Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A traveler's gift and Kathy's goodness

This will be a brief entry. As I have been logging my travels in Italy, something quite surprising and sad came up a few days ago. One of the women I met while on my travels in Italy passed away suddenly. Her name was Kathy and whoever came into contact with Kathy, I'm sure found her to be kind and gentle. I only spent six days with Kathy but it never occurred to me that her life would be ended so soon. I'm sure she didn't realize it either. But she certainly added goodness to this earth. On our last evening in Rome, a large group of us went out to dine together. It was a jovial night with a jovial group. The restaurant was called Pinsa Buoi, and they are famous for their 3-grain pizza, their wines and I will add, their service and hospitality. Not to mention the most amazing mixed greens I have ever tasted. That night I had neglected to go to a 'bankomat' to get out funds to pay for our dinner. So when we were breaking up the tab, I offered to pay our portion with credit card, as I was three or four Euros short. Kathy quickly offered to pay the difference and added "It's a traveler's gift". I received many traveler's gifts, but that generous spark in Kathy is one I will always remember.

I took this photograph as we were waiting for our streetcar, after our dinner out. I realized afterward that the shadows cast on the ground were the shadows of the group of us who had dined that night.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gems of Assisi

When I travel, I notice certain things and take photographs but when I arrive back home, these are not necessarily the things that stay with me. Memory is strange that way. It surprises us with what it clings to and what it discards. Today, I will share a small morsel of what clings to my mind about our time in Assisi. We began our day by visiting the Basilica named Santa Maria degli Angeli. An impressive church, but the real gem is the tiny little church-within-the-church, named the Porziuncola, dating back to 1200 and connected to St. Francis. I entered the tiny church, seating capacity of perhaps 40 people, and just as I sat, a young monk entered, knelt before the alter and began chanting. As he sang, the bells (so many bells) rang and it was then that it dawned on me he was singing the Angelus. When we were very little children, the church bells rang at noon and my mother would have us stop to say the Angelus, so it was a sweet moment for me, that I just happened to be there at that moment.

From our hotel, it was about a 4 kilometre climb to Assisi, and a steep uphill incline every step of the way. By the time we arrived, I really did feel like a pilgrim. Assisi feels like a city of peace, every though it is crawling with tourists. And I am sure there are troubles there, just as there are hidden troubles almost everywhere, but there is such a strong intentional force that speaks to peace; it is almost palpable. There are cloaked men and women everywhere (often chatting on their cell phones), but also just making their way through the winding, cobblestone streets. The Basilica of St Francis is massive and all I can say is that I am truly glad we had a guide to take us through it, to explain the frescos and to give us the story of St. Francis. I won't relay it here, but it is an inspiring story and one that I knew little of prior to my visit there.

In Assisi, I have, never in my life, seen so many shops with so many religious objects.... rosaries and triptychs and thimbles and lace and statues and baking and chocolates and paintings and the list really is endless. I visited some of the shops and in truth, I felt badly for the shopkeepers because even though there were hoards of people, very few were entering the shops. And this was confirmed when I spoke with a few of the local shopkeepers. They had such lovely items, many of them locally made. I purchased a few embroidered linen items that will make lovely gifts.

I will conclude by sharing another one of those stay-with-me moments. We had returned to Assisi the next day early in the morning. It was a very different town early in the day as it was still quiet. We visited the Basilica of Saint Clare, which was completed in the year 1265. I loved being there. I loved the quiet and the hush that seemed to encircle the space. Also, there was a bit of a museum with artifacts from her life. Saint Claire was a highly skilled textile artisan. On display was one of her woolen cloaks, a cream piece with simple and yet intricate design that Saint Claire had woven. I can't help but admire her attention to detail. On our way home, we were walking along a street and passed by an open doorway to a very unassuming building. There was nothing notable about this building, but for whatever reason, I felt drawn to enter it. When we stepped inside, we found ourselves inside a very tiny chapel. Paintings adored every wall and a few rows of kneelers were stationed in front of the alter. The entire chapel was smaller than my livingroom. Again, the place resonated with a marvelous and awe-inspiring energy. We sat quietly for ten minutes or more before we realized that very close to us, knelt a nun silently praying. It's as if she appeared as an apparition. Her stillness was so perfect that she was almost part of the chapel itself.

