Monday, February 27, 2006

Carnevale!


Not to be outdone by either Rio di Janeiro or Mardi Gras in New Orleans or even by their neighbors in Venice or Viareggio on the Tuscan coast, Florence, too, has it’s “carnival” spirit, a spirit which was quite evident yesterday (Sunday) along the banks of the Arno river. (See my photos online)

Even though the day saw some off-and-on rain showers, Susan and I nevertheless decided to brave the elements and in the early afternoon headed for Piazza Ognisanti, located on the north bank of the Arno river.

The parade (“corteo”) consisted of various local ethnic groups and their respective associations, and kicked off at about 2:30 pm. It wended its way toward the Duomo and then end up in the Piazza Signoria, the very heart of Renaissance Florence. The “floats” were in fact large trucks decorated with the colors, flags and banners of the numerous ethnic groups which have settled in Florence: Ivory Coast, Peru, Albania, Greece, Chinese.

The parade was led off by a number of locals (presumably) dressed in Renaissance-era Florentine costumes. It was controlled chaos, in typical Italian style: Susan and I found ourselves, like a few others, walking alongside the “floats” as they began their movement forward and we are continually amazed at how relaxed the whole day was, given the large crowds.

Apparently one of the ideas behind this whole affair was to get kids out with their families – and indeed there were many kids and parents (and grandparents) fully decked out in a wild variety of costumes, witches (“streghe”), Disney characters, mice (“topi”) and even the little Zorro we saw had a moustache and goatee neatly drawn on his face. And there were even a couple of Goths – or Vandals we couldn’t tell which – who were fully decked out along with their mom and baby brother -- or sister!

We spent the better part of the afternoon watching the parade from various spots, along the parade route and enjoyed the variety of ethnic music, singing and dancing by many of the participants. It was really great fun.

After we had pretty seen all of the “floats” we took a break and headed over to Paszkowski’s for a caffe. (The café is located right on the Piazza della Repubblica and so it was right next to the parade route which crossed through the piazza.) We also had the foresight to bring our umbrellas (“ombrelli”) with us because we got hit a couple of times with rain showers.


But those too passed and after watching some of the ceremonies on the Piazza Signoria, where all the “floats” had ended up, we headed back to the apartment for an evening at home: dinner followed by Columbo! That’s right we finally broke down and bout a little DVD player here and then went out and bought the first season of Columbo; a nice way to spend a chilly, rainy evening. And we were completely taken by surprise when the first episode finished and we saw that the writer was Steven Bochco and the director was Steven Spielberg!

And for dessert we finished off an apple/pastry cream tart which Susan had made the night before. This particular tart was the result of something novel she had learned in class: cooked pastry cream, which was then baked (along with the apples). And man oh man was this good or what!!? It was delicious Saturday night, Sunday morning and Sunday night!

We hope you are all well, warm and eager to enjoy life! As always,

Wish you were here,

Steve

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Valentine's Day in Florence


OK, I know you've seent his one before but hey I like this photo. Oh the carousel? It's on the Piazza della Repubblica pretty much all the time. Another tiny historical note this was also the exact location of the original Roman city Florentia. Pretty cool.

Anyway, it rained Wednesday and Thursday and the temps have been a bit chilly without the sun but how far away can spring be now that February is half over?

Thursday we went to the movies at the Odeon (where they show the film in the original language) and saw Tea Leoni and Jim Carey in “Fun with Dick and Jane”; yeah it was fun but not much more than that. Afterwards we strolled, stopped and bought some wine, checked out a place called "Sam’s store", located on Via Ghibellina (the only place in town for All-American junk food and other sundry US items college kids can’t live without) and then stopped at Gilli’s on the Piazza della Repubblica for an aperitivi and light antipasti.

Anyway it wasn’t rainy for Valentine’s Day and in fact it was absolutely gorgeous here so we made the most of it. After a leisurely morning at home we walked over to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s stunning and powerful David. After a stroll of about 45 seconds (it’s just around the corner) we walked in the nondescript entrance, paid our 13 euros, got our tickets -- there were absolutely no lines and so making a reservation the day before was completely unnecessary – and headed inside.

Before moving toward the gallery where the David is actually located we turned right from the entrance into the museum of musical instruments. They had a wonderful display of a history (of sorts) of musical instruments – with several computers set up for listening and as interactive information stations. There were several instruments by Stradivari and other Cremona, Italy instrument makers and a very nice exhibition, well homage really, to Bartolomeo Cristofori, generally regarded as the creator of the piano.

We then retraced our footsteps and soon found ourselves at the entrance to the enormous gallery, on either side of which were the four “prisoners”, four works of stone which remain unfinished and all the more powerful as a consequence; at the other end of which was the David, a mass of marble which seemed to dominate everything around it. We walked up to this tribute to the intelligence of man overcoming the brutishness of this life, circled it slowly and found ourselves truly amazed that this was created by the hand of one man; no power tools, just two hands. Surrounding the stature, sitting on the floor were quite a few students making their drawings; looking a a few of these one is struck by how differently everyone sees the same thing. That too is amazing.

But I suppose Mike would be amused by it all – but given what little I know of his history I think he would want a piece of the ticket action naturalmente.

We moved into the plaster cast room and were awed by the large number of works which were carved by just a few of the 19th century Italian sculptors. Although these were copies, and while some were clearly symbolic, others seemed to try and represent the individual for whom the piece was made – whether to adorn a garden or serve as watch over their final resting place; also worth a look as well.


After leaving the Accademia we headed toward Giotto’s tower, the huge bell tower (“campanile”), which sits beside the Duomo in Florence. Originally designed by Giotto it was completed by Pisano and is about 83 meters high. So we paid our fee, and started our climb toward the top. After 414 steps and numerous landings where one had increasingly higher views of the city, including the Duomo itself (see photo)we arrived at the very top of the tower and what a great view it was. The day was a bit hazy but we had a spectacular view of the top of the Duomo.

