Italy's Slow Cities
Published: May 2009
Twenty-three small towns have vowed to protect their way of life against a fast-lane, homogenized world: Local foods instead of global brands. Less traffic, less noise, fewer crowds. Everything, as Matthew Yeomans discovers, that will attract hordes of tourists
I'd been in Positano barely 10 minutes and already the challenge of parking my rental car had given me a bigger headache than a month's worth of alternate-side searches in New York. Positano may be the most celebrated town on Italy's Amalfi Coast, but it's no joy to drive in. The town is set precariously on a cliffside, its white and pink houses rising from the sea in tiers like a giant wedding cake. One single-lane, one-way street runs through it, and by the time I'd unloaded my bags and carried them to the hotel, a line of 20 cars was reaching all the way up the hill. I was saved by the hotel owner, who freed me from my motorized albatross and whisked it away to some hidden garage.
It could have been worse. Had I arrived in high season, May through October, the police would have fined me $100 for blocking traffic. That's just one of the rules Positano has enacted since becoming a founding member of Citt Slow, or Slow Cities, an organization aimed at preserving the quality of life in Italy's small towns. Yes, it's ironic: in order to ensure "slowness," Positano insists that you keep moving. This, as I was to discover, is only one of the ironies of a movement that's trying to codify the unwritten rules of la dolce vita.
Slow Cities was founded in 1999, but its roots are in Slow Food, an eco-gastronomic group established 16 years ago by Carlo Petrini, a journalist and activist. Petrini was protesting the opening of a McDonald's next to the Spanish Steps in Rome--and what he presciently identified as the surge of a global fast-food culture. He published a manifesto that read, in part, "We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, invades the privacy of our homes, and forces us to eat Fast Foods"-- a phrase directed not just at McDonald's, but at a world that had forgotten what it's like to succumb to the rich, all-enveloping experience of leisurely dining.
Over time, Petrini's movement grew into a global force of its own, with 70,000 members working worldwide to preserve such traditional foods as Piedmontese veal, Sicilian goat cheese, and Chilean quinoa. Positano and 22 like-minded municipalities in Italy have taken the philosophy a step further, applying it to all aspects of urban living. Member cities must have a population under 50,000 and adhere to a raft of policies aimed at two principal goals. The first is to maintain a pleasing pace and tone for city life by reducing motorized traffic, banning car alarms, and restoring old buildings before constructing new ones. The second is to promote the traditional foods, wines, and crafts of participating towns. By creating a united front, Slow Cities believes it can guarantee the survival of its members' artisanal endeavors--cheese making, ham curing, embroidery--even as they struggle against the Krafts and Starbucks of the world.
The places that i planned to visit--Positano, Orvieto, and Chiavenna--represent the different strengths of the Slow Cities model. Positano is trying to maintain a serene way of life while upholding its reputation as one of Europe's premier resorts. Orvieto, in Umbria, is working to protect its traditional foods and wines from the global marketplace--and its medieval walled center from the effects of mass tourism. And Chiavenna, in the Italian Alps, has saved a unique local product, a cured goat's-leg ham, from obsolescence, even turning it into a financial success. Like all Slow Cities, the three hew closely to a consummate image of Italian life. Their piazzas have pretty little cafés, the espresso comes with the perfect schiuma, handmade pasta is exactly al dente. Positano still has the striking azure sea, jet black sand, and fresh seafood that John Steinbeck rhapsodized about in 1953, when it was a mere fishing village. "Positano bites deep," he wrote in Harper's Bazaar. "It is a dream place that isn't quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone."
I can attest that Positano's natural ability to seduce is intact. It suffers, however, from the cumulative effects of that good fortune: the year-round population of 4,000 swells to more than 12,000 in summer, creating a conga line of cars inching through town. Hence the decision to discourage traffic by liberating overnight tourists from their rental cars and forcing day-trippers to park far from the center of town. "In the summer I don't see my car for three months," declared Lorenzo Cinque, the owner of my hotel, Albergo Casa Albertina, without adding what he obviously meant: So don't whine over losing yours for a few days. Having wrestled my keys away, Cinque, who also serves as Positano's tourism coordinator and a liaison to the Slow Cities organization, showed me the best shortcut to the beach--by stairs.
At the foot of the steps (I lost count at around 420) an old fisherman was smoking a cigarette in the February sun while making winter repairs to his nets. He wasn't the only one preparing for the coming season. Throughout town, construction workers, painters, and electricians were working against the clock--all major repairs to businesses and homes here take place in the off-season. On the beach, faced by a series of open-air restaurants, a group of schoolchildren were playing soccer. Would this be the kids' last match before the beach was overrun by visitors?Cinque had told me the town was in a fight to maintain its age-old lifestyle. "Positano is the real challenge for the Slow Cities movement," he said.