The hidden chapel door along a side street.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Choir Window in an Alleyway

Two things struck me while traveling through Italy... food (of course), and music. Everywhere we went, music was present: two girls with skipping ropes singing as they skipped, choirs practicing with four and five part harmonies, a young priest singing with a voice as smooth as olive oil, a drunk walking home at night and humming out a tune. One evening in Gubbio, as we were walking home after dining, we heard a choir practicing through an open window. Our tour guide, Elisabetta, and I and Gary stood in the alleyway, and we had our own lovely concert. Free of charge.

This perhaps, is a good time to mention, our tour guide. Elisabetta and twelve of us spent two or three hours together each day. (Though for the first few days of our trip, we were on our own.) We had booked a week through a tour company that is environmentally responsible and socially ethical. Their tours are simple, small groups, give lots of flexibility and free time. Do I sound like an ad for Intrepid? If I do, it's only because I was thrilled with this tour company. And, well, there simply is no replacement for Elisabetta. She went far and beyond in the attention she gave to each of us. And if it weren't for her, we would not have discovered so many little, out of the way, family-owned restaurants with amazing food.

We spent one day in Spello, which I've named the "medieval city of flowers". I have never, in my entire life, seen so many flowers, aside from flower shops. Flowers literally poured out of the windows and selfishly took their place in the narrow streets and alleyways. There wasn't one unadorned doorway. There wasn't one spot that wasn't a perfect place to snap a picture. Also in Spello, we went to a wine tasting event at a lovely spot called "Enoteca Properzio".
Now let me say that I am not a wine drinker. As I'm sensitive to sulfates, I rarely let wine pass my lips. But... well, this was an experience I could not pass up. I pictured a few snacks, perhaps some bruschetta, to accompany the wine. I could not have prepared myself for the foods that were placed in front of me- each meant to be taken with a specific wine. At first, local olive oil was drizzled on bread and that alone was enough to make me want to move to Italy. Following that came various selections of cheeses, meats, salads with aged balsamic (the real thing), not to mention desserts of every variety. We spent three of four hours there and I could not have felt more satisfied. Every part of me was delighted.

I especially loved one of the desserts. It had a very thin layer of pastry and the mixture inside was a unique combination of walnuts, raisins, chocolate, anise seed and apples. And it wasn't overly sweet. In fact, the raisins may have been the only sweetener. I'm going to try and recreate it in Canada. The tasting was completed with a glass of port. And for me, the port was the icing on the cake, or should I say, the encore after the performance.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gubbio and bird cage mountain lifts

After Venice, we traveled to Gubbio. Gubbio is in Umbria and Umbria is a quiet part of Italy with hills and orchards and mountains. It was a five hour train ride/bus ride. On the train, I had packed a bottle of pesto and bread and cheese for the journey. And, much to my horror, the pesto jar leaked all over my belongings in my green travel bag. Train washrooms don't have running water and there were no paper towels either, so I wasn't quite sure how to rectify the situation. I decided to be methodical about it all. So I pulled out one of my scarves, a scarf of no particular value to me, and one at a time, I began to clean the green oily mixture off of everything in my hand bag. Eventually, a fellow traveler- a traveler prepared for all occasions- gave me handi-wipes. (And handy they were!) Needless to say, my romantic idea of having a picnic lunch on the train while reading my Charlotte Bronte novel, did not pan out. However, I did smell like a delicious plate of pasta by the time I arrived in Gubbio.

We tasted the most incredible food in Gubbio. This medieval town, with its grey foot stones, is known for its truffles. The chef at the restaurant offered to give us a plate with a little taste of this and a little taste of that (all from the "primo" section of the menu. I do not think I have tasted anything so delicious in my entire life. Don't ask me to tell you what the items were. All I can say is they had bits of black truffle in them and that the name of the restaurant was La Cantina. The next night, we ate in an equally delicious restaurant. The entire town is saturated with amazing chefs and food.

The next day, we took took a cable car up a mountain. But it wasn't a cable car. It was actually a cage that would properly fit one person, though we were fitted two to a 'car'. The cage didn't stop for us as it came round the corner so it was a bit like hopping a train, except for the fact that the cage door also had to be first opened and then closed, once we were inside of it. But oh the glories of gliding up that mountain. Mist in the sky. Poppies in bloom. An medieval city below where every single rooftop had clay shingles. I wished for that ride to last all day. Once at the top, we entered a Basilica, the Basilica of Sant'Ubaldo. I can't begin to describe the churches in Italy. They're all designed to lift our poor spirits from the shadows and into the divine. If it isn't enough that there is incredible frescos and glass windows, throw in a monk singing Gregorian chant or a choir practicing for an upcoming service.

