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 🙂
A big thank you to ‘Once in a Lifetime Travel‘ for giving me this idea.
A: Age you went on your first international trip:
10 months old on a plane to New Zealand, we ended up staying for two years.
B: Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where:
I don’t really like beer but I did enjoy a Radler on the top of a snow capped mountain near Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany.
C: Cuisine (favorite):
D: Destinations, favorite, least favorite and why:
I love, love, love Italy and would really like to see more of France, Germany and the Netherlands. European art and architecture has fascinated me since studying art in school and being surround by so much history blows me away, plus I love the food. New Zealand is also one of my favourites, beautiful scenery, great food and a bit closer to home so easy (and cheap) to visit.
Least favorite was Los Angeles, Disneyland and Universal Studios were fun but the food was ordinary and it just seemed a little grotty but it was a long time ago and we were not there for long.
E: Event you experienced abroad that made you say “wow”:
Being in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and listening to the angelic voices of a children’s choir, magical experience.
F: Favorite mode of transportation:
Trains and planes for longer distances.
G: Greatest feeling while traveling:
Waking up on that very first morning on an overseas holiday and remembering that I’m in another country.
H: Hottest place you’ve traveled to:
No place has been hotter than where I live (yet), temperatures have risen to 44 degrees Celsius in summer. The closest would have to be Rome in summer 12 years ago.
I: Incredible service you’ve experienced and where:
B&B Villa Degli Ulivi in Orvieto and the Zeppelin restaurant in Orvieto, we were well looked after, given wonderful advice and served delicious food.
J: Journey that took the longest:
The flight from Brisbane to Paris via Dubai, roughly 27 hours.
K: Keepsake from your travels:
Colourful prints from an American artist living in Amsterdam and also the silver charms I collected along the way, each one representing the area we visited.
L: Let-down sight, why and where:
Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy. Too many pushy hawkers selling crappy souvenirs, apparently we should have gone into Pisa as well and not just visited the Leaning Tower.
M: Moment where you fell in love with travel:
I was about 13 and leaning over the fence on my Grandparents farm in New Zealand, looking at the green rolling hills dotted by sheep and ducks, the air was pure and fresh and I said to my cousin ‘I can’t believe we’re in another country’.
N: Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in:
Sheraton Mirage on the Gold Coast in Queensland, fabulous place to stay and thankfully that one night was paid for by work.
O: Obsession—what are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling?:
It is more a question of ‘what am I not taking photos of while travelling’? I take photos of interesting doors, flowers, signs on shopfronts, dogs, people with dogs, our hotel rooms (including bathroom) and the view from the window.
P: Passport stamps, how many and from where?
Very few now that they don’t stamp passports in Europe – England, New Zealand and United States are the ones I remember best.
Q: Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where:
The Capuchin Crypt in Rome.
R: Recommended sight, event or experience:
A cooking class in Florence and riding Icelandic ponies in Sweden.
S: Splurge; something you have no problem forking over money for while traveling:
Italian leather jackets from Florence, so soft and warm although not terribly suited to our short winters.
T: Touristy thing you’ve done:
Tour of the Tower of London, great fun.
U: Unforgettable travel memory:
Travelling around Europe with my husband for 8 weeks, 4 of which were spent in Italy. Such a fabulous holiday and one I could happily repeat every year.
V: Visas, how many and for where?
Only ever had one for the US.
W: Wine, best glass of wine while traveling and where?
A couple of glasses of Orvieto Classico outside a bar in Orvieto, we met a couple of Brazilian ladies and spent two hours chatting and laughing with them.
X: eXcellent view and from where?:
Flying over the centre of Australia as the sun was setting, spectacular!
Y: Years spent traveling?:
All my life but not as often as I would like with most trips being to New Zealand.
Z: Zealous sports fans and where?:
I know they exist but the closest I have gotten to them was a the Rugby World Cup in Australia, a Samoan supporter dived on the ball as the South African playing was about to kick for goal, he was knocked out, taken to hospital and banned for life.
Since arriving home we’ve been asked about our favourite destinations and experiences and it is really hard to narrow it down to one or two things, so much of what we have experienced has been incredible and we loved (almost) every minute of our trip. Marty and I also differ when it comes to selecting our special moments, Marty likes to sit and watch the world go by, meet new people and enjoy the moment whereas I like to get moving and explore each destination and what it has to offer. For those of you who are interested, here are my top ten favourite experiences and my top ten less-than favourite experiences, some of them you may already have read about in previous posts.
