Monthly Archives: December 2011

Europe 2011: Day 8

Day 8

The last time I was in Rome, I didn’t get to take a tour of the Vatican Museum or the Sistine Chapel.  I got there quite late in the day and while I enjoyed taking pictures of St. Peter’s Basilica at dusk, I missed actually visiting the museum and seeing the ceiling.

Today we took the Rome Metro to the Vatican and attended a tour Siobhan had organized.  She had researched ahead and booked a tour from the Vatican Museum, which allowed us to go past the thousand-person long line up and walk right in.  I’m not sure why, but I always expected the Sistine Chapel to be a round library.  The inside of the Sistine Chapel is initially underwhelming, perhaps given the amount of hype leading up to it.  When you walk in, it is dark and echoing, kind of like the gym in a summer camp activity hour where the counsellors are stuck for an activity and tell the campers to sit very still in the dark.

However, after second look, the detail of the ceiling is in fact quite astounding, as every surface is painted on and tells a story of the heavens.  The ornate paintings show a mastery of context given their size.  The paintings use the trompe d’oeil style which makes it difficult to determine what is flat and what is actually protruding.  It is that historical “high definition” that perplexes and intrigues, not as solely image capture, but as storytelling and imagination.  The guards continually berate those taking photos with shouts of no foto and siliencio, the latter of which is pertinent as we are in a church after all, a holy place.

After walking to the main courtyard outside St. Peter’s, we continued after lunch to the Spanish Steps and along to the Trevi Fountain.  While I have seen these before, it was nice to sit down and take our time to enjoy the place and context instead of snapping photos then moving on. As I write this, I am sitting in the Pantheon, enjoying the rumble and echo of this great domed structure.

Tonight, we walked back from dinner aiming to visit the Roman Forum ruins and the Coliseum, only to find that the area had been cordoned off for New Year’s celebrations.  Such is the life of traveling during the holidays, many things are often closed or at reduced hours, making it a bit more fun.  You get some things like nativity scenes and decorated train station conductor booths, Christmas Markets and general merriness.  And you get closed restaurants you walked half an hour to get to.

What was really interesting tonight was all of Rome was out to party.  Tens of thousands of people were in the streets, walking along like plankton drifting towards the mouth of a giant whale, many carrying bottles of wine or champagne, ready to have a good time.  At one point, we were walking along an unlit alleyway with a thousand people, which was a bit scary but exciting.  In the subway, patrons cheered on incoming trains as they came to whisk them off to parties.

Europe 2011: Day 7

Day 7

Bologna isn’t much of a tourist town, but perhaps this simple nature is its best characteristic. Its streets are lined with porticoes that cover the sidewalks and leave the buildings with no setback from the street itself.   Walking along the main thoroughfare, the Via dell’Indipendenza, there are shops and bars as you head to the Piazza Maggiore.

Today we took a bit of time to walk around Bologna during the day.  Our first visit was to the giant San Petronio Basilica, one of the largest in Europe.  Left undecorated, this huge, cavernous church sits on the south end of the main square.  We then walk towards to the Towers of Bologna, two tall brick towers remaining from the medieval ages where a hundred towers surrounded the city.

I have a fondness for ascending towers and churches, perhaps because they represent the state of the art in engineering in those times.  Usually you are rewarded with a beautiful view of the organic layout of a city below.  There’s no light show, virtual reality or audio guide: Just a typically rickety set of stairs and the top with a view.  The towers here are exactly this, you pay three euros and climb up.

Bologna, still new to potential tourist interests, is delightfully old school:  the tourist map shows tortellini as one of the potential highlights of your trip but also fails to identify the names of historic sites marked on the streets.  As we leave for Rome, we bid it farewell and remember to return:  the food is good, the streets are filled with locals and the countryside of interesting stories.

Rome, two hours away on a brand new ETR600, styled by Italian design house Pininfarina, is an altogether different animal.  The train station is busy and crowded, the streets nearby are narrow and dirty. Tomorrow we will finally see the Sistine Chapel, after missing it five years ago!

