Monday, May 31, 2010

Lunedi Lunacy - Ain't Air Travel Fun?

Given that
a) I'm afraid of flying
b) you have to be at airports 2-3 hours ahead these days
c) most airports are miles from the city
d) Airline staff get nasty if you don't spend 25 minutes trying to figure out the Express Check-in machines
e) I prefer trains
f)You pay extra for almost everything,

its a wonder that I fly anywhere. But fly I do - Madrid, London, Palermo and Vienna so far this year - and on occasion I've used a low cost airline - some of you may recall the fun I had with my friends at Vueling on my trip to Madrid in January.

Now I know that Ryanair has had a lot of bad press but I must admit the flights I took with them to London - well okay 40 kms outside London - and back were fine. I mean I got there and back. The £5.00 sandwich was almost fresh and the £2.50 coffee with whitener was hot. And I did understand part of the safety announcement the young Russian flight attendant made - I think!

But someone has decided to go head to head in direct competition with them for, if nothing else, cheesy website and obscure city airports codes. Next time I think I'll take:

A left click will take you to their hundreds of obscure destinations and services that give "minimal" a new dimension. As my good friend Benjamin at Vueling told me: "Sir, you have to realize that the minute you book a ticket on a low cost airline you are getting what you pay for. We cut corners, its as simple as that. You can't expect service."

Many thanks to my opera colleague Faye for putting me on to this one.

31 maggio -Visitazione della Beata Vergine

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Salzburger Zeitung - An Overview with Dessert

Several people have asked when I will get around to writing about the various events of this year's Whitsun Festival. I been working on postings but unlike in the past two years I found that there was nothing that really grabbed me that motivated me to write with great enthusiasm. Not that any of the performances were bad - far from it, just that they did not generate the same excitement as in previous years. We didn't have a Andreas Scholl or Phillippe Jaroussky to dazzle us; nor my friends from Accordone to share their wonderful visions of Napoli; nor did Fabio Bondi unwrap another forgotten gem for us. And though Riccardo Muti did bring his incredible talents and those of his Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini to a relatively unknown Mozart piece he, for reasons that I'm sure are valid, felt that Jommelli was worthy of our attention once again this year.

I will have a few thoughts and opinions on the Festival posted shortly but in the meantime I thought I post a few photos of our favorite bartender Gunther serving us desert on Monday night.

Laurent had joking asked for a Baked Alaska, Gunther decided that Salzburger Nockerl would be the closest we'd come to it.

A 7 egg souffle, laced with vanilla sugar and cream then sauced with cranberry compote it was the perfect end to our last meal of the visit.

Looking at the line up for next year's Whitsun Festival does not exactly have me rushing at this point to book seats; though at the suggestion of genial host at the Hotel Bristol we are investigating the Mozart Week in January. The programme looks very interesting and it would be a great opportunity to see Salzburg in Winter and have another helping of Salzburger Nockerl.

27 maggio - Sant'Agostino di Canterbury

Sunday, May 23, 2010

And Here's Captain Von Trapp

Me and Riccardo - two current fixtures at the Whitsun Festival - except he runs it and has more talent (and money) than I every will.

I don't normally put photos of myself up on the blog - there are much prettier things that I take pictures of in my travels. However - and you knew there had to be a however I will make an exception in this case.

I have lost a fair bit of weight in the last year - about 8 kilos I would say. Though the initials reasons were not necessary good the result has been to my benefit. For a while there I was getting the look of an Irish Priest on a Saturday night and this was not a good thing. Unfortunately what it has meant is that most of my clothes don't fit me anymore - I tend to look like I've borrowed my older brother's stuff. This is particularly true of my dark suit and my tuxedo. So the only solution - buy a new suit. Which I did - the tuxedo we will leave for now I don't wear one often enough to go and invest in another one. A lovely dark gray pin strip, however its very light, summer weight and creases beautifully, particularly in a suitcase.

Now I know that's a poor excuse for me doing more clothes shopping but it was raining in Vienna last week and there wasn't much else to do other than shop - honest there is nothing in that city! Well okay a few museums, some coffee houses, a clutch of palaces, the Lipizzaner Horses, the Vienna Boys Choir, the Statsoper, the Volksoper - but I mean other than that nothing!