We stayed for a while and just took it all in – but we had to go eventually and go we did. Sue had class at 3:00 pm – Pastry Shop which is not to be confused with Wood shop for you Industrial Arts people – so after she went off to class I took my camera and walked north of our apartment about 10 minutes or so to the Piazzale Donatello, to find the “English” cemetery, the final resting place of Elizabeth Barrett Browning that's her just below).


Located right in the middle of one of Florence’s busiest thoroughfares, the “English”, or Protestant cemetery was originally outside the old city walls. After the walls came down Florence created a series of “ring” streets around the northern tier of the city, and Piazzale Donatello sits right in the middle between two of these, Viale Matteotti and Viale Gramsci.

Burials in the cemetery took place, often against the will of the majority of Florentines at the time, from 1827 to 1877 after which only cremated remains were permitted interment. While nominally called "English" the 1409 graves represent some 16 nations overall: 760 British, 433 Swiss, 87 North Americans, 84 Italians and 54 Russians are among those buried in the cemetery.


Although the cemetery is owned by the Evangelical Reformed Swiss Church, and administered by their "consistory", the property is managed and lovingly cared for by Julia Holloway and her staff, who live right on the premises. They not only oversee this wonderful little garden of powerful and evocative sculpture located right in the middle of one of Florence's busiest thoroughfares, but they also have put together quite a significant library of Browning materials as well. Julia a lively and very erudite English nun and speaking with her for the better part of an hour about the people who now rest in her care was a sheer pleasure.


Unfortunately, the small hillock on which the tombs rest is literally eroding away and much of the stones and sculptures are themselves turning from marble to gesso. They need help but they are not going to get it from the Italian government, local or national and the church is increasingly strapped for money. The question remains how much longer this island of Victorian history will remain.

After I left the cemetery I walked back to the apartment, dropped the camera off and went to pick up Sue at school (why to carry her books home of course).

We then went out later in the early evening for passegiata, and stopped at not one but two places to check out their prosecco selection and try their antipasti (it was Valentine’s Day after all). About 8:00 pm set out for Osteria Ortolano, which as some of you may recall is one of our favorite places to pick up wine and food to go (they really don’t serve there) and that’s what we did. About a week or so earlier we noticed they had put out a menu of a special dinner to take home (“portare via”) and we put our name down. It was sort of like going out but, sorta not, actually the best of both worlds we thought. For 32 euros (not including wine which was a sparkling Franciacorta, “Ca’ del Bosco”) we got the following:

For antipasto -- eggplant with parmigiana cheese in a multi-layered puff pastry;

For first course – pasta rosettes (wide pasta rolled and cut and then laid on its side to resemble a rose petal) with a ragu sauce; and also risotto with morel mushrooms and pecorino cheese;

For second course – slices of roast pork stuffed with celery and herbs and carrots, with glazed carrots; and slices of rabbit over a bed of stewed fennel;

For dessert – tiramisu and a glass of vin santo.

Eveyrthing was made right on the premises. Marta and Massimo, who run the Osteria both trained at the Cordon Bleu in France and this meal really showed off their culinary skills better than anything we’ve had so far (and so far it’s been pretty good).

Stay well, keep cool

Wish you were here,

Steve

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A stroll in the park


This past week has been both a busy and yet relaxing seven days. The weather continues to be wonderful (sorry you Northeasterners) with sunny days, clear nights, with temperatures on the chilly side but perfect for urban trekking. (You can see find photos of this day’s outing online – just click here.)

Susan’s school is going well (see the entry “School days” for her observations after the first two weeks in class) and we have begun exploring more of Florence. Monday through Thursday are pretty routine, going to the market, (Susan) going to school, and just hanging out in our neighborhood, exploring some of the nearby side streets, that sort of thing.

On Friday, however, with Susan not having to go to school everything shifts into a different gear altogether. This past Friday was another gorgeous day, sunny although a bit chilly in the shade when we walked a couple of blocks over to the Museum of San Marco, located next to, surprise, the church of San Marco and just off, you got it, the Piazza San Marco, and spent the morning viewing the paintings of Fra Angelico.

A Dominican friar, Guido di Pietro, better known in the West as Fra Angelico, painted some of the most gorgeous work during the late medieval, early Renaissance period. Or in the words of one art critic: “His visages have an air of rapt suavity, devotional fervency and beaming esoteric consciousness, which is intensely attractive to some minds and realizes beyond rivalry a particular ideal—that of ecclesiastical saintliness and detachment from secular fret and turmoil.” (From the Wikipedia.)

I guess that says it all for me. I mean I often feel detached from “secular fret” myself.

After viewing Fra Angelico’s work – along with works by some of the other lesser-known friars who came and went through San Marco monastery we then went upstairs to view the former cells of the monks, and one in particular, Girolamo Savonarola. A sworn enemy of the Medici’s and a driving force behind urging Florence to expel the Medicis from the city in order to institute a more socially responsible government, the Dominican priest Savonarola let extremism get the best of him, and he was eventually hanged on the Piazza Signoria and his body burnt and ashes thrown into the Arno. Today you can see the spot where a plaque commemorates the site of the execution in the Piazza Signoria -- just look for a large group of tourists all standing in a circle looking down, rather than up at the statues.

In the afternoon we took our guidebook (Florence: Guide for the curious traveller, pubhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.giflished by Mandragora) and set out for the Piazzale Michelangelo, located just southeast of the city. Our objectives were to be out in the sun, to walk some of the side streets of the “Oltrarno”, the city south of the Arno, and get some great views of the city. Well we did that but we found much more along the way.


We crossed the Arno at the Ponte Vecchio (“old bridge”, but also loosely translated from the Italian as “big money”). In 1593 the bridge became the sole province of the goldsmiths (it had been previously occupied by butchers so I guess little really changed) and it has remained so ever since.

In fact one of the city’s most famous goldsmiths was the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini and his bust sits midway across the bridge. However, the city government has recently placed a metal fence around the bust. This reportedly is designed to prevent the continuing fad of lovers locking padlocks with their names scratched on them onto the small wrought iron fence around the statue and then of course they throw the key into the river, signifying their undying love I suppose.