Top ten favourites:
- Walking through the doors of the Musee d’Orsay and making my way through the Impressionist collection. Degas, Renoir, Monet, Manet and Seurat were the artists who inspired me when I was in High School and changed the way I looked at my surroundings.
- A perfect day in Bavaria (a very small part of Bavaria anyway) starting with a scenic train ride through the countryside where we met two lovely German ladies and spoke about The Thorn Birds, Brisbane’s floods and the beautiful region we were travelling through. Joe, dressed in traditional clothing met us at the Füssen train station, we took a horse and carriage ride up to Neuschwanstein, drank beer on a snow covered mountain and that evening we had dinner with Joe’s family at his mother’s house.
- Waking up in Paris, the realisation that we were finally in Europe hit and it was bliss! Paris is an amazing and fascinating city and 5 nights was just not enough, we can’t wait to go back there and spend more time exploring the streets, gardens and museums.
- Eating piping hot frites (chips) covered with a huge dollop of mayonnaise from the Mannekin Pis frites shopfront in Amsterdam, it was cold and miserable and these were the most delicious things to eat on such a day.
- Staying in the medieval towns of Bacharach and Rothenburg in Germany. These towns are straight from a fairytale and they were in the most picturesque places, Bacharach on the Rhine River and Rothenburg ob de Tauber surrounded by medieval walls overlooking the valley.
- Wandering the streets of Venice and watching the colours of the buildings change as the sun was setting. Truly a magical place and more so in the evening when the crowds have thinned out and the souvenir stalls have closed.
- The hilltop town of Orvieto was a wonderful destination, we enjoyed the local wine: Orvieto Classico accompanied by snacks of marinated olives, foccacia and peanuts. From Orvieto we visited the dying town of Civita de Bagnoregio, a hilltop town with few residents thanks to ongoing erosion of the volcanic stone that the town sits upon, here we had a most delectable meal grilled over an open fire and served on plastic plates.
- Participating in a cooking class in Florence. This was loads of fun and not only did we learn a little about Tuscan cooking, but we were able to enjoy the fruits of our labour accompanied by a few glasses of wine and all of our classmates.
- Rome, everywhere we walked history smacked us in the face from the ancient roman ruins, influential architecture and Egyptian obelisks to Baroque sculptures on display in piazzas, fountains and churches. The traffic was crazy, the crowds overwhelming and the food served at Cantina Kantarini delicious, an amazing city.
- Driving through the countryside in Tuscany and Umbria, being in the middle of a scene that I had only ever seen on postcards or calendars. When driving between Siena and Pienza we must have stopped at least 20 times to take photos and absorb what we were seeing, rows of cypress pines and olive trees, red poppies and Tuscan villas.
Top ten not-so favourite
- Feeling stressed about the driving in Italy, even though I was the passenger and GPS/map reader. We didn’t know how the tolls worked or how much it would cost, the limited traffic zones made me nervous after reading about the cost of the fines we could get and driving through Sorrento was a little chaotic, narrow streets with bikes, scooter, horse and carriages and women with prams all vying for road space.
- Finding our room not ready in Florence and having to spend potential ‘tourist’ time checking out of one hotel, storing luggage and then checking into the hotel we were originally booked into. Not only that, both hotels were extremely popular with school groups.
- Eating crappy, expensive pasta at a tavola calda near the Vatican City, we knew better than to make a rash decision however we were hungry and running late for our tour of the Vatican Museums. Honestly, Hungry Jacks would have been better and cheaper. The pane (bread) charge of 3 euros for the bread we never ordered was also annoying.
- The crowds in the Vatican Museum made it really difficult to spend time absorbing our location and the marvellous things we wer looking at. Next time we’ll book a private tour either early in the morning or later in the day, the money spent would be well worth it.
- Missing out on the Borghese Gallery because I didn’t try to reserve a ticket far enough in advance made me furious, I knew better but wasn’t sure what our plans were for Rome because a friend of ours was joining us for a few days. I should have just booked the ticket regardless.
- Accidentally deleting all my photos from my computer and having to download them all again from the memory cards, sadly we had deleted some of the images from the memory cards resulting in some happy snaps never being seen again. After that I backed up photos online, on my laptop and on usb sticks.
- Not making use of the metro and buses more in Paris, we walked everywhere unless the hop-on, hop-off buses could get us there (and only for a period of two days) and we were exhausted and short tempered. We walked because we wanted to ‘see’ Paris and instead it ate up valuable time that could have been spent in the Luxembourg gardens, Rodin Museum or people watching at a cafe.
