Category: History

Aletría – History in a pan

Stopping to look, I find traces of Murcia’s history everywhere—in crumbling bits of medieval wall around the city; in ruins beneath the cathedral; in my husband’s black hair and olive skin; in my son’s deep-as-midnight eyes; and, especially, in local foods like aletría.

Aletría—saffron-seasoned pasta cooked in the same pan with short ribs, artichokes, tomatoes, red peppers and potatoes—reveals layers of the past just as an archaeological excavation would.

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The name aletría comes from an Arabic word for dried pasta, iṭriyah, and the dish is very similar to ittrilla, which appears in an anonymous thirteenth century cookbook from Al-Andalus. In the medieval version, noodles simmer in a broth made with fat-rich cuts of meat and seasonings like salt, pepper and coriander; before serving, the dish gets sprinkled with cinnamon and ginger.

Today, the foundation is the same—you cook the noodles in a flavorful meat broth—but the dish has dropped most of the Moorish seasonings and taken on ingredients that reflect new rulers, like pork, and New World discoveries, like tomatoes.

I found myself thinking about the layers of aletría on a recent visit to my favorite museum in Murcia, the Museo de Santa Clara, which provides another way to look at the city’s strata.

The museum is part of a working convent, where a handful of elderly nuns continue to live in their cloistered community. Like many religious buildings in Murcia, the convent was constructed on top of Moorish remains, in this case a luxurious palace to different Arab rulers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

On the ground floor, devoted to Murcia’s Islamic past, I gazed upon remnants of the palace and reconstructions of intricate archways and a Moorish garden with a reflecting pool. Upstairs, I soaked in the history of the convent and its patron, Saint Clare of Assisi.

As I looked at the layers, I could see all of the forces that had shaped the city, and dishes like aletría, more clearly.

Here were the foundations of my son’s gaze and the basic building blocks of this stew that has nourished Murcia for generations.

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Aletría

To make aletría, you follow the same basic techniques used in making paella – the pasta cooks in the pan with the vegetables and meat, soaking up flavor of the broth – but this dish is more forgiving, because it is easier to overcook rice than pasta.

A similar dish minus the bell peppers, artichokes and potatoes, called fideos a la cazuela, is made in other parts of Spain.

The final amount of water you need depends on many factors, such as the speed of the boil, the surface area of your pan and the exact amount of pasta you use. Add more hot water as needed to keep the ingredients just barely submerged. The final dish should be nearly dry rather than soupy. The cooking times are approximate, too. It may take more time, for instance, for the meat to become tender and the potatoes to cook.

  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided (plus more as needed)
  • 1 red pepper, cut into thick strips
  • 2-3 artichokes, cleaned and quartered
  • 1 medium or 2 small potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes (not so little that they’ll disintegrate into the stew), then rinsed in water until the water runs clear
  • ½ kilo (1 lb) short ribs, cut into 1 ½-inch lengths
  • 2 tomatoes, cut crosswise and grated down to the skin using the large holes of a box grater
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • Powdered yellow food coloring (optional – see notes)
  • 1 lb (500 g) thick fideos (see notes)

The first step is to sear all of the ingredients separately to concentrate the flavors. Heat 2 tbsp oil over medium-low heat in a heavy casserole or deep skillet. Add the red pepper strips and a pinch of salt. Cook the peppers, turning them frequently, until they have softened and are lightly brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. If the peppers brown too quickly before softening, lower the heat. Remove the peppers from the skillet and set aside.

Raise the heat to medium, add another tablespoon of olive oil, the artichoke quarters and a pinch of salt. Sauté the artichokes until they are lightly browned on all sides and begin to soften, about five minutes. Remove the artichokes with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil if necessary, the cubed potatoes and a pinch of salt and sauté until lightly golden on all sides. Remove and set aside.