So we stopped into a Trachten shop and I saw this jacket I liked, but it really didn't look right without the vest, and then there was this nice blue checked shirt and dark pink tie (hey it works here so back off...) tie and really none of the pants I had with me would work with the jacket. And the next day there was this shirt and tie combination that was killer and really I only had one that would go with the ... oh shut up, its all rationalization but it works for me.
And here's Laurent and I at our favorite table in the Sketch Bar of the Hotel Bristol. Gunther sets it up for us every evening and the food and service are so good we can't see why we would bother going any place else.

So for the past few evenings and mornings (you dress for the morning concerts here) I've been dressing up like I'm with a road show company of Sound of Music - and no I'm not playing the Mother Superior!!! And its one of the most comfortable suits I've ever worn. And it doesn't look half bad. And it was rather funny to be stopped on the street last night and asked for directions in German!

And that's it for pictures of me!

23 maggio - San Desiderio di Langres

Salzburger Zeitung - Edition III

Though it is always wonderful to discover new places – the glorious few days in Palermo springs immediately to mind – going back to the familiar is equally as satisfying. It was my blog buddy Opera Chic who introduced me to the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. Oh I knew it existed but it was her reports on the 2007 event – the first under Riccardo Muti – that piqued my interest and got me to thinking about attending in 2008. This is the third year that we've head north to Austria, the banks of the Salzach and the warmth of Bazar Tost and coffee mit schlag.

The past two years our trip has taken us by train up through Northern Italy – Trento, Balzano – and we had decided to follow that same pattern this year. However the newly restrictive – only regional trains going north of Verona – train schedules meant a change of plans and I popped a pill and boarded a flight to Vienna Wednesday and after a few days in Vienna we boarded a train for Salzburg.

Austria is a country that I have had a love-hate relationship with since my first visit to Salzburg back in 1969. There are events of recent history that I find difficult to reconcile with a country of such beauty, history and culture. And I still recall an episode on that first visit to Salzburg that made me aware of how geographically close Berchtesgarden was. But I also have such good memories of three seasons at the summer festival in the glory days of the early 70s and the past few years that I have been able to share the town with Laurent, so maybe its time to forget what happened all those years ago.

Opened in 1903 the Bristol stands where once a palace of the brother of the Prince Archbishop Wolf-Dietrich lived. It has been owned and operated by the Hubner family for the past 75 years and the tradition continues, Frau Dokter Hubner retired this year and has turned the managing over to her son. It is one of my favorite hotels in the world for so many reasons but mostly because of the people.

And staying with the familiar we have settling into the Hotel Bristol once again, the Tuscany Room, same lovely room as last year and giving ourselves over to the care of the wonderful staff - though we were sadden to hear that at 70 the Frau Dokter decided to retire and leave the running of the hotel to her son. Her animated presence always added to the home-like atmosphere. But the front desk staff has remained unchanged - welcoming and friendly and our favourite barman Gunther is still doing what he does so well - tending bar, making warm, funny conversation and making you feel that you are at home. In a conversation with Frau Dokter last year she said that the secret to her success was always her staff. During hiring process she would conduct several interviews and see if the candidate was the type of person who honestly liked people. Because, she said, she could train anyone to do anything in the hotel business but liking people could not be taught. Her people like people.

The Festival this year is following the normal pattern of several concerts book-ended on the Friday and Monday by two works conducted by its artistic director Riccardo Muti (pictured at the left) with his Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra. Both are settings of Betulia liberata by Pietro Metastasio, the great Italian author of over 150 opera librettist. It recounts the Old Testament story of Judith and the beheading of the tyrant Holfernes. The first version is a staged opera by Mozart written when he was still in the womb or shortly after delivery and never performed in his life time. The second is an oratorio to the same libretto by Niccolo Jommelli, a Napoletano composer of an earlier period. Frankly last year I was underwhelmed by his opera seria Demofoonte so it will be interesting to hear how he's oratorio stacks up against a young Mozart.

In Salzburg if it isn't Mozart, then it Sound of Music; if it isn't Sound of Music then its Amadeus. I'm not sure if the Capezzoli di Venere that Saleri talks about when he attempts to seduce Constanze in the movie really were a known confection in those days - but they are now. And they come in pairs.