- Rude tour guides in museums and galleries who think it is okay to stand right next to you and start spouting their knowledge to their tour group regardless of the fact that you’re trying to listen to an audioguide.
- Paying 22 (for 2) euros to enter Pompeii, 10 euros for the audioguides and map and finding that the majority of the villas and more interesting places to see are closed for restoration or repairs. No mention of this on the map or the guides and certainly not explained to us when we bought the tickets. Although a great place to visit, it was extremely disappointing.
- Getting ripped off by those International phone companies that ‘help’ you with calling family back home and charge you almost $80 for the privilege. To make matters worse we could have avoided the exorbitant fee had we been better prepared and made a note of the dialling out code for Italy and bought a phone card in Venice.
It was much harder to come up with the less than favourite list, we really were lucky on our trip and avoided all the major hassles some travellers are unfortunate enough to experience and the problems we did experience could have been avoided with a little preparation.
In a previous post I briefly mentioned the hilltop towns we were visiting while in Tuscany and Umbria, they truly are wonderful places to stay especially when they’re not so crowded such as Volterra and Orvieto after the sun goes down.
We based ourselves in Siena, Orvieto and Assisi for 10 days and made use of a rental car to travel to the other towns, part of the joy in visiting other towns is the scenic drive through the countryside and taking time to stop occasionally, admire the view and take a couple of photos. From Siena we did a day trip to Volterra and San Gimignano, leaving San Gimignano until the afternoon in the hope that most of the large tour groups had been and gone. Volterra is probably better known now thanks to the Twilight series of stories, it isn’t why we went there, Volterra is home to roman ruins, alabaster and unbeknown to us, a state prison housed in what looks like a medieval fortress. San Gimignano is a medieval town, famous for its many towers, of which only 14 still stand (there used to be about 70) and I could only count 11 from the Torre Grosse (large tower). San Gimignano is also home to Vernaccia, a nice white wine that is easy to drink after a long day of sight seeing.
Siena itself is a wonderful city to explore, once we were finally able to find the carpark and our way to Il Campo. The cathedral is a masterpiece of black and white marble, and although Marty wasn’t interested in seeing yet another church I paid the 3 euro admission and took the time to go inside and it was well worth it. Although we both loved Siena, our day spent driving through the Tuscan countryside to the small town of Pienza was probably more enjoyable. Pienza doesn’t have any major must-see attractions and doesn’t rate that highly in the guidebooks, what it does have is a fantastic view of the quintessential Tuscan countryside and very tasty pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk). In Pienza we were able to taste a variety of pecorino cheese including slivers of one flavoured with truffles, which I was quite fond of but Marty was left with a not-so pleasant taste in his mouth. We dined at a little bar called La Crete, salami and pecorino sandwiches washed down with a Vernaccia for Marty and a Vino Nobile for me and topped off with very good coffee. The drive home to Siena was equally spectacular, cypress pines, yellow fields, winding roads, red poppies and olive trees – all the ingredients for a perfect country drive.
Orvieto is a wonderful town to visit and even better if you can stay within the walls or close by them as we did, providing the opportunity to explore the streets after the tour groups and day trippers go home. From Orvieto we did another day of driving to see Civita de Bagnoregio (the dying town) and Bolsena, Civita de Bagnoregio is a hilltop town with a difference as there are very few residents and it is not swarming with tourists forking out euros in souvenir shops, the town is built of tufa which is slowly eroding causing sections of the hill to collapse and buildings with it. There is no collapsing of buildings while we were there, however we did wish that something would fall on a very loud, foul mouthed american tourist that was part of a small tour group. The drive from Orvieto only takes thirty minutes and after a couple of hours of explorations and one of the best lunches so far we decided to drive to Bolsena on Lake Bolsena. Bolsena is a pretty town, the location on the lake contributing greatly to its appeal and the gelati wasn’t bad either, it is a good place to take a breath and relax by the water but beyond that I couldn’t find the motivation to see more.
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.
Our last day in Orvieto and after stressing about money all afternoon because we couldn’t withdraw cash from either of our accounts, we discovered that there was an actual limit of 250 euros on the bancomat machines in Orvieto. Problem solved, we’ll pay our accommodation with Visa and withdraw more money when we get to our next destination. The fees St George Bank charge us are killers – about $75 AUD in conversion and foreign withdrawal fees to withdraw about $2000 over the past 5 weeks. It is the little things that often drive us nuts, however it isn’t enough to spoil our stay in this wonderful hill town north of Rome.