Generously season the ribs with salt and pepper. Once again, if there is not much olive oil left in the pan, add another tablespoon and increase the heat to medium-high. Sauté the ribs until they are nicely browned on all sides, turning frequently. The idea is not to cook the ribs, but to sear them and seal in the juice and flavor.

Once the ribs are browned, reduce the heat to medium, stir in the minced garlic and cook for a minute or two until the garlic is fragrant. Add the grated tomato and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato has lost much of its water, about five minutes. Cover the meat with water (about 2 cups/500 ml) and stir in the pinch of saffron and powdered yellow food coloring, if using. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat until the water simmers steadily. Cook uncovered until the ribs are nearly tender, about 20 minutes, then add the artichokes and potatoes. Add more water to cover if needed and more salt to taste. Continue simmering until the potato is half-way cooked (about 10 to 15 minutes).

Add another 2 cups/500 ml of water to the pan and bring to a boil. Stir in the pasta and red pepper and reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Taste the broth for salt, adding more as needed. Cook the pasta uncovered until it is al dente (about 11 minutes – follow the instructions on the package). Add more hot water as needed as you cook to keep the ingredients submerged. The final stew should not be soupy, but it should have a bit of broth. Remove the pan from the heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

Notes: In Spain, use No. 2 fideos, or break long, thin pasta such as spaghetti into one-inch (2.5-cm) lengths. My mother-in-law adds a handful of pasta per person plus an extra handful “for the pot”.

Since saffron is a luxury ingredient, many home cooks in Spain rely on a sprinkling of powdered yellow food coloring to give dishes like paella and aletría a desirable sunny color that would take far too much of the exquisite spice to obtain.

Easter Impressions

Thinking back, what does Easter evoke for you? For me it is baked ham and hot cross buns. It is also egg coloring kits, with their flimsy wires for dipping and the dyes that smelled of vinegar. It is a new dress and a brunch buffet with my Nana in the bright atrium of an Orlando hotel. It is roasted lamb carved under the warm red light of heat lamps and served with clover green jelly.

And I couldn’t leave out the Easter Bunny, who would hide my colored eggs around the house and leave me baskets filled with treats. There were pastel pink and yellow marshmallow Peeps, Reese’s peanut butter-filled eggs and a big milk chocolate bunny, which I usually ate ears first. After collecting the obvious prizes, I would weed through the tangled plastic strips of Easter grass in the basket to make sure not one jelly bean had been left behind.

Here in Spain, my childhood Easter feels lifetimes away. There are no egg hunts or Easter grass or chocolates with peanut butter centers. The Easter Bunny is a curiosity at best.

So what will my son Mateo’s Easter memories be? At two and a half, he is at an age where lasting memories are beginning to take shape. Here are some of the sights, sounds and flavors forming his early Easter impressions in Murcia.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions in Murcia

Semana Santa in Murcia is a festive and colorful time of year that is magical for children. The Semana Santa processions are the heart of the magic. I know this in part through my friends who remember the awe they felt and want their own children to experience the same. I have also seen the amazement in Mateo’s eyes as the processions pass by, with their trademark drum beats that he has been practicing on his toy drum ever since Good Friday (parrúm, parrúm, parrúm púm púm).

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Nazarenos in the Good Friday procession

Instead of the Easter Bunny, the main protagonists of the season here are the nazarenos (Nazarenes). While historically speaking, Nazarene was a term used to refer to Jesus and early Christians, in a modern context in Spain, nazarenos are Semana Santa procession participants.

They are also the subject of seasonal arts and crafts for kids, such as the “nazarenos” Mateo brought home from nursery school:

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Mateo alternately calls the nazarenosReyes,” the kings who bring children gifts on January 6, and “marcianos” (aliens). To him, the nazarenos are larger than life.

Local pride

Semana Santa processions take place throughout Spain, all to commemorate the final days of Jesus’ life and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. The nazarenos are also known as penitentes (penitents), marching to atone for their sins.

