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Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

A few years ago, I read the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind – the main character, Grenouille, finds himself at one point in the story working for a perfumer, Baldini, whose store is one of many buildings located on a bridge over the Seine in Paris. I’ve since been intrigued by the idea of such bridges with multi-floor buildings on them, common in medieval times and surely bustling with people and commerce, indistinguishable from any street on shore. The famed London Bridge was another such example; like most others, it was eventually torn down to make way for newer structures.

Naturally, I was delighted to see the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy – one of the few remaining (if not the sole remaining, I wasn’t able to confirm) medieval bridges still housing merchants within. As you walk along the cobble-stone paved  (pedestrian only) bridge, you pass jewellery store after jewellery store lining both sides. The story goes that one of the de’ Medicis who ruled Florence at the time tossed out the butchers that used to be located on the bridge in favour of gold merchants – either because the smell of meat bothered him or he just wanted to class the joint up a bit.

Midway along the bridge, room was left for an open terrace with arches that offer a view of the Arno River – it’s the first reminder since stepping onto the bridge that you’ve left shore. Above the shops is a passageway built by another de’ Medici that connects the main town square to the Pitti Palace, supposedly so that he could travel between the two without mixing with the plebes below.

Closer look at the de' Medici passageway and the terrace at the centre of the bridge.

The Ponte Vecchio is also the first place I came across a modern tradition that has started to plague many destinations: young lovers locking padlocks to any of the various railings at each end or somewhere along the bridge and tossing the key into the river, symbolizing their everlasting bond (gack). It seems like a silly, romantic kind of thing to do, but it creates a real eyesore in the places where people have taken to doing this and a hassle for city officials who must continually remove them and repair the damage caused by this practice. You can’t pass a post that doesn’t have hundreds of old locks crammed onto any available spot in a jumbled mess, a sad fate for such a pretty piece of history.

And so with that, I’ve taken the Wiccan Rede as my travel credo and hope that more do the same: An it harm none, do what ye will.

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It’s January 2 – a new year and the end to what friends of mine call the “Eating Season”. The past month has been filled with parties and gatherings, chock full of diet-busting treats. It’s a time when food is all around me and my thoughts naturally turn towards the many wonderful things out there to eat.

January is also the start of a long three months of the year: it’s cold and grey and my mood invariably turns sour. Spring seems like an endless time away. The last few years, one of my coping tools has been to plan where I’m going to travel in the upcoming year, to give myself something to look forward to. I’ll also spend time reading over my travel journals and looking at my photos to remind myself of good times with the hope of more to come.

So, of course, what better time of year to try and narrow down my favourites out of everything I’ve eaten on my trips – things I’d seek out to have again if ever and whenever I go back. Many may be disappointed in my choices (you won’t find fermented shark or anything as adventurous on here). In fact, many of these I can find easily here in Toronto – I can find them and but they’re not going to be nearly as good. So, in order of discovery, here we go:

1. Albondigas (Spanish meatballs)

Such a simple thing, the meatball, but oh boy did these rock my socks. After a few days of mostly grilled pork and ham, I ordered these in a tapas place in Olot, Spain, and it was love at first bite. The meat itself was moist and flavourful and swimming in a really tasty sauce. Not being a seafood eater, I wasn’t sold on Spanish food until I tried these.

2. Fresh buffalo mozzarella

I’d never eaten fresh mozzarella before it came as part of a caprese salad I ordered in Trieste, Italy, and my immediate thought was, where have you been all my life? I love cheese like I love my own mother, and this was so indescribably good. In fact, I may have moaned when I first tasted it. The tomatoes weren’t shabby either. This was something I tried finding when I got back to Toronto, but I’ve not found any that tasted as good yet.

3. Pizza margherita

I had a lot of pizza during my time in Italy, but one I had in Florence stands out in particular. I like my pizza simple, and when the ingredients are as good as they are there, you don’t need a ton of toppings. The local ingredients are what make the difference between the pizza I had in Florence and any of the numerous ones I’ve had elsewhere: the tomatoes for the sauce, the cheese, and the fresh basil. I normally view the crust as a cheese-and-sauce delivery platform, but even the crust was a delight. Yum, yum in my tum.

