Thursday, December 23, 2010

This is my last post for 2010, and I'm devoting it to two recently published books that are terrific and must-haves: Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome (The Little Bookroom) and Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines (Clarkson Potter).
I no longer buy biscotti, the generic word for cookies in Italian, since I started making them myself. I can't bring myself to pay upwards of $2, $3, or $4 for something that is just not very hard to make. Plus, I can't stand all those newfangled versions, with white chocolate stripes and odd combinations of dried fruit and spices and triple milk and dark chocolate, etc. As I mention in my Tuscany and Umbria book, I have for many years now been baking the Biscotti di Prato recipe from Biscotti by Lou Siebert Pappas (Chronicle Books, 1992) and the basic Biscotti recipe in Corby Kummer's The Joy of Coffee (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), and both of these recipes have been unfailingly delicious. So when I heard about this new Biscotti book, I wasn't all that tempted. But then I got a copy and made a few recipes, and I will now proclaim that this is positively the best book on Italian cookies currently available, and is on a short list of best cookbooks for Italian desserts. Alice Waters, who contributed the Foreword, helped to create the Rome Sustainable Food Project, which is dedicated to providing organic, local, and sustainable meals for the community of the American Academy in Rome. Waters hired Mona Talbott, a Chez Panisse alum, to head up the Project, and Talbott has co-authored this book with Mirella Misenti, the pastry cook at the Academy. Talbott informs readers that "at noon each day a plate of freshly baked biscotti is placed on the end of the AAR bar to tempt the noisy crowd that drinks espresso after lunch. We know from experience that warm cioccolata e nocciole sell out quickly and that the handsome AAR gardeners are particularly fond of the baci di cocco. The library staff who come for coffee at precisely 3:30 love the biscotti di fichi; bolle di neve is relished by the friendly library reader from Bologna. It seems that everyone has a favorite." There are recipes for Milk & Wine Biscotti, Nut Biscotti, Honey, Citrus and Spice Biscotti, Meringues, and five recipes for biscotti with chocolate. For me, the recipes in the Honey, Citrus and Spice section were a revelation: I'd previously thought that the biscotti I'd seen with all those dried fruit in them were contrived; actually, I still think most of them are. But when I learned that the Academy has a large citrus grove, and that the cooking staff is always looking to use lemons and oranges in their cooking, it made perfect sense to me to use ingredients in your backyard, so to speak. This little (approximately 5 1/2 " x 7 1/4") book is filled with color photographs and is great for gift-giving, but is also essenziale in any Italophile's kitchen!
My question for Joe Bastianiach, the author of Grandi Vini, is, why only 89 wines? Or, why not just 50? Why not go for 100? It doesn't really matter. I believe anyone reading this knows that Joe is a partner, with Mario Batali, of a number of acclaimed Italian restaurants, and is also the son of Lidia Bastianich, cookbook author and star of her own PBS show. Joe is also one of America's foremost authorities on Italian wine, and he has been honored with a James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional. He is also the proprietor of four wine estates in Italy, and most recently, he opened Eataly New York -- a fabulous Italian culinary marketplace -- with Oscar Farinetti, Batali, and his Mom, and if you have visited Eataly you know how wonderful an outpost it is! The reason I love this book so much is that Joe tells the stories behind the people who make these noteworthy wines. I'm attracted to this because I, too, am a teller of stories, and in fact it is what makes my Collected Traveler books so unique. When I was younger, in what I will refer to as my salad days, I worked as a news and feature reporter in print, radio, and television, and what I loved most about my job was meeting the people I was to interview and hearing their stories. This is what makes the world an interesting place. Yes, travel is about seeing things but it is equally about meeting people and finding out how these people are connected to places and to sites. As Joe notes, "I handpicked these wines not only for their absolute quality but also for what they represent in the current Italian enological landscape; each wine and its maker tells us a story. Although the wines often speak for themselves in the glass, the details of their journey from grape to bottle are likewise illuminating." This is a great book to give to someone who is new to Italian wine or to someone who is very familiar with lots of Italian wines; but it's also great for you. Granted, Mario Batali may be biased, but I think he's got it absolutely right when he notes that "Reading Grandi Vini is like being a member of a secret wine geek club, with access to the previously private whole magilla on the modern Italian wine world."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Had I seen a copy of The Geometry of Pasta by Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy (Quirk Books, 2010; originally published in London by Boxtree, an imprint of Pan Macmillan) I would have included it in my previous post on great books to give and keep. The Geometry of Pasta is not like any other book you've seen. Yes, there are recipes -- over 100 of them -- and you will want to make most if not all of them; but there are also really cool black and white drawings of the pasta shapes that are more like works of art. And, most importantly, there are terrific introductions for each pasta shape that is informative and interesting, such as this one for corzetti, large coins of pasta from Liguria: "their name derives from an old Genovese money-piece via crosets - a pasta dating from the fourteenth century and as long as your thumb." As the authors note, "pasta is different across Italy...this diversity is true at every level. From region to region, the same pasta is cooked with a different sauce." If you think all the pastas of Italy are found in North American grocery stores, this book -- and another one published last year that I love, Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita, translated by Maureen B. Fant and with a foreword by Carol Field (University of California Press) -- will be eye openers. Each pasta entry in The Geometry of Pasta includes a list of synonyms, a recipe for making the pasta, other sauces that are good matches, and at least one recipe using the particular shape. Hildebrand is a designer who has worked on a number of cookbooks, including some by Nigella Lawson, as well as projects for clients such as The Balvenie single malt scotch, Fortnum & Mason, and Hendrick's Gin, and Kenedy is co-owner of Bocca di Lupo (, recently voted London's best restaurant by Time Out and the Evening Standard, so this team is truly qualified to recommend the perfect shape and the perfect sauce.

Monday, December 13, 2010

If you are lucky enough to visit the city of Firenze this month you'll be there at a time when the city is festive and decorated, which is to be expected, but what you might not know in advance is that a surprise awaits: on the Sundays leading up to Christmas, all the department stores and many smaller shops and boutiques are open for business! Florence, and Italy, and indeed many places in Europe, are not open 24/7, which I admire; but I also admit that if you only have a few days in one place, you could literally never set foot in a retail shop you may have really wanted to visit (some shops close at lunchtime on Saturday, are closed all day on Sunday, and again on Monday morning or all day on Monday). But these Sunday openings provide more opportunities for visitors -- and locals, who typically spend much of the first Sunday taking notes and comparing prices -- to shop for souvenirs and gifts. Note that you should expect public transportation and streets to be more crowded, so allow more time to get around.

And as this is the time of year when gift giving, for lots of reasons, is on many of our minds, I am devoting this post to some great gifts that are perfect for anyone who loves Italy, including, I presume, you! These are all books, yes, hardcover books with real paper, because it's the best format for them. I didn't know about them when I was working on my Tuscany and Umbria book, so they're not included, but I'm happy to now have the opportunity to enthuse about them here on my blog. These books are each nearly impossible to resist if you are an Italophile:

Italian Joy by Carla Coulson (Lantern, an imprint of Penguin, 2005). It was Christmas time exactly ten years ago that Coulson, originally from Australia, had her wake-up moment in life. As everyone around her was happy and joyful, she was becoming increasingly depressed. Another Christmas alone and a New Year "that looked like being the same as the one that was almost over were just painful reminders of what my life hadn't become." So when she opened her Thai takeaway on Christmas Eve and noticed she'd been given a gift -- a silver jewelry box and a 2001 laminated takeaway menu for the fridge -- she was mortified, and that silver jewelry box was the reminder that life was passing her by. Though she had a great apartment, nice and exotic furnishings, and a successful business that took her all over the world, her friends cheered her on when she sold her business, packed some suitcases, rented her apartment, and left for Italy with her Nikon camera. Coulson enrolled in a photography course, bought a bicycle, and paid two weeks' rent in advance, but stayed for two years in a group house. She then found a small apartment in the Oltrarno, and has been "filled with an indescribable happiness for what my life had become." In chapters covering A tavola, Al bar, Il mercato, La lavanderia, La vespa, Il viaggio, La Madonna, ha famiglia e gli amici, gli Italiani, L'estate, and buon appetito, Coulson has put together a love letter to Italy in general and Florence in particular. She fell in love with photography -- "it allowed me to reflect on my world and the small things in it that give me great pleasure" -- and her photos in this book are terrific and they ooze with her enthusiasm and passion for her adopted home. More than most other photography books of this type, this one is filled with so many of the details that make Florence such a beautiful place. Plus, you learn lots of wonderful Italian phrases, like Non c'e fretta (there is no hurry), Tacchi, tacchi e solo tacchi (heels, heels and only heels, as in women's footwear) and buone cose (good things), and the fact that Florentines pronounce the letter 'c' as 'h,' which I'd read about before but Coulson gives a number of specific examples, including that her first name is often pronounced Harla. Coulson also shares some recommendations for her favorite places in Firenze, like Caffe degli Artigiani in piazza della Passera; the market in piazza Santo Spirito; Pasquale's bar on Borgo Pinti; and Cibreo Caffe (one of my faves too!). And, she shares details of her trips to Puglia, Venice, Bologna, and Positano, one of my most favorite places on earth -- like me and my friend Amy H., Coulson also took the little wooden boat over to the little beach of Laurito. I can taste the grilled packages of mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves like I had it yesterday, and Amy and I did not take for granted that we spent an afternoon in paradiso (note to self: I must get back there as soon as I can!). I could ramble on about this special book....but perhaps this is sufficient! I ordered my copy from amazon, but note that a new book, French Essence: Ambience, Beauty, and Style in Provence, by Vicki Archer, features Coulson's photographs and is stocked in many stores. You can also keep up with Coulson via her blog, at

