Thursday, 28 June 2012

Somewhere in Venezia

With the sun drenched Tuscany behind us we made our way to the perpetually waterlogged maze of Venezia (Venice). My first impressions were good - it was a striking city as we walked along the gondola-filled canals, over carved stone bridges, and down tiny, dark-but-friendly alleyways. We did not wonder why it was a popular destination – it was unique.

The Grand Canal - Venezia
€80 Gondola ride - Venezia
Gold falls over the city of Venice - Venezia
My second impression was – damn this place is confusing! I'm pretty handy with a map but this was the sort of place in which it was a common sight to see baffled tourists turning awkward maps upside down, savvy flashpackers walking around with GPS in hand making u-turns at dead-ends, or not-so-savvy backpackers who shunned the exorbitant 8 euros for a map and were simply lost.

Can you take my picture? A real budget backpacker, didn't even have his own camera just relied on the good will of others - Venezia
We had scored a free mini-map at our hotel, which helped a lot when combined with my Nokia phone map (I recommend downloading these if you're a Nokia user – they're free). People would ask us, “Where is the Bus Station?” and I would have to point them down back the way they had came. The problem was that Venezia was made up primarily of water roads, with winding pathways a secondary afterthought that often lead to dead-ends or the water itself – one cannot actually follow the canal if you are walking around, as you would sooner or later be forced to cross a bridge which will take you down an unintended alleyway, again often ending abruptly in a dead-end. It did not help that crucial T-intersections were not always shown on the maps.

Lovely dog one the streets - Venezia
One of many canals in the city their famous for - Venezia
But in saying that, Venezia is about getting lost, and exploring the places that chance leads you to. We found some amazing shops and buildings this way.

Carvings on the stairs inside a house - Venezia
Beautiful Masquerade mask - Venezia
Gondola under the bridge - Venezia
One fantastic secondhand bookstore we stumbled upon had so many books they had built a staircase out of them, providing a rewarding view down one of the canals.

Stairs made out of old books - Venezia
Bridge over the canal - Venezia
And then there was the Basilica di San Marco. We read that the Vatican frowned upon Venetian tendencies to glorify Venezia at the same time as God, and this church was no exception. I would have to agree with the Vatican's opinion of this one, with 8500 square metres of 24 carat gold mosaics lining pretty much every interior surface of its Greek cross layout. Cosmopolitan was also the word with Byzantine onion-bulb domes, Gothic rosette window and Egyptian marble walls. Then there was St Mark’s sarcophagus which was studded with 2000 emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies, pearls and other gemstones. Completely over-the-topalist.

The domes at the Duomo - Venezia
View of Venice from St Mark's Bell Tower - Venezia
We started to become comfortable navigating Venezia's back alleys and decided it was time to get lost somewhere else.

The leaning tower of Burano? - Burano
My sister told me about another island a bit to the north that had a fetish for bright solid colours and got hold of a lot of paint. We caught the scenic ferry ride to Burano, quoted as being the most colourful fishing village in the Mediterranean, and we couldn't say otherwise.

Crazy colours of Burano
Fire engine red anyone? - Burano
We wandered the streets snapping away, and the strict adherence of every household item to the selected colour scheme made us laugh. From matching bins to painted vents; even the plants were getting in on the action!

Matching Bin - Burano
A new meaning to lime walls - Burano
The Boundary - Burano
The flower didn't agree with the boundry - Burano
Crazy colour - Burano
We headed back to the Venezia for our final night in Italy. I wanted to end on a high but somehow instead of say, gorging on pizza, pasta and gelato again, Tia somehow pulled a cultural chord and convinced me to see an Italian opera instead. I'm definitely not one for shows where even the talking is sung, but this particular version of Il Barbiere Di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) was surprisingly enjoyable. Instead of the conventional stage and orchestra in front of a semicircle theatre, the three scenes took place inside the rooms of an actual Venetian manor, where the performance was so integrated with the setting and the audience that I almost got poked in the eye by a spectacularly energetic cello bow in Scene Two. I recognised some of the music, but the opera itself was a comedy, and although we didn't understand much of the italian, the acting was funny enough that we couldn't help but laugh. It was a great night out.

From where I was sitting I could read the Cello players Music, Italian opera - Venezia
That was it for Italy. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The food, the photography, the people, the cities, hell even the singing, it was all perfect.

Beautiful sunset - Venezia

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Il Dolce Far Niente - Tuscan Countryside

It was our first night in Torino where I first noticed that at any time during the day, people would be sitting down at benches in parks and simply chilling. Chatting to a neighbour or people watching, nobody ever seemed hurried to be anywhere else, content instead to just fully appreciate the place they were in there and then. Il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).

