Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

Claire and Ava in Gruyeres, Switzerland

October, 2011

October, 2011
Chess in Lausanne, Switzerland

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Catching up on January 1

Happy New Year! (Now that January is almost over…no one said I’d have a timely blog.)

Since it is the new year, I get to pause and think about 2009…which has been a year full of interesting stuff – more change (the only constant), new schools, new role for Joe, another move (away from hotel living, sadly), plenty of adventures:

We started the year off in Singapore on our first cruise experience. The kids and I got to enjoy more of India’s treasures in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in February, Joe got snowed in in London when he flew in for late February meetings.

In early March we said good-byes to our hotel friends and those we’d become close to in Gurgaon.

And then off to London! St. Johns Wood has treated us well, even without room service and warm weather.

Claire jumped into first grade with both feet (home school was clearly a form of torture for all of us). Ava hit the road running at Abercorn – full-time as a pre-reception student in her red and gray uniform.

I spent March checking out houses, supermarkets and the general London lay of the land.

And April found us in Brussels, then moving into our Victorian-era leaky house.
From there it’s been a blur – a little of Ireland, some France, out and about in the UK and around Londontown – lots of theatre, galleries and museums, the queen’s birthday parade…all kinds of fun stuff.

Our first houseguests arrived in July and we did our best to show Grandma and brother-in-law around.

Late summer found us back in the US for the first time since October 08 – nice visit, great to be back in the driver’s seat!

And in no time we were back in school, 2nd grade and reception for the British school girl. I, too, went to school…a Jane Austen class wherein we studied 3 of her novels and took some field trips to her years-past stomping grounds.

For a change of scenery we visited friends in Germany in October, checking in on harvest and enjoying new wine festivals.

November: my parents as guests and the time flew, lovely Thanksgiving w/ friends here in town.

And of course we ended the year in Italy.

Now 2010 is underway and no doubt will prove as stimulating as the past year.
BUT for now, back to New Year’s Day in Bologna:

New Years Day dawned rainy – I took a walk around town while everyone else slept late (thank heavens the kids aren’t crack of dawners. Of course I there is that piece about having to peel them off the bed for school…)

We eventually rolled down for 10:00 breakfast and were well fed…loved the brie. Spectacular brie. Did I mention how good the brie was?

We then wandered down to the old city centre with Christmas tree in the square. Said tree had lights hooked up to bikes so to light the tree, one had to pedal. Fun fit concept so we all hopped on bikes and helped light the thing for a bit.

Then we checked out the Cathedral --

The Basilica di San Petronio. Dedicated to the city's patron saint, it is the biggest and most important church in Bologna. Its construction was started in 1390 and continued until the 1600's, when the roof and apse were completed.

The facade has remained unfinished. The main portal contains the Stories of the Old and New Testament, sculpted by Jacopo della Quercia, between 1425 and 1438. The solemn and majestic interior is divided into three naves supported by ten pillars. Twenty-two chapels open off the side naves. One contains an organ which still works – it was built around 1470 and is the oldest in the world still in use. (How’s that for good trivia?)

From there we headed to one of Bologna’s many towers (apparently there were dozens years ago; wealthy families showed their resources by building tall towers).

We climbed up one of them – 497 (?) steps – more than the Duomo. A series of wooden staircases with plenty of other people navigating them. I’m happy to report that we Americans didn’t huff and puff up or down (in contrast to a bunch of unfit – albeit trim – Italians – must be the smoking they do and the walking we do).

About these towers:

Between the 12th and the 13th century, the number of towers in the city was very high, possibly as many as 180 (more likely 80-100 total). (The richest families may have used them for offensive/defensive purposes.)

During the 13th century, many towers were taken down or demolished, and others simply collapsed. Many towers have subsequently been utilized in one way or the other: as prison, city tower, shop or residential building. The last demolitions took place during the 20th century, according to an ambitious, but retrospectively unfortunate, restructuring plan for the city.

Of the numerous towers originally present, fewer than twenty can still be seen today.

We climbed one of “The Two Towers,” both of them leaning (what’s the deal w/ leaning towers in Italy?). They are the symbol of the city (what, praytell does that tell you about Bologna? Town w/ towers that can’t stand straight and that managed to elude the teardown).

The taller one is called the Asinelli while the smaller but more leaning tower is called the Garisenda. Their names derive from the families which are traditionally credited for their construction between 1109 and 1119.

Over the years they’ve been struck by lightning, caught fire, suffered collapses, faced arson, have been used to study earth rotation, used as a sight post during war time and escaped bombing. They’ve also been written about in various literary pieces of note, including the Diving Comedy.

The kids were troopers during the climb (and throughout the meanderings of the day). After making our way back down we wandered through the colonnades, along wide, uncluttered streets – a sharp contrast to Florence and Venice where windy streets are the norm.

Lovely décor, nice shops, cafes, etc. – Bologna is delightful. Eventually we found a café for a bite and some decadent hot chocolate (w/ amaretto). Ham, cheese & salami paninis, too. Then we wandered through the university district – clearly quiet during the break.

We hit several churches (what would Italy be without Catholic churches) during our meanderings, eventually stopping for gelato before relaxing at the hotel.

For dinner we sought out a local pizzeria that was hopping. Joe and I shared the seafood appetizer and it ended up being HUGE. Octopus, squid, cuttlefish, shrimp, lobster tails – it was delicious. I then had the taglietelle ragu (also fabulous), Joe a roasted vegetable pizza and the kids: pasta (shock) and fish.

