As world continues to crumble, tiny Sermoneta serves as a quiet respite

Sermoneta, 55 miles south of Rome, was founded as a 13th century castle to ward off foreign invasion.

Sermoneta, 55 miles south of Rome, was founded as a 13th century castle to ward off foreign invasion.


SERMONETA, Italy — I stayed up until 1:30 Saturday morning watching the news coverage in Paris and went to bed wondering how the U.S. invasion of Iraq helped create ISIS and where the swine will hit next. Neither thought led to a fitful sleep. Reports say Rome is on the ISIS wish list. The Jubilee Year begins Dec. 8 and more than 30 million Catholic pilgrims are expecting to pour into Rome over the next 12 months. It seems from a twisted, sick, terrorist’s point of view, Rome — and, more specifically, the Vatican — would have a red circle around it on a map somewhere in a Middle East cave.
It has about 600 residents and virtually no tourists in November.

It has about 600 residents and virtually no tourists in November.

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The next morning I needed to clear my head. Thoughts of dead French music lovers, terrorist body parts, anti-Muslim backlash and a holy war were too much. Fortunately, living in Rome gives me the opportunity to get away from any problems, personal or international. Go to a piazza and linger over a cappuccino. Hop a cheap flight to London. Enter a church and see artwork that doesn’t make religion seem all that bad.
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Saturday I went to Sermoneta. Sermoneta is a medieval village atop a cliff more than 1,000 feet above an agricultural area, one of Benito Mussolini’s more successful projects from the 1930s. About 55 miles south of Rome and reachable by bus from the EUR Fermi Metro stop, Sermoneta has about 600 people, none of whom apparently has a car. I didn’t dodge any along the one narrow, cobblestone road. The rest of the village consists of windy, twisting alleys lined with pots blooming with red, yellow, purple and orange flowers. Even on an overcast day, the town burst with colors.
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Sermoneta's one pub.

Sermoneta’s one pub.


The village is as quiet as an outdoor abbey. Residents lingered at cafes, bakeries and shops. The little piazza was served by a tiny cafe too small inside for more than a handful of customers. It sold a passable cappuccino and a chocolate cornetto that tasted even better overlooking the vast, green Pontine Plain below. I noticed no other tourists. No buses were in sight. This is mid-November, part of Rome’s off season, and with daytime temperatures in the low 60s it is an ideal time to explore.
The town is more than 1,000 feet above the Pontine Plain near the Tyrrhenian Sea.

The town is more than 1,000 feet above the Pontine Plain near the Tyrrhenian Sea.


The town is actually part of one giant castle which stands atop the plain like a Roman statue overlooking a kingdom. It was originally built for the Annibaldi family, powerful barons during the Middle Ages. Situated between Rome and Naples near the highest point in the area, it was the perfect spot for a military fortress. In 1297, the Annibaldis gave it to Pietro Caetani, the nephew of Pope Bonifacio VIII. Caetani built a series of walls to isolate the tower in case of attack and fortified it with a network of drawbridges.

From the 13th to 16th centuries, it was home to a thriving Jewish community. During medieval times, farmers from the valley sought shelter in Sermoneta to escape foreign invasion. Napoleon sacked it in 1798, and it turned into a prison. It was above a valley that was a malaria-infested marshland until Mussolini turned it into agricultural land and created the towns of Latina and Pontina.

Me at the end of a wonderful afternoon away from the world's troubles.

Me at the end of a wonderful afternoon away from the world’s troubles.


Today, the castle is run by the Roffredo Caetani Foundation and a quaint escape from thoughts of war, ironically.

The Lazio region surrounding Rome is full of villages like Sermoneta. This is where I renew my faith in the world and people smile at you for no reason except you’re a welcome stranger. It’s where every corner offers a new discovery, a new view of a country I love so very much. Many of these villagers don’t know ISIS and don’t care. Terrorists won’t change their lives. They certainly won’t mine.

If they do, they win.

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Rome’s SuperCat Show shows a city’s love for their furry citizens

On Halloween night, Rome's SuperCat Show featured 800 cats and 30,000 guests over a two-day period. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

On Halloween night, Rome’s SuperCat Show featured 800 cats and 30,000 guests over a two-day period. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


What I love about Romans is their passion. They’re like me. They’re very passionate about the things they love and the things they hate. And they love so many things: food, wine, art, soccer, beauty, sun and well, they love love. They also love something else that doesn’t make tourists’ radar. You have to live here a while, get to know the people, wander the streets and see a piece of Rome the locals absolutely adore.

Cats.

Romans are crazy about cats. They always have been. The Etruscans brought them from Egypt in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. and during the Roman Empire, cats were considered luxury pets for the wealthy. In 1991, the city council designated cats part of the city’s “biological heritage” and any cat colony of at least five cats can not be legally removed. Today there are an estimated 300,000 cats in Rome, and the city streets are often the cats’ home. Locals make sure that cats without roofs over their heads are safe and healthy. Old women, called gattare (from “gatto,” the Italian word for cat), roam the streets with little cans of tuna or cat food. They put it on paper plates and place them near street corners, parked cars, ancient ruins, any place where stray cats hang out. Thus, all over town you have these fat, happy, healthy cats waiting to be petted. When I lived in Rome the first time from 2001-03, I’d be walking home with my then girlfriend. She’d be talking and then look around and I’d be gone. I was over petting a cat on a car hood.