Botticelli Blue Skies: An American in Florence by Merrill Joan Gerber (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002). I first learned of this memoir from Lisa McGarry, another American who lives in Florence and whose own book, The Piazzas of Florence: Mapping a Renaissance Spirit (Pier 9/Murdoch, 2008) I positively adore (see my interview with Lisa in my book) but at the time I was too busy to track down a copy. Happily, my friend and author Barbara Ohrbach (Dreaming of Florence, Dreaming of Tuscany, both published by Rizzoli) was culling her bookshelves and she gave a copy to me. Gerber was in the enviable position (thought she didn't immediately know it) of being offered a chance to live in Florence for a semester as her husband, a history professor, was leading a class of students there. She went with a little bit of foot dragging (her mother was not in the best of health, and she was, frankly, a little afraid of not knowing the language, etc.) but when she and Joe arrived at their "flat full of sun" at least a few of her doubts melted away. Anyone who's lived anywhere abroad will identify with Gerber's daily joys and tribulations; but for anyone about to depart for an extended spell in Firenze this is required reading! Occasionally, Gerber annoys me with her lack of patience and inability to be calm in certain situations, and I was downright disappointed when, near the very end of their sojourn she and Joe duck out of a holiday concert in a church to eat dinner at McDonald's; but it's impossible to be annoyed for very long: I feel an instant kinship with anyone who writes, "Being here [Fiesole] is the single overwhelming attraction of Italy -- to be able to say to oneself: I am in Italy. This is Italian grass, above us is Italian sky, the quality of light is Italian" and, after visiting a friend who lives in the country, "The most ordinary matters of Italian life seem to me, at times, the most desirable, the most perfect forms of existence. To think that Italians take these daily moments for granted, to know that such scenes and scents and tastes are their due, is an astonishment to me. Is heaven only heaven when you may not have it?" and, "In one way or another, joy has been inescapable here." Lastly, I am envious that she frequented the Harold Acton Library of the British Institute of Florence (I keep meaning to get there but just haven't done it yet) and I love when she relates that she notices a copy of Jane Eyre on one of the shelves. "How astonishing that this forgotten tale still lives in me like my own heart. I lean back and close my eyes, thinking of all the books that reside in me that I can enter at will, thinking of all the journeys I have taken between the covers of books."

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily by Jessica Theroux, introduction by Alice Waters (Welcome Books, 2010). "La cucina e per passione" (the kitchen is for passion) is just one of a number of memorable maxims in this definitive, authoritative book (another that I really like is "Ricotta non e formaggio. Ricotta e ricotta" (Ricotta is not cheese. Ricotta is ricotta). As the title indicates, this is much, much more than a cookbook -- Theroux's opening line in her Foreword reads, "This is a book about women and food and listening." She relates that her method for finding the twelve women she documents here was simply to fly to Italy with only a few personal contacts as well as some referred by Slow Food, and she trusted she would find what she needed once she arrived. As time passed and she was more confident, she rented rooms and asked around for the names of noted elderly females. "Directions were followed along dirt roads and to front doors, where I introduced myself and my work, and was then warmly welcomed in for the next big meal." Theroux was awarded an Arnold Fellowship by Brown University (where she graduated) to travel to Italy and document food traditions, and this book details the year she spent "cooking, foraging and eating with women in nine of Italy's regions." The regions featured include Lombardia, Piemonte, Liguria, Le Marche, Calabria, and Sicilia, and there are a nonna (grandmother) each from three towns in Toscana, Mary in Arezzo (one of my most favorite Tuscan towns), Bruna from San Casciano in Val di Pesa, and Armida from Fosdinovo in the Lunigiana (no grandmothers from Umbria are featured). As for the recipes, I'm still working my way through them, when I care tear myself away from the stories, but I made the Pappardelle con Sugo di Porcini (I didn't make my own pappardelle but the sauce was really delicious) and Ricotta al Caffe (this might not sound good -- ricotta mixed with caster sugar,, honey, and finely ground Turkish coffee spread on toast -- but it proved to be wildly good) and the Sticky Tomato Frittata, which came out great even with store-bought, out-of-season tasteless tomatoes (remarkable how roasting them actually gives them flavor) but my tomatoes weren't really very sticky. This book is a great gift, for yourself or another Italian enthusiast, and Theroux says her greatest hope is that the book "will encourage you to pay the utmost attention to your life, and in particular to your food and the people around you. What you discover could change your life."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Before I begin a string of posts about all things Tuscan and Umbrian, I have to enthuse right this minute about a wonderfully inspiring book I've just discovered: How to Be An Explorer of the World by Keri Smith (Perigee, 2008). "At any given moment," Smith writes, "no matter where you are, there are hundreds of things around you that are interesting and worth documenting." This is truly a book for anyone of any age who likes to travel or dreams about travel! It's also perfect for anyone who likes art, and indeed the subtitle of the book is 'Portable Art Life Museum' with a strike mark through the word Art, which I think Smith did because she didn't want people to think this was just an art book. And it's not, it really is a life book. I think it's also great for teachers and parents. But mostly, it's great for just about everyone.

There are 13 steps on Smith's list of How to Be an Explorer of the World. Of these, the ones that immediately caught my attention and made me think Smith was a Collected Traveler soulmate are: Always be looking (notice the ground beneath your feet), Everything is interesting (look closer), Observe for long durations (and short ones), Notice the stories going on around you, and Document your findings (field notes) in a variety of ways.

As readers of my books know, slowing down and really looking is one of my basic tenets of travel, and Smith's book oozes with this idea. I once had to do a project in an Earth Science class many years ago where I had to count every single blade of grass, every pebble or stone, every insect, every leaf, every everything that was inside a one-square-foot wooden frame placed on the ground. It was an eye-opening project -- just think about how many blades of grass are in a one-foot square! -- so I love when Smith asks readers to "write down (or document) fifty things about one of the following: a trip to the library, a trip to the grocery store, a walk in your neighborhood." This is good preparation for a trip anywhere in the world, including somewhere in Tuscany or Umbria: take a seat at a table in a piazza and just look and listen. You may be amazed at what fifty things you observe, and later remember vividly!

"Life is a scavenger hunt," Smith opines, and just a few objects we can collect that help us to document a place are fabric, sugar packages, really tiny things, things on the sidewalk, colors, sticks, seed pods, thread, stickers, maps, fruit stickers, grasses, leaves, spices, and shells. Much as I love a gift from the Farmacia Santa Maria di Novella in Florence ( /, or a bottle of wine from Lungarotti ( in Umbria, some of my most favorite ricordi (souvenirs) are of the kind listed above. As I type this, I'm looking at one of them, a large, flat, smooth stone from the (rocky) beach at Nice, on the Cote d'Azur. When I look at it, I remember fondly the two weeks I spent there during spring break of 1979, when I lived in Paris. If you arrange the stones just so, you can spread out a towel on top and lie in relative comfort for the entire day, which is what I did nearly everyday with two women I met from the University of Illinois. After the first week, we made a list of the "regulars" at our section of the beach, which included some volleyball players, a drunk, and a scruffy dog (I still have the list). Recently, I became obsessed with recording the colors of what I was looking at on my travels, so I bought a package of watercolor pencils -- these are just like regular colored pencils but when you add a little drop of water, you can create many more shades -- and I try to approximate as best I can the colors around me. When I do this, I notice a lot of things I feel I would otherwise miss, and now that I have Smith's book I'm going to start collecting stuff, too (she provides a page in the book for you to glue in an envelope or plastic bag, which you use to put your findings in). "Expect the unexpected (and you will find it)" as she wisely notes.

As this is a time of year when many of us are thinking about gifts, How to Be an Explorer of the World would make a fine one (and I recommend getting a copy for yourself, too!).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Today, the 12th of October, is my daughter's twelfth birthday, reason enough for celebration. But today is also the day that a wonderful book is being published, Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly (Delacorte). Though I am committed to filing posts about Tuscany and Umbria for the next few months, I am departing today to Paris, the subject of my next book and one of two locales in Revolution (the other is Brooklyn).

Revolution is classified as a young adult novel, but it's one of those books that young and older adults can read with great satisfaction. It's also one of those books that completely envelops you, the kind you can't put down, the kind you can't stop thinking about, the kind that breaks your heart one minute and is hugely redeeming the next. It's a very thought-provoking book, and unique, but the story behind it is also unique, and that's what initially drew me to read the advance reader's copy (known as an ARC in book publishing lingo): Donnelly was reading The New York Times one day and ran across an article entitled 'Geneticists' Latest Probe: The Heart of the Dauphin' which was about the actual heart of Louis-Charles, a son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. I immediately identified Donnelly as a fellow clipper, and since I, too, had cut that article out of the paper and still had it in my files, I figured we were, on some level, soul mates.

I was fortunate to catch up with Donnelly via e-mail before she left for her nationwide tour, including big cities like Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago and smaller ones like Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Millbrook, New York (check the schedule on Jennifer's website). I was also fortunate to hear Donnelley speak, and she's terrific, so if you can meet her in person it will be a real treat!

Q: What made you clip that article from the paper, and what did you do with it?

Ah, that article. Revolution actually got started ten years ago, although I didn’t know it then. The article showed a picture. Of a glass urn with a small human heart in it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The heart, which had been kept in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, had just undergone DNA testing and had been found to be the heart of Louis-Charles. I knew, as most people do, that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined during the Revolution. What I didn’t know before I read that article, though, was that after the king and queen were executed, their children – fourteen-year-old Marie-Therese and eight-year-old Louis Charles were kept in prison. Marie-Therese would survive her imprisonment and would be released in 1795, after Robespierre’s reign of terror had ended. Louis-Charles was not so fortunate.

As heir to the throne, the child was seen as a threat to the revolution. It was rumored that powerful people, in France and outside of it, were plotting to free him and rule in his name. To prevent this, Robespierre and his crew essentially had the boy walled up alive. He was kept in a dark cold cell. Alone. Without books and toys. Without enough food, without a fire. He became sick. And he went mad. And eventually he died. At the age of ten.

