Friday, October 26, 2012

Day...I'm not sure

Trip continues to be great.  Internet access hasn't.  We went to Capri, and then Positano/Amalfi from Sorrento.  Loved it.  Took loads of photos, but it was so bright and the movement of the boat while touring around Capri made it hard to take pictures.  At first look, it seems as though I have 300 crap shots, but hopefully I can fiddle with them when I get home.

We left Italy yesterday, and are now in Istanbul.  It's like a completely different world.  It's the second biggest city in the world, and as busy as you'd expect.  We spent the day on both the Asian and European sides, wandering amongst the crowds and hearing the calls to prayers at the various mosques,  It almost felt like we went from restaurant to restaurant, tasting various dishes as we went.  The food here is amazing - all local and super fresh, and mostly fruit/veggie based. I didn't take many pictures, though...  I felt so stunned that I could only take it all in or take pictures, not both.  Maybe tomorrow I'll get the camera out and take some shots.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Day 11 - Cassino - Sorrento

We got up in the morning, ate our prepackaged crescents and were eager to move on.  Nobody was there for us to check out, so we slid the payment for the night under the office door, left the key in our room and went out to wait for the taxi that we hoped the lady we'd talked to the day before had called for us. (We heard her make a call, but since we didn't understand it, couldn't be 100% sure that's what she'd done.)

At 9:00, when we expected the taxi, the black beetle that the lady had driven the day before drove up the hill.  This time, a man got out of it... I'm assuming it's her husband.  He also spoke some French, and he explained to me that he was going to take us to the cemetery.   I guess he felt bad for the mixup of the day before?  Not sure, but either way, it was nice.  He drove us to the cemetery, spoke with the gardeners to find Uncle Dick's grave, and then stood over near his car to give us as much privacy as we wanted.  When we were done, he drove us to the train station.

The cemetery is immaculate, and that says a lot.  Italy is beautiful, but it's rustic.  There's very little perfection here.    Buildings are old and have cracks, gardens have weeds.  Here in the cemetary, though, everything is kept pristine. It shows all kinds of respect.

After the cemetery, we went to the train station and killed a few hours with our ereaders in the cafe next door.  Our train came after lunch, and then we were in Napoli.... a place I've heard nothing good about, and I am not ashamed to say that I was afraid.  I've heard non-stop about pickpockets, thieves and small children to pull out guns and take everything you've got. (Seriously - I took the USB containing all of my photos out of my bag and hid it insidemy bra.  I figured that my clothes and camera could be replaced, but I didn't want to lose all the pictures.)  Happily, while I still have no desire to spend any extended time there, we had no problems.  We got off our train, went directly downstairs to the Napoli subway and got on it (with a million other people - this was the first time we've been packed in like sardines on trains) to go to Sorrento.

Sorrento is lovely.  More so, our B&B is incredible.     We really lucked out with this one.   It's outside of town, but the owner shuttles us back and forth as needed.  We have a room with a balcony that overlooks Mount Vesuvius, with the Naples Bay to one side and Sorrento to the other.    The owner, who is quite a character, has warned us that he charges 5 euros every time we look at the view.  It's on the honor system, and we're to report in before we leave.

This is, hands down, the nicest place we've stayed.  The owner has thought of everything that we could possibly need, and (except for the view) everything is included in the price of the stay.    The owner is a tall, dark drink of Italian water.  He's very suave, and a big flirt.  I'm sure he must get hit on by so many of the women who stay here, because it took him approximately 30 seconds after we met before he let us know that he's married.  Good for him - he is no doubt an excellent business man.  It's good to know he's a dedicated husband too.

Anyway - got here just after dinner.  I can hardly wait until morning to see the view in daylight.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Day 10 - Florence - Cassino

We headed off on our detour to Cassino to see the grave where our Uncle Dick was buried, during the WWII.  I can't say this has been the best day we've had in Italy.

