Almaty: Kazakhstan’s former capital a beacon of post-Soviet modernization — if only the government kept step

Almaty, a city of 1.7 million, has four ski resorts and countless hiking trails within 30 kilometers.


(Second of a four-part series on a three-week trip through Central Asia)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — I was sitting in what can only be described as an Arabic gazebo. My table sat under a pointed roof with drapes on four sides pulled back like on a square four-poster bed. It looked more like a harem tent in the Sahara than a dining table in Central Asia.

But then came the food. Then more food. And more food. From meat dumplings to cheese soup, from horse jerky to camel’s milk, I dined like a true Arab prince. After chewing laboriously on mutton in Kyrgyzstan, I had found the culinary capital of Central Asia.

Almaty represents what happens when former Soviet republics discover their own natural riches and spend them lavishly. The largest city and economic engine of the world’s ninth-largest country is awash in high-end restaurants, rollicking nightclubs, shiny shopping malls, leafy boulevards, efficient public transportation and cozy cafes. It’s what likely came to mind 30 years ago when oppressed subjects of the old USSR dreamed about a future democracy.

The national government? Well, it hasn’t caught up on the democracy scale, as 700 protesters confirmed this week when they were arrested over what they viewed as mock elections. Kazakhstan is like one of the shiny SUVs I saw cruising up tree-lined Nazarbaev, one of Almaty’s many pretty streets. The SUV looks great from the outside but inside grinds the engine of a 1965 Trabant.

Still, from the outside? Oh, that body!

I had an eight-hour layover in Almaty on my Almaty Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Thanks to Kazakhstan’s no-visa policy for Americans, I cruised right out of the airport skipping past immigration and customs and had a pleasant afternoon in one of the world’s most underrated cities.

High-rise apartment houses have popped up all over Almaty since independence in 1991.


Almaty, a city of 1.7 million people, is blessed with some of Asia’s most breathtaking urban scenery. On the ride into downtown, the snow-capped Zailiysky Alatau mountains seemingly came right up to the road’s guardrails. If I had more time I would’ve taken a bus to the city’s outskirts and some of the country’s best hiking, some leading to 4,000-meter peaks. Or if it was winter, I could go to one of the four ski resorts within about 30 kilometers of the city.

But it was a dry, sunny 80 degrees. I had six hours before getting back to the airport. For a quick look at the city, I took a gondola up to Kok-Tobe, Almaty’s landmark playground hill that was built in 2006. Up top, I walked around restaurants with outdoor seating, crafts stores, a kiddie playground, tame carnival rides, a rollicking sled ride and a life-size bronze statue of the Beatles, the only sculpture in the world featuring all four together. Just past a small zoo where male peacocks displayed a massive spread of white feathers about three meters across, I stood under the 372-meter TV tower that can be seen from all over the region.

On Kok-Tobe, the recreational playground established atop a mountain in 2006.


However, I came up for the views. They were spectacular and showed a modern city blending new world wealth with old Soviet-style architecture. In 2016, Kazakhstan was the world’s No. 16 oil producer, pumping out 1.6 million barrels a day. Below me were what rose from seeds planted: glittery, high-rise apartment houses, the windows all sparkling in the sun. Just past them stood some trademark Soviet-era buildings like the 26-story Hotel Kazakhstan, built in 1977 with a spiked, pointy roof, like a Soviet spaceship ready to take off; the egalitarian-named Central State Museum, with its beautiful sky blue dome built in 1985; and the blockish, yellow Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, boasting of Soviet technology since 1946.

The city has the most interesting ethnic mix of any I saw through four Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan’s population of 17.8 million, by far the largest in Central Asia, is 65 percent Kazakhs whose Asian features are much more delicate than the Kyrgyz. While a Muslim country, Kazakhstan has much heavier Russian influence. Concerned about the Nazis overrunning his factories along the European borders, Joseph Stalin moved thousands of workers and factories to Kazakhstan. When old Russians talked about a prison “in the middle of nowhere,” they may not have been talking about Siberia. Kazakhstan was second only to Siberia in the number of gulags.

Talk to some locals today and you think maybe the country hasn’t changed much.

This week’s massive protests and arrests that made international news centered around elections that have become comical. Like many other ex-Soviet republics that put in charge the old communist guard following independence, Kazakhstan put in place Nursultan Nazarbayev. The son of a poor laborer and growing up in the mountains, Nazarbayev had been an old Soviet hand who became Kazakhstan’s first secretary of its communist party in 1989. Still clinging on to the communist apron strings in Moscow, he did not want the USSR to collapse and, thus, Kazakhstan became the last Central Asian country to become independent.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, left, ruled Kazakhstan from 1989 until he abruptly resigned in March. His hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, right, won Sunday’s election with 71 percent of the vote. Al Jazeera photo


Since then, he has engineered Kazakhstan into the forefront of progressive ex-Soviet republics. In 1998 he moved the capital from Almaty to the more centrally located Astana and poured money into a glittery new skyline that has attracted the world’s top architects. Using oil resources and an eye on tourism, Kazakhstan has grown into an urban paradise rivaling many Western European countries and a trendy off-the-beaten-path destination for intrepid travelers.

However, in openly admitting he favors economics over democracy, he has won a string of five-term elections that have been nothing short of formalities. In his last election in 2015, he won 98 percent of the vote. The other 2 percent, apparently, voted for themselves.

Then in March, he resigned. No one knows exactly why but it came one month after he fired his entire government for economic growth that didn’t meet his expectations. In response, the capital of Astana was renamed, in his honor, Nur-Sultan.

The people hoped for true open elections for the first time since independence. Instead, interim president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s handpicked successor, took 71 percent of the vote Sunday. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has refused to recognize Kazakhstan’s elections as fully democratic. Police have raided homes of activists; journalists have been detained.

The people took to the streets in protests despite a law against protests. With exiled activists promising more demonstrations soon, Tokayev was sworn in Wednesday with Nazarbayev expected to wield plenty of power as head of his Nur-Otan political party

Fortunately, I caught Almaty in the calm before the storm.

The hammock and dining areas at Qamaq.


Nothing can be calmer than sitting in said makeshift tent dining on a vast array of local cuisine. Qamaq is one of the new gems on the Almaty restaurant scene. Opened just last year, it is the place to go for an introduction into Kazakh food.

Not to say Qamaq’s atmosphere is laid back but there’s a hammock by the bar, perhaps for food comas.

Thankfully in the shade, I ordered a Line, one of Kazakhstan’s fine national beers. I should’ve saved room for food. The intake was massive. First came a warm salad of green vegetables that tasted a little like chop suey. Second were little cheese balls called kurt, so dry and chewy I needed an entire Line to get one down. It was, however, quite delicious and surely should come soon to taverns in the American South.

Karta, top, and beshbarmak, two of Kazakhstan’s favorite horse meat dishes.


Later came a bowl of what looked like horse jerky. They were little round shavings of dark maroon horse meat called karta. I like horse meat and it’s naturally popular in Kazakhstan where Genghis Khan once raped, pillaged and plundered while leaving only the Mongol cuisine behind. I’m not particularly fond of horses. Thus, I had no problem devouring the entire bowl. It tastes like venison but not nearly as gamey.

Them came the main horse. The national dish of beshbarmak is a bowl filled with huge chunks of horsemeat on a bed of flat, square noodles. Next was a soup, kind of a bouillabaisse, in which I added a dollop of cream cheese. Then came the samsan, fried triangle square filled with meat.