Great meal and a nice way to start the new year!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Year's Eve

Today we had our last breakfast in Florence after I’d taken a final walk around Florence – this time around the Pitti Palace and along the Arno. Lovely morning – got it cracking w/ an espresso first thing!

We packed up before heading to the Bargello, which happened to be a two-minute walk from our hotel, to look at three floors of art, mainly sculpture.

About the Bargello:

It was built to house first the Capitano del Popolo and later, in 1261, the 'podestà', the highest magistrate of the Florence City Council. The Palazzo del Podestà, as it was originally called, is the oldest public building in Florence, serving as a model for the construction of the Palazzo Vecchio.

In 1574, the Medici dispensed with the function of the Podestà and housed the bargello, the police chief of Florence, in this building, hence its name. It was employed as a prison; executions took place in the Bargello's yard until they were abolished by Grand Duke Peter Leopold in 1780, but it remained the headquarters of the Florentine police until 1859.

When Holy Roman Emperor Peter Leopold was exiled, the makeshift Governor of Tuscany decided the Bargello should no longer be a jail so it became a national museum.
It opened as such (Museo Nazionale del Bargello) in 1865, displaying the largest Italian collection of gothic and Renaissance sculptures (14–17th century).

The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, including his Bacchus, Pitti Tondo (or Madonna and Child), Brutus and David-Apollo.

Other pieces on display: Donatello's David and St. George Tabernacle , Vincenzo Gemito's Pescatore ("fisherboy") Jacopo Sansovino's Bacco, Giambologna's L’Architettura and his Mercurio and many works from the Della Robbia family. Benvenuto Cellini is represented with his bronze bust of Cosimo I.

The museum has a collection of ceramics (maiolica), textile, tapestries, ivory, silver, armours and old coins. It also features the competing designs on Isaac's Sacrifice (Sacrificio di Isacco) that were performed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi to win the contest for the second set of doors of the Florentine Baptistry (1401).

Thoroughly arted out after this experience, we took the kids for another carousel ride and enjoyed lovely weather, window shopped and had a bite at a popular bar in the center of things. I had a stuffed spinach and cheese pizza, kids had paninis and whatever Joe had must not have been memorable for me.

The bars (small cafes) are great lunch spots, generally w/ standing room, lovely marble counters, sometimes small tables/counters w/ stools. It’s fun to watch the Italians chat at the bar over espresso.

After collecting our baggage we cabbed it to the train station and headed to Bologna. Forty-five minutes later we exited and went to our hotel, then were re-directed to a sister hotel due to “technical” problems w/ our room (seem to be plagued by technical hotel problems in Italy – wonder what that means? Shower that doesn’t work? Overbooking? Just didn’t want to clean the room?)

The owner informed us we’d be happier at Hotel Regina anyway – better breakfast, has a bar, nicer property. Nothing like throwing your property under a bus to get rid of us...

Relocated, we relaxed, then headed off to explore – lots of people out and about for new years eve. We found a street market (heated tents make for a good winter outdoor shopping experience), which we perused. Nothing home-worthy but fun to peruse funky jewelry, snacks, trendy clothes, candles, etc.

After wandering the city a bit we stopped for snacks and a drink at a funky little courtyard in the center of bars and shops – water bar, wine bar, beer bar (beer bar? Doesn’t have the right ring to it).

There we played cards, ate some funky puffy crackers, bologna Bolognese style (MUCH better than what I remember of bologna in that red roll, which I think I tried once as a kid and am still tramatized at the memory), ricotta w/ sauce served on a spoon and some kind of crunchy vegetable w/ a lovely mustard sauce on top. Plus prosecco for me, wine for Joe, scotch for the kids (just checking to see if anyone’s reading this). The latter would be sprite.

Eventually we wandered a bit more down Bologna’s wide boulevards, lit gorgeously w/ Christmas décor. For dinner we landed at a local trattoria – Joe tried Bologna’s famed taliatelle w/ ragu (it is NOT served on spaghetti, mind you…)

I had the special fish menu for the new year, which was good – particularly the fruity sauced shrimp starter, potato gratin and tagliatelli w/ fish sauce. The bread at the place was excellent as was the torte, a lovely moist yellow cake w/ rich chocolate frosting.

Our evening ended just after midnight (we all made it to the new year!) We fell asleep to fireworks.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Still catching up on Italy!

Recap: December 30

After perusing the train schedules to Pisa during my morning constitution (doesn’t that sounds like something out of Jane Austen – see I really did gain from that class I took last term…) I returned in time for breakfast. This time we were served at the breakfast nook upstairs – same food, better set up.

We then headed to the train station and were off to Pisa. Once there we picked up a tourist map and walked to the tower, Duomo and Baptistery (conveniently all in one area).

Before exploring them we hit a touristy pizzeria for lunch – kids had a cheese pizza and we opted for salami and tomato/mozzarella appetizers (how much salami can we eat on this trip, I wonder).

Then we hit a gelato place. Only then were we truly ready to check out the leaning tour and all.

Kids under eight can’t go up the tower so we passed on that trek. Instead we hit the Baptistery and Church – both lovely.

The church is a medieval cathedral entitled to Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of the Assumption).

Construction on it began in 1063 by the architect Buscheto (originator of the distinctive Pisan Romanesque style in architecture).

The building, as have several in Pisa, has tilted slightly since its construction. (This statement cracked me up – does everything in Pisa lean?)

The Baptistery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, stands opposite the west end of the Duomo. The round Romanesque building was begun in the mid 12th century and was built in the Romanesque style. It is the largest baptistery in Italy.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is the campanile, or freestanding bell tower, of the cathedral of the Italian city of Pisa. It is situated behind the Cathedral and is the third oldest structure in Pisa's Cathedral Square (Piazza del Duomo) after the Cathedral and the Baptistry.

