Monthly Archives: October 2007

Italy 2007, Day 11

Italy 2007: Day 11

This morning we took a fast E414 class train from Milano Centrale to Venezia, or Venice.  During train passages, it always seems like we’re running from platform (binario) to platform, from train to train.  Today we had less than ten minutes to get from our regional EC from Como onto the fast EuroStar service into Venice, then a long three hour run.

Wandering the cars of a train, you always see a variety of faces:  Youth backpacking across Europe; businessmen using their HSDPA WWAN cards to get work done; families on vacation with kids drawing in crayon.  I forget that in North America we typically drive to boring family vacations the the US or Canada and have to fly to anywhere interesting.  Imagine how exciting it would be to visit Italy if you were British, or France if you were a Spaniard.  Many years ago I had a theory that Europeans dreamed of going to America the way young people in North America typically go for the Grand Tour of Europe, post graduation.  This was supported by a Coca Cola commercial I saw while in the UK.  But it really seems that most Europeans don’t seem to care, not with all the cultural riches just next door.

Listening to Spirit of the West on my iPod, we entered into Venice in an eerie mist in the rain.  The railway track into the central train station is on a dedicated pier, so as we passed shipbuilding and commercial ocean liner docks, we also felt like we were riding our train across the ocean.  The view out the left side of the train was purely ocean and sky.

The rain that had dogged us in Lucca and Cinque Terre unfortunately returned.  After arriving in Venice, we had a quick lunch in a strange little cafeteria style restaurant aimed more at locals than at tourists:  The place was reminiscent of Movenpick Marche back at BCE Place in Toronto, where you bought everything a la carte.  In Italy, typically if you take away, it’s the stated price.  If you sit down, there is coperta or table charge, and service or tip above that.  Our group has typically enjoyed a bottle or flask of house wine and bottled water on top of that.  But at this establishment, no table or service fees are required.  Not that it mattered, we were trying to get some food in for a long walk.

Venice is a number of islands grouped together.  Imagine one large mass, with a S-shaped canal cutting around it, then further canals and waterways subdividing land even further.  We started in the area of Cannaregio, and took the path around into San Marco, finally getting to the Piazza San Marco late in the afternoon.  While on the way I supposed into the  Telecom Italia “Future Museum”.  Sadly, the exhibit which had lots of old telephones seemed to be closed.

In the streets, often vendors and their souvenirs give you an idea of what a town is famous for.  If you looked at Toronto, perhaps you’d think our fair city was famous for the CN Tower and stuffed teddy bears in Mountie costumes.  The most popular souvenir here in Venice is the mask, this town was known for one of the earliest celebrations of pre-Lent Carnival in 1268.  The masks allowed aristocracy and peasants to mingle and for romantic and criminal liaisons to transpire.  Elaborate masks, some carefully made by Italian artisans, others carefully made en masse in China, are sold on the streets now, ready to decorate the rec rooms of tourists abroad.

You see Venice in many forms, reflected in popular culture:  It’s in the Lizzie McGuire movie, it’s the backdrop for the latest James Bond flick, I’ve even seen it built of Lego pieces at Legoland Deutschland.  Now, after seeing it in person, it seems less impressive in person, perhaps because it’s been raining all day.

Given the rain, we went into the Palazzo Ducale, or Palace of the Doge.  The Doge was the highest leader in Venice and the Palace is partly private residence and also governmental chambers.  While this was the seat of aristocracy, there was th semblance of representation as every member of each of the patriarchy of Venice was represented regardless of fortune.  The rooms ranged from small to huge, in some cases 150 feet wide; however, all of them were ornately decorated.  In one room, called the Shield Room, two giant globes sat; on the walls, maps of the world were mounted.  I looked at one carefully for a few minutes and realized it was drawn upside down from what we know:  Up was pointing south across the Mediterranean towards Africa.

Tomorrow I hope we get to see the island of Murano where they make glasswares.  Tired from all the walking in the cold and rain, we headed to a local wine bar for a drink, where I had an aperitif of Aperol, red wine and an olive on ice, then for food afterwards.