Saturday was a busy day: a morning violin concert of music by various Napoletani at 1100, a performance of a Hasse cantata lead by Fabio Bondi with Vivica Genaux and Desiree Rancatore, two bright lights in the opearatic firmament at 1830 and then at 2200 an Italian silent movie classic Napoli e une canzone (Naples is a Song) with live musical accompaniment. We left the Hasse at the halfway point - more about that later - but I am fighting a cold and the hall was hot. It is uncomfortable and I was subject to some coughing fits. So we headed back to the hotel and Gunther served us a nice supper at our regular table in the hotel bar. After the movie he whipped up a hot toddy that if it did not cure my cold certainly put me to sleep.

Sunday morning brought a remarkable concert of sacred music by Les Arts Florissants and the Festival comes to an end with Monday morning's performance by Muti. This year rather than rushing to catch a train after the morning concert we'll spend Monday in Salzburg and return to Vienna Tuesday morning. It should be a rather peaceful day in the town as Whit Monday is a major holiday in Austria. Most businesses will be closed and many of the festival goers will have left though between music festivals, Mozart and the Sound of Music its a wonder there is ever an off-season in Salzburg. Though Gunther tells us that the hotel closes between the end of January - the close of Mozart Week - and Easter as there is almost no business at that time.

It seems there is always the sound of music in Salzburg - and no I don't mean the Doe a Deer thing - it may be a one man band playing near the bridge, or one of those ubiquitous Peruvian flute groups but more likely it will be a brass band on a Sunday morning in the Mirabel Gardens or maybe just the bells sounding the hour or celebrations. At 1500 yesterday the bells of the Franzikarnerk rang to celebrate a wedding - next thing I knew the Cathedral bells had joined in - and then those of St. Peter's. It was a glorious cacophony of peels.

I'll be writing about the various events and goings on in the next few days - sort of like this cold - in drips and dribbles. Which is probably not a word picture you really needed! Meanwhile Gunther has delivered one of his signature hot toddies ... so here's looking up your old address and down the hatch!

23 maggio - Pentecoste

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Rain Day in Wein

My friend Fotis just returned from several days in Vienna and spent most of the time - when he wasn't in the Opera House - huddled under an umbrella. We were hoping that the weather would have improved when we arrived. Unfortunately it was still rain, rain and more rain with no sun in the forecast! We head over to Salzburg this morning and to more of the same. And the forecast doesn't hold promise for the next few days. I blame it all on Iceland!

But even in the rain Vienna has its charms and shop windows with displays of ...

Killer cupcakes and cookies ...

Killer cakes and pastries ...

Killer shoes - for the fashion setters ...

Killer shirt and tie combinations ...

21 maggio - San Cristóbal Magallanes Jara

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Life's Little Inequalities

Just imagine your rather well known in the music world then along comes this little kid who starts getting all the attention. He's your little brother and you love him but he's a foul-mouthed spoiled little brat. Not only that you're forced into marriage, your talents and career sidelined and the kid goes on to eventual fame if not fortune.

Than in the nutshell is the story of Nannerl Mozart's life. Mozart's older sister she had a career of her own until little Wolfie came along and spoiled everything. Sitting on the laps of Kings, Queens and Emperors, simpering in his playpen as he composes a few symphonies, or the odd cantata and then polishing off an opera between games of stick ball and hop-scotch and everyone thinks he's the greatest.

Hell they even have this fancy statute to him in the Burg Park in Vienna - mind you they waited until he had been dead a while before they all of a sudden came over all proud of him.

So where's the statue to Nannerl? How do they remember her in Vienna?
As coffee, lemon and peppermint schnapps!!!!! Is that anyway to be remembered? Oh the bitterness of it all. Enough to make a girl turn to drink.

But wait a minute there on the shelf just above - wouldn't you know he'd be on the upper shelves - what's this? Why its a sweet named after little Wolfie: Mozartkugeln.
Better known to the locals as - snigger, snort - Mozart's Balls! Maybe coffee schnapps isn't such a bad thing after all.

20 maggio - San Bernadino da Siena

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An Update for Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Pervy

Its very quiet around here right now. The Hounds from Hell have been sent off to boarding school for the next week as Laurent and I head up for our annual Whitsun trip to Salzburg. Its very, very quiet around here - not sure I like that!
Our friend Jack took most of the photos of Nicky and Nora when he was here at the beginning of April. The Deadly Duo didn't mind posing for a few shots for their fans.