After Louis-Charles died, in prison, his body was autopsied, and while it was open, one of the officiating doctors, Phillipe-Jean Pelletan, stole the child’s heart. Before the revolution, when a king died, his heart was cut from his body, embalmed, and kept in an urn at St. Denis. During the revolution, this didn’t happen. When Louis XVI was executed, his body was simply thrown into a common pit. It’s thought that Dr. Pelletan stole the heart because he wanted to safeguard it until the revolution was over, then take it to St. Denis. Things didn’t quite work out the way he’d hoped, though. Due to theft, violence, and politics, it took nearly two hundred years for that heart to get to St. Denis. It was finally brought there in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1999 that DNA testing confirmed that it did indeed belong to Louis Charles.

The article really upset me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Couldn’t stop wondering how the idealism of the revolution had devolved into such cruelty. I went to bed thinking about it and woke up thinking about it. I recognized the feeling – it’s how I feel when a book is starting inside me. But I couldn’t act on it then because I had another book due at the time. The story stayed with me, though. Time moved on. I finished the other book. And I had a child. Which changed my life, as children do, in many wonderful ways.

And in one not so wonderful way – after I had my daughter, I pretty much lost my protective shell. The one we all have. The one that enables us to hear a horrible story on the news and somehow go on with our lives. When my daughter came along, suddenly every story about an abused child, or a child caught up in political violence totally did me in. As a new parent, I knew what a child was in a way that I hadn’t before. I knew how fragile and innocent children are. And to hear that somewhere in the world, a child was starving in a famine, or suffering in a hospital because she was in the wrong place when a bomb went off ... well, I couldn’t understand that and I couldn’t bear it and I wondered, as I never had before, what kind of world is this that allows such things? How do we live in it? How do we raise our children in it?

These questions were haunting me and I had to find answers. So I set about trying to do that the only way I know how: by writing a story. I remembered that article I’d cut out of the Times and I fished it out of its folder. That tiny heart in the glass urn took on a new and symbolic meaning for me. What happened to Louis-Charles was unspeakable, and yet, I felt that if I could face it and grapple with it, I might find my answer.

Q: The main character in the book, Andi Alpers, is working on a thesis about an eighteenth century composer named Amade Malherbeau. Is Malherbeau based on a real composer?

Malherbeau is mostly himself, though he contains a little bit of Mozart and Beethoven, with a touch of Jimmy Page and Jonny Greenwood. I listened to Bach, Handel, Beethoven and Mozart while I worked on the book. And I watched this video of Gustavo Dudamel leading the Gothenburg Symphony over and over again. The gorgeousness of the music, the passion, intensity and joy, the tragedy of Beethoven’s increasing deafness – Dudamel gets it all. In fact, I’m quite certain that at 3.5 minutes, Beethoven has taken up residence in Dudamel’s body, and by 6 minutes, the possession is complete. You have to watch it!

Q: Because I am a traveler who likes to know the stories behind everything I see, and I like to think about how I would act in certain situations in other time periods, I think my most favorite line in the book is when a St. Anselm teacher notes about history, "what you see when you look at it tells you as much about yourself as it does about the past." Have you always been drawn to history?

Always. It started when I was little and my mother took me to see the film Mary, Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Such drama! Such intrigue! Such gorgeous dresses! I was immediately hooked and have been ever since. One thing I didn’t realize when I was young, and would especially like my younger readers to understand, is that names and dates are only the beginning of the story. History is not only generals and kings and battlefields and acts of parliament and things that happened a long time ago to other people. It’s us. We are the living, breathing result of all the glory and pain and progress and mess that is history.

Andi’s teacher gets across a hugely important point – ask three different people for an account of the same event, and you will get three different accounts. A Paris stonemason might have a very different view of the events of the 1790s than a Paris priest or policeman, or a wealthy merchant, or the queen. I want younger readers to be aware that point of view and politics flavor not only eyewitness accounts of historical events, but also their contemporary interpretations. I want them to ponder history’s stunning complexities – not just cram for Friday’s test – and draw their own conclusions.

Q: Once you decided on the theme and time period for Revolution, and knew you had to do much of your research in Paris, where in the city did your research take you?

Everywhere! To the Archives of the City of Paris. To the catacombs, which was a tough trip because I am claustrophobic, and because they are full of dead people. To the very moving Picpus cemetery, where I saw the original gate through which carts came carrying the headless bodies of victims of the Terror, and the mass graves where they were dumped. To tragically gorgeous Versailles. To the underground kitchens of the Poilane bakery. To the Basilica of St. Denis, where the heart of a young child, and a lost king, now rests.

Q: When you were taking a break from research, what were some of your favorite places?

I never take a break. Sitting in a cafe, or in a garden, eating an apple tart on the banks of the Seine – it’s all research. In the cafe, I listen to the voices and watch the faces and gestures of the people around me and absorb it all. In the courtyard of the Palais Royal, I squint my eyes and look for Orleans’ ghost, or the ghosts of a gaggle of 18th century streetwalkers, an acrobat, a firebreather. Sitting by the Seine, I listen to the sound of the water, and breathe in its smell, and imagine the clopping of horses’ hooves over the bridge, and the creaking of the carriage springs and the flickering of street lamps.

My favorite places are those that allow me to connect very strongly with the past, places like the Picpus Cemetery or the Basilica St. Denis or the Conciergerie. But also butcher shops, because the big, burly ruddy-faced laughing butcher looks to me exactly the same as his 18th century counterpart must’ve looked. Or good bakeries, because they smell wheaty. Or street markets, because the cheeses stink and the cheesemonger is bawdy, and the birds have their feathers on, and the strawberries’ perfume makes you dizzy. I love the statue of Danton at the Carrefour l’Odeon because it is strong and fearsome and so alive, it feels as if it will step down and start bellowing at Robespierre at any second. And the jewel box Sainte-Chapelle with its breathtaking windows.

One of my favorite places is Poilane bakery. I’ve never had such good bread, and such delicious apple tarts, and I never will again until I go back. I’m so greedy, I eat what I buy immediately, right out on the street by the shop. I also love watching the line outside Pierre Hermé’s patisseries, full of devastatingly chic Parisians all waiting to choose a devastatingly chic little cake. And Laduree, with its painted ceiling, and its perfect little macaroons in their perfect little pastel boxes. The French understand the importance of such perfections, and what they do for the soul. And the handsome men in their linen suits behind the tea counter at Mariage Freres.

And as for a hotel, I stay at the Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais because it is charming and pretty and in the Marais.

Q: Your first young adult novel, A Northern Light, was honored with the prestigious Carnegie Medal in Britain, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature and the Michael L. Printz Honor Award. The book appears to have been inspired by the real-life story of early 20th century Grace Brown, who was the subject of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Were you in fact as curious about Brown as you were with Louis XVII, and were your adult novels -- The Winter Rose and The Tea Rose -- similarly inspired?

Curious is nowhere near a strong enough word. Obsessed is much closer. I’m driven very much by people and places and periods of time that grab hold of me and won’t let go, and characters who take up residence in my head and won’t leave until I’ve gotten their stories down. In Revolution, the inspiration was the heart and its story. In A Northern Light it was Grace Brown’s letters to her murderer, Chester Gillette. In the Rose books, it was the East End of London. The problem is, these characters don’t willingly relinquish their stories. It takes a great deal of time to understand people like Andi and Alex, the main characters in Revolution, or Mattie Gokey, or India Selwyn Jones, and to do them justice.

Q: Are you working on a new book now?

Right now I’m finishing up the third and final Rose book – The Wild Rose – and then after my book tour for Revolution, I will return to my desk and my pot of tea, and start in on a new young adult novel.


For another great interview with Donnelly, go to Random Acts of Reading, a good site to know about in general. In this interview, I particularly liked reading more about how she spent her time in Paris; but in it also she named some writers that have inspired her over the years, including James Joyce, Jeanette Winterson, Madeleine L'Engle, Stephen King, Colleen McCullough, Simon Schama, Laura Ingalls Wilder, A. S. Byatt, Meg Rosoff, Dante, E. B. White, Philip Pullman, Emily Dickinson, and the Brothers Grimm. She added that "When I was trying to write my first book, I didn't have the money to go to grad school, or the time to join writers' groups, but I had authors and their books. Everyone does. Open a book by Joyce or Greene, open a volume of poetry by Dickinson, and you've got a masterclass in writing, right there in front of you."

And on that very wise and veritable thought, I will close this post, but not before saying, read this beautifully written book!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My new book on Tuscany and Umbria is out! I replaced the great photo of the Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul -- to the right of this post -- with one taken from the Torre di Bellosguardo, up the hill from the Porta Romana in Florence (both photos were taken by the wonderful photographer Peggy Harrison). Peggy is particularly fond of taking photos in the early morning hours in many locations because she says the light then is unique. I think you'll agree -- the shades of blue in her photo are not those normally associated with Florence, and I guess you have to get up pretty early to see them! In addition to the colors, what I also really like about this photo is that it reminds me of a passage in a lovely book by Marina Belozerskaya, The Arts of Tuscany: From the Etruscans to Ferragama (Abrams, 2008): the "links between man and nature, city and countryside, natural and man-made creations have always remained intimate in Tuscany, and endlessly generative. The countryside is what Tuscans see just beyond their city walls, traverse as they go to the next town, or look forward to visiting on the weekend." When you are at Bellosguardo -- looking out at the panorama from the garden or from the second-floor veranda -- you see clearly that the city of Florence is encircled by green hills. There is a marked boundary between city and country. If this were a North American city, there would likely be no end in sight of the surrounding sprawl.

The photos here in this posting were also taken by Peggy, also at Bellosguardo ("beautiful view"), which I daydream about almost daily. You can read more about this very special hotel in my book (and its website is, but an important note about it is that the view of Florence from up here is astonishing, taking in every single Florentine monument, and it is without doubt the very best view of the city anywhere -- you will read often that the best view is from piazzale Michelangelo, but trust me, the piazzale isn't even a contender.

