May 23, 2012
Hold on. Before you buy a new Audi, Fiat or BMW, take a look at a Volvo. Never mind the style and engineering. They’re giving away vacations.
Sound like one of those annoying TV ads? Hyperbolic. Too good to be true. Appended by fine print that makes the deal a loser.
In this case the offer is as sound as a Volvo, made to safely handle the ice and snow of the homeland.
The carmaker’s Overseas Delivery Program is for people who buy Volvos directly from the factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvos have been produced since 1927. Along with free shipping of the vehicle to a U.S. dealer, purchasers get two round-trip plane tickets to Sweden on Scandinavian Airlines and a one-night stay at a hotel in Gothenburg, giving them time to tour the Volvo Museum, where visitors learn that the brand’s name means “I roll” in Latin and that since 2010 it’s been owned by Geely Automotive, headquartered—where else?—in China. Gothenburg also has a city museum with Sweden’s only surviving Viking ship and some of the freshest seafood in Europe.
Once you get your car, which comes with European vehicle registration and insurance, you’re free to hit the road along the west coast of Sweden with its fishing villages, traditional folkways and scattering of islands. There’s Marstrand, guarded by 17th-century Carlsten Fortress, black dolomite-fringed Gullholmen and wild Hallo, where people who can tolerate cold water swim and snorkel.
Or you can head south over the Oresund Bridge to Denmark, the gateway to mainland Europe, driving the autobahn to Berlin, back roads in France, even over the Alps to Italy. Great destinations, all of them, especially in a new car. If you return the vehicle when you’re done to the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, shipping back to the U.S. is free, though a fee is charged from Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid and other drop-off points across the continent.
When I heard about the plan, I couldn’t figure out why the company would make such a generous offer. But it turns out to be a good deal for Volvo, too. “Our Overseas Delivery customers are among the best ambassadors we have for the brand,” U.S. manager Anders Robertson told me. Moreover, it saves the company money by not tying up capital while a car sits on the lot waiting for purchasers.
Too bad I’m not in the market for a car. But I may go window-shopping at a Volvo dealership, where I’ll ask a few questions about standard features before taking a seat behind the wheel, not for a test drive, but to fantasize about a trip to Europe.
April 11, 2012
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s recent visit to Vernazza—one of five villages along Liguria’s fabled Cinque Terre coast—signaled a comeback for a region devastated by flooding and mudslides last fall. On October 25, 2011, the delicate and precious little Cinque Terre, strung along approximately ten miles of heavenly Italian littoral between the towns of La Spezia and Levanto, received a pounding 20 inches of rain that turned streets into raging rivers, filled homes and businesses with debris, swept away mudslide barriers and obliterated sections of the beloved coastal path that connects the hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In Vernazza, three people died and the village was temporarily evacuated. After the disaster it seemed unlikely that spring and the visitors it brings would ever return to the Cinque Terre.
But spring has come, along with crimson poppies on the shoulders of the Via dell’Amore path. Vineyards that cling to steep cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea are greening, promising a fine fall harvest of the grapes used in the region‘s sweet, golden Sciacchetrà wine. Olive trees are unfolding, ready for their annual pruning. Work to rebuild the damaged villages and erect protective mudslide barriers continues, but many townspeople have moved back into their homes and businesses have rushed to reopen for the spring tourist season.
One of the happiest chapters in the story of Cinque Terre’s renewal is the effort made by three American women—Ruth Manfred, Michele Lilley and Michele Sherman—longtime Vernazza residents, to get the news out about the disaster and raise funds for relief. Shortly after the floods, they launched Save Vernazza ONLUS, a not-for-profit organization that has received almost $200,000 in donations to be used for rebuilding Vernazza’s historic center, restoring the scenic trail system and replacing the dry stone walls that are an integral feature of the landscape. Beyond rebuilding, the hope is to promote sustainable tourism in the heavily visited Cinque Terre. “We are making Vernazza more beautiful than before,” Mayor Vincenzo Resasco said, though I don’t know how that could ever be so.
Starting from Montorosso, I walked the via dell’Amore 20 years ago, before the Cinque Terre became an Italian national park and Unesco World Heritage site. It was early spring and I had the whole coast to myself, it seemed. Near Vernazza I climbed onto a boulder just above the sea to work on my tan, then lunched in Corniglia, filling my canteen with leftover wine to take me on to Riomaggiore. That day exists in my memory like one of those old colorized photos that give the places they depict an air of fragile permanence. Let’s hope that, come wind and rain, that air persists in the Cinque Terre.
April 6, 2012
Procida is less well-known than Capri and other islands in the glorious Bay of Naples, chiefly favored by Italians, a scant 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland and barely a half square mile in size. On Easter weekend, though, the ferries are full because Procida’s Mysteries of the Dead Christ processional—begun in 1754 as a macabre march of flagellants—is one of the most colorful in Italy.