As the train pulled up in Florence, a number of people gathered near the doors to hop on, and when it was our turn, the lady in front of Ginny (who looked really quite normal) turned around and helped her to lift her suitcase up the two steps onto the train.  Then, when it was my turn, the guy -who was clearly with the lady-grabbed my suitcase and popped it up the two stairs.  We didn't think anything of it - it's something we'd happily do for fellow travelers - but they followed us to our seats and then demanded payment.  We begrudgingly gave them a euro each, but they seemed to think that 5 euros each was more appropriate.  We had to tell them no quite firmly before they'd go away.  ... Lesson learned, I guess.  I'd heard that you shouldn't accept help at the train stations, but I thought that applied to buying tickets, etc.

After we got to Rome, we had a few hours to kill, and with very few places to sit around the station, we decided to head over to the McDonald's across the street.  I immediately got into the line for the loo, only to to discover that it was a unisex bathroom, with only one functioning toilet.  In addition to what I'm discovering is the norm around here for public toilets (there is no seat on it and no TP available), this one also had the distinction of being the dirtiest toilet I've encountered on this trip - and that says a lot.  Thankfully, my hovering skills are getting pretty darned good - and I've learned not to go anywhere without a wad of TP or a couple of napkins in my pocket.  I've got to say, though, that even having gotten that over with, we didn't stay long.  It was the dirtiest McDonald's that I've ever seen, and we were pestered by beggars every minute or so.  If that is any indication of what Rome is like, I'm glad we decided to limit our visit to the duration of the train transfer.

We arrived in Cassino about 2:00.  Although we're here to see the cemetery  in Cassino,the B&B is in Mont Cassino, which is up a very steep hill or small mountain.   A taxi driver arrived before too long and we hopped in.  Right away, when we told him where we were going, he tried to suggest another hotel.  Over and over, he tried to direct us elsewhere, but I thought he'd get some sort of kickback for referrals and said no.  I said we had a reservation and said we only wanted to go to that one B&B   I regretted that a lot once we arrived.

The front desk was empty when we went in, and the place was super-quiet, like it had been deserted.  we called out, walked around a bit, then waited for a while with no luck.  Finally, when we were starting to have visions of dragging our luggage back down the hill, we heard a child laughing and followed the noise.   There was a man there with his kids, and we asked him for help.  He didn't speak any English, but thank God he spoke French.  It wasn't easy, (I haven't really spoken French for almost 20 years) but I managed to stumble my way through.  He told me that the place was closed, and that the administrators wouldn't be around until tomorrow.  Sonofabitch.

We went back and forth a few times - it turns out that he lives there with about 15 others who rent rooms as apartments.  It's only the unrented suites that are used for the B&B.  Finally, after much discussion (he couldn't seem to grasp that we didn't have a phone) he called the owner for us, and she showed up after about half an hour.  No apology was given.  She didn't speak English either, but seemed to understand limited French.  She didn't believe that we had a reservation, and kept flipping around her blank calendar to prove it, until we showed her a copy of our confirmation email.  With her speaking Italian and me speaking my broken French, we managed to work out which room we would get, got her to call for a taxi to pick us up the next morning at 9 and then she left.

We had no phone, no internet (or so little internet that it wasn't worth trying) and nothing really to do way up on top of this mountain.  It was a nice change after all the crowds, but it was also a bit of a shock.  And, truth be told, the place kind of gave me the creeps.  It seemed like the Italian version of the Bates Motel.  Nothing seemed to work; the bulbs in all the lights were broken or missing, it was eerily quiet and it was dirty.  I wasn't very happy.... I tried  to think positive, by focusing on the view and quiet, but that took a while before helping me to reign in the crank.

