Wordless Wednesday: Cheers! À votre santé! Prost! Salute!

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Food glorious food…part two

Whilst travelling around Europe last year I took thousands of photos, some of these focused on the delightful array of food available from markets and the meals we consumed. Many of the photos are merely happy snaps, badly lit and slightly blurred photographs of the food we ate and often I was so absorbed in the eating of a tasty dish that I completely forgot to take a photo. Anyway, the first part of our journey and the food we ate is covered in Food glorious food…part one and I had meant to continue the story but never got around to it…until now.

The food in Italy can be bad, good or fantastic, we were lucky in that we chose good to fantastic food for the majority of the time and the two bad meals we ate were due to laziness and convenience, not bad for four weeks of eating in Italy. Italians don’t really do breakfast, at least not the way we do so we settled for the in-house breakfasts most of the time, although not great, we enjoyed trying Cruesli (Muesli with choc chips) and the array of home baked cakes and tarts at the B&B Villa degli Ulivi were scrumptious. Occasionally cold cuts of meat and boiled eggs were also available in addition to the pastries, jam and bread rolls, the coffee was usually very ordinary so we took to visiting the local bars for an espresso.

Wherever possible we tried local wines and local specialties, guided by the waiters in the restaurants and in Rome we asked the ‘host’ of the Cantina Cantarini to help us choose our meals, selecting fresh, seasonal produce and simple flavours so good that we returned the following night. In Florence we ate picnics outside the Boboli Gardens, pasta in the San Lorenzo Markets and spent an evening with our travellers at a inTavola cooking class, the class was so much fun and at the end of the evening we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour accompanied by a couple of glasses of wine.

Wherever we went I managed to track down a gelateria (even in Germany), I was on a mission to try as many flavours as possible and am proud to say that I tried 25 different flavours, some of them twice (pistachio, zabaglione and pannacotta) and some of which I don’t remember. I have to admit that there are just some flavours that I’ve never been really fond of such as melon or licorice so I stayed clear of them and there are possibly hundreds more flavours I could have tried however there was still a budget to stick to and having gelato for every meal was not the objective. Some of the more unusual (for me) flavours were: Coconut, Riesling, Fior di Latte (Milk), Torrone and Cherries and cream.

Here is just a taste of what we enjoyed in Italy, starting with local specialties in Vernazza to wild boar in Umbria, panettone in Siena and seafood in Sorrento, it really was a food tour of Italy and the extra kilos in weight that I gained were well and truly worth it 🙂

Buon appetito!

Pesto al trofie, Vernazza
Pesto al trofie, Vernazza
Fried seafood, Vernazza
Fried seafood, Vernazza
Sicilian Cannoli, Il Pirata Vernazza
Sicilian Cannoli, Il Pirata Vernazza
Learning to cook in Florence
Learning to cook in Florence
The first course ready to go in the oven
The first course ready to go in the oven, layers of eggplant, mashed potato with zucchini and pancetta, and fontina cheese.
The first course, made by us in Florence
The first course, made by us in Florence
Steak, Florence
Steak, Florence
Fried Zucchini, Florence
Fried Zucchini, Florence
Sweets on display, Florence
Sweets on display, Florence
Wild boar ragu and pappardelle pasta, Siena
Wild boar ragu and pappardelle pasta, Siena
Spaghetti with clams, Siena
Spaghetti with clams, Siena
Roast pork sandwich and Panetone picnic, Siena
Roast pork sandwich and Panettone picnic, Siena
Fresh fruit for sale, Siena
Fresh fruit for sale, Siena
Tortelloni, Siena
Tortelloni, Siena
Coffee to end the meal, Siena
Coffee to end the meal, Siena
Sausage pizza in Volterra
Sausage pizza in Volterra
Salami and pecorino sandwiches in Pienza
Salami and pecorino sandwiches in Pienza
A glass of wine to celebrate the day, Orvieto
A glass of wine to celebrate the day, Orvieto
Breakfast in Orvieto
Breakfast in Orvieto
A little food with our wine, Orvieto
A little food with our wine, Orvieto
Wild boar stew, Orvieto
Wild boar stew, Orvieto
Roast pork medallions, Orvieto
Roast pork medallions, Orvieto
Cooking over an open flame, Civita di Bagnoreggio
Cooking over an open flame, Civita di Bagnoreggio
Grilled vegetables at a cantina, Civita di Bagnoreggio
Grilled vegetables at a cantina, Civita di Bagnoreggio
Pastries for sale, Assisi
Pastries for sale, Assisi
Pasta and assorted food products for sale in Sorrento
Pasta and assorted food products for sale in Sorrento
Mixed seafood and pasta, Sorrento
Mixed seafood and pasta, Sorrento
Prawns and pasta, Sorrento
Prawns and pasta, Sorrento
Fresh lemons, Sorrento
Fresh lemons, Sorrento
Eating gelato in Rome
Eating gelato in Rome
Mmmmm...gelato, Rome
Mmmmm…gelato, Rome