Part of the way it is meeting this challenge is by applying strict traffic laws and a 58-decibel noise limit on restaurants and clubs. Coming from New York, I could applaud such rules, but did the locals resent them?I'd read that some residents of Greve in Chianti, whose mayor, Paolo Saturnini, founded the Citt Slow organization, feel overwhelmed by visitors who come to experience Slow living. That wasn't Positano's complaint--its tourist problem started long before Slow Cities. Here, the controversy was over the mayor's recent proposal to ban Vespas during peak hours, an idea about as Italian as, well, a Big Mac.
"Slow Cities imposes certain laws, which is difficult in an individualistic country like Italy," explained Antonio Sersale, the general manager of Le Sirenuse, one of Positano's premier hotels. "Everyone is out for himself." Opened in 1951 by Antonio's uncle Paolo Sersale, Le Sirenuse, more than anything, launched Positano's worldwide reputation. The hotel sits majestically above the Gulf of Salerno; the lobby, with its stone walls painted a crisp white and its ornate tile floor, exudes Mediterranean plushness. Sersale and I were standing by the pool, overlooking the islets where, legend has it, the sirens for whom the hotel is named once lured sailors to their deaths.
I asked Sersale about something I'd discovered on my walk up to the hotel. Several boutiques were selling the handmade resort wear for which Positano is known--exactly the sort of cottage industry that Slow Cities is supposed to champion. But each time I popped into a store to ask about the movement, I was greeted with a blank look. Finally, one shop owner seemed to recognize the word. "Slow?" she said. "This is Positano, of course we are slow! There's no pressure to run around in this town."
Sersale wasn't surprised. Having worked in the United States for many years, he knows life both in a Slow City and in the fast lane. The local people take their way of life for granted, he said. They have very little sense that it could be in jeopardy.
Still, I wondered. If the Slow mind-set is already deeply embedded in the Italian consciousness, is there really a need for a movement?Or is Slow Cities just a way to market an idealized slice of Italian life to the rest of the world?I asked Cinque that when I got back to my hotel. A slim, handsome man with a well-practiced domani demeanor, Cinque cracked a smile, and said he could show me an initiative that was anything but superficial.
So while all the Beautiful People were sipping their first Camparis of the day, we headed underground to see the sewage treatment plant. Crammed against the mountainside, Positano has few options for disposing of its wastewater. In the past, it was pumped out to sea with minimal impact. But then the village became a summer colony for the well-heeled. In 1994, before Slow Cities even began, it demonstrated forward thinking by installing an eco-friendly sewage system that filters out heavy products (such as cooking oil and the dyes from textile plants) from the water and sends them to Naples for disposal. It then flushes the remaining fluid through a series of tanks populated by chemical-munching microbes, resulting in phosphate-free, fat-free water that can be safely released into the sea. The system is viewed as a model for other Slow Cities to emulate.
The sleepy piazzas and rambling maze-like streets of Orvieto, about 240 miles northeast of Positano, belie its violent history. In the 14th century, the fortress town was a no-go zone, so bloody was the rivalry between its two leading families, the Monaldeschis and the Filippeschis. Even Dante cited their feud in Il Purgatorio, comparing them to the warring Montecchis and Capuletis of Verona (Shakespeare's inspiration for Romeo and Juliet).
The town's current mayor, the smartly dressed Stefano Cimicchi, presides over a far more placid citizenry. But as he implements his own Slow City agenda, there is a hint that some of Orvieto's old fight is still there. "Residents don't always work together for the greater good," he complained to me. The people who don't follow the strict recycling laws; the drivers who continue to honk their horns in the Old Town--"They enjoy the advantages of a Slow City," he lamented, "but they don't act in a Slow City way."
It struck me that Cimicchi was worrying a little too much. As far as I could tell, having walked Orvieto's neat and relaxed stone streets for two days, the town was a perfect place to live.
Orvieto, however, has high standards to keep. It is immensely popular with day-trippers from Rome and Florence, most of whom come to see the striking black-and-white cathedral. Begun in 1290, the duomo is regarded as one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, its faade a riot of mosaics and sculptures, its interior graced with Luca Signorelli's recently restored frescoes of the Last Judgment. Orvieto's Old Town, 300 feet above the plains on a volcanic mesa, still has the stone outer walls built in the 16th century to repel marauders. Today, they serve as a barrier to motor coaches and other vehicles, which are encouraged to park outside the city; visitors can ascend to the Old Town using elevators built into the walls.