The Nuova Fiera di Roma has nearly 108,000 square feet stretching about 50 meters. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

The Nuova Fiera di Roma has nearly 108,000 square feet stretching about 50 meters. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


Rome even has a cat sanctuary. The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary, a short cat walk from where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., takes in stray cats. They feed them, clean them, give them medical attention and protection. It’s set among a large block of ruins dating to the 4th century B.C., giant chunks of marble and stone where the cats leap and sleep and play and hide. They’re friendly with the bevy of tourists who wander down the steps to look. They can even adopt them and take them home if they get them spayed or neutered. You sit down and a cat will jump on your lap and fall asleep before you can alert authorities.

In 2003 I volunteered at Torre Argentina for a week. I wrote a story about it for the Los Angeles Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jun/29/travel/tr-journalromecats) that made a proofreader cry. It was one of the greatest accomplishments of my career.

Me and a Burmese cat that costs as much as the last car I bought. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Me and a Burmese cat that costs as much as the last car I bought. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


On Halloween night, the city of Rome put on its 16th annual SuperCat Show for all its cat aficionados. I could tell the popularity of cats here just by the venue. It was held at Nuova Fiera di Roma near Fiumicino, the coastal town that has Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Looking at the size of Fiera di Roma’s exhibition hall, I’m assuming when it doesn’t host cat shows it doubles as an airplane hangar. It was 50 meters long and nearly 108,000 square feet. In it were 800 cats, of which which were expected to be perused, petted and photographed over two days by about 30,000 people.

If you heard a giant “AHHHHHH!” coming from the direction of Italy about 10 days ago, that was us.

That was me. I have a proud proclamation to make: I LOVE cats. I love all wildlife. Dogs. Bears. Racoons. Ducks. South American tree sloths. I had a pet rat as a kid. I deny that played a role in my future career as a journalist. However, cats were always my favorite animal. I can relate to them. They’re very much like bachelors. They’re independent, finicky eaters, immaculate groomers, want attention on demand and then be left alone. They’re one of us. You can leave them with food and water for a couple of days and they’re fine. They’re lower maintenance than cactus and much nicer to sleep with.

These black Persians are nothing but fur and eyes. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

These black Persians are nothing but fur and eyes. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


I have a hard time tolerating this universal male hatred for cats. Many men are proud to proclaim it. It’s like they reinforce their manhood by not associating with a species labeled “feline.” However, it’s my theory that the one trait male cat haters have in common is they all have really, REALLY tiny penises, little itty-bitty gherkins with no real purpose in life outside of urination. I try to tell them there are pills for that. They can find contacts on their porn websites for dubious operations. But they don’t take my advice. Instead, they publicly put cats on the same level as ISIS, cockroaches and liberals.

I never meet any men like that in Italy. It’s a country where men are in touch with their manhood and sitting on a park bench with a stray cat on their lap does not threaten that. The SuperCat Show was filled with Romans who take their love of cats to the voyeur level. As I entered the hall after about a half-mile walk from the entrance, I looked down and surveyed the show. Long rows of wire pens were surrounded by people peering in and taking pictures. On a raised platform on the left side, a woman with a microphone described cats as they were paraded onto stands for closer inspection by the couple hundred spectators clicking cell cameras down below.

A prized Russian blue. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

A prized Russian blue. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


The first cat I saw was something called a Devon Rex, an English breed that’s as skinny as a coat hanger with ears the size of satellite dishes. It looks like a miniature Sphinx. But even this species is cute. At 8 months old and eyes that seemingly filled her entire head, I couldn’t stop staring. But I had 799 more cats to go.

I didn’t see all of them but the variety of animals was something I last saw on my first trip to the Amazon. There was the Norwegian, these giant orange and white overfed cats with heads not big enough to fit their bodies. An owner petted one and her hand disappeared in the fur. There were the Sacro di Birmania, or Sacred Burmese, fluffy white kittens with black noses as if they’d been eating chocolate pudding.

I saw Siberians, very regal looking with wide bodies, strong heads and full coats in a variety of colors. There were the famed Russian Blues, with a blue-gray fur that makes them look like art work.

Yes, it was Halloween night for people and cats of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Yes, it was Halloween night for people and cats of Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


At one stand, an owner dressed her fat, 5-month-old Norwegian up in a black cape and hat and had it chase a twirler around to the delight of a rapidly growing cooing audience.
Titanic, a 20-pound Maine Coon who had won a world championship the week before. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Titanic, a 20-pound Maine Coon who had won a world championship the week before. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


My favorites of the show, however, were the Maine Coons. They are one of the biggest cats in domesticity. They weigh up to 35 pounds and when sleeping with their paws over their faces look very much like furry throw pillows. The king of the coons was a huge 20-pound cat named, appropriately, Titanic. A week earlier, he had won a world championship at a show in Malmo, Sweden. His owner, who toted a purse emblazoned with “I am truly purrrrfect,” brought him to Rome to show off. On the show platform, the owner stretched him out and it was about four feet long. Needless to say, she didn’t put him in a cage. Instead, Titanic has his own stroller complete with windowed canopy.
Of course, some cats are cuter than others. This Devon Rex won't land on many cat calendars. Photo by Marina Pascucci.

Of course, some cats are cuter than others. This Devon Rex won’t land on many cat calendars. Photo by Marina Pascucci.


Afterward, I saw stands where they sold a Philo Comb, a big comb shaped like a claw which two demonstrators used to scratch two cats’ tummies. I had to move away. I wanted to give the cats privacy as I thought they neared orgasm. At another stand, a company called D&C sold — and I’m not making this up — cat perfume. You can get them in Opium, Esotic, Chic, Boss or City. Actually, they didn’t smell all that bad. I wondered if a man put some on, would a woman in Rome pick him up?