The guy we'd encountered earlier told us about a restaurant that was a reasonable walking distance and price, so we went for a bit of a walk and then headed over there.  The food was actually really good, and since this was the first menu we've seen that was entirely Italian, a bit of a guessing game.  The bread that they served at the start of dinner was probably the best we've had so far, and we followed that by calzones.  I thought mine was going to have a bunch of peppers and some mushrooms, but I ended up getting 3-4 cheeses with a spicing salami -definitely not what I expected, but it was good.  Sometime down the road, I might try to recreate it.

After dinner, we walked our way back up the hill and settled in for the night.  Ginny took the separate room, and I took the cot in the living room.  Frankly, I felt as though I was being watched the entire time (even with the blinds closed) so I couldn't decide if I wanted the lights on - it seemed too creepy to turn them off - or if darkness would make it harder for anybody to watch me.  I ended up opting for dark, but got next to no sleep.  I wasn't sad to leave in the morning at all.

Having said all that, it's hard to justify bitching while in Italy, so I'll post some pictures I took.  The view really was pretty.

I took these pictures the next morning:

... speaking of the morning... this is what we found in the shower.

Day 9 - Florence Gardens

We slept in today, and then headed off to see the Gardens.  As usual, we wandered around until we found a shop with breakfast that called our names.  Usually, we get a couple of pastries to go, which generally cost about 1,20 Euros.  Today, after walking through a few pastry shops and not seeing anything that made us want to stop, we made the mistake of going to a pastry shop right on the (naked man) piazza.  We ordered our pastries, and sat down instead of getting them to go.  Then, instead of our usual bottled water that we've been picking up at grocery stores as we reach each city, Ginny ordered cappuccino, and I got hot chocolate.

The first surprise was the hot chocolate, which came in a cappuccino sized cup and was as thick and black as tar.  It tasted like drinking a cup of hot Nestles Quick.   The next surprise was the bill - 30 Euros for breakfast!!  Whoops.

After that shock, we decided to keep on a reasonable budget for the rest of the day, and walked over to the gardens.  They were nothing like we expected (very few flowers) but the greenery was pretty and the view was amazing (again).

I decided to use the opportunity to play with my camera, and tried to get some shots that said "Italy" to me.  I took over 300 shots - some of which are unquestionably junk - but got a few good ones.  I haven't had a chance to go through them all, and these are SOOC, but here are a few.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Day 8 - David

Today was the day that we went to see David, so any activities outside of that were largely unplanned.  I think we were both surprised at how fast it was for us to get in to see David.  We had tickets for 9:45, but were told to be there by 9:30.  I think we got there at 9:00.  They let us right in right away - absolutely no line.  

David is...  I don't know how to describe him... David.  Amazing.  Breathtaking. Almost human.  All of the above.  Many people broke down in tears at the sight of him, and understandably so.

Once we got out, it was only 11, so we decided to head over to an indoor food market.  We made a number of stops along the way and the day turned into a shopping day.  My parents had gave me some Euros as an early Christmas present and told me to get some boots/shoes or a bag, so that's what we did.

My first purchase actually started before we saw David.  On the way there, I saw a store that seemed to have nice shoes and bags in it.  When I looked into the door, a little old Italian man came out and pointed at me.  "Boots for you!" he said.  I didn't need to say much, just go into the store and he started pulling out boots.  I'd shake my head or nod, depending on what he showed me (all within a matter of seconds) and right away he zeroed in on some boots that I really liked.  He called me over to the back so that I could try them on, but I said I was about to go see David, and didn't want to buy anything right that moment.  "Ok" he says "Come back later".

As I walked back towards the door, I noticed another pair that I liked, only the heels were too high.  I asked if he had anything like that with lower heels - "Not in Italy" he says "Come back later".  Then Ginny, who was looking for a pair of shoes, commented about a pair that she liked.  "Come back later" he said, and pushed us out the door.  I laughed so hard, I almost had to sit down,  I guess he's not willing to give us his attention or allow us in the store when we're not ready to buy.