Although intended to stand vertically, the tower began leaning to the southeast soon after the onset of construction in 1173 due to a poorly laid foundation and loose substrate that has allowed the foundation to shift direction. The tower presently leans to the southwest. (That begs the question: did it lean in a different direction before?)

From Pisa we hopped the train back to Florence, stopped at the carousel at the Piazza Independente for kid entertainment and ended up back at Aqua 2. (1 tried and true and 2 the beef was SO good…the place was packed and we saw other patrons from our first trip in, so apparently we weren’t the only fans). We ended up sharing a table, which seemed appropo for such a fun, energetic environment.

Again we shared the tasting menu – different salads/pasta, same fabulous beef. Again, the gnocchi was particularly good – red sauce this time.

Tiramisu and chocolate cake w/ raspberry sauce to finish it off.

We turned in for our last night at the infamous apartments, where we heard plenty of noise on the street…lots of people and energy in Florence for the New Year.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Duomo Climb and great food

Recap: December 29

This a.m. I again took a sleepy Ava into Joe and Claire’s room so I could wander Florence a bit. This time I hiked back up to Michelangelo’s Piazza for a misty morning view of Florence, the Arno, Duomo et al.

En route I passed an older woman with a cart perched on the many steps leading up the hill. She was talking loudly to the 8 cats she was feeding…cans of cat food dumped onto porcelain plates, one for each cat.

I guess everywhere in the world a few old ladies collect a multitude of cats. Let’s hope that never factors into my future.

The view from the piazza was again lovely, and I was the only one there! First for everything.

On the return I stopped for a big, rich, foamy cappuccino at a very hip café. The coffee here and in France is best, I’ve decided. Here they do magical things w/ the foam and in France the espresso is so smooth and rich it doesn’t need milk, it seems. I’ll take either happily.

We then had breakfast in our room – then off to the Duomo again, this time to climb up the 463 steps (I think that’s correct but I must say I didn’t count). The kids did great despite some tight spaces and twists and turns. (Not to mention a lot of legwork.)

At one point our journey opened out just below the paintings inside the dome, which we did our best to absorb. Then we continued our journey upward, eventually spilling out, after scaling what was more like a ladder than steps, onto the top of the cathedral. A lovely, misty above-the-rooftop view.

On the way down we walked around a second viewing “balcony” for an amazing perspective of the marble floor and cathedral environs.

After departing the Duomo we headed back to a café we’d spotted earlier – picturesque little place w/ wooden tables, a big meat and cheese counter, salamis and hams hanging about. It looked delightfully cheery and delicious, was packed when we stopped in for lunch. We joined a few others to wait outside and 10 minutes later were seated.

For lunch we had the house meat and cheese platter w/ olives and we split a mini bottle of chianti (when in Italy…).

The kids were all about their orange fanta, which hovered in a big fluorescent coke machine. We agreed that it was the only thing looming out of place in this quaint, rustic little eatery…just as the flashing red Christmas tree lights around the nativity looked a tad unusual in 14th century Santa Croce…

I must note that India and Italy share some similarities…a little Kmart special mixed in with the historical/classic, emphasis on extended family, men seeming to play a patriarchal role (let’s be real as to who really runs things), fabrics/textiles rein, pride in local specialties, tons of stone/marble in buildings, courtyards abound, gated houses, communities, bike/motorcycle popularity, a bit (understatement of the year) of chaos/disorganization with good sense of humor…

About lunch, though. Our meat and cheese platter came overflowing, with 6 different types of cheese (all fabulous – C & A ate all the buffalo mozzarella), 7 or 8 different meats (parma ham, salamis, all good), foccaccia and a basket of bread and some delicious olives. Oh and toasted bread w/ chicken liver pate which was also quite good.

This meal was served on a lovely ceramic platter…and we were given white plastic plates and cheap plastic cups – cracked me up. Real silverware, though, which came w/ paper napkins, all wrapped in paper bags decorated w/ pictures of smiling utensils.

Definitely our best lunch so far.

While we were there I heard an older Italian gentleman tell the waitress that he makes a point of stopping in for lunch every time he travels to Florence on business from Milan. I can see why.

From there we wandered to the market where the kids were intent on finding a souvenir. Ava opted for a small gold purse that says Ciao Bella Italia, Claire a white leather journal with the symbol of Florence on the front.

We then hit the Accademia, where the David is on display, among other things. And that led us into the evening; we got back to the hotel and relaxed a bit, setting out around 8 for a place around the corner that came recommended. Great wooded interior with high ceiling, lovely old chandelier, red tile floor.

Our waiter was a friendly older man who was in charge of the room, it seemed (the place has 3 or 4 dining areas). I had a delicious vegetable flan dish – one piece cauliflower flavored, one zucchini flavored.

Claire had polenta and parmesan and Ava, pasta and salami. Joe had a delicious soup (I tried it – hearty vegetable) and veal. For dessert the two of us shared the biscotti w/ vin santo (cookie dipped in syrupy dessert wine), kids ordered a piece of chocolate cake that looked out of this world.

We’ve certainly eaten well on this trip. (I have fond memories of Italy 20 years ago, but the restaurant scene is better when you’re not a student opting to save every dime for hostels and train tickets.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

More Italy!!!