Seriously, many people think pet owners devote too much time to animals. Every time I go to Rome’s Termini train station I see bums sleeping outside. I’m approached by at least a half dozen beggars a day. But all living things need assistance. Human beings have plenty, including shelters and government assistance. It’s reassuring that innocent creatures such as cats have people who treat them with the same care as they treat their children.

"SO WHAT DO YOU HAVE AGAINST CATS!" Photo by Marina Pascucci.

“SO WHAT DO YOU HAVE AGAINST CATS!” Photo by Marina Pascucci.


Some day, I will again, too. I can’t have a cat now. I travel too much. They can survive a weekend to Tuscany but not a month in India. To slow down and settle down on my couch and finally get another cat will be a tough decision. But if I do, I know exactly what I’ll name it.

Roma.

Friends With No Benefits Tour to Umbria goes to the heart of rural and religious Italy

The Gang of Seven at Terre dei Nappi winery in Bevagna.  From left, going around the table, me, Pam Carpentier, Sabrina Crawford, Lisa Chambers, Errol Zahnow, Robert Della Vedova, Alessandro Castellani.

The Gang of Seven at Terre dei Nappi winery in Bevagna. From left, going around the table, me, Pam Carpentier, Sabrina Crawford, Lisa Chambers, Errol Zahnow, Robert Della Vedova, Alessandro Castellani.


SPELLO, Italy — If you ever look at the region of Umbria on a map, try to guess what makes it different than the other 19 regions in Italy. Go ahead. Stare. Analyze. Calculate. Scan the country from Sicily to the Italian Alps. Notice anything? If you guess right, you win an ounce of Umbria’s white truffles. (Don’t scoff. Recently the largest white truffle ever found, more than 4 pounds, has received offers of $1 million.) Give up?

Umbria is Italy’s only region that does not border a sea or another country.

No region in Italy is less influenced by outside sources. This is what I love about Umbria. In a country that gets nearly 50 million tourists a year, Umbria may be the most authentic region in Italy. Walled hill towns void of tourist buses. Remnants of the most beloved saint in Italian history. Ancient local delicacies ranging from piccione (pigeon) to cinghiale, the wild boar that has so overrun Umbria one might check you into your hotel room.

I recently made my second annual fall trip to Umbria, thanks to my partner in crime, sportswriter Alessandro Castellani, whose good friend, Umbrian innkeeper Leonardo De Mai, seemingly knows everyone in the region. Seven of us piled into cars and trains and headed north from Rome about two hours. Four men. Three women. Forties and 50s. No relationships.

I call it our Friends With No Benefits Tour.

The cast included:

* Alessandro Castellani, a sportswriter whose deep love for A.S. Roma is only surpassed by his love for Italian culture.

* Robert Della Vedova, along with Alessandro the other one of my fellow Three Musketeers, an Australian-Italian who is up for anything Italian as long as there is a glass of Italian wine at the end of the day.

* Errol Zahnow, Robert’s friend visiting from Australia who dug deeper into Italian culture with every bite of Parmigiano Reggiano.

* Lisa Chambers, an Ivy Leaguer and fellow free-lance journalist still waiting for Internet in her new apartment from Rome’s “fine” public services. But then again, it’s only been two months.

* Sabrina Crawford, another American journalist who has moved to Rome to rediscover her Italian roots.

* Pam Carpentier, a Floridian and savvy traveler who’s spending all three months of her vacation in Rome.

* Mois, another ink-stained wretch who will never run out of things to write about in this incredible country.

The social dynamics of this kind of road trip are liberating. We all know each other well enough to enjoy each other’s company yet not so well that we publicly announce every little annoyance. Plus, there is no sexual tension. Our lover is Umbria.

Ubaldo Grazia, home of some of the most beautiful ceramics in the world.

Ubaldo Grazia, home of some of the most beautiful ceramics in the world.


We started our adventure in the town of Deruta. Deruta is to ceramics what Barolo is to wine, Venice is to gondolas, the Vatican is to Catholicism. It’s a town of 9,000 and every building along the main road appears to be a ceramics shop. The windows are filled with brightly painted pots, plates, vases, olive oil canisters, serving trays, wall hangings. I think I saw a kitchen sink made of ceramic, too.
Plates and vases are all elaborately  hand painted individually.

Plates and vases are all elaborately hand painted individually.


We stopped at Ubaldo Grazia, probably the highest-end shop in town and the most famous. It has pieces in Tiffany’s, Saks and many shops along New York’s Fifth Avenue. George Clooney, who has a villa on Lake Como, bought a 16-piece dinnerware set from Ubaldo. Francis Ford Coppola, a wine maker as well as a director, bought pieces decorated with grapes and vineyard leaves. Mel Gibson and Andy Garcia are regular customers. All four of The Beatles signed the guestbook, dated 1964.
The Beatles visited here in 1964.

The Beatles visited here in 1964.


The designs are spectacular. Colors of blue and yellow and red, as bright as fall leaves in the Umbrian countryside, explode over snow white pottery in flowing designs. Swirls and flowers and birds and dragons, each one is individually hand painted in a workshop you can visit during working hours. It wasn’t a ceramics shop. It was an art museum.
A seven-course serving tray.

A seven-course serving tray.

Matching plates.

Matching plates.


