Friday, May 30, 2008

On the road again….

Today we are leaving Italy, and I suppose that means I should find another song to hum instead of ‘On days like these’ – any suggestions?

We’re sad to leave the lovely, huge, calm and old-fashioned apartment that we’ve been renting for the week. It’s perfectly placed to pop down to the train station and from there to do day trips to Venice, Padua, Vicenza, and so on. Ross and Chris are off to Padua today, while we sort ourselves out and trek out to Venice airport for this afternoon’s flight to Paris.

Here’s a list!

A random selection of things I like about Italy:

- Going into dark little bars to order coffee and pastries, then sitting out in the sunshine watching the world go by.

- Crumbly old buildings in many colours with wooden shutters:

- Cool marble staircases and halls.

- The people: good-humoured talk and gossip; “And THEN, do you know what happened….” Every day sounds like an extraordinary day.

- Dogs. Dogs on boats and dogs taking themselves for a stroll – when there are no cars, why not?

- Good food, good company, and beautiful places to eat it. (Stay tuned for a Food blog post, coming soon…)

Here’s a photo of James and Ross tucking into a fine lunch….

Now spot the action in the background. (Click it to see a bigger version). Wow, that’s a technique all right.

My, my!

- Gondoliers on their telefonino. (telefonini?)

- Boats of every size and shape. With and without bling (see below).

- Bling. Has anyone else noticed the bling? Sequins on bags, gold shoes, lame’ t-shirts, gold lame shoe laces for your runners, plastic gilded crowns on gondolas, and even – the piece de resistance, a gold lame picnic cool bag.

- Colours and patterns are everywhere: on balconies, on clothes for men and women, on frescoed stucco walls of houses and churches. It’s better than bling, but bling has a morbid fascination for me…

- Birdsong.

- People hanging out of upper shuttered windows, watching other people:

- Gossip, gossip, talk talk talk - doncha' know it makes the world go round?

- People standing in shop doorways watching life on the street.

Ciao for now and we will post in from Paris.


PS: Yes, we made it to Urbino, thank you for asking, those who did. And it was SPIFFING!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Skipping stones

I wonder how many things have slipped to the bottom of the canals in Venice? Coins, cameras, coffee cups, questionable postcards, souvenir stands. I wonder what rolls, or is gently shoved, and not seen again. Or do dredgers run junk shops and fishing boys sell shoes?

It’s an odd place, and oodles have been written about it. The water is china-bluer than I imagined, like the cups and bowls Grandma used to have, and the buildings redder, pinker, more crumbly, more humble.

I think because we only see the photos and the paintings of the heights of the Venician gothic, we don’t imagine that much of it just wallows mellowly along the water like Amsterdam or Bruges, busy being ordinary, but extraordinary because of what and where it is. When we arrived, we left the station and went left and left, and ended up in Canareggio and the Ghetto, where there were old ladies and working boats, dogs with blue and red leather harnesses sniffing walls, and dogs perched on piles of sacks, monitoring barges. A couple of cafes, and quiet. Waterways full of work, not photographic leisure. I liked it.

We all went to Venice expressly to ‘mooch’. Mooching has become an art form on this trip, for James and I, and today we had Ross and Chris with us too. It involves a slow progression, slightly faster than a stroll and not as slow as the mouth-open stumble some tourists use to catch flies. It includes coffee, photographs, people watching and getting away from souvenir stands, which y now probably chase us through our dreams. (Mooching also, because of my lust for art, includes churches and the occasional art gallery, but James might tell you that ruins the mooch factor a bit).

On Sunday, we mooched around Treviso, which was a special mooch, first because it was a reunion mooch, and second because it took in a rather splendid lunch.

Ross and James haven’t spent time together since we first moved out to Australia over three years ago, and so there has been lots of catching up, hugs and glasses of wine to be had by all. Ask Ross about the bottles of wine that cost about euro 1.49 ….