I've kept my eyes peeled since we got here, and these boots seemed to be the ones I like best, so we went back after we saw David.  "You - Boots!" he yelled when we walked in, and then he beetled off to the back where he had a pair in my size, waiting to be tried on.  Ginny also bought some new shoes.   We managed to avoid buying a scarf he was foisting on every female who entered the place, and then we were off.

I ended up buying some pashminas for gifts (and a couple for myself).  Then, even though I had bought some boots with the money my parents gave me, I ended up finding a bag I liked, so I guess I  bought an early Christmas gift for myself too.

On the way back, we decided to stop for a drink at a restaurant in the piazza where Neptune, the copy of David, and a bunch of other statues are. (We've been calling this piazza the one with the naked men.... which we've actually shortened to 'the naked men',  It's near our hotel, so we generally pass by and stop at the naked men a few times a day.)  It was hot, so we decided to try limoncello, which we thought would be like a lemonade.   It turns out that it's not.  It's a shot, and it is vile.  Nasty, nasty stuff.

Later that night, we went back to the same restaurant to sit on the patio beside the naked men and enjoy a dinner under the stars.  Somebody on the other side of the piazza was playing the guitar, and it was really quite beautiful.  The only negative was a guy who was peddling crappy plastic rockets that glow in the dark.  He kept coming up to us to sell them, and wouldn't go away when we said no.  The first few times, we were fairly polite, but we got less patient as he kept coming back and interrupting our dinner.  The last time he bugged us, I said no sharply, and when he continued to stare at us, I told him to go away.  He seemed to understand, and took off right away.  Except a couple of minutes later, I caught sight of somebody coming up behind me and I thought it was the vendor again.  I was *this close* to telling him to f#ck off before I caught myself - I think the Fuc... was out before I bit it back.  We laughed and laughed about that... I sure hope the waiter understood what happened, or I may have tarnished the Canadian reputation.

One more day left in Florence.  We're going to head over to the Palazzo Pitti and the Giardino Di Bobboli (gardens) tomorrow, and maybe the Galileo museum.  As impressive as they are, the churches and the renaissance art is starting to blend together, so we figured we''d try something new.

Gelato flavour of the day - Ginny had black cherry.  I managed to go a day without gelato.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Day 6 - Bologna to Florence

We caught the high speed train out of Bologna today, and headed over to Florence.  This city seems to have all the ambiance that Bologna was missing... amazing architecture, narrow roads, piazzas all over the place and public art.

We started our Florence visit by promptly getting turned around and getting thoroughly lost.  We walked past the Duomo Cathedral 3 times before we figured out where to go, and had to walk past it again to get to the hotel when we did figure it out.  It took us about  an hour and a half to go what I now realize should have taken about 20 minutes, but that's OK.  It seems that getting lost is part of getting to know a city.

And, the Duomo is worth circling a few times.  It's as big as at least a city block, and made entirely of different colours of marble.  The intricate carving on it is just incredible... I think the book we have says that it took 200 years to finish building.

Our hotel room is much different from the first two.  Where they were modern and slick, this was is quite traditional, with yellow walls and carved wooden headboards.  It's also got a bathroom door that sticks so badly that we've agreed that we'll be peeing with the door open throughout our stay.

At the advice of the owner, we caught a cab up to the Plazzale  Michelangiolo (the hill on the opposite side of the river), and the view was breathtaking.  We wandered around there for a while, grabbed a quick lunch and then walked through a massive grave yard with the most ornamental headstones I've ever seen, before walking down the hill and back to the hotel... passing mind boggling-ly amazing architecture along the way.

We walked 23000 steps, and our feet were pretty sore.

Dinner was a roasted vegetable soup, followed by Caprese salad.   Gelato flavour of the day was coconut.

Observations about the city:
everybody smokes
Italians in general seem to all be at a very healthy weight
the sidewalks are extremely narrow, and the roads even more so
there appears to be a shortage of fig leaves

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Day 5 - Market tour and cooking class

We got up early again today and walked down to the city center to meet Carmelita at the market,  There, we walked around as she talked about the various shop, their products and how things have changed over the last 20 years or so.