The style hasn’t changed much. The prices, however, sure have. I was in the market for an olive oil and vinegar canister set and the one I saw was a hefty 125 euros ($140). A dinner plate was 180 euros. If any one of us had bought so much as a table setting for two we’d wipe out our budget for October. Pam, however, is on vacation. When you’re on vacation and have a job, money isn’t an option when it comes to outfitting your home with dinnerware from Italy that dates back five centuries. She bought two dinner plates, two foundation plates and a serving bowl for a price I was afraid to look at for fear of terminal sticker shock.
Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco, left, can be seen all over Umbria.

Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco, left, can be seen all over Umbria.


Our next stop was the one place in Umbria on nearly every tourist’s bucket list. Travelers have gone to Assisi for, oh, nearly 900 years. Francis Bernardone, better known today as St. Francis of Assisi, remains the most beloved saint in the history of the Catholic Church. It wasn’t until I visited Assisi my first time in 2002 when I really understood his impact on the world. Born in Assisi as a spoiled kid to a wealthy merchant, he played the part of an entitled brat until he saw a holy vision in his 20s. He then stripped himself of all wealthy trappings and dedicated his life to helping the poor, much to his old man’s chagrin. Francis traveled around Umbria and beyond preaching Christ’s word, setting up monasteries and, allegedly, performing miracles such as curing the sick and talking with animals. Keep in mind, Italy in the early 13th century was a war-torn peninsula where the Papal States battled for control with the Holy Roman Empire. Back then, peace wasn’t a big conversation topic. Yet St. Francis’ word carries to this day. So beloved by the church, he was canonized only two years after his death in 1226. He was 44.

Assisi hasn’t changed much since Francis roamed its narrow alleys in a peasant robe. Our car approached from below and the Basilica di San Francesco, all 42,000 square feet, fills up nearly half the town. It anchors the left side of the hill like a battleship. With its arched porticoes and imposing bell tower, the massive, yellow-white exterior can be seen all over Umbria.

The entrance to the Basilica di San Francesco.

The entrance to the Basilica di San Francesco.


Arriving shortly before noon is not the best time to see Assisi. I tell visitors to Italy that when you visit touristy towns, spend the night. Assisi. Siena. Positano. I also include the independent republic of San Marino tucked in the corner of Le Marche. When the sun goes down and the tourists return to their bases in Rome or Naples or Milan, these little historical towns change dramatically. The locals come out. The night spots open. I spent my first trip to Assisi in 2002 hanging out in a local cafe talking to locals in their 20s and 30s about life in a tourist trap. They were wonderfully entertaining, gracious and insightful. About the only locals I saw on this recent trip were Franciscan monks conducting tours and selling souvenirs inside the basilica.

The entire church is a tribute to its favorite son. I walked in past a man in a brown hoodie talking to a tour group and stared at the violent scene above me. One of four frescoes, depicting St. Francis’ victory over evil, shows a demon covered by a snake surrounded by skulls. It looked more like hell than heaven.

Assisi isn't just the church.

Assisi isn’t just the church.


I walked down a small flight of stairs where the church still keeps St. Francis’ body. Next to the small tomb I saw a man in a gray windbreaker and beard, on his knees and his hands together and eyes closed, quietly moving his lips to a prayer only he could hear. On the other side, I saw another man doing the same, two bookends holding up a saint who has lured pilgrims here for half a millennium.
One of the views from residential Assisi.

One of the views from residential Assisi.


In the upstairs church, built after the lower church between 1230 and 1253, I could see why. Ringing the upper walls are 28 frescoes depicting St. Francis’ life. There is St. Francis wearing flowing, elaborate clothes and another of him wearing rags and telling his exasperated father he would dedicate himself to the poor. In others he’s talking to angels. In others he’s talking to animals. In the background I could hear the melodic, high-pitched singing of Franciscan monks over the loudspeaker. Even for a heathen like myself, Basilica di San Francesco makes me feel the history of the Catholic Church if not its god.
Luciana

Luciana Cerbini of Casa Gola serving bruschetta with her excellent, fresh olive oil.

A worker using a motorized, plastic blade to clear olives at Casa Gola.

A worker using a motorized, plastic blade to clear olives at Casa Gola.


After I leave a holy place such as San Francesco or St. Peter’s or the Duomo in Milan, I want to do only one thing: drink. Umbria does not have the name cache as its neighbor to the north, Tuscany, but Umbrian wines are under-appreciated and, frankly, under-priced. We went to the tiny village of Bevagna where we first stopped at Casa Gola, in the middle of olive orchards that produce some of the best olive oil in Italy. Casa Gola also offers classes in cooking dishes you will find nowhere in the United States. While we watched a worker pull olives off trees with what looked like a plastic motorized clipper, Casa Gola’s Luciana Cerbini served us all trays of bruschetta dripping with her incredible olive oil. Like salami sandwiches in the Swiss Alps, bruschetta in extra virgin olive oil always tastes better in an olive orchard.
Leonardo has a friend who owns a terrific winery in Bevagna called Terre dei Nappi. Terre dei Nappi is the epitome of the little Italian country winery. It has no showroom, no tour buses, no souvenir T-shirts.
Me with this year's haul from Terre dei Nappi.

Me with this year’s haul from Terre dei Nappi.

Antipasti at Terre dei Nappi.

Antipasti at Terre dei Nappi.


The heads of the winery, as they did last year, opened their little showroom for us and brought out a half dozen bottles of wine — along with plates of prosciutto, salami, cheeses and bread. Each bottle, from the dry Montefalco Rosso to the sweet Passito dessert wine, had us oohing and aahing like bleating sheep. I came away with two bottles of Montefalco Rosso and one of the slightly sweeter Montefalco Sagrantino, all for about 30 euros ($34). In the U.S., three bottles of this quality of wine might top $100.
Terziere Castello is only open in October.