So after we crossed the Arno we turned east heading upriver and after a short while turned south away from the river and began our climb up toward Piazzale Michelangelo, a steep but fascinating hike through small gardens walking on a series of steps called the Via di Crocis (“street of the crosses”) created by a group of Fransiscan monks from the church of San Salvatore, which is at the top of the hill just behind the Piazzale. And yes there were small wooden crosses, each about 5 feet high lining the entire path.


At last we arrived at the Piazzale and spent some time taking in the stunning views of the city.

We then turned away from the city and walked to the church of San Salvatore al Monte and then over to the nearby the church of San Miniato al Monte, all located, as their names suggest a the hill which overlooks the city. (While we can only take one museum of Madonnas a day we can handle at least several churches daily.)

We wandered down a path and from San Salvatore and couldn’t quite see the next church through the trees so we stopped a friar walking down the street and ask directions: “dov’e la Chiesa San Miniato?” He pointed toward the trees ahead of us and said “dietro” (behind). So we walked 100 meters or so through the woods – in fact through a “garden of remembrance” to men and women from the Italian Red Cross who perished in World Wars One and Two. The garden was filled with cypress tress, each bearing a small plague with the name of one of the fallen volunteers. We continued our walk up a small rise, through a gate and into an enormous cemetery (“cimitero”).


Now most guidebooks rarely bring up cemeteries as a place to visit. That is unless, one can identify particular celebrities, or famous persons who might be buried there, such as in the Protestant cemetery in Rome or Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. Anyway few guidebooks on Florence mention the Delle Porte Sante cemetery (laid out in 1854) in other than passing fashion. This is really quite a shame since this particular place is an absolutely fantastic outdoor sculpture garden. Among the people buried there is Carlo Collodi, the guy who created Pinocchio.


But it is much, much more than just sculpture. Wandering among the stones you can see profound sentimentality, tragic love and nostalgia.

You might also get a hint at what the tombs were like which once lined the Appian Way.


One can also get a sense for the strength of feeling Florentine society has for its very personal history, a history written in the lives and loves and deaths of its citizens, mostly unknown men, women and children, who went about their daily lives doing what our species has always done, simply trying to enjoy life for as long as possible.


In the Capitoline museum in Rome is a room filled with the busts of nameless Romans, but with faces that betray their connections with the rest of us: fat, thin, worrisome, happy, smiling, all very lifelike in their portrayal of the subject. So too in Delle Porte Sante: busts of men and women striving to depict in stone the deceased as he or she hoped to be remembered.

Each stone tells a tale, a story as interesting as anything found in the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. One example of just such a story is the love affair of Maria and Mario Mazzone.


Maria Grazia Collela was born in 12 February, 1922, and Mario Mazzone was born 28 November, 1919, and sometime during the Second World War they were married, possibly in Florence. Mario was a radio operator in the Regia Aeronautica (the Italian Air force), and died on 22 July, 1944, in or near Hamm, Germany. In September of 1943 the Italians ousted Mussolini from power and switched sides, joining the Allies in their war against Germany and Japan. So why was Mario in Hamm, Germany, some ten months later? Was he one of the units that remained loyal to the Germans? Or was he one of the many Italians taken as POWS by the Germans when Italy switched sides? We do know that on the day Mario died a group of U.S. B-24 bombers struck the rail yards at Hamm, Germany, inflicting serious damage. Was he killed during that raid?

And his widow? Maria died on 31 May, 1945, barely ten months after Mario’s death.


In a cemetery filled with sculpture, and with busts of the long departed, this life-size pair of statues is truly unique. But who arranged for the statues to be placed in the cemetery? Can it be assumed that both husband and wife were reunited in this one spot for eternity?

One thing is for certain: they will forever be young and in love, smiling, and happy.

We then went into the church and were immediately struck by its unique layout and interior décor: it was on three levels, each easily seen and readily accessible from either side of the church. (To see photos of the church – not mine by the way – click here.) And they were also tuning the huge organ in the church, which added to the atmosphere.


After we left the church we continued our stroll through the lovely park-like atmosphere on the hills overlooking Florence. We then turned down Via San Leonardo, a wonderful little surprise, a narrow curving road, which eventually led us back inside the city.



Just before we returned to the banks of the Arno we passed by the house of Galileo. Odd to think of what things these streets have seen and heard over the last several centuries -- what will they hear and see in centuries to come I wonder?

A wonderful day to be alive.

Wish you were here.

Ciao,

Steve

School days

Well I’ve completed 2 weeks of pastry school now, and I’m feeling great about the decision to do this. My classes are certainly varied, with different personalities for instructors, all of them being Italian with levels of English knowledge ranging from minimal to very good. There are different numbers of students in each class, 2 of whom are also in the baking and pastry program with me, so the 3 of us are in every class together.

Monday morning is “Basic Baking Techniques” with Michele. Each week we prepare a standard dish, e.g. basic tart crust, pastry cream, puff pastry (the one thing I really wanted to learn), sponge cake, choux and on and on. We made puff pastry this past week, and it turned out really well. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to make much with it other than some simple twists sprinkled with sugar, but there will be more work with puff pastry in the future. The class is one of the largest that I’m in due to the fact that all of the general culinary students also take it as part of their curriculum.

Monday evening is “Chocolate and Confections” with Andrea Bianchini, who is an award winning chocolatier, having won the Italian championship in 2003. He was just involved in one of the James Beard dinners in NYC this past November also. He has his own shop and chocolate laboratory at a separate site from the school and that’s where we have our classes. Last week we learned how to temper chocolate, which was a fascinating look at how chocolate changes with different temperatures. Before class started we tasted three flavors of his small chocolate candies – pistachio, olive oil and balsamic – and boy were they good. It’s amazing the different flavors that can be incorporated into chocolate. This class has 7 students, and everyone is very interested in and involved in the class. It’s truly amazing to us how much the Italians love chocolate – it is everywhere here from the lowliest bar to the fancy confectionary shops.

