27 September 2015

LIFE: Calcio Fiorentino

CHIAVARI, Italy - In 16th century Italy, Italians played a sport called Calcio Fiorentino. It is an extremely violent game, and combines elements of soccer, rugby and bare-knuckle fighting into one brutal and bloody event. Some history books say it was played by rich aristocrats, and sometimes even Popes, Clement VII, Leo XI and Urban VIII were said to be particularly fond of the game and often joined in. But I find that hard to believe
A Little Calcio Fiorentino Action 
The reason I find it hard to believe is that rich aristocrats and Popes didn’t even dress themselves in those days, so it’s hard to imagine them jumping into the middle of such a bloody and brutal sport. And by the time the Popes were elected Pope, they were old and kind of on the chubby side and well, you look at the photos and tell me if you think this is a sport for chubby, old men.

The truth is Calcio Fiorentino is a blood sport and because it is such a brutal game, the Italians stopped playing it sometime around the 17th century. But then, in 1930, a group of Florentines decided to revive it. 
Now, Now Boys, Let's Play Nice 
Traditionally Calcio Fiorentino, or calcio storico (historic football), is played on a sand field that is twice as long as it is wide. At each end, there is a net goal that stretches the width of the field.

There are 27 men from each team, and they are all on the field at the same time. That means there are 54 men knocking the snot out of each other for 50 full minutes straight, which is how long the game is. When the 50 minutes of insane brutality are over, whoever scored the most points wins.
A New Defense Tactic 
To score a goal, which is called a caccia, players have to put the ball into the opponents’ net. Easier said than done as all the while you are trying to put the ball in the other teams net, they are hard at work beating the crap out of you. And don’t take a shot for the goal unless you know you are going to make it because if you miss, the other team gets half a caccia.

There are rule, of course. Kicking, punching, head-butting and choking are all allowed, but you’ll get booted out of the game if you are caught throwing a sucker punch or kicking an opponent in the head. Biting opponent’s ears off is not encouraged either, nor is ganging up on one player.
The Kick in the Shin Maneuver
While there are referees on the field, the guys in the spiffy red and white pantaloons, but they only get involved if a fight or brawl breaks out. While you can smash the bejeebers out of your opponent when you are trying to score a caccia, you can’t just beat them into the ground and continue to do so without a referee coming over and chastising you. After all, the object of the game is to put the ball in the net, not kill the people you’re playing against.

There’s no way of telling if those rules always applied, especially back in the day when the Greeks ran things. They played a version of this game that they called Sfermomachia. The game was later adopted by the Roman army and transformed into a type of warrior training. The Romans called it Harpastum, which in Latin literally means to rip off – like rip off your head.  

This Might Work   
The Romans loved the continuous body-to-body, head to head combat for possession of the ball, it brought out their inner gladiator and it was through their love of the game that it spread throughout the Roman Empire.  

For all we know the Romans could have been playing calcio Fiorentino back in 59 A.D. when they founded the city of Fiorenza, now known as Florence.  Anything is possible. One thing we do know is that by the second half of the 5th century, calcio was so popular among young Florentines that they often played it in the streets and squares of the city. And one winter, back in 1490 when the Arno River was completely frozen over, they marked off a field and played a few games on the ice.

 Now, Now Boys, Choking is Against the Rules
The game is now played in Florence as a tournament during the 3rd week of June. Florence is divided into quadrants and each quadrant provides one team to play. After two opening games, the two remaining teams play in the final. The championship game is played on June 24th, which is San Giovanni (St. John)’s Day, who happens to be the Patron Saint of Florence.

Each team fights its hardest to win the grand prize, a cow! Not just any cow, but a Chianina cow which is the largest cattle breed in the world, and also one of the oldest in existence. Their meat is delicious and the best cut is used for bistecca alla Fiorentina, a massive T-bone steak. 
Where Do You Think You're Going? 
What better way to celebrate a win than to fire up the grill and share a steak dinner with your teammates and their families.  Laugh if you want, but the Italians know this: you can’t eat a shiny Winner’s Cup.

By the way, if you are interested, you can watch full Calcio Fiorentino matches on YouTube. Check it out.

24 September 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: In the Market

CHIAVARI, Italy - The daily produce market in Chiavari’s Piazza Manzini, is a joy to see and a joy to shop in.  It continues a long tradition of selling food in open-air food markets that dates back to the days of the Romans, and even earlier.
Chiavari Market in Piazza Manzini 
There isn’t a lot of difference between the markets in early Rome and the Chiavari fruit and vegetable market today. Vendors still have to have a license to sell, although licenses today are not engraved on a piece of marble and publically displayed as they were in early Rome.

