Thursday, June 16, 2016

Are you Looking for the Best Gelato in Florence?

I'm happy to report that Marj and I managed to find the best gelato and the best crepes in all of Florence.  We had some trouble finding a place to stay in Florence but managed to  book a room at a guest house called GH Happy. It is conveniently located and the owner is a wonderful host with the most incredible recommendations for visiting the city.  He spent about 1/2 hour when we checked in yesterday going over various things we should and shouldn't do which included lunch, dinner and ice cream recommendations away from the main centre. We had lunch at the suggested creperie and they were fabulous. It was at a small 'hole in the wall' (literally) but the food was amazing.  Not to mention the glass of wine for 1 €. For that price we could excuse the plastic cup it was served in.

This was the ham, brie and porcini mushroom crepe. 4 €.

And this is the place for the next time you're in Florence.
Florence is full of amazing sculptures, most of them from the Renaissance,  but this bronze turtle was kind of surprising. It has something to do with an exhibit taking place at one of the many art galleries in the city.

We made our way to the Central Food Market which was much as you would expect. Meat, fruit, vegetables and pastries of all kinds.  I'm always fascinated by the different kinds of mushroom available in Europe.
There was also a flower market down the street with an amazing fragrance as we walked through.

The best gelato to date (and we've tried a few!) was at Geletaria La Carraia near the bridge of the same name in case you're looking and it definitely topped that at Perche No (sorry Clyde and Diane). I had the chocolate/orange and mango and Marg had the chocolate and black cherry.  It was creamy with intense flavours and for 2 € it was a generous portion. Here's a list of flavours, although they were out of watermelon and it's the first place I've seen it.

We just don't get these kind of shop window displays in Canada.  Here are some 'jellies' and a woman painting a wedding cake.

 We logged a lot of steps today and my feet could use a good rub down but it was worth it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Many Umbrellas and a Large Croissant

Quite a day - started in Lake Como, took a detour to Switzerland, then ended in Florence. Since the Swiss border was only a few kilometres from Como we thought, what the heck, we'll check out a neutral country. No border security so no foreign stamps in our passport though - just drove right through. Some kind of music festival going on with umbrellas in the main thoroughfare.

Plus this yarn bike in a store window:

Then we hit the autostrade right into Florence - Marj driving and me navigating. Only the occasional blue language from Marj as cars barrelled down behind with the horn blaring and passing within inches of our front fender.  Miraculously we made it to the Hertz rental in Florence without a scratch on the Fiat although Marj needed a large glass of wine as soon as we turned in the keys (plus I wouldn't let her have any for lunch). After we passed Bologna, I directed Marj toward the Firenze signs so we would get to our destination and about 10k out of Florence it finally hit her "You mean Firenze is the same as Florence".  Why DO they have different names for things in Italy????

We passed through about 100 tunnels on the way as the terrain gradually changed to the gently rolling hills of Tuscany.
 Of course Florence is as crazy as ever - apparently it's fashion week here and will be quite busy.
We've had our share of pastries the last few weeks but I don't think we could tackle this. I'm sure it's the world's largest croissant - that's larger than a dinner plate that it's on.
The beautiful facade of the Santa Maria del Fiore.  We're staying very close - if you walk out the door of our guest house you see the dome down the street.

Have no itinerary yet so we'll see what the last few days in Italy brings.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Off to Lake Como

After renting the car in Verona we only had a few minor mishaps on the way to Lake Como - nothing more serious than exiting the autostrade then getting on it again and taking the very same exit one more time! Also it's fortunate that roundabouts are made in a circle so you can experience them more than once. And we had a small standoff with a bus on a very narrow road - we lost.

We're staying at a very small village on Lake Como called Faggeto Lorio which, like all the villages along the lake, consists of houses stacked one on top of another starting at water level and making their way up the hill. Very reminiscent of Cinque Terre but not so well kept. You'd be very hard pressed to find a few feet of level ground.
The hills above the lake are lushly forested with deep ravines cut into them. We could see the tops of some Alps peeking (or peaking?) above the hills.