When in Kazakhstan, pass on the fermented camel’s milk.


By this time, after snacking on fried dough in a dill dip, I was about ready to explode. What better way to wash it all down but with …

… fermented camel’s milk.

It’s called shubat and came in a small bowl that looked like something I’d give a cat — preferably a starving cat. I picked it up, took one sip and made a face that looked like I swallowed mating cockroaches. It was as sour as a lemon and room temperature. In a lifetime of eating weird foods in weird places, camel’s milk made my bottom 10.

Qamaq is one reason Almaty is the culinary capital of Central Asia.


At the end of a long layover, it was one step back after many steps forward, kind of like Kazakhstan. As the country pulls itself off the Russian steppe, let’s see if its new motor is a BMW or a Trabant.

Procida: Beauty and love in the Bay of Naples

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

(Director’s note: I’m traveling. Below is a re-posting of a blog from two years ago.)

PROCIDA, Italy — Italy has an innocence that can be forgotten when spending too much time in a city. Italy’s magic is in its sounds, colors and tastes. It’s not in its wealth or innovation, technology or military. It’s not the United States. It’s better, at least the lifestyle is.

Peel away the first layer of culture and see. Look past Rome and its monuments, Venice and its canals, Florence and its museums. You’ll see an Italy you dream about when you grind through your 10th straight day at the office or daydream after an old Italian romantic movie. It’s an Italy where villagers sit at sun-splashed outdoor cafes and talk about nothing, where fishermen mend nets on a quiet harbor, where boys play soccer in narrow, cobblestone alleys, where the smell of grilled fish and garlic permeate the air and where men have nothing better to do but fall in love.

It’s where I am right now.

The island of Procida doesn’t get much play outside Europe. The way it’s overshadowed by Capri 10 miles to the south, Capri might as well be Australia. But Procida (pronounced PRO-chee-duh) holds its own with Italians who see Capri as I do: an Italian theme park with better wine. Procida doesn’t have Capri’s vistas — and Capri’s do meet the hype — but it does have an Italian soul.

It’s why I took my girlfriend, the lovely and talented Marina Pascucci, to Procida for our two-year anniversary. She’s a Roman for Romans, a street-smart, third-generation Roman whom I can read like a Dante novel just by watching her hand gestures. But in Procida she softens. We both melted into the island culture like provolone on a pizza. Whether it was sitting on a marina sipping cold drinks or strolling the sandy beach or dining on ravioli so sensual we nearly forgot the gorgeous view of the harbor lights below us, Procida turned us into bit players in a romance novel.

Marina had never been to Procida. She’d only heard of it. She heard it was the anti-Capri, the place you go to get into Italy’s beauty without the crowds and remind yourself why you live in this gorgeous country.

There's not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s shocking, really, that she was also on her maiden visit. Procida is so easy to reach from Rome. We took a 70-minute train ride to Naples, a short cab ride to the ferry dock and a 30-minute hydroplane to the island. Another taxi through the windy streets up Procida’s hill took us to a hotel right out of Italian Dreams magazine, if there was such a thing.

The four-star Albergo La Vigna is a combination spa, vineyard, garden and lookout over the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Our room opened up to a big courtyard with a little cocktail table and two chairs looking out over the sea. The courtyard abutted a big garden where paths lead under grape vineyards and past flowers of orange, yellow, pink and white. A short stroll leads to a fence with a spectacular sea view, made even more comfortable by the small table and two chairs, perfect for a bottle of wine at sunset.

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci


However, La Vigna’s big selling point is its spa. Twice we went to the front desk and blocked off an hour for ourselves to enjoy a private Jacuzzi and a Turkish steambath, topped with lounging on wicker lanais chairs and a cup of tea.

But we don’t travel to sit in hotels. It’s just that there isn’t a lot to do on Procida. That’s the point. The island is 1.6 square miles and has 12,000 people. You take in Procida from a seat on the sea. You drink it in as a chaser behind the Campania region’s delicious wines. After checking in and catching a breath after seeing the view from above, we descended the steep staircase from our village to Marina Corricella.

Couples can reserve La Vigna's spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Couples can reserve La Vigna’s spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci


For an idea of how idyllic Italian is this marina, they filmed “Il Postino” here. If you don’t know it, you should if you dream of Italy. It’s the 1994 film about a mailman (“postino” in Italian) named Mario who falls in love with a beautiful woman but doesn’t know how to get her to notice him. During his daily deliveries to the famed, exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he asks him for the right words to say. The movie won the 1995 Oscar for Best Music and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. Not Best Foreign Film. Best Picture.

The film is set in 1950 but today Procida looks pretty much the same. The pink building where Mario sits contemplating life without love is still there. Marina and I walked past it as we made our first stroll down the marina. It’s now a restaurant, christened La Locanda del Postino. It’s decorated inside with photos from the movie and star Massimo Troisi, who put off heart surgery to make the movie and after the last day of filming died of a heart attack. The building is one of a cascade of pastel buildings colored turquoise, green, yellow, white and orange. It’s like walking past a rainbow.

"Il Postino," starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Il Postino,” starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat at one of the many seaside restaurants with views of small boats bobbing up and down on the water. Fuego has red tablecloths and a touch of elegance but it’s definitely unpretentious, with pizzas priced at 4-8 euros. And it’s all Neapolitan-style pizza with the thicker crust featuring slightly burned edges from the wood-fire ovens that cook mankind’s favorite food to perfection. I had a lovely pizza of sausage, provolone cheese, cherry tomatoes, chili pepper and — and a first for me — a sprinkling of cream.

Next to us commandeering a long table were 26 Brits. They’ve worked for NATO in Naples for the last three years. Procida is their company getaway.

If food is big in Italy, it’s even bigger on the islands where seafood reigns supreme at cheap prices the cities can’t approach. In Procida, mussels fill entire soup bowls as appetizers. Calamari comes as thick as lobster tails. Shrimp pepper everything from salads to pasta. They’re on nearly every menu with interesting twists throughout the island, such as Crescenzo on the beach where I had the mezzo paccheri polpo and pecorino: thick, halved macaroni with octopus and pecorino cheese.

A night out in Procida.

A night out in Procida.


We had our first dinner at La Lampara, so romantic the tables should have blankets instead of napkins. It’s on the limestone cliff connecting the marina to the piazza above. Every table on the covered patio has a gorgeous view of the gently curving marina. The marina lights danced off the water, bathing the boats in soft gold.

La Lampara defies my theory that the better the view, the worse the food. My ravioli al sapore di mare (seafood ravioli) was ravioli stuffed with a ground mix of shrimp and ricotta cheese. It tasted like a tangy shrimp cocktail. It was simply the best ravioli I’ve had in a country that treats ravioli as works of art. Chased with a tiramisu sprinkled with lemon and a half carafe of local Falanghina Benevento red wine, La Lampara moved into my top five favorite restaurants in Italy.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.


After one day, I could see how Mario fell in love here. Procida drowns the senses with flavors and sights but also sounds. At one point in “Il Postino,” Mario records the sea lapping against the beach as part of a tape he makes of the sounds of Procida. I heard similar sounds the next day when we took a bus from the port to the long beach on the north end of the island. The bus took us through the heart of Procida few stop and experience. Little villages with names like L’Olmo and San Antonio and Centane had the same pastel colors lining the streets. Flowers were everywhere: on corners, on balconies, in windows.

