Saturday, July 23, 2011

How much is 3 hours in Venice worth?!

Our flight to Frankfurt left Venice airport at 8 pm so I had the brilliant idea of dropping off our rental car early in the day, checking in our luggage, storing our hand luggage and taking the vaporetto into Venice for lunch and a little wandering around.  We had spent 5 days in Venice on our last trip so didn't really feel the need to do much sightseeing.

The first indication of trouble was when Lufthansa refused to check us in earlier than 3 hours before our flight.  So we schlepped all our bags down to the luggage storage facility and left them there (after much security screening and id-checking).  Then we headed off to buy vaporetto tickets - well it turns out that the vaporetto to San Marco takes an hour and ten minutes.  Which would have given us maybe an hour in Venice before we had to head back for our flight.

So we took a water taxi for 100 direct to San Marco - which the girls just loved.  We cruised by the Danieli, where we had waterfront rooms last time, and glided into San Marco in about 30 minutes.  By this time it was past 2:30 pm and we went in search of lunch, only to be turned away by a few restaurants.  We finally ended up at the cafe of the Bauer Palazzo hotel, overlooking the Grand Canal.  We had a long and pleasant lunch watching the gondolas and boats go by.

After lunch, we wandered through San Marco, which seemed to be less beautiful than in the past.  Perhaps I just like it better in the mornings and evenings.  Or perhaps the huge section of walled off construction had something to do with it.

A little more shopping, some gelato and a stroll over the Rialto Bridge.  Then we boarded a water taxi many hundreds of euros poorer, and headed back to the airport in good time for our flight to Frankfurt, then on to Bangkok.

Visiting Verona

On our last full day in the Veneto, we headed off to see Verona in the daylight.  It's really a lovely city and although parts were very crowded (by Juliet's house, mostly), most of the city was not very heavily touristed.

The ruling family in Verona were the Scaligieri (similar to the Medicis in Florence) and the Scaligieri Bridge leading up to the old castle was really lovely.  Looking down at the Adige river (the same one that runs by our Villa) from the bridge very much reminded me of Florence as well.

We then went to see Juliet's house and balcony - a tourist attraction that was set up in the 1930s.  The house had been an inn belonging to the Capuleti family who were famously feuding with the Montecchia family (and were the inspiration for Shakespeare and many other authors).  So the balcony was added in the 1930s to add to the mystique and the whole thing was renamed Juliet's House and added to the standard tourist destination list.  The odd little tradition is to rub the right breast of the statue of Juliet in the courtyard!  We stood in line after a passel of Asian tourists, all happily snapping away with their cameras.

We had lunch in Piazza dei Signori at Antico Caffe Dante, some lovely seafood risotto and fettuccini - and watched an Italian commercial being filmed by Dante's rather creepy statue.  We also had a lovely dessert of chocolate gnocchi - very yummy.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bravissima Aida!

Dave Morris, in his infinite wisdom, bought us Aida tickets many, many months ago.  Which is why we packed the adults up into two cars and headed into Verona, sans children, one evening.

We did not recognize any of the famous Italians in the photo :(
We started off with a nice dinner at Trattoria al Pompiere, a Chowhound recommendation that managed to fit the 10 of us into it's smallish space with only a day's notice.  We had yet another excellent Italian meal, with yet another fabulous salumi platter, and the local specialty, risotto alla amarone (the local robust red wine).
Prosciutto, Lardo, Mortadella, Sopressatta...
Then we strolled over to the 2,000 year old Roman amphitheater known as the Arena, armed with little padded cushioned seats, English libretto and a fan.  The capacity was 25,000 for the audience, but we were a lot less than that - probably only about 75-80% full.  There was a lot of choice - La Traviata had been playing the prior evening, Barber of Seville was the next night.