To help tourists find their way around, Orvieto created three color-coded sightseeing walks. Most people visit the duomo, take one or more of the walks, and then leave, but I found that Orvieto's other charms--and its claim to Slow City status--are no less enticing. Each October, under the aegis of Slow Food, it holds a gastronomic festival that honors Umbria's reputation as the nation's most fertile region, with traditional foods such as truffles, pork, and olive oil. All the best restaurants and cafés take part, displaying ORVIETO CON GUSTO stickers in their windows.
I walked down the Corso Cavour, the town's main street, until I found Antica Cantina, a simple restaurant specializing in Umbrian cuisine that had been recommended by one of Orvieto's Slow City organizers. The owner, Lucia Gismondi, poured me a glass of local red wine and quickly conjured up some regional delicacies.
Over a plate of lardo di Colonnata, thin slices of herbed pork fat served on toast; a selection of local prosciutto; and a crespolino, a pancake of leeks, cheese, and béchamel, Gismondi told me her secret: "I use only artisanal products," whether local or from other regions. She rattled off a few core ingredients: "Chicken, rabbit, boar. I go to each farmer to ensure that I get the best." She knows the source of everything she serves, and that it is fresh, organic, and not genetically modified.
While Orvieto's food has enjoyed its reputation for generations, only recently have the locals started celebrating their wines. Long associated with vapid lightweight whites, the region has begun producing quality reds that rival those of its Tuscan neighbors to the north. I visited the Barberani vineyard, one of Umbria's top producers. Bernardo Barberani, the wine maker's son, arrived early to take me to his family estate nine miles outside town. As we drove in his Land Rover through the damp, green countryside, Bernardo told me how his grandfather had run three cafés in Orvieto and started making wine to serve to customers. Bernardo's father, Luigi, took over the business in the late 1970's; disillusioned with local growers' emphasis on mass-market whites, he decided to revive long-neglected regional grapes, such as Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, and use only organic farming methods.
He also rediscovered Calcaia, a sweet, almost forgotten wine first produced by the Etruscans, who inhabited this region in pre-Roman times. The Barberanis learned that the Etruscans had planted grapes on a hillside facing Lake Corbara that was blanketed by thick fog on fall mornings. This encouraged the formation of the mold Botrytis cinerea, the "noble rot" essential to a great dessert wine. Barberani's Calcaia is a more refined, less sweet version of its Etruscan predecessor. After showing me around, Bernardo produced a half bottle, two large glasses, and a handful of biscotti. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but I found his hospitality--and the honey-colored liquid he poured--impossible to resist.
On the way back to town, I asked Bernardo what he thought of Slow Cities. He told me he felt the movement was injecting Orvieto with a new sense of pride. Today's young Orvietans, he said, don't feel the same pressure to move to a big city as he himself did when he was in his twenties. "More and more, they understand the importance of staying on their land. And they realize that now they can make the same money here that they can in the big cities"--by getting into the high-end wine and food industries--"but with far less stress."
News travels fast in Chiavenna, a town high in the Italian Alps--just north of Lake Como--with a mere 8,000 inhabitants. Whether it was because I had talked to the mayor about the Slow Cities movement, or whether the hotel had tipped someone off, by the end of my first full day there I found myself sitting in a café facing a reporter for the Chiavenna paper. "People are coming here to write about Slow Cities," he said with a mischievous grin, "but we don't really know what it means. Can you tell us what it's all about?"
Indeed, unlike Positano, with its enviable setting and amiable way of life, or Orvieto, with its rich culinary heritage, Chiavenna hardly seemed the quintessential Slow City. Yes, it was small and untouched by industry, and its meandering streets did have a certain charm. Tourists often stop here on their way to the Italian ski resort Madesimo or to St.-Moritz, just across the Swiss border; many visit the medieval San Lorenzo church. But Chiavenna also had a somewhat grittier appearance than the others: it's the last stop on the railway line, and it feels that way. With its half-timbered Alpine-style chalets and snowcapped mountain backdrop, Chiavenna doesn't even look classically Italian. Spaetzle and lager are as prominent on restaurant menus as pasta and red wine.
But Chiavenna has been touted as a Slow Cities success, having recently rescued from extinction its most treasured product, a cured goat's-leg ham known as violino di capra. In an effort to guarantee endangered dishes a place in the economy, Slow Cities encourages restaurants to carry regional cheeses, for example, and arranges for farmers to supply schools and hospitals with meals. Already, 109 products have been "saved" this way, among them violino. The ham gets its name from the way it is traditionally carved--held under the chin with one hand and sliced with a knife grasped, bow-like, by the other.