Recap: December 28

After leaving Ava to crawl in with Joe and Claire early this a.m., I took a walk around Florence to revisit familiar haunts. So much looked the same: narrow streets, noisy motorbikes and mopeds, small cars zipping in and out, beautifully dressed people window shopping, picking up groceries here and there. Tons of trendy shops, leather leather leather, art art art.

New: fancy recycling and trash receptacles, very cool cafes and internet spots.
And lots of tourists with umbrellas (though it was merely misting).

After breakfast in our room – croissants, yogurt, toast and pastries – we headed for Santa Croce, which was around the corner from our hotel (well placed near churches on this trip).

We spent three hours there – much to see – the church of course, the Medici chapel and 15 other chapels, Michelangelo’s tomb, a big nativity, museum, leather factory and courtyard.

About the Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross): it is the principal Franciscan church in Florence, Italy, and a minor basilica of the Roman Catholic Church. Legend says Santa Croce was founded by St. Francis himself.

In addition to Michelangelo, various other illustrious Italians are buried there, including Galileo and Machiavelli. Thus it is known as the Temple of the Italian Glories.

Many of the chapels in the church are decorated w/ frescoes by Giotto and his pupils.
Construction of the current church began in 1294 and was paid for by some of the city's wealthiest families (isn’t that the case w/ most churches?).

It was consecrated in 1442 by Pope Eugene IV.

Today the former dormitory of the Franciscan Friars houses the Scuola del Cuoio (Leather School). Thus visitors can watch artisans craft purses, wallets, and other leather goods, which are sold in the adjacent shop. (We watched, didn’t leave w/ a bunch of leather, though.)

From Santa Croce we caught a bite at a nearby bar – I had incredibly tasty spinach ravioli in a lovely tomato cream sauce, kids had paninis, Joe pizza. Then we checked out the Duomo and Baptistery doors.

Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) is the cathedral of Florence. Known for its distinctive Renaissance dome, its name (Saint Mary of the Flower) refers to the lily, the symbol of Florence. The Gothic cathedral complex includes the Duomo, the famous baptistery and a campanile.

The cathedral, the third to be built in Florence, was built on the site of the previous one, Santa Reparata, prompted by the magnificence of the new cathedrals in Pisa and Siena.

It was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1294 to be the largest Roman Catholic church in the world (although the design was later reduced in size), with the first stone laid on September 8, 1296.

Work on the cathedral was on and off until 1418, when only the dome was incomplete.
In 1418 a competition was held to design this part, with Brunelleschi winning the competition with his distinctive octagonal design. Construction was completed in 1436 and the cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV on March 25, 1436.

It was the first 'octagonal' dome in history to be built without a wooden supporting frame (the Pantheon, a circular dome, was built in 118-128 AD without support structures), and was the largest dome built at the time (it is still the largest masonry dome in the world).

The dome also used horizontal reinforcements of tension chains of stone and iron - paving way to the imaginations of iron and steel structural reinforcements, such as reinforced concrete in later centuries.

Brunelleschi's ability to crown the dome with a lantern was questioned and he had to undergo another competition. The lantern was begun a few months before his death in 1446 and was completed by his friend Michelozzo. A huge statue of Brunelleschi now sits outside the Palazzo dei Canonici in the Piazza del Duomo, looking thoughtfully up towards his greatest achievement. (I took a photo of the kids in front of Brunelleschi looking up at his dome.)

From the Duomo we did some window shopping, strolling about the lovely city, decorated so beautifully for Christmas.

Then we landed at yet another church (3 in one day. That must let us off the hook for…what…Purgatory? Oh come on, God has a sense of humor. He must. Look at some of his creations.)

So anyway. Santa Maria Novella:

Chronologically, it is the first great basilica in Florence, and is the city's principal Dominican church.

The church boasts especially famous frescoes by masters of Gothic and early Renaissance, financed through the generosity of the most important Florentine families, who ensured themselves of funerary chapels on consecrated ground.

The church was called Novella (New) because it was built on the site of the 9th-century oratory of Santa Maria delle Vigne. When the site was assigned to Dominican Order in 1221, they decided to build a new church and an adjoining cloister.
Building on the church began in the mid-13th century and was finished about 1360 and consecrated in 1420.

Santa Maria Novella is full of amazing artwork by Renaissance masters, but this I thought particularly interesting: the pulpit was designed by Brunelleschi (Duomo architect extraordinaire) and executed by his adopted child Andrea Calvalcanti. It was from this pulpit the first attack came on Galileo Galilei, leading eventually to his indictment. Galileo probably didn’t have a warm fuzzy feeling about Santa Maria Novella.

Finally, on the topic of Santa Maria Novella, the square in front the church was used by Cosimo I for the yearly chariot race (Palio dei Cocchi). This custom existed between 1563 and late in the 19th century.

Churched out, we wandered back to our hotel for a bit of R&R, then stepped out for dinner at Aqua al 2, which was fabulous. Joe and I had the tasting menu so we got to try 3 different types of salad, one with mozzarella di buffalo and tomato, the other two with delicious dressings and a variety of fresh greens. Then five different small plates of pasta came out, gnocchi with gorgonzola (my favorite), some tube like shape with vodka sauce, another w/ eggplant…all excellent.

Then we were served three portions of steak, each done differently – one w/ balsamic sauce, one w/ blueberry sauce and the last on foccaccia with rosemary. My favorite was the blueberry.

For dessert the girls were invited to go with the waitress to choose…they opted for chocolate cake and tiramisu. No shortage of either on this trip.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Venice to Florence

Recap of December 27

I got up early this morning and took a long walk along the Grand Canal, then into town and back to the water’s edge and a lovely park.

