Saturday, July 17, 2010

All This Yummy Food (Behind Locked Doors)

After leaving Siena, the food tour of Italy began (again, I thought I was going to lose weight on this trip???)

From Tuscany, I headed north into the foodie regions of Emilia-Romangna, Lombardy and Veneto.

Ah, I was so excited to sample all the local specialties, but my were they hard to get to between siestas that seem to last the entire day, Sundays (when no one works, as if they are working so hard the other six days) and summer vacations. Going from closed restaurant to restaurant got frustrating, but I still managed to find some delicious treats!

Bologna, birthplace of Bolognese sauce and close to the towns known for Parma ham, Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar (Modena). Bologna is also a college town, boasting the oldest university in Europe, and apparently the smallest bathroom at my hotel.

Bologna feels more like a small city than the other quaint medieval towns, complete with lots of churches, squares, alleys, etc. There was lots of good food to be had here, but sadly I only made it to one spot on my list since everything appeared to be closed (I guess the kids are out of school, so they shutter for the summer?). At least I found some good wine bars.

I was able to get the award winning gelato from La Sorbetteria Castiglione. OMG, it was the best gelato I have ever had, and I've had a lot recently.

(Oh, I was finally able to unload that olive oil at Mail Boxes Etc- yay!!!)

Next stop, Ravenna for their 8 UNESO World Heritage Sites, all early Christian and Byzantine mosaics.

The Basilica di San Vitale, consecrated in 547, was covered in vibrant mosaics of greens, golds and blues. It was definitely in the top 3 of the churches visited-- it also made me realize I like mosaics, but really have limited appreciation of frescoes.

The Basilica Di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo was also pretty amazing with the largest mosaics depicting 26 white robed monks (or virgins on the opposite wall). The mosaics are so old, but are in amazing condition.

The town was really charming and incredibly quiet. While there I met a gay couple from New York and a British man in town doing some sort of oil related work (apparently with much frustration due to the Italian work ethic).

Needless to say, lots of wine was consumed in Ravenna and the restaurant was delicious and friendly (some Gossip Girl talk and all!) Too bad it ate up all my savings from the cheap hotel as I stayed so long the buses stopped running and I had to take a taxi home ;-)

Mantua (or Mantova, as they say)
After a fairly long train journey from Ravenna where I had a 2 hour stop in the middle of nowhere, I arrived in Mantua. On the train I met a lovely, elderly Italian man (that actually spoke English) who was right out of central casting complete with straw hat, mustache and all (I ran into the next day as well, but didn't have time for a drink unfortunately because I had to get the local specialty, pumpkin tortellini, before catching the train).

Mantua lies on the shores of Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo and Lago Inferiore. There really isn't much in Mantua- Virgil was born here, Romeo bought his poison here and they have churches and palaces like everywhere else.

The Palazzo Ducale is their top attraction, with 3 squares, 15 courtyards, a park and 500+ rooms chock full of art. I paid the extra for the audio tour and must say it bored me to tears--- I am not THAT interested in Mantuan art I suppose.

I also visited many more churches and Casa Di Rigoletto, the building Verdi used as a model for the famous opera.

Running out of much to do and adopting a "when in Rome" philosophy, I rented a bike and cycled around the lakes and palaces. It was nice, even without any gears, and I didn't get run over (which was in doubt a few times).

The highlight of Mantua (and it wasn't my first trip to McDonald's in months- I was starving and NOTHING was open due to damned siesta!). My meal at Fragoletta Antica was amongst the best I've had, full of pork products. I started with prosciutto, followed with a pasta with pork cheek (I think) and finished with a panna cotta in Lambrusco wine (local product) and strawberries. It was SO good!