I had learned the history of violino that morning from the mayor, Teresa Tognetti, as we walked up Chiavenna's main street to visit Aldo Del Curto, a butcher instrumental in preserving the ham. Tognetti had been mayor for seven years, and people stopped her every 20 paces to say hello. Fifty years ago, she told me, violino was a celebrated dish. The goat legs were cured and stored for up to two months in deep grottoes in the nearby mountains. But demand for violino steadily decreased as Chiavennans chose the convenience of processed supermarket food. Today the grottoes are occupied by a string of restaurants.
"There was a great fear that violino would be lost. No one had ever recorded how to make it and only a few people in the town knew," Tognetti said. Its secret ingredient is the town's cool, bone-dry climate, which allows the goat's leg to cure and maintain its smooth texture. Even the next valley is too humid to dry the meat properly.
In 2000, Tognetti, along with a culinary search-and-rescue team from Slow Food, arranged a meeting between the area's goat farmers and the remaining five or so producers who still knew how to make violino. Together they perfected the recipe and wrote it down. Tognetti unveiled the violino program at Slow Food's Salone del Gusto festival and food lovers from all over Italy were soon contacting her in search of Chiavenna's celebrated dish. Today, there are plans to open a small factory that would produce officially sanctioned violino and provide jobs for the town. There are even goat farmers in Vermont who hope to replicate it.
When Tognetti and I arrived at the butcher shop, Aldo Del Curto ushered us in shyly. His family had been making violino for more than 100 years, he told me as he opened a large refrigerator to reveal a rack of freshly butchered goat meat. The pungent, gamy smell almost knocked me off my feet. The legs must be broken at the knee, he said cheerfully, to ensure that they dry in the right shape. Next, he led us downstairs to a large storage space where the goat legs are dipped in a dry salt rub before being placed in a wood smoker for up to two days. They are then cured for as long as two months in a special room before they are ready to eat.
Del Curto disappeared into the back of the store and returned with a goat leg in his hand. The ham, actually about the size of a viola, was covered in thick white mold, a by-product of the curing process. "In the old days, people would eat an entire violino with friends to celebrate a good hunting trip," Del Curto said. He picked up a thin knife and began carving the mold off the leg as if he were playing a violin. Soon, he was cutting thin strips of soft, dark meat and handing them to us.
I put a piece in my mouth. It tasted smoky and slightly salty--closer to venison than to prosciutto--and had a velvety texture. I imagined coming back from a particularly energetic afternoon of skiing, opening up a local white wine-- Del Curto said many people made the mistake of accompanying the ham with red, which kills the taste--and feasting on violino. I took another piece.
Later that day, I was confronted by the inquisitive reporter. Back in Positano, I had been the one asking for an explanation, but now I felt I could provide an answer. It's easier for outsiders, especially those who come from a place like New York, to appreciate a Slow City than it is for the citizens of Chiavenna, I told him. That's because the core values of small-town Italian life--the sense of community, the lack of stress, the guarantee of high-quality, healthful food--are intangible factors that people here have never had to do without. They can't foresee a time when their favorite café must close because Starbucks came to town. But anyone who has lived in even a small American city knows it can happen. Advocates like Lorenzo Cinque and Stefano Cimicchi push Slow Cities because they fear their own citizens' complacency.
"But isn't Slow Cities really just a marketing campaign to drum up tourism?" he shot back. That might be part of it, I had to agree. And it was hard to deny that increased tourism creates problems: traffic, noise, the corruption of cultural assets into commodities. But Chiavenna is clearly in no danger of becoming a goat's-leg theme park. Also, while Slow Cities encourages tourists--many of them, naturally, from the same country responsible for McDonald's--it softens their inevitable impact. What's more, it is hoped that those visitors will take a bit of the Slow life back home. By broadening the appeal of violino, Chiavenna isn't just working to preserve its place in an increasingly homogenized Italy. It's setting the standard for a way of life that can be appreciated all over the planet.
A Quick Guide to Slow Cities
The 23 current members, listed by region (18 other towns await certification):
Abruzzi: Francavilla al Mare
Campania: Caiazzo, Positano
Emilia-Romagna: Castelnovo ne'Monti, Zibello
Friuli-venezia Giulia: San Daniele
Lombardy: Abbiategrasso, Chiavenna, Teglio
Piedmont: Bra, Casalbeltrame, Chiaverano
Tuscany: Castelnuovo Berardenga, Cutigliano, Greve in Chianti, San Miniato, San Vincenzo, Suvereto
Umbria: Castiglione del Lago, Citti della Pieve, Orvieto
Slow Cities are required to:
· Maintain a population of less than 50,000
· Recycle, reduce pollutants from traffic and industry
· Encourage food production by natural, environmentally friendly techniques, and discourage the use of genetically modified ingredients in restaurants and schools
· Safeguard the production of local, traditional goods, which help maintain an area's cultural history
· Promote awareness among all citizens that they live in a Slow City, paying special attention to young people
· Promote hospitality and tourism as ways of spreading the Slow City message to the rest of the world
The Facts: Italy's Slow Cities
For more information on the Slow Cities movement, visit www.slowfood.com. This year's Orvieto con Gusto festival takes place October 5 through 13. The next Salone del Gusto, where violino di capra was unveiled, will be held in Turin October 24 through 28.