One of the big differences between here and what we see at home that she pointed out is that 1.  the plumpest, most colourful fruit isn't the best - she assured us that the smaller fruit duller is much more flavourful, and 2.  you do not touch to produce in Italian markets.  She told us that twice, and then smacked one of the American ladies who couldn't seem to keep her hands to herself.

Salad tomato - smooth, round tomatoes apparently have no business being in salads, as their texture is more appropriate for sauce.

 Artichokes, and sauce tomatoes below

 OK, these aren't local - I just thought they looked cool.

A sign of really fresh  produce is when the leaves are on display.  The leaves age before the fruit, so if they look good, that's a good sign.    The strawberries to the right?  Not local, or in season.

 We see dogs all over the place, including in the grocery store and at the butcher shop.

Carmelita's knowledge was impressive, and I'd have been happy to spend more time with her at the market.  However, once we'd picked up our ingredients for the meal we were to cook, we headed off to her apartment.

There, we cooked zucchini mouse with squash blossoms, pasta (from scratch) with mushrooms and a ricotta cake.  The highlight for me was learning to make pasta from scratch, but the ricotta cake is definitely one I'l make again.

Afterwards, we headed back on the long walk to our hotel. It was 5:00 by then, but neither of us was hungry, so we had a little rest for a bit.  A few hours later, we decided to head down the block a ways to a gelato store we'd seen earlier... more for something to do than because we were hungry.  However, on the way there, we saw somebody coming out of a pizzaria with about 4 pizzas, and both of us started to get a jones for pizza.  When we came to their front window and saw that you could get a slice for 1E50, we decided to stop there.  They had all sorts of pizzas to choose from - including one with red onions and french fries on top - but we kept it simple and both got a slice of salami pizza.  Then, we didn't need it, but we headed on down the street for the gelato.  Pistachio and chocolate were the flavours of the day, and were worth every calorie involved.  It was as good as (better than) home made ice cream.

Tomorrow we leave Bologna.  I won't be too disappointed to go.  We went there specifically to take the tours we'd signed up for, and while I won't say I dislike the city, I didn't find it all that appealing.  Florence is next on the list...The  #1 item on Ginny's bucket list is to see David, so this will be an important stop.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Day 4 - Food Tour

At 6:45am, Alexandro showed up to take us on the Italian Food Experience tour.  He introduced himself as a  professional food pusher, and warned us that his enthusiasm comes naturally,  lasts all day and requires no caffeine.  He was, admittedly, very passionate, but he set a fun tone for the day.

As Alexandro explained, we would tour a factory to watch them make parmigiano reggiano cheese, then see where balsamic vinegar is made, a prosciutto factory and then a "light" lunch.

The parmigiano reggiano factory was impressive, and a much smaller set up than I expected.  We saw them take straight milk and cream and make soft cheese of it in under an hour with nothing more than whey, beaters and some wooden paddles, and we then went into their warehouse where there was over $2 million in cheese stored.

We then tasted both old (aged) and new parmigiano reggiano, and were given the opportunity to buy some.  I didn't, but Ginny now has the challenge of keeping a (HUGE!) chunk of cheese refrigerated for the rest of our trip.  She got it for Katie, but I think she's now decided that Katie only gets half.

After that, we went to see where Balsamic Vinegar is made.  There, we learned that the balsamic vinegar that we know at home is nothing like what they use here.  There are different varieties and qualities here, but the best is made by only a few families.  And oddly enough, it's something that takes so long to make and costs so much, it's almost impossible to make a profit with it.   Instead, they do it as a hobby.  They have only a few sets of barrels of it (it takes 5-7 barrels - called batteries - for each batch) and have to let it sit for 25+ years.  Even then, they are only allowed to "harvest" a litre a year, and then only if the consortium agrees.  If the consortium does agree, it keeps 1/10 of it.    No wonder 100ml of the stuff costs 40 Euros.