We walked on the beach’s fine brown sand and I repelled Italian convention by walking into the dark blue sea in early May. Then I quickly walked out. It’s too cold to swim. Locals told me it’s swimmable from June through September. But the brilliant weather made it perfect for a completely suitable way to spend an afternoon in Italy: sitting on a beach towel and watching seagulls hunt for fish.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.


We walked along the boardwalk to the enclosed Marina Chiaiolella where we settled in at Chalet Vicidomini, a simple but romantic snack bar right on the marina. I had a cold beer and Marina had a bitter as we sat in the sun and stared out at the modest boats bobbing up and down in the water. This is the shoulder season, meaning the local joints are populated by Neapolitans, boat people and one couple from Rome: us.
Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida's Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida’s Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Locals say that Italy’s biggest recession since World War II hasn’t had an effect here. Advanced technology drove away its once-thriving shipbuilding industry in the 18th century and tourism has taken over what was once their biggest business: law enforcement. Hanging like a dead dragon nearly 300 feet up the cliff from Marina Corricella is an abandoned prison. Palazzo d’Avalos was built in 1500 for Cardinal Innico d’Avalos, but in 1830 it was converted into a prison and stayed active for more than 150 years. It finally closed in 1988 for the occasional guided tour but not before incarcerating tens of thousands of criminals and hundreds of guards.
This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The prison never appeared in “Il Postino” but looking at the boarded up prison windows, at least the prisoners had good views. You can’t miss its omnipresence as you climb the steep road to get the great views of the marina. But like the rest of the island, the prison is now at peace.

If you do come to Procida, here’s a tip: Return to Naples with enough time to eat at Da Michele. If you come to Italy merely to try authentic Italian pizza, Da Michele is a must. Started in 1870, it’s considered Italy’s first pizzeria. It’s also considered the best. Think about that. Think about how many pizzerias there are in Italy. That’s like being the best pub in Ireland.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.


I’d been there twice and wrote in my old traveling food column at The Denver Post that it was my favorite pizzeria in Italy. It still is. Just don’t expect ambiance or variety. Those left town generations ago. We arrived with our luggage after about a 15-minute walk from Naples’ ferry dock. As usual, a mob waited outside to get in. I took a number that had about 30 people ahead of us.
Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But the beauty of Da Michele is its simplicity. It only makes two pizzas: margherita (marinara sauce, provolone cheese and a sprig of basil) and marinara (marinara tomato sauce). That’s it. They’re 4-5 euros, depending on the size. Thus, it’s not like in the U.S. where they spend 15 minutes topping pizzas with everything from Sarawak pepper to a ‘67 Chevy. Our number was called in only 30 minutes.

We took a seat at the same table as another Italian couple. The waiters don’t even bother with menus. One came over and just said, “Margherita?” They came out in five minutes. While I love the healthy aspects of Italian pizza, with the thinner crusts, more natural ingredients, fewer toppings, I’m an American and I do like my meat. Sausage. Guanciale. Prosciutto. I like protein pizzas.

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But at Da Michele, less isn’t just more. It’s the most. The marinara sauce tasted like biting into garden tomatoes. The provolone cheese was so fresh I could’ve dipped bread in it. The best part? The bill for two giant pizzas and two beers in arguably the best pizzeria in Italy and, thus, the world?

Fourteen euros.

Da Michele is also only a 10-minute walk from Naples’ train station. Like Da Michele’s pizzas, life in Italy can be oh, so simple. And Procida is simply the best.

Beirut: A birthday celebration in a war zone turned peaceful destination for the intrepid traveler

Me walking along the Corniche, Beirut’s 5-kilometer long boardwalk. Photo by Marina Pascucci


BEIRUT — The bar manager in the white suit hovered over our table by the sea. In between making Marina and I feel welcome, he directed his minions carrying buckets of white-hot coals for the hookah pipes at each table. With a 60-meter lighthouse hovering over us, we looked out through the glass-enclosed outdoor bar toward the cobalt-blue Mediterranean. Surrounding us was a smartly dressed international crowd sipping French wine, cold beer and frosty cocktails. The setting could only have been more ideal if it was under a summer sun and not spring clouds.

Then the manager blew the mood.

“I remember two Apache helicopters out there shooting at the lighthouse,” he said, pointing to the air above the sea. “Everyone dove under tables.”

Welcome to Beirut.

This is a city that has shed a violent past for a peaceful present. Nearly 30 years after a civil war that claimed 120,000 lives and displaced 76,000 others and 13 years after a one-month war with Israel, Beirut is showing signs of its heyday from the middle of the 20th century. That’s when “The Paris of the Middle East” attracted a jet set crowd who swam in a warm sea, ate great meals with views and danced until dawn.

In Beirut, it’s back to the future.

Beirut has enjoyed 13 years of peace but problems remain. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Marina shocked me once during our many discussions about future travel. She always wanted to visit Beirut. It was always on my bucket list and went higher every time I met a friendly Lebanese who raved about the new peace. A liberated, street-smart, third-generation Roman, Marina surprisingly didn’t bristle at Islam’s oft-misrepresented attitudes toward women. I knew better. I’d been to about 10 Muslim countries. Not all of them stone rape victims.

So for my recent birthday she took me to Beirut, a much more romantic destination than many Islamophobe Americans can imagine. Smoking green-apple flavored nargile (the Lebanese hookah) on a bar high atop a seaside cliff. Eating marinated chicken taouk in a 19th-century Ottoman house. Walking hand in hand along the Corniche, Beirut’s five-kilometer-long waterfront.

Our long weekend was lifted right out of “Arabian Nights,” where romantic tales are littered through stories from the Islamic Golden Age. But with every story dripping with romance, “Arabian Nights” has chapters of violence and tragedy.

So does Beirut.

Beirut is filled with construction sites building new apartment houses. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As we walked back long the Corniche from that Manara Palace Cafe on the sea, we saw across the street the new Beirut. It’s a string of high-rise, modern apartment buildings all built since the end of the civil war in 1990. All had big balconies with million-dollar views of the sea to match their price tags.

But peeking out from behind the skyscrapers was the old Beirut. These buildings were gray and black monoliths, skeletal remains of the shelling that lasted from 1975-90. Collapsed balconies. Crumbling concrete. Blown-out windows. These are the memories of a war that never seems too long ago.

Beirut’s waterfront looks like Miami Beach with Aleppo as a backdrop.

One of Beirut’s many blown-out buildings. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We stayed right smack dab in the middle of the contradiction. Our Warwick Palm Beach Hotel is a four-star, seven-story hotel at the start of the Corniche. It boasts one of the best Indian restaurants in Beirut and a high-end cocktail lounge that was booked for private parties every night we were there.

But directly across the street occupying a narrow corner stood the remains of a triangular hotel. The vertical letters P-E-R-L-A were smoke blackened and alternated with blown-out windows. Below, its badly scarred brick wall stood next to a glitzy ad for a Moroccan massage.

We walked by this every day during our romantic walks along the Corniche. We’d both been to Havana and Miami Beach and agreed Beirut’s boardwalk — clean, scenic and diverse — topped them all. The tile walkway shined in the setting sun. Lovers walked hand in hand next to Muslim women in burqas taking selfies. Beautiful joggers in short shorts ran by. The Corniche has no sandy beach. The huge rocks below provide adequate seating and diving platforms during the steaming summer months.

Scenes from the Corniche. Photos by Marina Pascucci


Even with steady traffic, we could hear the gentle waves lapping up against the rocks.

