of angels (designed by Bernini). It leads to the CastelSant’Angelo. Visit at sunset or in the evening for beautiful views of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Vista over Rome from the Gianicolo

The Gianicolo, overlooking Romantic Rome

Gianicolo Hill

The Gianicolo (Or Janiculum Hill), high above Trastevere, is probably Rome’s most famous spot for lovers. The panoramic view from above the city is breathtaking, especially at sunset when the lights come on below and the entire city sparkles.

Villa Borghese gardens, Giardino del Lago

Giardino del Lago, Rome

Giardino del Lago

In the middle of Villa Borghese is a small lake in the middle of which stands an Ionic-themed Temple dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of medicine. You can rent a rowboat to enjoy some time alone with only a few ducks and swans as companions. As you wander back into the city center, be sure to stroll through the equally romantic hanging garden of pines, cypresses, cedar and citrus trees.

John Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome

Tombstone of John Keats, Rome

Protestant Cemetery

In Testaccio, beneath the ancient Roman walls and an improbable Pyramid, is Rome’s cemetery for Protestants and other non-Catholics. Intuitively this would not be considered a “romantic” spot. However, some of the most famous Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, are buried here. If you wish to pay your respects on Valentine’s Day, the garden offers a welcome zone of tranquillity in Rome’s chaos.

View from the rooftop of Grand Hotel de la Minerve

St Ivo alla Sapienza from Hotel de la Minerve

Rooftop bar of the Hotel MInerve

Behind the Pantheon is the Hotel Minerve with its rooftop bar and spectacular views over the city, including the unique spire of St. Ivo. Come at sunset for an apperitivo and watch as the rooftops and domes turn different colors.

Sunset over the Colosseum from the Hotel Manfrdi

The Colosseum from the Hotel Palazzo Manfredi

Aroma restaurant on the roof of Hotel Palazzo Manfredi.

This Michelin star restaurant on the rooftop of Hotel Palazzo Manfredi has unparalleled views of the Colosseum. If you happen to visit on the night of a full moon …. It is magical! The perfect place for Valentine’s Day dinner!

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

Celebrating Carnevale in Venice

Costumers on a bridge, Venice

Models on a Small Bridge, Venice

Venice during Carnevale (Carnival) is a magical, mysterious, place. Stunning architecture, hidden romantic corners, dreamy canals, and history around every corner provide the perfect backdrops for the hundreds of models who arrive from around the world to celebrate the ancient festival.

Solange posing on the steps

Solange on the Grand Stairway of a Venetian Palazzo

For two weeks the alleyways and piazzas, the churches and cloisters, the bridges and towers are enveloped in the most lavish, colorful costumes and masks that you will ever see. It is as if you have stepped through a portal into the Renaissance.

No one is quite sure where the practice of wearing costumes and face coverings originated. Some think it was a throwback to an ancient Celtic tradition of covering your face on All Hallows Eve to confound evil spirits who might be lurking. Others believe that it comes from ancient Roman pagan festivities. Perhaps because Venice was at the crossroads of East and West, the veils and turbans favored by travelers from the Orient may also have contributed to the tradition.

The first known instance of Carnevale was in 1162 when people spontaneously came out to celebrate the victory against the German Patriarch of Aquileia (an ancient Roman city on the edge of the lagoon), Ulrico di Treven. By the 1500s, it developed into a way of life, with Venetians authorized to wear masks for up to six months of the year. They covered a multitude of sins, including by providing a means to avoid the strict class structure imposed by society.

Eve rides a gondola through the canals of Venice

Eve posing in a gondola, Venice

Austria outlawed Carnevale when it conquered this part of Italy (in 1797). It was only in 1979 that the festival reignited the public imagination after the Italian Government decided that it would be a perfect way to showcase the history and culture of Venice, also known as La Serenissima.

Today’s Carnevale is one of Italy’s most important festivals with up to a million visitors traveling to Venice to take part. It lasts for two weeks before Lent, ending on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday.

According to Catholic teachings, during the 40 days of Lent, practitioners are not allowed to eat meat or sugar. Celebrating beforehand was a way to use up whatever supplies might remain in the house. It may well be that the word “Carnevale” comes from the Latin words “Carne” and “Vale”, or “Farewell to Meat.”