Tuesday afternoon is “Pastry Shop” with Simone who is a really nice guy and speaks pretty good English. Although I still like to try to communicate with the teachers in Italian, many of the other students don’t understand, so it’s really not fair to them. Anyway Simone seems to have a grand interest in American recipes. He and his brother have their own restaurant near Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno (on the south side of the river Arno), and they do a Sunday brunch, which apparently includes eggs and bacon among other things. This class includes many different pastry items, including various cookies, cakes, puff pastry, brioche, etc. so you can see that there is some overlap in the classes. Last week we made banana muffins, and this week one of the recipes is cornflake cookies (I came to Italy for this?!!). He was also extolling the virtues of his carrot cake and I had to tell him of my mother’s wonderful carrot cake (Mom, he asked for the recipe).

Wednesday is my least favorite day (not that I’m complaining), with “Breads of Italy” with Fabrizio in the afternoon. We do exactly what the title would suggest – bake bread. The problem is that there is a lot of down time, what with the rising and baking times, and all of the 5 students in the class are very quiet (even me, surprise, surprise). Fabrizio’s English is fair and he certainly tries to give us some insight into the various regional breads and techniques, but there is only so much one can say or ask about this topic. Anyway it is not a rowdy or talkative group, so it’s kind of boring, but I love getting my hands into the dough and kneading and shaping and hope to include bread baking in my list of baking “do’s” in the future.

Right after bread baking I have my Italian language class, which is going OK. It reminds me of how much I have to learn, that is for sure. The late afternoon and evening classes on Wednesday make for a long day, which is primarily why Wednesday feels a little unexciting.

Thursday is “Introduction to Basic Italian Cakes” with Giuliano, who is a Kramer like personality (for you Seinfeld fans) and acts pretty scatterbrained, but according to those in the know, he does indeed have his act together. This class focuses on the individual regions of Italy, and each week we make specialty items from a particular region. Toscana was the focus the first week and we made Schiaciatella, a traditional Florentine cake as well as Ricciarelli, the famous almond cookie from Siena. The second week we focused on Piemonte and made zabaglione (an Italian type of custard) which I’ve made many times before. and a hazelnut cake with chocolate on top.

We do taste everything we make, but the sad thing is we are not allowed to take anything made in the classroom out of the school (some Italian law supposedly). So if there is anything left, which invariably there is, unless the other classes or the staff at the school eats it, everything is thrown out. This applies to the entire school! A ridiculous waste it seems to all of us. For example in our bread class we bake multiple loaves of bread, which just sit in a basket at the end of class just begging to be taken home. I don’t even want to think about what happens to all that great food.

A majority of the students are college age so for me it’s a very different scene, listening to them talk about going out to discos, where they’re going for the weekends or spring break, clashes with roommates and all those college kinds of things. I think most of them are serious about the classes, but I get the sense that some are here just for a fun semester abroad. I try to remember what things were like when I was that age.

In general I’m happy with the school and the curriculum, despite some of the overlap in the classes and the waste of food. I get to bake everyday (although I haven’t baked anything here at the apartment yet), get my hands in the flour, sugar, butter and eggs and contemplate my future in this field. Baking is so relaxing for me and makes me feel so calm and content, and I love the fact that medicine is so far removed right now. I just don’t understand why Stan could never get into baking . . .

As things progress I hope to have some more observations as well as visions for the future!!

Ciao,

Susan

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Susie's back in school


Most of you know the primary reason we are in Florence is so Susan can attend Apicius, the Culinary School of Florence (click here to visit the school’s website), which is part of Florence University of the Arts, and where she is enrolled in the professional pastry and baking program. Like the other professional culinary programs at Apicius the baking program is a year long and consists of two semesters (or terms); and while it is possible she may be able to complete the second term during an intensive summer term at this point this appears unlikely. If so we will be in Florence through the end of the year. (The photo on the left is the entrance to the Via Guelfa kitchen facilities.)

OK but why Florence? First she had to quit medicine. The work had just become too stressful. Second she wanted to do something creative and baking was a natural for her so we started researching what serious baking programs there were out there in cyberspace. We found very few strictly pastry-only programs available in the US and those programs which provided a significant professional curriculum such as the CIA in Hyde Park, New York and the Italian Culinary Institute in New York City, carried outrageously expensive tuitions; and then there were the living costs.

And since we love Italy and were going to be in Siena for some months after selling our house in Vermont we started researching schools/programs in Tuscany and lo and behold Apicius popped up in Google. This was last fall. Well since we were already in Siena we set up an appointment to come to Florence for a day and check out the school’s facilities. Most of you already know of the saga of the return trip home for the visa. So here we are at last.


The school is located in two facilities, both of which are in the historic center of Florence. The one on Via San Gallo houses the main administrative offices as well as computer labs, library, and wine appreciation studio. The other facility, which is in fact the primary kitchen facility, is located on Via Guelfa, about a 10-minute walk from our apartment. That’s where nearly all of Susan’s courses are held.

While the school does provide and arrange for small short-term cooking and wine courses (primarily for tourist groups we think), most of the programs are one-year long and have more of a professional orientation to them: in addition to the pastry program, there is also a culinary arts program (which includes a 2 year Master’s program as well) a wine expertise program, hospitality management, food communications (food styling), design and market for the food industry, as well as a program entitle “La Bella Tavola” (the beautiful table) which has courses on food and culture, table settings, fabrics, ceramics as well as a course on the physiology of taste and flavor. The Italians are clearly serious about food and wine. Each program also includes either a beginning, intermediate or advanced Italian language course as well (Susan is in the advanced class).

Most of the students are university-age and many of the present group at Apicius and FUA seem to be American girls. There are three students taking the professional pastry program this term: Susan, Sibyl from Turkey and Omer from Israel, so that group has quite an international makeup. The instructors are all Italian, and most of them have their own bakeries or restaurants, so they certainly have important experience in the field. The classes are in English, but because most of the instructors’ English is limited, allowing Susan some opportunity to interact in Italian as well.