One day we took a taxi to the end of the Corniche and around the corner. Up a long hill were a string of cliffside restaurants, all offering incredible views of the sea. We walked into Al Falamanki Raouche, run by one of Beirut’s major bon vivants during its Golden Age. It’s filled with overstuffed couches and big chairs. We sat down by the wall and ordered apple and grapefruit nargiles. I’ve never smoked a cigarette but the nargile is slightly addicting. It’s a big brass stand about four-feet high with a container at the top holding the coals. You suck on the pipe like it’s a straw and let the “flavored water” seep into your lungs.

It’s quite tasty and after about 10 minutes of hits I admit to a touch of lightheadedness if not the wild desire to eat two kilos of hummus you get from pot. I asked the waiter if it’s unhealthy.

“It’s better than cigarettes,” he said.

Marina and I with the nargiles at Al Falamanki Raoucheh.

Beirut’s Piigeon’s Rock neighborhood. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It wasn’t just sea vistas and new smoking habits that brought us to Beirut. We wanted to see the history, however ugly. We didn’t want to wander through Beirut with blinders. Surprisingly, it has no war memorial museum. There is no place to read a chronological history in photos of what happened. The Barakat building, a yellow edifice that was bombed past recognition, has been targeted as a future museum — since 2003 — but it is years from completion. No one in Beirut seems in a terrible hurry to see it happen, either. Thirty years after the war ended, it’s still not taught in Beirut schools. Talking to young Beirutis, they don’t seem to know much more than I do. They all spoke perfect English. The schools get an A for foreign languages and an F for history.

The general feeling is neither the Christian or Muslim side can decide what the correct history is. Thus, neither side is revealed, to its citizens or outsiders. It is called “state-sponsored amnesia.”

As I began my international travels in the 1970s, I followed the war from a distance. Before the war, this 5,000-year-old city stood at peace, despite a Sunni and Christian majority along the sea and a Shia minority in the south and east. In the mountains to the north lived the Druze ethnic minority.

A lone fisherman off the Corniche.


The Christians ruled and in the mid-70s the Muslims began bristling under the pro-Western government. During the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 100,000 Palestinians emigrated to Lebanon. The Soviet Union aligned itself with Arab countries and Lebanon’s Muslim minority. You could see some sparks starting to fly.

When the Christians and Palestinian Liberation Organization fought in ‘75, the powder keg exploded. Arab nations sided with the Muslims. Israel sided with the Christians. The war was set.

In 1989 the Tarif Agreement began the end of the fighting and in March 1991 the Lebanese Parliament pardoned all political crimes. But before then, Lebanon — a country just slightly bigger than Maryland — was the biggest war zone in the world.

Just up from the hill from our hotel stands the Holiday Inn, the famed American-based hotel that was the main symbol for East vs. West conflict and remains the most bombed building in Beirut. Both sides used the rooftop of the 26-story building to throw off opponents. Today it is a gray blight on the landscape with every window blackened like a thousand eyes that saw too much grief. Like so many other buildings, this one is owned by dueling corporations who can’t decide what to do with it.

The Mohammad al-Amin Mosque. Photo by Marina Pascucci


One of the prettiest buildings in the Middle East is Beirut’s Mohammad al-Amin Mosque. It’s a beautiful palace made of yellow Saudi stone with four minarets and sky blue domes. Marina and I walked inside, sans shoes, and stood on a giant red, blue and yellow Persian carpet under a six-ton glass chandelier. Next door stands St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral, symbolic of Beirut’s current peaceful co-existence. Yet right across the street in Nehmeh Square, Martyrs’ Statue features two men, one holding a flame, and the other missing an arm — and both covered in bullet holes.

A block away stands The Egg, a huge concrete oval built in the 1960s as a proposed cinema but now is a charred, broken shell from years of civil war bombardment.

Martyrs’ Statue. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Beirut is littered with 30-year-old black eyes.

Yet talking to the people, it’s as if these sites are invisible. They’re too busy drinking, eating and dancing to talk about the past, let alone worry about it. Beirut’s nightlife may be the most underrated in the world. Who knew this former war zone has some of the best nightclubs in the world? Get up early for a pre-dawn airport taxi and you might see cafes crowded with late-night revelers eating breakfast.

I loathe nightclubs. They’re the same from Barstow to Bangkok. Instead, Marina and I went into Hamra, the neighborhood near our hotel and teeming with neighborhood bars and local restaurants. We went to one of Beirut’s best dive bars. Li Beirut is a dark, small, narrow hovel with black-and-white photos of old Lebanese musicians on the wall and soft Lebanese music playing on the loudspeaker.

The Egg. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s here where we met our friend from Rome. Dallin Van Leuven is a 33-year-old Roberts, Idaho, native who lived in Beirut from 2016-18 as a peace-and-conflict worker for an international non-profit organization. He later married an Italian he met in Beirut and moved to Rome last year. I met him at Expats Living in Rome, Rome’s expat Meetup group. He joined the long line of Beirutis who lauded the city, from its food to its peace to its people, especially the people.

He was back in Beirut giving a lecture and Li Beirut was his old hangout. We ordered tall glasses of arak, Lebanon’s deadly licorice-flavored liqueur, and he took a savory sip.

“Beirut, not to say the rest of Lebanon, is the most alcoholic place I’ve ever been,” he said. “You can have a beer in your hand and jump in a taxi. And sometimes the taxi driver’s drinking, too.”

At Li Beirut, from left: me, Charbel Abou Halloun, waiter, Stephanie, Dallin Van Leuven, Marina and friend.


Van Leuven, who added that it is illegal to drink and drive in Lebanon, has heard all the stereotypes about Beirut. It’s as if the outside world still thinks locals are dodging mortar shells. He became part of the community. He made Lebanese friends, dated Lebanese women. This small-town Idaho boy felt at home here.

“Like most Middle Eastern countries, Lebanese people love Americans,” he said. “They have issues with American foreign policy, for sure, but they can disengage our politics from our people.”

I asked what’s the best part about living in Beirut.

“Lebanon’s a small country but it has a lot of variety,” he said. “You can hike in the mountains, can go camping on the beach, can go snorkeling, float on the river. You can do so much here. You can ski. There’s something to offer all the time.”

Lebanon also seems more open sexually. Each Muslim country has its own sexual and social mores but in Lebanon things are slowly changing. Besides women dressing as sexy as they do in Rome, attitudes are changing. During our weekend they held the 2019 Women’s Race where hundreds of women ran races of 10, 5 and 2 kilometers to raise funds for such causes as cancer awareness and Ahaad, a women’s rights NGO. That same day, Lebanon’s top military prosecutor decided not to prosecute a case of “sodomy,” stating that homosexuality is not a crime even though Lebanon’s Penal Code states, “any sexual act contrary to nature is punishable by imprisonment of one year.” Judge Peter Germanos told the Daily Star, Beirut’s English-language newspaper, that the law doesn’t spell out what’s considered “contrary to nature.”

Sexual mores are changing as this mural in an alley suggests. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Homosexuality is still illegal here, but I have plenty of gay Lebanese friends who may or may not practice openly,” Van Leuven said. “It’s more accepted here but it’s still a crime. They have drag shows here.”

Soon, three of Van Leuven’s old Lebanese friends entered Li Beirut. These young people represented the new Lebanese, the upwardly mobile, outwardly friendly, English-speaking yuppies. Charbel Abou Halloun is 22 years old and hails from the northern Lebanese city of Akkar. He’s a civil engineer and moved to Beirut in 2004, well after the civil war ended.