I might note that I was one of a handful in tennis shoes deliberately seeking exercise…the Italians of course have lovely leather footwear and don’t bother working up a sweat on purpose.

It was a lovely morning with a few boats just getting a move on. When we left the hotel (might I add that the panettone and jam-filled muffins at the hotel were particularly good, as was the brie) plenty of tourists were in the piazza – the most we’d seen so far.

We were in Venice at a delightful time, uncrowded, quiet, glittering lights on placid water, crisp and mostly sunny. Magical.

We picked up the water bus for a leisurely ride to the train station – we hit every stop en route, I think, but with plenty of time it was a picturesque journey past palazzi, the Guggenheim, the Accademia and Rialto. Upon arrival at the station we were told our train was leaving imminently – apparently we were ticketed for a station one stop away but we got on anyway and it worked out fine.

Two hours later we got off in Florence. Several calls later, to no avail, we didn’t reach our apartment contact so set off via cab. At the address we were stumped, no one to let us in so we hit a nearby pizzeria for lunch and made more calls.

Eventually we reached our accommodations people, so once done with seafood salad and pizza we made our way to a different apartment. Incidentally, the cab driver who whisked us from pizzeria “parked” to pick us up by planting his car at a diagonal in the middle of the street to block all traffic while getting us in the car…

What we ended up with for a hotel wasn’t ideal: separate rooms, wherein Joe and I split up to room w/ the girls. (Fast forward a few years and this would have been a great set up…) Apparently the former poreperty had technical issues, whatever that might mean.

Central location, nice property and really, we’d spent enough time getting into this one. So we headed off to enjoy the warm weather and a lovely sunset at Piazza Michelangelo. This lovely spot is on a hill overlooking the city, so is a bit of a climb but well worth it.

FYI: Designed in 1869 by Florentine architect Giuseppe Poggi, Piazzale Michelangelo was created as part of major restructuring of the city walls in 1869. Poggi designed a monument base dedicated to Michelangelo, where copies of Michelangelo's works, including the David and Medici chapel sculptures from San Lorenzo would be displayed. When the terrace was finished, Poggi designed the hillside building with loggia as a museum for Michelangelo's works. However, Poggi's project never became a museum…it is now a restaurant.

From the Piazzale we wandered to the Ponte Vecchio, a Medieval bridge over the Arno River. It is noted for still having shops built along it as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. It has been described as Europe's oldest wholly-stone, closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge. Apparently that's a lie; there are older structures of same make up.

We then wandered around town, enjoying the lovely Christmas lights and the festive feeling in the city as many people were out for early evening strolls.

Eventually we ended up at a lovely little cellar restaurant – Giuseppe’s. We were early but were invited to come in and enjoy the ambience – warm brick interior with wooden table and walls filled with photos of celebrity types and the restaurant owner.

Apparently we’d stumbled on a hot ticket (or the place wanted us to think it was).
While we tracked down the restroom we found the staff eating dinner and it looked/smelled delicious. As was the case, we soon found. It filled up quickly, too, with a mix of locals/tourists. I had a fabulous eggplant tart, Joe had veal, which he seemed to very much enjoy. (Note: I've eaten more eggplant since leaving the U.S. that I would ever imagined -- it's popular in India, the UK, Italy, no doubt France (though who knows -- I couldn't read the menu there).

The kids had no complaints about their pasta at Giuseppe's, either.

For dessert we enjoyed gelato at a bar near the Duomo. Very nice way to end the evening, and my roommate for the night: Ava.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Birthday in Venice!

So there we were in Venice on December 26, which happens to be Claire’s birthday. Not a bad place to turn eight, methinks. (Though allow me not to delude myself; chuck-e cheese would hold just as much appeal.)

We started off the day at the Doge’s Palace after a laidback breakfast at Hotel Concordia. Three hours into the Palace we met up at the palace café – Ava and I had gone one way, Claire and Joe another. The place is immense and the audio guide goes on forever. At some point even I got overload and just wanted out but the maze of rooms, dungeon and staircases seemed to go on forever.

About the Doge’s:

A gothic palace in Venice, it's called the Palazzo Ducale di Venezia. The palace was the residence of the Doge of Venice.

Its two most visible facades look towards the Venetian Lagoon and St Mark's Square (the Piazzetta). The current palace was largely constructed from 1309 to 1424, designed perhaps by Filippo Calendario. It replaced earlier fortified buildings of which relatively little is known.

The palace was badly damaged by fire in 1574. In the subsequent rebuilding work it was decided to respect the original Gothic style, despite the submission of a neo-classical alternative design by Palladio. However, there are some classical features, i.e. since the sixteenth century the palace has been linked to the prison by the Bridge of Sighs.

As well as being the ducal residence, the palace housed political institutions of the Republic of Venice until the Napoleonic occupation of the city. Venice was ruled by an aristocratic elite, but there was a facility for citizens to submit written complaints at what was known as the Bussola chamber.

Eventually we surfaced to find the other half eating tiramisu and drinking fancy hot chocolate in the warm, brick/stone café. Emphasis on warm; the palace was a chilly experience. Imagine being imprisoned on wet cement during the winter, then trying to survive the opposite extreme: gross heat and humidity in August. Not to mention a continual influx of water.

The fancy hot chocolate was laced w/ alcohol – Joe’s amaretto version hit the spot so I tried the Baileys version. I highly recommend both.

From the Doge’s we headed to a boat taxi and Burano, an island knows for lacemaking. En route we had great views – the water, Venetian architecture, other boats -- all framed by mountains in the distance.