Italy 2007, Day 10

Italy 2007: Day 10

Lured by the idea of going to another country for a day, we visited the town of Lugano, Switzerland by taking the SBB FFS CFS train towards Basel.  It only took half an hour but we found ourselves in a completely separate country.  Switzerland is a country of Italian, German and French speakers, each region representing influences from each in culture, language and food, but uniquely Swiss.

One of the things we did today was visit a chocolate factory, where we got to observe the operation of a chocolate making plant.  We also got to eat lots of samples.  Though the actual operation of the plant quite rather interested me professionally, having toured factories of all sorts, from furniture manufacturing to mail sorting to car assembly, the instant the aroma of chocolate appeared, the only thing I could think of was eating chocolate.  So while the high speed molding line and the rapid film packager was cool, I wasn’t thinking line rate and balancing, I was thinking, delicious dark chocolate to eat.

Lugano is quite an expensive place, featuring such high end boutiques as Versace and Louis Vuitton.  A number of the group bought Swiss Army knives here, they are remarkably affordable.   I once had a Swiss Army knife–moreover to say, I had a People’s Liberation Army Knife:  It was a Made in China knockoff.

Lugano is also home to a McDonalds.   I’ve always wondered what other products are sold in other countries.  Certainly there must be localized food.  Today I saw a sign offering McEmmental and McGruyere burgers.  I was seriously tempted.  On a more serious food note, while waiting for the others to shop, I popped into a small market next door and bought a bunch of white grapes.  They were absolutely delicious and were not uniformly shaped or coloured like our regular grapes.

Upon our return to Italy and Lake Como, tonight we found a bar that served appetizers with drinks, not quite a tapas place, but good enough for the purpose.  Como has recently gained a Hollywood visitor, star George Clooney has recently purchased a villa here in the hills.  This fact has not gone unnoticed, with the local chamber of commerce and hospitality industry endlessly flogging this tidbit.  Tomorrow we return to Milano Centrale to take a two hour long train to Venice.

Italy 2007, Day 9

Italy 2007: Day 9

I am starting to appreciate this tour in that it takes me to places I likely would not have planned myself–I don’t think I would have thought to visit Asti for a wine tasting and I certainly would not have penciled in Lake Como, today’s destination, as a top choice.  Yet I had a good time today in this unusual resort town of beautiful scenery.

We took several trains from Asti today, eventually finding ourselves at Milano Centrale, or the main Milan station.  Along the way we got to ride an ETR500 class high speed trainset, though it didn’t get to run at full throttle due to the local regional lines.   Milano was the archetypical European train station:  Passengers rushing to catch trains, travelers mixing around in a swirl of paths, people swarming vendors and bars for a bite to eat and one for the road.

We had to wait more than an hour for our last leg to Como, so we piled our luggage against a wall and took turns walking around to look for food and amusement.  While looking to grab a shot of a ETR470 or 500 idling at a track, I instead found an unusual situation with almost fifty policemen, replete with riot shields, waiting for something at the end of one of the tracks.  A few in plainclothes had walkie talkies strapped to their shoulders, periodically picking people out of the crowd as they came off the train and pulling them aside, circled by the guys in riot gear.  I pulled up my camera to shoot when one of the police gave me a stern look.  Organized crime bust?  Antiterrorism roundup?  Immigration control?  Who knows.  Such intrigue.

The time change made everyone a little sleepier since many had risen an hour early to leave, so by the time we hit Como, the group was tired.  The lake is nestled in the mountains, with the Swiss Alps in the background. There is a small ferry boat which goes from town to town, allowing you to traverse the lake relatively quickly.  It docks and drops people off almost immediately then scurries off for its next destination.

Our destination on the lake was Bellagio, a beautiful little town on the other end of the lake.  Here, you can see how the villages dot the mountainside, little glimmers of colour on the serene swaths of grey and green terrain.  While the group enjoyed shopping in the little boutiques around town, I just wanted to sit and enjoy the view.  While exploring, there was a number motorbike riders, who noisily had chosen Bellagio as the destination of their Sunday ride.  I also met an older lady from the UK, shooting with a 24-105f4L+5D, who had accidentally deleted her entire memory card.  I know the feeling:  The cursed Little Mermaid in Copenhagen once caused me to delete a memory card.  Admittedly it was only 8MB versus the 2GB she lost, but it’s like being kicked in the crotch, metaphorically.