Terziere Castello is only open in October.


Also underrated is the Umbrian cuisine. People here are notably proud of it to the point where they hold festivals for nearly every delicacy on their food chain. Or have you never heard of the snail festival in Cantalupo? It’s every August. Or the onion festival in Cannara? It’s every September. In October, the town of Trevi celebrates the one food no one can live without …

… celery.

Our waitresses. Apparently, the town of Trevi does not have strict child labor laws.

Our waitresses. Apparently, the town of Trevi does not have strict child labor laws.


Yes, Trevi has a celery festival every October. It is the only month of the year the town opens Terziere Castello, a sprawling restaurant that looks like a movie set for a film about the Middle Ages. The curved stone ceiling makes you feel as if you’re inside a cave. Iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Wide, bulky drinking cups look perfect for grog. A man sitting at the table next to ours ate a turkey leg with his hand. I wanted to call a waitress by yelling, “Hey, scullery wench!” Instead, waiting our table were girls 13 and 12 years old.
Arrosticini di Pecora. (Roast lamb.)

Arrosticini di Pecora. (Roast lamb.)

Frantasie di Chianina.

Frantasie di Chianina.


The menu, obviously, was heavy on the celery, called “sedano” in Italian. Zuppa di Sedano (Celery Soup), Parmigiana di Sedano (Celery covered in parmesan cheese), Sedano Ripieno (Stuffed Celery), Sedano in Padella (Celery in a pan), Sedano alla Popolana (loosely translated: Peasant Celery). There’s even a celery dessert. I had the Fantasie di Chianina. It’s a chunky pasta made from chianina, one of the largest and oldest breeds of cow in the world and found in Umbria, Tuscany and Lazio, the region surrounding Rome. The cows are white and used for the famous steaks in Latini, the Florence steakhouse that I’ve written is the best in the world. For the second course I had Arrosticini di Pecora, roast lamb. It was as delicate, lean and fresh as if slaughtered at my table.
A typical residential road in Spello.

A typical residential road in Spello.


The next day we made a return trip to Spello, the cute, walled town lined with blooming flower beds, stone archways, narrow cobblestone alleys and tasteful art stores and food stores. We stopped again at La Bottega Di Teresa, home to some of the best olive oil in Italy and fantastic honeys, cheeses and salamis hanging all over the store. Teresa informed me that my blog and photo of her last year helped make her the No. 1 alimentari (meat and cheese store) in Umbria. Since the number of my website’s subscribers could probably fit in her store, I told her the credit probably goes to her olive oils, honeys, cheeses and salamis.
Spello's 12th century Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Spello’s 12th century Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore.


We arrived back in Rome early evening. Hugs and double cheek kisses were passed around. I helped haul Pam’s kitchen-full of souvenir craft ware to her apartment in Centro Storico. I carried my booty of wines and ceramic oil and vinegar canisters on the bus for home. Friends with no benefits? With places like Umbria only a couple hours away, there are always benefits.
The gang at the end in front of La Bottega Di Teresa in Spello, Teresa is back row, third from right.

The gang at the end in front of La Bottega Di Teresa in Spello, Teresa is back row, third from right.

L’avanzamento della squadra Nazionale Italiana di calcio in una nazione con guerre regionali

Norway-Italy pass

Il calcio ha una caratteristica che, pur avendo lavorato come giornalista sportivo per tanti anni negli Stati Uniti, non ho riscontrato in nessun altro sport. Il nazionalismo. Il suo lato positivo. Il lato che non scateni conflitti ma al contrario faccia vedere sugli spalti bandiere, visi dipinti e costumi da Napoleone.
Una intera Nazione si ferma per assistere al gioco della propria squadra che li rappresenta su un palcoscenico mondiale o continentale. La pallacanestro in America? No. La squadra americana è tanto buona quanto noiosa. La squadra di calcio americana? Assolutamente no. C’è stata una grande attenzione alla Coppa del Mondo ma metà degli americani chiamano il calcio..”pallone”. Il calcio nel resto del mondo galvanizza intere Nazioni.

Odio apparire esageratamente buonista, ma il calcio internazionale ha anche la capacità di aiutare il mondo a essere più unito. In 40 anni da giornalista sportivo, il più importante evento sportivo sul quale ho fatto un servizio è stato La Coppa del Mondo 2006 in Germania. Trentadue Nazioni riunite in pace e per lo sport. Non avevo mai visto persone essere così vicine l’una all’altra come ho potuto vedere in quell’occasione. Il momento che più è rimasto impresso nella mia memoria è stato quando a Monaco di Baviera, passeggiando di fronte ad un bar ho visto un tifoso Tedesco, vestito con i tradizionali pantaloncini corti in pelle, sorseggiare una birra con un tifoso Messicano con tanto di sombrero. Camminando in direzione dello stadio ero contornato da tifosi iraniani che parlavano di calcio invece che di politica. Persino gli Inglesi, lasciati a casa gli Hooligans, si comportavano educatamente.

Così , martedì sera, ho colto al volo l’opportunità di assistere ad una partita della quale non vi è stato alcun segnale nel radar degli avvenimenti sportivi Americani.