After visiting the batteries, we then got to sample different grades of balsamic - grocery store, 25 year old, and 40 years old.  Then, we had some 19 year old balsamic (that hasn't been approved by the consortium) drizzled on ricotta that had been made at the previous location and finally some balsamic jelly on top of vanilla gelato.  Yum.

I'm sure you can imagine that I wasn't very excited about the next stop, a factory where they make prosciutto.  They store 22 000 pig legs there, so it wasn't my favourite part of the trip, but it could have been a lot worse.  I mostly stood to the back and waited for it to be over.


They had samples of prosciutto that had aged for various numbers of years after that, but I didn't have the stomach for it.  Ginny said it was melt in your mouth good.

After that, the group of 12 of us drove out to a little bar and went in for what they'd been calling a light lunch.
That was the understatement of the decade.  We started with deep fried bread, focaccia, white Italian bread and mortadella...   I hadn't caught on yet, so I didn't take a picture of that.

This was all that was left before I thought to pull out my camera.

The next round was tortellini in meat sauce.  It was very good, but don't be deceived by the portion size.  Anybody who finished their's right away got a second helping.  Anybody not guarding their plate got a second helping.  At one point, I looked away and before I realized it, I had a full plate again.

Pasatelli ("pasta" made with bread dough) with prosciutto... a little salty, but Alexandro still managed to sneak more onto my plate.

Fettuccine  with porcini mushrooms... my favourite of them all.  Although, but that point, I was a few shades beyond stuffed.

Notice that the serving sizes were getting bigger???  He wasn't even pretending to keep things in moderation anymore.

Oh my God, those were just the starters.   The main meal of roasted pork, potatoes and salad was served next.  And then - dammit - he slapped another piece of pork on my plate before I could stab him with my fork.

I couldn't finish it.

Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel... dessert.  The picture below was the shared tray.  We all got a minimum of two pieces, which were a couple of bites each.  It was a cakey-cookie, with layers of blackberry or nutella on top.

At last - Hallalujh - it was over.  Cappuccino was served, we all let fly with a collective belch (or at least we felt like it) and then we were off.

My faith in the Italian food industry was restored.  And exceeded.

(Needless to say, we skipped dinner.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Day 3 - Leaving Venice for Bologna

As planned, we got up before the sun today, so we could head out to the San Marco Square to take pictures before the crowds arrived.  We maybe got there a little early - it was too dark to take some of the shots I wanted - but it gave me the change to catch some sunrise pictures.

There's one alley on the far end of the square that I really wanted a picture of.  I loved how it curved (as so many Italian roads do) but I probably spent 20 minutes and a tonne of throwaway shots of it before I figured out how to do it without the alley looking like a black hole... still not sure that I did it justice.

We noticed right away after heading out of the B&B that there were what appeared to be tables that had been set up along the alleys, the Grande Canal and the square overnight.  At first we were befuddled, and thought they were somewhat of an inconvenience, because everybody had to climb over them to get anywhere.  Eventually,though, I remembered that the B&B owner said that today was the "high tide", that the square would flood and that if we were going to leave, we should leave by 11:00.  That's when I realized those weren't tables, they were raised walkways for people to get around without getting wet when the tide came in.  That's when we decided to skedaddle.

Some shots of the Grande Canal on our way out...

Our next stop was Bologna.  So far, my impression of Bologna is that it's a big city.  Nothing really spectacular stands out, especially after we walked around for 2 hour to find dinner without luck.  Apparently,  everything is closed on Monday nights here... so we ended up eating at McDonald's, which seems like a whole bowl of wrong.

Tomorrow is the day that (I hope) my faith it Italian food is restored.  Our ride will pick us up at 6:45 for the Italian Food Experience tour.