Yet, despite the evident religious themes of sorrow and guilt, most of the processions (in Murcia at least) are lively social events that pack streets with multiple generations out to see and be seen, to soak in the nostalgia and to pass it on to the children.

The processions in Murcia have several features that distinguish them from other processions in Spain, including the rhythm of drum beats and the fact that all of the pasos (floats) are still carried by man power alone (in other parts of Spain, at least some muscle power has been replaced by wheels and a chassis).

Another highlight of the Murcia processions is the large number of floats made by Francisco Salzillo, a native of the city and one of the most famous sculptors of religious themes in the 18th century. The expressions on the faces of his sculptures are searing. It is impossible not to be impressed.

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The pictures here are from the procession on the morning of Good Friday, one of the most popular processions for families. This procession is often referred to simply as “los Salzillos,” for it contains some of the artist’s most famous works, such as The Fall above and the Last Supper below, which weighs a whopping 1,301 kg (over 2,800 pounds)! Those who carry the floats (currently all men) are known as estantes, which in other contexts, fittingly, means “shelf.”

The Last Supper is carried by 28 estantes (who must shoulder roughly 100 pounds a piece) along a route that lasts about five hours. They of course rest from time to time, propping the float on special staffs, and each float has extra estantes who rotate in and out of carrying duty. Nevertheless, the route is exhausting. Talk about penance! The same men carry the same floats year after year, in many cases like their fathers and grandfathers before them.

From our front row seats we could see the fine details of Salzillo’s sculptures as well as the excruciating looks on the faces of the float bearers, adding to the emotion of the event.

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From a child’s point of view, however, the most appealing distinguishing feature of the Easter processions in Murcia is candy. Murcia is the only place in Spain where the nazarenos hand out copious (some say excessive) amounts of candy to onlookers, particularly to children.

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These are not fat nazarenos – instead the bulges you see are filled with candy and other gifts and treats.

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Mateo receiving candy from a young nazareno

Several theories exist as to the origins of the centuries-old tradition of candy in the processions in Murcia. One is that these offerings started as a gesture of repentance. Many nazarenos march with their faces covered, so the idea is that they could anonymously offer goods to anyone they had harmed. Today, however, they are most likely to give the treats hidden in their tunics to family, friends and children.

The other theory is particular to the estantes, the float bearers, who need fuel to complete their grueling task. Although food was generally prohibited in the processions, the Church allowed these men to eat, so they stuffed their tunics with provisions for themselves and their friends, including foods like fresh fava beans, hard-cooked eggs and monas de pascua, traditional Easter pastries I wrote about several years back. All of these foods are still popular with nazarenos today.

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A mona with a quail egg on top

This was Mateo’s third year attending a Semana Santa procession but his first year actually eating the treats. Needless to say, he loved it. In his mind, nazareno equals drums and candy.

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Hands full

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A nazareno-shaped lollipop

Which of my Easter traditions will I share with Mateo? The Easter Bunny has yet to make it to our house, and I’m not sure if he will as long as we are living in Spain. It’s not as though Mateo needs more candy.

And little by little, my own traditions are evolving. Now that I have lived in Murcia for over seven years, it just isn’t Easter to me without at least one Semana Santa procession, as long as it includes a good dose of sugar, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One a Penny, Two a Penny… Monas de Pascua!

[Murcia’s] unique Holy Week…is made up of little gestures and familiar movements, of the comings and goings of the nazarenos (penitents) dressed in red or purple (the nazareno colorao or the nazareno morado), who step out from under the floats they carry, momentarily passing the weight to their friends, to place a beautiful mona de pascua in the trembling hands of a child.

These words penned by Murcian author Juan García Abellan in his ode to the city and its food, Murcia, entre bocado y trago (1965), resonate for anyone who has been to a Holy Week procession in Murcia. Here, the pace and drumbeat of the daily marches leading up to Easter are as solemn as in other parts of Spain, yet a festive ambiance reigns at several of the city’s most celebrated processions. This is particularly true for children, who, like the child in the quote, gaze up in awe and expectation at the hooded nazarenos. Local children know – and have known for generations – that the striking robed figures, many with their faces covered, are not to be feared, for they come bearing gifts – candies, eggs, and for the lucky few, monas de pascua.