La squadra Norvegese era a Roma per giocare contro l’Italia nell’ultima partita di qualificazione per i Campionati Europei che si terranno il prossimo anno in Francia. L’Italia aveva già conquistato una qualificazione ma era necessario che vincesse per finire nel proprio gruppo e guadagnarsi una migliore posizione nel sorteggio(?) del 12 Dicembre. La Norvegia, al secondo posto, era solo ad un punto di vantaggio sulla Croazia per il secondo ed ultimo posto di qualifica automatico. La Croazia visita la Malta.

La squadra Nazionale Italiana ha sempre risvegliato un grande interesse in Italia. Gli Italiani la seguono ma l’Italia è diversa da qualsiasi altro Paese del mondo. Nonostante abbia radici che risalgano a circa 3.000 anni fa e, indipendentemente dall’impronta indelebile che l’Impero Romano abbia lasciato nel mondo, l’Italia solo nel 1861 è diventata una Repubblica. Circa 100 anni più tardi degli Stati Uniti d’America. Prima del 1861, l’Italia era una penisola costellata di città-stato che erano altrettanto sospettose e piene di odio nei confronti dei propri confinanti di alcuni Stati, al giorno d’oggi, nel Golfo Persico. Importanti forze militari si erano formate a Venezia, in Lombardia e a Genova. La Sicilia e la Sardegna erano infiltrate da eserciti stranieri così numerosi da renderle praticamente dei Paesi separati. Le innumerevoli invasioni di Roma fecero salire nel 14mo secolo la popolazione a circa 20.000 abitanti. L’intera città era un campo di addestramento per i vandali . La vendetta è una brutta bestia, Romani!

Siamo ora nel 21mo secolo, e l’Italia rimane divisa in tante Regioni come ogni altro Paese del mondo. Ognuna delle 20 Regioni ha il proprio dialetto, la propria storia e le proprie tradizioni culinarie. E.. ognuna ha anche la propria squadra di calcio. Se una Nazione si schiera per la propria squadra nazionale di calcio, le regioni Italiane si schierano invece per la propria squadra regionale. Ha la precedenza. Sempre. Ho ascoltato Rete Sport su 105.6 FM. E’ una stazione radio dedicata interamente e tutto il giorno alla squadra della AS Roma. Questo è tutto. Nessun altra squadra. Nessun altro sport.

Ho vissuto per 23 anni a Denver (Colorado USA) dove la violenza aumenta nelle giornate in cui la squadra del Broncos NFL non vince. Non hanno una copertura mediatica del genere. Ho domandato a Manuele, un ragazzo che lavora nella palestra che frequento ed è un membro del famoso gruppo di Ultras della AS Roma della Curva sud, se la maggioranza dei romani preferirebbe che la Roma vincesse il campionato di serie A, o titolo nazionale, piuttosto che la Nazionale vincesse la Coppa del Mondo. “Serie A” ha risposto. “Nessun dubbio, al 100%. Se la Roma dovesse vincere quest’anno, vedrai dei festeggiamenti che non hai mai visto prima”.

E’ vero. Ho assistito alla vittoria dell’Italia con calcio di rigore sulla Francia nel 2006 per la Coppa del Mondo. Gli italiani gremivano le piazze pubbliche guardando la partita su megaschermi. Hanno festeggiato tutta la notte. E al sorgere dell’alba a Berlino, ho visto italiani continuare a serpeggiare per le strade sbandierando drappi tricolori. Ma quando nel 2001 la AS Roma vinse lo Scudetto di Serie A, i romani festeggiarono per una settimana intera. Ogni sera riempivano Piazza santa Maria Liberatrice, distante pochi passi dal mio appartamento e non lontano da dove venne fondato il club nel 1927. Sono fermamente convinto che il livello di crescita demografica negativo abbia ricevuto una impennata nove mesi dopo quella notte del 2001.

Come disse una volta Winston Churchill, “ Gli Italiani perdono le guerre come se fossero partite di calcio e partite di calcio come se fossero guerre”. Ho notato la differenza mentre percorrevo la distanza assurda (quasi quattro KM!) tra il banco di accettazione per la stampa situato in un lato dello Stadio Olimpico e l’ entrata dedicata ai giornalisti. Questo blog non ha fotografie perchè non ho visto nemmeno un tifoso vestito da gladiatore, da Giulio Cesare o da gondoliere. Ho visto ragazze tifose vestite come modelle sulla passarella di una sfilata di moda ma.. questo è normale per voi ragazze romane! Se non siete vestite di giallo e di rosso o non avete in mano niente di giallo e rosso ad una partita della Roma potreste essere anche nude.

Quindi il pubblico era ottimo, sotto molti punti di vista. Ragionateci. La Norvegia contro l’Italia a Roma. Potrebbe ogni altro Stadio al mondo avere un pubblico con donne più belle che lo Stadio Olimpico quella sera? Circa 30.000 tifosi riempivano entrambe i lati dello Stadio ma la Curva Nord e la curva Sud erano stranamente chiuse. Non sembrava nemmeno una vera partita senza i lanci di bombe lacrimogene e i canti osceni e lo spiegamento di striscioni con diciture ancora più oscene.

Addirittura il pubblico non ha nemmeno borbottato o gridato durante il canto dell’”Inno degli Italiani” con le sue strane parole. Scritto nel 1847 dall’allora ventenne Goffredo Mameli, l’Inno evidenzia la disunione del Paese facendo capire cosa renda così strana la tifoseria italiana…

L’Inno include la seguente strofa:
“Noi fummo da secoli là,
calpesti, derisi
perchè non siam popol,
perchè siam divisi.”