To see Susan’s schedule of her classes in the Beginning Baking and Pastry program as well as read a description about each course click here and then just scroll down to the Beginning Baking and Pastry Program for all the details. Susan will be taking the Intermediate Baking and Pastry program either in the summer of the fall.

Click here to see the school’s video online. Note this is a huge file and recommended for broadband users only.

"Good night and good luck"


The signature signoff for news legend Edward R. Murrow is also the title of a film depicting his struggle with Joe McCarthy in the mid-1950s. Last night we went to the Odeon Theater in Florence to see this film, directed by and starring George Clooney, and also starring David Straithairn as Murrow. The film’s powerful production values, claustrophobic but hypnotic camera work and absolutely riveting performance by Straitharn made this film eminently enjoyable for both of us. Nor was the historical relevance lost on anyone in the small group attending this “original language” showing at the Odeon last evening.

Located in the what was at one time the Palazzo Strozzi, just a short block away from the Piazza della Repubblica, the Odeon is a gorgeous theater. Seating some 688 people, it is part of a small chain of movie houses located in Florence, Empoli and Pistoia. (Click here to visit their website.) The Odeon certainly brought back very fond memories of movies theaters in the Midwestern United States, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with heavy dark draperies, lovely trims throughout the upper balcony area and an enormous stained glass dome in the ceiling. The seats were comfortable, very soft and relaxing, and the snack bar on the way in had all the amenities Americans would have come to expect (like popcorn) but also a full bar as well.

Movies are shown two or three times for just one day only (it depends upon the length of the film) and they apparently rotate among the theaters in the chain, although only the Odeon shows the film with the original sound, making it one of the more unique theaters in the area. Although the majority of cinemas in Italy show US films, they are almost invariably dubbed into Italian (which is quite an industry here we are told). The Odeon, by contrast, show the film in the original language with Italian subtitles.

The ticket price was 7.20 euros for an adult. We went to the 6:15 show, which left us plenty of time to get home and fix dinner. And speaking of dinner, the last show of the evening, at 9:00 p.m. provided an optional light buffet supper for a small additional cost.

The schedule for February is filled with new and recent US films, and we’ve targeted “Fun with Dick and Jane” for next week and then “Jarhead” the week after.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bologna, city of porticos and much more


It’s 4 February, a nice Saturday morning in Florence, with the temperature in the high 30s and partly sunny skies.

We had our first day excursion out of Florence yesterday and in fact our first trip ever to the city of Bologna, which is only about an hour, 20 minutes by train (less than an hour on the Eurostar). When we left Florence at about 10 am it was a gray, drab, cold morning but about midway through the mountains on our way to Bologna the sun came out and it turned nice and warm by the time we arrived at about 11:20. Since this was a Friday we had made our return reservations online the day before so we had both tickets with us when we left Florence – as it turned out this was a smart thing since many of the trains leaving Bologna late in the day were full already and we wanted to be assured we had seats on the return. The downside is we wont’ have much time to explore the city since we have to catch the 16:40 train back to Florence.

Curiously Bologna is given short shrift by most guidebooks while some, like Rick Steves doesn’t even mention the city in his Italy guides. Anyway we relied on Matt Lepori’s travel notes found on www.slowtrav.com. Matt is an American who studied in Bologna for a year in 2003. His notes (dated 2004) were very helpful and insightful, albeit a bit weak on directions (left/right instead of east/west). He also provides lots of good tips for the college age traveler to Bologna. We used the online map provided by Matt (it turns out to be a scanned copy of the local tourist map) but the printout wasn’t great; still it was enough to get us headed in the right direction. Be aware that there is no tourist information office at the train station but there is an excellent office with plenty of advice and great free maps at the TI office off the Piazza Maggiore. They can also help you with getting tickets for the museums etc.

OK so why go to Bologna then. I mean people must be avoiding it for a reason, right?

Well you should go for several reasons: one it is the home of one of the oldest and largest universities in Europe; it’s also the home of one of Italy’s greatest pasta sauces (Bolognese), and it’s in the heart of the region of Emilia Romagna which also lays claim to parmigiana reggiano cheese. (OK and it also gave the name to a particular type of sausage favored by young and old in America: “baloney”.)

The city is, we thought, an architectural wonder. In the early days when the city was still enclosed by a wall (small parts of which can still be found in evidence) in order to use every bit of space available and foster growth the citizens would build extensions of their homes out over and above the sidewalks, developing in essence a rough sort of “portico”, These eventually evolved from wooden overhead affairs to beautiful ornate porticos covering most of the city center. According to Matt in 1289 porticos became a mandated feature of the city and if you built a new building it had to incorporate a portico. The result is spectacular and photos cannot do justice to the sheer scale of these things. Today you can walk and shop and chat or whatever all under the protection of a wonderful portico covering very wide sidewalks, a real treat for us after negotiating the narrow, dog-poop infested sidewalks of Florence.

Speaking of dog poop – I mean why not? – Italians have a fondness for dogs but not a particular fondness for cleaning up after them, and although it is a law that they do so, like many laws the Italians pretty much ignore this one too. However, unlike in Siena where the city streets, which are shared by vehicles as well as pedestrians and their dogs, are cleaned daily, the Florentine sidewalks remain minefields of poop requiring paying more attention to the pavement than to the surrounding buildings, lingerie stores and motor scooters whizzing by in every direction.

OK so Bologna is cool from an architectural standpoint. This makes it a great city to just stroll around in, and since we had no real sightseeing objective that’s pretty much what we did.

We crossed Viale Pietro Pietramellara, turned left and walked one block toward the entrance to the Parco della Montagnola – believe me you can’t miss it. But we didn’t go into the park and instead turned right and walked through one of the old gates of the city, the Porta Galliera, standing forlorn it seemed without any attached walls. As we were walking through the gate however, looking down you could glimpse not only some of the original wall structure but part of the canal system, which at one time covered the old city inside the walls as did numerous gardens (some of those remain today). Now they are all pretty much paved over but here you can see the canal still filled with water, and the water seemed to be moving at a pretty quick pace too I might add.