Treviso has the advantage of being 30 minutes from Venice by train, on the mainland, and hence outside of astronomical-o zone for accommodation. And it has the best flat! We’ve rented a large flat in an old villa in a suburb, which we call ‘My Nan’s flat in Italy’ because of its wonderful early 20th century-ness, surrounded by cherry trees and full of heavy old family furniture.

We all adore it, and photos don’t do it justice.

I just about started singing arias when we got in from the market and found that this kitchen awaited us. Wouldn’t you?


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thunder in the Marches

We’ve been hiding out in Le Marche region for a few days. They don’t do internet here. What they do do, however, is hill towns and winding roads, precipitous drop on one side and verdant green all around.

We have been staying at a farm stay called Fosso del Lupo, which we think means the way of the wolf, or wolf ditch. We’ll check later. But for now, the fields are glinting in late evening sunlight after a day of thunder and rain. The dark clouds are still sailing around like battleships over impossibly rolling green hills.

I’m having a belated lesson in art history. All those times I looked at the landscape in the background of renaissance paintings, all curvy pudding-basin hills, sfumato and misty receding distances, and I said to myself, landscape doesn’t look like that. It’s schematic. Well. I was wrong. It does look like that around here. Lesson one: don’t make assumptions about the domelike hills and cheesecake rocks; they might exist:

Today we saw an altarpiece by Bellini, and some wonderful still life allegories, amongst other things. We were trying to get to Urbino (I am going to write a movie called Trying to Get to Urbino: Part one, 1999; the broken arm. Part two, yesterday; the migraine headache. Part three, today; the Giro d’Italia (just like the Tour de France, only in pink).

We have been assured that the Ducal Palace, home of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ and the incredible study of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, will be open at 8:30 tomorrow morning. We will head off, but whether we get there remains to be seen. I will skip over yesterday. Today’s attempt was a disaster in pink – or a word I learned from our farmstay host this evening – ‘e bruto’. Brrruto! Most of the roads were closed, or blocked off with trucks and men moving barriers, minding that these are tiny windy country mountain roads of course, and all of this is in torrential pouring rain. With Urbino’s parking lot closed for the use of the media, and hilltop fortresses being notable for their lack of parking, we tried to escape, heading for the coast, only to find that we were trapped on an endless hilltop ridgeway route with no turnoffs and precisely the road that the bicycles were going to zizz through, therefore a melee of setting up vans and fans.

Let’s skip the swearing and the waving of the map, fast-forward an hour ahead, and pop! - we emerged from the clouds and the rain to find ourselves at Pesaro, a rather unattractively-rimmed old town; medieval centre; industrial wasteland; seaside tatters.

The best of the day was restored, however, after a vague memory “I think there’s a Bellini here” from me, and damn fine finding of both the city centre and a free parking space by James (it’s like Lucca used to be he said…). We stashed our little Fiat and walked under the old gate into the city, heading for the older smaller streets, where it somehow seemed so much better after a coffee and two chocolate pastries, they called them brioches, but I’d have called them filled croissants of a sort. Mmmm anyway, I do not argue when my equilibrium is being restored.

Pesaro turned out to be okay: the Bellini was a lovely piece, in an interesting museum, with Rossini’s collection (he of opera fame and the local son-made-good), and some fabulous Deruta ware majolica. And a rather – er – interesting ceramic figure of Salome. Leave it out, dear.

This afternoon, well, that was for singing your favourite opera aria while pootling about the countryside. We hit the road south to avoid the Giro, and went inland along the road which was once called the Flamian way, heading, you guessed it, for Rome. Not that we went there; the road did. On either side, hills rise abruptly from the broad edges of the river valley, and there are fortresses and imperial villa ruins to be seen perched on the tops. We took our weary souls and our picnic lunch to Montefalcino, a tiny little two-minute-lap-around hilltop fortress of a city block, inhabited by old ladies and one man making sandals on the city walls. He’d wheeled his jigsaw cutter out into the street (such as it is), and was using the battlement as his workbench – too bad if you drop your awl, that’s 50 feet down, and all the way around to the steps to go down and get it!