This penitent (a nazareno morado) is not as fat as he looks – most of that bulge hanging over his belt is in fact space for treats like candy and goody bags, often containing mini monas, to be handed out along the procession route.

The mona de pascua is an Easter pastry found in several regions of Spain, most notably in Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia. (In these areas, the mona is as typical as hot cross buns, hence the title of this post.) In its most traditional version, the kind typically found in Murcia, the mona de pascua is a sweet bread roll (not dissimilar from hot cross buns, in fact) topped with a hard-boiled egg, itself topped with a cross shaped from dough.

Traditionally, the mona de pascua was eaten on Easter Sunday or the following Monday, marking the end of Lent. In the past, eggs, considered akin to meat, were among the forbidden foods of this period of abstinence. Eggs – representative of fertility, birth and resurrection – are also, of course, a powerful symbol for this time of year. It’s no wonder that eggs (especially hard-boiled – a means to preserve the inevitable yields in the henhouse) play such an important role in many Easter customs around the world.

Certain communities in and around Murcia still refer to the Monday after Easter “el día de la mona,” Mona Day, and many families ritually take to the countryside on this day for a picnic starring monas de pascua. Yet the mona has become a common treat to be enjoyed throughout the entire week leading up to Easter. Monas – either full-size with a chicken egg or mini with a quail egg – are a favorite snack for the lengthy Holy Week processions, welcome fuel for spectators and marchers alike.

As is the case with many long-standing food traditions, the mona de pascua in and of itself has become an essential symbol of the season, and not just for religious reasons. It also represents the generosity of spring, reflected in Murcia’s giving Holy Week processions.

Monas de Pascua

This is my fourth Easter in Murcia, and I have begun to feel twinges of nostalgia for this seasonal pastry, meaning Semana Santa is just not complete without a mona de pascua. This is the first year I decided to make them myself, wanting to share with friends and family near and far the spirit of the season in Murcia.

Monas really do remind me of hot cross buns in flavor and texture, and the dough is actually quite similar, although monas in Murcia are typically made with a mild-flavored olive oil instead of butter and contain a hint of orange blossom water, like a southern breeze.

The resulting pastry is characteristically dry, perfect for dunking. The recipe writers on the Region of Murcia’s website offer the following solution: “As the dough is a little dry, some kind of liquid accompaniment is appropriate. This could be mistela (a sweet wine like muscat) for adults and milk for children. Adding a bit of chocolate makes the monas irresistible.”

I found many slightly different variations on this recipe, which invites tinkering in the search for a favorite texture and flavor. So far, I have tried two different versions, one with a blend of bread and all-purpose flours and one with bread flour only. Both were good, but I preferred the denser texture of the all-bread-flour mona.

Whether you make larger, oblong-shaped monas with hard-boiled chicken eggs, mini monas with quail eggs, or skip the egg altogether, the procedure is basically the same, although the baking time will of course vary slightly.

For the dough:

80 ml. (1/3 cup) warm milk

25 g (≈ 0.9 oz.) compressed (fresh) yeast

500 g (≈ 3 1/2 cups *SEE NOTE) bread flour

¼ teaspoon salt

140 g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar

3 Eggs, plus one more, beaten, for glazing

80 ml. (1/3 cup) mild-flavored olive oil

Zest of one lemon

½ teaspoon orange blossom water

For the topping:

Quail eggs, hard-boiled, as many as you want (Optional)

Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Stir yeast into warm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and salt together in one bowl. In another bowl, mix the eggs with the sugar. Stir in the yeasted milk. Then add the olive oil, orange blossom water if using and the lemon zest, stirring just until well blended. Gradually stir in the flour until a dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour by the tablespoonful as needed (the dough should be moist and slightly tacky, but not sticky). Transfer dough to a large oiled bowl and turn it to coat. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 ½ – 2 hours (it may take longer, depending on factors like ambient temperature).

