Lake Como is becoming more famous for George Clooney than for its other attributes. I only saw it in passing on my way to catch another train. And then, in Tirano, we found an even better dish!
The little town of Tirano is a pitstop on the way to catch the Bernina Express, but maybe one should stay a while. We did not. We had an hour. We needed lunch. The tiny square near the train station had two eateries so we went to the nearest one. Little did we expect the food to be good.
The house specialty was homemade buckwheat noodles with cabbage, potato, and butter. It turned out to be the best dish of the whole trip.
As the restaurant is used to catering to tourists, I managed to get pineapple and ham added to my American pepperoni pizza. This would never happen in Rome! But, here in Tirano, we were two kilometers from Switzerland so the rules against pineapple on pizza don’t apply here.
The balsamic glazed steak was also something of a surprise. While we were still in Italy, we did feel some of the Teutonic sternness in our waitress. Maybe we are just oversensitive?
If you want to see some spectacular vistas, glaciers, and cute alpine towns, try taking the Bernina Express. We went first class. We had table service and large picture windows that curved up the roof of the train carriage.
Taking this train in the spring allowed us to see both green valleys and snow capped mountains.
The best part was driving through a snow flurry which created an ethereal magical world of dancing flakes and frozen waterfalls.
The staff encouraged us to use the open windows at the end of the carriage to stick our heads out and enjoy the wind. It was refreshing, making returning to the warm carriage even cozier.
The Bernina Express is 110 years old and historic for many reasons. One can learn all about it by using the WIFI audio guide. Or you can just stare out at the passing scenery and imagine the lives lived there, far from the megatropolis of Rome. We dreamed of staying at one of those remote cottages for a few weeks…
The difficult part is that one must have both a reservation and a ticket. Make sure to screen shot those as the phone service may not be so strong up in the alps.
We took the train from Tirano to Chur. The journey was four hours long. They have various tours so one could do this more than once.
Naples deserves a longer visit, but as it is only one hour away from Rome (in the next region, Campania), it is often done in just one day. Here’s how to do a tour of Naples in one day. To read about the “new city” of Napoli’s 3,000 year history, read here. First, a warning. There is a lot of graffiti in Naples. But only in the central part near the university. The city feels really gritty in those narrow streets.
Take an early train to Naples. The train from Roma Termini goes every hour and takes an hour.
Go to the famous fish market. It is not as picturesque as in the cooking shows, but it’s located near the train station in a “dicey” part of town. I didn’t think it was all that dangerous but maybe it was because it was daylight and the sun was shining.
Go for breakfast in Naples. Try Caffè Gambrinus, on Via Chiaia n. 1, favored haunt for the presidents of Italy, if you want to go somewhere famous. Otherwise, find any local cafe for a sfogiatella (a traditional pastry from the region of Campania) and a coffee.
Visit the National Archeological Museum of Naples (MANN). If you are not going to visit Pompeii, then visiting this museum will give you a chance to see some of the art from the famous city.
This museum has a “Cabinet of Secrets” where they display some of the erotic art from Pompeii. This room is only open until 2 pm, and there is a time limit of five minutes.
Eat seafood for lunch. Spaghetti alle vongole is so famous and it seems like a natural dish to eat in this port city.
Walk the promenade, admire the view of Vesuvius. (or if you are really cheeky and want to include even more in one day, take a drive down the Amalfi Coast or a ferry along the coast.)
Grab a gelato along the way. Gay Odin is a famous chocolate and gelato chain with many locations in Naples.
Eat a famous pizza for dinner. Most restaurants should make good pizza but you can also look for a sign stating that the chef is a trained pizza expert, a “pizzaiolo” — learn about how Neopolitan pizza making is on the UNESCO “intangible heritage” list here.
You can stick to the classic Margharita or branch out. I had a spicy ‘nduja sausage one and it was the best pizza I have had in Italy.
Along the way, enjoy some wine. Ask for local wine and discover grape varietals that you have never heard of. But, traditionally, one drinks beer with pizza.
Tomatoes are juicy and red, Olive oil is gold and green, Mozzarella is creamy and white, And Johnny Madge is keen.
I felt inspired to write a cheesy poem!
Johnny Madge loves, lives, breathes olive oil. He even has “I Love Olive Oil” written on his van. Oddly, that is the least of the reasons to go on his olive oil tour. Sorry, Johnny. It’s not just about the oil.
If anyone is a natural at what they do, then it’s the legendary Johnny Madge. Taking an olive oil tasting class with him feels less like a class, and more like you just happen to have a wise friend who is an expert on olive oil… wild plants… wine… life? There are some professors and tour guides who seem scripted in their style of teaching. All respect to them, but Johnny is not one of them. Johnny Madge speaks with the ease of someone who knows vastly more than they are telling you. It reminds of advice a writing teacher once told me, “Make sure you know everything about the character, and then put none of that in your story.” Once in a while you meet people who are more than the product they sell. The fact that he has a British accent just makes everything he says sound more credible. It’s easy to get a crush on him (olive oil joke).
As I said, the olive oil tasting was a minor part of the day. The whole day was a celebration of good extra virgin olive oil (and the lifestyle that it symbolizes). Johnny Madge has a sensational high rating on TripAdvisor and rightly so.