More bumbling through endlessly green hills and ways, past little top-perched stone towns, down across streams and even, oh the cliché, through a flock of sheep. Or rather, we stopped and they ran around us like a stream of water, the old man in the apé in front, waving his arm at us, lentamente, lentamente, and the two young kids running along behind.
It’s good to have grandsons when you also have sheep.

Home, to our little flat at the farm, where the thunder roars and the farm dog insisted on coming in to lie under the table and fall asleep with his head on my feet. Both he and James snored for a while. Then the cat came in to see what was going, too, and curled up on the dog.

It’s been a good day, despite the thunder on the hills.

On days like these –

- it’s important to stay out of the tunnels, avoid the Mafia, keep the gold, and corner carefully in the coach.

The hill roads, while not the same as those in a certain movie, offer the same mad hillside switchback, which our semi-automatic hire car manages with all the shortcomings of both manual and auto transmissions. However the roads are well made up, especially those running into Urbino (above), we discover, due to the arrival of the local leg of the Giro d’Italia in two days time. (We enjoyed being our own peloton without the need for sponsored skin-tight Lycra and peddling up the hills.) Soon these roads will echo to the zizzzz of the Native European Mechanical Weasel and the bar TVs will all be tuned to the motobicicletta-cam to follow the track.

In the meantime, Urbania celebrates the ‘return’ of the 91st Giro with several lead in events – which we missed – which will start from there and the town is decked with Italian flags and plain pink ‘flags’ – the Giro colour, replicated in all the shopfronts. Florists used old bike wheels to decorate, and clothing shops perch small mannequins in pink on the most unlikely two-wheel conveyances. Regular showers disperse the old men discussing how good it used to be, and the young men discussing how to dress for race-watching, as well as a young girl in a white top endlessly circling the town Teatro on her ’bike. Presumably she goes home to annoy her mother – the men certainly will.

Luckily the exhibition of the Biblioteca of the Duke’s is open in the castle-cum-palace, so a good half-hour is spent with yet more culture, admiring the Pope’s dispensation for the Duke to both own and read ‘forbidden books’. (Presumably there were other, more tricky licences of owning but not reading, or reading but not owning…) as well as two globes by a chap called Mercator with the heavens (lots of muscular gods and animals) and the earth – no gods or animals there… A map of England and Scotland, orientated to the west was a confusion at first, and the county of ‘South Folke’ was a highlight.

Due to the closure of certain roads for the Giro preparations, our exit across the bridge went through a random selection of the back streets of Urbania, so we now know that our hire car has an excellent turning circle and IS less than 2 metres wide.

More soon,


Thursday, May 15, 2008

A date with the belle velloce donne rossi

This is just a quick post for our loyal viewers (that's you) before we hit the road from Rome and head to Orvieto. Bev keeps talking of Cathedrals, but I'm thinking of a certain type of very palatable chilled white wine, with the label misting over, maybe at a cafe in front of the Cathedral...

Wednesday (yesterday) was always down as the day we were to go to Vigna di Valle, where I had a date with a group of classy fast Italian ladies in red. This was one of the centrepieces in a magnificent museum of the Italian Air Force, and is one of the reasons were were in Rome.

Italy was one of the few countries to compete in the Schneider Cup races for seaplanes from the 1910s to the thirties, and as one would expect, the Italian entrants were effective, beautiful, classy, original and RED. (The others were Britain, France, and America - Britain won the required three times for a permanent victory, and the Cup is now in the Science Museum in London.)

Three of the racers are on show in the Museum (a forth is on show in town, and that's another story) and this picture (by Bev) shows them looking like they are ready to go again. The Macchi Mc-72 on the far end of the line took the world seaplane speed record at 709kmh (440mph) on 23rd October 1934 - a record for a piston engine seaplane that stands to this day. After taking the ribbon, she never flew again. Well, anything afterwards was going to be anticlimactic, wasn't it?