The sun was coming down beautifully this evening as the five o’clock ferry pulled into Bellagio:  All the tourist photographers, serious or amateur, full frame or crop, SLR or cellphone, were watching the sunset from the dock.


Italy 2007, Day 8

Italy 2007: Day 8

I’m watching “Nost Piedmont”, which appears to be local access television for this region of Italy.  This evening’s production is focusing on a local purveyor of baked goods and preserves in jars in the first segment and miserable looking teenagers doing cultural folk dancing in the second set.  Sadly, it took me quite a while to get Nost Piedmont on.

When I travel, I like to turn on the television and see what’s on locally.  Sometimes it’s just CNN Europe or BBC World Service.  But other times you find something uniquely cultural, like the Japanese men’s synchronized swimming competition I saw a few years ago, or the girl skipping rope to Janet Jackson singles on German TV.  Tonight, in my quest to see the best of Italian television, I looked around the room for a remote.  I should have stopped there.

I then went to the front desk, to ask the receptionist for a remote.  She has a warm and friendly smile but also does not speak English.  Not a problem, I’ll use the international gesture for remote control, the “clicking wildly” in the air gesture.

I returned to the room to find the remote didn’t work.  So of course, I figure, I’ll just try the front panel, since every television in the world must have buttons in case you lose the remote.  Which turns the television on just fine, but it displays “Zamceno” in red letters onscreen.  Which I presume means either “No signal” or “Just give up now, and go to sleep”.  But no, I feel I need to troubleshoot this further, so I wrestle with the power and RF connections on the back of the unit, knocking them out temporarily.

After standing on the end of the bed to reach up to the wall mounted television, I return to the front desk muttering “Zamceno, zamceno, zamceno”, to which the receptionist, who as we’ve already ascertained does not speak English, tries to ask me “Non functione?” in response.  The conversation goes like this:

Me: “The, um, remote doesn’t work”

Her: “Non functione?”

Me: “Uh, yeah, er, si…”

(looks for another remote)

Me: “But I don’t think that’s the issue…the TV is broken”

Her: “Brok-en?”

Me: “Non functione”

(hands me another remote)

Me: “No, it’s the tel–”

(making gesture of box on wall)

Her:  “I’m sorry, I don’t speak…”

Me: “It says ‘Zamceno'”

Her: “Zam-cheno?”

Me: “Yeah, Zamceno”

Her: “Zam-cheno? What this?  Non functione!?”

(Blank stare)

Anyways, after about five minutes of the words “Non functione” and “Zamceno” repeated in several combinations, I got two more remotes, which I returned to the room with.  Instantly the television turned on and this time, with eggplant in jars and disgruntled kids in national costume.  But now, of course, I can’t leave “Nost Piedmont” alone, I want to know what in the love of god is “Zamceno” other than some sort of illicit Latin dance craze.  So, I feel the need to actually walk through all the use cases here–I turn the television off, try the front panel again and it says “Zamceno”.  Use the remote, and it puts you right into eggplant in jars.

While I’m at it, I also find out that someone has put the entire television into like Slovakian because I know “Hlasitost” ain’t the word for Volume in Italian.  Now while we’re on the topic of European televisons made by the lowest bidder in Indonesia, this television has a further quirk:  You can scroll up to Channel 51…and since the clicker only has Channel Up and Channel Down, you’d think by turning off the television it would reset to Channel 1.  Which it doesn’t…except, and get this, it does reset the volume to 0.

Okay, now back to a regularly scheduled jams and folk dancing.

We took a long train ride to Asti today, which has brought us into wine country.  Sadly, as we took the train, the sun was was rising and the Italian coastline, with the Cinque Terre towns in view, were basking in its warm glow.  The sea was calm, and the sky blue.  Though we did get a chance to visit yesterday, this weather was so much better.

The plan was to check in at Asti, then head to Nizza, where we’d tour a winery.  But first, we stopped into a local Saturday market in a parking lot bordering the train station.  Lucky we did, because I enjoyed perusing the stalls of fresh ingredients like peppers, tomatoes, cheese and nuts.