I share a number of other favorite places to stay in Tuscany and Umbria in my book, as well as my favorite hotel specialty groups (notably Abitare la Storia, and the accommodation resources I regularly consult. One resource that has just been published -- but didn't make it into my book -- is For the Love of Italy: Rural Pleasures and Hotel Estates by Marella Caracciolo (with photographs by Oberto Gili, Clarkson Potter, 2010). Caracciolo was Italian editor at House and Garden for a dozen years and writes regularly for W and World of Interiors, and she and her husband, the artist Sandro Chia, renovated the wine estate Castello Romitorio (, which overlooks the Val d'Orcia in southeastern Tuscany and is very near Montalcino (it's also featured in the book). The Castello produces some noteworthy wines (all red with the exception of one white, a blend of 20% Chardonnay and 80% Vermentino) including its Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004 (the year of an exceptional harvest), which is only the third Riserva from the estate (the previous Riserva releases were in 1999 and 1997, a Wine Spectator Top 50 Wines of the year). Sandro Chia acquired the Castello in 1984 -- in a nice association with my previous paragraphs, it was owned previously by Baron Giorgio Franchetti, who owned Torre di Bellosguardo until the years following World War II -- and the Castello's original structure dates from the 1300s and was constructed as a fortress to defend the city of Montalcino. Not only is the Castello Romitorio of interest to those who love the fruit of the vine (the tasting room is open Monday through Friday by reservation only: (39) 0577.847.212) but there are two villas on the grounds of the estate that are available for rent: Poggio di Sopra in Montalcino and Podere Biancanelle, set on a hill in the Maremma only 20 kilometers from the Tyrrhenian Sea coast.
For the Love of Italy is not, as Carraciola notes in her introduction, an objective book. The featured accommodations reflect her "subjective choices for the prettiest rural Italian farms at which travelers can stay," and they're places that photographer Gili likes too ("most editors who have worked with Oberto know that it is quite pointless to ask him to photograph places that don't attract him. He won't."). The author-photographer team looked for agriturismi that are run well and where visitors can learn about rural Italian life, places that are "not too large, not too famous, extremely hospitable, and..photogenic." And wow, are these places great: I think you will, like me, want to stay at so many of these. I am familiar with a number of these (notably La Foce, Don Alfonoso, Regaleali, La Montecchia) but happily many are new, and there are listings for northern Italy southern Italy and Sicily; a separate chapter just on Tuscany; and another that features Umbria, the Marche, Lazio, and Abruzzo. I really like that signature products -- such as olive oil, wine, pasta, nuts, truffles, meats, fruits, honey, grappa, etc. -- produced on each estate are mentioned.

The last 16 pages of the book are dedicated to useful websites for planning a trip in rural Italy and an insider's guide, which is "the fruit of an intense collaboration and word-of-mouth research among journalists, writers, farmers, and friends, both Italian and foreign, who know Italy well and have traveled extensively throughout the country. Despite the rising success of rural hospitality, it is difficult to find a reliable guide to it. This list will not fill the gap." It is, however, incredibly useful, and in addition to the contact information for the places featured in the book there are 63 recommendations for Tuscany and ten for Umbria, making this worthy of perusal even if you never set foot in any other part of Italy. The book is really a celebration of the countryside of Italy and the farm-to-table movement, and though often the price of staying at an agriturismo property is less expensive than staying at an urban hotel, "this is not why people choose to travel this way" says Caracciolo. "What they are looking for is an experience. Living on a family-run farm, eating and drinking the produce of the land, makes people feel anchored to the territory and to the culture of the place. They are tuning into something authentic."
For the Love of Italy is an expensive ($60), fully illustrated book, which you can obviously check out of your local library; but it's also a book that may be used as a great resource for Italian country design and decor ideas, and for regular visitors to Italy it's one I would add to the essenziale shelf.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Today is the third day of Banned Books Week, a week I wish we had no need of but sadly, we do. The First Amendment seems positively clear to me: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." And yet, every year there is a long list -- about 10,000+ titles -- of books which narrow-minded people around the U.S. deem inappropriate, for children and adults. Can you even imagine that among the books banned are four books by Judy Blume, including Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, The Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry, James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth, Sophie's Choice by William Styron, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood? But I once read an article about the reasons The Wizard of Oz had been banned over the years, and one of the reasons was that it promoted vegetarianism (!??!!#$%&), causing me to ask myself, "what's wrong with people?"

I abhor censorship in any form, not only because it is obviously against our Constitution, but more importantly, because when censorship is applied to what we read -- even for what appear to be the noblest of intentions -- we teach, to children especially, a far more harmful lesson than any work of literature ever could: that we aren't capable of learning to think for ourselves, listen to two sides of an argument, or make considered and thought-out decisions. How are we, and again children especially, expected to make the right decisions in life if we don't have any idea what wrong choices are? How can we build strong communities if we don't know the results that weak and misguided ones bring about? How can we in fact make choices of any kind if we're not presented with all the options? A world of thinking people making informed choices, limitless ideas, and lots and lots of books is my idea of a paradise.

Authors of some banned books express the danger of censorship far better than me, and here are some comments from a few writers:

Judy Blume:

"I remember the night a woman phoned, asking if I had written Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. When I replied that I had, she called me a Communist and slammed down the phone. I never did figure out if she equated Communism with menstruation or religion, the two major concerns in 12-year-old Margaret's life...I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children's lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don't read about it, their children won't know about it. And if they don't know about it, it won't happen...Censors don't want children exposed to ideas different from their own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in the school library would be close to empty. I wish the censors could read the letters kids write:

Dear Judy,

I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am. That's why I read, to

find myself.

Elizabeth, age 13"

Robert Cormier, author of The Chocolate War and many other novels:

"I sympathize with the parents who want to have control over their own children. What their children should do, see, read. My wife and I exercised those kinds of controls. If [parents] object to their children reading The Chocolate War, I don't protest. But when they forbid other children from reading it, then I strongly object. This, in fact, is the censorship problem in its most basic concept. Telling other people what they can do, see, or read. Invading rights of individuals in a free country...I try to write realistic stories about believable people, reflecting the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. I think there is rooom in the great halls of reading for this kind of book. The hundreds of letters I receive each year from both teachers and young people are what sustain me at moments when censorship threatens my work...If a book is controversial, perhaps the best place for it is the classroom where, under the guidance of a teacher, the book can be discussed and evaluated, where each student will be free to proclaim how he or she feels about the book, and in fact, can even refuse to read the book. The point is that free choice must be involved."

Zilpha Keatley Snyder, author of The Egypt Game (Newbery Honor Book) and The Gypsy Game, The Headless Cupid, and The Witches of Worm, all Newbery Award-winning books:

"The setting of The Egypt Game is Berkeley, California, where I taught school for three years while my husband was a graduate student at University of California. All six of the main characters are loosely based on kids who were in my class at that time...To further explain the background of the story, I would have to go back to when I was in fifth and sixth grade and our teacher took us through several inspiring and fascinating studies of ancient civilizations: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Chinese. I loved it all, and throughout my entire life, my understanding of history and literature and culture has been enhanced by facts I learned at that time...My own Egyptian period passed and I went on to other phases and games. I was a great game player and I was constantly involved in complicated scenarios based on not only Greek and Egyptian history and mythology, but also on stories from the Bible and, of course, on a multitude of beloved novels...The Egypt Game, just as the title suggests, was a game! Nothing else is ever implied in the story. And at the end, when the girls realize they have covered most of the interesting aspects of Egyptian culture, they are beginning to be on the lookout for new inspirations: "What do you know about gypsies?" And as to any connection with "occultism" or "idol worship," I am astounded and appalled. I truly fear for children whose parents are so fearful. Will they forbid their children to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, other forms of legend and folklore, and even fairy tales because of such fears? I certainly hope not. And a word about imaginative game playing in general: in my opinion a well-developed imagination is necessary not only for any kind of artistic endeavor, but also in many other career areas. Imaginative approaches to problem solving are necessary not only for a successful professional life, but also in the area of personal relationships."

Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1994

"When I wrote The Giver, it contained no so-called "bad words." It was set, after all, in a mythical, futuristic, and Utopian society. Not only was there no poverty, divorce, racism, sexism, pollution, or violence in the world of The Giver, there was also careful attention paid to language: to its fluency, precision, and power. The reaction to the book was startling...even more startling in the degree of differences in the responses...I went back and re-read the book myself. I tried to figure out whether these disparate people were, in fact, all responding to the same thing: whether there was actually a theme in the book that people found either uplifting or terrifying, or maybe both. And I discovered that it was the concept of choice. The Giver is about a world where those decision are made for them. It seems very safe and comfortable...then it got scary...because it turned out that it wasn't safe and comfy to live in a world where adhering to rigid rules is the norm. It turned out, in the book, that such a world is very, very dangerous, and that people have to learn to make their own choices. I sympathize with the fear that makes some parents not want that to be true. But I believe without a single shadow of a doubt that it is necessary for young people to learn to make choices. Learning to make right choices is the only way they will survive in an increasingly frightening world. Pretending that there are no choices to be made -- reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice -- is a prescription for disaster for the young."

Indeed, censorship causes blindness, as the slogan goes. Read! And learn more from the National Coalition Against Censorship,

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wow, I can't believe my last post was in July. But in my defense, I've been busy with a manuscript on Paris; I took a much-needed vacation to Vermont (very nice!); and my Tuscany and Umbria book has just been published! Before I devote a whole slew of posts to those beautiful regions of Italy, I want to make one last post on this main page about Istanbul. In the future, all my posts on Istanbul -- and anywhere in Turkiye -- will appear together in a separate corner of the blog, and I'll continue to add to it, so check it every now and then for news and notes.