Seeing Aida there was simply magnificent, under the almost full moon.  The cast of hundreds displayed phenomenal pomp and circumstance in the triumphal march in Act II, with dancing girls, solders and 4 very well-behaved live horses on stage.  Radames was suitably noble, Aida suitably wistful and Amneris suitably dramatic and scorned.

Since the opera started at 9:15 pm, it ran quite late.  I fortified myself with a cornetto ice cream for the roving vendors who appeared magically during the breaks between acts.

A night to remember!


I guess this is a big thing while holidaying in Italy - agriturismo are farms who are allowed to function either as B&Bs or to open up to serve food to the public Thurs-Sundays.  They are very popular with families since the associated activities usually include a farm tour and lots of outside play areas for the kiddies.

We went to one close by for dinner on Sunday night, to Tre Rondini (or the three swallows).  The kids enjoyed the trampolines, playground and this highly coveted bike thingy (I really thought someone was going to get hurt!).

The adults enjoyed some fabulous risotto and nice salumi platters.  It made for a very relaxing and laid back dinner, with lots of other Italian families.  Not a big thing for the foreign tourists apparently...

Busy in Bologna

Bologna is an old university town.  I read that of the major medieval universities, Oxford was renowned for science, Paris was known for theology, and Bologna was known for law.  Nowadays, it's also known for food as the biggest town in Emilia-Romana.

Cheese display at Eataly
We headed into Bologna on a 90 degree day and ended up at Eataly, the food emporium, for lunch.  Not the most atmospheric, but their air-conditioning was excellent!  We had the local specialities - tagliatelle alla bolognese for Narisa (it's her favorite pasta and I told her she really needed to have it when it was invented, in Bologna!), tortellini in Brodo (small tortellini served in soup), some local fish and a meat patty that was prepared to Slow Food standards.

This part of Italy is the cradle of the Slow Food movement - the precursor to the locavore movement in California.  More on that at a later restaurant...

The Trabosh, Morris and McAdams kids

Bologna was surprisingly untouristy.  We wandered around the mercato di mezzo in Bologna and into the old San Petronio cathedral, which was enormous.  The interesting thing about Bologna is that almost everything was built in red brick but not faced in marble like other Italian cities.  So the Bolognese are reputed to be very straight forward without a lot of pretense - plus a hotbed of leftist politics.
Gelato bars - the blood orange was yummy
After a nice wander, a little shopping and the requisite gelato, we called it a day.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lake Garda and Sirmione

Last Sunday, we drove up to Lake Garda, the easternmost of the northern Italian lakes (Lake Como is the westernmost and probably the most famous of the lakes - where George Clooney has a house ;).

It was a beautiful, albeit very hot day.  We had lunch at a small restaurant lakeside with a dock and boat mooring - where Narisa stuck her feet into the water (it was not as cold as we thought it would be).

Then we walked and walked to the small town of Sirmione that was lovely but extremely crowded.  It was a small medieval town, so cars had to park outside the walls of the old town.  Inside, there were narrow cobblestone streets with charming shops.  Check out the most magnificent bougainvillea in the photo below.

And we ended up at the ruins at the tip of the little peninsula with lovely views.

Villa Bartolomea!

My apologies for being so behind in my posts, but it's been awfully busy and blogging does have a lower priority than sightseeing, shopping, eating, gelato and doing work emails!

We arrived on Saturday evening to Villa Mira, our 13 bedroom villa in the small town of Villa Bartolomea, located about 30 miles southeast of Verona.  It's a huge and rambling villa from the late 1800s belonging to a prominent Roman family who rent out part of the property - there are some parts that are just sealed off (although we did break in to explore the old chapel ;) and parts that just seem unused (the old stables).  There is an onsite caretaker, which is really useful when things break down - she gave us an hour's worth of instructions about the house.  130 year old houses have a lot of idiosyncrasies...

We have five families staying here this week - 10 adults + 11 teens and kids ranging from 5 to 18.  Every room in the house is fully occupied!  The ground floor has a large living room, music room, billiard room, conservatory room, dining room and enormous kitchen with a large marble topped table where we spend a lot of time.