Nicky and Nora both turned a year old in March – Nora, as you may recall, is a week older than Nicky. We were going to have a birthday party but there's a bit of a problem: our Nicky is terrified of other dogs. Oh he's all bravado, bark and snap when he first sees them but the running in terror when they accept the challenge is heart rending. Yelping piteously he immediately seeks the protection of one of us. Nora is a little braver and a few Sundays ago at the farm even tried to join in the other kids' games. So this year the party was a bit low keyed: them and us, an extra few biscuits and quite a few more hugs and cuddles -if that is possible.

Nora and Nicky show off their lovely collars sent to them by Aunt Cecilla. We were hoping they would grow into them but we finally had to have them altered to fit. As befits a young lady Nora, and in honour of their favorite scarlet lady, wears the snappy red one and Nicky sports the green one that he thinks set his eyes off perfectly.

It hardly seems a year since we first saw the little bundles of fluff that were to change our life style so radically. They have both grown though sadly neither one grew fully into those beautiful collars their Aunt Cecilia sent them. But as the pictures will attest we had the collars altered to fit them and they now proudly show them off to all and sundry. Next week we are having the tags engraved with their names.
Nora was frankly very leery of our friend Jack when he approached her with his super duper zoom lens does everything but pop corn camera. She figured it was going to flash the way that silly one does that I am forever pointing at her.

Our Nora is a chunky girl – not fat understand, just big boned bespeaking her Hungarian heritage. She's also very cuddly and loves nothing more than giving kisses. Nicky is pencil thin in the style of his Italian parentage and always will be from the looks of it. Oh he eats but he's sleek and slender by nature- the perfect Armani model. And to suggest that he is a bit high-strung – well understatement is always advisable. There are, as at least one of the oriental carpets can attest, territorial concerns and the pack positions are still an issue. The fights can sound ferocious – Nora has a big growl for a little girl – and there is much leg, tail and scruff biting with the odd water break or things come to a standstill after the nipping elicits a loud yelp.

Nicky has been learning his posses by watching the Fashion Channel. If in doubt flash them the profile - that gets them every time.

And training daschies is always an issue – they are bright but stubborn. And Nicky took me completely by surprise last week when he suddenly got the whole idea behind “down”. It came as a complete shock. He and I were out for a walk – because he tends to be more aggressive when Nora is around, protecting his “bitch” we've been told - we often walk them alone. Out of the blue I decided to try a few of the training commands – sit, stay and down. Miraclo! He did all three – perfectly and stayed down until I gave the “ok”. We tried it 10 times during that walk until I finally got a very exasperated look that suggested “basta” enough was enough – point proven I can do it!

Nora really doesn't understand the point of this whole “sit, stay, down”. Oh she can do it, she just doesn't see why she should. Nor does she understand why both food dishes can't be her's – I mean if he doesn't want it why let it go to waste?
Nora knows the angles that show off her best features - like that rubbable pink tummy. And it sort of flashes the red collar to!

In North American the best known breeds of daschie are the standard (like our girl Bundnie) or Long Haired (like my best buddy Reesie), the wire-haired is less well known.. However here in Italy they are fairly common (I'm sorry Nora I know there's nothing common about you baby, nor our boy Nicky, its just a turn of phrase). Of the three types they are the ones most frequently used for hunting and one of the reasons – aside from their tracking abilities, tenacity and ferociousness – was because of their thick water-proof coats. The wire-haired actually has two coats – a soft short undercoat like the smooth daschie and that thicker coarser top coat. Often the colour of the two coats is different – as indeed it is with both Nicky and Nora. This changes their appearance as the top coat grows. That top coat has to be stripped every so often to allow the undercoat to breath and frankly to lessen the appearance of being an unmade bed. The last time the kids were coiffed was sometime back in late October so it was time in early April that they paid a visit to their barber to have that top coat stripped. It is possible – in fact it is mandatory for show dogs – to hand strip the coat but that's a long and laborious job. Just getting the dog to stay still as you tug at lose hair can be a challenge and with those two would be a major campaign.
Sunshine and puppies - two of my favorite things!