Anyway we were headed for the very heart of the city, Piazza Maggiore and so we turned right onto Via Indipendenza and walked beneath our first portico. Well OK we’ve walked under porticos before, it’s true, but these went on and on and on; I think you get the picture. So we joined the thousands of other people strolling the city, going somewhere, many of them in a hurry, but some like us, particularly the young (the University of Bologna has 100,000 students, 80,000 of whom live in the city) taking their time about getting there.

After a walk of about 20 minutes or so we were at the very heart of the old city, in the Piazza Nettuno (Neptune) – which comprises some strikingly unique and typically Italian statuary. Right off this piazza is something else worth seeing: an enormous permanent photographic monument to the partisans who died during the Second World War. A unique tribute indeed and one can only assume Bologna resistance played a large part in the destruction of fascism.



A few meters away is Piazza Maggiore where we decided to sit outside in the sun at one of the café’s on the piazza overlooking the enormous (and unfinished) Basilica San Petronia. (Matt’s notes informed us that it is the 5th largest church in the world. It was never finished or rather at least the outside facing was never finished because they ran out of money. A pretty typical story for all of us.)

We had caffe and “spremuta”, or freshly squeezed orange juice, in this case, blood oranges from Sicily. These were the best we’ve tasted so far, very sweet indeed (they are often very acidic we think). After watching people for a while we decided to walk over to the Basilica and go inside – which we did. Matt warned us the church was enormous and he was right; to use his word, “cavernous” is almost an understatement. But curiously it was largely devoid of any large-scale decoration.

Equally curious, however, were two fascinating and still somewhat mysterious discoveries: in one of the numerous side chapels is a large, active replica of Foucault’s pendulum, and along much of the floor on the left side of the church was a line representing I believe a meridian used in the measurement of the earth. Unfortunately before we could inquire as to either of these two fascinating features and find out more details the church closed and we had to move quickly before we became locked in for the day. Anyway I’ve tried to find out more online about these two features of this church but have so far been unsuccessful.

Matt had suggested a walk outside the walls to a small church southwest of the city on a hill, which gives (he claims) a wonderful view of the city. The thing that intrigued us about the walk was it is entirely under a portico! He also suggested checking out the two towers in the heart of the city. But since our time was severely limited we will have to say that for our next trip.

So instead we walked around the city for a while longer, and continued to be amazed at what a cool place this is. We stopped at a great little bistro, called oddly enough, “Rosarose Bistrot” (Via Clavature 18/b), located just off the Piazza Maggiore. In fact, we think it was their “Rosarose Café” on Piazza Maggiore where we had had our caffe earlier in the day. Anyway we each had a delicious salad (“insalata”) with a Lugana white wine and after a relaxing meal resumed our stroll. We walked without any real direction and soon found ourselves skirting the eastern side of the huge basilica walking along Via Archiginnasio where we came across an open door leading into a beautiful courtyard. Naturally we had to explore and found ourselves inside the aptly named Archigennasio, home to the city library. It was also reportedly the first site for the city’s university.

Anyway we followed the open stairway to the left off the courtyard and admired the frescoes in the stairway as we walked up to the second (OK first) floor. There we found the anatomy theater. According to Matt this is Italy’s second oldest (after Padova), and it is built entirely out of wood. Originally constructed in 1647, the theater was heavily damaged by bombing during the Second World War and is today a copy of the original. But, as Matt says, it “is still very, very cool.” Note the figurines behind the lecturer’s chair are carved, skinless nude men, showing the muscles, ligaments, etc.

Off we were again to stroll, look at the city’s wonders. It must also be added that one appealing aspect of a city which has so many young people about is the expressions of love seen almost everywhere. Pretty cool I’d say.

We are continually amazed at why more tourists don’t come to Bologna for at least a day or two – in fact we don’t know anyone who has been here. One would probably need at least an overnight if not two nights to savor what this city has to offer

So we walked back to the train station arriving about 20 minutes before our train was scheduled to leave. The station was packed and it was a good thing we had gotten our tickets from the self-service machines in Florence before we left since even the machines had terribly long queues. We found our train on the departure board and walked to platform no. 9 (“binario 9”). Our train was the express from Milan to Siracusa (on the island of Sicily) so naturally is arrived about 30 minutes late. We found our carriage (“carrozza) and then our seats (“posti”) which was a good thing since many people don’t opt to pay the small additional charge for a reserved seat and therefore one can find oneself without a seat whatsoever. (This was particularly true of the young men sitting in our compartment when we got there. Fortunately for them a couple of seats remained available during our leg of the trip anyway.)

Anyway we left Bologna about 40 or 45 minutes late and yet arrived in Florence only 10 minutes late (hmmmmmm). Since we had had little choice on our return train we had to get off at the Campo Marte station, or rather non-station, which is on the eastern side of the city – Santa Maria Novella is the main train station on the western side of the city – and in effect you walk off the tracks, under the other platforms and directly onto the street. That’s it, no building, no terminal, nothing, “niente”. But we had our map and figured it would be an easy stroll home, and since it was a nice evening out we walked. And since we had not yet been to this part of the city we appreciated the opportunity to stroll through the neighborhood and to just be together.

So we got back to your neighborhood, stopped at Osteria Ortolano and picked up some fresh pasta stuffed with artichoke and ricotta cheese on our way home. I fixed the pasta with a gorgonzola and cream cheese sauce, paired with a wonderful Carmignano red wine. Hungry yet?

Ciao,

Steve

Florence, transition of a lifetime


We are in Florence at last; the moving is done and the settling in has begun. A lot has happened in our lives since I last wrote on this blog and nearly all of it good; trivial but good nonetheless.

Sue and I came to offices of Milligan & Milligan on Via degli Alfani in Florence on January 24 to meet our new landlord and pick up the keys to the new apartment. (In fact we came up a few days earlier and dropped off a couple of bags of stuff – we can’t shake this need for so much stuff it seems – and then brought more bags up on the 24th.) Everything went as scheduled and by midday we had moved our stuff in to a wonderful one bedroom loft apartment on Via dei Servi, just a couple of blocks north of the Duomo. We even found one of the boxes we had shipped from Rutland awaiting us. Of course here it is early February and we’re still waiting for the other two. Postal systems everywhere are pretty much the same I guess.