At Burano we found pituresque, brightly painted houses on the banks of lovely canals. We caught a snack at a bar that was busy with plenty of locals. After soom tasty paninis Ava and I did some birthday shopping for Claire; she chose a lovely blue mask for her sister.

We also found a pretty tablecloth and napkins to take home for a family souvenir.
Then back to Venice via another nice, relaxing boatride, lovely with the sun setting and lights sparkling on the water. We had a short re-group at the hotel, then went in quest of Osteria Zucca, which I’d researched for the birthday dinner.

Again, we hopped a boat taxi, this time from the Rialto. Our map led us astray but a very gracious Venetian lady showed us the way to Zucca (which means pumpkin, incidentally).

In a nod to the name, Zucca is a lovely little restaurant with subtle pumpkin décor. Joe and I shared the house specialty, a delicious savory pumpkin tort (appetizer). I had a fabulous vegetable entrée, he had lamb and the kids surprised us by ordering…pasta.

Claire opened a few gifts and enjoyed chocolate mousse with a candle in it. Restaurant patrons from Germany and England joined us and the Italian waitstaff in singing Happy Birthday to her.

The mousse was excellent, we decided, as was the pistachio chocolate torte we tried.

A very nice birthday experience and one we hope she’ll remember fondly.

Afterward we meandered Venice’s windy streets back to the hotel as quickly as the boating experience had taken.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year, New Fridge

Well we’ve had an auspicious start to the New Year. Firecrackers, frescoes and REALLY good food in Italy -- and a new refrigerator under our tree. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration I suppose. It was hard enough getting the thing in the house, let alone under anything.

My friends from John Lewis tripped over yesterday to deliver a nice-looking silver mammoth (it’s actually a moderately sized appliance, bigger than most English versions, I guess). Happily I found one that is not a side-by-side, that fits the space, that does make ice (must keep husband happy) and that appears, at least so far, fingers crossed, to be working.

My diatribe on side-by-sides: (not a bad way to start the day, I’ve decided – a diatribe here and there)

I’ve grown to abhor side-by-sides, largely due to the lemon I watched being dragged out the front door yesterday.

But I also find the style comes up short -- the way I use a fridge (last several months aside, of course) – popping in the occasional cookie sheet for a quick freeze, finding a home for a turkey, pan and all, etc., I find the standard version more cook-friendly.

So here we have a fridge on top, freezer bottom model that was COLD inside when I checked on it this morning. Now I will spend the day deciding what to name it and how to coddle it…

On that note, back to Italy. Though I must also mention that I read yesterday how we’re having a record cold winter in London. Handy for my patio refrigeration back up, I must say. And as long as the heat continues to work, the sun shines and my collection of wool sweaters grows, I can handle the chill!

Christmas Day in Venice

We woke to hear copious amounts of sloshing this Christmas Day. The street below our room had to be negotiated with waders; apparently the hotel has plenty on hand for such occasions. (Frankly we all slept in, therein negating the need for any hiplength boots on our part.)

I started my Christmas Day 2009 with a cappuccino and Christmas carols in the hotel lounge, then took a nice long Christmas walk, something I think I’ve done most Christmases. It’s always a nice, quiet day to begin the day’s celebration, which is guaranteed to get noisier (in a good way) later.

A new Italian men were out and about, walking dogs or smoking.

We caught the tail end of breakfast – just love the coffee here, and who doesn’t like great brie?

We then hit noon Mass, a short walk around the corner to the Mass entrance of St. Mark’s Cathedral. It was in Italian but let’s face it, Mass is formulaic, so we got the gist. And we were out in 50 minutes; maybe these Italians could pass on some tips to the NC and TX Fathers?

Don’t I sound holy today. Well, it’s early and I haven’t had a lot of coffee. Maybe you’ll catch me w/ rosary beads later.

From Mass we made our way to Harry’s Bar, a legend in Venice and the birthplace of the Bellini. We hopped on bar stools amid a festive crowd of Italians, many with small dogs in sweaters. (Dogs abound here in Venice; maybe since you can’t use scooters, cars or bikes you go in for pets?)

We toasted the New Year, kids with sprite, Joe with champagne and me with, naturally, a Bellini. Very tasty, I might add.

Then we wandered Venice, eventually finding a snack at a touristy restaurant. Cheese pizza and mozzarella salad for us. We checked out a church here and there, some shops, stopped at a candy shop for a treat, and just enjoyed strolling with others out for their Christmas walk.

After some card games at the hotel we set out via water bus to a different part of a town for Christmas dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by our glass factory friends.

The place serves fabulous seafood – and treated us well for our holiday with a glass of prosecco and fish spread and polenta appetizer on the house. Joe and I shared the specialty of the house, a huge fish dish – mix of shrimp, white fish, squid & mussels over incredibly good, spicy pasta.

Ava had shrimp and pasta, and Claire stuck w/ the tried and true: olive oil and parm over noodles.

For dessert we enjoyed tiramisu.

Our boat road home was a delight in and of itself, with lights sparkling beautifully on the water. Venice is magical this time of year.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ok I interrupt this Italian diatribe to note that there should be something called Mass etiquette. Per esempio (thought I’d throw in the foreign lingo…why not?):
Yesterday I cringed as an older gentleman directly behind me hacked, sneezed and blew his way through Mass, then at the sign of peace reached out his hand to infect everyone around him.

Ugh. And I’m (truly) not one who is paranoid about germs. (In fact, my theory is the more you worry about getting something, the more likely it will sneak in to sabotage your immune system.)