The weather this morning was quite lovely when we hopped on the local ferry boat for a trip to Bellagio which is situated between the two arms of Lake Como. It seemed like the entire shoreline was dotted with little villages and the boat took about 1.5 hours to go a very short distance, stopping at each little hamlet. Bellagio is also a bit more up-scale - a few Maseratis and Ferraris in the lots. Little alley ways that wind up and up with shops and restaurants on many levels.

We then took another boat to visit Villa Carlotta, an elegant house with amazing gardens. 

I'm quite surprised by this entire area - I think with a lake this large I was expecting some beach area but here's a photo of the beach area by our hotel. A little chunk of sand with some chairs you can rent for 5 E a day. And the sand isn't even at the water.
It is very picturesque here although we had a huge lightning storm last night. And I just heard a few large cracks tonight. This is the view from one of the balconies in our room:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Juliet's Balcony

Turns out we didn't need luck to get here - instead we had Erika, one of the boat's chefs, who was also taking the train to Verona.

The crew on our boat was really top notch - they all seemed to share in the duties of keeping the guests happy and the tour working smoothly.  Our guide Hein is actually one of the owners, and he'll do the voyage several times a year, usually not scheduled; the scheduled tour guide has a paid holiday for the week. I really enjoyed his guiding style - never pandering or giving us too much information. He never counted to see if we were all there, he just assumed we had enough sense to get to where we needed to be. He worked as a physicist for the UN and the World Bank, speaks 9 languages and has lived in many different countries. He always had interesting anecdotes to tell us. Saturday morning was time for goodbyes and everyone went their separate ways.

For our last night on the boat, our dessert was rose cake (a local specialty) with zabaglione sauce, a recipe from our captain Ricardo's grandmother.

Verona's main claim to fame is the fact that Romeo and Juliet took place here.  In the centre of town is a little square that purports to contain the balcony she stood on although in actual fact the balcony was added in the 20th century.  Never let facts get in the way of a good tourist trap. The crowded little square was jammed with tourists and for a fee you can even go stand on the balcony. We passed.
Verona itself is a lovely town - our spacious apartment is just across the Adige river (2nd longest in Italy after the Po) from the main village square and it feels like we're far away from the crowds of Venice.

Our apartment has the fanciest shower I've seen - inside the shower is a light, fan and radio. Plus you can have the water coming from the top or sides (if you can figure out which buttons to push).

There is a large Roman amphitheatre in Verona used for concerts, fairs and operas. In the middle of town there are some underground ruins that have been exposed and there are several large piazzas.

Like most places in Europe they take their pastries pretty seriously.

We were pretty exhausted after getting off the boat so our Saturday consisted mostly of walking a bit, and napping.  Today we found a lavindaria (laundry) half a block away, and after some Google Translate help, managed to figure out the washers and dryers.  Seems like a good activity while the rain lasts - supposedly stopping this afternoon.

We found a little place to have a lovely dinner last night.

Friday, June 10, 2016


Last night our boat docked in Mantova - a world UNESCO heritage site - and this morning's biking (our last day) took us around the city and outlying areas. Mantova is surrounded by 3 man-made lakes and is known for its architecture, opera, and artistic importance throughout the centuries. It was ruled by the Gonzaga family for hundreds of years and was an extremely important place.  Currently there are only about 50,000 residents. There is a huge cathedral, reminiscent of the ones in Florence or Rome, with a very large dome and many frescoes. This shows a small section.

We rode out to a place called Grazie which is the site of many pilgrimages.  Oddly a stuffed crocodile hung from the ceiling.

Many of the buildings in Mantova were damaged in an earthquake in May 2012 and some buildings are still reinforced with temporary columns and scaffolding.