A few weeks ago when Laurent and I were spending a weekend in Palermo our friends Catherine and her mom Jocelyn took care of the kids. I was absolutely stunned when Catherine told me she had taken them on not one but two bus rides and that they had behaved like perfect little angels. Laurent and I are fast coming to the conclusion that perhaps permissive parenting is causing the little spurts (both figuratively and literally) of misbehaving that seem to happen when we are around.

And these have to be my two favorite photos of my little Hounds from Hell. It wasn't posed - I found them that way in the den one afternoon. They weren't very happy when I woke them. Poor Nicky often goes frantic when Nora isn't around - Nora could care less one way or the other. Heartless female!

18 maggio - San Leonardo Murialdo

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hidden Treasures - La Farmacia di Santa Maria della Scala

The sales room of the Farmacia di S. Maria della Scala - basically unchanged since the 1700s and finally closed as a business in 1954.

It was once the centre of community life in Trastevere – a place where people went to find cures for what ailed them, to get medical advise, to make appointments to see the doctors in the area or just to compare aches and pains. After almost 400 years of serving as the local pharmacy for Rione VIII the Spezieria di S. Maria della Scala closed its doors in 1954.
A poster from 1895 advertising the benefits and availability of the Farmacia's famous Aqua Antipestilenziale (a great disinfectant) and Aqua di Melissa (just the thing to calm hysteria).

When the church was built in the 1590s on the orders of Clement VIII a convent was constructed adjacent to it to accommodate eighty friars of the Order of Barefoot Carmelites. As was required by the rules of the Order the monastery included a pharmacy for the growing of herbs for medicinal purposes. At first it was for the use of the brothers only but eventually, as with most farmacia, it became open to the public. In the 1700s as well as serving the Rione it became the Papal pharmacy. The sole task of the friars other than prayer was to cultivate plants, study their medicinal purposes and treat the sick. Their research and knowledge lead to the creation of a school, for both the religious and laity. A painting in the pharmacy shows Saint Basil of the Conception teaching a group of disciples – perhaps he is showing them how to make the farmacia's renowned products: l’acqua antipestinenziale and l’acqua antiisterica di S. Maria della Scala. Or their famous l'acqua di Melissa, the perfect cure for hysteria, which is still available for sale.

The Farmacia has only recently been reopened to the public by appointment only as a historical site, the good brothers now leave pharmaceuticals to others. As I mentioned the day we went there had been some confusion but finally a rather sweet chubby bespectacled young monk let us in and gave us a tour of the sales room, office and laboratories. Unfortunately photographs were not allowed so the photos here are scans of postcards, posters and borrowings from an article in Observatorio Romano.
Except for the addition of a few new fangled contraptions like the telephone, the sales room has not changed much since the 1700. A portrait of Saint Teresa of Avila, the founder of the order, looks over a room decorated with trompe d'oiel, gleaming wooden cabinets and the paraphernalia of the trade

One of the most famous products of the old Farmacia was an snake venom antidote known as Theriaca and said to be the creation of Andromache the doctor of Nero. It was manufactured up until the middle of the 1900s and was a blend of 57 different essences including the flesh of a male viper – which had to have lived far enough away from the sea to have had no contact with salt. "I viperai" were men who captured and milked the snakes for their venom as well as obtaining the viper flesh for the brothers – its a profession that has gone out of fashion in the last little while. There is still a sample of the concoction kept in a large stone pot (in the picture right) strategically placed in front of a window according to the instructions in the original recipe. The decor has remained largely unchanged since the 1800s – some decorations date back to the 1700s – with all the old scales, mortars, pestles, glass jars of herbal essences and equipment of the trade in their proper place. There are a few new fangled items such as a crank telephone but really little had changed in two centuries. One item that caught my attention was a serious of eye-high drawers with a doctors name on each one. Patients would come into the Pharmacy and leave their name and a description of their problem for their doctor, who would pick them up, perhaps dropping into see the person if it was felt necessary or often just leaving a prescription for their aliment.

The portraits of worthy royal patrons adorn the insides of the storage cabinets including Vittorio Emanuele I and Maria Theresa of Austria, to commemorate their visit in 1802. Another pair of doors depicts Umberto I, Prince of Piedmont and the Duchess Helen of Aosta, regular clients of the pharmacy.