Costumer outside a medieval church, Venice

Andrea with her leaf mask during Carnevale, Venice

The date of the festival changes with the calendar. This year Carnevale runs from 11 to 28 February. Generally, the second week is the most exciting. Countless parades take place, including a flotilla of gondolas on the Grand Canal. A multitude of parties and balls in some of the city’s most exquisite palaces fill the days and nights. The most extravagant and expensive of these is the Grand Masquerade Ball. Attending any of these events, especially if you want to rent fancy dress, will set you back thousands of dollars.

Betty Blu across from Piazza San Marco

Betty Blu on Punta della Dogana

However, there is plenty to see that won’t cost you a penny. Every day, starting just before dawn, costumed and masked models appear along the waterfront of St. Mark’s Square. They pose near the gondolas as the sun rises over Isola San Giorgio Maggiore; in front of the Bridge of Sighs; on the stone bridges spanning the minuscule canals; in the cloisters of the churches or in front of the doors; in La Fenice Opera House or in the Bovolo Staircase. You will also find them on the islands of Burano and Murano and in the ballrooms of the palazzi.

The costumers, who are a variety of ages (some even in their 70s), are mostly European, predominantly Italian, French, German, and Belgian. We do find one group of costumers who are American teachers in Europe.

Most models have 2-3 different outfits each year, traveling to Venice with several trunks and suitcases. The clothes are handmade by the participants over the course of the year. Some of the dresses are so heavy, small wheels are sewn into the hem so that the person inside can move around more effectively. The headdresses can weigh as much as 7 lbs. Most wear masks on with only the whites of their eyes and irises visible.

As you follow the models around Venice, you have to admire their imagination, spirit, and dedication. They are out every day from early in the morning to late at night. Most will tell you that it is both exhausting and exhilarating.

The Bovolo Staircase, also known as The Snail with Costumers during Venetian Carnival

Models Posing in the Bovolo Staircase, Venice

Crowds of more serious photographers follow them, looking for “the perfect shot,” while tourists surround them clamoring for selfies. Photographing them is addictive. Whether it is taking photos of them in context or close up, you keep coming back for more, looking for different venues or light.

There is a certain etiquette to photographing the costumers. They rarely, if ever, speak. Instead, they communicate with hand gestures. However, if you ask them, they will almost always agree to let you take their photo and will even oblige you by posing in specific ways. All they ask in exchange is for you to send them a copy of your photos by email. Unfortunately, most people never bother, which is a great disappointment for the models.

When you have finished shooting, thank them, and ask for a business card or “cartolino” or “carte de visite.” Or you can use gestures to show that you want their visiting card. Most models carry them tucked away in a pocket or a glove. Sometimes they will ask you to photograph the card as a means of obtaining their contact information.

In addition to the costumers, there are countless visitors who rent fancy dress to get into the spirit of the festival. Even if you choose not to dress up yourself, there is much to see and do in Venice that will make you feel as if you have been transported to another place and time.

Posing in front of the Bridge of Sighs, Venice

The American Contingent near the Bridge of Sighs

IF YOU GO 

If you decide to travel to Venice independently, make your hotel reservations for 2018 as soon as possible. If you would rather travel on a tour with a professional photographer who organizes specific shoots with the models, Jim Zuckerman is one of the best. He has been running photography tours to Carnevale in Venice for over ten years. His photo tours sell out almost instantly, so book early.

During the winter, Venice is often the victim of exceptionally high tides – L’Acqua Alta – that regularly flood the city. Remember to pack a pair of rubber boots or else pick up a pair of colorful clear plastic overshoes sold throughout the city. It is the only way to get around during the flooding.

For more photographs of Carnevale go to http://www.allegriaphotos.com/EUROPE/Italy/Venice-Carnival-2016/.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

A Caviar Fix in Missouri – L’Osage Caviar Company

L'Osage Caviar from the Ozarks, MO

A jar of L’Osage Caviar

When I was growing up in a foreign diplomatic family in Tehran, we were very fortunate to sample the caviar for which the country was famous. In addition to having it for special occasions, we would often leave school, stop in the local equivalent of a deli and order a caviar sandwich – about an inch thick slab of the ambrosial gray or black pearls on a slab of bread. The price? A mere $1! Caviar was as common as oysters once were on the streets of New York.

Fast forward 60 years and how things have changed! Oysters are no longer the street food of New York City. Hot dogs have replaced them!! And caviar is now an almost unreachable luxury. It is enough to drive you to despair!