Europe 2011: Day 6

Day 6

Siobhan has organized a trip with Emilian Land Tour, a company which specializes in small tours of the region Emilia-Romagna, highlighting local food production.  We start by leaving Bologna into the countryside, small towns interspersed with commercial buildings along the road and farms.  The Modena area has Italy’s only plains, while the rest of the country is mostly mountainous, so it is primarily flat.  Unlike some of the rural areas where we’re from, the roads are strangely routed around irregular shapes.

Our first stop is a local dairy farmer who raises about a hundred cattle to make Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  The cows are milked twice daily and the previous day’s production is used to make cheese in the morning.  The process starts with heating and skimming the milk, removing the whey and adding the rennet which begins the solidification of the cheese.  As we watched the result was drained and lifted carefully into a form, then pressed to remove liquid.  We also got to see the curing and aging process, where the individual rounds, each weighing about 50 kilograms, are left to dry a bit, then put into large baths of salt water.

As we walked through the small rooms, we could see the skill and techniques used:  Perhaps what was most striking about this whole affair was that a certain pride and individual quality was achieved by individual cheesemaker’s skills and tradition, not by the mechanized quality processes of major industry.  The farm, with about four people, makes about five rounds a day.  At the same time, the rounds are checked by a governing body, a consortium of Reggiano producers who ensure that the cheese meets standards and cannot be sold with the Parmigiano Reggiano name if not up to them.  While each wheel leaves with the farm’s serial number, they then enter a global market place with the same description and label as 450 other producers.

Our next stop was to acetaia, or vinegar making concern.  Here, grapes are crushed and cooked for a few days until boiled down into a very sweet reduction.   This must is then transferred into large vats for mixing with regular vinegar to make commercial balsamic vinegar, or put for traditional production into an array or battery of barrels which as a progression, ages the vinegar year by year.  The main vats of this liquid are poured into a year old wooden barrel, which in turn is partially siphoned and mixed with two year old barrel.  Over time, the vinegar changes and progressively grows in flavour and thickness.

The barrels are purchased over time by the acetaia owners:  Some dated back to the 1930’s, others with the names of babies in the family the year the casks were purchased.  As a result, the vinegars are 12 or 25 years old by the time they are bottled for sale.  The end result of the balsamic vinegar is very different than what we’re used to from the supermarket– they are sweet and surprisingly flavoured like the grapes they come from.

Our final stop before lunch was to visit a company which made proscuitto, the delicious Italian cured hams.  The various places we visited on the tour were very small firms producing traditional Bolognese products. Particularly delightful was how real the visits were, without tourist visitors’ centers or the like.  In the case of this company, we walked through the loading dock area, workers handling racks of raw hams fresh from the slaughterhouse.  With the rest of the staff away at lunch, we got a tour through the family run business:  The hams are trimmed and inspected, then salted, and then hung to age for fourteen months.  At the end, again, like cheese, they are inspected by a governing body which then allows them to be branded as the controlled proscuitto di modena.

In the afternoon, we visited a small winery up in the hills of the area.  With only a few small fields, production is small but heartfelt: Three generations of the Ghedini family have made wine, only managing their own grapes, perhaps to better understand and control the quality of their product.  The proprietor was obviously passionate about making wine and honest about each year’s changes.  Every year’s harvest changes due to weather and conditions, while the terroir, or environmental context of the grapes don’t change much, the amount of sun and rain makes each batch different.  We got to walk along the now fallow fields, vines still tied in place along the heavily sloped field.  We stood in the red grape field, filled with Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and as expected the BlackBerry said we were facing south to catch the sun, then followed through the winery, inspecting large stainless steel cylinders and giant wooden casks.   It was delightful to hear an individual’s enthusiasm and criticisms for their business, compared to the large vineyards run as corporations with industrial quality control and processes.  The individual choices, like sacrificing one type of grape’s harvest to finish another, better one, is exciting and interesting to hear.