4. Pain au chocolat

My breakfast every morning I was in France consisted of some form of croissant; in fact, I made quite a study of them wherever I went. I find dairy products in general to be superior in Europe compared to home, so naturally any pastry that uses butter so generously in its creation is going to be better there than anything I’ve tasted before. The best I found (so far) was a pain au chocolat from a pastry shop in Reims – so buttery and warm, with a gooey chocolate center. I definitely moaned when I took my first bite (I want to moan thinking about it now).

5. Skyr

Commonly known as Icelandic yogurt, its consistency is more like a cross between yogurt and cream cheese. I only ever ate it sweetened and flavoured with fruit, but it does have that underlying sourness that yogurt has. It is much, much thicker than any yogurt I’ve ever had at home – the kind you can find in tubs in stores is almost spreadable. As rich as this tastes, it’s truly amazing that skyr is low-fat and full of protein, so it’s a pretty guiltless treat compared to everything else on this list.

And on that note, I’m hungry – I wonder if I have any Christmas cookies left?

Happy New Year, happy eats, and especially happy travels!

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Even though this is my third post on alcoholic beverages, I’m not much of a drinker, particularly when I’m by myself. But I was in Paris at Thanksgiving (in Canada, this would be the second Monday in October), and I decided to treat myself to a meal in a restaurant a step up from the cafes I’d been haunting so far. I decided on the boeuf bourguignon and a lemon tarte, and was going to splurge on some wine to accompany it all. However, looking at the menu, I was baffled: 35 cl, 45 cl, etc. It wasn’t pricing, but I didn’t know what it meant. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I was too shy to ask and ordered sparkling water instead.

I never gave this another thought until I was in Rome, and again was confronted with a wine menu I could barely decipher. I saw a white house wine, 75 cl for something like 8 or 9 euros. I’d realized by that point that this was the volume in centilitres, but for some reason, I could not picture how much wine 75 cl would be. I was used to paying $8 or $9 for a glass of wine in a restaurant at home, so in perfect vacation logic, 8 euros for a glass just made sense.

I felt like an idiot moments later when the waiter brought a bottle of wine to my table for one (for those still as foggy as I was, 75 cl = 750 ml, or the equivalent of about 6 glasses of wine). In my defense:

  1. I was on vacation, newly arrived and jet-lagged
  2. The centilitre is not a common unit of volume in Canada; litres and millilitres are used almost exclusively
  3. Math is hard, yo!

My choices seemed to be either waste a perfectly good bottle of wine that I was already paying for by only drinking a glass or two, or get tanked on my first night in Rome and hope I stumbled back to my hotel in good shape. I chose option C instead: while I didn’t drink the whole bottle, I did put a very serious dent in it (I believe my final tally was about 4 glasses).

Approximately a half hour later, I rose from the table after my meal, feeling no pain. Though the world was spinning a bit, I still managed to walk away without tripping or running into anything. Luckily, my plan that night was to take a night walk around some of Rome’s more famous public spaces; though I was acutely aware of every step I took, the fresh night air (and the tartufo I stopped for in the Piazza Navona) restored my equilibrium and I no longer felt as lightheaded.

I’d been schooled, and I’m a better wine drinker for it.

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Though I do enjoy classical music, I’ve never taken to opera much (Bugs Bunny excepted). It’s always seemed overwrought and the singing is unnatural sounding to me, though this is only my opinion – I know it has rabid fans out there.

So it happened that I was in Lucca, Italy the summer they were celebrating 150 years since the birth of  the composer Giacomo Puccini (Lucca is his birth place), and they had a huge months-long festival planned to commemorate this. Opera lovers could partake of performances of works by Puccini and other composers by various singers.

We were only in Lucca for four days, but we decided to partake of one such performance – a night of Puccini and Mozart at a local cathedral, sung by two performers (a man and a woman, don’t ask me if they were sopranos or contraltos or if that’s even a thing in opera).

If a similar thing had been mounted in Toronto, I’d never have gone – it just wouldn’t have interested me. But in Italy, how could I resist?  Opera and Italy go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

I have no idea what was sung, I just remember it was such a surreal moment for me – sitting on a wooden pew, surrounded by Catholic iconography, listening to these amazing singers perform, defying normal auditory range. I’m in Italy! Listening to opera! In an old church! Could I be any farther away from my regular routine?

I highly recommend dipping your toes into any of the cultural events offered in the tourist season of many countries. The world is small enough now that many troupes will tour so it’s not hard to see Russian ballet or Japanese kabuki or whatever in your own backyard. But nothing compares to watching a performance in the country of origin, where the cultural impact of these art forms is woven into the history of the people. It’s an experience well worth indulging in. Even if it’s opera.