BUT there is a limit to sharing one’s disease without a second thought. (I suspect even the priest would prefer if the man recovered at home before bestowing blessings of peace to the congregation. I do recall Father Don recommending never to put holy water under a microscope…)

Ok done w/ my diatribe (next time it will be nose pickers on the tube – just kidding!).

Back to Italy…

Our Christmas Eve started off with a lie-in (love that British expression for sleeping in). We did scramble to make the hotel breakfast before it closed at 10 – breads, coffee, hot chocolate, fruit, cheese and prosciutto – all in a dining room looking out onto Saint Mark’s Cathedral. Not bad.

Our agenda for the morning: a 10:30 excursion to Murano, where they make the famed glass. It was an overcast day – warmer than when we landed, though, so it felt good to stand on the boat and be windblown as we were motored over. Lovely lights were sprinkled throughout the bay, think fancy streetlights.

Twenty minutes later we were delivered to the glass factory, the kids lifted in and out of the boat by our competent, friendly Italian boat driver. (Does one captain a motorboat?)

We entered a toasty warm workshop with huge ovens in back, a furnace closer to us and a “master” at work. He illustrated how he makes objects d’arte from a bright orange blog of melted sand. The sand is, incidentally, very fine, a cheap, local raw material.

Clearly the orange blob was very hot and malleable – he used a long iron handle to hold it away from him and metal tongs with which to shape it. One object he made quickly before us was a vase, which he blew into to create.

The second piece he made was a horse with rainblow-colored mane.

Apparently to yield color in the glass other metallic properties are mixed with the sand. How they blend to create color is often a surprise to the master, as they appear clear until fired.

I think we were told it takes two days for the glass to cool completely after the firing process.

From the workshop we were escorted into a dozen rooms of the mega showroom. No shortage of items to buy (from dishes and wall art to vases and any kind of figuring you might imagine). The “Masters” – about 15 of them currently – are all men living on the island. Each has continued a family legacy of glass art work, something Murano has been famed for since 1291.

Apparently the island was a commercial port dating to the 7th Century, and by the 10th Century it had grown into a prosperous trading center with its own coins, police force and commercial aristocracy. In 1291 the Venetian Republic ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano because the glassworks represented a fire danger in Venice, whose buildings were mostly wooden at the time.

Murano's glassmakers became the leading citizens on the island and were granted the right to wear swords and immunity from prosecution by the high-handed Venetian state. By the late 14th Century the daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into Venice's blue-blooded families. (Per my web research, this is apparently the equivalent of Archie Bunker's daughter being invited to wed a Cabot or a Peabody – LOL!)

BUT glassmakers could not leave the Republic, threatened w/ assassination or having his hands cut off by the secret police (apparently in reality most defectors weren't treated so harshly).

What made Murano's glassmakers so special? For one thing, they were the only people in Europe who knew how to make glass mirrors. They also developed or refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Their virtual monopoly on quality glass lasted for centuries, until glassmakers in Northern and Central Europe introduced new techniques and fashions around the same time that colonists were emigrating to the New World.

How’s that for cool?

Claire unfortunately got too close and personal with a small horse statue that she didn’t realize was a lot heavier than it looked (some of these pieces are really weighty). It met its demise.

After much deliberation we purchased a colorful clown that we’ll see back in London sometime in the new year. No need to shlep that heavy chunk of art around Italy! The kids also received small gifts of little clear glass horses like those made during the demo.

Incidentally, we were told each piece has to be completed from start to finish on the same day, while the glass is hot and malleable…no setting it aside and reheating.

Back to Venice we then went, leaving off the horses at the hotel. We marched off to find lunch, taking a quick walk through Saint Mark’s first (we’d neglected the main body of the church the previous day, having had enough cathedral time and not enough food!).

The building is truly amazing. Appropriately, a gorgeous glass nativity secene was on display.

One point on San Marco – everywhere you turn you’re being nickled and dimed, 3 euros to see the treasures, 2 for an upclose view of the altar (they even have a turnstyle nearby to ensure you don’t sneak a close peak!).

No doubt our monsignor in North Carolina would have been able to build the church sooner if he’d charged everyone admission to see…what? The gym floor in the temporary church?!? Not as powerful attraction as Venice’s riches, I guess.

For lunch we found another bar for sandwiches and pizza, then meandered through the streets and over bridges to another part of town, where the Guggenheim is (en route we found small cannolis and tiramisu bites, delish!).

The Guggenheim -- fabulous place; I highly recommend it.

The collection holds major works of Cubism, Futurism, Metaphysical painting, European abstraction, avant-garde sculpture, Surrealism, and American Abstract Expressionism, by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Léger, Brancusi, Severini, Picabia, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miró , Giacometti, Klee, Ernst, Dalí, Pollock and more…

The museum is supposedly the ”most important museum in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century.”

Claire and I did the audio guide tour, which was very well done, I might also add.

After wandering back through the rain (not much more than a heavy sprinkle, though Italians w/ umbrellas were out in full force, as were all the umbrella hawkers) we landed at the hotel to relax before dinner.

The walking platforms were being set up as made our way back; high water was expected. When we headed to dinner, a restaurant we’d been recommended to try by two different Venetians, we saw shop owners boarding their doorways to prevent water encroachment.

Dinner was at Aciugheta, a casual little restaurant in the corner of a nearby square – brick interior with kitchen and bar in the middle. I had a delicious tagliatelle dish (black noodles) with squid, zucchini and tomatoes. The fresh pasta here is fabulous. (Yes, there is a difference, a big one!).