He will pick you up from the train station in Fara Sabina (a small town about 35 minutes on the regional train line from Rome) in his van which can seat eight. If you drive your own car, you can follow him like the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The whole day had that fairytale feel to it as we meandered the undulating lanes.
You might wonder what could take so long. The pace is set by the lovely small streets along the neat rows of olive trees, the green hedges, and azure sky above gently rolling country. The tour starts in an olive tree orchard. Johnny will tell you about olive trees, the recent devastating fires, harvesting, and other facts about the trees. Did you know that an olive tree can survive a fire? As you walk around enjoying the clean air of the countryside, he will show wild edible plants like wild fennel, and explain other plants if you ask him (I asked about a seed that I found which it turns out inspired Leonardo da Vinci to invent the helicopter). Or you can wander away and sit in the shade of an olive tree. There are no demands that you pay attention and no exam. No stress.
After the orchard, he takes you to visit the largest olive tree in Europe. The tree is famous for being large, but it was comforting to meet such an old tree. It is perhaps 2,000 years old but no one really knows. Olive oil trees hollow out making it hard to count rings. When we were there admiring the tree, the owner came out to chat with Johnny. They were clearly friends catching up with each other.
Then back to admire the vegetable garden. All the while, Johnny regales you with stories and anecdotes, pointing out this and that along the way. As a city person, it’s interesting to see Swiss chard growing like a weed. One could feel the pace of life slowing down to that sweet art of doing nothing (a saying in Italian)… the art of enjoying the sweet life.
Outside the main hangar-size building, there is a metal car scale built in to the parking lot. When the local farmers need their olives processed, they drive their olive-laden cars on to the scale. After the initial weigh-in, the car is emptied of olives. Then the car is weighed again. The client pays by weight. I say client because it turns out that many Italians own a small patch of olive trees and make their own olive oil each year. After the weighing, the olives get cleaned, crushed, and spun. In the old days, the olive mash would be squeezed in reed mats but now, the oil is extracted using centrifugal force. Super high quality olive oil is spun for a mere seven minutes — thus ensuring that minimal heat is created — making it truly cold pressed. Most extra virgin olive oil is spun for 30 minutes. After spinning, the oil is filtered. Olive oil doesn’t need to be filtered but it’s better to avoid the sludge at the bottom of the bottle. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.
There is also something about what can be called “virgin” and “extra virgin” — the “virgin” olive oil is defective. Shocker. I think that he explained that defective doesn’t mean undrinkable. But I wasn’t paying attention… I guess I’ll have to go on another tour. If you want to geek out a bit, read this newsletter. Olive oil’s quality is not based on color. How deep is that? Professional tastings happen with blue glasses.
The mill has just opened a shop on site where small bottles of olive oil cost 5 euro and large bottles cost 8 euro. I didn’t get a photo of the shop because I was too busy shopping! They also sell flavored oils, but not garlic flavor (Romans really don’t eat much garlic), and spreads like pistachio with pesto. I think I spent around 90 euros… because I wasn’t sure when I’d get back. That said, the mill will deliver and you can purchase online. I don’t know if it was pre-arranged (despite what Johnny said) but when we visited the mill, they gave us freshly made bruschetta, which had been toasted on the olive tree wood barbecue. I’m not sure it gets better than that, in terms of experiential shopping experiences.
From the mill, we could see our lunch destination, across the valley, past neat green fields, impossibly pretty. Can this be real?
Lunch was a leisurely feast of multiple courses including creamy cannelloni beans, crunchy bruschetta with tomato, cheese, golden oven roasted potatoes, yummy lasagne, and not too sweet apple pie. Johnny brought lots of wine to pair, but it was mostly about the olive oil pairings. Every dish had olive oil. At this point, Johnny explained how to taste olive oil and we tried a few straight up. I did not like most of the oil when tasted alone. I preferred the oil on the food. We actually started with olive oil on a chocolate crostini which brought happy memories of my days in El Cacaotal in Lima. I can’t wait to get these food nerds together and watch them nerd out.
To contact Johnny for olive oil tastings, or to feature him in your documentary or to hire him as an expert (he was in Pasta Grannies! Name drop!), here is how to contact him: Johnny Madge, email@example.com, www.johnnymadge.com, +39 328 339 8479. He speaks English and Italian.
The olive oil tour, including lunch, wine, and olive oil tasting, cost 110 euro per person. The train costs 2.80 euro each way. You can also drive there in 35 minutes and leave your car at the train station or follow him around the countryside.
The day out was fabulous. Johnny loves olive oil and after a day with him, you might love olive oil as much as Johnny. Or maybe him.
If you really want to get an idea of how pleasant the day was (I mean, how olive oil is made!), enjoy this video by the mill again.
I end this with a version of the roses are red poem from Les Mis. We did go a-touring in the countryside of Rome where the pomegranate blossoms were orange and I loved, loved, loved it.
We will buy very pretty things A-walking through the suburbs. Violets are blue, roses are red, Violets are blue, I love my loves.
I have also made a video of my own. Nothing compared to the mill’s… but, enjoy the song by Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli. It’s perfect.