Verona, home of Romeo and Juliet (yes, I stood on Juliete's balcony, embarrassingly), is amongst the most beautiful towns in Italy. It is known as Piccolo Roma for it's importance in imperial days, mostly the 13th and 14th centuries.
But the real reason to come to Verona in the summer is for their opera festival, held in the Roman Arena dating from the 1st century AD!!! It is the third largest Roman amphitheater in existence, seating 30,000 people, and was actually in pretty good shape.
I guess back in the 1st century they didn't think of staging, so it was cool to walk around the outside of the amphitheater and see the giant sets from Madame Butterfly, Aida, etc.
I went to see Aida, which was quite a production in terms of cast and staging.
It was a really cool experience to sit on 2000 year old stone steps (I had a cushion, thanks to the B&B owner) watching the opera--- just lovely. As you might expect, people come from all over for the festival so I had a nice time chatting with my Greek and British neighbors for hours leading up to the start (general admission) and during the intermissions.
Of course Verona also had it's pretty squares and churches, but I won't bore you with more about them.
Two places of interest I did visit were the Castelvecchio, a 14th century fortress on the banks of the river Adige. Although it was badly damaged in WWII, today it is restored into an interesting museum with nice views from the top.
The other places was the Roman theater across the river, also from the 1st century. Although nothing was showing the nights I was in Verona, they do still use for theater.
Padua (or Padova)
Everywhere I've been in Italy, I have loved, but not as much as Padua!
It was a little challenging getting there due to the transit strike, but I made it via bus, so not so bad.
There really isn't anything in Padua, so it is strange I liked it SO much, but everything was just delightful!
Hotel Belludi 37 was amazing, so I was off to a great start. They showed me all the spots worth hitting.
Padua is the city of St. Anthony and home to Italy's second oldest university, where Galileo once taught.
St. Anthony's Basilica is chock full of stuff- including his tomb and a whole room dedicated to relics--- I do so love a relic! Oh, and there is some Donatello floating around too.
Like every other Italian city, there is also the main square with markets, in this case surrounding the pretty Palazzo della Ragione with its vast hall covered in frescoes and a giant wooden horse.
The Pratto della Valle was something different- it used to be a Roman theater, but is now basically a large green island divided by four avenues corresponding to four bridges, surrounded by a canal and 78 statues of famous men. Surrounding the green are beautiful old buildings-- a nice place to eat a gelato!
On the bus to Padua I met a lovely Brazilian woman who I joined for a glass of wine at the most adorable wine bar and dinner, when there we met a fun couple from San Francisco.
All in all, Padua was just delightful.

Final stop, Venice! And a friendly face to boot!
Ed Kim met me in Venice, so at last I could bum around with someone else.
I arrived a few hours earlier so walked around the city, saving St. Marks for when Ed arrived.
At the recommendation of our hotel (which I walked by 1000 times with my heavy backpack), I visited the Punta Della Dogana, a new contemporary art museum from the Francois Pinault Foundation. It is housed in the old Sea Customs Post and was really interested architecturally, plus the art too.
For the 20E entry fee, you also got to visit Palazzo Grassi, which was Pinault's mansion. It was hilarious. They had a piece called "Dancing Nazis" where the courtyard floor of this grand palace was covered with a blinking disco floor and the corresponding wall was full of pictures of famous Nazis--- it found it amusing anyway. There were a few other things that made me laugh- like captioning the window for the view outside.
I also popped by the Peggy Guggenheim gallery where one piece in the sculpture garden really spoke to me--- sure you can understand why (see right).
Once Ed arrived we ventured to St. Marks, which wasn't as crowded as we expected (we were kinda dreading it).
Despite my thinking I would hate it since it is SO touristy, it really is pretty great. It was crowded, but not so bad (I have to thank the recession for nothing being too packed).
The mosaics in the Basilica were lovely, the Palazzo Ducale looks even more beautiful in person and the whole thing was pretty great.
We did have an especially long photo session on the balcony of the Basilica (thanks Ed!), while we waited for the clock to strike 1pm, which somehow we missed anyway.
On a walk over the Rialto bridge towards St. Marks we happened upon a glass shop with beautiful water glasses. While there we got the rundown from the sales woman on non-touristy places to check out.
Okay- next thing we are off walking, walking and walking some more (did I mention it is HOT?), to the Arsenal area and beyond to Sant Elena and San Pietro- in other words, off map. I was really nice over that way, getting a glimpse into how real Venetians live.
She also sent us to St. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari to see the Titian altarpiece. We saw, but were also maybe a little poorly behaved sneaking pictures of what appeared to be a somewhat racist sculpture from back in the days.
Of course Ed went back and bought those pricey glasses, so we were able to report back on our day, but not before catching a glimpse of the best thing yet- spinning class on a ferry boat!!!! How ingenious (and hot)!
Our time in Venice ended with a steamy night at the pub watching the World Cup final with a bunch of very happy Spaniards. God how I wanted someone to score so we could go eat dinner, but extra time it was so my last Italian meal was a bad slice of pizza at midnight since again all the good food was locked behind bars.

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