Osteria dell’Orso is in the heart of the university district and tonight we walked out there to have dinner there.  It’s always an easy check to see if a restuarant is any good:  They are always filled with people and have a wait to get it, not due to exclusivity, but due to popularity.  This restuarant served some classics, but also unusual items for the college crowd including fish and chips.  Led into the basement, a room of racuous laughter and cheering met us, young people having a good time, seated at plank benches and old tables, dorm cafeteria style.  The waiter, upon seeing old friends, delivered beers while taking a sip from them, a pat on the back and sitting on the bench with you signified a casual style and friendliness.  I had a great time there, eating a carbonara of house made noodles, pecorino and pancetta.

Europe 2011: Day 5

Day 5

Leaving the Bolzano, our train slips it way through the valley surrounded by mountains, the bright sun streaking into through the windows.  Outside, the neat rows of vineyards blur into an intricate pattern.  Despite the rough mountainous terrain, villages dot the landscape, their buildings perched upon the edge of stepped roads that lead up slowly, winding side to side of the valley.

A few hours later, we pulled into Verona, the hills now receded into flat land, with lines of trees in the distance and a large number of buildings in the background.   This is not for long, as our final destination is Bologna, in the north center of the country, in the middle of the region known as Emilia-Romagna.   We knew were arriving when a large graffiti sign proclaimed, “Bologna Bombers 1998” alongside the rail line.

The Bologna train station is large, tracks stretching off to the horizon.  At one end of the station, a giant six or ten story structure, festooned with attachments like air conditioners and antennas, towers over the tracks like a robot inukshuk.  Sleek new ETR600 EMUs roll by,
alongside older heavy locomotives pulling slower services.  Note:  The above photo is a class 414 ETR500.  Didn’t want you guys to think I didn’t incorrectly identified a train.

Bologna, seems a little grittier than pristine alpine Bolzano.  Perhaps because we arrived towards sun down, it seemed darker overall, Bolzano’s sun struck, cold mountain town atmosphere gone.  Cars were aplenty including many Smarts zipping about.  People walking along, looking into the now open shops declaring sales.

One question I always have is whether or not some of these places we visit are actually inhabited by local people.  For example, in Venice, I’m told  the majority of Venetians actually live off the island and come in every morning on an unpublished commuter ferry for shopkeepers and restaurateurs  in the tourism trade.  But here, it seems there are mostly locals in the shops and streets, with a tourist or two interspersed.  In one shop, we found local Bolognans buying items for dinner, while an American rehearsed her husband walking out of the store so she could take a picture of him with a leg of prosciutto in hanging in the background.

Bologna is a city and a working one at that.  Not much of a tourist destination, it seems, its best known traits are for being the heart of culinary Italy.  Tonight we went to a restaurant, Da Cesari, that has been open for a hundred years and serves traditional Bolognese fare including the original meat ragu on hand made tagliatelle noodles.   Despite being Michelin-rated, it is unobtrusive and friendly, its owners apparently family, having a staff meal as we waited for the kitchen to open.  The kind of place when they offer cheese, they bring the actual wedge of cheese and grate it with a handheld grater over top.

We also found Grom gelato shop here in Bologna, which I first tried in Florence about four years ago.  It is an Italian chain, but I like them because they have mela and pera gelato, which you don’t often find.

Europe 2011: Day 4

Day 4

Bolzano is nestled in the mountains surrounding it. When we woke up this morning, we could see from the windows around the hotel that again, like Innsbruck, the mountain range formed a backdrop behind the spires of the city. Outside, I heard church bells playing.

In the hotel restaurant, I watched as a waitress taught a young man to fold cloth napkins, aligning them carefully with the napkin on the other side of the linen tablecloth. It seemed a careful introduction to the service industry.

Our first stop was the Waltherplatz which seemed to be a center of activity. The Christmas market was being packed up, branches from pine trees bundled on the ground and wooden structural pieces being gathered onto flatbed trucks. A train for kids was still operating, its twenty foot loop encircling five Christmas trees. The operator and parents were keeping an eye on the two kids, one at the locomotive and the other on Santa’s caboose sleigh, as they were riding around despite the rest of the square being emptied.