What exactly is caviar? It is usually the roe of Sturgeon, found predominantly in the Caspian Sea and fished almost to extinction by Russian and Iranian fishermen. Here, the three most expensive Caviars in the world were produced– Beluga, Osetra, and Sevruga.

When sturgeon became an endangered species in the 1980s, we stopped buying it. Since then we have made do with red salmon roe and, periodically, with a one-ounce jar of either French or German-produced sturgeon caviar to celebrate a special occasion.

Paddlefish roe caviar

Steely gray pearls of paddlefish roe

But the drought is now over! And believe it or not, the rescue is coming from the crystal-clear waters of the Ozarks in Missouri! Back in 1953, Jim Kahrs and his family started the Osage Catfisheries, selling different species of fish indigenous to the waters in this part of the world. When sturgeons became endangered, Jim began to produce paddlefish. Unfortunately, Jim passed away a few years ago, but his sons Steve and Paul have continued the company and are now the proud producers of exquisite caviar made from the roe of these fish.

Paddlefish have been around for about 300 million years and are relatives of sturgeon. They look just as intimidating, growing to be five feet in length with thin, extended noses that are over a foot long. The fish live to be over 50 years old and can weigh up to 100 lbs.  Osage Catfisheries hatch and raise them before releasing the fish to live for 10-12 years in privately owned ponds and lakes around the region. They feed on a diet of plankton, making them the only “green” fish of their kind, and they are farmed sustainably without impacting the environment or decimating the fish stocks.

When it comes time to collect the roe, giant nets are used to catch the fish. While the largest females are kept for breeding purposes, the rest are harvested for their roe. A typical fish yields about 9 lbs.

Thereafter, the eggs are processed through a sieve in the traditional Russian manner by a highly skilled, trained processor. The result? Beautiful, pearly gray, glossy balls that shimmer in the candlelight and almost melt in your mouth with a creamy, buttery flavor that is reminiscent of the finest Beluga.

Caviar with baguette and lemon

A spoonful of caviar

Whereas in Russia caviar is accompanied by vodka, we prefer the French choice of a glass of sparkling Champagne. Some people serve caviar with blinis (small buckwheat pancakes) and smother it with sour cream and onions. I am a purist. I like it by the spoonful, straight out of the jar or else on a slice of fresh Baguette with a smear of butter and a spritz of lemon. (Always use a spoon made from mother-of-pearl or wood. Silver changes the taste of the caviar.)

Some of America’s finest chefs have already discovered L’Osage Caviar. If you love caviar and have missed it for all these years, help is now available!

You can contact L’Osage Caviar Company at (573) 348-1190 or by email losagecaviar@usmo.com.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

The Fosse Ardeatine, Rome

The Fosse Ardeatine

Courtyard of the Fosse Ardeatine, Rome

As a matter of principle, we try to write travel blogs that focus on the positive and upbeat. However, every once in a while during your travels, you come across something so compelling, it forces you to examine it and write about it, even if is tragic. Such is the case regarding our visit to the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome.

While there are certainly those who want to change facts to suit their narrative, those who do
not learn from history are not only destined to repeat it, they are fools. The thought crosses my mind as we enter the heavy, intricate, iron gate into the Fosse Ardeatine National Monument and Mausoleum. Few tourists even know that it is there, but for Italians, it is a national memorial.

Located across from the back entrance of the Catacombs of Callisto, off the Appia Antica, these limestone caves are the site of unspeakable horror. This is where Nazi troops carried out the mass execution of 335 Italians, before blowing up the entrance to hide their crimes. It was Rome’s worst atrocity of World War II.

Entrance gate and Statue at the Fosse Ardeatine

Gate to the Fosse Ardeatine Memorial Mausoleum

The Facts

The tragedy started on the 25th anniversary of the founding of Fascism by Benito Mussolini (March 23, 1944). That morning, a heavily armed column of the Police Regiment Bozen (from South Tyrol) marched back to their barracks near Via Rasella (across from the Palazzo Barberini). As they reached the midpoint of the road, Partisans (members of the Patriotic Action Group (GAP)) detonated a bomb hidden in a garbage cart, killing 42 police officers and a number of civilian bystanders. After the attack, the Partisans disappeared into the crowd.