Divide the dough into 12-14 equal pieces on a floured surface. Roll each piece into a ball, then flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. Arrange 1 ½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap for a second rise of about 45 minutes.

Towards the end of the second rise, preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush monas with egg glaze. If you are using hard-boiled eggs, make indents in the center of the monas with your fingers, creating a nest for the eggs. Sprinkle monas generously with sugar. Bake until golden, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

*NOTE: I measured out the cups, but have not tested this recipe with the standard American measurements, so have put an approximate amount here. If using cups, I suggest starting with this amount of flour and adding more by the tablespoon as needed to get the consistency indicated in the recipe.

  One a penny, two a penny… 

HAPPY EASTER!

Excursions in Murcia: Balneario de Archena, Resort and Spa

One of the things I love about living in Murcia is the sense of discovery I feel while exploring the region. When I arrived here nearly two years ago, I knew close to nothing about all the region had to offer, which felt, and still feels, like an exciting opportunity.

One Eureka! moment came when I heard there were thermal baths just a half hour from the city. It took me over a year to get there – you can’t do everything at once, after all – but I can now say with certainty I recommend the trip.

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Manolo and I chose the historic Balneario de Archena, one of several spa resorts in the area, and were not disappointed. Tucked away in the valley of the Rio Segura and surrounded by arid mountains, the Balneario de Archena feels like a modern-day oasis.

This spa is all about the water, which flows from the earth at a temperature of around 130 ºF and is rich in minerals, such as sulfur, calcium and magnesium. For centuries, doctors in Spain have recommended the thermal waters of Archena, not only for relief from specific  ailments like muscle and joint pain, but also for general well-being.

The ambiance on this weekday in late September was low-key and free of glitz. Most of the other clients were Spanish, minus a few stray Brits and yours truly, and the average age must have been around  70.

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The mineral-packed waters felt almost creamy against my skin as I slipped into the principal thermal pool, where the average temperature is a constant 95-97 ºF. My muscles relaxed instantly, and I felt myself being pulled by a distinct current, as if I were floating along a lazy river. Turns out I was in a generated current loop, which took me through a winding indoor-outdoor circuit. I then tested out the many waterfalls, spouts and jets around the pool, enjoying massages of varying intensity. It was like an adult playground, where I could choose my own adventure, alternating between relaxation and stimulation.

My next stop was the balneotherapy zone, the Balnea Termalium, a restorative circuit of saunas, steam rooms, therapeutic pools, and even an igloo. Relaxation and stimulation were the themes here, as well, and two pre-determined circuits had been posted to help one achieve the desired effect.

Manolo and I wanted to try everything, so we opted to do our own circuit. We sweated it out in the Russian, Aztec and Estonian saunas, which varied in temperature and relative dryness. The estufa de Archena, a  steam room with a strong dose of sulfur, provided humid contrast. And a few minutes in the icy igloo were nothing short of invigorating. We exerted a bit of effort in the lap pool, which helped us more deeply relax in the saline flotation pool. And the lemon essence rising off the aromatherapy pool was gently awakening. I felt pampered, and convinced — I had a new highlight to add to my growing Murcia itinerary.

Practical Tips:

  • As a day trip: The Balneario de Archena is an easy day trip from Murcia. We went on a Friday so we could take advantage of the 29 € per person weekday special, “Escapeterapia.”  This included use of the two indoor-outdoor thermal pools as well as the balneotherapy zone, lunch in the Espacio Termalium restaurant and a free swimming cap (required). (The lunch was good, a basic plato combinado with meat, a vegetable and potatoes, but not the highlight of the day.)
  • To stay overnight: There are three hotels at the resort, including the restored nineteenth century Hotel Termas, pictured below, and two more modern accommodations.