I was there to see it a few years ago and brought back pictures:
April 5, 2012
Take a very big pile of shelled, skinned, finely ground almonds and an almost equal amount of sugar. Ecco fatto! There you go! The principle ingredients for Sicilian marzipan cunningly shaped and painted to look like cherries, oranges, plums, prickly pears, tomatoes and the delicate Paschal lambs that fill Sicilian pastry cases at Easter.
The recipes for these and other intensely sweet, almond flour-based Sicilian confections like cassata cakes, lemon-flavored cuscinetti, buccellati twists and egg white-inflated sospiri (which means sighs) aren’t that complicated.
But the fabrication takes a master schooled in a culinary tradition born in the island’s convents, passed down in the hands of nuns who raise it to high art, not unlike the plaster saints and putti that decorate Sicilian Baroque churches.
For over 50 years Grammatico has been giving Erice Paschal lambs for the Good Friday I Misteri procession, when scenes from the Crucifixion are carried around town, ossa dei morti (bones of the dead) biscuits for All Souls’ Day and mini di Virgini spongecake and ricotta custard mounds topped with a cherry so that they look for all the world like bosoms, thus commemorating the February feast day of St. Agatha, martyred in the third century A.D. after having her breasts cut off by Romans.
In Sicily, it seems, there’s always something dark behind even the most colorful traditions.
Grammatico’s own story is a case in point. Forced to enter a Catholic orphanage at age 11, she was taught by nuns how to make pastry, which was sold to townspeople through a revolving portal in the convent door. The rest of her childhood was spent reading her missal and walking behind coffins in a long row of little girls clad in black veils and dresses. When she left the convent in 1962 she took little more than her pastry-making skills with her.
But eventually her pasticceria became a landmark in Erice thanks in part to Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood, by Sicilian-American writer Mary Taylor Simeti, also the author of the exquisite On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal.
Now Grammatico has two pastry shops in Erice and a coffeehouse, Caffe Maria, where thick, dark espresso further elevates the Sicilian pastry sugar high.
January 20, 2012
As the story of the January 13 Costa Concordia disaster unfolds, the spotlight has turned sharply on 52-year-old Captain Francesco Schettino who is said to have abandoned ship—or tripped and fallen into a lifeboat, as he told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica—before all passengers and crew members were evacuated. Schettino has served as a Costa captain since 2006 and comes from a family of ship owners in the Bay of Naples area. People in his hometown Meta di Sorrento, where he was put under house arrest, have rallied around him, and 1,500 fans have supported him as friends on Facebook. The Concordia carried some 4,200 passengers; as of this writing, several have been confirmed dead and a score were reported missing.
The Genoa-based Costa Company was quick to blame him for deviating from authorized course while passing the islet of Giglio just off the Tuscan Coast. In a statement, the company pointed to possible human error on the part of the captain, unauthorized course deviation and mishandling of safety procedures. But questions remain about why standard on-board passenger security drills had not been conducted, and Lloyd’s List Intelligence reports that Concordia last August changed route to pass close by the island, a maneuver approved by the cruise line at the time, prompting editor Richard Meade to ask of the recent accident, “The company‘s account of what happened isn‘t quite as black and white as they presented originally.”
Costa disasters have made the line the butt of jokes about Italian navigation (never mind Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Cabot, a.k.a. John Cabot). In recent years these have included a botched attempt in 2008 to dock the Europa during high winds at Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, killing three crew members, another docking accident involving the Concordia in Palermo the same year, and the collision of the Costa Classica with a cargo ship in China’s Yangtze River in 2010.
None of the earlier Costa accidents figures on anecdotal lists of history’s worst cruising disasters. Industry insurers and trade groups do not keep safety records, though a statement released on January 16 by the Florida-based Cruise Line International Organization calls cruising “one of the safest means of travel among all types of vacationing.” Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown and other industry observers agree about the rarity of accidents at sea but continue to ask questions about Costa’s safety procedures. “This is a wake-up call for Costa, most particularly, but also for any other line that has slacked off on the nautical rulebook.”
I’m sorry to say I wasn’t surprised when I heard that the Concordia was a Costa vessel. In my family, at least, the line has long been synonymous with calamity because my brother was on Costa’s Angelina Lauro on March 30, 1979, when it caught fire at Charlotte Amalie on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He and his wife had gone to shore with most other passengers, rented a car and driven across the hills to the far side of the island. On the way back, they saw a header of smoke rising from a ship docked in the port—the Angelina Lauro, a 40-year old Dutch-made vessel that had been refitted for Costa. Stranded with nothing more than wallets, bathing suits, tee shirts and sneakers, completely unassisted by the cruise line, they checked into a hotel, then flew home. It made a good story, especially given that both of them were newspaper reporters. But after the ship was declared a total loss they spent years trying to get compensation for their belongings—they ended up being reimbursed for 50 percent of the value of their belongings—and ultimately cheered when the Angelina Lauro sank in the Pacific on its way to Taiwanese scrap yards.
Unlike the Angelina Lauro, the Concordia was a new, state-of-the-art cruise ship with no known defects. Which leaves two avenues for inquiry: the captain whose role in the disaster is already well-known, and Costa which has deflected heavy criticism, as yet.