Our bedroom are beautiful, look at our ceilings in the photo below.

The downside to the house is that not all the rooms have screens, and when unscreened windows are left open, we are often swarmed by mosquitos and wasps.

We are located right next to the Adige river which runs from Lake Garda in the north, down to meet the Po, running through Verona before it gets down by us.  There is a great bike path that runs along the river for miles - I went for a bike ride while our teenagers went for a run the other morning.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Last Day in Rome

I think we might have had our favorite meal in Rome for lunch on our last day.  We started off the day by going to the Capuchin Church off Piazza Barberini, also known as the Church of Bones.  The kids found this a little creepy but the thousands of bones were used in a very decorative manner in their crypt (see above photo).  I highly recommend this and it's a really quick stop!

Then we wandered down the hill towards the Roman Forum and into Enoteca della Provincia di Roma for lunch.  We sat at a table next to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Trajan's Column and the Forum.  The restaurant featured local wines and all local products from the Lazio province around Rome.

We ordered the antipasti plate of salumi and local cheeses, which was excellent.  Then two different salads and two sandwiches, including a delicious porchetta sandwich that I enjoyed very much.

After the rejuvenating lunch, we wandered off into the Imperial Forum museum and were sad to learn that Trajan's Market was closed for renovations so we could wander around inside what I described to the girls as the world's first mall.  We enjoyed looking it from afar though, then called it a day and headed back to our apartment for our last evening in Rome.

The Great Gelato Round-Up

We like gelato - a lot.  What's not to like?!  Technically, gelato is denser and richer than ice-cream since it has a lot less air churned into it (~20% air vs ~60% air in ice-cream) and a softer texture.

Our first stop in Rome was Gelateria del Teatro, a newish hand-made place down an ivy-covered alleyway a few blocks from Piazza Navona.  Following our usual family pattern, Narisa had white peach and strawberry, Amara had stratiaccella and chocolate, Sean had puro (a super dark chocolate) and tartufo and I had lavender flowers/white peach and sparkling strawberry.  Plus we shared a surprisingly rich granita of mint and lime, that tasted of fresh mint leaves.  It was a great first stop - traditional flavors plus a few nouveau experiments that were lovely.  And rich, rich, rich!  We made multiple stops back here during the rest of the trip.

The next stop of note was Gelateria Corona.  I had lemon with basil and wild strawberry, Amara had chocolate and stracciatella.  The fruit flavors were excellent and the chocolate was also pronounced to be two thumbs up.

The third stop on the list was a little disappointing - Alberto Pica had been written up in multiple guides.  But it was just so-so.  I had chocolate and rice, which was a slightly odd combo - I also asked for pear, but I guess he did not hear me.  Amara really liked hers - hazelnut and chocolate which if she spooned carefully, combined into an excellent nutella-like concoction.

The next stop was San Crispino - chocolate meringue and Valrhona chocolate for me, peach and lemon for Sean, stracciatella and peach for Narisa and Valrhona chocolate and nocciola for Amara.  The shop was interesting - the gelato was kept in steel bins with lids so you couldn't see the actual gelato until you ordered it.  And the service was almost surly.  This was the gelateria featured in Eat, Pray, Love and most reports say it's gone downhill due to its enormous popularity, and the original proprietors are now too busy expanding their empire to maintain their previous quality levels.  I have to say the peach was amazing - I'd go back just for that one single flavor.

Frigidarium was another local gelato place, not as high profile as the others, but recommended nonetheless - plus an ideal location just 3 mins away from our apartment.  They had some excellent cream flavors including a vanilla caramel specialty and another vanilla swirled with nutella.  Plus they gave very generous servings! And you could get whipped cream or a chocolate dip at no additional charge. We went back there a few more times and concluded this was the best quality/value combo, although their flavor selection was not huge.