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  • Promotions: If you are planning a trip to the Balneario de Archena, check here for special offers and promotions.

A bit of history:

Iberian peoples are thought to have used the waters at Archena as early as the fifth century B.C. But it was the Romans who left more of a trace – excavations have uncovered remains of Roman thermal baths on the site of today’s spa.

In the eighteenth century, these lands belonged to the Order of St. John, and the healing waters and their patron, Our Lady of Remedies, were sources of devotion. The existing chapel, La Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, pictured below, dates from 1878, once the land had passed into private hands.At this time, the Balneario de Archena was a popular summer destination for wealthy families from all over Spain.

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The Casino, once an exclusive club and now a café and bar, dates from the same era.

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Some old postcards from the nineteenth century:

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Archena

Archena 2

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SOURCE of postcards: Memoria Gráfica de Murcia

My Neighborhood Series: Stately Homes

No one lives in the house next door. Day after day, year after year, the gate remains locked and the windows shuttered. The house is a silent neighbor, minus the occasional catfight in the abandoned yard. No summer parties in the garden, no other signs of life, which is such a shame.

The House Next Door - Rear View

This house must have been a lively place at some point. In the early 1900s, La Alberca, my village, would fill with summer residents, city dwellers of means who came here to escape the heat of downtown Murcia, just a few miles away. Many of these folks had likely earned their money in the thriving local silk industry.

La Alberca, surrounded by farmland and in the foothills of the low-lying mountains, was cooler than the city . There were popular baths here and a small alberca, or reservoir, where holidaymakers enjoyed refreshing and reputedly restorative waters. Knowing the Spaniards, homes like the one next door would have seen their fair share of parties, particularly in this time of relative prosperity.

The House Next Door - Seen from My Kitchen

I love the house next door. Es preciosa, says Manolo, and I agree. It makes me daydream. I imagine opening the front door, which creaks of old age and lack of use, and entering the world as it was at least a lifetime ago. In my mind, the table is still set for a family luncheon, all doilies and silver and china. I tiptoe through the scene, not wanting to disturb the peace of decades of rest. The floors are stunning, a mosaic of colorfully elaborate Victorian encaustic tiles, typical in homes here in the first part of the last century. Dusty family photos sit atop antique commodes, elegant señores and señoras wearing the formal expressions demanded of the occasion. And a radiant portrait of Murcia’s patron virgin, La Fuensanta, hangs on the wall.

In another fantasy, I somehow earn enough money to buy the house next door, and the owners, whoever they may be, agree to sell. I repair the roof, which has begun to crumble in places, and add a fresh coat of paint. Manolo, whose thumb is much greener than mine, brings the garden back to life, pruning the majestic palms, perhaps planting some more lemon trees (there are already a few), and restoring the trellised walkway leading to the front door. The evening of our housewarming, I string lights among the grape vines to welcome visitors, bringing the house back to life.

The House Next Door - Originaly Entry Gate

The House Next Door

 

 

 

It pains me to think of the continued effects of time on the house next door. Other beautiful old houses in my neighborhood seem to be in a similar situation, all but abandoned. In some cases, the homes have been passed on to future generations and now belong to so many people that they belong to no one, really. And perhaps nobody in the family has the means, or the time and will, to maintain these historic properties. Each house has its own story, and, yes,  its own potential to inspire.

Another Crumbling Villa

Abandoned house on the hill

ADDENDUM: And, thankfully, many old houses in the neighborhood have been lovingly maintained and restored. Here are a few:

A lovely villa

Former baths, whose interior has been converted into condos

A charming home

The House Next Door - Originaly Entry Gate

The House Next Door

It pains me to think of the continued effects of time on the house next door. Other beautiful old houses in my neighborhood appear to be in a similar situation, all but abandoned. In some cases, the homes have been passed on to future generations and now belong to so many people that they belong to no one, really. And perhaps nobody in the family has the means, or the time and will, to maintain these historic properties. Each house has its own story, and its own potential.