I’m going to begin with a stop near Parma. After leaving my favorite Italian outlet mall off the A1 Autostrada, I drove through the roundabout and down the street to Fidenza’s zona artiginale, an area on the outskirts of town where a particular industry is located. As I was in Emilia Romagna, the particular industry was of course food. But to my surprise the road less traveled not only led me to source an amazing apple mostarda but to Toccalmatto, an Italian microbrewery with some very good beer. Off the tourist radar, in an unassuming warehouse, you really have to know where you’re going to find this place but once you do, you’ll be back.
Birrificio Toccalmatto is in Emilia Romagna, Italy’s Food Valley, where the culinary and cultural traditions of food are at the heart of everything they do. So it wasn’t surprising that the artisanal production of beer was done with the same respect for the ingredients that you see in the production of their artisanal pastas and legendary ragu’. On my visit I spent time with Alessio “Allo” Gatti who guided us through Toccalmatto’s menu of beers. We got to go behind closed doors and walk among the production tanks to see and smell the brewing beer. Yes smell – the aromas were incredible. The aroma of hops was intoxicating and I hadn’t even taken a sip of beer yet. With names like Skizoid, Rude Boy, Ambrosia and Fume du Sanglier, made with beechwood smoked malt, you know you’re in for an adventure in taste.
My personal favorite is a Sibilla, slightly spicy beer with a fruity aroma due to the strain of yeast used in the making. Birrificio Toccalmatto is always brewing up crafty concoctions so there’s always more to see and savor. I’m anxious to try Surfing Hop, a dark red beer with the flavor of balsamico. Although the center of microbreweries in Italy tends to be Northern Italy and Rome many other regions including Umbria are producing some outstanding craft beers and brew pubs are becoming, dare I say, almost as popular as the local enoteca with feste delle birre craft beer tastings all over Italy.
The history of Italy is well-known and influential. Italian painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, architects and scholars created an unforgettable niche in the Western world. One way to commemorate the beauty and allure of Italy and perhaps remind you of time spent living “la dolce vita” is with a bracelet of souvenir Italian charms. Highly collectible, charm bracelets were popularized in the 1950s and early 1960s as a must-have accessory for girls and women. Charms were given to record symbolic and memorable life events and major rites of passage – 16th birthdays, graduations, weddings, births and of course travel. Bringing back a charm was a perfect souvenir of your trip or a special gift for someone that said “wish you were here”. What could be more romantic than a charm of Rome’s Trevi fountain or Pisa’s Leaning Tower. Here are a few of our favorite Italian travel charms both vintage and new.
and anything funky and unusual like this infant charm wrapped in swaddling clothes, a replica of one of the finely glazed blue and white porcelain reliefs by the della Robbia family on the front of the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Foundling Hospital) in Florence, Italy. Designed by Brunelleschi the building was completed in 1445, the hospital was the first operational orphanage in Europe dedicated to the care and education of children.
The rocks and woods of Italy’s Valle Santa di Rieti are filled with natural beauty. The ancient forests, deep rivers and springs create a fertile plain with an abundance of wildlife living in such harmony with nature that it inspired St. Francis of Assisi to write the “Canticle of Creatures” one of the world’s most beloved spiritual texts. Also known as The Canticle of Brother Sun it praises God through the elements of the earth (sun, moon, stars, wind, water and fire) and reflects Francis’ personal theology about the relationship between the creatures of the earth referred to as brothers and sisters to Mankind.
The sacred nature of the Rieti Valley is celebrated each October with the Cammino di San Francesco (St. Francis Walk) a pilgrimage walk along the same route travelled by Francis through the Sacred Valley. The 80 km of paths and roads can be done by foot, bycycle, mountain bike, horse or car and follows the spirit of the Franciscans; purity, poverty and a respect for the environment. You can stop at various Franciscan santuaries along the way traveling through an extraordinary landscape of valleys and mountains filled with the colors of the season to experience the mystic beauty of a land once walked by a saint. The Walk will take you to the medieval walled city of Rieti and the fairytale landscape of Poggio Bustone passing through Rivodutri’s mysterious Alchemic Gate. On the other side of the Sacred Valley you will visit Greccio, known as the Franciscan Bethlehem. It was here, in the winter of 1223, that St. Francis celebrated Christmas Eve with the Nativity Crèche that has become a seasonal tradition of faith renewed with live open-air scenes in Greccio and throughout Italy at Christmas time. There are various other stops and sites along the Sacred Way marked with special signs and an itinerary with a “pilgrim’s passport” (to be stamped at the sanctuaries) as a remembrance of your journey. Walking through a land where the creatures of the forest and stream look to you as their brother and sister to reflect Francis’ sweet song of praise.
*Other significant areas that follow the path of St. Francis include Assisi, Gubbio and La Verna
I’ve traveled to many sacred places in Italy from the great cathedrals and basilicas of the major centers of art and commerce to sites of pilgrimage and spiritual renewal. The Duomo of Milan and Florence, Siena and Orvieto, the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, St. Peter in Rome, San Marco in Venice. The stunning Sant’Apollinare in Classe and the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in the world. The impressive cathedrals of Orvieto and Treviso and a cathedral that sits on a Field of Miracles (Campo dei Miracoli) in Pisa. The cathedral churches of Parma and Padua and sacred places in monasteries that rise out of fields of Tuscan wildflowers and those that cling to isolated mountains in stark contrast to the forested valleys below. Abbeys that are open to the sky with Arthurian legends of a round chapel, a knight and a sword in a stone and cathedrals with relics and reliquaries of saints with divine intervention. The romantic cathedral of Verona and cathedrals of UNESCO World Heritage sites like Ferrara and Pienza.
So I was not prepared to be impressed by a chapel on the grounds of a small Midwestern college in the middle of the cornfields of Northern Indiana and yet I was; deeply impressed and profoundly touched by the beauty and spirituality of what is officially known as the Ancilla Domini Chapel and unofficially referred to as the Chapel in the Cornfield.
The chapel’s Neo-Gothic design with soaring columns, massive stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings reminded me of the cathedral churches I have seen in Italy. Overlooking farmland and a picturesque lake with a labyrinth garden the Cathedral in the Cornfiled is smaller in scale yet detailed to reflect the art and architecture of the great cathedrals of Europe. Part of the campus of Ancilla College in Donaldson Indiana, the cathedral sits on land that was purchased in 1918 by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, a group of Catholic sisters who immigrated from Germany. They bought the land and built the Chapel in the Cornfield in 1923 before the college was founded. The sisters will be celebrating the building’s 90th anniversary this October and the chapel has been recently renovated including the original pipe organ that was missing from the choir loft on our visit this past August. Sister Mary Jo, who was kind enough to show us the chapel, told us that the organ was being refurbished in Chicago and would return in time for the anniversary celebrations. Which in the tradition of the great cathedrals of the world will mark a continuation of a sacred place of spiritual renewal for all who pass through its doors.
*when we are not traveling in Italy we are traveling the south shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago, through the Indiana Dunes and farmlands, to the lakeshore wineries and orchards of Southwestern Michigan looking for Italian inspired moments to see and savor