Fall is a really nice time to visit a number of places in the world, and Istanbul is one of them. It's still quite warm during the day in September and October, typically with plenty of sunshine, and it's cool at night (great sleeping weather). It's no accident that the September issue of Travel + Leisure features "Istanbul's Best Turkish Restaurants" by Melik Kaylan ( A boat trip up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea is an especially enjoyable outing as most of the other passengers at this time of year are locals, and again the weather's beautiful. The trip does require a six hour commitment -- to sail up, have lunch, and sail back -- but another option is a ninety-minute trip offered by TurYol (, which is in Turkish only but you can call (90) 212.512.1287, the number for the Turizm Burosu (Tourism Bureau), to find out the details in English (or someone at your hotel can call for you). TurYol has a fleet of boats that are smaller than the standard Bosphorus-Black Sea ferry, and its ninety-minute trip departs from the Eminonu ferry dock and heads up the Bosphorus on the Golden Horn side to Rumeli Hisari (the European castle), the largest fortification the Ottomans ever built (see my post dated 6/18/10 for a more thorough description and history). At Rumeli Hisari the boat turns around and heads back to Eminonu, and while en route you have a better opportunity to see the yalis (beautiful, wooden, waterside summer residences built by the Ottoman aristocracy in the 17th and 18th centuries) than you would on the larger ferry because the smaller boats hug the shoreline (the name yali, by the way, is derived from the Greek word yialos, "seashore).

In closing, I hope I will be forgiven for this minor display of shameless self-promotion: the quote below is from and was written by Tom Brosnahan, who is almost single-handedly responsible for me going to Turkey in the first place. Tom was the original author of the Lonely Planet Turkey guide, and continued to update it for more than twenty years. He knows more about contemporary Turkey than just about anyone in the world, and his website is quite simply the very best about Turkey in existence, which is the only reason why I don't feel too guilty about sharing his review of my book here:

"So many books exist on Turkish culture that it's difficult to know where to start.
Wait—no it isn't!
The place to start is with Barrie Kerper's Istanbul: The Collected Traveler.
Ms Kerper, a longtime lover of
Istanbul and Turkish culture, has collected nearly 600 pages of essays, stories, news items, poems, recipes and interviews on Turkey in general and Istanbul in particular.
The range of topics is almost bewildering, from an essay on
Ottoman Art by the esteemed museum director Ms Esin Atıl through debates on the origins of Turkish cuisine to John Freely's classic portrait of "The Passage of Flowers" (Istanbul's Çiçek Pasajı). There's even an interview with yours truly.
Ms Kerper's vision of, and acquaintance with, Turkish culture is broad and eclectic: history, architecture, art, cuisine, society, geography, literature, personalities—you name it, and she has probably included a piece of writing that touches upon it.
Beyond Istanbul, the book includes writing about the
Bosphorus, Edirne (Adrianople), Bursa (Proussa) and Gallipoli.
If 600 pages is not enough for you, fret not. Ms Kerper details Recommended Reading that goes beyond each of the section headings in her book.
The tourist doing a quick 10-day check-off of Turkey's top sights might not care about culture, but if you have an interest in Turkey beyond the quick tour, Istanbul: The Collected Traveler is a great way to begin your education about all things Turkish."
I hope you will visit Istanbul, soon, and that you will find my book enormously helpful. Gule, gule! (go with smiles, or bon voyage)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christiane Bird's newest book was recently published -- readers of my Istanbul book may recall that I featured an excerpt from her previous book, A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts about the Kurds. This new work is entitled The Sultan's Shadow: One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West (Random House) and I've just finished reading it and it's fascinating. Bird was inspired to write this book when she read a reference to the "Arab slave trade" in an article, and an Internet search brought up the name Seyyida Salme, or Emily Ruete, and a book she'd written called Memoirs of an Arabian Princess.

Much to Bird's surprise, Salme's autobiography was still in print (Salme began writing it in Germany in 1875 when she weas thirty-one years old and finished it in 1886). The edition Bird found was an 1888 version published in New York and reissued in 1989. In the preface, Salme wrote, "Nine years ago I made up my mind to write down some sketches of my life for my children...Tired out in body and in mind, I did not expect to live to be able to tell them, when they had grown up, of the many changes in my life, and of the recollections of my youth. I therefore resolved to write my memoirs for them." Daily life for Salme was in Zanzibar, but Bird learned that Salme's story and that of the slave trade through Zanzibar really began in Oman, on the southeastern edge of Arabia.

I won't give away the details of this truly swashbuckling, sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat chapter in history, but believe me it is an almost unbelievable story and incredibly worthwhile. The Ottoman Turks only figure in this chapter in a small way, but like anything, it's all related. Bird concludes her preface by noting that "my research had begun with a simple phrase. But that simple phrase had been a key that opened many doors, revealing intriguing, complex stories within stories hitherto unknown to me and, I suspected, most Westerners. They were stories, I thought as I delved yet deeper into East African history, that needed to be told."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Readers of my Istanbul book may remember that one of my favorite restaurants in the city is The House Cafe. There are several branches of this mini-chain, but the one I enjoyed a meal at with my good friend Maha is in Tesvikiye/Nisantasi (I haven't figured out yet how to add Turkish pronunciation symbols here, but there is a squiggly line under each 's' in both names and the second is pronounced nuh-SHAN-tuh-shuh). So I am really happy to learn that there is now The House/Hotel and The House/Apart, and the photos here are of both the hotel in the Galata neighborhood and the apartment in Nisantasi. Aren't they appealing?
The Galatasaray hotel opened in April and has twenty suites. Another hotel in Nisantasi has just opened and has 45 rooms on 5 floors. A third will open in the Ortakoy neighborhood. The House/Apart is a collection of self-catering flats with kitchen and laundry facilities, LCD widescreen television, DVD player, air conditioning, and free wi-fi. The flats have from one to three bedrooms, and are located currently in Tunel, Nisantasi, Cihangir, and Galata.
Just like The House Cafe, the House hotels and apartments are designed by the renowned design firm Autoban (, founded by Seyhan Ozdemir and Sefer Caglar. Autoban is derived from the "life-as-highway" metaphor, as in "driving fast and making all the right moves." Among more than 50 interiors and a line of furniture, Autoban also designed the Witt Istanbul Suites ( and Vakko (, Turkey's major fashion chain.
Rates are from about $150, which is noteworthy not only because that's very reasonable in Istanbul but also because within this price range other places tend not to be as contemporary-stylish. There are places (that I also love) that are more Ottoman inspired, and there are gorgeous palace hotels that are very expensive. The House mini-empire has tried to offer something different, and it is refreshing and welcome. Learn more at

Monday, June 21, 2010

If you've read my Tuscany and Umbria book, you know that I mention the Anglo-American community in and around Florence, specifically with regards to Sir Harold Acton's Villa La Pietra and Bernard Berenson's Villa I Tatti. It bears repeating that I urge visitors to Florence to set some time aside to leave the city proper and head for the hills surrounding it -- the views of Florence from the outskirts of the city are beautiful, and you can have some idea of what it was like to live here during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the period when the Anglo-American community was largest.

An interesting and beautiful book to page through before you go or when you get back is Paradise of Exiles: The Anglo-American Gardens of Florence by Katie Campbell (Frances Lincoln, London,,%202009/). Campbell notes that by 1869, 30,000 of Florence's 200,000 residents were British or American and by 1900 anglophones represented one sixth of the resident population. The British already had a history of coming to Florence, notably after 1815, when the Napoleonic Wars ended. In 1820, Campbell informs us, Percy Bysshe Shelley invited his cousin to join him in Florence, and he referred to his adopted city as 'the paradise of exiles, the retreat of pariahs.' "To many the Italian peninsula was associated with liberality -- Napoleon having refused to criminalise homosexuality during his brief tenure as Emperor of Italy. Nonetheless not all the city's expatriates were sexual outcasts or social misfits."

The Anglo-Americans bought the villas that had been abandoned during the time of Italy's unification, and though many of them were writers and artists and art historians, horticulture was also a topic of great interest among them. But Campbell's book, though filled with lots of great black- and-white and color photographs and illustrations of the villas' gardens, is equally a history of this community. In addition to La Pietra and I Tatti, the villas featured include Janet Ross' Poggio Gherardo, Lady Paget's Torre di Bellosguardo, Mabel Luhan's Villa Curonia, Sir John Temple Leader's Viollage Maiano, Sir George Sitwell's Montegufoni, Sybil Cutting's Villa Medici, and her daughter Iris Origo's La Foce, among others. Among Americans mentioned who rented villas in and around Florence are the sculptor Hiram Powers and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote, "I hardly think there can be a place in the world where life is more delicious for its own simple sake than here."

The Anglo-American community in Florence stayed intact through the First World War, and not until the eve of the Second World War, when Italy sided with the Axis, did its idyll finally end. "Overnight English and American residents found themselves enemy aliens. Reluctantly they dispersed, returning to homelands which were no longer home." Many of the villas were then sold to affluent Italians. The only two members of the community who remained, simply because they didn't have anywhere else to go, were Bernard Berenson and Harold Acton, and both of their villas were bequeathed to academic institutions (I Tatti to Harvard, La Pietra to New York University).

Paradise of Exiles is one of the few illustrated books focusing exclusively on the Anglo-Americans in Florence, and it's a fascinating look at the life they created there. A lsit of villas open to the public appears at the back of the book.

Friday, June 18, 2010

...and continuing on, here are many more entries in the Turkish Miscellany, for various letters of the alphabet:


Halvah (helva in Turkish) is delicious, and it's a great souvenir to bring home as it's easy to pack and doesn't spoil. According to World Food: Turkey, halvah is the collective name for a family of simple-sounding desserts: any cooked combination of a grain or nut (like flour or semolina) combined with something sweet like honey or pekmez (a thick syrup made from boiled grape juice) can be called helva. (Apparently a popular nineteenth-century dessert served in wealthy Istanbul homes was kar helvası, snow mixed with sugar, proving that just about anything could be called helva!). Today, however, most of the helva you'll see is made with sesame paste and honey, often with pistachios. According to Irfan Orga in Turkish Cooking, helva once had less than happy associations, "being used on the fortieth day after a member of the family's death when, according to Muslim belief, the chin of the deceased drops. This, it is believed, causes great pain, so in order to lessen the pain special family prayers are said on that day and helva eaten in the name of the dead person. In the houses of the wealthy great pots of helva are made and distributed amongst the poor. In this way it is hoped more prayers will be said and the dead will have nothing to complain about."