Women still do most of the shopping, that has not changed, but in ancient Rome rich women would often send their slaves to do their marketing.
A Little Meat Market on Wheels 
Fast food that could be eaten straight away was also a common sight in Rome. Bread, hot sausages, pastries, and chickpeas were perfect for busy Romans to eat on the street or take home. While we still buy bread and pastries from specialty bakeries, other ready-to-eat food like cheese and salami, roasted chickens and seafood salad are sold in the market from movable food trucks that travel from town to town not just in Liguria but throughout Italy. The Romans would have been impressed.

Just as the Roman government set weights and measures around the city and employed inspectors to protect buyers from being swindled, today’s street markets are also controlled by local authorities.
 Fennel and Cabbage and Onions, Oh My!
Suspicious upper class Romans thought the vendors were deceitful and always questioned the quality of the food being sold. Some even went so far as to accuse vendors who sold prepared foods of selling human flesh in place of pork in some of their cooked dishes. It was generally believed that human and pig flesh taste and smell remarkably similar, and unsuspecting customers were not able to tell the difference. That accusation was never proven, nor was the question as to where they would have gotten hold of human flesh, but nonetheless it did create a buzz in Old Rome for a while.

A fifth-century AD author also claimed that some vendors displayed food items such as eggs and onions floating in glass bowls of water so that they looked larger than their actual size. It sounds rather silly even for those times, and mostly likely is not even true since food back then, just as it is now, is sold by weight.
A Farmer Selling Her Straight From the Garden Produce and Other Stuff
Most people in the Roman world were farmers. They grew wheat and barley, olives, grapes, apples, onions and celery and other vegetables. Unlike our markets today, which rely on a central distribution center for their produce, most of the vendors in Roman times sold what they grew.  And they paid taxes, as farmers do today except Roman farmers paid their taxes partly in money and partly in food.

The markets of early Rome and those today are more alike than they are different. However, one of the biggest differences between the Roman vendors and the vendors in Chiavari, is that the Roman vendors made a lot of noise. They would hoot and holler and call out to passersby to come and look at the beautiful fruits and vegetables they had for sale.

Beautiful Produce Worth Shouting About
I think there are some open-air markets here in Italy where they still hoot and holler, but I’ve never seen it. I remember the Italian market on 9th Street in Philadelphia as being rather raucous, but the markets in Milan and other towns in Lombardy as well as here in Liguria are surprisingly quiet.

Another similarity is that street vendors in the Roman markets, sold produce and food at relatively low prices, but wealthy shoppers, who wanted to impress their dinner guests, could visit the macellum, Rome’s luxury food market. At the macellum large fish were auctioned off to the highest bidder, which often resulted in the customer paying incredibly high prices. It brings to mind the fruit and vegetable stand in Genoa Nervi we used to call Tiffany’s because of their high prices, and also Pecks in Via Spadari in Milan, whose prices are so high they don’t even post them on their on-line store.
Even Onions Can Be a Thing of Beauty  
But unlike today, if the Romans hadn’t brought enough money to pay for their purchases, bankers were always on hand and more than happy to lend money to anyone who could not cover the costs of their extravagant shopping spree. The imperial biographer Suetonius records the disgust of Emperor Tiberius that three red mullets sold for 30,000 sesterces – more than 30 times the annual wage of a Roman legionary soldier.

Other Roman delicacies available from that luxury market included songbirds, snails and dormice, a dormouse being a tiny creature that weighs at most 180 grams or 6.3 ounces, and sleeps six months out of twelve. 
Errr, Excuse Me, Do You Deliver?  
Perhaps the biggest difference between then and now is that in ancient Rome vendors would often go directly to the homes of the wealthy. The Roman poet Ovid complained that the visits by the vendors were a nuisance for lovers since they always seem to knock at the door when their mistresses were in a buying mood. To add insult to injury, the vendors would look to the lovers to pay the bill, and if they didn’t have enough cash, no problem, they would take a note of credit. But it wasn’t always about the money, there was also the fear that the mistress would find the vendor more attractive and send the lover on his way. 

While it was a different time, and a different place, it’s surprising how many traditions have survived the centuries. Since that time both Italy and Sicily have been invaded, and dominated, by so many who have left their mark on this country, but the truth is they were never able to change the heart and soul of what it means to be Italian. That always seems to survive.

20 September 2015

LIFE: Riviera Life - Santa Margherita Ligure

CHIAVARI, Italy – For a town that’s been around since 262 B.C., Santa Margherita Ligure is in pretty good shape.  In fact you might say that Santa, which is what locals call it, looks better today than it ever did. 
 Santa Margherita Ligure
I’ve been waiting to take photos of Santa Margherita, but not the usual kind of photos full of sunshine and happy faces, I wanted photographs of Santa taken in a different light. But since this has been a summer of sunshine, it took until the middle of last week to get the right kind of day. No sun in the sky? It’s all cloudy and grey? Yippee! I was off to the train station for the ten-minute ride to Santa. 
Pretty, Even on a Cloudy Day
When I got there it was cloudier and a lot darker than it had been in Chiavari, but I wasn’t too worried. Weather here in Liguria has a multiple personality disorder. One minute it’s sunny, next minute it’s not, and strangely enough the weather is different from town to town even though the towns are only 10-15 minutes apart. And forget about the weather reports, they can’t keep up with what’s going on around here either. 