Next to the square was the Duomo or cathedral. This structure was actually quite young as it was rebuilt after the war. We then walked up and through the streets we saw last night, and the Piazza Erbe, now filled with busy townsfolk going about their way, vendors in the stalls and shopkeepers open for business.

We walked across the main town center and across to the base of the Funivia del Renon funicular tramway, opting not to see the area’s famed frozen ice man museum. Instead, we traveled up the tramway for a twelve minute ride that brought us to the mountain village of Oberbozen.

We then rode a small narrow gauge electric train a bit further to Klobenstein, another small town. Like everything in Bolzano, it has two names, one Italian and one German. The Ferrovia del Renon is known also as the Rittner Bahn.

Examining the map, it was evident there were several small villages across the mountains, accessed by twisty roads.

By now, it was mid afternoon and due to the holiday season, many places were closed. We found a small cafe, operated by girl and her mother, who served us coffee and pastries. One item, was a cake made of rustic bread like grains and fresh cream with jam. As described by the little girl, it was a “very special cake” and only had a German name.

Walking through the twisty streets of this village, we tried to discover what activites or sights were in the area. Many fellow passengers seemed to be hockey players at a nearby arena. But some just walked along, headed to what we discovered was the Fennpromenade. What that meant, we had no clue, but it sounded like a walking path. It goes up the side of the mountain and has lookouts to see the expansive Dolomite mountains.

By the time we returned from the hike, the sun had gone down, so we returned down to the city.

We went to the Gasthaus Batzenhausl, known as the oldest pub in town. Seeing as we were to be visting Bologna next, we opted for more German fare until we had a chance to follow into Italy.

Europe 2011: Day 3

Day 3

I write this as the Austrian landscape speeds by.  This morning we leave Vienna and head west towards Bolzano, Italy.  The train, RailJet 162, is headed at 190km/h towards Zurich, midway of which we’ll get off at Innsbruck.  The landscape outside the train is pulled from the pages of a German model train catalog, brightly painted maintenance-of-way locomotives and work cars dotting the picture perfect rolling hills of the countryside.

A digital map appears on an overhead monitor and traces the 162’s route from Budapest, Hungary; Wien is midway between the two.  It also highlights how close and dense everything is, at least to us North Americans.

The first thing that you see in Innsbruck as you leave the train station is the majestic mountain range that sits behind the town like a theatre backdrop.  The snow covered mountains are dotted with tall pine trees which grow straight up despite a near vertical slope.   Innsbruck, once in past a few streets is picturesque and colourful, horse drawn carriages for visitors share the road with silent modern trams.

A small Christmas market on this Boxing Day sold ornaments and mulled wine, large colourful signs proclaimed the upcoming youth Olympics.  In the heart of the shopping area, some shops were open including a vendor of speck, the cured ham of this region, and a storefront specializing in strudel.

As we continue southward to Bolzano, it gets dark and the mountains are invisible to us.  Subtle signs that we are entering Italy appear, like the train stations signs simultaneously declaring platforms as Binari and Gleis, Uscita and Ausgang.  This northern part of Italy was formerly Austrian before the war and shares mostly German/Austrian culture and language.

Tomorrow we will go out in Bolzano, but a cursory walk around the center of town reveals narrow winding stone streets similar to Tuscany.

Europe 2011: Day 1

Day 1

Vienna’s airport is like a vestige of the late seventies:  Its big digital clocks flapping from minute to minute, clear signs in modern sans serif fonts backed on bright yellow glass.  I didn’t actually remember the actual landing as I was fighting sleep on our second leg into the city.  Today begins our short trip across Europe, starting in Vienna, then making its way across Northern Italy into Rome.

We began by getting to the hotel using the S-Bahn, or regional light rail, to get into the city, then taking a combination of subways, or U-Bahn, further into town.  I remember my first trip to Europe about ten years ago, analyzing how all these intricate public transit networks linked together.  I guess every trip starts this way.