Talking to him, he could’ve been from Milan or Santa Monica.

Me and Marina on the Corniche.


“The new generation learned from our fathers that, for example, this religion is this and this religion is that,” he said. “So we have stereotypes. We know our history. We have to live together so you forget everything and you live new. It’s our parents who had to go through the war. Not us.”

Still, the old generation has its say. Halloun is a Christian and said he couldn’t marry a Muslim woman.

“Because of my parents,” he said. “Some people, they do it but their parents don’t accept it. So they live alone without their parents’ support.”

Still, Lebanese show displays of public affection. While no man bent a woman over a fruit cart as I often see in Rome, I did see women in hijabs holding hands with men. In the spacious Main Street Cocktail Bar, Beirut’s closest thing to a sports bar, a beautiful blonde in skin-tight black leather pants nuzzled the neck of her boyfriend wearing a Yankees ballcap. She’s a Lebanese atheist divorcee.

Divorced? In Lebanon?

“Yes,” she said with a smile, “and it’s easy.”

I won’t get pollyannish on one of my new favorite countries. Lebanon still has plenty of problems. It has an $80 billion debt, third largest in the world behind Greece and Japan. Recently the head of the World Bank Middle East said the Lebanese economy “is defying gravity.” His organization won’t give a single shekel until the country fixes its electricity problem. As I read this over our hotel breakfast buffet, the lights went out.

Beirut’s tourism numbers have risen five years in a row. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Also, Lebanon has a population of 6 million people. That includes 1.5 million Syrian refugees, 80 percent of whom have no legal status. It’s a growing source of tension among Lebanese who complain about crowded buses and drained public resources.

The plethora of political parties are fractured and stories of corruption are the worst-kept secret in town. In the wine room of the Bread Republic, a bakery oddly connected to an enoteca, I talked to three attractive Beirutis about modern life in Lebanon. They wouldn’t give their names but said life in Beirut isn’t as beautiful as it seems on a long weekend. It certainly seemed pleasant. Young, smiling, well-dressed people stood outside the wine bar sipping Lebanese and French wine.

I told them I heard Beirut’s legendary garbage problem had improved.

“That’s better,” the man said. “But we have a lot of garbage in politics you can have.”

As a traveler, you can ignore politics. However, you can’t ignore Beirut’s biggest problem: the world’s worst public transportation. It’s like Albania in 1994 after the communist government fell and the ban on cars had just been lifted. Street signs and building numbers are mere rumors. Maps are as worthless as last week’s Daily Star. Formal addresses weren’t given until after independence in 1943 and remain fairly invisible. Cab drivers know only major points of interest and drop you off in a neighborhood for you to fend on your own. GPS is highly advisable. Buses are small, old and infrequent. On a long weekend, I think we saw three.

Liza is in a 19th century Ottoman house.


On my birthday, we went to a restaurant Conde Nast Traveler billed as “One of the most beautiful restaurants in the world.” You’d think Liza would be well known to cabbies. We had two cab drivers who had no idea where it was. Nor could they find it. Our first cab driver was a grizzled, old man with a scraggly beard and a nasty habit of spitting out his window every two blocks. He had to ask two old men on the street where it was and still couldn’t follow the directions.

We jumped out, paid him 10,000 Lebanese pounds (about $6.60) and a young driver who spoke English finally got us in the stylish, leafy Achrafieh neighborhood. After 10 minutes of driving around in circles, we got out and used Marina’s GPS to find Liza four blocks away.

The search was worth it. Lebanese food is always worth it. We are both huge fans of Middle Eastern cuisine and Lebanese is the queen of the Middle East kitchen. Sizzling lamb kabobs. Creamy hummus. Grilled meats. You can live alone off the mezes, Lebanese hors d’oeuvres that range from olives to ghanoush, mashed cooked eggplant with toasted sesame seeds.

Liza lived up to its billing. Inside a home built during the Ottoman occupation in the 19th century, Liza drips romance. Its white-decorated tables with candles sit atop elaborately tiled floors. Murals of Beirut’s skyline adorn the walls. I had halloun, pan-fried local cheese with tomato jam and sesame seeds. My entree was chicken taouk, marinated chicken with thyme and garlic. They tasted as good as they sound.

Kabob Habiba at Karamna.


After touring the mosque we stumbled onto a wide walking mall where we had lunch at Karamna, a huge restaurant of yellow sandstone walls. Patrons smoked nargiles, filling the air with scents of green apple and jasmine. I knew Beirut had a sophisticated drinking culture when the waiter brought my Almaza, Lebanon’s national beer, in a frosted mug. We munched on mezes of carrot sticks in lemon, salt and cumin and also tabbouleh, a tangy salad of parsley, tomatoes and onions. The main course of kabob habiba was three long, lamb sausages under slabs of bread in chilies. Along with a plate of hummus for extra bread dipping, we nearly waddled out.

However, the friendly owner intercepted us and sat us at one of the outdoor tables, under cover from the rain. He brought us homemade almond saffron cookies and basil tea, all on the house. Coming from Rome where dining is more of an art than a function of life, we were blown away.

A bakery in the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We had read Beirut is famous for its Armenian food. In fact, the entire neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud is Armenian. It has been this way since the Turkish genocide in the 1920s when Armenians flooded into the east end of Beirut and stayed. It’s a mishmash of narrow streets packed with open-air bakeries, jewelry shops and haberdashers. A blackberry bush of electrical wires hangs over every small intersection. Armenian flags and language fill the air.

The Badguer restaurant doubles as an Armenian cultural center but the restaurant is Bourj Hammoud’s main attraction. Where else can you get the delightfully named fish net kebab, meatballs in a thick wild cherry sauce and covered in pieces of fried bread? With a glass of Armenian wine, and a table full of Danish tourists nearby, we chatted with the waiter, 24-year-old Chris Koudouzian, a Lebanese-born Armenian, about Beirut’s fractured image.

“I hear this all the time: Outside Beirut people think it’s a scary place,” he said. “It’s not like all the Arabian countries. You come here to relax. Lebanon is a peaceful country now. Are we surrounded by war? Yes. But it hasn’t affected Lebanon yet.”

Despite all the attractions, Beirut doesn’t feel touristy. It remains off the beaten path and is only a mecca for the intrepid traveler. In fact, it’s hard to find a postcard, let alone souvenirs. However, we did find the perfect memory. In a little art store called Plan Bey, where they sell posters and postcards of old Lebanese films, I bought a poster of a Lebanese flag. It’s a giant photograph taken by Fouad Elkoury, a Lebanese war correspondent. It has the red and white stripes and the trademark green cedar tree. Sounds boring? It isn’t.

The flag is completely covered with bullet holes.

Perugia: Italy’s chocolate capital a sweet spot to celebrate the dying profession of journalism

Perugia on one of the few times it didn’t rain. Photo by Marina Pascucci


PERUGIA, Italy — If Italy was a gelato cone, Perugia would be the hot chocolate syrup they dip it in.

It’s the chocolate capital of Italy. It’s home to Perugina chocolate (Baci chocolate kisses, anyone?), the annual Eurochocolate festival and more chocolate shops than Dublin has pubs. Thus, my heart — and my dentist — have huge sweet spots for this hill town in the heart of Umbria.