At any rate I decided to wait and see if it would clear up a little, and it did. The really dark clouds passed and the sky was a beautiful shade of grey.
Castle of Santa Margherita (Photo: Wikipedia) 
The first photo I wanted to take was of the town castle, the one that protected Santa from the fierce pirate raids that plagued the entire Mediterranean coast during the 1500’s. But from street level the best shot I could get was of the entrance to the town’s public toilet, which is built into the same stone wall that supports the castle. That would never do, so I downloaded the castle photo from Wikipedia.

The castle/fort was constructed in 1550 at the foot of the hill where the beautiful Villa Durazzo is located. The villa was built the same year by the Doge of Genoa, and backed by a resolution of the Senate of the Republic of Genoa, which in plain talk means it was paid for with public money.
Local Farmers Selling Freshly Picked Produce 
Of course they really did need a castle/fort to defend against frequent pirate raids, but it might have been better if they built it closer to the residential part of town, but who am I to question the Senate of the Republic of Genoa.

Like it’s neighbors along the Ligurian coast, Santa was often attacked  by the fierce Turkish pirate Dragut Rais. There are no records of how many Sammargheritesi Dragut and his men carried away and sold in the North African slave markets, but by all accounts it was a considerable number. In a way being shipped off to North Africa was probably the best outcome for a bad situation because the people who were not chosen to be sold as slaves by the pirates usually ended up having their heads chopped off.   
My Favorite Bar in Santa  
But that was then, and this is now, and today Santa is a popular tourist destination. The day I was here there were a few tour groups in town.  One of the stories I’m sure they were told is how Santa Margherita got its name.

It sort of started back in the 1700’s when Santa Margherita was not a town, but two small and separate fishing villages called Pescino and Corte. They were under the protection and jurisdiction of the Capitanato of Rapallo, which was a larger, more established town with an organized government. After about 100 years had passed, the two little villages gained their independence from Rapallo and lived happily on their own. But not for long because in1805 Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned King of Italy in Milan.
Watching the Locals Watch the Tourists 
One of the first things Napoleon did was to appoint one of Josephine’s relatives as Viceroy of Italy, and one of the first things the Viceroy did was change the name of the villages of Pescino and Corte to Porto Napoleone. 

A Gypsy Working the Crowd in Front of the Basilica
A few years later, when the French annexed the Region of Liguria to the Kingdom of Sardinia, which was ruled by the French House of Savoy, Duke Vittorio Emanuele III, whose full name was Vittorio Emanuele Ferdinando Maria Gennaro of Savoy, decided to name the town after his mother, Margherita. And that is how Pescino and Corte became Porto Napoleone, which then became Santa Margherita.  
Villa Durazzo - Built for a King, errr - I Mean a Doge.
Even back then Santa Margherita was a very pretty and popular place favored by Italian royalty and wealthy Genovese.  It was so popular that when they were building the first train line from Ventimiglia to Rome, the Tyrrhenian Railway, they built two train stations for Santa Margherita. The next major development was the advent of paved roads, and soon after that came the construction of fabulous villas and grand hotels. In a very short time Santa Margherita became the playground of the rich and richer, and in some ways it still is.
Corner of the Garden @ the Villa Durazzo  
In the center of town there is a beautiful cream colored Basilica, the Basilica of Santa Margherita D’Antiochia, better known as the Santuario di Nostra Signora della Rosa, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rose. Like most of the old churches in Italy, it was built over a pagan temple and renovated over the centuries.

During restoration work in 1672, workers discovered a jar filled with rose scented water under the main altar. To this day, on the Sunday before the Holy Day of May 5th, the Ascension of Jesus, locals bring roses to the church to be blessed. 
Even on a Cloudy Day, the View From Villa Durazzo is Beautiful 
In front of the Basilica you’ll see one of the best examples of decorative stonework, called risseu in Genovese dialect. It is one of the specialties crafts of Liguria. But the decoration doesn't stop there. Looking around you'll see high and narrow row houses painted in sweet pastel colors and often decorated in the most ingenious trompe l’oeil. There are garlands and colored ribbons, balustrades, medallions and more, all painted on flat concrete building to dazzle and fool the eye into thinking they are real, when they are not. 

But Santa Margherita is real enough, as all the towns along this stretch of Liguria are, each touched by the genius of the Genovese, each beautiful in its own unique way.