On our way down the mountain, we decided to walk, rather than take the bird cage car. Half way down, we found a small chapel (no big surprise to find random chapels in Italy). There we had a lunch and this time, I properly secured the pesto jar!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Venice Discoveries

I promise to be less verbal on this entry. Some of the sweetest discoveries of Venice included walking in the Jewish section of town and discovering lovely art galleries and restaurants. We dined at Gam Gam Kosher Restaurant.

The food was nourishing and delicious. I loved watching families with young children come and go and it felt like a real hub in the community. For supper, we had fish, soup, and latkes with a wonderful apple sauce.

Earlier that day, we had visited the Murano Glass factory on the island. We watched a glassmaker whip up a detailed glass horse, with huge tongs. Tongs so large, I would have used them to pick up a log to toss into a fireplace. I certainly would not have imagined that anyone on this earth could have fashioned the fine details of a horse. Amazing. In the shop, I bought a rosary. It was expensive, naturally, but the blue-coloured beads are incomparable with any other rosary I've seen. I don't know if my prayers will get answered any quicker, but the beads do look lovely wrapped around my fingers. On the way back from the museum, the weather suddenly changed and we found ourselves in a thunder storm, huddled on a boat packed with people. There was nothing to do but allow ourselves to get soaked.

The weather quickly changed, with the sun coming out once again. That evening, we took a midnight, or almost midnight stroll. And this time, we weren't hauling luggage, nor we were in a hurry to make our way to any particular destination. Finally, the romantic city fell on us, like the sweet smell of Jasmine.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Lost in Venice 1st Post of Travels in Italy

The last time I stepped foot into a country where English wasn't the first language, I was a teenager and backpacking through Europe. My cousin and I, with birthdays only a day apart, traveled for a few months on a budget of $10 a day. I needn't say how long ago that was, but let's just say I was younger than my youngest child. So the memory has receded far into the back of my mind. I know I talked myself into "falling in love" with a Scottish fellow who I met in Spain. I think I loved the notion of being in love more than the actuality of it. But nevertheless, fortunately for me, I once again crossed the ocean and this time landed in Italy. In Venice to be precise.

Everyone told me I would find Venice to be the most enchanting city in the world. And that I would love getting lost in the tiny three-foot wide, cobblestone paths, winding up and around and across tiny bridges and so on. And eventually I did get to that place of wandering around aimlessly and loving the enchantment of it. But initially! Initially, after not sleeping all night long and arriving half dazed and confused, I almost had an anxiety attack. First, we found a bus to take us from the airport to the city of Venice. Once we arrived, we took a water taxi to our hotel, because the google map literally had four pages of arrows turning every which way. (Hard to believe that Google map even attempts to give directions in Venice). So we took the water taxi never thinking for a moment that the 10 or 15 minute ride would sing to the tune of 60 Euro. For only 20 Euro more, we could have taken a gondola ride with a opera singer serenading us! However, after I got over the shock of the 60 Euro, we began to make our way to our hotel. The directions from the water taxi fellow were about as helpful as a frog in a teacup. We walked. And we walked. And the streets were jammed with people. And I was terrified to approach people with my very pathetic attempt at Italian (I got less nervous as time went on.) We dragged our luggage in circles for two hours, asking this person and that person. But no one had heard of the hotel and when I showed them the google directions, that just caused people to shake their heads knowingly. And then, bless this woman's heart, I stepped into one of the many, many tiny shops selling masks. And I asked the woman if she had heard of the hotel. She informed me that I was close, but everyone had informed me in much the same manner. It was always 'just over there', but 'there' was as allusive as a misty midnight drive on a country road. However, this shop keeper was my last hope. She said I needed to follow the 'road' (really a 3 foot wide path) until it ended. Then I was to step under an arch and there I would find the hotel I was looking for. I left the shop and walked in the opposite direction because my husband was waiting for me at a designated spot and she actually called after me "No, no! Wrong direction!" And I answered "My husband is this way." She smiled and all was well. We found our hotel and I loved the tiny room we were given. When I looked out the window, the building opposite to me had laundry strung between windows and I could hear a baby crying. I always relax when I hear a baby cry. We had many amazing days in Venice. And each day, I will post another few drawings from our travels.