Thursday, May 27, 2010

I’m posting this from home. I’m back in Oregon it was a very long day in the air with seriously long lines and heavy security in Italy… but I survived.

Venice brings out the artist in everyone...
Okay… It’s my last day in Venezia. I’m pretty much worn out (at least my knees are). Because of the regatta and the maniac crowds that were here over the weekend getting around was, at best, difficult.

Even the dogs are smarter in Venice... This one is walking himself!
This morning I decided to pace myself and visit the Corer Museum and Doge’s palace The Corer Museum is at the big end of the Piazza San Marco. When it opens is practically deserted. In fact I was the first visitor there. This is the “big secret” that Rick Steves talks about… Get a ticket and visit the Corer, you also get a pass for the Doge’s Palace. A lot of people don’t know this and line up to buy tickets for the Doge’s palace tour, blowing off the Corer, which has some pretty neat Venezia related exhibits. Afterwards, you get to waft by the proles standing in line and get right into the Doge’s digs… which is seriously cool. There isn’t much to his personal chamber. The evidence of the opulence of the Venetian empire cannot be hidden by the removal of some furniture.
To get the full impact you should imagine yourself a visiting dignitary… say from England or, one of the Germanies (there were quite a few of them), being ushered into one of the official spaces with all the sculpture gold leaf, etc. These guys could buy and sell your whole country if the mood took them.

Dweeb Alert!!!

If your heart doesn’t go pitty-pat with the talk of arms and armor skip this next paragraph… If Venezia suspected you might have designs on horning in on their “rice bowl” they showed you the armory. A smidge was left for us to see… but what a smidge! Swords, halberds and implements of destruction by the hundreds… row upon row. Along with the cutting implements there were suits of full plate armor that I have never seen before… and I’ve looked at lots of photos of armor and seen enough “in the steel” over the years to know this stuff was rare and quality. As for firearms there were various varieties of matchlock muskets and early flintlocks on display. What really was impressive was the number of wheel locks in the collection. There were easily over a hundred wheel locks, mostly pistols. To see even one or two good wheel lock firearms in any given collection is not unusual. A dozen would be notable… but hundreds? They had so many of a particular design pistol the curators had taken one apart to show you how the sucker worked… on the inside… very Impressive! Many years ago I built a wheel lock dragon, the weapon that gave mounted infantry troops their name… “dragoners…” or “dragoons.” I know what it takes to make one, and how delicate the mechanism can be. I also know how thrilling it is to fire one, standing next to someone shooting a flintlock, which when the wheel lock is working well (rare enough in its own right), is slow and cumbersome by comparison. Also in the collection there was a lovely little decorated light cannon and a breach loaded ship’s gun that were quite nice as well… my renaissance militaria nut rears his head. The tour continued into the Venetian Senate halls and on down into the prison and across the “Bridge of Sighs” which once was crossed, there was no going back.

A last look at Venice from the "Bridge of Sighs"...
The Corer Museum was quite nice but the Doge’s Palace knocked my socks off.

After the Doge’s palace I wandered back, window shopping, on the way, I ran across an open air market...I took my time and did some shooting.

