Saturday, January 27, 2007

Italy part III -- food and wine

It's no surprise to those who know us that a major draw of Italy is the food and wine. We had a great time exploring and trying new things. In Rome we happened to luck out one night. It was just around the time most restaurants open -- 7:30 -- and we were in an area not particularly known for good restaurants. But our guidebook listed a small, authentic restaurant (Colline Emiliane) nearby, so we popped in. There wasn't anyone else in the restaurant yet, but when we asked the owner said that he had one table left to give us. The place soon filled up, and we watched as countless people came in and were turned away. The food was great--simple and delicious--and we felt very lucky to have been the only non-reserved diners that evening.

Note the resemblance!

Another unique experience in Rome was the brunch near the Piazza del Popolo. It was warm enough (with a little help from the heaters) to sit outside, and the way the brunch worked was you filled up your plate and it was weighed. The basic charge covered a certain weight, and an extra charge was added per gram over the set weight. We did pretty good at coming in just a little over, and the wine was so good we went around the back to the small wine bar and had a couple more glasses. That was a great start to the sightseeing for the day!

Art or food?

In Florence, food is art, as we saw in many places ... meats, cheeses and bread displayed artfully and architecturally. The enotecas we lunched in offered not just ordinary meat platters but the opportunity to try four prosciutti from local pigs versus four from wild boar (Cinghiale). Cheeses are offered up with a variety of mustards and honey to highlight their flavors. Of course, this must all be enjoyed while sampling Tuscan wine varietals (such hard work!).

When in Florence, it's practically a law that meals must be followed with a cappuccino, vin santo (dessert wine) and some biscotti. Two hour lunches were, to quote Cole Porter, delightful, delicious, and de-lovely!

Art is not just for meat and cheese. These penguins were ready to march right into our mouths! These little guys were in a shop off the main square in Florence.

Statue of Bacchus on the Arno river

Florence is filled with a great selection of enotecas. The first we went to was connected to a Tuscan winery, and we had a nice waiter who helped us select from the appetizer plates, crostini and wines (Cantinetta del Verrazzano).

We found another great spot just over the river ... we stopped in for a late lunch one day and were greeted by the very friendly and enthusiastic owner. Again it was warm enough to sit outside and try the selection of local meats and cheeses (Le Volpi el'Uva). The guidebook described it as relaxed, mellow and welcoming -- a perfect description.

Another great lunch in Florence was in a deli-restaurant (Olio e Convivium, pictured above -- a bit blurry as we were trying not to use the flash). The small dining room was decorated with chalk boards of specials, walls of wine bottles, and all of the meats, cheeses, and olive oils were on display.

Pictured: Tuscan villas, view from winery

We didn't rent a car on this trip, but we wanted a chance to see some of the Tuscan countryside, so we decided on a half-day bus trip into the Chianti wine region. We were a little concerned about who would take the tour, but it turned out to be a good mix of young/old from a variety of English-speaking countries. Our destination was the Castello del Trebbio, a castle that is family owned (and lived in); they produce wine and olive oil.

Pictured: Castello del Trebbio

After a nice tour we had a wine and olive oil tasting. We sat next to a couple of American guys who were separated from the rest of their party. They were acting a little strange ... after drinking the wine one guy would say "this is fruity" and the other would say "no, I'm fruity" ... turns out they had been drinking and playing cards the night before, and this was their payment for a lost bet! We ended up running into them again a couple of days later, at the McDonald's at the train station. Guess you can take Americans out of America, but not vice-versa!

Pictured: We don't know why anyone would name a cafe for a spleen, but we really liked the americana playing on the tv!
Ciao (or Chow)!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Italy part II -- Florence

A quick train ride from Rome and we were in Florence (Firenza). The first thing you notice is that there are statues everywhere! The most famous is Michelangelo's David, which is housed in the Accademia museum but a copy is on display in it's original location in the Piazza della Signoria. The viewing experience in the museum is quite nice, you really have time to admire the statue, unlike the crowded, noisy experience of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. But back on the streets you can barely turn around without seeing some sort of statue or architectural element, which means it's never boring even if you make the same journey many times like we did.

Pictured: David (copy, at night), Statue at the Orsanmichele church, Monument to the heroes of Mentana

The buildings that define the skyline are the Duomo cathedral, the Campanile belltower, and the fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio. The marble-guilded churches are quite unique; the inside of the duomo is quite plain except for the painted dome.

Pictured: Duomo, Campanile, Palazzo Vecchio

A short walk across the famous bridge, Ponte Vecchio, brings you to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. A fire in 1771 all but destroyed the church, but miraculously the Capella Brancacci and it's frescos were spared. Started in 1424 by Masolino and Masaccio, the frescos depict the life of St. Peter and is also famous for the depictions of Adam and Eve before and after being expelled from the Garden of Eden. A counterpoint to the horror of the expulsion is the touch of humor of the sleeping soldier. Also at the church is a fresco of the Last Supper, which like many medieval paintings included cats at the foot of the table ... likely meant as an evil representation due to a cat's independent spirit (as opposed to a dog's loyalty).