It’s not just chocolate that brought me here recently. The International Journalism Festival had five days of lectures and conferences, including the intriguing and newsworthy American topic, “Beyond Fake News: What’s Next for Tackling Online Misinformation.” Perugia is the capital of Umbria, pushing Sicily as my favorite region in Italy, with fantastic local cuisine and wine and an unspoiled persona. As the only one of Italy’s 20 regions not bordering an ocean or another country, Umbria has been the least vulnerable to outside influences.

Oh, I also won an award.

Perugia is the birthplace of Perugina chocolate. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The Camera di Commercio Perugia takes such great pride in its town and region it bestows awards to journalists shedding light on a place oft overlooked on tourists’ well-trodden pilgrimages across Italy. I won the Umbria del Gusto (Flavor of Umbria) award for the January blog I did about American transplant Ev Thomas buying an 800-year-old farmhouse in Umbria and turning the few grape vines into a fledgling winery. The Local, Italy’s only English-language news source, picked it up and while it didn’t go viral, it did go Umbrian.

The town put up my girlfriend and me for two nights in the four-star Sangallo Palace Hotel, wined and dined us and feted us like the celebrities that we aren’t.

No, Umbria del Gusto isn’t the Pulitzer. But it’s in Perugia, and that’s award enough. Plus, it’s always fun trying to explain what “Dog-Eared Passport” means in Italian.

Perugia (pop. 165,000), 100 miles north of Rome, always gives me the early impression that I’m walking onto a science fiction set. To reach the centro storico (historical center) from the hotel, you must walk up through a complex of dark, eerily lit tunnels, lined with huge, high-ceilinged rooms used for everything from a souvenir shop to conferences. I remember sitting blindfolded in one of them during Eurochocolate 2008 and having a blind chocolate taste — run by blind people.

Rocca Paolina was built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The area is called the Rocca Paolina and built by Pope Paolo III Farnese in the 1540s as a fortress over a very wealthy neighborhood. In 1983 the city conveniently outfitted it with escalators, making the steep climb into darkness a lot less taxing. Nevertheless, I still always feel like I’m in a subterranean, prehistoric cave waiting for a T-Rex to step around the corner.

Escaping from the tunnels you come across a compact centro storico that is tranquil until the hordes of university students hit the piazzas and bars at night. The town is home to the University of Perugia, founded in 1308, with 35,000 students and the University of Foreigners with 5,000 foreign students, most of whom are abroad with mommy and daddy’s money for the first time. It was this atmosphere that Perugia received its most fame in recent years.

Amanda Knox, a Seattle native studying in Perugia, was arrested and convicted of murder in 2009 when a roommate had her throat cut during what many have termed a group sex game that went bad two years previously. The attractive Knox became a media sensation. “Foxy Knoxy” spent nearly four years in jail and was eventually exonerated after evidence emerged of the police’s colossal series of screwups.

On one past trip through Umbria, some friends and I stopped by the roommates’ old house on the downslope of the hill. The long, two-story home has become as big a tourist attraction as San Lorenzo, Perugia’s 1,100-year-old cathedral. After many conversations with locals, who don’t seem to mind the persistent question, I’m firmly convinced the only people who think she’s innocent are in the city of Seattle.

Speaking of Seattle, Perugia felt like it all weekend. It poured nearly the entire time. I emerged from the tunnels to a tempest making the cobblestone streets empty and slick. I walked past the Perugina outlet store and to Palazzo dei Priori, the 13th century palace that looks more like a small castle than the city’s main art gallery. I managed to find a staircase that wound down into a dark alley to a small sign reading “LA TAVERNA.”

Pappardelle with Umbrian ragu at La Taverna.


This hidden, elegant diner is THE place to try Umbrian cuisine. This region is known for four main foods: cinghiale, wild boar that so over runs Central Italy even animal lovers don’t protest its hunting season; tartufi, black truffles that are considered a delicacy all over Europe and without question the most overrated food in Italy; lenticchie, lentils made into a thick soup terrific in winter; piccione, pigeons, cooked whole and once the diet staple of locals while under attack in the Middle Ages.

While I waited for Marina to get off work and take the train up, I took a seat alone at a table with a white tablecloth and looked up at the vaulted brick ceiling. Eating inside what seems like a cave has its own romance, especially when Umbrian food is added. My pappardelle with Umbrian ragu (long, flat noodles with wild boar meat sauce) was thick, fresh and fantastic. Topped off with a glass of Umbria’s Morcinaia wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Merlot, it was a great bargain for only 23 euros.

Works by Gerardo Dottori


The award ceremony was a two-day affair beginning with an evening guided tour of the Museo Civico di Palazzo della Penna which hosted weird, haunting works of Gerardo Dottori, a Perugia artist famous for his futuristic works from the early 20th century. Later, the other seven award winners and I joined the organizing committee and judges for an aperitivo of local meats and cheeses followed by an Umbrian feast. Besides my tender manzo, I had a dish called sfornato, kind of a local polenta but much thicker and tastier than the bland polenta I’ve had in the past.

I sat next to one of the judges who read my work. Dennis Redmont is a retired former Associated Press bureau chief in Rome. Amazingly, we had met before. In 2003, nearing the end of my first 16-month stint in Rome and deeply in the throes of love with my adopted city, I went to him hat in hand opening I could land a part-time job and extend my stay. He sat down with me and said that AP was in the process of shedding about 15-20 percent of its workforce around the world. It was foreshadowing of what was to become in my news industry.

Since I returned to my old job at The Denver Post in 2003 to today, The Post’s newsroom has gone from more than 350 reporters to 60. The staff is so small the paper moved from its cool downtown location to the suburbs where it shares space — with its printing plant.

Yes, I did get out at the right time.

The award winners. (I’m the tall one.) Photo by Marina Pascucci


But events like Perugia makes me glad I keep a hand in it. I dressed up in my toned-down gray Italian suit. Marina talked me out of one of the shiny silk suits that make me look like a flunky for the Irish mob. Before the ceremony at Centro Servizi G. Alezzi conference center, we escaped the rain across the street at Caffe Perugina. It’s one of Perugia’s beautiful bars (cafes are often called “bars” in Italy), with ornate furnishings and brass tabletops. Over a cappuccino, it felt like we stepped into Perugia in 1920s. I was taken aback when the barista said Caffe Perugina began in 1997.

During my career, I was never big into awards, mainly because I didn’t win many. I was more of a grinder journalist, a sportswriter who plugged along day after day, seeking news and sprinkling my coverage with the occasional long human interest story. When I branched out into food and wine, things changed. You don’t really break food news. What, “TOMATOES SEEKING MORE RESPECT IN SUPERMARKETS”?

Instead, I wrote the weird (I tried eating a 72-ounce steak in Amarillo, Texas), the trendy (restaurant boom in Moscow) and the disgusting (animal penis restaurant in Beijing). I always tied it to the local culture. This was the second award I’ve won for food and wine writing. Maybe I missed my calling.

The conference room was packed with observers and photographers. I sat in the front row with the other winners, all of whom walked up to the dais for a question and answer period. Notified shortly beforehand that the session would be in Italian, I nearly fled the room. I can answer any question in Italian; the problem is I likely won’t understand the question in Italian.

I told Redmont my dilemma, who said he would do the Q&A in English and translate.

“It’ll be more exotic,” he said.

Most of the awards were for videos, showing Perugia at its majestic best, catching sunrises from the hilltown and the monuments glistening in the city’s soft lights at night. Two guys traveled around Umbria talking and capturing video of the region’s underrated wineries.