German reaction was swift. Initially, Hitler wanted to destroy Rome completely as punishment. Instead, he was persuaded by his officers on the ground (SS Lt Col Herbert Kappler, Commander of the security police, and Lt. Gen Kurt Malzer, Commander of the Wehrmacht) to round up 10 Italian civilians for every German casualty. The plan to execute 330 men was approved by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief South.

The next day (March 24, 1944), SS Captains Erick Priebke and Karl Hass selected a number of victims from prisoners who had already been sentenced to death and who were being held at Gestapo Headquarters on Via Tasso. When there were not enough men to fill the required quota, the two officers selected prisoners who had been imprisoned in Rome’s Regina Coeli jail for political activity. Fifty-seven Jewish prisoners were amongst this group. Finally, civilians were arbitrarily rounded up from the streets of Rome. Amongst these were a 70-year old man and a 15-year old boy who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Imagine sending your son out to buy a loaf of bread and never seeing him again or knowing what had happened to him!

The victims, whose hands were tied behind their backs, were driven to the Fosse Ardeatine, a series of caves in an abandoned quarry near the Via Appia Antica, unloaded from trucks and marched to the back of the caves. German soldiers were instructed to shoot each in the head at close range, five at a time, as they knelt on the ground. In the process, the Nazis realized that they actually had 335 hostages, five more than required. The officers decided that they couldn’t free the extra five for security reasons. They also were executed.

Statue in front of the Fosse Ardeatine

Statue of Bound Hostages, Fosse Ardeatine

When it was over, the Nazis dynamited the entrance to the cave to hide their crime. A farmer in the area witnessed what had happened, but it took until the Allies liberated Rome in June 1945 before the bodies could be exhumed and identified.

THE MEMORIAL

As you enter the gate of the Fosse Ardeatine, you walk past a statue depicting two victims, bound together, before they were murdered. It casts a long shadow across the courtyard in the beautiful, blue-sky morning. The immaculately-kept, tree-shaded,  garden is very quiet. Only the sounds of the chirping birds disturb the silence.

Ahead of you, the main entrance of the cave leads you down a tunnel to the back where the massacre took place. As you walk further into the dimly lit cavern, the cold air makes the hairs on the back of your neck bristle. It is as if the ghosts of the victims are still lingering in this place of indescribable evil, terror, and grief.

It is difficult to remain for very long; even after over 70 years, the feelings are too overwhelming. As you exit to the right, a pathway takes you to an enormous cavern-like room, under a massive concrete slab, where the tombs of the victims are lined up in rows, many with photos attached. Single flowers are strewn on the top, bouquets fill the space at the bottom. The names are listed on a wall. Nearby, a small museum contains some photos and artwork, as well as information about the victims.

THE PERPETRATORS

With such an egregious crime against humanity (not to speak of the other crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in Italy), you would think that the officers responsible would be punished after the end of the War. Although most of them were tried, some in Nuremberg, sadly, this was far from the case.

Melzer served a few years in prison; Kesselring was sentenced to death but was then pardoned; Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment but was smuggled out of Italy by his wife. Pribke spent five months in prison before escaping to Argentina where he lived until he was exposed in an interview with Sam Donaldson of ABC News; he was extradited to Italy in 1995 where he received a life sentence that he served under house arrest until his death a few years ago.

A concrete slab over the tombs of the victims, Fosse Ardeatine

Row of tombs, Fosse Ardeatine

AND NOW?

It is an intensely emotional visit. In addition to the sadness, you feel incredible anger at the inhumanity of humans towards each other. You wonder how it was possible for the evils of Fascism and Nazism to swallow Europe unchecked while good people sat and watched and said, “it will be ok in the end, we shouldn’t get involved. Just wait. It will pass.”

And yet…. History repeats itself over and over. When will we finally learn to say “Never again” and mean it? What are the lessons from this tragedy at the Fosse Ardeatine that should make us all take pause, in 2017, and reflect on what is happening around us? Finally, will a few good men and women stand up and say “NO!” We will not let this happen again? Will you? The future of our children and grandchildren depends on it.

IF YOU GO

The National Memorial of the Ardeatine Caves is at Via Ardeatina 174.

The site is open every day, except major holidays, Monday to Friday 0815-1515, 16:30 Saturday and Sunday. Bus 218 towards Zanetta stops near the site but a taxi is faster.

There is an English language information sheet available in the guard house near the entrance; however, the descriptions in the Museum are all in Italian so an interpreter helps.

