Read, Write, Run, Roam

Italy

The beauty, tragedy, and lessons of Venice

Readers, sorry for the delay in posts. I went from being a Housewife of Belgrade to a Jobseeker in Washington, which is twice as busy and isn’t half as fun.  Still, I thought I would share one of my last trips while I was a Beogradjanka: Venice, Italy.

Early on, I asked Muz to take me to Venice. We’d heard it was only a six-hour drive from Belgrade (seven hours if you don’t drive Serbian/Muz/Italian-style) and I wanted to see it with the man I love. Cheesy, but true.

I first went to Venice with a girlfriend from college. It was a lovely trip, but we kept looking around the impossibly romantic city and asking, “What am I doing here with YOU?” Also, she had no interest in food and kept demanding that we eat cold pizza margherita off the street. It killed me.

So when our last group of guests (FK Milos) was visiting, we drove to Venice for one night so they could make their return flight out of Italy, and Muz could avoid hearing me say “I can’t believe you never took me to Venice,” for the rest of his life. Clever.

We took the vaporetto (ferry) into Venice just as the sun was setting. It was just as lovely as I remembered it, if not more so.

It’s often said that Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I have to agree. The buildings are beautiful, the waterways are calming, and there is a distinct sense of stepping back in time. Though Venice is almost entirely tourists, it doesn’t detract from the atmosphere. Venice is a living museum, and tourists are part of the tableau.

Venetian glassmaker tools

I love the buildings, churches and museums, but the true beauty of Venice is its sense of tragedy. The entire city is sinking an average 7 centimeters (2.75 inches) a year.  Every November, floods erode buildings. There is a doomed urgency to see it, feel it, drink it in before it becomes the next Atlantis.  Walking around its famed canals, I wondered if the next generation–or even next year’s visitors–will get to see it the same way I did.

I try to remember this feeling wherever I travel. Most places aren’t sinking, but they change in other small ways, millimeter by millimeter. Customs fade away, global food chains dominate the marketplace, and villages empty. Travel allows me to be a mini-historian; I can witness and enjoy how places differ from each other and in time. The differences can be good, bad, or simply different. It doesn’t always matter. What matters is what I can learn from a new, or revisited, adventure.

In Venice, I remembered that history is important, the future is uncertain, and the present is meant to be enjoyed with pastries. As I start this new chapter in the States, it’s a lesson I’ll try to keep close to my heart.


Grocery Shopping Lessons in Italy, or More is More

When I reminisce about this last trip to Italy, I’ll think of the usual “Italian” things: great scenery, excellent food, and fun people. But one of my fondest memories will be my tour of the MD discount grocery store in the Rome suburb of Fiumicino.

It was our second to last day in Italy, and the last we were staying near a major city. I wanted to go to a grocery store to pick up a few small items that are hard to come by in Serbia, like anchovies, salted capers, and taralli, which are basically Italian pretzels that I have a terrible obsession with.

Taralli image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over breakfast, I innocently asked the B&B proprietors about a nearby grocery store. A long discussion followed, but it was mostly in Italian. Muz had to take over-he speaks Italian and I do not-and somewhere in the conversation, it was decided that the Signore at the B&B would drive us to a nearby discount store and help us with our selection. This seemed unnecessary, but I learned a valuable lesson: if you ask a question about food in Italy, it will be taken very, very seriously.

Signore and I walked into the store while Muz kept the dog outside. He proceeded to examine goods and read their ingredients out loud: “Farina, aqua, sale…” Then he would suddenly proclaim, “no!” and put it back. He did this several times, without explanation.

When he liked an item, he would throw it in the cart. Cheese, olive oil, and endless boxes of pasta were given his approval. He selected at least two, and sometimes five of each item that met his mysterious criteria.

I picked up a bag of polenta and was promptly given a lesson in proper stirring, right in the middle of the aisle; Signore rotated his arms wildly and people ducked to avoid his movements. When we reached the anchovies, he piled six jars in the cart. I made a joke about him liking them as much as I do, and he said, “No, this is all for you.”

Note to self: find more recipes with anchovies

I looked at the cart. It was full. Muz was not going to be pleased, and I wasn’t even sure how it would fit in the trunk around all our luggage. I protested that I just wanted a few items, but he shook his head-a gesture of ten thousand words. In a tone usually reserved for children, he said, “This is food for 15 days.”