Quale Inno Nazionale di quale altra Nazione si dilania ammettendo una mancanza di unione? Si può riscontrare nella tifoseria Italiana, ma questo non incide sulla qualità del gioco. Nonostante l’Italia avesse già conquistato la qualifica per il 2016, la sua superiorità calcistica nei confronti dell’esasperante desiderio della Norvegia di vincere ha prodotto una delle migliori partite di calcio che io abbia mai visto. La Norvegia ha partecipato solo una volta nell’arco dei 55 anni di storia del Campionati Europei. Quando Alexander Tettey, giocatore ghanese della Norvegia, si è lanciato in un calcio libero deviato fuori dei 18 metri dell’area di rigore, i 1.000 tifosi Norvegesi sembravano indemoniati. E così pure la squadra Norvegese dopo il primo tempo riunendosi correndo intorno al proprio Capitano Per Ciljan Skjelbred che con occhi spalancati e aria animata faceva loro grandi discorsi di incoraggiamento.

Poi.. la Nazionale Italiana ha risvegliato la sconsolata folla di tifosi italiani. Orjan Nyland, l’incredibile portiere della Norvegia, ha fatto tre parate magnifiche prima che il giocatore della Roma Alessandro Florenzi sgaiattolasse dietro a un giocatore della difesa che non ha gestito bene l’azione, e tirasse in rete al 77mo minuto. Nove minuti più tardi, Graziano Pelle, uno degli attaccanti più pericolosi della Nazionale Italiana, ha preso un bellissimo cross da Florenzi ed ha fatto un tiro per la vittoria contro il quale Nyland non è riuscito a fare nulla.

Questa Nazionale italiana ha così tante incognite. Cinque degli attaccanti non erano nella formazione dell’ultima Coppa del Mondo e tre degli attuali giocatori messi insieme raggiungono la mia età anagrafica ma ancora viene seguito il modello cauto e oltremodo difensivo che li ha fatti eliminare dalle formazioni delle ultime due Coppe del Mondo. I 16 goals dell’Italia in 10 partite di qualificazione hanno relegato l’Irlanda del Nord tra i i minori secondi dei nove gruppi di campioni.(boh? This sentence.. I can’t translate it..)

E come può una squadra con una tale enfasi di difesa incassare un goal come è successo con il primo goal segnato dalla Norvegia. Ma l’Italia può contare su un allenatore molto in gamba e di successo, Antonio Conti, che ha iniziato ad allenare la squadra dopo la Coppa del Mondo ed ha perso solo una partita su 14: un’amichevole contro il Portogallo. Voci di corridoio a Roma sussurrano che pezzi grossi della squadra della Roma lo vorrebbero ingaggiare. Se l’attuale allenatore della Roma, in carica da tre anni, non farà schizzare la Roma dal suo attuale quarto posto in classifica, in una stagione nella quale la Juventus, quattro volte campione in carica, è decisamente in ribasso, può essere che Conti avrà questa opportunità. La stampa italiana lo ha intervistato in proposito e la sua risposta è stata : “Roma è una città stupenda che ho imparato ad apprezzare venendo a viverci per lavoro ma i tifosi della Roma e il club devono mantenere la calma. Garcia è un ottimo allenatore che ha tutto il mio rispetto.”

Sono uscito dallo Stadio ed mi sono imbattuto in una pattuglia di Carabinieri annoiati. I tifosi italiani si comportavano rispettosamente come se stessero uscendo dalla Basilica di San Pietro. Sono tornato verso casa su un autobus pieno di gente. Credo di avere visto solo due tifosi con indosso i colori della Nazionale Italiana. In Francia si inizierà in Giugno 2016 e non mi aspetto un maggiore fermento ed entusiasmo di quanto non abbia potuto vedere la scorsa sera a Roma.

Ma.. se la Roma vincesse il campionato di serie A a maggio… so che resterò a Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice almeno per una settimana!

Italy’s national soccer team advances in a nation of regional wars

Norway-Italy passSoccer has an element that I found in no other sport growing up as a sportswriter in America. It has nationalism. The good kind. Not the kind that sparks wars but, instead, flags, face paint and Napoleon costumes in the stands. An entire country shuts down to watch its team represent it on a world or continental stage. Basketball in America? No. The U.S. team is so good it’s boring. The American soccer team? Not really. World Cup ratings were high but half of America calls it “kickball.” Soccer in the rest of the world galvanizes entire countries.

I hate to sound pollyannaish, but international soccer also helps bring the world closer. In 40 years as a sportswriter, the greatest single event I covered was the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Thirty-two nations gathered in peace and sport. Never have I seen my fellow man reach out to each other as I did then. My one Kodak moment was walking past a bar in Munich and seeing a German fan in lederhosen drinking a beer with a Mexican fan in a sombrero. I walked to the stadium surrounded by Iranian fans who talked soccer instead of politics. Even the English fans, their hooligans prevented from coming, were polite.

So I jumped at the opportunity Tuesday night to attend a game that didn’t record a blip on the American sports radar. Norway was in Rome to play Italy in the last game of qualifying for next year’s European Championships in France. Italy already clinched qualification but needed to win to finish in its group and earn a better seed in the Dec. 12 draw. Norway, in second place, was only one point ahead of Croatia for the second and last automatic qualifying spot. Croatia visited last-place Malta.