If you would like to learn more about the events at the Fosse Ardeatine, visit www.primolevicenter.org/printed-matter/the-fosse-ardeatine. Primo Michele Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocaust Survivor (1919-1987).

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2017 Diana Russler

Il Spirito Di Vino Restaurant, Rome

 

Side Entrance to the Spirito Di Vino restaurant

Sign over the Spirito Di Vino restaurant, Rome

With so many outstanding restaurants in Rome, it is sometimes hard to pick a favorite. The Spirito Di Vino restaurant (the name is a play on words that mean either“The Spirit Divine” or “The Spirit of the Wine) is one of Rome’s finest featuring an eclectic menu that changes daily depending on what is available in the market. It is the domain of Chef Eliana Catalani who, together with her husband, Romeo and her son Francesco, opened the restaurant in 1998.

The ancient building in Trastevere in which it is housed was Rome’s first synagogue until Pope Paul IV forced the Jews into a ghetto across the Tiber River. In the arcaded loggia above the side entrance of the restaurant, you can still see Hebrew letters carved in the marble pillar. The building has also been home to a convent, a shop, a private residence and, now, a restaurant.

However, its origins are even older than that as we learn when we arrive for dinner. As we walk into the restaurant, Romeo greets us and leads us up a small flight of steps to a table under multiple arches and terra-cotta walls. The white tablecloths, crystal glasses and silverware gleam under the soft lights. Romeo immediately pours us two glasses of Prosecco Millesimato Brut and pulls up a chair to chat. He highlights the most unique items on the menu and spends a bit of time describing the history of each. He comes back at regular intervals throughout our meal to see how we are doing.

Once we have made our selections, Francesco arrives with recommendations on the best wines for each dish. He invites us to visit the wine cellar and explains its extraordinary history.

THE WINE CELLAR

As you carefully pick your way down the steep brick steps to the dim, dank cellar, you travel in time to the first century level of Republican Rome. Every step down is equal to 75 years of time. The wine cellar is 160 years older than the Colosseum, its walls protected by the Ministry of Archeology. Even the wine bottles stored down here are not allowed to touch them.

Each step represents 75 years of history

A wine cellar older than the Colosseum

Several archeological treasures that are now on display at the Vatican or Capitoline Museums were discovered during excavations. One, the “Statue of the Athlete”, the so-called “Apoxyomenes”, has given its name to the small alley outside the restaurant’s side entrance, the Vicolo dell’Atleta. It is a Roman marble copy of an original Greek bronze by Lisippo (4th century BC). It depicts an athlete scraping olive oil from his body. The second is an original Greek bronze horse from the Classical era that was once part of the monumental equestrian sculpture commissioned by Alexander the Great to honor those who fell in the Battle of Granico.

We notice that the bottles are all wrapped in plastic wrap. Francesco explains that since the cellar has a constant temperature of 50-59 degrees F with 30% humidity, the plastic is required to keep the labels from peeling off. One employee is responsible for wrapping and unwrapping the bottles.

THE FOOD

Chef Eliana is the only person who prepares the food. Before becoming a gourmet chef, she spent 37 years as an internationally acclaimed virologist working with 1986 Nobel Laureate Rita Levi Montalcini. Chef Eliana gave this up to follow a dream and open her own restaurant. An early proponent of the Slow Food Movement, the raw materials she uses are purchased daily at the market and come from organic farmers and small producers located within a few miles of Rome.

Eliana sees her kitchen as an extension of her laboratory, bringing the same scientific rigor to her cooking as she did to her research. “I want every recipe to tell a story,” she says. “Instead of words, the aromas and tastes of each dish provide the narration.” Eliana believes that, through her cooking, she is conveying the multi-cultural influences of Rome.

Liver pate is served with lightly toasted bread and wild apple jelly

Liver Pate at Il Spirito Divino, Rome

We start our meal with the liver paté served with rounds of toast and a side of wild apple jelly. It is a reminder of the building’s Jewish heritage. Romeo describes some of the 18 different herbs and spices with which it is made. It is smooth and silky on the palate, the richness of the paté offset by the sweetness of the jelly. It is a flavor that is difficult to forget. No other chicken liver paté will ever taste the same.

For our main course, we select the Magro di Maiale di Manzio or the Lean pork made in Manzio’s style. Manzio was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, known for his authorship of three volumes on gastronomy, as well as his horticultural skills. (The Spanish word for apple (manzana) has its origins in the apples that Manzio grew.)