Turkish was once thought to be related to Finnish and Hungarian, but it has since been recognized as belonging to its own unique language group, and the fact is, according to Hugh Pope in Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, "peoples speaking more than eighteen languages related to Turkish still inhabit not only Central Asia but also such eastern Siberian territories as Yakutia. The Mongols are ethnic cousins of the Turks. Even the Turkish, Korean and Japanese languages have strange similarities, sharing a grammatical syntax that makes it easy for Turks and Japanese to learn each other's tongues."

Though the Turks do not expect visitors to speak their language, you will receive big smiles all around if you try to master a few basic words and expressions. German is now spoken by a lot of Turks, as is English, and many Turks know French, the language (after English) I still consider to be the most useful worldwide (somebody, almost everywhere, speaks French). And beginning in the eighteenth century, French art and culture were among the most significant influences on the Ottoman Empire, due to an alliance between Süleyman the Magnificent and Francois I (it was interrupted only briefly when Napoléon invaded Egypt). Suleyman and Francois I were concerned about Charles V's ambitions for Spain in the Mediterranean. So in 1836 they formed an alliance against Charles, and this treaty included a trade agreement called the Capitulations, which gave French merchants freedom to trade without restriction within the Ottoman Empire. This in turn led to the formation of a millet (a protected religious minority community) that would be the prototype for other European communities in Istanbul, all located in Galata. In 1538, the Spanish fleet was defeated at the battle of Lepanto (see the Lepanto entry in my book) in 1571. According to Michael Levey in The World of Ottoman Art, several of the sultans were strongly Francophile, and "most fundamentally relevant, for art and artistic exchanges, is the fact that a style fostered in France early in the century—rococo, rocaille or style Louis quinze, as it might be—chimed so well with Ottoman ideals at the same period." Imitation went in the opposite direction as well: the turquerie became a popular category of picture in France, and à la Turca was a designation used to describe the style of everything from music and dance to clothing and decor. In Louis de Berniere's novel Birds Without Wings, an Italian character says to the ağa of a village, "Mais oui, je parle français," adding snobbishly, "tout le monde parle français" (But yes, I speak French, everyone speaks French).

Istanbul even has a Rue Française (Fransız Sokaği), a real street complete with street musicians, cafes, bars, art centers, and restaurants that opened in 2004, in Beyoğlu. The leader of the group that developed it, Mehmet Taşdiken, notes that the French have a very important legacy in Beyoğlu. "Most of the establishments of Beyoğlu, such as the first cafés and first movie theaters, were established by the French in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the buildings on the left of Cezayir Street bear the signature of French engineer-contractor Marius Michel, who lived in Istanbul between 1890 and 1910 and built the Karaköy and Eminönü docks." Fransız Sokaği is kitschy, but not really out of step with the neighborhood.


Kahve is the Turkish word for "coffee," which originated in Ethiopia, where it grew wild, and was later cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula, notably in Yemen. From Yemen, coffee spread to Mecca and Medina, then on to Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and to Istanbul in the fifteenth century.

There is conflicting information about when the first coffee house opened in Istanbul—some sources say 1471, others say 1475 and later—but there is agreement on its name, Kiva Han. According to Philip Mansel, in Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, a historian named Ibrahim Peçevi noted that "The imams and muezzins and pious hypocrites said: 'People have become addicts of the coffee-house: nobody comes to the mosques!' The ulema said: 'It is a house of evil deeds: it is better to go to the wine tavern than there.'" Along with wine, tobacco, and opium, coffee was classified as one of the four ministers of the devil. Sultan Murad IV, who reigned from 1623 to 1640, reportedly executed a hundred thousand subjects who couldn't resist the four. Illegal coffeehouses were routinely attacked by officials, but by the seventeenth century, coffee's virtues were at last extolled, and by the early nineteenth century there were approximately 2,500 coffee houses in Istanbul.

The word "coffee" entered English in 1598 from the Italian caffé—the first coffee house to open in Europe was Florian's, in Venice—which was from the Turkish kahve, which in turn derived from the Arabic qahwa. According to Harry Nickles in Middle Eastern Cooking, years ago Turkish marriage vows included a clause by the bridegroom to keep his wife in coffee, and an old Turkish proverb is "A cup of coffee gives memories for forty years." Bade Jackson, in Turkish Cooking, says, "There is not a spot with a view, or a park in Turkey, without its tea or coffee house."

In Harem: the World Behind the Veil, Alev Lytle Croutier notes that "what distinguishes Turkish coffee is its texture of very finely ground grains, almost pulverized, and its idiosyncratic method of preparation. It seems like a very simple operation, but making it perfectly is one of the most difficult things in the world. It has to have just the right amount of froth, and this is a function of timing." I have made coffee in the brass cezve I bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul many times, and each time it turns out different, with more or less froth. It is essential to know exactly when to remove it from the flame, which is at a point when the liquid starts to boil up and almost over the top of the cezve. You have to have faith that it will not spill over, because if you don't allow it to boil at all you won't achieve any froth.

With such a history, one would think coffee is far and away the beverage of choice in Turkey, but that distinction belongs to tea. While Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire, coffee was a relatively inexpensive commodity. But after the collapse of the empire, it became too costly for most people, and tea quickly replaced it. As in Greece, "Néscafé" is what you order when you want regular coffee; it refers to any brand of instant coffee. To ask for Turkish coffee is sometimes seen as old-fashioned, but I much prefer it. The most famous and oldest coffee merchant in Istanbul is Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, founded in 1871 when Mehmet took over the family business of selling coffee beans. Until the late nineteenth century, beans were sold raw, to be roasted at home and ground with a hand-operated coffee mill. Mehmet began selling roasted and ready-ground coffee and thus earned the name Kurukahveci, vendor of roasted and ground coffee. Today it's a third-generation business, and the original location and headquarters, in an Art Deco building, is just outside the covered section of the Spice Market on the corner of Tahmis Caddesi and Hasırcılar Caddesi (there are other locations but this is the one to visit). Turkish coffee can only be made with a Turkish coffee pot, but Mehmet Efendi also sells filter coffee, espresso, and cocoa. The company's website,, is interesting and features good background information on the history of coffee (mail orders are filled only within Turkey).


Kısmet is a word referring to destiny, fate, or luck, or a predetermined course of events; English borrowed 'kısmet' from the Turkish and it is used commonly. My Aunt Shirley and Uncle Roy had a very tall, black poodle many years ago named Kısmet, and I never asked them if they were inspired to name him after the word itself or after the 1955 film directed by Vincent Minnelli (which was based on the 1953 musical). I love the word regardless of whatever reason the dog was named.


Also spelled mezze, meze refers to the custom of eating small plates of food to accompany drinks, and it "is a ritual and an institution inherited by all the Arab lands and represents an art of living," according to Claudia Roden in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Roden notes that the word is derived from the Arabic t'mazza, "to savor in little bites." She explains that meze are meant to whet the appetite, not to fill you up. There should be a variety, ideally four different items, some hot, some cold, served in small quantities. In Istanbul, the best place to partake of meze is at a meyhane, a casual, family-style place historically owned and operated by Greeks—a number of great ones are in Istanbul on Nevizade, a lively street just off the Passage of Flowers, off Istiklâl. A meyhane is similar in spirit to a Greek taverna, a French bistro, and an Italian trattoria, yet it is a truly Turkish institution.

Stephen Kinzer, in Crescent & Star, says that "an evening at a meyhane is centered around rakı, but rakı never stands alone. It is only one component, albeit the essential one, of a highly stylized ritual. With rakı always come meze, small plates of food that appear stealthily, a few at a time. Theoretically, meze are appetizers leading to a main course, but often the main course, like Turkey's supposedly great destiny, never materializes. No one complains about that because eating meze while sipping rakı is such a supreme pleasure in itself. The path is so blissful that the idea of a destination seems somehow sacrilegious." In an article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine ("Istanbul's Glitter Domes," May 11, 1997), John Ash notes that a meyhane is a place to hang out and talk for hours. "I once met friends for lunch in Imroz, then stayed on until nine o'clock. Somehow lunch just merged seamlessly with dinner. At times like this Turkey seems civilized in ways the so-called developed nations have hardly begun to comprehend."


Ottoman miniatures, those beautiful little paintings which reached their golden age during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, were considered a part of the Ottoman book arts together with illumination, calligraphy, marbling paper, and bookbinding. Roger Crowley, in his book 1453, describes miniatures as "a joyous world of primary color patterned flat and without perspective, like the decorative devices on tiles and carpets." The art form shares some qualities with the Arab-Persian tradition and has some Chinese artistic influences, but it is uniquely Turkish.

Miniatures were not signed, partly because of the tradition that rejected individualism and partly because the paintings were not created entirely by one artist. Typically the head painter designed the composition of the scene and his apprentices drew the contours with black or colored ink and then painted it without creating an illusion of third dimension. Perspective in a miniature was different from that in a European painting: it could include different time periods and spaces. And, as Orhan Pamuk explored in My Name is Red, miniature artists did not depict human beings (or other nonliving beings) realistically.