The storage room was particularly fascinating with its wall of cupboards, the doors painted with miniatures of the famous apothecaries and men of medicine throughout history. But more charmingly the insides bear portraits of various members of Italian royalty who endowed hospitals or patronized the Farmacia. When the Papacy was crushed the task of running hospitals became the responsibility of the state. Though it is perhaps unfair to question the charity of the ladies of the House of Savoy, their work amongst the poor and sick were necessary if the people were to accept the idea of an Italian Royal family.

Going into the laboratories could be mistaken for a trip into a papal torture chamber – cauldrons, presses, centrifuges, bottlers and all manner of strange instruments including a machine for shaping pills. Even the young monk was a bit pressed to explain the use of some of the more complicated or esoteric contraptions – after all the pharmacy has ceased operation long before he was born and many of the old methods of treatment have faded from use.

Over the door of the entrance is a motto extolling the monks to treat the whole person that comes to them with ailments – treat the body but never forget to also treat the soul. Perhaps one of the old methods that could do with revival today.

17 maggio - San Pasquale Baylón Yubero

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hidden Treasures - A Morning in Trastevre - Part 1

One of the joys of living here - dear lord it has been almost three years! - is discovering the hidden treasures around the city. Those slightly off the beaten path places which are perhaps more a reflection of the life and history of Roma than what most people see. Many of these treasures are generally off-limits or not open to the public except by appointment. Others are just generally unknown, even to Romans. I'm lucky that early on in my stay here I became acquainted with a dear friend.  She is an accomplished art historian who has lived here for the past 40 years, and much of that time has been spent organizing and leading walks of venues around the city and beyond. Her knowledge is encyclopedic and a morning spent with her is a guaranteed treat. And she seems to get me into the most intriguing places.

A few months back on a rainy February morning we went over to Trastevere (literally Over the Tiber) to visit the local museum, the Church of Santa Maria della Scala and the Farmacia Antica which was run by the monks there for centuries. Being Italy there was a mix up in the times for the visit to the Farmacia but she worked it out with a very obliging, charming, chubby young monk. He not only opened the Farmacia but turned on the lights in the church so we could see it in its full splendor.

Trastevere is more than the streets, bars and trattorias around Santa Maria in Trastevere which are the main focus for most tourists. It is very much a neighbourhood of alleyways and byways, small shops, bars and everyday Romans going about their business. I go over to that side of the river once a week for an appointment and now have a favorite bar where I don't even had to give them my order any more. As I become more familiar with the area I can understand the attraction it has for so many of my friends.

Looking down the street from Santa Maria della Scala (top) towards the old protective walls and the Porta Settimiana - a new wall built by Urban VIII meant that the old walls no longer served as protection and this gate at Via della Lungara was left open at night. As with so many Roman neighbourhoods most of the buildings date back for centuries (chances are that brick wall in the middle photo dates from the 12-13th century if not earlier) - they've been altered, added to, repaired, destroyed and rebuilt. But through it all one thing has not been changed - looking out the window and watching the world go by.

Though the organ loft is splendid, the church itself is perhaps remarkable more for what it doesn't contain than what it does. At one point in time a papal lawyer had commissioned Caravaggio to paint The Death of the Virgin to adorn his chapel in the church. Unfortunately the cadaver that the painter choose as his model was that of a notorious prostitute who had, in a drunken stupor, fallen into the river and drowned. The good barefoot brothers (Discalced Carmelites) were scandalized and refused to hang the painting, substituting for it a rather bland handling of the subject by Carlo Saraceni. Caravaggio's work now hangs in the Louvre after a rather checkered ownership which included the English king, Charles I. If only those poor brothers had realized it would have become a tourist gold mine a few centuries later I'm sure they would have kept it.

The interior of the church is fairly representative of many churches in Rome except for that elaborate organ loft. I'm not sure if the organ is still played or even playable. So often in churches here they are simply hollow shells that have gone untouched for years.

As it is the church is seldom visited except for pilgrims wishing to catch a glimpse of the miraculous icon that gives the church its name. The real hidden treasure is the Farmacia attached to it. I'll be posting a bit about it in the next day or two.

12 maggio - San Pancrazio