I wasn’t sure if he thought Serbia was a foodie wasteland, or if this was considered a normal jaunt to the grocery store. But I didn’t remember where to return most of the items, and we were running late. Also, I was kind of curious about the pasta; he said it was the best in Italy. I gave up, gave in, and hoped that Muz would find trunk place for our specially selected items.

He did.

My Italian grocery shopping lesson was complete. Signore was a wonderful teacher, and a smart man. As we unpacked our seemingly endless supply of groceries, I thought, “I can’t believe I only bought two bags of tarelli.”


Deliciously Duped by Muz: Cooking Classes in Tuscany

A girl can dream... Image from Life Magazine.

Muz is a man of many talents. Cooking is not one of them. In the ten years we’ve known each other, he’s never prepared a meal that didn’t involve sandwich bread or a Foreman grill. So when he suggested we take a cooking class in Lucca, I happily agreed. A little voice in my head whispered, perhaps husbands can change-maybe he’ll start to cook!

We booked a day of sightseeing and cooking with Gianluca at the International Academy of Italian cuisine (link here.) We started our day at the markets around Viareggio, a seaside town, while Gianluca told us the finer points of buying fresh produce.

i.e., if they're still moving, it's "pretty good"

After exploring our options at several shops, we settled on fish and fresh seasonal vegetables. When we asked what we were making, Gianluca simply held up the bag and said we’d figure it out. It was a perfect lesson in great cooking-focus on the best ingredients for delicious food.

Along the way to the culinary institute, we stopped at the San Martino villa and winery for a quick tour and tasting. We bought several bottles of their Lucchesi Bianco, a full-bodied white with an unusually golden hue and complex flavors. (I can’t believe I just wrote that. But that’s what it tasted like, I swear.)

After lunch at a hidden gem of a restaurant, we found ourselves at the cooking site. Though the academy offers classes for novices, it’s also a professional school for international chefs. I believe they also rent rooms to chefs and agrotourists. But we weren’t there to check out the lovely decor. Giancarlo put us to work.

Okay, so he helped

We chopped and stirred and simmered while he showed us how to filet the fish. (Some things are best left to experts.) Then he announced that we needed to make pasta dough. Say what? Doesn’t it come in boxes, all neatly prepared for us? But Gianluca doesn’t roll that way.

Neither does Milos. (No dogs allowed in the kitchen for obvious reasons.)

Making the dough was deceptively simple: it’s about 100 grams of flour and 1 egg per person, mixed and kneaded until smooth and springy. But when we asked how to determine the correct thickness of rolled dough, he said, “oh, you will know after the first few times.” This presumed a lot about our ability to make pasta without professional supervision. But thanks for the vote of confidence!

Despite my assistance, the pasta and the rest of the meal (salad, fish filet, lemon custard tarts) was excellent. I may even try to make my own pasta again, since I could clearly taste the difference. As for Muz, well, he was the one taking all of these pictures while the rest of us worked. So now he’s got a taste for Italian cuisine, but no hands-on experience. Have I been deliciously duped? Maybe. But that meal was worth it.

If you’re interested in a cooking class near Lucca, contact Gianluca through the website link above. He normally focuses on cooking classes rather than an overall Tuscan foodie experience, but he might do it again (if we didn’t scare him off). He’s a delightful person and willing to answer any questions about cooking or Tuscany-highly recommended.


Church on Sunday: St. Mary of the Assumption, Pisa, Italy

Before our visit, I had only known Pisa as host to a leaning tower. Under-researching a trip is bad form for RHOB, but at least it led to my great surprise-and awe-at the Duomo of St. Mary of the Assumption, or Santa Maria Assunta. Doesn’t everything sound nicer in Italian?

Construction of the Duomo began in 1064, and it was consecrated in 1118. After a devastating fire in 1595, the Duomo was renovated with a gilded coffer ceiling, new doors, and restored paintings. Fortunately, the fire did not destroy the mosiac apse completed in 1302.

The fire also spared my favorite item in the Duomo, Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit circa 1302.

