Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Intricacies of Having Coffee in Italy...

For years I have had to explain to foreign visitors why Italians (myself included) often do not sit down in coffee shops to have their espresso. In a country famed for "taking it slow" - even too much so – it is clearly a contradiction that the Italian-style coffee break normally involves standing at a counter to quickly drink a cappuccino and eat a pastry. Especially unusual is the fact that there are often plenty of charming tables inside the coffee shop, or even more invitingly just outside the door facing a pretty piazza, sitting empty (unless occupied by tourists).

So, why is it that most Italians don’t like to sit and enjoy their coffee? The answer is simple, because they prefer not to pay double (and sometimes even more than six times) what they pay at the counter. Yes, sitting down comes at a high price in most establishments. When you are in the historic center of a major city or tourist town, you’d best be aware of this “little” secret. Too often foreign visitors are stunned to receive their bill after ordering a simple espresso or a common beverage, and many are downright outraged if they have dared to order something more costly, like a mixed drink or a glass of wine. It is true that the coffee shop will present you with a menu, where you can clearly see the hefty cost of their offerings. However, many unknowing tourists who just want something commonplace, like a cappuccino, don’t even ask for a menu – they just order directly, and that’s where the rude awakening is guaranteed.

Unfortunately, this practice has been in force forever – and it is unlikely to change. The country’s prominent coffee shops defend their prices by citing the elegance of their venues and the prime location (after all it’s hard to defend a 9 Euro espresso, no matter how good it is!) So, the best thing is to be forewarned. Sometimes, it might even be worth it to pay 10 dollars for a Coke in order to spend a half-hour respite looking at something as beautiful and unique as the Pantheon in Rome or the Duomo in Florence – after all how often do you get to do it? However, for many (especially the locals) paying this high toll is a bit steep, and certainly not something you can do daily. So, unless you find the coffee shop that is a bit removed from the tourist circuit, which will allow you to sit down with your order at no additional charge, you are best to read the menu first, before you sit down, or just join the Italians at the counter!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Palio of Siena

It’s Palio time again in Siena. August 16th signals the second event of the summer (after the one held on July 2nd), when 10 of Siena’s 17 contrade (city wards) compete in a traditional bareback horse race in the famous Piazza del Campo. The August race was added in the 18th century, probably as a way to continue the festivities from the holiday on August 15th dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In fact, this Palio bears the name “Palio dell’Assunta”.

This important annual event has become one of Siena’s most famous tourist attractions – drawing thousands of visitors from all over Italy and the world. Prior to the race there is a magnificent pageant, called the Corteo Storico, where participants are dressed in the regalia of the Middle Ages to celebrate the historic customs and greatness of the Republic of Siena. The procession includes marching bands, flag throwers, musicians, horse riders, and an array of historical reenactments.

In the evening, it is time for the horse race, which lasts only three laps around the piazza, covered in several inches of dirt for the occasion. The intensity of the local rivalries and the relatively dangerous race track often make the 90-second competition quite treacherous for both the horses and the jockeys. The winner is always the horse that crosses the finish line first – with or without its rider – and it is typical to see whips being used not only on the rider’s own horse, but also on those of others, to spook or distract them.

In many ways, the Palio is a real journey back in time – as the people of Siena resort to using techniques and behavior typical of another era. The lack of fair play, by plotting against rivals and rejoicing at their defeat, is all part of this historic game, which is not always looked upon favorably by humane associations or those citizens who feel it represents a violent and outdated ritual that too often results in serious injuries to both the horses and their jockeys.

The Palio is without a doubt a majestic pageant, but it is also controversial for the obvious absence of good sportsmanship and its often dubious practices – rooted in centuries of tradition, rivalries and passion, as alive today as they were hundreds of years ago.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


August 15th is called Ferragosto in Italy – the holiday synonymous with summer vacation.

In the past, those forced to stay in the city during the month of August would be faced with living in a ghost town - especially during the week of Ferragosto. Factories and businesses throughout the country would close their doors at the beginning of the month and workers would flock to the beach, or the mountains, for their annual month-long holiday. For decades, Italy basically shut down during August. Most everything was closed (usually for the entire month – but definitely for the week of Ferragosto) and finding something to buy or to do if not in a tourist location was nearly impossible.

However, times are slowly changing. Whether it’s because of the global market or the hurting local economy, this year the August city dwellers will find themselves in good company. To start, very few businesses can afford to close for a month, and the “innovative” concept of having employees take their vacations in turns – and not allowing them to use all 4 weeks at once – has become commonplace. Another reason is certainly that most families are hard-pressed to finance extravagant long vacations. In fact, this year is showing a huge drop in summer travel by Italians. Most are remaining within national borders and limiting their stays to a week (or even less) – and an unprecedented number is not taking a vacation at all.

Going on summer vacation in the 1950s -  photo:

In many ways, this shift in vacation patterns was inevitable. Italy could not expect to be part of the European (and global) economy while continuing its 11 month work calendar. The hope is that the recession will soon ease, so that people who have worked hard will at least be able to take some vacation, and those who lack work will soon find it. 

In the meantime, for those “stuck” in Florence this August, the good news is that not everything is closed. You can even go to a museum on Ferragosto! Many of the city’s major galleries will remain open - so the 15th  might prove to be a good day (with fewer crowds) to take advantage of the city's cultural offerings.