Venchi was a beautiful place we happened on - not written up anywhere but it seemed to have a big focus on chocolate flavors (and also sold other chocolate items).  It was such a pretty store plus interestingly enough, sold low cal gelato.  Which was quite delicious - plus we also tried their gianduja and chocolate flavors.  A nice find.  They had just run out of Azteca Chocolate though, I was sad.

We also stopped at Il Gelato one evening - almost too many flavors to choose from - 20 different kinds of chocolate alone.  Venezuelan, Madagascar, Columbian - you could get gelato made from sourced cocoa, and then labelled with % intensity!  It was a little complicated to choose and I was still rather stuffed from dinner.  It would have merited a return trip but alas, we were not in that part of town again.

Another place that came highly recommended was Giolitti, near the Pantheon.  Supposedly the successor to Il Crispino for best gelato in Rome, I found the service to again be surly, with almost a factory element with the huge lines of people.  The gelato was just ok.  By Day 5 here, I was getting pretty picky about the whole gelato experience!  Really nice flavors, but the hassle factor was too high to be overcome.

We also tried the special tartufo flavor and fancy sundaes at Tre Scalini, a pretty cafe right on Piazza Navona with a view of Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain.  With sundaes running at €13, it's a pretty pricey stop, but you are paying for the atmosphere of being right on the square.

And finally, Fiordiluna in Trastervere - we had stopped by earlier in the week and it was closed, so a return trip was in order.  Again, a nice place, but nothing completely memorable.

So, that's it for our Rome gelato experience.  Even walking 30,000 steps a day, I am pretty sure I have gained a few lbs.  Thankfully, there is not a scale in sight so I won't worry about it!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Pantheon and Shopping on Via Condotti

Our last two days in Rome were "lazy days" as my family likes to call them - that means that I don't have anything in particular booked and allow them all to sleep in and laze about in the morning.

So around noon, we finally headed out to the Pantheon - which we had seen multiple times at night but finally got to visit during the day.  The oculus, as the 9 m circle in the roof is called, was very cool and sent an enormous shaft of light into the dark interior.

At lunch at Maccheroni, I had their special pasta with black truffle.  Not the best choice on my part since it was 90+ degrees out and the heavy pasta lunch made me a little ill.

But then I rallied for the afternoon shopping expedition.  Trying to avoid the nightmarishly crowded area of the Spanish Steps, we wandered down Via Condotti - in and out of all the lovely designer boutiques.  I ended up at Louis Vuitton where I unwisely purchased a beautiful limited edition purse.  The transaction took about an hour due to complicated export paperwork that needed to be filled out for the purse, because it was partially made of exotic material (python in this case).  But I was a good enough customer to be offered champagne while I waited (Moet, I was told) and they were shocked when I asked for cold water instead!

Dario Cecchini, the Tuscan Butcher

We left Rome in the late morning and headed up north on the A1 autostrada, to Panzano in Chianti - to Dario Cecchini's famous butcher shop.  In case you missed it, Dario is the opera-singing, Dante-quoting butcher immortalized in Bill Buford's book Heat, and also in a great little episode of "No Reservations" with Anthony Bourdain.

It took a little over 3 hours to get there from Rome, and we entered the Dario+ restaurant for lunch.  The menu consisted of two items - either a fancy burger patty or a selection of meats.  The selection was interesting with Chianti sushi (steak tartare), porchetta (my favorite!), meatloaf (just ok) and Chianti tuna (essentially a shredded pork).  Sean enjoyed Dario's special beer (pictured alongside Dario's special olive oil).

We went downstairs to the butcher shop and met Dario, who seemed very jovial (and not singing or quoting Dante that particular day).  We bought his special beer, plus a few jars of the special fennel pollen that all the foodies are raving about.  Not sure what I'm doing to do with the latter as yet, but apparently, it makes everything taste better.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Galleria Borghese

The Galleria Borghese is located in the middle of a large park called the Villa Borghese in northern Rome. It's a small museum, so pre-booking tickets is mandatory to visit it.  I had made our reservations a couple of weeks before, in a last burst of trip planning activity.