 

 

 

 

 

I liked how the pulpit’s delicate carving contrasted with the heavy imagery and darker colors throughout the church. But RHOB’s opinion would have been the minority in the late 16th Century. After the 1595 fire and during the subsequent renovation, the pulpit was placed in storage and “forgotten” until its rediscovery and reassembly in 1926. Makes you wonder what else is lurking in Italian church cellars…

A place this big, they could be hiding firetrucks in the basement.

I’d post more photos, but I don’t think it would convey the proper grandeur. The Duomo is one of the most impressive churches I’ve seen since starting this blog, and I’m a little embarrassed that I basically stumbled upon it because I wanted a funny picture featuring my dog. I guess God really does work in mysterious ways…


Rolling through Lucca, Italy

If I had to sum up Lucca in one word, it would be bicycles. Lucca is a fairly large, walled city with great shopping, food, and a unique walking path on top of the city walls. So why am I so focused on their bicycles? It’s because I can’t think of another place that had so many bikes and such a diverse group of riders.

There were older riders passing children on the street,

mothers “driving” their kids to school,

the office commute,

And plenty of parking.

Maybe bikes are so popular because Lucca is flat; most of the cities we’ve seen on this trip are quite hilly. Perhaps it’s just easier and cheaper than driving: Lucca has many pedestrian streets, and parking within the city walls is practically impossible. Or maybe it’s a way to work off pasta and pizza. Whatever the reason, the bicycles of Lucca are its most appealing-and unexpected-sight.


Iconic international photos? Pisa Cake

World's strongest dog


Are we the type of lunatics that would go to Pisa solely to take this photo? Obviously, yes.

I probably wouldn’t have insisted on a day trip to Pisa if the idea of this photo hasn’t entered my mind. For some crazy reason, I thought that Pisa was a tiny, dusty town whose only claim to fame was a poorly built tower. Mea culpa, Pisa. It’s a charming, walled city that is centered around the Piazza del Miracoli. The Piazza hosts the tower, tons of (rare) open green space, and a series of marble buildings that inspire awe. Outside of the square, shops and restaurants line the streets.

Pisa came into great power during the middle of the 11th century, and Pisans took to calling the city “the new Rome.” There’s even a Romulus and Remus statue in the Piazza. But eventually the economic tides turned, and Pisa was under Florentine rule by the early 15th century. The city retains part of its former opulence, and it’s worth a visit for anyone driving through Tuscany.

If the off-season crowds in Pisa are any indication, I am the last person to know that there’s more to Pisa than the leaning tower. But if you’re looking for additional information, I found this link helpful.

Even if Pisa had been awful, I think the drive was worth these pictures. Miloš, however, might disagree.

This is an affront to my dignity


Keeping up with the Podestàs: the Towers of San Gimignano

San Gimignano is known for its distinctive skyline of medieval towers. While there were as many as 72 towers at one time, today only 14 remain. Or 12. Apparently, internet “facts” are not consistent. Who knew?

The silhouette is interesting from a distance, but up close, you realize they’re just huge, hulking towers of medieval rock. However, they weren’t built to beautify the town. Some historians claim that the towers were first built as a defense strategy but most state that they were constructed to symbolize the strength and dominance of local wealthy merchants. Bigger towers = wealthier family. It’s kind of a medieval-European shiva lingam contest, if you know what I mean.

The first tower was built around 1251, and others followed. The tallest tower is the 1298 Torre Grossa, that stands at 54 meters/177 feet tall. Muz climbed up while RHOB strolled down the tiny, medieval streets below.

One of the oldest towers is the Torre della Rognosa, built as part of the Palazza del Podestà. ‘Podestà’ was a title given to high government officials. At one time, the Podestà forbade people from building a tower higher than his, but this was ignored by wealthy families, who bought seperate plots of land to erect thier own towers. Political protest through architecture, or just keeping up with the Joneses? Either way, it’s an unforgettable sight, especially from a distance.

The towers do a bit of a disservice though, as they overshadow the charm of San Gimignano’s winding cobblestone streets, numerous town squares, and amazing wine and pork. That’s right, pork. The boars that roam the Tuscan hills are turned into tasty prosciutto and stews.

These "dogs" are a bit scary

Even if you’re not interested in competetive towers, San Gimignano has charm, sightseeting and gourmet experiences that are equally unforgettable.