Tomorrow we try to figure out how to catch the train to Verona and find our accomodation. Wish us luck!

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Say Cheese

The last couple of days we've been travelling through the valley of the Po - a very rich cultural and agricultural area. The Po River is the longest river in Italy, although technically our boat has been on canals near the Po. For political reasons, no dredging is allowed on the Po, so consequently there is no river traffic. After disembarking each day, we bike to the dikes by the Po, then later make our way back to the canal where the boat is moored.

Last night's storm (we just made it back in time) fizzled out by morning but there was still some concern about today's weather.  And it turned out to be my favourite day yet.

First the cheese lesson.  There are 2 types of cheese exclusive to this region.  One side of the Po produces parmigiano reggiano and on the other is grana padano.

We stopped by the grana padano factory and, although we weren't allowed into the production area, had a look at the storage facility. 1000 litres of milk produces 2 cheeses (rounds).  Each round is worth about 400 Euro and is purchased by speculators as soon as it's ready. We estimated about 30,000 cheeses in this one facility.
Twice a week each cheese needs to be turned, all automated. Cheeses are ready after about 8 months and the quality and taste will depend on the time of year it was made.
It's quite an insult to the cheese maker to grate Grana Padano - only the discard cheese would be grated.  Instead use a special grana padano knife to break it into pieces.  The tasting included 10 month cheese and 3 year cheese (with red wine of course). After 3 years the salt crystals begin to form and it's not much use (except for grating perhaps and maybe selling in Canada!). The 3 year cheese was selling for about 18 Euro/Kilo.

The next stop was a museum in the small village of Bergantino. In this village, in the 1920s, a couple of men decided that a good way to make money was to build amusement park rides where customers would have to pay up front.  Today this village produces 80% of the world's carousels, ferris wheels, roller coasters, etc. The museum had a display of old mechanical musical instruments, such as the piano that also had a drum, cymbal, and various other percussion instruments, activated by a cylinder, much like a player piano.

 There were many models of amusement rides.

We also visited a cat refuge (I guess this was for Marj's benefit) and a castle owned by the Gonzaga family.

Starting at the Fish Market

For the commercial vendors the market opens at 4 am - I likely couldn't have made it even if I'd wanted, which of course, I didn't. By 9:00 there was still a good selection of fish, some still trying to escape apparently!

This vendor is quite proud of his scallop display - complete with the pink part of the scallop, not found in Canada.
The first part of the morning was along a very pleasant canal; later we headed onto some quite rough pathways - my butt is definitely feeling each bump!

Along with cycling we're being schooled in Italian culture.  Tonight we had to make our own pasta - a local variety called Bigoli - much like spaghetti but thicker. Here our chef and assistant, Guiliano and Erika, demonstrate how the machines work. First stuff the cylinder with dough (1 kilo flour, 8 eggs) then wind the 'screw' until the pasta squeezes out the bottom. It's harder than it looks!
Then after dinner we had a lesson in coffee - apparently more than 100 different kinds here in Italy. Guiliano and Erika gave a little skit showing the confusion about espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, with or without grappa, with or without milk, hot milk or cold milk and certain types are consumed at different times of the day. To become a barrista takes about 10 years. No wonder we have such trouble getting 'normal coffee'!

Monday, June 06, 2016

Sailing Past Venice

Although the trip officially started on Saturday we didn’t actually start biking until today (Monday).  Sunday included a short guided tour of Venice (mostly back streets) as a lot of the guests had only arrived in Venice on Saturday and had not had a chance to explore the city.  Our guide Hein also gave us much information about acqua alto (high water), which floods the streets of Venice about 20 times a year. Fifty years ago it would only occur once or twice a year so it has become quite a concern. When the water is high, affected by tides, winds, global warming, etc, the streets can be under 2 or 3 feet of water and you can’t walk anywhere for fear of falling in the canals. The doors have wooden barriers that are installed temporarily to keep out the water.