We were having a total ball of a time. Over just three weeks we had seen loads of sights, ate loads of food and done loads of things from Basque Country Spain, through Southern France to the European Alps and back south via the Italian Riviera to tourist heavyweights Florence and Siena. But our edges were starting to fray with the pace and we decided that we needed to find that real essence of a holiday in the most quintessential Italian way - il dolce far niente.

We felt a little deserving of a few days of rest, but this was not like taking a break in Vietnam. Taking a break in Italy, and most of Western Europe for that matter, is really expensive. Which was probably why we were rushing it to start with. But here we were, so to make the most of it we allowed ourselves another little splurge. Researching places to stay in Tuscany, I came across an agritourismo place called Cretaiole, a family farm and B&B highly recommended online. Usually places like these are booked out far in advance, but I sent off a cheeky enquiry anyway and it turned out that a major cancellation had vacated "Il Nido", a luxurious studio apartment in the beautiful medieval hamlet of Castelmuzio. That afternoon we picked up a car and headed to the gentle rolling hills, sun-kissed vineyards, slender green cypress rows and quaint villages of Tuscany.

We were to meet Isabella, our warmly welcoming host, in the town Pienza. We figured we'd discover the place a bit and wandered through the gourmet town and its various sights.

The Duomo's celling - Pienza
We settled for a little lunch at a popular looking trattoria, and I saw the word tartufi on the menu. Could it be? I had never had truffles before so of course I could not resist.

Christina and her first taste of Truffles - Pienza
It was a baking Tuscan summer day when we arrived at Castelmuzio, and Isabella settled us into our surprisingly cool, vaulted ceiling apartment with a gorgeous kitchen and private courtyard garden. Finishing touches saturated the place (there were even flower petals in the toilet for pete's sake!), and with an overflowing breakfast basket, a vintage from their own vineyard, a generous sample of their own fragrant extra virgin olive oil, and potted Italian herbs at the ready, I was overwhelmed by a desire to cook something. Isabella was only too happy to help, insisting that we raid her vegetable garden to clear out some of the crazy growing zucchini, by following her "Alora, it is stupid simple" recipe of pasta with zucchini.

Domestic life cravings satisfied for the time being, tiny Castelmuzio beckoned a wandering of her streets. Perched on a hilltop with commanding views of the countryside, it was easy to find that essence we were searching for. The key was to realise when have found yourself in a beautiful place, and then act on it by just stopping, so that you actually allow yourself the time to take in all that the beauty has to offer. Methinks we found something of il dolce far niente here.

The quiet streets - Castelmuzio
Appetizer - Castelmuzio
The view - Castelmuzio
Mere novices in the art, we exploited our newfound time to find more pleasures. While I rediscovered the notion of sleeping in, Ben rediscovered his talent for golden hour photography.

Clump of Cypress Trees - Tuscany
Hoping to find something unique in a often photographed stand of cypress trees, he found something else he had been on the lookout for - a beautiful lone cypress tree beside a dirt road, bathed in what one could truly call golden light. He is really looking forward to printing this one whenever we return home.

Truly bathed in Golden light, this lone Cypress tree stands by the road in the warm rolling hills of Tuscany.
While Ben rested on the terrace, I joined a watercolour painting class in Montisi conducted by British expat artist Elizabeth Cochrane, with two other Australians, Karen and Braham, from Perth. I had not touched a paintbrush since compulsory art classes at the beginning of high school, so I was naturally afraid of an embarrassingly kindergarten image crash-landing onto the paper. But with Elizabeth's easy guidance, we sketched, washed, sponged, salted and splattered our paint to the point where the final image was actually something to be mildly proud of.

Tia's Masterpiece - Tuscany in Watercolour
Ok, it's no candidate for the Uffizi Gallery collection, but at least Ben didn't laugh at it.

Our most enjoyable night would have to have been our pasta making night, where all the guests joined in to make the local pasta called pici. We learned the techniques of adding flour to eggs and water until the dough had "taken what it needed", kneading the dough cut-side up until it was "good enough", and hand rolling out each and every strand of pici, pulling at a speed and tension that "felt right". It was a fun novelty at first, but everyone was glad by the time the last pici noodles were rolled.

Pici Dough - Tuscany
A Product of Team Work. Our Handmade Pici Pasta with Beef Ragu - near Pienza, Tuscany
Our primo piatto done for the evening, we all settled down at the communal tables with glasses of red wine made from the surrounding vines. This was a natural ice-breaker and we met many Canadians that night. Meanwhile a massive secondo piatto of at least four different animals sizzled on the barbecue.