Updates on Vernazza and Monterosso

Lovers seat, Via dell Amore Cinque Terre
Lovers seat, Via dell Amore Cinque Terre

As I slowly work my way towards finishing my first photobook of our 2011 holiday in Europe and the rain continues to pour down I am reminded that it has been a while since I provided updated information on the progress of cleaning up Vernazza and Cinque Terre after flooding and mudslides in October last year.

The best sites for getting up to date information and photographs are two of my favourite travel blogs (I have quite a few favourites): Cultural Comments and Once in a Lifetime Travel, the other important website to check out is Save Vernazza, through this site you can make donations to help with the rebuilding. I don’t need to repeat everything they have written, but it is important to acknowledge the hard work that all the residents, volunteers and emergency services are doing in order to clean up and restore the town to its former beauty. Monterosso, another of the 5 villages of the Cinque Terre was also devastated by the flooding and badly needs your support, local residents have worked tirelessly to restore Monterosso, go to the Rebuild Monterosso site for more information on their progress and on how you can help.

My husband and I are planning another trip to Europe for 2014 and will definitely be heading back to Cinque Terre, I know it is a long way off but the income from tourism will be essential for the rebuilding of Vernazza and Monterosso.

The Cinque Terre Trail minus Monterosso

Two glorious Spring days in Cinque Terre, but we only spent a couple of hours in Monterosso and that was mainly at the station as we waited for the next train to Vernazza. The station was noisy, bells ringing so loud that we couldn’t hear the announcements and the large crowds waiting for trains didn’t help. Eventually our train arrived and we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into the carriage, standing room only was not a problem for us, it wasn’t long before we were getting off the train at Vernazza.

We spend our first afternoon wandering around Vernazza, taking a break to sit every now and then to watch the boats come in or just to enjoy the view. The next day will be a big day for us, we plan to buy a Cinque Terre card tomorrow and explore some of the other villages that make up the Cinque Terre: Riomaggiore, Manarola and Corniglia. The Cinque Terre Card is not expensive (10 euros), it is one ticket that includes train travel and entry to the Cinque Terre trail which is National Park.

Chapel of Santa Marta, Vernazza
Chapel of Santa Marta, Vernazza

We started our day by catching a train to Riomaggiore, along with many others, the platform was packed with people and all of them seemed to have the same idea as us. The weather was perfect, blue skies and balmy temperatures, great for enjoying a day outdoors. In our bags were bottles of water, fresh bread, pesto, cheese and salami, a picnic lunch the choice of budget travellers everywhere and with such delicious ingredients available why would you choose anything else.

Blue skies and blue water of Riomaggiore
Blue skies and blue water of Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore sits on a cliff beside the sea, the houses look like they could tumble into the water at any moment, the water is deep blue green and Marty is itching to go for a swim. Access to town is via a tunnel from the station, the views of houses, gardens and playgrounds are delightful and I take many photos. While Marty takes the chance to sit and watch passersby, I head down into the town via narrow streets and tiny stairs until I find a spot to take photos of the marina and a couple of playful seagulls. It would be nice to spend the whole day exploring the town, but the Via dell’Amore calls and we make our way back towards the station.