We went to bed wondering what the street outside our hotel would look like in the morning…

Incidentally, the kids love these boardwalks that are left up here and there around San Marco and in other areas where the tide brings water in at night. When I think of Venice I'll remember Claire and Ava running up and down them, dodging the Asian tourists.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year!

Woo hoo we’re back from Italy! And good thing too; with all that good food and wine I’d soon have to roll home.

What a great vacation: Venice, Florence and Bologna. (Yes, Bologna, poor old underrated Bologna – loved it!).

This week I’ll do my best to capture our travels via blog, so here’s my Sunday start – with wishes for a wonderful 2010!

To Venice we went on December 23.

After shlepping out at the crack of dawn, ready for an icy one hour+ cab ride to Heathrow (cold temps had followed our very wet snow just before Christmas), we got there in 30 minutes (safely, too!).

And after making our way through a maze of lines, then being pulled out by a Biritish Airways woman trying to do us a favor as we were traveling w/ kids, we were sent us to an area w/ no lines. Wherein we dropped our bags with a woman who made it quite clear we weren’t at a bag drop...

Happily, these bags did roll off the carousel in Venice.

After breakfast at Giraffe (apparently one of those must do kid eateries that we hadn’t yet done), a delayed bus to a delayed plane and then a wait on de-icing, we were off!

We rolled in not long after schedule to a lovely day in Venice – blue skies and crisp. We were taken by van to a private water taxi for a gorgeous entry into the city (and auspicious hotel drop off).

We stood at the back of the boat and enjoyed weaving through canals, passing palaces and churches, bridges and gondolas, the occasional trash barge…and wound up at the Hotel Concordia (a short walk from our canal drop off).

After checking in with drinks in the lobby, we headed to St. Mark – THE famed Venetian Cathedral.

St Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) is one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. Adjoining the Doge's Palace, San Marco has been the seat of the Archbishop of Venice since 1807.

The first St. Mark's church in Venice was a temporary building in the Doge’s Palace, constructed in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist from its original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt.

It is said the Venetians hid the relics in a barrel under layers of pork to get them past Muslim guards. The escapade is depicted in the 13th-century mosaic above the door farthest left of the front entrance of the Basilica.

The original St. Mark's church was replaced by a new one on the present site in 832. The new church was burned in a rebellion in 976, rebuilt in 978, and the basis of the present basilica was formed in 1063.

It was consecrated in 1094, the same year the body of Saint Mark was supposedly rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Falier, doge of Venice at the time.

While the basic structure of the building has been little altered, its decoration changed greatly over time. The succeeding centuries, especially the fourteenth, all contributed to its adornment, and seldom did a Venetian vessel return from the Orient without bringing a column, capitals, or friezes, taken from some ancient building, to add to the fabric of the basilica.

St. Mark's Basilica is designed on a Greek cross floor plan and modeled after Constantine's Church of the Holy Apostles (now destroyed) and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Inside are gilded mosaics that cover the walls and ceilings — around 8,000 square meters of them!

The 12th-century interior mosaics recount events of the New Testament; the 13th-century mosaics depict scenes from the Old Testament. Other stories depicted through mosaics include the story of the Virgin, the martyrdoms of St. Peter and St. Clement, and events in the lives of St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist and St. Isadore, the great pantheon of saints venerated by the Venetians and of course -- and most important -- St. Mark.

The impressive gold background symbolizes the Divine and the light of God himself.

The intricately-patterned floor is a 12th-century mixture of mosaic and marble in geometric patterns and animal designs. A red medallion in the floor inside the main door marks the spot where, in 1177, Doge Sebastiano Ziani orchestrated the reconciliation between Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Pope Alexander III.

Over the high altar is a baldacchino on columns decorated with 11th-century reliefs. The altarpiece is the famous Pala d'Oro (Golden Pall), a panel of gold embedded with gems. It was commissioned from Byzantine goldsmiths in 976 and further embellished over the centuries. Napoleon stole some of the precious stones in 1797, but there are still plenty left, gleaming behind protective glass.

The Horses of Saint Mark were installed on the basilica in 1254. They date to Classical Antiquity; by some accounts they once adorned the Arch of Trajan. The horses were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and in 1204 Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them back to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople (Istanbul) in the Fourth Crusade.

They were taken by Napoleon in 1797, restored in 1815 and remained in place until the 1990s. They now reside in the basilica's museum in an upper gallery; replicas take their place on the facade.

We went through the museum portion of the cathedral, saw these lovely horses, among other things, and walked around the outside of the façade, where the replicas are displayed. Lovely view of the square and Grand Canal, the Doges Palace, and of course a unique view of the outside of the cathedral.

We then let hunger dictate our next move; after wandering through narrow streets and passageways, past a couple small outdoor markets, we found a bar (café) near the Rialto (famous bridge and Venice’s city centre). There we enjoyed grilled paninis, prosecco and red wine. Not a bad way to start our Italian adventure.

Busy with locals and tourists, the bar had a happy buzz to it. We then checked out the area around the Rialto and eventually wandered back to the hotel for a break. I set out to explore some more and get some exercise – such a wonderful city to wander.

For dinner we tried a lovely little enoteca (wine bar/restaurant) not far from St. Mark’s Square. Wooded, with candlelit tables, friendly waiters who were great w/ the kids and delicious food – I had fried fish and shrimp, Joe tried black lasagna (flavored w/ squid, I think), kids had their pasta (the start of an 11 day trend on this trip…) – though they both made off with some of my fish.

The best: a warm chocolate cake with eggnog sauce and tiramisu for dessert. The latter was the best we had on the trip, and we did try plenty of tiramisus in our wanderings!

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Old Delhi
Largest mosque in India