I felt so old school. It was merely a blog. How boring. But Redmont asked me about the theme of Dog-Eared Passport and a recent blog I wrote about my three travel stories from hell. I talked too long and talked too fast and hardly anyone understood. I had to wait for Redmont’s translation to hear any laughter about my bout with typhoid in Northern Thailand.

Later, we all gathered for group photos, standing in front of a phalanx of photographers as if we were standing on a red carpet instead of a concrete floor.

Afterward, Marina and I dashed back to the hotel to change clothes more appropriate for early flooding stages and waded back into Centro Storico. The journalism festival had 275 different conferences. We had time to choose one. Appalled by Pres. Trump’s attack at the free press and labeling every critical sentence “fake news” drew me to the lecture “Beyond Fake News.” James Ball is an English journalist and author of “Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World.” He was part of a London School of Economics commission that did a report on misinformation.

I met him outside the Arcivescovado conference room, sharing the same piazza as Palazzo dei Priori. Late 30ish and casually dressed, he talked to me about how news coming out of Brexit is getting as scrutinized as much as it is out of Washington. Ball is a level-headed, highly intelligent journalist with a quick British wit and an analytical bent.

James Ball


One point was fake news involves more than Donald Trump. Before Trump started defecating on the First Amendment, journalists wrote wildly hilarious headlines just to get the reader “clicks,” the new media measurement for economic success. He mentioned some headlines from that day:

“BIBLE SHOCK! WHY EXPERT CLAIMS JESUS RESURRECTED THROUGH ADAM’S BODY AFTER CHURCH FIND!”

“NH370 SHOCK! DATA FROM MISSING MALAYSIAN AIRLINES FLIGHT SHRUGGED OFF AND IGNORED!”

“TIME TRAVEL SHOCK! TIME TRAVEL FROM 2018 SHOWS PHOTO OF DINOSAUR FROM THE PAST!”

He said they were all from that day’s edition of The Sun, the United Kingdom’s top-selling newspaper.

“So if fake news is this terrible threat to journalism then why is our biggest paper putting it out? If fake news isn’t the problem, what is? … What we have is a bullshit problem and a misinformation problem and that’s a lot harder than fake news.”

He brought up the story in Breitbart, American journalism’s equivalent of “Mein Kampf.” It wrote that a Muslim mob set fire to Germany’s oldest church. What actually happened was a protest march of recent Muslim immigrants seeking asylum. There were some fireworks and one hit a tarpaulin on a boundary wall of the church grounds. It started a small fire and the protesters helped put it out.

“There was a fire. There was a church and it was a majority Muslim crowd,” Ball said. “Is it fake news to turn it into what Breitbart did?”

And it’s not just the rags that are guilty of this, Ball said. Take Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election.

Marina and I near Palazzo dei Priori


“They put those emails by Wikileaks but that’s not where the public saw them,” Ball said. “They saw them through Fox News, through CNN, through The New York Times, The Washington Post. We don’t self search. We shout at Facebook. We shout at Twitter. We shout at the public. We shout at Russia. We ignore the fact that we’re the agents for all this.

“We’re not good at not being played.”

The heart of Umbrian wine country reveals a rising star: Sagrantino

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.

Me at my start of the Anteprima Sagrantino wine fair in Montefalco.


MONTEFALCO, Italy — One of my pleasant surprises after retiring to Rome with a taste for wine and no car is I never have to leave the city to taste the best wines in the world. I never even have to visit a restaurant or wine bar. All I have to do is wait for the wine tastings that come to Rome nearly every weekend. Piedmont. Puglia. Bio wines. Chianti. Nearly every theme under the massive Italian wine umbrella makes its way to Rome where I can drink my way through an entire region without ever leaving a conference room.

However, I must admit these wine tastings, called degustazioni in Italian, miss a lot of local flavor. You can hold them in the most beautiful hotels in Rome, such as the Radisson Blu, but you only get, literally, a taste. You don’t get the feel. You don’t see the vineyards shining in the sun. You don’t smell the French Oak in the storage rooms. You don’t see the sprawling winery setting in the rolling hills. Degustazioni make you feel like you’re in Rome.

Wineries make you feel like you’re in Italy. Old Italy. Where grapevines hang over picnic tables and entire villages revolve around the wine production calendar. Sometimes you have to get closer to the wine to truly taste it.

For some reason, however great Italian wine is, it tastes even better where it’s made.

After five years in Rome, I finally had that opportunity last week. My good friend, Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter for the ANSA wire service and Italian food and wine connoisseur, got an invitation to attend the Anteprima Sagrantino. It’s a fair featuring the rare, delicious and little-known Umbrian wine called Sagrantino. It’s held in Montefalco, a town of about 5,800 in the heart of Umbria and the center of Sagrantino production.

It sounded like a great time: two days drinking one of the most underrated wines in the world, stay overnight in a beautiful hotel that has hosted movie stars, eat Umbria’s great local cheeses and meats and visit a couple wineries in the quiet off season.

I decided to tag along.

This was not only two days of drinking wine. It was two days of drinking wine in Umbria, which is rapidly becoming my favorite wine region in Italy. That’s a little like being the prettiest woman in Italy, too. The competition is fierce.

Alessandro picked me up near his home in northwest Rome and drove the 90 miles north to Montefalco. Driving anywhere with Alessandro is like getting a loud lesson in Romanaccio, the Roman dialect devoted entirely to profanity. Every car is driving too slow; every truck is driving in the wrong lane. Then again, he was in a hurry. To wine lovers, Anteprima Sagrantino is like a toppled milk truck near stray cats.

I’ve often called Umbria “Tuscany Light.” It has everything Tuscany has — walled towns, mountains, vineyards — at cheaper costs and a fraction of the tourists of its northern neighbor. It’s the only region that does not border a sea or another country. Thus, it has fewer outside influences. It has remained true to itself and to the relatively fewer outsiders lucky enough to discover it.

I love driving into Umbria, on uncrowded roads, through rolling hills, past walled villages perched high on cliffs like magic kingdoms. Deeper in the heart of Umbria, I pass vineyards, olive orchards and deep, green meadows. It’s now winter. It’s cold, in the low 40s. The vines are bare. But no matter.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco's old town.

Part of the 12th century wall that surrounds Montefalco’s old town.

You don’t have to drink wine outside under grapevines.

I tell people that to reach Montefalco, you go to Bastardo and take a right. True. Umbria has a town called Bastardo, named for the Osteria del Bastardo (Bastard’s Inn) around which the town was built in the 17th century. Montefalco has a much more romantic origin. Falcons were known to fly majestically around the foothills of the nearby Apennines mountain range.

Montefalco’s old town sits inside a 12th century wall. This once star-crossed village existed peacefully under the rule of the Papal States for 400 years before the unification of Italy in 1861. We stopped just outside the wall at Villa Pambuffetti, a four-star palace set in the middle of 10,000 square yards of gardens and century-old trees. The lobby looks like an Italian grandmother’s living room with overstuffed chairs and couches and a fireplace to warm your hands. A big jar of sugared jellies and chocolates share a coffee table with the daily papers. Tony Curtis once stayed here.

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti

Lobby at the Villa Pambuffetti


But the real star of Montefalco is Sagrantino. If you’ve never heard of it, let alone tried it, don’t feel bad. Like Umbria, it’s little known and underrated. The big reason is the Sagrantino grape is only grown in Umbria. Thus, Umbria, off the beaten path, is the only place that makes the wine. It’s an Umbrian tradition for a new grandfather to buy 12 bottles of a vintage and save it for 25 years until the grandchild marries.
Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.