Since we were still in transition, and the new apartment was a mess with all our stuff unpacked, we decided to return to our apartment in Siena for the night. We had our final dinner at Cantina in Piazza and were joined by Aimone and Alessandra. We had a grand time indeed, although try as he might Aimone could not persuade us to go for the “trippa” (tripe). They had become good friends. Sad to say Aimone sold the business to a Brunello vineyard from Montalcino who apparently plan to open an upscale restaurant in the same spot sometime in March or April.

The next day (Jan. 25) we packed up most of the rest of our stuff and headed for Florence. The plan is to return for one final time on Saturday to meet with Mario, settle accounts and pick up the last of our belongings (OK stuff) and clear out for good.

Although Aimone offered to help move our stuff to Florence we have opted to schlep everything ourselves – and this means several trips on the bus. It’s only about 75 minutes up and back and the views are petty spectacular (of course) so we don’t mind. Plus when we get to Florence we just go across the street and grab a taxi at the train station for the final leg. This is also a lot cheaper than hiring a transfer service to move all of our stuff from Siena to Florence. But just think about it: moving your home by bus. Wacky I know but it worked.

Anyway we spent our first night in our new apartment on Wednesday, January 25, since Susan’s first day of orientation was the following day, Thursday. Our apartment is inside an palazzo which has been turned into small offices and flats; our is on the second floor which we get to in one of those cool wrought iron mesh elevators right out of a Hitchcock film. (Check out the photos.) We have to go through three doors to get to our flat, the second one brings us to a small hallway filled with interesting statuary each piece well-lit and the entire place very tastefully decorated. we have a cozy living room, great bathroom and lots of space, and while we have more furniture than in our Siena apartment, and more comfortable furniture as well, we could use more storage space (of course). The kitchen seems small at first but has a great cook-top and stove and an adult-sized refrigerator, which we really appreciate. There is also a washing machine in the kitchen as well (fairly typical which takes about 24 horus for one cycle but Susan is a pro when it comes to this sort of thing and will figure it out. Our heating/cooling system consists of three Mitsubishi units scattered around the apartment, each with its own separate remote control and they al work very well. Our bedroom is on the loft level and is also where I have my computer work-station. Plenty of closet space here too so that’s appreciated. Our windows look out onto the tiny Piazza Brunnelschi – you would think the Florentines would have given him a somewhat bigger monument more centrally located considering what HE gave them.

We have a small group of college girls as neighbors in one flat whereas the others are all Italians (apparently). It is very quiet and peaceful here so far, although a couple of nights have been a bit noisy but not in our building that’s for sure.

Our first night we opted for just some fried rice and made the mistake of eating at a nearby Chinese restaurant (“Hong Kong”, Via dei Servi 35/r) where the fried rice was generally tasteless or covered in tomato sauce (your pick). Anyway we have found a great bar right across the street called the OK bar where the food is very good and the caffe and morning dolce are superb. It’s also a great place for an afternoon lunch (“pranzo”). Of course, as we have come to find out, Florence is in this respect, like Siena but more so: the dolci is everywhere and lots of it and the food is outstanding. Ya just have to pay attention. We lost our grip for a moment when we ate Chinese and won’t let it happen again.

We have also found a great little wine and food shop, right around the corner from our apartment, Osteria Ortolano (Via Degli Alfani 91(. They make plenty of great food fresh every day to take away (“da portare via”), as well as cheeses and homemade sauces; they also have a very large selection of wines. We also go to the nearby central market (“Mercato Central”), located near San Lorenzo, for our fresh vegetables and fruits as well as our meats. We will come to depend upon both places for many of our fresh staples. And there are numerous bread bakeries (“panificio) as well as bars and sweet shops (“pasticcerie”) that we won’t go hungry for good food.

And we bought ourselves a nice little moka coffeemaker and occasionally pick up some great dolci the night before so our breakfasts are set – and for you health nuts we do eat bananas and clementinas every morning along with juice as well.

Susan spent Thursday and Friday (26 and 27 January) in orientation and I worked on buying groceries etc., finding the central Mercato (central market) and trying to get my camera fixed. For those of you hanging in suspense my camera is, as I speak, in Turin, Italy being repaired. (Turin is home of the Winter Games for 2006 I might add although my camera is apparently playing no role in that feature.) That’s right at last I found a place a place within reasonable walking distance where I took my camera and they diagnosed it as a serious problem which they could not fix but, and here is the important part, they knew WHO could fix it and they would ship it off for me. Thursday PM I got a message on my phone from Turin saying yep they have it (well OK they didn’t use the word “Yep”) and I have to call them on Friday or Monday to check the status. In the meantime I bought a small Panasonic (Lumix DMC-FZ30 for those who need to know these things).

Our first week in Florence proved interesting on several levels. We have been spending most of our time either in school (Susan) or looking for places to buy, you got it, more stuff. That’s right sports fans, we found ourselves needing more stuff – or rather stuff in which to put the stuff we already have with us. Whew is this getting crazy or what.

Hunt for Stuff to put stuff in.

So on Sunday afternoon (29 January my Dad’s birthday) we thought man oh man isn’t this a great day for a bus trip out to some industrial wasteland amidst abandoned factories and hike a quarter of a mile to the HUGE IKEA store to mingle with 30,000 people in a place the size of the Astrodome, all looking for more stuff. And so we did.