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Strolling along the cobble-stoned street, I wondered if I was in the right place (as I had many times before in this and other cities, searching out landmarks of interest); it didn’t look like I was approaching anything but a dead end. It wasn’t until I turned a corner that I was hit full force with the bright lights and sounds of a typical night at the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Every city has someplace that tourists inevitably must visit, whether or not they care about architecture or boats or whatever: Toronto has the CN Tower, New York has the Statue of Liberty, and so on. Unfortunately, these places are often tied to the tacky side of tourism: buy the postcard or cheap miniature version at souvenir stands, and take a piece of it home with you.

I had a list of places I wanted to go during my time in Rome, but I was indifferent about the Trevi. It’s a fountain, how amazing could it be? However, a nighttime walking tour suggested by my guidebook was going to take me past it, and I could check it off my list. After all, I couldn’t go to Rome and not see the Trevi.

I’d read about the fountain in books – it usually plays into the romantic aspects of the city – but somehow didn’t really know what it looked like. I was expecting a fountain like in most parks around the world, complete with spurting water and coins scattered around the base, full of wishes and dreams. I should have known that the number-one name in fountains wasn’t typical.

The Trevi is more than a fountain, it’s a destination. Being the size of a building, it wasn’t possible for me to take a photo with the whole thing in frame. At night, crowds of people surround it, hanging out and taking in the ambience. All lit up, the water glows green and the statues stand out white against the dark shadows behind them. The noise, between the rushing water and the never-ending chatter, approaches a roar. It’s anything but peaceful, but it’s a sight to behold.

Legend says that tossing a coin into the Trevi will ensure a return trip to Rome. I love superstitions like this, so of course I threw my own euro in over one shoulder. Who am I to mess with tradition?

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One day, our tour guide asked, “would any of you be interested in having lunch one day at a nearby Tuscan farm?” We were in Lucca, Italy for a few days, and had been discussing the activities planned for our time there when she suggested this extra day trip. Would I be interested — Uh, yes please!

Fattoria Cercatoia Alta is a lovely farm run by a couple who bought the land and restored the buildings on it. They rent out rooms in their farmhouses to visitors, but will host small groups for lunch. The owner, Angelo Fornaciari, had been a successful chef in London before he returned to Lucca where he had grown up, and we were salivating at the idea of the traditional Tuscan food he would be preparing for us.

This is a working farm and vineyard, and as far as the eye can see there are grape vines, olive plants, and fruit trees. We were given a glass of wine (made on the premises) on arrival and given a tour around the grounds. We passed the chicken coop, donkeys and two cute little ponies (adorable!). We winded our way through the grove of apricot trees and headed over to the pool, where we enjoyed a swim and some more wine before lunch.

The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with gorgeous red rose bushes lining the paths. Scattered on the patio were lemon trees in pots. In every direction you looked were acres of green fields and trees, with the odd house here and there in the distance. They had an outdoor kitchen with a grill out back and long wooden tables with benches had been set up for us under a roofed portion of the patio. The whole thing reminded me of the Diane Lane movie Under the Tuscan Sun.

I think these are olive plants, with very young fruit just budding

The lunch we were served was a veritable feast: bread salad, spelt salad, pasta salad, bean salad, grilled polenta with pieces of sausage and cheese on top, bruschetta, cheese and capers, and more bread grilled and drizzled with olive oil (that he pressed himself from their own olives). Platter after platter was passed around as we took a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Bowls of green and black olives, which he had preserved in flavoured oil, were placed all along the table and we nibbled from them all through lunch. Through all of this, the wine kept flowing; I don’t think I saw the bottom of my glass all afternoon which meant I couldn’t even guess how many glasses I had when all was said and done.

Dessert was a piece of biscotti to be dipped into a glass of “holy wine”, a sweet dark dessert wine, the true Italian name for which I can’t remember. Then Angelo gave us a tour of his wine-making facilities in his cellar where he bottles his own wine. He shared glasses of young merlot with us straight out of the cask to show us the difference aging the wine makes to the taste (to be honest, it tasted like red wine to me. My palette is not refined when it comes to wine).

Too soon, we had to pile into the vans to be taken to where we could catch the bus back to Lucca. It had been a fairy tale afternoon, but after all that wine, I’m sure I must have returned only to indulge in one heck of a nap!

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