WHERE TO STAY
Albergo Casa Albertina 3 Via della Tavolozza; 39-089/875-143, fax 39-089/811-540; www.casalbertina.it; doubles from $165. Lorenzo Cinque's hotel, built into a 17th-century house, is more modest than Positano's grand resorts, but no less welcoming. The 20 rooms are saturated with deep reds and blues and have private verandas. Meals are served on a terrace overlooking the bay.
Le Sirenuse 30 Via Cristoforo Colombo; 39-089/ 875-066, fax 39-089/811-798; www.sirenuse.it; doubles from $372. One of the oldest, best-known, and best-positioned hotels in town, with a swimming pool, a candlelit dining room, and a new spa. Vietri tile floors and whitewashed walls give the 60 rooms a spare elegance; the antiques and artwork remind guests that their hosts, the Sersale family, descend from noble Neapolitan stock.
Il San Pietro di Positano 2 Via Laurito; 39-089/875-455, fax 39-089/811-449; www.ilsanpietro.it; doubles from $375. Mesa Verde on the Amalfi Coast: founder Carlo Cinque (no relation to Lorenzo) carved 60 exquisite rooms, each with a private balcony, into the cliffs just outside town, then added sun-filled terraces, fragrant gardens, and beach access--an elevator that descends through the rocks. Cinque's niece Virginia Attanasio continues the family tradition of indulgent hospitality.
WHERE TO EAT
Chez Black 19 Via del Brigantino; 39-089/875-036; dinner for two $78. The most popular place for seafood and pasta on Positano's beachfront piazza. Request a waterfront table for prime people-watching.
Ristorante Pupetto 37 Via Fornillo; 39-089/875-087; dinner for two $48. Another famous spot on the beach: sip an aperitif and have pizza ai frutti di mare.
WHERE TO STAY Grand Hotel Italia 13 Piazza del Popolo; 39-0763/342-065, fax 39-0763/342-902; www.bellaumbria.net/grand-hotel-italia; doubles from $92. Like most of Orvieto's hotels, this one is straightforward and mid-range. In a 19th-century building on a lively piazza, it has 44 nicely furnished, comfortable rooms.
Hotel Duomo 7 Vicolo di Maurizio; 39-0763/341-887, fax 39-0763/394-973; www.argoweb. it/hotel_duomo; doubles from $91. A recently renovated hotel, located hard by its namesake, that has a modern lobby and 18 rooms with contemporary sculptures by a local artist; several rooms have views of the spires.
WHERE TO EAT
Antica Cantina 18Ð19 Piazza Monaldeschi; 39-0763/344-746; dinner for two $36. Lucia Gismondi serves local delicacies as well as dishes from other regions, including lardo di Colonnata and mortadella di Bologna al tartufo, in two rustic rooms.
Ristorante I Sette Consoli 1A Piazza Sant'Angelo; 39-0763/343-911; dinner for two $80. Chef Anna Rita Simoncini, a member of Jeunes Restaurateurs d'Europe, offers creative Umbrian cuisine--such as roasted pigeon with liver, fennel, and balsamic vinegar--in a flower-filled garden and dining room that used to be part of the adjacent church.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Crimea 16 Viale Pratogiano; 39-0343/34343, fax 39-0343/35935; www.hotel-crimea.com; doubles from $63. A functional if plain three-star hotel with 30 rooms and a popular restaurant. A good bet in a town with few exceptional choices.
WHERE TO EAT
Crotto Torricelli 15 Via Picchi; 39-0343/36813; dinner for two $48. The best of the many restaurants that have taken over the natural grottoes where violino di capra was traditionally aged--and one of the places in town where you can sample it (fall through spring).
Ristorante Passerini 128 Via Dolzino; 39-0343/ 36166; dinner for two $60. More formal, with fine house-made pasta and local pork and lamb. Macelleria Del Curto Fratelli 129 Via Dolzino; 39-0343/32312. Butcher Aldo Del Curto sells authentic violino di capra, as well as other specialties such as bresaola cured in the same manner.