Once back at the hotel Rialto I quizzed Marco before he went off duty. I told him of my great meal at the Alta Madonna the night before. I asked him where he would go for a great Venetian dinner, my last in the city. He gave me the address of a place around the corner. I quizzed him again. Where would I get a truly good dinner that local Venetians would enjoy. “Do Spada” he told me. Then he got out a map and drew me directions. The rest of the afternoon was spend in repose, sitting in a bar drinking Campare and soda and getting something in the stomach, crudo e melone (prosciutto and cantaloupe) to cushion the NSAIDs I was taking for my knees. I had a nap then went wandering in a direction away from where I had been walking (
without camera for once). I wound up near the Ponte Accademia. As I neared the bridge I hear a number of different classical music pieces drifting through the air. Drawn by the music I found myself standing I front of a music conservatory. Violin music was coming from one window, piano music coming from another. Different compositions were being played… don’t ask me to tell you whose music it was. Somehow it all fit and sounded “right”.
It occurs to me that I haven’t told you how much music there is in Venezia. Of course you’ve got the Gondoliers singing, though not as often as you would expect (music hikes an 80-100 euro 40 minute gondola ride significantly). There are a few street musicians but mostly there’s music coming from everywhere. There’s music coming from bars, theaters and concert halls. Music was coming out of window of private domiciles and of course there are the battling 5 piece orchestras at various restaurants on the Piazza San Marco. Anywhere else in the world it may have seemed like a cacophony, somehow in Venezia it worked.
When dinner time rolled around I found Do Spada easily. It was located down a small alley on the far side of the Ponte Rialto. The food was fresh seafood, on display in a bar top glass case. The bar tender asked what I would like… what I would like? Cheeze… it all looked so good. “Make me a suggestion,” I answered. The first course was two different kinds of fried calamari and a sardine patty cooked in pastry. It was wonderful the Calamari was crispy and had great flavor the sardine patty was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. Like the marinated fresh anchovies I had in Levanto there’s nothing I could compare it to other than to say it tasted like really good fresh fish. The second course was a variety of different sea food a prawn some fish, probably monkfish and a baby octopus all cooked in a tomato gravy. Each item had its own flavor enhanced and coordinated by the tomato gravy. Kind of like an orchestra you can hear the individual instruments but the gestalt of the thing was far better. The house wine which I had with both courses was a Pinot Grigio which gave just the right note of fruit and citrus making adding lemon to any of the seafood unnecessary. I didn’t have desert at Do Spada. I’d been promising myself a gelato sundae at this place I’d been passing in my wanderings. It was a chocolate hazelnut beast, rich chocolate and hazelnut gelato served with chocolate syrup, fresh hazelnuts and whipped cream. I’ve come to really enjoy gelato, especially the fruit flavored sort I’ve found nearly everywhere. I wish American ice cream could taste half as fresh and fruity as the gelatos I had in Italy.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I arrived in Venezia. I certainly wasn’t prepared for walking out of the train station to have the Grand Canal staring me in the face. It’s a bit overwhelming to step out of the 21st century into a renaissance travel poster at one shot. Once I figured which vaporetti (water bus) would take me where I needed to go (it only took one mistake). I arrived at the Hotel Rialto, my hotel… right next to the Ponte Rialto. On check in I found the room I had reserved would not be available until Sunday. The hotel upgraded me for the night to a double room with (get this) an actual bathtub. It was a first in Italy, where some showers are so small you can almost scrub your ass without reaching around. What was even better, the tub had a Jacuzzi (bliss). My knees have been giving me fits lately with all the walking. Once I got settled I got directions to Piazza San Marco, I set out to find the focal point of the Venetian empire.

I haven’t had chills at anytime during my trip. Sure, I’ve been thrilled and surprised (in both directions) and have been moved almost to tears at the sheer beauty of the Tuscan countryside. I’ve got to tell you I got chills In the Piazza San Marco. In Mercedes Lackey’s book “The Shadow of the Lion” in a mythical Venezia, the city was protected by an elemental spirit (a winged lion). There is an elemental spirit in Venezia and there are enough winged lion images scattered about to give it form. Any great city has its elemental spirit. I’ve felt it in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and oddly enough Portland Oregon. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes like with New York City, it’s a slap in the face. If you don’t feel it, you’re just not trying hard enough.

On the way in on the vaporetto I had been seeing posters for “Venezia” a live theater production of the story of Venice. History buff that I am I figured it was just the thing to get tossed into the deep end of the Venetian pool. It took several tries to find the Teatro San Gallo just off Piazza San Gallo, naturally. The show was real fun. Think of street theater with help from modern audiovisuals. 5 actors 2 male 3 female told with genteel comedy, the story of Venezia from its beginnings as a swampy refuge from barbarians, to the fabulously wealthy Mediterranean powerhouse it became, then the decline into decadence. It was well worth the 39 Euroes a ticket cost. I had dinner at a bar on the way back (as you might suspect a bar can be more than just a place to buy a beer in Italy). I had Spaghetti ala frutti di mare along with a good Sicilian rosso. It was very nice, but not earth shaking. While I was eating dinner the big soccer match came on. Milan’s united team versus Spain (I think)... Milan won 2 zip. Rick Steves said it’s fun to get lost in Venezia… he’s right. On the way back I got lost… on purpose.

I wanted to see what I could get hand holding the camera in the dark. I kept running into other photogs doing the same as I. Every time I did the line was “…what are you shooting at” (referring to ISO (film sensitivity), shutter speed and F-stop)? All of us giggling like children and “chimping” (looking at the resulting shot on the display at the back of the camera) madly at what the camera shot.