Colourful houses of Riomaggiore
Colourful houses of Riomaggiore
From Riomaggiore to the sea
From Riomaggiore to the sea
Riomaggiore's marina
Riomaggiore's marina
Via dell'Amore, connecting Riomaggiore with Manarola
Via dell'Amore, connecting Riomaggiore with Manarola

We run into two Queenslanders, Kristy and Elias as we start the Via dell’Amore walk, we had met them on the train from Milan to Monterosso and being such a friendly couple we joined them for the walk. Via dell’Amore is the shortest and easiest walk on the entire trail, it is also the only time we walk between two villages of the Cinque Terre, opting to use the trains for the rest of the day. Along the way we stop to listen to a busker and take in the spectacular views of the coast line, messages of love are carved into the different surfaces and padlocks are attached to fences.

Lovers seat, Via dell'Amore
Lovers seat, Via dell'Amore
Manarola Station
Great view from Manarola Station
Padlock of love, Manarola
Padlock of love, Manarola

We say goodbye to Kristy and Elias, they are planning to walk to Corniglia however we want to see more of Manarola and find a shady spot to eat our lunch. The streets are filled with people and we follow the scent of fried fish down to the water front, the water is a deep blue green and looks extremely inviting. Marty finds his way down to where the boats come in, the breeze is refreshing after walking in the sun. One of the more amusing sights we see is a woman carrying a rather large labrador pup, he must have tired of walking and given his owner the look that no dog owner can resist. We find a shady spot under the balcony of a restaurant, it is closed and yet there are tables and chairs for people to sit on, a lucky find.

Streets of Manarola
Streets of Manarola
Manarola's Harbour
Manarola's Harbour
Shopfront in Manarola
Shopfront in Manarola

The train to Corniglia is packed, lots of smelly sweaty bodies crammed into each carriage, we meet a Kiwi couple who tell us that the path between Manarola and Corniglia is closed hence the heavy use of the train. There are a couple of options for getting from Corniglia station to the town, walk up the 365 stairs or catch a connecting bus, we choose the less energetic option. Corniglia is the only town not on the edge of the sea, it is up in the hills and surrounded by vineyards. It is a small town, with narrow winding streets and a lookout that provides you with a view of the vineyards on one side and Manarola and the sea on the other side. The gelati here is sublime, it is difficult for me to choose a flavour, Marty always goes for the hazelnut or coffee flavours. To get back to the station we take the stairs, it is a pleasant walk, cloud cover has taken the heat out of the day and the stairs are shaded in various places.

Corniglia street
Corniglia street
Vineyards on the hills around Corniglia
Vineyards on the hills around Corniglia
The many steps leading to Corniglia
The many steps leading to Corniglia

Once back in Vernazza Marty decides to walk around town and maybe go for a swim, I take a walk along the trail behind Vernazza, as though I was heading towards Monterosso. The sun has not yet set and many people are walking along the trail, heading towards a point on the track where you can stop and look back towards Vernazza and it’s beautiful harbour. The track runs alongside vineyards and vegetable gardens, bright red poppies contrast with the lush green of the grassy hills, some parts of the track are paved both most of it is gravel and rock. The view of Vernazza really is special, the setting sun provides a warmth and a glow that soaks the village in wonderful colour. I stand there wishing we never had to leave. Back in town Marty has been shopping, he has bought Mortadella, cheese, pesto and panini for our train trip to Florence the next day, however he is still yet to go for a swim, perhaps he will when we reach Sorrento.

Vernazza's harbour as the sun sets
Vernazza's harbour as the sun sets
Strolling down Via Roma, Vernazza
Strolling down Via Roma, Vernazza

Natural disasters in the news…or not

Flooding on the Gold Coast, January 2011
Flooding on the Gold Coast, January 2011

Late 2010, early 2011 Queensland was affected by devastating floods in 75% of the state, a number of people lost their lives and many others lost their homes and livelihoods. We had updates on the television and in the papers 24 x7, thousands of volunteers showed up to help clean up the city of Brisbane and millions of dollars was raised to help everyone affected.