We had a great time in the museum, and we'd taken the train to a beautiful town called Bracciano on the lake (of the same name) where we were to get a taxi to the museum. We had to wait an hour in town, and a better hour would be hard to spend. It contained proper newsagent's kiosk, a castle, a town square with people on passagata, a good Italian traffic jam (we decided the town was a bit like Windermere, but Italian ~ sort of) amazing medieval streets that were all too much like a Verdi opera set, a museum, two gelati, some strolling, and a number of amazing views. The picture above isn't a set, they just made it like that...

We got back to Rome for the evening where we managed to meet up with one of my aviation writing opposite numbers, Gregory Alegi, who took us to a great restaurant off Via Nazionalle and were we had a most enjoyable Roman meal, much talk of art, aviation, food history and all good things. Only our sudden poleaxing by jetlag and a taxi back to our hotel prevented the evening going much later, and we didn't get any of the Rome by night photos I'd hoped for. But hey, it's the Eternal City right? It'll be here, we'll be back.

More soon... and if you are good, I'll tell you what the Orvieto Classico was like. Travel writing, it's a tough gig.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The city awakes

5:30 in the morning is not known for its charms. However, sitting on a terracotta rooftop terrace looking to the river and watching the city emerge would have to be one of the few.

I have been watching the sunlight creeping down the walls of the church and building next door. Despite the fact that we are near the centre of one of the largest cities in Europe, there’s surprisingly little noise, and now, almost 7AM, there’s not that much going on yet. Some vespas, lots of birds, and the clattering of opening shutters. Someone is shouting down to someone else in the piazza.

Yesterday the art historian filled up her art corpuscles. First up, the Villa Farnesina for that fresco feeling, with a spot-the-gods ceiling and of course, Raphaels and more Raphaels. Arriving fairly early, we had the place to ourselves for the first few rooms – definitely a bonus, and a little place I will always want to revisit.

Then, a quick coffee standing at the bar and down to the Pantheon plus a market, in the rain. This followed by an exhibition of Quattrocento art and its effect on Rome – yes, please thank you says the art historian – followed by more walking, and San Pietro in Vincoli, the church where Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture broods at tourists in a muscular Vulcan-like way. I can’t remember why he’s got horns: can anyone recall why he’s got horns? My art books are two continents away….

Finally, the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, where we explored an exhibition on speed and Italian design (motorbikes, cars, futurist art, and an airplane right in the middle of one of the rooms). Running around making vroom vroom noises would have been nice, but they already had them on the stereo. To finish: the best damn art and design bookshop I have seen in a long time, if ever – we escaped without too much damage: it’s amazing what the threat of carrying all your belongings will do. Back to Trastevere in the rain.

Now I can see that the café down in the piazza is opening up, so I must leave you and we will post more later. For now, a photo.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I sit here writing this on our spiffy new matt-black Macbook laptop, on the private rooftop balcony in our central Rome hotel, as the late evening sun paints a golden glow on the lemon and strawberry-colour plastered palazzi-buildings opposite. (Adjectives, donchca just love ’em? Me and all them great authors; it’s really just about location, location, location.) The gulls wheel and circle over the private rooftop gardens, which are skewered and adorned with a random and bizarre collection of pot-plants, ivy, washing, cigarette stubs and TV aerials (have you seen Italian TV? It would be improved by poor reception…). The traffic passes by just between us and the Tiber, and below, is a rather useful Gelato Café; we have checked out the Gelateria’s wares, including their coffee to keep us awake, on this rather endless day. Yes, sometime too recent and literally a world away we boarded our aircraft at Melbourne Tullamarine, and set off for (another) major trip. Where else to start ones’ holiday than Rome, where all roads are said to lead?