On Sunday the city celebrated (a Venetian tradition… celebrating that is) with a regatta on the Grand Canal. Vaporetti service was suspended while rowers and paddlers vied for the best time around the “fish” that is Venezia. A swimmer lead the multitude of gondolas (single and multi oarsmen), canoes (both the regular sort and outrigger variety), kayaks, rowing shells, boats, and there were a few dragon boats with drummers for contrast. There was a lot of shouting from and to the district rowing teams from their families and friends on the quayside… great fun.

Later I took the Vaporetti out to Murano. By that time I’d been on my feet for nearly 8 hours and my knees were letting me know enough was enough. I returned to the hotel to write this. . My new room was even smaller than the dinky thing I had at the Best Western in Milan (it is possible to scrub your ass without reaching around) but the view… killer. I planned to go out again for dinner later… a restaurant, “The Madonna” recommended by the owner of “Trattoria Milanese” where I had dinner Friday night.

Well I’m back and I’m not quite ready for bed, so making you wait for what I had for dinner just doesn’t seem fair. For starters I had a mix of seafood. It’s kind of hard to ID everything on the plate… but I’ll try. There were tiny boiled shrimp and slightly larger boiled shrimp, what I think was scallop, but a honking huge chunk of one, something that kind of looks like a shrimp but bigger and with mantis like front claspers, a baby octopus and what I think were snails… sounds kind of creepy but everything was done beautifully and tasted for the most part excellent (the snails were ok but I’m not sure how you could have made them taste better). The main course was squid cooked in its own ink with white polenta… very good! Everything was served with a house white wine which was delicious. Desert (I know you’re just waiting for desert) was almond cookie “Ss” served with a sweet white wine. I’m not sure which Dolcetta it was, but it was very tasty.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Milano 1... Petrolati... 1 (Maybe)

Obligitory Duomo shot to comply with Photo Cliche Regulations

I’m sitting in the Hotel Galles (Best Western) in Milano. In a little while I’ll be boarding the train for Venezia. Yesterday I had hoped to get to the Alfa Romeo Museum just outside of town. I had an address and rough directions. With the help of the front desk staff (who were surprised I didn’t want directions to the Duomo) and the Italian railway system (Chiara, you were so right, they’re idiots) I wound up in Varese an hour out of Milano in sight of the snowy Italian Alps. When I finally got back to Milan (delays in both directions) I grabbed a taxi back to my hotel to sulk. I whined about my situation to the cabby. His response was “I know where the museum is…” His advice however was to not go at this late an hour. The cab fare would have been 30 euroes out (which at that point I would have been willing to pay), as traffic would be relatively light. Coming back would have been during rush hour when the fare could easily have been double, if not more… even if I could have gotten a taxi at the museum at that hour.

Once back in my room I checked my emails then decided Milan was NOT gonna get the better of me. It shames me to say I took the Metro to the Duomo, where there was some sort of youth rally going on… They had a Jumbotron and some guy shouting into the mike. I never saw him. The crowds were astounding. I wandered around for a bit then headed for the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Remember in the film Crocodile Dundee where a tough sticks a switchblade in Dundee’s face?

Now that's a mall...

Leonardo DaVinci... `did some work for the Sforzas, That's the Galleria behind him

Dundee, hauling out a hyperthyroid Bowie, responds, “Call that a knife? …this is a knife…” When I first went in the Galleria I thought about the cheesy shopping malls in the states… “Ya call that a mall? …THIS is a mall…” The Galleria soars over 100 feet over your head. Over there was Prada… over here… Gucci… Mercedes Benz? Right here madam! The interior is stunning (I’ve said that word so many times it seems to lose its impact… but it is). High up near the glassed ceiling are beautiful mosaics of legendary characters like Cleopatra. I was to starting to feel a bit hungry (of late and whenever I could get away with it, I’ve been skipping lunch, to have a really great dinner).

Inside the courtyard at Castle Sforza

To work up more appetite I walked the few blocks to the Sforza castle. It’s a great bastion, but to my mind’s eye the guy didn’t have much worry about being attacked. It looked strong, but not a place that was really meant to defend against a really well equipped determined foe…. impressive none the less. It was pretty late in the day so the museum was getting ready to close. I wandered out with the carabinieri and the rest of the crowd. I used Rick Steve’s book to find the Trattoria Milanese, a neat little restaurant not too far from the Duomo. I only needed to ask one local and found it right where they left it. Dinner was an antipasti of steamed asparagus in butter and parmesan… a revelation! I like asparagus but never thought to use parmesan with it! Dinner was Osso Buco on a bed of saffron risotto… wonderful accompanying the foods was the house red a Montepulciano, which complemented the veal perfectly. For desert the house specialty was zabaglione… another breathtaking end to the meal. Stuffed to the gills I staggered back to the Metro and managed to find my room before the lights went out.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Some More Pix For You!