Since then we’ve had earthquakes in Christchurch, a tsunami and earthquakes in Japan, mudslides in Brazil, earthquakes in Turkey, flooding in Thailand (which is only now starting to recede) and more recently flooding in Italy that has ravaged the towns of Monterosso and Vernazza as well as the city of Genova. The combined media coverage on all of those events has come nowhere near the amount of coverage we saw with the floods in Queensland, I know that people what to know what is happening in their own region but I am disappointed that the level of coverage for recent events has been lacking. Thank heavens for the internet is all I can say.

If you want good information including photographs and regular updates on what is happening in Vernazza and other parts of Liguria, Italy please check out Nicole’s blog Cultural Comments as well as the SaveVernazza site which also has information on how to make donations.

If you more interested in what has been happening in Thailand, a little closer to home for me but a destination I have never had the privilege of visiting, you can get information from various news sites but I like the Huffington Post and the Soi Dog Foundation. The Soi Dog Foundation is an organisation working hard to save dogs and cats affected by the flooding in Bangkok, a worthy cause for an animal lover like me.

People we’ve met while travelling

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We’ve been travelling in Europe for about 5 weeks now and have loved every minute of it, only very minor glitches in our plans and nothing drastic enough to make me wish I was at home. In addition to the amazing sights, fascinating history and delicious food we have had the pleasure of meet and/or interacting with some really wonderful people. It is true that if you make the effort to be pleasant and polite, try to say hello, please and thank you in the local language and keep the “it isn’t like this at home” attitude to yourself then people will respond positively.

In Paris it took a day or two before the staff on the front desk said more than bonjour to us and wouldn’t admit to speaking more than ‘a little english’. Eventually we were engaging in conversation with them, we learned alot about the area we were staying in and they were extremely forthcoming with information and general chatter about their lives, other destinations and what they thought of them. Marty met the manager of the bar across the road and got chatting about food, she spoke English very well and invited us to try their authentic french fries and the best burger in Paris, we did and had an enjoyable evening in the company of locals.

In Amsterdam and Germany, most of our positive interactions were based around food, either over breakfast, dinner or while buying produce for a picnic. We met the owners of a brasserie and doner kebab shop in Amsterdam and got travel tips from a shop assistant near the red light district, they were all quite happy to tell us more about themselves and the business they were in as well as provide good service. In Germany we met a terribly non politically correct waiter who told us jokes about Barack Obama, being married and whatever else he had read on his email that day. We ate there twice, the food was really good but the conversation and entertainment he provided was more valuable and had we stayed there another night we would have eaten there again. At the Hofbrauhaus we drank with an elderly gentleman who looked as though he had finished a couple of steins before we arrived, he didn’t speak much English, enough to give us his name, Patrick, and date of birth (when Hitler came to power) and a few short phrases that helped us with dinner table etiquette in Germany. Marty shouted him a beer, the concept foreign to him, when the beer appeared in front of him and told Marty that money wasn’t a problem and he could afford beer, it was hard to explain that buying someone a drink was a tradition in Australia. It was a fun evening after a long, cold day at Dachau and we were glad to have met Patrick, even though the conversation was a little hard to understand at times.

One of our favourite days ever was spent with a mate of Marty’s, Joe, he met us at the train wearing traditional Bavarian clothing and he drove us around the countryside and to Neuschwanstein for a tour through King Ludwig’s fairytale castle. The weather was perfect for being outdoors, we went for a ride on a horse and carriage and got a lift in a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain where we drank nice, cold beer at a bar surrounded by snow and mountain tops. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get better, Joe took us to meet his family, his Mum had prepared a special dinner of roast pork, crackling, potato dumplings and salad. Joe’s family were the most wonderful people, his Mum and sister had also dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing and we kicked ourselves for not getting a decent photo of them all together, so overwhelmed were we by their hospitality and generosity. It was very hard to hop on the train back to Munich that night and it is a day we will never forget.