On this occasion our road led, by Thai Airlines via Bangkok, and a nine hour flight and a second one we are disputing between us of either ten and a half or nigh-on twelve; either way, we have had quite enough freeze-dried air. It was better than marching back from the edge of the empire, but not that much, yr honour. In the middle of this, Bangkok airport was bizarre; full of people from all over south-east Asia, and Australia’s selection seeming to be wall to wall bogans from Queensland – we were made to walk about one mile from aircraft ‘a’ and ascend an escalator which led us to a mile (I’m sure it was the same journey in reverse, only a level higher) of really scary brand-name shops, being grazed by herds of the aforementioned people. It was rather like a cross between a Kevin Smith film and Night of the Living Shoppers. Luckily it was soon over, the brand able to ensnare either Bev or James having yet to be seen in such a zone.

It may be better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but we are both much keener on Rome than somewhere mid-airways, and we managed to sort-of-sleep most of the latter flight with the benefit we were able to wander central Rome on arrival for several hours without the eyes that revolved (too much). It was interesting that we both kind of enjoyed the people watching around the Colosseum as much as the ‘my word, it’s the Colosseum, it looks just like the postcards…’ moment, and we both really enjoyed accidentally wandering through the filming of a Italian (TV?) police procedural, and the back streets of Trastevere.

The TV police procedural was most intriguing. As I pointed out to Bev, one comes to Rome, one expects to see Romans, ancient. This film crew included the usual CID type handsome plainclothes hero cop, the older sidekick, various uniformed police standing around the ‘crime scene’ and four Centurions. Filming was in the arcades and rubble of Teatro Marchello, an ancient Roman amphitheatre, and someone decided that some more plaster pillar-feet were needed to dress the already adequately variegated marble scatterings. We want to know what happens next. We want to know whose series it is. We can see a (younger, more dapper) Italian Morse equivalent, but maybe we are just jetlagged. It’s probably just Inspector Rex with Centurions.

Give me the back streets with the odd details, stolen Roman pillars and built from Roman era bricks, rather than the relentless tourist site route-march, following the lofted brolly. The sites are OK, but they always are just like they’re supposed to be (only with scaffolding on…) What makes arriving (and the travelling) are the details that you don’t get in the guides – the birdsong (it’s so different here to Australia) the smells (Mmmm Italian city… not a smell you could sell.) the sound of the (ever so frequent) cop cars ‘de le de dah’, and, of course, the tastes. I won’t start, because I would go on. So much is in the details; how the people just are. As Bev said, there’s an awful lot of people from Melbourne here, but those Melburnians we are thinking of are just those who emigrated down under in 1954, and brought their coffee and ice-cream to the antipodes (thank you, thank you, and again…) and these are their brothers and sisters who never left.

It’s now 6.50pm (local) or 2.50 am Melbourne time, so we reckon we are dong well. The church bells are ringing out, another detail that makes the travelling .

And tomorrow? As was badly dubbed over the ending of a movie; ‘Domani e un altro giorno.’ I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore, either.


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Mornings are for...


Which goes nicely with the word panic, which we will not say. No! No! I will not!

We depart in five days.

Corn Fritters

75g self-raising flour
150g polenta
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 medium egg
250ml milk
olive oil for cooking

Combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl, then add the wet ingredients and stir until the mixture is smooth and no longer lumpy. (At this point you can add the kernels from two fresh cobs of corn - but I don't do this as I don't usually make these savoury).

Heat a heavy frying pan over high heat, and drizzle in some olive oil before spooning batter in to cook. Turn them quickly - cook until golden brown.

These make a lovely stack of crsipy-edged corn-flavoured cakes to be eaten with ricotta, yogourt or mascarpone cheese, some syrup (I have quince syrup left), and a large cup of coffee.


Recipe from:
Every Day in the Kitchen: Essential Recipes for the Modern Home
- yes, this is an essential book!
- by Allan Campion and Michele Curtis.