Street scene in Porto Venere

Restaurants and shops along the waterfront in Porto Venere

View of Porto Venere from the fortress church

Cute kids in Riomaggiore (check the girl on the left doing "cheesecake")

Via D'Amore on pix left looking back to Riomaggiore

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It’s Tomorrow... and it’s Entirely Different...

Boarding the ferry at Monterosso... who are all those old people... eep!
Elisa’s sister, Chiara, shares duties with her at the front desk. At breakfast she helped me plan my day, giving me great advice as how to get the most out of my time in the 5 Terra. I did the lazy man’s tour of the Cinque Terra. I took the train to Monterossa al Mare. There I boarded the ferry and cruised on down stopping at most of the other towns of the Cinque Terra (the seas were up a bit for stopping at Vernazza and Corniglia).

I think this is Corniglia... or possibly Manarola
to Porto Venere… where Lord Byron hung out and liked to swim from the fort there to a nearby island… at least, he did until that last unfortunate evening. I also took the 3 island cruise (no, it wasn’t on the S.S. Minnow). There may be more photogenic places on the Ligurian coast… but I haven’t found them.

Porto Venere

It wouldn‘t surprise me to find that it’s probably been in a few films. The tourist trade was brisk (mostly folks from Germany) but you could always get away from the crowds. I found a secluded little piazza and enjoyed a piece of tuna pizza I bought from a little pizzeria in an alleyway (fresh tuna folks… it’s a whole `nother animal). After wandering around for at least another hour, I felt the need for more sustenance and had some fresh mozzarella and prosciutto with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. I took the ferry back as far as Riomaggiore (Big River). On the way I was told if you bought your tickets at the trailhead for the Via D’Amore it would be pricier than if you hiked up the hill to buy at the tourist office. So-o-o, I hiked up the hill (working off some of the second lunch I had) …did I tell you the hill goes straight up? When I got up to the top of the hill I was asked “why did you come up here for your ticket?” When I told them what I was told, the young man there said, “No… it’s the same price.”After a snide comment about the church situated halfway up the hill needing to be where it was so they could perform last rights on climbers… I bought my ticket (didn’t want to have made the trip for nothing). And I schlepped back down the hill… it goes straight down too! The Via D'Amore is possibly one of the easiest trails in the Cinque Terra and after the hike up the hill it was JUST FINE WITH ME! I opted to take the train back Levanto from Manarola. Still full from lunch I opted to pass for dinner. 10PM I felt rather peckish so I went down to the Casino Piazza for a Goodnight Gelato…

Here Comes the Sun....

I couldn't post in Levanto because of a computer mis-communication (probably my machine) this post is a couple days old... `sorry for the delay.

Levanto and fer-heavens-sake what's that big yellow thing in the sky?

I turned the car in Siena this morning and after a brief taxi ride I had ticket in hand for Levanto. 2 train changes and about 3 hours later there’s all this sun Sunlight unencumbered by even the hint of a rain cloud all over the place (I begin to do a happy Snoopy dance in my head). The trip was made quicker with conversation with the Morgensterns, from Northeast Portland Oregon. They were on their first trip abroad and doing a “recce vacation” for future trips. We compared notes as to where we had been and what we’d been doing. They were in Siena while the football craziness was going on. OBTW, there was no joy in Sienaville last night. The local football team got blanked (I think by Milan).

The trip from Spezia Central station onward was spectacular, very high mountains, with quarries way up the sides of those mountains (Carrara marble comes from there) and beautiful hill towns too. I would love to have taken tons of pix but the windows on the train were so grubby you would only see dirt. The Morgensterns got off at Manarola in the Cinque Terra. About an hour and a half later later I was drawing a bead on the beach in Levanto. The word from my concierge, Elisa, here, at A Durmi’, a beautiful B&B just down the hill from the train station, is that many of lower trails in the Cinque Terra have been washed away by the almost constant rain, leaving most of the higher trails and the serious work of climbing them intact (I don’t know if my knees are up to the trails). The Elisa was a great help suggesting places to go to for good shots of the environs as well as some less touristy places for even better shots.

I just heard what sounds like an ocean liner! Is THAT a change from rural Tuscany or what!