One of the interesting activities in Vienna around this time of year are the Christmas Markets in public spaces around the city.  This afternoon we ventured out to the Rathaus, or city hall, where in front were set up about a hundred stalls with vendors.  The markets are filled with wooden stands, all uniform in design and colouring, and each offers a selection of  snacks and gifts for sale.  One food we tried were potato slices, baked on a large open pan.  Another was a bratwurst, served by poking a hole into a bun using a large pointy stick, then finished with ketchup and mustard and a sausage.  We also tried strudel, although admittedly from a stall might not be the best example of this famous Viennese dessert.

The other major type of vendor in the Christmas Market is the ornament shop.  Glass globes and wooden trinkets were hung from the roof of the shack, creating a dense veil of ornaments overhanging in front of proprietors.

Something I haven’t seen in a long time in Toronto is the presence of smoking in bars.  Tonight as we walked along the mostly closed shop streets of Vienna, we popped into a coffee shop and it was filled with the strong smoke found in commonly in European cities.  Next to us was a group celebrating the Christmas season with champagne, while another table was with two random men, having a coffee and reading a magazine.

Tonight, we had dinner at a local restaurant, the Gasthaus Pfudl.  Its holiday set menu included goose liver pate and swordfish and a traditional dumpling served as dessert.

Europe 2011: Day 2

Day 2:

Vienna feels like the setting of a cold war spy movie, with its windy old street passages, lined with undecipherable German signs and police sirens in the background.  It nearly escaped me that the Vienna subway stood in for Moscow’s in a fantastic cat and mouse urban chase of the pretty-good-till-the-end Firefox starring Clint Eastwood, where Dirty Harry infiltrates the Soviet Union and steals a Russian fighter plane.  Everything up to stealing the plane is actually quite good.

The hotel is situated on a major shopping street, Mariahilferstrasse which is near the MuseumsQuartier, a collection of museums and galleries.  This morning we went to the Schonbrunn Schloss, a palace not far away by U-Bahn.  The home of Emperor Franz Josef and others rulers of the Austrian Empire, it now stands as a World Heritage site.  During the holiday season, it features a Christmas market as well.

The Schloss has many rooms with intricate and ornate decoration.  Gilded woodwork line their walls, and elaborate wood cuts are inset in the floors.  One of the highlights of this was the Great Gallery, which has a huge vaulted ceiling and was the site of historical moments like JFK meeting with Khruschev during the height of the Cold War.

The days are short here this time of year, and while walking up the hill to the Gloriette, a colonnade overlooking the Schloss, we began to see the sun receding into the cold sky.

In the afternoon we went the MuseumsQuartier which is a grouping of different museums and exhibits.  Given the selection of modern art and natural history options, I wanted to see the ArchitekturZentrum, or architectural center.  On display was a history of the city’s urban growth and architectural lineage, stage by stage as Vienna grew between different global and local styles.  Also on display was an exhibit about Australian architect Glenn Murcutt who designs buildings with environmental and landscape context.

Tonight we went to a restaurant named Plachutta, famed for traditional Viennese specialities such as tafelspitz, slices of beef boiled in a flavourful broth.  I opted for the wienerschnitzel, flattened veal breaded and fried.  It was kept moist and tasty despite the outside being crisp, without being overly greasy.  Traditional potato salad was served.

One thing I find difficult to get over after nearly ten years of smoke free restaurants and bars in Toronto, is the amount of heavy second hand smoke here.  Throughout dinner tonight, other restaurant patrons puffed away, making an otherwise delightful meal irritating and tasteless.

Tomorrow we will leave Vienna towards Innsbruck and Bolzano.  I leave a bit sad, as we haven’t had much time to see more of Vienna, its streets and shops closed down mostly due to Christmas.   Today after looking carefully at the subway map, I found a station named Gasometer, which I later found out was a modern architectural refit of four huge coal gas holding tanks into mixed use residential and commercial properties.  It piqued my interest because there is a structure in Egypt known as a Nilometer. I also, despite having tried three separate pieces of strudel, have not found an apfelstrudel I really like.  This is disappointing as Vienna is well known for strudel.  I hope to find an ideal strudel and see the Gasometer buildings in person when we come back someday.