In Italy we have been on the end of some truly excellent customer service and met really friendly, engaging people but we have also been on the end of some of the worst and most indifferent service ever experienced. Shop assistants prefer to maintain telephone conversations or conversations with other people rather than help you out or even take your money. Prepared to greet them with ‘buongiorno’, they always start with ‘prego’ or you’re welcome and it throws you, there is often no eye contact unless you don’t have the right change and then you get the glare and the rolling of eyes. Milan was one of the worst for service, we got bumped from place to place just trying to buy a ticket for the tram. Our accommodation in Varenna, Vernazza, Siena, Orvieto and Assisi obviously cared about their guests, helping us with the language, giving us directions and helping us find good places to eat – all with a smile and no rolling of eyes. The Sicilian brothers at the Il Pirata cafe in Vernazza were a hoot, they flatter the women, make lots of jokes, have fun with the work and their customers and the food and coffee was terrific. We went there for breakfast each morning and for dessert one evening, when you meet such good people and get treated well how can you resist going back. In Orvieto we were well looked after by the family that owned the B&B, had excellent waiters at the restaurants we went to and had a fun time drinking wine and eating nibbles with a couple of ladies from Brazil.

There are so many more instances of meeting people that I could write thousands of words, but all my descriptions would sound much the same: interesting, wonderful, engaging, helpful and funny. The people we’ve met have made our trip more enjoyable for us and it has opened our eyes to the way other people think and act, overall we’re really not that different.

The three Vs: Venice, Varenna and Vernazza

Venice

So far I have loved every place we have visited, they are all special and magical in their own unique ways but the three Vs: Venice, Varenna and Vernazza really made an impression on me and on Marty as well. Venice for the decaying beauty, brilliant colour and absence of motor vehicles, Varenna for the serenity, cheese and lake views and Vernazza for the spectacular location, village atmosphere (after day trippers have left) and tasty trofie al pesto.

We stayed in Venice for 4 nights, too many for some people however this enabled us to spend some time in Trieste, a port city on the Adriatic Sea and about 2 hours from Venice by train. Our hotel room was a cosy little room separate to the actual hotel and with views of a construction site that never seemed to be active, a little hard to find at first but not far from the vaporetto stops that lined the esplanade leading to St Mark’s Square. Breakfast was forgettable yet we won’t forget the prepackaged croissant filled with gooey fake chocolate, melba toast and bread roll, not to mention the awful coffee. A short walk away was a snack bar, we had our best Venetian coffee there when we needed a fix, pizzerias, trattorias and enotecas were also in abundance in our area, Castello or sestieri as they are called in Venice. One of the little places we ate at was run by a Bangladeshi family, the men were very chatty and one in particular was a huge cricket fan so he and Marty had plenty to talk about, the evening we ate there they presented us with a Spritz on the house. A Spritz is a bright orange drink, we had seen many people drinking it but hadn’t known what it was and as we tasted the Prosecco-Aperol cocktail, one of the Bangladeshi (sorry if that is incorrect term) explained to us that it is a drink of the Gondoliers after they have finished a long day on the canals, the drink smells strongly of sweet oranges but has a kick that was a tad too strong for me.

Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, Venice
Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, Venice
Gondolas of Venice
Gondolas of Venice

Moving around Venice is easy, except for the constant dodging of other tourists and their elbows, there is no chance of maintaining a comfortable personal space here at least not in the day time. The canals are jam-packed with tourists in gondolas and water taxis, early in the day there are also small barges that navigate the canals and carry out the daily garbage collection. At night time the day trippers, tour groups and cruise liner passengers have gone and although the square is busy it is a more enjoyable time of day to listen to the classical music played at Florians and take photos of the monuments and buildings as the light changes. Walking through the campos (small squares usually dominated by a church) and taking time to eat gelato or watch people from a shady spot while eating salami and mozarella paninis is one of the best ways to ‘see’ Venice. There are plenty of museums and galleries to explore, but Venice is such a different city to any other I have been to that I find walking the streets just as exciting as seeing the artwork, mosaics and decoration within churches and galleries. The men selling fake designer goods, toys and roses are annoying and worth avoiding if you can, it is illegal to sell and purchase fake designer goods in Italy, when the sellers get a hint of the police coming their way they pack up their goods and head into the side streets. “Hello missus, I give you special price” is their opening line, they’re nearly all dressed very well so we figure that the fake designer goods industry is bringing in good money.