The collection of miniatures in Topkapı is outstanding, and includes not only Turkish examples but those from elsewhere in the Islamic world. It was at Topkapı in fact that the art began, in the sixteenth century, when the Nakkashane-i Irani, or Persian Academy of Painting, was founded. It was so named because some time after the noted Persian instructor Bihzad left Istanbul for Tabriz, Sultan Selim conquered Tabriz, so Bihzad moved back to Istanbul with his students. Within this academy there were two different schools: Nakkashane-i Rum specialized in documentary books that depicted the public and private lives of rulers, weddings, circumcisions, and historical events. The Nakkashane-i Irani specialized in fantastic subjects, fables, heroic deeds, folk stories, astrology, medicine, cosmography, etc. So in viewing miniatures one sees everything from banquets, battles, court processions, festivities, and beheadings to fountains, palaces, horses, armor, and army tents. Roger Crowley describes the art of miniatures as "a world in love with ceremony, noise, and light. There are ram fights, tumblers, kebab cooks, and firework displays, massed Janissary bands that thump and toot and crash their way soundlessly across the page in a blare of red, tightrope walkers crossing the Horn on ropes suspended from the masts of ships, cavalry squadrons in white turbans riding past elaborately patterned tents, maps of the city as bright as jewels, and all the visible exuberance of paint: vivid red, orange, royal blue, lilac, lemon, chestnut, gray, pink, emerald, and gold. The world of the miniatures seems to express both joy and pride in the Ottoman achievement, the breathtaking ascent from tribe to empire in two hundred years, an echo of the words once written by the Seljuk Turks over a doorway in the holy city of Konya: 'What I have created is unrivalled throughout the world.'"


The word oda means chamber, and so an odalisque is a "woman of the chamber," "chamber" referring most often to the Topkapı harem. It is a word made famous by the paintings of Ingres, Matisse, Delacroix, and Renoir most notably, and is a word that frequently appears in writings about Topkapı.

Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust

Oldways (, a nonprofit food issues think tank that developed the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid in 1993, was founded in 1990 and deserves wider recognition. It isn't a Turkish organization, but Turkey is within the Oldways fold. The group was the brainchild of K. Dun Gifford (whom Julia Child appointed chairman of the American Institute of Wine and Food in 1988), and it promotes specific alternatives to the unhealthful foods characteristically eaten in industrialized countries. It's a "think tank and brain trust" rooted in equal parts of science, tradition, and good, clean food. Oldways hosts fantastic annual trips called Culinarias, and in 2007 the destination was Istanbul. Among the featured guests were chef Ana Sortun, Engin Akin, Musa Dağdeviren, and Vedat Başaran, who is an old friend of Oldways, having participated in Oldways International Symposiums in Istanbul in 1993 and in New York in 1995. Culinaria trips are really something special, and not very well known. The combination of outstanding seminars; cooking demonstrations; guided historical tours to museums, monuments, and markets; memorable meals; and a nice amount of free time is unmatched by other companies.


"To Westerners, the East was a living museum filled with people, objects, and traditions, recalling a heroic and idealized past," writes Barbara Hodgson in Dreaming of East. "The few shreds of these noble bygone days left in Europe had been trampled upon by countless tourists. Greece held on to a vestige of classical luster, and Spain was considered to be almost North Africa, but by the 1830s they too were dismissed as spoiled. The East, so close geographically, seemed enthrallingly distant in time."

"Orientalism" refers to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers, and artists, and an Orientalist is a scholar of Oriental studies. The word derives from the Latin oriens (rising) and is the opposite of "Occident." As Western explorers traveled farther into Asia, the definition of "the Orient" has shifted eastward—travel on the Orient Express, from Paris to Istanbul, is definitely eastward but does not stop in what we currently understand to be the Orient.

"Orientalism" also came to refer to the adoption of typical eastern motifs, styles, and subject matter in art, architecture, and design. Notably, a number of Western painters—mostly from France and Britain—in the nineteenth century, set out eagerly for what they called the Orient: the north coast of Africa, Arabia, the Levant, and the Ottoman Empire. Spain (because of its Arab history) and Venice (because of its historical connections to Constantinople) were also popular destinations, seen as gateways to the Orient. Eventually, Orientalism became an official category in the Paris Salon, and when it became all the rage, even artists who'd never set foot in the Near East began to bring touches of it to their work. Best known of these was Ingres, and the best known of his canvases in this style are Great Odalisque (in the Louvre), Odalisque and Slave (in the Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts), and The Turkish Bath (also in the Louvre).

The longevity of Orientalism is impressive; it can be loosely established as beginning with Napoléon's Egyptian campaign in 1798 and running through the 1870s (American Orientalism ended later). A Thousand and One Nights was enormously responsible for the development of Orientalism, and it inspired travel eastward. This legendary collection of folktales, by the way, can be traced to ancient Indian, Persian, Egyptian, and Arab storytelling traditions, and Jewish sources and possible Greek influences have also been noted. The story goes that when the king discovers his wife's past infidelity he executes her and declares all women to be unfaithful. He then marries a succession of virgins only to kill each one the following morning. Eventually, his vizier can't find any more virgins, so the vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, offers herself up. On their wedding night, Scheherazade tells the king a story but doesn't finish it, so in order to learn the story's conclusion, he keeps her alive. She continues to do this for a thousand and one nights. The tales were translated in the nineteenth century, and at this time the work acquired the English name The Arabian Nights. The best known stories are "Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor."

The following is a list of good books to read on the subject of Orientalism: Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures: Orientalism in America, 1870-1930, by Holly Edwards with essays by Brian T. Allen, Steven C. Caton, Zeynep Celik, and Oleg Grabar (Princeton University in association with the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2000. This book is the catalog that accompanied the exhibit of the same name, which also traveled to Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery and Charlotte's Mint Museum. Edwards, who was the curator of the show, is an Islamic art historian by training. She explains that for this show she defined the Orient as it was most often conceived in the late nineteenth century: the accessible but still distant regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including the Levant (referring to the countries bordering the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, and to the sun rising in the east) and North Africa. She also decided to concentrate on the theme of the show rather than on one medium, so this is not a definitive study of Orientalist painting; rather, she explores several aspects of the "Oriental" phenomenon in American art and popular culture. The book is much more interesting because of this. One of the paintings included is among my most favorite, Fumée d'ambre gris by John Singer Sargent, to my mind one of the top ten paintings in the entire collection of Clark Institute.

Orientalism by Edward Said (Pantheon, 1978). Said's book was controversial when it first appeared—his thesis was that the word "Orientalism" had become derogatory, shaped by European colonialist attitudes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—but it has become a landmark scholarly work. He writes, "much of the personal investment in this study derives from my awareness of being an 'Oriental' as a child growing up in two British colonies. All of my education, in those colonies (Palestine and Egypt) and in the United States, has been Western, and yet that deep early awareness has persisted. In many ways my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals." I especially admire the chapter entitled "The Scope of Orientalism," and I think it should be required reading for anyone visiting any Muslim country in the world. I like the way Said qualifies the phrase, "The East is a career," by Benjamin Disraeli: "When Disraeli said in his novel Tancred that the East was a career, he meant that to be interested in the East was something bright young Westerners would find to be an all-consuming passion; he should not be interpreted as saying that the East was only a career for Westerners."

The Orientalists: Painter-Travellers by Lynne Thornton (ACR PocheCouleur, Paris 1994). According to Thornton, "There was no school of Orientalist painting; the pictures were linked thematically rather than stylistically." Some of the painter-travelers featured in this little book—appropriately part of the PocheCouleur series as it's small enough to fit in a pocket (poche)—include Leon Belly, Maurice Bompard, Frederick Arthur Bridgman (born in America but lived in France), Frank Dillon, Eugène Flandin, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, Eugène Fromentin, Jeon-Léon Gérôme, Edward Lear, David Roberts, and Félix Ziem.

Picturing the Middle East: A Hundred Years of European Orientalism, with contributions by Gerald Ackerman, Julia Ballerini, Eric Zafran, Ilene Susan Fort, Mary Harper, and James Thompson (published on the occasion of the exhibit of the same name at the Dahesh Museum, New York, October 1995–January 1996). The scope of this work is larger than the Near East but the six essays are all enlightening, even if they're aren't always specific to Turkey. Two are devoted to two "undisputed masterpieces of the nineteenth century": Delacroix's "Women of Algiers in Their Apartment" and Ingres's "The Turkish Bath," both in the Louvre. Gerald Ackerman's essay, "Why Some Orientalists Traveled to the East: Some Sobering Statistics" includes this refreshing refrain: "Instead of endowing painters with a set of insidious colonialist or imperialist motives, one should acknowledge their sympathy and love for the lands and peoples they visited, and recognize that their limited understanding was gained through sincere effort despite great cultural differences. Many worked for the preservation of these cultures, their arts, and their monuments. Some even used the integrity of native crafts as a model for reviving the craft tradition of the West. These young men and women were, of course, saddled with both naivete and some insurmountable prejudices, but for the most part their hearts were in the right place. One should not mistake attitudes for motives."

Osman Hamdi Bey

Osman Hamdi (1842 – 1910) was one of the more interesting personalities in Ottoman Turkey. He was the son of a former grand vizier and studied law in Istanbul and Paris. But his interest in painting was far greater than in law, and he trained under the French Orientalist painters Jeon-Léon Gérôme and Gustave Bolanger. Hamdi stayed in Paris for nine years, marrying a French woman and returning to Istanbul in 1869, along with their two children. He exhibited three paintings at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, though none apparently have survived. Upon his return to Turkey, Hamdi was posted to Baghdad as part of the administrative team of Midhat Pasha, later to become a reformer of the Tanzimat (see entry in the book). Back in Istanbul during the 1870s he was a member of the Ottoman bureaucracy, and it was when he was appointed director of the Imperial Museum in 1881 that the most productive period of his life began.

Hamdi not only developed the museum but rewrote the antiquities laws and created nationally sponsored archaeological expeditions. In 1884, he oversaw new regulations prohibiting historical artifacts from being smuggled out of the country and conducted the first scientific archaeological excavations by a Turkish team. One dig, in Sidon, revealed the Alexander Sarcophagus; to house this and other finds he founded the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and served as its director. Hamdi's most famous painting, The Tortoise Trainer, is one I love—it depicts tortoises walking with candles on their shells during the Tulip Era in the eighteenth century—and it broke a record in Turkey by being sold for $3.5 million in December 2004. The painting was acquired by the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation and is in the collection of the excellent Pera Museum. Hamdi's home, in the village of Eskihisar, is a short ride from Istanbul and was restored in 1982. Today it is open to visitors as the Osman Hamdi Bey Museum, (262) 655.63.48.