We took a little electric bus up to the museum, thanks to Ron in Rome, who has a beautiful blog with a focus on the transportation system.  And a great list of gelato places to visit, but that's for another post...

The museum itself was in a beautiful building in a corner of the park.  We had tickets for a timed entry from 3-5 pm.  That's it.  You entered at 3 pm and they herded the stragglers out right at 4:55 pm, so the next group of people (with the 5-7 pm tickets) could enter.  Oh and you had to store all your bags, including cameras, water, cell phones etc.

We were one of the last groups to leave, we spent every single minute in the museum and could easily have stayed longer.  It's especially known for a few key Bernini sculptures and some lovely Caravaggio paintings.  The girls really enjoyed it - with the Bernini's Apollo and Daphne sculpture being their favorite.  The audio guides made the art come alive with backstories and the calling out of particular details.  It turns out that Cardinal Scipione Borghese was not a very nice man - when he saw a painting that he especially liked, he would threaten the owner or artist with prison, unless the painting was turned over to him.  He did this a number of times!

I loved the trompe l'oeil ceilings in every room with paintings and backdrops linked to the themes of each room.  Alas, I couldn't capture this on film since I was camera-less, while the gift shop items did not focus on the ceilings.

After we were herded out of the museum, we rented a four person bike and spent a pleasant hour exploring the park grounds.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Italian Memories...

I was last in Rome in 1987 on a 3 week trip around Italy with my family - we were in Rome, Florence, San Marino and Venice.  Or at least those are the places I remember.  I had been at Oxford for the year, and flew back to Bangkok to meet up with my family - and promptly turned around and got back on a plane for Rome.

My father borrowed a diesel Mercedes from a work colleague, and I think it was in Florence that we ended up on a street too narrow to pass, and he had to back up a long way to get us out of there!

I remember Venice clearly, since we have a family photo on a gondola where I had especially tragic 80s permed hair.  I also remember it well because I took my younger sister out to ride the vaporetto (boat-bus) one evening and it turned out to be a super long ride since I didn't realize it was going all around the Grand Canal.  My parents, who don't usually do this kind of thing, really freaked out and my dad went hunting for us.  Boy did I get in trouble.  It was memorable because I very rarely got in trouble ;)

I've been to Italy multiple times since so why am I reminiscing?  Well, this is the first time I've been back in Rome since 1987.  I remember going down the Via Veneto and thinking how fancy it was.  I remember the Roman Forum and the enormous columns rising into the sky, no longer supporting anything.  I remember taking the bus and having my butt pinched (no, I didn't say anything - I was barely 19 and confused about what to do).  I remember throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain while my dad sang the goofy song.

Most of all, I remember a boisterous, fun family vacation - I hope my kids will have the same happy memories from all the places we have taken them.

Il Passetto de Borgo

So those Dan Brown fans out there will be familiar with Il Passetto de Borgo - the 800 meter long secret passage that links the Vatican to the old Papal fort of Castel Sant' Angelo.  I really wanted to go down this passage, so arranged our visit to correspond with the special opening times for this tour, as listed on the Rome tourist bureau web site.  It's only open 2+ months a year, during the peak summer tourist season.

Alas, when we arrived, I learned that particular website was not to be trusted - for opening times at least.  We went in anyway, and enjoyed wandering around the old fort that began life at Hadrian's Mausoleum in 130AD.  It was an especially interesting building since it combined some traditional castle elements, but also had some papal apartments on the luxurious side situated in the middle.

The views of St. Peter's were really lovely and their little bar/cafe was a great place to rest for a while.

Now, do we pay handsomely again and come back another evening for Il Passetto only?  Still thinking about it...