We took a local train to Nizza, watching the rolling hills striped with vineyards pass by. Everyone remarked how clean the windows were on this brand new Alstom DMU was, and how quiet the train was.

The Bersano Enoteca was our destination, where we were given a tour of the facilities.  I’ve been on winery tours in Niagara Region, but it they also had a set of some of the equipment used hundreds of years ago, old presses and wagons built in times when a reliable crown or worm gear mechanism was a big deal.  They also had a steam locomotive from the late 19th century, which Bersano himself had purchased for the purpose of bringing his wares to the main train line.  We were shown the casks and barrels aging in the cellar, which was above ground due to regular flooding by the local river.

We then sat down in a room to enjoy several different wines–of which I took notes.  The first was a white called Gavi, made of Corteza grapes.  It was quite good and smooth.  The second was called Antara, which was a red.  It was blend of Barbera, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot.  I didn’t like this one, it was overpowering.  Everyone liked the house specialties, 2004 Generala, made of Barbera D’Asti,  which ages 18 months typically, and the 2003 Badarina, of certified Barolo.  We finished off with the famous regional sparkling wine, Asti Spumante.  It was easy to drink, being very, very sweet.  It does not taste like champagne at all.

As we finished our wine tasting session, a luxurious car pulled up.  Everyone at the table wondered what it was.  Now, my Top Gear watching friends will be proud of me, as I instantly recognized it as a Maserati Quattroporte, based solely on the front quarter panel vents just near the wheel arch.  It was the owner’s, a man who himself had carried on the family tradition for all these years.  He came in to greet us, though his real audience was a local trade association of eateries and chefs, who likely meant big business for his company.

Full of wine, we returned to Asti for dinner.  I had a Caprese salad of tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, then a porcini risotto.  Tomorrow we’re going to Lake Como.

Italy 2007, Day 7

Italy 2007: Day 7

I woke up this morning and I could hear the rain coming down in the streets of La Spezia, the grinding sound of steel wheels on the nearby train station of incoming trains.  The idea was to climb the hiking trail of Cinque Terre, the five villages that dot the rugged, rocky coast of the Mediterranean.  That wasn’t going to happen, which was fine by me, because my stomach had caught up with a full week of eating rich, delicious food while simultaneously dragging pounds of equipment thousands of steps up and down every torre, duomo and piazza so far.

We tried our luck at Riomaggiore, where the drizzle grew to a full on downpour.  Even in the full bore rainstorm with winds coming from the sea, abnormal for the usually calm Med, the first town was beautiful in its colourful houses and buildings staggered haphazardly.

Continuing on to Vernazza, the largest and most picturesque of the five, we were greeted by brightly coloured fishing boats and fishermen going out to make their catches.  By then the rain had stopped and we had precious time to enjoy the local village, filled with shops and stores.  We also had lunch up on the highest point in the area, just below a castle ruin which we later went up and explored.  For lunch I had a spaghetti with clams, langoustines and mussels freshly caught from the sea.

We tried out luck at Corniglia, walking up several flights of stairs but decided to return back down to the train station to catch the train to Manarola, a town popular with German tourists.  All throughout the course of the day we had been dodging tourist groups, at first a bunch of Italian teens on a school trip, later, a set of Americans off of a cruise liner who claimed one of our group was scaring a baby because she was wearing a toque.  After all the running for trains, I need a break and sat at a pizza shop and had a drink.  The pizzeria had a really beautiful selection of pizzas including one with just big onions, another with tomatoes, a wholly pesto covered one.  They looked incredibly delicious except I’d already had a heavy lunch.

Eventually we made our way back to La Spezia.  Although the rain really hampered our sightseeing today, we made the best of it and at least got the chance to visit these little coastal towns.  Though I suspect, privately, had we taken the hike along the trails that connect the towns, I think I would have collapsed.  I was completely beat by the end of today as it stands.

Tomorrow we are leaving late in the morning for Asti and onwards to Lake Como.