I hadn't associated Istanbul with pickles until I read about Asri Turşucusu, the oldest pickle producer in the city, in StyleCity: Istanbul. I'm a fan of real, old-fashioned pickles like those found at Guss' Pickles in New York . . . and at Asri Turşucusu in Istanbul. But even if you're not a pickle fan, it's hard not to be impressed by the vast assortment at Asri: there are approximately 25 different kinds, and most of them are piled up in the front window (the window alone is worth a journey to see). Asri's owner, Vahdettin Çelikli, who founded the company in 1938, is in his nineties, and according to the StyleCity guide, he recently passed on his secret formula to some younger family members. Food writer John Willoughby was taken to Asri by an Istanbul friend, and he wrote about it on (January 12, 2007). He explains that most of the pickle shops in Istanbul date back to the 1930s because the cooks who'd been in the service of wealthy Ottoman officials were losing their jobs, so some became itinerant picklers, "going from house to house of the new rich, staying a week or so at each one and making enough pickles, preserves, and tomato pastes for the rest of the year." Others, like Asri, opened a shop, much to pickle lovers' good fortune. Ağa Hamamı Caddesi 29/A, Cihangir / (212) 244.4724.

Rumeli Hisarı

In 1451, Mehmet the Conqueror made a significant discovery: it was impossible to be in a dominant position if he could not cross from one continent to the other safely. At the time, the Dardanelles were blocked with Italian ships; there was already an Ottoman fortress, Anadolu Hisarı (Anatolian Castle), built by his grandfather Beyezit in 1395, on the Asian shore. It was clear he needed to control the Bosphorus, and he needed to cut off the supply of grain being shipped from the Black Sea Greek colonies to Constantinople as well as the customs revenues. So he decided to construct a second fortress on the European side, on land that belonged to the Byzantines, to secure control of the straits so that the "path of the vessels of the infidels may be blocked," according to Roger Crowley in 1453. On August 31, 1452, the new fortress was complete, only four and a half months after the first stone was laid. (Crowley notes that "Mehmet's ability to coordinate and complete extraordinary projects at breakneck speed was continually to dumbfound his opponents in the months ahead.")

The Ottomans called the fortress Bogaz Kesen, the Cutter of the Straits or the Throat Cutter, as it commanded the narrowest stretch of the Bosphorus, where the current is at its strongest and most treacherous. It was the largest fortification the Ottomans ever built, and it would come to be known as Rumeli Hisari, the European Castle. It's also one of the most memorable sites to see along a Bosphorus cruise. (In 1453 there is a great drawing of a recreation of the castle, which was described as huge, "not like a fortress, more like a small town.")

Silk Road

The Silk Road was a collection of trade routes, on land and by sea, that existed from the second century BC through the late nineteenth century. The routes wound their way from Japan and China in East Asia, across Central Asia, south to India, west across Iran, to the Near East on the Mediterranean, which meant Istanbul and Venice. Many commodities were traded along this route, but it was silk that was considered the most sought-after item. The name "Silk Road" was coined by the nineteenth century German explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. Ann Mah, in Condé Nast Traveler (October 2007) stated that "the road was so long and so brutal that goods were handed off at various points from one trader to the next (in effect the world's longest and most ambitious relay race)."

Depending on a northerly or southerly route through Anatolia, there were twenty-nine cities in all that were official Silk Road stops, and approximately two hundred caravansaries. Aside from providing service to travelers as an inn, caravansaries were safe places where merchants could also expect to find food and shelter for their camels. Regardless of their religion, language, or race, all travelers were catered to for three days in a caravansary. Built at a distance of thirty to forty kilometers from one another (or about eight to ten hours on foot), caravansaries were also quite beautiful architecturally, and some fine examples still exist.

Some great reads about this legendary route are When Asia Was the World by Stewart Gordon (Da Capo Press, 2007); The Taste of Conquest: the Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice by Michael Krondl (Ballantine, 2007, focusing on Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam); and Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen (Knopf, 2007). This last is obviously not devoted to the Silk Road per se, but Bergreen relates the crucial incident in AD 550 when two Nestorian monks appeared at Justinian I's court with silkworm eggs concealed in their hollow bamboo walking sticks. "In short order, the eggs hatched worms, the worms spun their cocoons, and Bombyx mori had come to the Byzantine Empire, bringing silk with it. Emulating China, the Byzantine Empire attempted to monopolize the production of its silk, and to retain control over the secrets of sericulture. . . . During the Second Crusade (1144-1149), two thousand silk weavers had migrated from Constantinople to Europe, and they disseminated trade secrets the Chinese had guarded for millennia."

A unique related book to read is Along the Silk Road by Yo-Yo Ma and edited by Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis (University of Washington Press, 2002). Cellist Yo-Yo Ma initiated the Silk Road Project, a nonprofit foundation devoted to the living arts of the peoples of historical Silk Road lands. The project seeks to "increase awareness among both participants and audiences of the variety and richness of unfamiliar traditions and the importance of understanding viewpoints different from one's own." This book features chapters contributed by various writers who are specialists in particular fields, such as archaeology, photography, and film, but to me the most fascinating chapter is the first one, a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma and Theodore Levin, curatorial director of the project and associate professor of music at Dartmouth. Yo-Yo Ma has referred to the Silk Road as "the Internet of antiquity," and there is no better modern metaphor for the Silk Road. There are in fact three new "Roads" across Asia right now: B2B (business-to-business), B2C (business-to-consumer), and C2C (consumer-to-consumer) as described in this passage from the book: "Somewhere in the Turkish highlands this summer, a camper will bed for the night with a Chinese-made tent and sleeping bag, courtesy of a Turkish sporting goods wholesaler who bought hundreds over the Internet from a Chinese company earlier this year. It is the kind of transaction that many people hope is the beginning of a revolution for China's formidable economy." Milo Cleveland Beach, former director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, gently reminds us that "with the great developments in communication promised for the twenty-first century, we must all of us ensure that no peoples on this planet are involuntarily isolated either from other peoples or from awareness of and pride in their own cultural identities." The accompanying photographs in this fascinating volume are beautiful and there is a good bibliography for further reading.


I love Turkish tombstones, with the turbans atop those for men and floral designs adorning on those for women. I think they are beautiful works of art in their own right. In Stamboul Sketches, John Freely notes that the tombstones typically bear inscriptions that tell us something about the deceased, such as the dates of birth and death and the circumstances of the person's life. But few of these are as gloomy as we might expect. Rather, many are cheerful—funny even. Freely relates that a scholar of Turkish letters, Cevat Şakir Kabaağac (the Fisherman of Halicarnassus) collected funerary inscriptions, and here are some he referred to as Laughing Tombstones: "Stopping his ears with his fingers, judge Mehmet hied off from this beautiful world, leaving his wife's cackling and his mother-in-law's gabbling"; "I could have died as well without a doctor than with the quack that friends set upon me"; and, on a wayside tomb, "Oh passerby, spare me your prayers, but please don't steal my tombstone!"

Whirling Dervishes

Stephen Kinzer, in Crescent & Star, says of the dervishes that "they are remarkable as the only sect that was not officially closed down by Atatürk's republicans in 1925. Atatürk approved of the mevlevi dervish approach to God as being 'an expression of Turkish genius' that reclaimed Islam from what he saw as hide-bound, backward Arab tradition. . . . Nevertheless, Atatürk confiscated their property along with that of all other sects. Even now, the ministry of culture only allows one elite chapter of the mevlevis to rent back their dervish monastery in Istanbul once a week to stage a ceremony as a 'touristic attraction.'"

The Mevlana Sufi order is a leading mystical brotherhood of Islam founded by Rumi, whose full name—Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi—stands for "love and ecstatic flight into the infinite." Rumi was born in 1207 in present day Afghanistan (then a part of Persia) to a family of theologians. The family fled the Mongol invasion and eventually settled in Konya, which was at that time part of the Seljuk Empire. By the time Rumi was twenty-four years old, he was already an accomplished religious scholar. He wrote a six-volume masterwork called the Masnavi, which is a mix of fables, scenes from daily life, Koranic verses, and metaphysics. Rumi believed in the use of music, poetry, and dancing as a path to God, and for him, music helped followers to focus their whole being on the divine; he believed in doing this so intensely that the soul was both destroyed and resurrected. From this passionate belief the practice of whirling dervishes developed into a ritual form. Mevlevi refers to the whirling dervishes and the sema is the dervishes' sacred "turning" dance. Following Rumi's death, his followers and his son Sultan Walad founded the Mawlawiyah Sufi Order, also known as the Order of the Whirling Dervishes. Today his shrine is a place of pilgrimage.

According to Shahram Shiva, a performance poet, actor, and author born into a Persian Jewish family in Iran and known for his Rumi concerts, one reason for Rumi's popularity is that "Rumi is able to verbalize the highly personal and often confusing world of personal/spiritual growth and mysticism in a very forward and direct fashion. He does not offend anyone, and he includes everyone. The world of Rumi is neither exclusively the world of a Sufi, nor the world of a Hindu, nor a Jew, nor a Christian; it is the highest state of a human being—a fully evolved human. A complete human is not bound by cultural limitations; he touches every one of us. Today Rumi's poems can be heard in churches, synagogues, Zen monasteries, as well as in the downtown New York art/performance/music scene."

A few books to read to learn more include The Essential Rumi (HarperOne, 1997), Rumi: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics, 2004), A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings (HarperOne, 2006), Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart (HarperOne, 2007) all translated by Coleman Barks, and The Love Poems of Rumi (Deepak Chopra, Harmony, 1998). The Mevlana Education and Culture Society—which takes Rumi's teaching "Seem as you are or be as you seem" as its guiding principle—is also a good resource: There are several different mevlevi groups that whirl on different days of the week in Istanbul. Tom Brosnahan's website,, details them and includes information on how to buy tickets.