Eliana has recreated this dish, slow-cooking chunks of pork shoulder with apples, onions, honey, vinegar, red wine, herbs, and spices. Instead of salt, she remains true to the original recipe by using a garum (or fermented fish sauce) similar to the Vietnamese nuoc mam. (In Caesar’s time salt was too expensive a commodity to use on food). Notwithstanding what you might expect, there is absolutely no fishy flavor to the meat, which is served with a side of applesauce. We accompany this with a glass of Terre Siciliane Molino a Vento Syrah recommended by Francesco.

To conclude our meal, we select the tiramisú and the Crema cotta, the Italian version of crème brulée but without the hard sugar-coating on top. They are both delicious and gone much too quickly.

Shoulder of pork with apples, wine and garum sauce

Il Magro di Maiale di Manzio, Spirito Divino

In addition to the outstanding food, what makes Il Spirito Di Vino so special is the attitude towards the guests. At no time do you feel as if you should hurry up and leave. Each table is booked for only one party per evening. In fact, Romeo and Francesco invite us to sit back and have another cup of espresso or a digestive spirit and chat some more. Perhaps the greatest treat of all is meeting Chef Eliana herself! With all the outstanding restaurants that you can find in Rome, Il Spirito Di Vino is our favorite.

IF YOU GO

Il Spirito Di Vino Restaurant is open Monday to Saturday 7 to 11 pm; closed on Sunday. It is located at Via dei Genovesi 31 in Trastevere, a block from the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere Tel 39-06-589-66-89; info@spiritodivino.com).

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016-2017 Diana Russler

The Ends of the Earth, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti, Georgia

Dartlo, Tusheti

Even though it is July, banks of snow still dot the mountainside as we hike along the Alazani River into the bottom of Pirikiti Valley, Tusheti. Across the river, medieval stone towers in two tiny hamlets cling to the steep slopes. It feels as if we at the ends of the earth in the High Caucasus Mountains.

Remains of the winter, Dartlo, Tusheti

Snowbank, Dartlo, Tusheti

Dartlo is the larger of the two villages. Located on the riverbank, its architecture includes the traditional fortresses dating back to the 12th century, slate houses with roofed balconies as well as more “modern” stone structures. Some years ago the World Bank funded a project to restore the village and many of the structures have been reconstructed.

A sign banning women from approaching is prominently displayed at the ruins of a church, surrounded by barbed wire. It is unusual to see this type of sign on a church; normally it is the pagan shrines (Khati) that are thus marked. However, one once stood here, making the ground itself off-limits to women.

Ruins of church, Dartlo, Tushet

“No women allowed.”

Immediately behind the church twelve stones stand in a semi-circle, the remains of an ancient court where 12 elders once met to dispense justice in the community. The plaintiff and the defendant sat on two stones before them. The judges resolved most cases through negotiation and compromise, but periodically, more draconian measures were required. Banishment of the defendant from the community was the worst punishment that could be meted out.

Rock carving on house, Dartlo, Georgia

Mysterious stone petroglyph , Dartlo

Even though archeologists believe that this area of the Caucasus was settled between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago, very little research or excavation has taken place here. Some Bronze Age artifacts as well as stones covered with petroglyphs have been found. Many of the slate houses include such stones here and there in the walls. There are a number of common themes among the petroglyphs: a pair of hands protecting a circle, circles within circles, a flaming tail on a star, or a man on a horse.

In Tusheti horses are considered as part of the family as well as being the primary means of transportation. Special songs and toasts are dedicated to famous horses, and wild horse races follow all Tusheti festivals and even funerals.

Towers in Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti

Dartlo and Kvavlo, Tusheti, Georgia

We stay at the Samtsikhe Guest house, owned by Beso Elanidze. It is the largest we find in Tusheti, able to house 40 guests in six stone and wood buildings. The rooms are similar to other guesthouses in the region, twin beds with thick wool quilts and a shared bathroom. This one has electricity and a nice, rustic, open-air café overlooking the rushing stream. Orange lichen covers the rocks around the café. Our guide tells us that the women of the village boil the lichen to dye the wool they use to make traditional handicrafts – woolen hats, socks and mittens.