Pisa isn't the only place in Italy that has leaning towers. The unstable ground beneath Venice will produce more photo ops.
In the evening Hein gave us a more detailed explanation about how they are going to erect dikes to control the flow of water. The compromised solution was an underwater inflatable dike that would expand as the water level rose, and deflate as it dropped. Construction started on this 6 or 7 years ago, costs went from 1 to 7 billion, and several officials have been found guilty of fraud. No one knows when it might be completed.

This morning (Monday) we sailed past Venice, giving us a grand view of San Marco (behind us in this photo), over to Lido where we started biking.  

Lido is a very long narrow island and at the end of the island we boarded the ferry that took us to Pellestrina. Almost the entire journey took place along the ocean – mostly the Venice Lagoon but also the Adriatic Sea. The villages were hard working fishing villages – mostly clams and mussels.  We stopped at one processing place where Hein explained about the mussels.

Our guide has a pretty good idea about the constitution of the group and every hour or so we have a stop for cafe/peepee. This was one of our stops today.
 The whole group - minus the guy taking the picture!
 Boarding the ferry at the south end of Lido.
 Beautiful little villages along the water. And the weather is perfect - mid 20s!
Tonight we're on the mainland - Chioggia, often called little Venice - the hub of the fishing industry in the area with a huge fish market that we'll visit in the morning.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Ah, Venezia

I keep having to remind myself that without tourists paying exorbitant prices, Venice might not exist. It's the only thing the economy here has to keep it going but they (we!) certainly make it challenging. Marj and I became part of the 30 million that visit each year and with a few cruise ships in town every day it is particularly crowded.

Our arrival in Venice was without incident, except for the fact that we couldn't contact the owner of the apartment we rented so she could meet us since Venice doesn't really have addresses and even if we had an address the chance of finding it was next to none in the maze of streets. For some reason it didn't occur to her that we might not have texting capability despite us telling her that, so after we figured out how to get the Alilaguna (water bus blue line) from the airport to Venice, then the 5.2 vaporetto (local water bus) to the closest stop we stood on the dock not knowing what to do.  We had a phone number, but no idea where a public phone might be. Luckily, we stopped a local who spoke a bit of English AND offered to phone her for us and eventually her mom came to show us the way. It's always the last bit of travel that presents the biggest problem.

Friday we got our bearings a bit, found a SIM card/data plan for my phone so we could use GPS to prevent us from getting hopelessly lost, and met Tamy, the guide from our last trip (who we hoped would also be our guide for this trip) for a drink. She assured us that our guide this time would be just as good!

At lunch we tried the the local specialty that hordes of people were drinking - spritz - made with prosecco, bitters, and soda, with a slice of orange. Not Marj's cup of tea but I managed to down mine. Go figure.

Saturday we figured out the water bus system (one set of numbers goes clockwise around the island, the other counter-clockwise) and rode the vaporetto up and down the grand canal, over to Lido (another island) and back again. It rained a bit in the morning but it was a good day to spend on the water. We actually met quite a few people who were just riding the vaporetto around town - it's a good way to see most of Venice and with our 3 day passes it was kind of like a hop-on hop-off.

Later Saturday we checked into the boat, the Ave Maria - our hotel for the next week. This boat is significantly larger and newer than the one we were on 2 years ago.  There are 32 guests and several crew. A large German group makes up about 1/2 the group, with several Brits, a couple of Aussies and some folks from Oregon. 

The dining area ready for dinner:

After a short briefing we were served a marvellous 3 course meal - the starter was some pumpkin ravioli
followed by the main of thinly sliced veal with a vegetable topping and delicious potatoes baked with cheese

 topped off with an apple filled pastry and pineapple sauce.

(Don't worry - I'm not posting pictures of every meal!)

Good thing we're biking during the day! With my requisite daily gelato serving and such fabulous food on the boat it's going to be a challenge to keep the weight gain to a minimum. Yeah right.

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