Sausages on the BBQ - Tuscany
Meat ready for the BBQ - Tuscany
But the meal was not yet complete. Many of the guests had prepared elaborate insalate to accompany the meats, and about seven large heaped bowls flooded the tables, each one begging to be tasted. I believe this was about the same time that the grappa and limoncello started flowing, followed by dessert cakes and the ubiquitous homemade gelato. We felt like we were going to explode, but we managed to happily stagger back in one piece. However, Ben still managed to get up a mere three hours later to capture another stunning set for the Tuscan sunrise collection.

Road lined with Cypress trees - Tuscany
Cypress trees stand alone in the Hills - Tuscany
Green and Gold rolling hills - Tuscany
Wheat fields - Tuscany
Wheat Fields - Tuscany
Old Stones in the fields - Tuscany

Our final attempt at doing nothing involved finding one of several thermal springs scattered throughout the area, their existence being a surprise that naturally enticed us on the road of discovery. The water soon had us purring at a pleasant 27°C (beautifully cooling in the heat of the day) and we wallowed in the silky smooth white mud like hippos.

We visited Abbazia di Sant'Antimo for Sunday Mass, a centuries old Romanesque style monastery nestled in a valley of vineyards and olive groves, where all services were performed in mesmerising Gregorian chant, thickened with the heavy scent of incense. I envied the life of the priests there, who appeared to have mastered il dolce far niente.

Our final evening was accommodated at the one establishment in Castelmuzio that acted as the town's hotel, restaurant, bar and village gossip centre (lots of old ladies gazing out of various windows across the square, all comings and goings sternly observed). Curious, we also snuck past a “DO NOT ENTER” sign, and discovered that it also had the highest rooftop in town, which gave Ben a great view for both sunset and the following sunrise.

Early morning light hits Montisi, seen from Castelmuzio - Tuscany
Vineyards and sunflower fields farewelled our road back to Siena.

Sunny Sunflowers - Tuscany
Sunny Sunflowers - Tuscany
Vineyard with a lone tree - Tuscany
There are few places that capture the heart in the way of the Tuscan countryside, and it saddened us to leave. I still do not think we had truly experienced il dolce far niente, but we were close to it here.

Il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing - Castelmuzio

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

A Tale of Two Tuscan Towns

From La Spezia we headed to the capital of Tuscany, Firenze (Florence).

Ponte Vecchio, famous bridge of jewellery shops - Firenze
We usually don't plan too far ahead and today was no exception; after reading about all of the hotels and hostels we didn't think we would need to book anything. The guide book pointed us in the right direction and off we went, walking two kilometres in the heat from the train station to the south of the old city looking for a hotel that, for kicks, has its own tower. We were a little surprised when we were told it was full. No problems, on to the next place. But it was also full, and so was the third and fourth options. We finally found one place that had a room, but at 360 euros it was well out of our price range. Then there was the dingy hostel room with shared bathroom for 150 euros – are you for real?! We were starting to think that we might have to skip town as none of this was looking promising, when we tried a tenth place. It was full as well, but here we discovered what the problem was – it was Fashion Week in Firenze, and fashionistas had booked out all reasonable rooms months in advance. And I thought Florentines just dressed really well. We were kindly directed to the beautiful cool courtyard of Piazza Strozzi that had free WiFi and again with the help of the internet we found a place just out of the main drag that had a room in our price range.

Setting up for fashion week  - Firenze
All this walking around with backpacks on in the heat after a massive Sentiero Rosso walk in Cinque Terre the day before, and we were really worn out. So before making our way to the hotel we wandered into another beautiful cool courtyard of Palazzo Tornabuoni. This one not only had free WiFi but also a trendy mozzarella bar called Obika. We nibbled on boards of antipasto misto with organic vegetables and a variety of mozzarella cheeses, munched on a yummy pizza topped with melting Campanian mozzarella di bufula, and cooled down with a few bottles of acqua frizzante. After a good couple of hours relaxing in the shade, we were refreshed enough to tackle the heat once again.

Amazing DOC Campanian Buffalo Mozzarella, Roast Tomato and Basil Pizza - Obika Restaurant, Firenze
I was impressed by Firenze's beauty. Everything had that “this was built a long time ago” feel, and the “they put a lot of effort into making this look good” effect. Although not something that I'd put in my own house, every piece of architecture had to have something special about it. Doors could not be simple doors, they had to be huge carved doors surrounded with amazing stone sculptures, probably done by some famous sculptor. Speaking of which, we also checked out one of Michaelangelo's Davids too. In the Palazzo Vecchio it was a copy, but the details were all there, so we could still tell the difference between the right boy-face side and the left man-face.