Long communal tables with rounds of tree trunks for chairs line the café. Massive amounts of food appear – khachapuri, khinkali, stuffed peppers, eggplant in walnut sauce, chicken in walnut sauce, and the ever-present tomato and cucumber salad — accompanied by the customary toasts with wine or chacha, Georgia’s equivalent to firewater. Our travel companions are a group of Czech hikers who stop by to have a warm meal before setting up camp and a group of Russian visitors making their way through Tusheti.

Delicious Georgian food, Dartlo

Dartlo Dinner

A steep, difficult hike away, the even smaller hamlet of Kvavlo sits above Dartlo. A single 12th century watchtower looms above the skyline, its roof shaped like a pyramid. The village is built on the rocky slope of the mountain with stone paths connecting the various houses.

Further along the mountainside, a spectacular pagan Khati, adorned with horses, sits in the village of Dano.

The following morning we set out for the village of Parsma, the farthest point in our journey through Tusheti. Parsma is farther up the Pirikiti Valley at about 7,000 feet above sea level. We drive north on what can only be described as a single lane, dirt trail, so narrow that it is almost impossible to turn the vehicle around. On one side, sheer drop-offs fall to the river below while on the other the mountain looms high with slate outcrops and plenty of evidence of rock and mudslides.

Lichen is used to make dye, Tusheti

Lichen-covered slate, Parsma, Tusheti

Our driver, David skillfully navigates over smaller obstacles and through rushing rivers. Once he asks us to get out as he navigates a particularly nasty mudslide, his car leaning precariously into the ravine.

Eventually a massive landslide stops our progress. Fortunately we are fairly close to Parsma and are able to hike up a very steep slope and over the top of the crest to the village. It provides us with the best photographic opportunities of our trip to Tusheti.

Five towers line the mountainside. Beneath them, traditional slate houses are clustered around a small spring. We picnic in a field of buttercups high on a cliff above the river where flocks of sheep crisscross the remains of a snowfield.

Clearing a landslide_DSC9694(LR&C)This is the only place in Tusheti where we actually see wildlife – a pair of gryphons and some ravens devouring the carcass of a sheep. We hear but are unable to photograph cuckoos that flit among the houses. Even though this area is famed for its biodiversity, it seems what few animals remaining after the Soviet occupation have retreated deep into the wilderness.

We return to the car down a steep path. As we walk two Tush horsemen ride by, carrying hoes and shovels, on their way to clear the landslide. We find them again further down the mountain, digging away, a task akin to emptying a swimming pool with a teaspoon.

Sheep on the snow, Tusheti

Sheep crossing a snow bank, Tusheti

Now, however, we have to drive back the way we came. David reverses the car back down the path until he can go no further safely. It takes him about 20 maneuvers, with no room for error, before the car faces the right direction.

It is a stark reminder that we are completely at the mercy of nature, at the ends of the earth in Tusheti.

IF YOU GO

Our travels in Georgia were organized by Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge)
Beso Elanidze at the Samtsikhe Guest House may be contacted at beselanidze@yahoo.com , Tel. +599-118-993.
For more images of Tusheti, see the Recent Additions gallery at www.allegriaphotos.com

 

 

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler

MAKING KHINKALI IN SHENAKO, GEORGIA

Tushetian village of Shenako

Shenako Village

Each village in Tusheti is unique. Some have towers; others have churches; in all of them we find the famous hospitality of the Georgian people who invite us into their homes and to their tables. It is in the village of Shenako, a thousand-year old village high in the Caucasus Mountains that we learn about khinkali, one of Georgia’s national foods.

Georgian Orthodox Church, Shenako

The Church at Shenako

The road from Omalo to Shenako is another jaw-shuddering drive on a dirt track that takes us down one mountainside and up another. The isolation is palpable. We see no other vehicles until just before reaching the village when a very large Soviet-made truck blocks the road. It is mired in the mud up to its axles. Five men try to winch it out, but it is well and truly stuck.

We hike the rest of the way into the village, through fields of yellow buttercups and wild iris, past the Shenako winter village, on the south slope of the mountain. The few inhabitants, who remain here during the winter months, braving the 14 feet of snow, move to these tiny shelters with their cows.

The interior of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Shenako

Frescos inside Shenako Church

The main village is on the northern slope. A large green meadow in the center serves as the soccer pitch as well as the communal ground for festivals. The tiny church of Shenako presides over the village from a small rise. It dates from the 18th century and was recently restored by the Tchvritidze family who funded the restoration themselves. We are told that volunteers assisted them, including a pair of Italian fresco painters who adorned the interior of the church at no charge.

