Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bon giorno ... cappuccino, gelato and all lovely things Italian

Mountains en route to Italy
I have now been to Italy on 5 different occasions and am ready to go back anytime.  Italy is a beautiful country with impressive cities (full of art, beautiful architecture and history) and quaint little towns with narrow cobbled stone streets.  There is so much old, beautiful architecture everywhere that after a while, you take it for granted and stop looking.

Dome here Dome there, everywhere Dome Dome
The terrain varies depending on which part of the country you are in.  It ranges from crystal-clear lakes with mountains in the background, rocky mediterranean beaches, cliff-side towns, rolling hills covered with vineyards and even live volcanoes.  No matter where you are however, you will find staples of crusty bread, fresh pasta, thin-crust pizza, olive oil, gelato and cappuccino.

Simione, a small town on the shores of Lake Garda

The view from our apartment in Venice
My original plan was to go to Rome because my friend had a shala there.  After telling Mum, she asked if she could come along.  Next thing you know, Dad, my aunt, uncle and cousin joined the group.  Then itinerary expanded to include Venice, Verona and Lake Garda.  At this point, I gave up on the Yoga practice idea and decide that a long-overdue family holiday was more important.

We were very fortunate to have accommodation inside the Vatican, just round the corner from St Peter’s.  We were also taken to see parts of the Vatican that were not accessible to people without special passes.

St Peter's from our rooftop.  The Papal apartment where the Pope gives his weekly public is on the right of the picture

Roof of St Peter's, from the inside

The problem staying in such a touristy spot was the abundance of lousy touristy Italian food.  People always take photos of yummy food when they go on holiday.  I don’t usually do that; I prefer to focus on eating.  In the beginning there was nothing I ate that I wanted to be reminded of.  That changed when I got off my butt and did some food research.   My priority of course was googling ‘’Best Gelato’’.  So, I am pleased to say that I was a good Singaporean and took some food photos as well.

The best restaurants are the more ulu ones. You can tell you're on the right track if:
a) no one really speaks English
b) there is no English on the menu and
c) there are no photos of the food.
The downside is that we had to spend at least 10 minutes trying to figure out what's on the menu.

Such yummy crusts! My favourite was the Zucchini flower and Anchovy pizza

My cousin's Horse tartare.  There was also Donkey steak and Rabbit bolognaise.  Yes, I sampled all of them

McDonald's Caesar salad.  You know you're in Italy because it comes with bottle of Olive Oil and Breadsticks

Speaking of gelato, I am not a fan of ice-cream but Italian gelato in Italy is completely different.  It’s light, creamy (without being coying rich) and not too sweet.  There are so many different flavours but I always stick to Nocciola (hazelnut), CafĂ© (coffee) and sometimes Yoghurt or Pistachio.  Their system of selecting the number of scoops with the ability to combine many more flavours is great too.  I once got a ‘’single’’ scoop for 1.50euros but they gave me 3 flavours – because the scoop was massive.  I am still dumbfounded how some people could go for 4 scoops! How much gelato can you eat in one sitting?

Many many flavours of gelato

My massive single scoop (made up of 3 flavours)

Italy is the home of Nutella.  The larger bottles are 5kg each! My friend had friends who brought 3 of these bottles back to Canada
We stayed in service apartments, versus hotels, because we wanted access to a kitchen.  The good thing about being in Italy is the quality of the local produce … bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes.  We built up a supply of staples which we carried from place to place.

Venice fruit and veg stall

Our supply of essentials ... including high-quality Italian kitchen sponge and super-thick napkins!

Travelling with 4 senior citizens also meant that the pace is a lot more relaxed as they got tired more easily.  We would have a leisurely breakfast before venturing out of the apartment.  Generally, we’d had lunch or dinner out with the other meal in the apartment - definitely no partying on the agenda!  My cousin and I also had to play ‘shepherd’, always looking out for parents straying off and herding them back to the pack.  The fact that they don’t walk very fast definitely helped.

Just a day after my cousin chided my uncle for almost leaving his ferry ticket in the clothes to be washed, he destroyed his own in the wash! The 'blurb' is what you get when you machine wash a ferry ticket.
The first thing I did when I entered a new apartment was to look where I could place my yoga mat.  Not only did there have to be enough space, but it also couldn’t be in a place that hindered my cousin (whom I shared a room with).  My aunt&uncle usually got up early too so that meant that the kitchen was out!  In Rome, I started with doing my pranayama practice in the bathroom and then move around the apartment as people woke up.  In Venice however, the apartment was so big that I not only had my own room, but I also had a separate practice space outside.

My practice spot in the Venice apartment (left of the wooden chairs)
We travelled mainly on the fast trains between cities and walked / bus-ed locally.  For the Verona to Lake Garda leg, we rented 2 VW Golfs which gave us the flexibility to sight-see around the lake at our convenience.  Fortunately I had already driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and the ‘wrong’ side of the car in Hawaii.  I just had to get used to driving the manual car in the opposite direction on the roundabouts (American has no roundabouts).  Driving on the smaller roads was fine.  The scary part was driving on the highway (in the pouring rain with lots of trucks) 200 km up north towards the border with Austria.

We also brought GPS devices which I’d never used before this trip.  They were very helpful except the Voice kept giving me very delayed instructions.  In spite of that, my cousin and I are in full agreement that it’s better to use GPS versus a Parent as a navigator.

It’s interesting that as you move through different phases of life, your travelling style , interests and stamina change.  And this doesn’t take into account the impact of technology.  On my first European trip during my University days, it was super budget-conscious travel with night trains (to save accommodation costs), hostel dormitories with common bathrooms and only 1 restaurant meal per day.  We used paper maps, coin phones, thick guidebooks and were forced to ask locals for help.  Rarely was there any contact with friends or family at home.  Now, we have the luxury of comfortable service apartments, the option to use taxis, good wine with our meals, super-fast express trains, smart phones with internet access, mobile GPS, language translators.  Family and friends get instant updates via Whatsapp with photos and videos too.  Furthermore, with at least 2 mobile phones per group, it's a lot easier when we lose each other.

We were also fortunate that the service apartments provided some form of internet access.  The best being a mobile sim card which my cousin popped into his phone, creating a Wifi hotspot.  The only problem as my aunt complained, was that we were always on our phones, tablets or netbooks.  

Interesting point to note is that despite the student budget restrictions, the daily requirement of a cappuccino and gelato per day remained the status quo throughout all my trips to Italy :o)
In Italy, the coffee staple is the Espresso.  Italians generally only drink cappuccino before lunch (and usually standing up at the bar) although my Roman friend told me that it's acceptable in the evenings, but not with food.  I heard, on more than one occasion, Italian waiters saying ... why are you drinking American coffee when you're in Italy?!

At the end of the trip, I asked everyone to single out their top highlights and lowlights.  Venice featured as a common highlight.  For me, it was the company; the time spent with my family (who are extremely entertaining without even trying) have gifted me with some of my most treasured moments on this 2012 tour.  For this reason alone, my trip could happily conclude here.  However, Wimbledon and the chance of watching Roger Federer live await … so I guess I can’t go home yet :o) 

A few more random photos ...
Bidets are common in Italy.  My aunt complained that the toilet was very uncomfortable because something was digging into her back ... until she realised she'd sat on the wrong ''bowl''

Roman graffitti on the subway

Watch your guests if you're serving too much wine ... Venice doorways can be a safety hazard

Murano (a Venetian island) is famous for their hand-made glass

Italy is full of artists who act as statues.  This guy was so good, even my dad gave him money.  And No, the dog is not real