After dark (had to use the monopod at least once on this trip)

Tonight dinner was at “Ristorante da Rino” a place specializing in Ligurian specialties and one of the restaurants listed in Rick Steve’s book. I chose the marinated fresh anchovies for starters. If all you have for anchovy reference is the salty wizened up things that most folks pick off their pizza, you are in for one serious treat. The little fish came with olives tomato and a bit of rocket. For secondi I had the grilled swordfish… excellent. Trust a sea front town to get fish right. The swordfish was a fall back choice because all the seafood dishes I really wanted were for 2 or more. Which brings me to a subject I tried to breech a couple of days ago when it was raining gatti e cani, but it sounded too maudlin so I deleted it. It’s traveling alone…

I love the act of exploring. To me there’s nothing better than getting in a car and taking off for god knows where. But now 2 weeks in on my “Big Road Trip’ I’m beginning to miss having someone to share it with… Italy is just too cool for one person alone. The worst times are at dinner. Here dinner is an event. It can last all evening. Sitting at a table for one is starting to get a little depressing… at home at least I have the cats........................... man… that’s REALLY depressing. Maybe I’m hitting sensory overload or just getting tired of living out of a suitcase, but that’s what I’m feeling at the moment. Tomorrow could be entirely different.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Last Day in Tuscany...

It wasn’t actively raining this morning when I set out for Siena to “see what I could see”. The trip over was uneventful but by the time I got there it seemed all of Italy had turned out with about half a bazillion Carabinieri there too. As I sat in traffic to get to where I could find a parking place near center city I started seeing folks in black and blue regalia… a football crowd. There must be a match in Siena. Just as I was directed to turn around to where parking could be found (probably several kilometers away) the sky opened up and it began to pour. Ah well… Siena will have to wait for another time.
On the way down I noticed a castle brooding fairly close to the highway… plan 2. Go to the castle, mosey around. The castle was Monteriggioni, one of the major fortifications that protected Siena from Firenze. The fortification stood from the 13th century undefeated until it fell finally by treachery (as these things do) in the 1500’s. The site is much older. It’s been a fort since Roman times. It commands a chunk of important highway from Rome to the north and is mentioned in “The Inferno” by Dante who visited the place before it fell. The site is fairly well preserved with restaurants and shops dotting the small square. There are also several small hotels or B&Bs within the walls. If you wanted a sense of a medieval fortress here is your place. I found a small museum of arms and armor (most were reproductions, but beautifully done by a master of the craft). Unlike at the Stibbert Museum in Firenze, where the suits are standing row upon row, these were dressing really nicely done manikins in little dioramas. The chainmail for the most part was riveted and very impressive. The plate was very nicely done. The men at arms wore cruder gear than their officers. There were several opportunities to actually handle the exhibits, Trying on the fully articulated gauntlet, handling the crossbow and hand cannon was worth the price of admission! The museum fee got you admission to climb up on the battlements and look at the surrounding countryside… very cool. Monteriggioni is quite small compared to Cortona, or Volterra. If someone was really ambitious enough this would be a wonderful place for a living history museum…

A neat thing happened while I was there. I was walking down an alleyway (there only a couple of streets here) when I heard Jazz coming from one of the shops. It was one of those moments where the input of what you are seeing and what you are hearing collide. Whoever was playing piano was a good as you’d hear in any Jazz club in New York, Chicago or New Orleans. There was a great combo backing him/her up. I poked my head into what was a lavender and herb shop, the size of a small walk-in closet. “Jazz,” I said, molto bene!” I gave the shopkeeper a big thumbs-up. She grinned back and said in English “One of my favorites… they’re Italian!” We talked about our favorite musicians briefly then, I continued down the alley which bent sharply I soon heard Edith Piaf crooning in her bedroom voice coming from another shop…
I didn’t linger too long in Monteriggioni. It was around noon and I wasn’t particularly hungry so I headed back to Impruneta and was there in time for the Formula 1 race in Monaco (Mark Webber won it for the Red Bull team). Watching the race broadcast in Italian was fun. You didn’t really need to know what the announcers were saying. I spent the rest of PM kicking back and drinking the leftover Sangiovese from last night... heaven!
For my last night in Tuscany, I had dinner here at Inalbi’s trattoria. Primi was ravioli fresci stuffed with ricotta and spinach in tomato ragu, Secondi was an excellent grilled steak, served rare, from the farm’s livestock which I had first heard when I arrived. Of course there was plenty of the house Chianti and I finished the meal off with a glass of grappa. I think the stuff’s growing on me. Tomorrow it’s back to Siena where I turn in the rental and take the train to Levanto and Cinque Terra.