Pictured: Adam & Eve (before/Masolino, after/Masaccio), sleeping soldier, cats from the Last Supper

One of our favorite statues was this fountain near San Lorenzo. Reminds us of the monkeys from The Wizard of Oz!

We were really surprised at the numbers of Americans we saw & heard -- on the train, in cyber cafes, and at the art school. There's even an English-language theater company, and we took the opportunity to celebrate the holiday season with a performance of "The Reindeer Monologues." It was pretty funny to hear a wide variety of accents tackling a farce about dissension among Santa's reindeer.

Florence is filled with small alleys/streets and you never know what you'll find when you venture down one. On the south side of the river we were drawn by a unique metal dragon. Inside the shop an old man was metalworking, and his friend offered to let us into his workshop to see some of this creations. He pointed to a board of pictures from San Francisco ... turns out that a rich visitor to Florence saw his work and paid for the artist to go to San Fran and design/build a custom metal staircase. We really liked some of his animal sculptures but got cold feet about asking prices. Florence's association with metalworking is also evident in the jewelery shops on the Ponte Vecchio bridge. The bridge is famous for men who declare their love by putting a lock on the lightpost and throwing away the key as an expression of everlasting love.

Florence was definitely one of our all-time favorite stops, not only because of the art but because of the people, the culture, and the food! We'll talk about our culinary adventures in a separate chapter.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Italy part I -- Rome

To say that Italians are passionate people is the understatement of the century. Our tourist experience started with a common Italian sight -- temper! We took a van from the airport to our hotel in downtown Rome. We were barely five minutes on the highway when a car cut us off. With little concern for the 6 passengers, the van driver sped up and harassed the offending driver for what seemed to be 10 minutes by pulling up beside him, rolling down his window, and yelling something that we can only guess we shouldn't repeat here. Once we realized we weren't going to die we found the whole experience hilarious.

Pictured: R&R on the Open Bus in front of St. Peter, the "Wedding Cake" (Il Vittoriano), Trevi Fountain ("3 Coins in a Fountain" fame)

One of our favorite ways to explore a city is by the tourist or "open" bus tour. These double-decker buses let you hop on and off as you tour the major sites. One night we were on the last bus intending to ride back toward our hotel, but halfway through the ride Rich needed to "use the facilities" which are not available on the bus. We were forced to jump off and wouldn't you know it, there wasn't anywhere convenient close by! Just before total panic set in, we saw a combination bookstore/wine bar. As Rich ran for the little boys' room, Rochelle sat down and started a conversation with the bartender and her single patron. Turns out the customer was a Canadian living in Rome who knew seven different languages (but refused to learn Dutch because he thought it was a useless language). He was trying to score with the pretty bartender, who was working her second job ... turns out her first was (of course) an actress and she had a recurring role on an Italian sitcom. It was an enjoyable diversion and it just goes to show that sometimes good things come from bad situations.

Pictured: cats in the Largo di Torre Argentina, starlings in masse above Vatican City, Palazzo Navona

The sights in Rome are incredible -- every time you turn a corner there's another fountain, church, or ruin. One of the things you don't see a lot of is wildlife. Unless you count pigeons (on every fountain & statue), starlings (which do put on a good show when they fly in formation), and cats (living in the ruins)!

Pictured: various in/out of St. Peters including the apostles from the roof and Michelangelo's Pieta

The churches are simply spectacular. At St. Peter's you can take an elevator up to the inside of the huge dome (this didn't sit well with Rich, who got a little disoriented) and walk on the roof. We didn't do the stairs to the top of the dome, but the view from the roof is still amazing. Some of our other favorites were San Pietro in Vincoli (Michelangelo's Moses), Santa Maria del Popolo (mosaic dome and newly restored Caravaggio painting, Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria in Trastavere (mosaic domes), and Santa Cecilia (patron saint of music and 1600 statue of the saint).

Pictured: S.M.Trastavere, S.Cecilia,S.M.Popolo, Caravaggio Conversion of St. Paul

We noticed several recurring themes as we saw the sights. One of our favorites were feet, we don't really know why but once Rochelle snapped a photo from St. Peter's dome, we found ourselves noticing them all over.

Another theme is the legend of Rome's founders Romulus & Remus, who were raised by a wolf. The image pops up everywhere -- a bit creepy at first but humorous the 100th time you see it.

The third is the depiction of Moses with horns -- the result of a mistranslation but pretty interesting to see.

Our other favorite sites were the Capuchin crypt and the Villa Borghese. The crypt is beautiful and creepy at the same time -- the walls are decorated with the bones of thousands of Capuchin monks. The Borghese was our favorite museum. Housed in a former "vacation home," this mansion holds many wonderful Bernini sculptures and other works of art. We took a guided tour with only 4 other tourists, which gave the informative guide lots of time to explain how the Borghese family ingrained themselves in Roman culture.

Other than seeing the outside, we did miss exploring some of the ancient sites like the Colosseum (pictured above) and the roman forum. These will have to wait until the next visit. Ciao!