Italy 2007, Day 6

Italy 2007: Day 6

News of the day:  Every trip I have some sort of accident–Today I dropped the 24-70mm.  Call it the lack of sleep, the exertion of climbing basilica stairs or the limoncello, but here I was in the La Spezia train station and the camera slipped out of my hand.  Thankfully it hit my toe and then the hood landed on the ground, falling only a total of two feet.  Disaster averted.  Damn my foot hurts.

This morning was not much better than yesterday.  Still raining, we went to the train station and took a train to Pisa, home of the famed tower.  Some of us decided to climb the tower, laughing off the small 200-plus steps in comparison to our previous 464-step Florence Duomo climb.

Climbing the tower is unusual, the steps and the inclination of the tower make you feel like you are falling forward or just walking normally at some points.  Eventually getting to the top, you are rewarded with a view of the surrounding area, which, given the weather wasn’t so interesting.

By the time we left the sun was coming out, making for some good photos.  Most people really only come to Pisa for the leaning tower, so we got back onto the train and continued to La Spezia, at the foot of the famed Cinque Terre or “Five Lands”.

Tonight we traveled to the furthest of the Cinque Terre towns, Monterosso, which is about 20 minutes by train from La Spezia, where we are staying.  We walked along the stunning beach, staring out into the Mediterrean.  One of the specialties of Cinque Terre is a drink called Limoncello, which is a lemon liqueur.  It is has something like 30% alcohol content and tastes like Lemon Meringue pie filling, mixed with booze.  Pretty powerful.  The first sip had a burning sensation, but the subsequent ones were much smoother.  It has a unique, sweet taste.  The bunch of us sat around the streets of Monterosso drinking this in what one of our group termed “NyQuil cups”.  At dinner, being a coastal town, I had seafood with pasta, my ravioli came with two large langoustines still in shell.  Others had pasta of squid ink and a paella of seafood with mussels and spaghetti noodles.

Tomorrow our plan is to hike the five towns starting at Monterosso and back into La Spezia.  It is supposed to be 9 km, taking five to six hours, apparently fueled by espresso and limoncello along the way.

Italy 2007, Day 5

Italy 2007: Day 5

Today was sadly rained out.  We made our way out of Florence to the small town of Lucca.  A walled city, we were to rent bicycles and ride around on the walls that surround the village.  However, it was raining with a bitter cold this morning as we got into town and about the most we could stomach was a trip to a local restaurant to have lunch.  I had pasta with onions and anchovies, a combination new to me.

I then returned to the hotel, which was actually a converted convent.  With it’s marble stairwells and high ceilings, it was the most unusual place I’ve stayed in so far.  I took a long, much needed nap.  Since it was raining hard, most of the group stayed in too.

Later in the evening we made our way to one of the churches in town, where we attended the local opera.  Lucca is the home of Puccini, the famous opera composer.  Under the age old arches of the Duomo, a simple operatic arrangement of pianist, soprano and tenor performed with a modest backdrop behind them.

After the opera, we went out for dinner:  Tonight I tried Tortelli Lucchese, which is a local specialty to Lucca featuring pockets of pasta filled with meat.  Food is unique here in Italy, where I’ve discovered there isn’t a bad restaurant.  One of my coworkers at the office said that things like tomatoes were fantastically sweet–which I had written off as hyperbole.  But, it is, completely true.  The regular large tomatoes are no different than our own.  But the pomodoro, the ones about the size of golf balls, are delicious and sugary.  The lettuce even is crisp and fresh.  It is undamaged and unblemished.  I can’t figure out what it is, but what I do know is the time to market here in Europe is much shorter.  Things don’t come from South America or California and ripen along the way.  The food is simple in presentation, perhaps even rough, but tasty and flavourful.

The Smart fortwo is really popular here, and there’s a number of 2008 models already ripping about town.  I’ve been told many young Italians consider the smart as a baby Mercedes, making it their first step into purchasing a luxury car.  Overall, as with Europe in general, people here favour small cars like the Mini, plus the multitude of local varieties.  There’s a fair number of Fiats and the police drive Alfas.  I’ve also see a few older cars such as the Fiat 500 Topolino and Citroen 2CV.  But there is nothing larger than a Honda Civic here and there’s absolutely nothing of the size of an NADM Accord.  A full sized Accord would get stuck in the narrow streets here.