Reliefs on Church Door - Firenze
And then there was the Duomo. Tia, smiling mildly since she had seen it all before, asked me, “What is the opposite of minimalist?” and all I could think of was “over-the-topalist”. It had it all. Intricately detailed stone-carved reliefs; red, green and white marble (lots of which seemed in need of a good scrub to remove sticky black pollution); a massive dome and huge bell tower; and gold everywhere. From any angle, this building was intensely over-the-topalist.

The Duomo at Sunset - Firenze
View of the Duomo - Firenze
View of the Duomo - Firenze
Ok, I'm not big on art galleries, and I managed to avoid them so far in Europe but this time Tia really insisted on checking out the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) as she missed out on her last trip to Firenze. We arrived early and there was already a queue, so I opted to do the usual coffee and pastries run. It didn't take us long to get in after that. I surprised myself by making it through the whole gallery, and although it I didn't take the whole four hours recommended, I do believe I obtained some form of appreciation of the Renaissance masterpieces and a smattering of history. From Giotto altarpieces to Piero della Francesca's famous pair of portraits of awkward-looking nobility; from early Renaissance works by Botticelli and the beginnings of Leonardo da Vinci genius, to high Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Raphael, one could say there was a lot to see.

That afternoon we took a train to Siena. I was not looking forward to the massive hill we would need to walk to to get to our hotel from the train station, but someone had been kind and built a series of escalators all the way up. Grazie!

Looking up at the bell tower of the Duomo - Siena
If anyone were to ask which one I'd prefer between Renaissance Firenze and Gothic Siena (which was apparently the tendency of most travellers to do) I would say Siena won easily. Not necessarily because of aesthetic artistic opinion, but simply because it was quieter. We walked around the calm back alleys and cobbled streets in relaxed mode.

Streets - Siena
Quiet back streets - Siena
Tia enjoying and evening stroll - Siena
We dined on more delicious pasta, and continued our routine of two scoops of gelato everyday (I snuck in another two scoops, much to Tia's envy).

Ben enjoying his pasta - Siena

We spent some time in the Tuscan countryside, attempting to find il dolce far niente. For our last night in Tuscany we came back to Siena to discover it was St John the Baptist Day and various contrade were celebrating with colourful flags, fanfare and parades through the streets.

For a Feast. St John the Baptist Day - Siena
We climbed the bell tower, Torre del Mangia, in the Palazzo Comunale, for terrific views over the city and surrounding golden hills.

500 steps stairwell of the Torre del Mangia - Siena
Rooftops and Narrow Lanes - Siena
View towards the Opera della Metropolitana di Siena, from Torre del Mangia
The Palazzo itself was undergoing a conversion with truckloads of temporary dirt being laid down for the annual Il Palio wild horse race, at which many of the contrade would compete the following week.

Relaxed Shadows - Piazza del Campo, Siena
If this wasn't enough we went to an amazing restaurant for dinner and ate the best meal we had in Italy, at least in the top ten of our lives so far. First there was the setting of an underground carved out cave-like cellar.

Cavernous Dining - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Then there was the meal, or should I say meals. What we ordered was one antipasto (entree), one primo piatto (first course), one secondo piatto (second course) and one dolce (dessert). With that in mind, here is what arrived at our table (washed down with an amazing bottle of Montalcino Brunello of course):

A delicious pre-antipasto gazpacho soup appetiser.

Complimentary Pre-Entree Soup. Delish! - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Four different types of homemade bread.

Selection of Fresh Breads. Creative - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Finally our antipasto arrived.

Duck Carpaccio. Sublime - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
My primo piatto, the best lasagne I have ever had, the pasta sheets were so thin and beautifully crispy on the edges.

Lasagne al Ragù. The Best I've Had - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Tia's primo piatto was a tasty wild boar ragu pici, a local speciality.

Wild Boar Ragu Pici. Handmade Comfort - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
My secondo piatto was one of my favourite meats, rabbit, cooked perfectly.

Stuffed Rabbit Thigh with Potato Gratin. Tasty - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Tia's secondo piatto was a well presented tender rack of lamb.

Roast Rack of Lamb with Fennel Cake. Juicy - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
This was what I called a pre-dessert which appeared just after we finished our mains.

Complimentary Pre-Dessert of Something Berrylicious - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Compliments for the Complimentary Pre-Desserts - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Our actual dolce were very impressive and absolutely delicious.

Coffee mousse with Crème Brulée Heart in a Caramello Net. Divine - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Compliments for the Divine Dessert - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
Then, siamo arrivati alla frutta! When we thought we'd had more than enough, along came what I could only call post-dessert.

Complimentary Post-Desserts with Limoncello. Beyond Our Abilities - Antica Osteria da Divo, Siena
We finished every meal but the post-dessert, we could not even eat one – our stomachs were in too much pain that it was an effort simply to walk out of the restaurant.