We head over to the main train station (Santa Maria Novella – which is also pretty much the main bus terminal for local runs as well and pick up a bus pass for 20 euros (this gives us 25 trips on a local bus pretty much anywhere in the city). Susan picked up a bus schedule the other day and we know we can take the no. 29 or 30 bus to IKEA but now we have to figure out where exactly we can get the bus since there is so much construction going on and the regular terminal stop is not operative. Anyway after 15 minutes walking back and forth (“avanti e dietro” whichis actually “forth and back”) we find the temporary stop for bus no. 30. We get on board swipe our card twice and sit back to enjoy the scenery. Well, not quite. IKEA is located in a portion of the huge industrial section, which connects Florence with Prato and so we get an opportunity to see the grittier side of the city. And since many gypsies live in the abandoned buildings in the area near IKEA quite a large number of them get on and off as well. We found out later that many Chinese factories are in the same area and they operate 24 hours a day , 7 days a week so we also see many Asians as well. In fact upon our return we were wondering why we would see small groups of Asian men (primarily) just disappear down these long stretches of industrial steel and concrete when it seemed as if everything else was closed for the weekend.

Since we were clueless about exactly where to get off the bus we asked two young girls who, as it turned out were also getting off at IKEA and they said just get off with us, which we did. It was good that we asked too since the store is probably a 1/4 of a mile away from the bus stop and it is not self-evident from the bus. For those of you who have never had the opportunity to experience IKEA, and to experience eon a Sunday, by all means do so. Picture several Wal-Marts inside what appears to be an indoor soccer stadium filled with the population of a small city with everyone pretty much moving in the same direction – although not always – and you get the picture.

Well we justified the trip by actually finding some things we were looking for. We paid and headed back to the bus stop. As a footnote, however, we have to admit this is one of the best-run retail operations we have seen. And we do believe that they have, like Noah’s Ark, pretty two of everything there is in the world inside.

Later in the week we also find another place we had been looking for, a large electronics shop, Imperial, on Via Alemanni next to the train station. (We first discovered Imperial in Siena last year.) There we picked up two small speakers for the computer – these are an absolute necessity for us since we brought all of our music with us on the computer. That’s right, 26 days worth of music on one hard drive, with room to spare. Yeah! We also picked up an all-in-one printer/copier/scanner from Canon (PIXMA 150), which works like a charm.

The one thing we have not done yet is to buy a DVD player. I suspect probably because we don’t want to have to invest in the discs afterwards. Hopefully we will be able to find a good rental option here in the city before long. It’s just not a priority for us. As far as any other entertainment goes there is a theater called the Odeon near the Piazza della Reppublica which shows movies in their original language (the Italians are notorious for dubbing everything) and they have a discount card you can purchase which will allow us to see quite a few movies ant a seriously reduced rate. The shows listed for this month, which are on our list are: “Good night and good luck,” “fun with Dick and Jane” and “Jarhead.” We’ll keep you posted on how that turns out.

The Great Internet Access Saga.

One of the more challenging things for us has been to find high-speed, easy access to the internet. In Siena, as some may recall, we usually ended up going to the InterFastnet nearly every day and it was quite expensive as well as inconvenient. We pretty much stopped using Internet Train since it was extremely awkward to use our laptop and often we couldn’t even connect. We thought, hey now that we are in Florence surely we can get Wi-Fi or some kind of broadband access in our own home. Uh huh. We have been told it would be a small nightmare to try and get access wired into our apartment and certainly cost-prohibitive as well.

Interestingly, at our realtor’s office was a brochure by a company called Campus Telecom which would arrange for Wifi access in your own home. We said, “hey this sounds cool, let’s check it out.” So off we went and found their shop, actually a large internet access point, near the market at San Lorenzo. Come to find out this is a subscription-based service through Vodaphone, one of the major telecom players in Europe, to provide us with an WiFi card for our PZC slot in the computer and sign us up for so many months of service. This service is designed, mind you, mainly for college students, but more of that shortly. Anyway, we arranged we filled out an application and set up a day and time to return and pick up our reserved card – we were still living in Siena at the time actually.

So the day we returned to Florence for good, 25 January, we headed back to Campus Telecom to pick up the card and get the service going. When we arrived the owner (we think) was in hot and strained conversation with a couple of his female employees and we had to cool our heels for quite some time before anyone even acknowledged our existence. There was tension in the air as we sat down at last with Daniele (the owner we think) and one of his tech gurus who knew what he was doing, so we thought, but who was clearly feely a bit frustrated by having his boss there who was less savvy about these things. Anyway, the upshot was the software did not work for the Mac, and then it wasn’t the right version so they had to download the latest updated software off the internet, and on and on.

While we were waiting a young American girl came in to talk about her mobile phone bill – they also rent phones as well – and was tearfully explaining that her phone was turned off when a call was made using her number to her boyfriend’s phone which was also turned off and when she was in London and on and on and on. Daniel was comforting the girl and explaining that there was really little he could do about the bill (probably true) but her tears and sobbing continued unabated and naturally he started to waver and tell her he would see what he could do, and on and on, all the while stroking her hair like a concerned father figure and yet his voice betrayed (to us) a lack of real sincerity. But by then we were feeling pretty strongly against this whole place (except for the young man working on trying to get our computer in sync with the software).

But back to our computer. The new software didn’t work either so we agreed to return the following day to try once more to get the card to work in our computer. Or rather the software or get something to work doing something so we could access the internet! We didn’t really want to have anything to do with this business at this point – not surprisingly as notice was on the door of the shop printed in English: “English speaking person urgently needed.” Yeah right.

But our internet access problem remained. So we go home and just for a lark I turn on my wireless feature on the computer (“Airport” for the Apple folks) and lo and behold we have internet access from someone’s wieless network somewhere nearby. It’s not a great signal but it’s enough to send and receive email so we are set there until the network disappears. (We still have it as of 4 February). We also discover great high-speed internet access at a nearby Internet Train (I can use my existing car and registration for this too) so I sign up for their longest term package. Although I’m not a student they give me the student rate anyway and after a cost analysis we figure out that we are spending a lot less than we did in Siena (on a per minute basis) and also spending a lot less than if we had opted to go with the WiFi card from Vodaphone.

So we are settled in pretty much and enjoying being here. Although there are a few small problems we come to like our new apartment more with each passing day. And we really like our neighborhood and enjoy the energy you can fell here when you are out and about. They have a different way of doing things here it is true and so far we find ourselves enjoying pretty much all of those differences.

I’m still waiting for our first howling snowstorm.