Italy’s national team has always carried an interesting cache in Italy. Italians follow it, but Italy is different than any other country. Despite roots dating back nearly 3,000 years, regardless of the eternal imprint the Roman Empire left on the world, Italy has only been a republic since 1861. That’s nearly 100 years after the United States. Before 1861, Italy was a peninsula filled with city states that were as suspicious and hateful of their neighbors as some today in the Persian Gulf. Major militaries formed in Venice, Lombardy and Genoa. Sicily and Sardinia were infiltrated by so many foreign armies they were almost separate countries. Countless invasions of Rome dropped the city population in the 14th century to about 20,000. The whole city was a training camp for vandals. Payback is a bitch, Romans.

It’s the 21st century, and Italy remains as regionalized as any country in the world. All 20 regions have their own dialect, their own history, their own cuisine. They also have their own soccer club. If a country rallies around its national soccer team, Italy’s regions rally around its soccer club. It takes precedence. Always. I listen to Rete Sport on 105.6 FM. It’s a radio station that is devoted all day to A.S. Roma. That’s it. No other team. No other sport. For 23 years I lived in Denver where domestic violence rises on days when the Denver Broncos NFL team doesn’t win. They don’t have media coverage like this.

I asked Manuele, who works in my gym and is a member of A.S. Roma’s notorious Curva Sud crowd of ultras, if most Romans would rather win the Serie A, or national title, than the World Cup. “Serie A,” he said. “No question, 100 percent. If Roma wins it this year, you’ll see a party like you’ve never seen.”

It’s true. I covered Italy’s shootout win over France for the 2006 World Cup title. Italians filled public squares watching it on big screens. They partied all night. As dawn broke in Berlin, I saw Italians still weaving through the streets waving their green, white and red flags. But when A.S. Roma won Serie A in 2001, Romans partied for a week. Every night they filled Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice around the corner from my apartment and not far from where the club formed in 1927. I firmly believe Italy’s negative birth rate received a major spike nine months after that night in 2001.

As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Italians lose wars as if they were football matches, and football matches as if they were wars.” I noticed the difference as I made the absurd two-mile walk from credential pickup on one side of Olympic Stadium, all the way down the street and around a corner and down another entry road to the media entrance. This blog has no pictures because I saw no Italian fans dressed like gladiators, Julius Caesar or gondoliers. I did see female fans dressed like runway models but those are just your average Roman girls. If you’re not wearing red and yellow to a Roma game or carrying red and yellow, you may as well be naked.

Still, the crowd was good — in more ways than one. Think about it. Norway vs. Italy in Rome. Could any stadium in the world have better-looking women in it than Olympic Stadium that night? About 30,000 fans filled both sides of the Olympic Stadium but Curva Nord and Curva Sud were curiously closed off. It didn’t seem like a competition without the ultras spewing smoke bombs and filthy songs and displaying banners even worse. The crowd didn’t even roar that much after Italy’s curiously worded national anthem, “Il Canto degli Italiani.” Written in 1847 by a 20-year-old named Goffredo Mameli, the anthem actually points to the nation’s faults while illustrating what makes the Italian soccer team’s fan base so strange. The anthem actually contains the following stanza:

“We were for centuries
downtrodden, derided,
because we are not a people,
because we are divided.”

What other country’s anthem rips itself for a lack of unity? You can see it in the Italian national fan base but that hardly affects the quality of play. Despite Italy already clinching its spot for 2016, its superior talent against Norway’s sense of maddening urgency provided one of the best soccer matches I’ve ever seen. Norway has been to one European Championships in the competition’s 55-year history. When the Ghanian-born Norwegian club-veteran, Alexander Tettey, volleyed in a deflected free kick from outside the 18-meter box, the 1,000 Norwegian fans wedged into a corner section went berserk. So did Norway’s team which came out of halftime and rallied around inspirational captain Per Ciljan Skjelbred spirited, wide-eyed pep talk.

Italy then woke up the subdued Italian crowd. Orjan Nyland, Norway’s incredible goalkeeper, made three magnificent saves before A.S. Roma’s own Alessandro Florenzi snuck in behind a defender, who mishandled a free kick, to scoot it into the net in the 77th minute. Nine minutes later, Graziano Pelle, Italy’s most dangerous striker, took a beautiful cross from Florenzi and knocked it past a helpless Nyland for the eventual game-winner.

This Italian team has so many unknowns. Five of the starters weren’t on last year’s World Cup roster, three current players are about my age and it still follows Italy’s often cautious, overly defensive pattern that has knocked them out of the last two World Cups in the group stage. Italy’s 16 goals in 10 qualifying games tied Northern Ireland with the second fewest of the nine group champions. And how does a team with such a defensive emphasis screw up a free kick as it did on Norway’s first goal?

But Italy also has a remarkably successful coach in Antonio Conte who took over after the World Cup and has only lost one match in 14: a friendly against Portugal. Word around Rome is A.S. Roma’s brass would like to hire him. If third-year coach Rudy Garcia doesn’t jump Roma from its current fourth place, in a season when four-time defending champ Juventus is way down, Conte may have that option. The Italian media even asked him about it. He said, “Rome is a stupendous city that I’ve learned to appreciate coming here for work but the Roma fans and the club must be calm. Garcia is a great coach. I respect him a lot.”

I walked out of the stadium past a squadron of bored Carabinieri, Italy’s national police. The Italian fans were as well behaved as if they walked out of St. Peter’s. I stood in a packed bus back to my neighborhood. I think I saw two fans wearing Italy’s colors. France 2016 starts in June and I don’t expect the buildup to be much more than what I experienced last night.

But if Roma wins Serie A in May, I am not leaving Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice for a week.