Anyway, we walked into Orvieto at about 7pm this evening, our B&B accommodation isn’t far but it is all uphill, we walked to the nearest carpark and then made use of the escalators to take us to Piazza Republica. It is Saturday night and the town is packed with locals and tourists, the bars and streets are full, Italians think nothing of standing in the middle of the road while carrying out a conversation. We walk towards the Duomo and along Corso Cavour checking out the menus of several restaurants and trattorias, it is the Zeppelin Restaurant menu that gets our attention, variety of choice at a good price and not far from the escalators that brought us into the old town. Lunch had been an excellent selection of goodies ranging from peanuts and olives to panini, all free with the wine that we drank, it was cheap, tasty and we met a couple of wonderful ladies from Brazil and an English author currently living in Orvieto. Although good and filling, lunch had left us seeking a good solid meal of typical Umbrian fare and we found it at the Zeppelin on Via Garibaldi, not far from Piazza della Republica. The girls that served us at Zeppelin were from the US, friendly and helpful they sent us special help when we asked about wine. Our meal was superb, our waiter (Vito?) recommended several dishes, Marty ordered the wild boar with spaghetti and I the Ravioli stuffed with Asparagus and cheese and covered with a black truffle sauce and almonds, the wine recommended complimented our meals beautifully and it was probably the best service we had experienced since arriving in Europe. Our secondi (mains) were pork stuffed with prunes and rosemary and wild boar with olives, tomatoes and red wine sauce, another excellent choice guided by Vito (please forgive me if I’ve gotten the name wrong) and topped off by Grappa and Limoncello. Not once were we made to feel like tourists, it was a fabulous evening and I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who appreciates good food and service. If you think it sounds expensive, think again, for a good bottle of red wine, a bottle of water, 2 first courses of pasta and 2 mains it was only 56 euros, the liqueurs at the end of the meal were ‘on the house’.
Orvieto has been an extremely wonderful and positive place for us to visit, our accomodation is among the best we’ve had in Europe, the rooms and breakfast are very good and the owners are delightful, very friendly and helpful. I booked online through expedia.com.au and the wonderful Bed & Breakfast Villa degli Ulivi is highly recommended through TripAdvisor as well. If you don’t want to walk up the hill (about 10 mins) you can drive and park near the escalators, it is a great location and the rooms are very comfortable – we wish we had booked for longer. Breakfast is an assortment of cakes plus toast, pastries, cereal, ham, cheese and boiled eggs, their coffee is so much better than the majority of places we’ve stayed that we usually have two or three cups.
In addition to the good food and service, Orvieto is a pretty and easy town to navigate, the facade of the Cathedral is one I could sit and stare at for ages, it is truly magnificent and it is a magical sight when the sun is setting and the light changes from bright to warm and golden. Underneath Orvieto is over one thousand caves and/or tunnels that have been used for keeping pigeons, as WWII bomb shelters and many moons ago, for the production or milling of olive oil. The short tour we did was worth the 6 euros they charged, the tour guide had a great sense of humour and was extremely knowledgeable, plus the caves provide a cool escape from the heat of the day. I didn’t make it into the Cathedral or any of the museums open to the public however, the town itself is worth spending time in without having to visit such attractions, we enjoyed people watching over a glass of Orvieto Classico and plate of nibbles/tapas/bruschetta and met the loveliest people while doing so.
If I sound as though I’m rambling I apologise, this is written on a belly full of wild boar, truffles, red wine, limoncello and a tiny sip of grappa so my senses are pretty much overloaded.
Ciao and good night!
So far we’ve visited several hilltop towns starting with Siena and today Orvieto, we’re constantly amazed by the narrow streets and amount of people wandering through them. I’ll write more later, right now we’re off to watch the sunset on the Duomo in Orvieto before grabbing a bite to eat. San Gimignano and Siena are heavily visited by tourists, we preferred Volterra and Pienza – smaller towns and fewer tour groups. Orvieto in the evening is a joy, today it is crazy and we’ve seen both a wedding and funeral within a few hours. Lonely Planet describes shop assistants in Italy as providing service (or not) with supreme indifference, on the main we would have to agree however they know how to look after you at a bar, we ordered two glasses of Orvieto Classico and got a plate of bruschetta, cheese and tomato panini, olives, chips, focaccia, peanuts and savoury biscuits. Lunch definitely not needed.
Ciao for now!