Varenna on Lake Como
Varenna on Lake Como

Varenna and Vernazza don’t have the fake designer goods, there are only a few hundred residents in each town and no supermarkets, only small market shops providing a minimal range of goods and the best range of delicatessen goods you will find. Both towns are on the water, Varenna is located on Lake Como and Vernazza is one of the five towns of Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean. either of these places would be a good place to semi-retire, renovate a couple of rooms and make them available for rent during holiday seasons. Such beautiful and peaceful places even with an influx of tourists during Spring and Summer, come nightfall, most have left the towns to the locals who fill up the bars and osterias until late in the evening.

Villa gardens, Varenna
Villa gardens, Varenna

Rick Steves is a fan of Varenna and Vernazza, watching his dvds and reading his guidebooks inspired us to stay in the two towns, that and the beautiful imagery I saw on websites devoted to the two locations. At our hotel in Varenna a photo of Rick Steves with the owners of Eremo Gaudio was stuck on the wall at reception and christmas cards sent from Rick Steves and family were pasted all over the door of Il Pirata, our breakfast place in Vernazza. It is common to see travellers carrying Rick Steves guidebooks, we have spoken to a few American devotees who created their entire itinerary around his advice. Varenna is across the lake from Bellagio, home to George Clooney and popular with all visitors to the region. We spent a few hours walking around the streets of Bellagio, lunch was in the company of other tourists watching their budget, all of us eating a picnic of some sort only we had forgotten to bring a bottle of wine. Along the water front is a pretty garden and a variety of expensive shops, the restaurants are full of well dressed patrons and day trippers like us pile on and off the ferries. In the narrow backstreets you can do a bit of wine tasting, buy shoes and homewares or sit in a cafe near the church – we chose the latter. In addition to Bellagio we spent time in Milan and Menaggio, neither place thrilled us much but we were glad to have made the effort.

Vernazza is one of the best placed towns on the Cinque Terre, transport is close and the town is small enough that you don’t have to carry or wheel your bags far to get to any accommodation. There is a lovely little bay encircled by cafes, the church and tower, when we arrived in the afternoon there were children swimming and sunbathers lying all over the rocks soaking up the sun. Marty was keen for a swim, the colour of the water looked very inviting, a clear deep blue green, I was happy to sit in the shade and dangle my feet over the edge of the breakwall. This area is known for its pesto, foccacia and a sweet wine called sciacchetra, we tried all three and loved each one, we also dined on fried calamari, fresh cheese, salami, mortadella and gelati. The Sicilian brothers Massimo and Lucca that own Il Pirata offer up sicilian treats such as cannoli and frozen fruit slushies, the two of them are real characters and treat all the girls like princesses, they also claim that they can pick the nationality of customers by what they eat. Eating there is a fun experience.

Restaurants in Vernazza
Vernazza at night

To get around the Cinque Terre you can either hike between each of the towns, catch trains or do a combination of the two, you have to pay to walk the path between towns and for a little extra train and bus travel is included. We didn’t want to spend all of our time hiking so we used the train to get to Riomaggiore, from there we walked with another Aussie couple along the Dell Amore walk to Manarola and then we used trains to get from Manarola to Corniglia, Corniglia to Vernazza. Trains aren’t terribly frequent or they weren’t during our stay, so each train was packed with tired and sweaty tourists. We didn’t make it to Monterossa, a larger seaside resort town didn’t hold much appeal for us and sitting at a cafe eating nice food and drinking local wine was a much more attractive option.

The three Vs were for us, a great way to introduce ourselves to Italy and the Italian way of life, the next destination in Italy is Florence and I knew that it would be a completely different place to visit.