Corso Goffredo Mameli in Montefalco.


While the grape has been around since the 16th century, Sagrantino wine is relatively new. It was mostly used to make the sweet Passito wine used during mass in Catholic churches. Being a close proximity to Rome and its 900 churches, Montefalco did a thriving business. But in the 1970s, technology improved and the Sagrantino, made from 100 percent Sagrantino grapes, received the official DOC denomination in 1979 and the higher-rated DOCG in 1992. Sharing center stage here is Montefalco Rosso, using a blend with Sagrantino, Sangiovese and another grape such as Colorino.

Expansion worked. Today, 63 wineries dot the wine map around Montefalco. Most are exporting, some as much as 40 percent and to as far away as China and Japan.

I had only a passing knowledge of it. Meanwhile, Alessandro, who had lauded this festival for weeks, was panting like a thirsty dog.

We entered through the walled city’s huge arched door and up the narrow cobblestone street to a nearly hidden hallway holding a large conference room. Here was my familiar territory: a square room with 40 wineries sitting table to table all offering four or five of their best wines.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.

Wine stores with plenty of wine props are sprinkled all through Montefalco.


Sagrantino is a hard grape to grow. It needs a long, hot season and has one of the highest tannin levels. It’s twice the level of Nebbiolo, the base for my favorite Barolo wine, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It makes Sagrantino a much drier red wine. Look at the wine and it is a deep purple, with an almost black center. It just so happens purple is my favorite color.

Thus, Sagrantino is absolutely beautiful to behold — particularly in a glass, even at 11 a.m. when we started drinking.

I became a huge Sagrantino fan before lunch. Among the metropolis of Montefalco wineries, Arnaldo-Caprai is one of the best known. At wine tastings, I always start by asking for their medium wine. Not the best, not the worst. Alessandra Nobili of Arnaldo-Caprai started me with a 2015 Collepiano and it was very good, rich and full with the taste of plum and cinnamon I’d read about.

Then she graduated me up to a Sagrantino celebrating the winery’s 25-year anniversary last year. Simply called 25 Year, it was one of the best red wines I’ve ever had. No wonder. It’s 50 euros in Italy, and about $150 in the U.S. where Arnaldo-Caprai has a base in New York.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his  family's Scacciadiavoli winery.

Iacopo Pambuffetti holds up the Sagrantino from his family’s Scacciadiavoli winery.


Another big winery here is Scacciadiavoli. It sells in 14 states in the U.S., plus Europe, United Kingdom and Japan. Iacopo Pambuffetti, a cousin of the hotel owners, is a big, jovial bearded member of the winery’s founding family. He speaks of Sagrantino as if it’s a family member, too.

“I love Sagrantino because it represents very, very well my region,” he said. “And it’s an incredible wine. If you want, you can put it among the top wines in Italy.”

He then talked about how well it goes with wild boar and lamb, goat cheese and dark chocolate. I hadn’t eaten since a cornetto on the ride up. My taste buds were hyperventilating. We were in Italy.

In Italy, wine tasting is foreplay.

Alessandro and I went to Olevm (the Latin word for “oil”), a small home-style restaurant with olive print tablecloths and a big chest of drawers holding olive and wine in the middle of the upstairs dining room. Black and white photos of Italian movie legends such as Alberto Sordi and Sophia Loren eating pasta hang on the walls.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.

Chicken in Sagrantino sauce at Olevm.


We had bruschetta with olive, zucchini and potato spreads then I had pasta with greens followed by chicken in Sagrantino sauce (I’m wondering if they use Sagrantino to run their cars, too.). It’s the first time I’ve ever had purple chicken but the unique combination is something that should be exported as well.

Placated with carbs, we entered Anteprima Sagrantino’s war room: the media tasting room. Converted from the Montefalco city council chamber, it sported five long tables with nine seats each, all with six glasses, breadsticks and a spit bucket.

The place was empty.

We took our seats and the young server gave us a list of 45 wineries we could taste. Oddly, we had to try a minimum of six. Who was I to argue? We tried (gulp!) 10: six 100 percent Sagrantino and four Passito.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.

Me and Alessandro Castellani in the media tasting room.


I am not a wine connoisseur. When I taste a wine I rarely can separate the cherries from the tobacco, the plums from the raspberries. Most who say they can are full of fertilizer. They’re trying to impress their date or the sommelier server, most of whom try hard not to roll their eyes. I am not a wine snob. I can tell a red from a white and that’s about it.

But I know what I like and the best of the bunch was the Moretti Omero, rich, deep and the kind of flavor that lasts in your mouth long after you swallowed. Fruits? Christ, I don’t know. Who cares? I just knew I had to buy a bottle.

The highlight of Anteprima Sagrantino is the winery dinner. About 20 journalists, wine writers and freeloaders poured into cars and headed first to Scacciadiavoli for an aperitivo. Scacciadiavoli is the area’s oldest winery, established in 1884. It sits just east of Bastardo with 86 acres anchored by two large white buildings that look like simple churches. Downstairs in the tasting room where we mingled with Montefalco’s crem della grapes while munching on fried baccala’ (cod) and bread with anchovies, washed down with the winery’s sparkling wine.

We then piled back in the cars for a short drive to Le Cimate where we sat in a large modern dining room. Bordering the room were four large tables featuring cheeses, main dishes, wines and made-to-order desserts. It was gluttony paradise.

I sat next to Giulia Goretti who has traveled all over the world promoting her Vini Goretti family winery near Perugia, Umbria’s capital about 30 miles to the north, and two around Montefalco. This winery goes back four generations dating to the early 1900s. When she talked about Umbrian wine, I listened.

“It’s something more special now,” she said. “When you are proposing an Umbrian wine you are proposing something different, something that not many people know. A lot of times it’s more interesting than other regions that are more known.”

Between bites of nearly orgasmic tortellini in cheese topped with truffle shavings, I asked her how so many wines in such a small region can compete against each other. It’s like 30 gelaterias on one block in Rome.

“The world is very big,” she said. “We export a lot. And every Sagrantino is different.”

Perticaia winery started in 2000.

Perticaia winery started in 2000.


The next morning, Alessandro and I went to the outskirts of Montefalco to the small winery of Perticaia (meaning “plow” in the Umbrian dialect and marking the transition to agriculture). Started in just 2000, it’s a split-level mustard-colored building with 123 acres of vineyards and 200 olive trees. In winter, its vegetarian is bare, making the landscape almost ghostlike in the morning fog. But inside the warm, light-filled tasting room, we tried 10 — count ‘em, 10 — wines that belie the size of the winery. I especially liked the brand new 2018 Sagrantino and the 2012 Montefalco Rosso.

We left fat and happy (me a little more as Alessandro had to drive back to Rome) and couldn’t help noticing the smiles on all the faces of the wine people we met. This truly is a wonderful business, manufacturing something you love and can share with the world in a beautiful setting. The stress of economics, competition, weather and marketing doesn’t seem to faze these people. If wine is the key to a stress-free life, maybe I should increase my intake.

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia's storage room

Francesca Mechella in Perticaia’s storage room


“We are always in front of a glass of wine,” Goretti told me. “We are always at a table with a lot of people, talking and drinking and laughing. How can you not be happy? That’s why it’s the best life ever.”