Shrine linked to pagan times in the village of Shenako

Pagan Shrine, Shenako

Behind the church sits a khati, or pre-Christian shrine, adorned with horns and white rocks. (The latter serve as a signal that women are not allowed to approach). Tusheti only embraced Christianity in the 9th century, long after the rest of Georgia, and continues to maintain many pagan traditions.

From our room in the Sheni Sakli Guesthouse, (run by Darejan and Davit Tchvritidze), we gaze out on the church as well as on Mt. Diklo, on the Georgia-Daghestan border, a few miles away.

Our accommodations in Shenako

Shenako Guesthouse

A three-mile hike to the village of Diklo takes us through forests of larch and fir trees as well as extensive meadows carpeted with wildflowers. Horses and cows graze on the hillsides; fierce Caucasian sheep dogs protect the flocks, barking madly to scare us away. We advance cautiously, hiking sticks in hand, to protect ourselves from possible attack. It is no laughing matter since rabies is common, and treatment involves a medevac to Germany for the rabies vaccines.

However, all this beauty notwithstanding, Darejan’s cooking, and a Master Class in the making of khinkali (Georgia’s version of meat dumplings), is the main event here.  As with most things, each region of Georgia has its own variation of how you prepare this national food.

Georgia's version of meat dumplings called khinkali

Folding the khinkali

Working in a wooden lean-to with a dirt floor that serves as the kitchen, delicious multi-course meals are prepared with nothing more than an old-fashioned wood-burning stove and a brazier. (The stove is also where water is heated if you want to take a shower. Water takes about 45 minutes to come to a boil at this altitude. It makes you think twice about wasting it!)

In Georgian the kitchen is called a “Jujula deda.” “Deda” is the word for “Mother” (and, yes, the word for “Father” is “mama”) while “Jujula” is the sound made when calling chickens. Only women are allowed into the kitchen, and it is where they gather to prepare meals, talk, drink, and relax!

Khinkali are cooked on a wood-burning stove

Khinkali boiled over a brazier

The Master Class takes about an hour. Darejan, and her assistant, Tina, have already prepared the dough (a mixture of flour and brine) and rolled it out using a glass bottle. The filling is also ready in a bowl. Although there are many different combinations, the most common filling for khinkali in Tusheti is ground lamb or beef with onions, seasonings and greens including spinach or fenugreek. (Pork is not allowed into the province in any way, shape or form, including as a ham sandwich in your picnic lunch. Our guide tells us that it is a remnant of pagan times).

A glass is used to cut the dough into small circles using a glass and a dollop of the meat is placed in the center. Then, the edges of the dough are pulled into a pleated topknot. It is not as easy as it looks to pleat the dough, making as many folds as possible. Uproarious laughter ensues as I try my hand at making the khinkali!

Once all the khinkali have been assembled, they are dropped into a large kettle of boiling water on the brazier (they can also be steamed) and served immediately, perhaps with a sprinkle of pepper.

Hiking to Mt. Dikhlo

Dikhlo, near Shenako, on the Georgia-Daghestan border

There is an art to eating khinkali. You grasp the topknot in one hand, turn it upside down and take a small bite, sucking out the broth before continuing to eat the rest. The idea is not to let a single drop of the liquid escape and make a mess of your shirt in the process. Once you have eaten around it, you discard the topknot on the plate. This serves as an indication of how many you have consumed.  Eating the khinkali with a knife and fork It is considered the height of rudeness.

We eat khinkali at almost every meal. Meat is the most common filling but mushrooms, cheese and walnuts are also possibilities. At breakfast we are served khinkali filled with mashed potatoes and butter. Picnic lunches often include the leftovers.

The ubiquitous Khinkali is one of Georgia’s most popular foods, as evidenced by the large number of khinkali “parlors” in the cities and its presence on almost every table. However, learning how to make them in such a unique place as Shenako makes this a very special experience.

IF YOU GO

Our trip was organized by Wild Georgia (www.wildgeorgia.ge).
If you want to give it a try at home, Georgian Journal has a good recipe. (http://www.georgianjournal.ge/georgian-cuisine/26984-how-to-make-traditional-georgian-khinkali.html).
Photos of Georgia can be found at www.allegriaphotos.com in Recent Additions.

 

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2016 Diana Russler