- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
- Good Polish food is not an oxymoron. Be bold. You might be pleasantly surprised.
- Eat duck, goose, and other meat dishes; slow-cooked, often served with rich, dark fruit sauces.
- Try the trout, preferably on the side of the lake where it was caught. Polish fish (trout) and chips are quite yummy.
- Pierogi: Reminiscent of agnoletti (a filled half-moon shaped pasta), pierogi (dumplings) might be well known in Europe and North America, but they are rarely seen or heard of here in NZ. My favourites were filled with mushrooms. Try the cheese dumplings (pierogi ruski) too – they are filled with a light cottage cheese and potato, and aren’t nearly as heavy as I expected.
- Be bold, as suggested above, but be prepared for failure. Beware the regional specialities. I thought I’d be adventurous one day at lunch, and ordered something that sounded a bit like a gnocchi in a mushroom sauce. It wasn’t. I should have had the trout and chips.
- Soup: Zurek is a simple sour soup that is popular. A clear broth, with hard-boiled egg and sausage, it is tangy and delicious, and well worth trying. They do a good chicken noodle soup too. The weather is bleak for many months of the year, and a hearty and warming soup would certainly cheer up my day if I lived there.
- Bread. After our disappointments with Italian bread, Poland was a joy. Such variety, breads filled with grains, hearty breads, soft breads, bread with flavour and variety. I swooned every time I took a bite of Polish bread.
- When you think of European food markets, I at least tend to think of a bustling, Mediterranean market, full of eggplant and brightly coloured capsicums (peppers), with lush ripe red tomatoes everywhere. My friend learned of a slow food market near her home, and we visited it on an icy Saturday morning. So different from our local market in Rome, but no less interesting. until we realised that samples were abundant, and the hot apple juice then sustained us as we browsed the stalls. We sampled the bread, and cheese, and purchased some for dinner that evening. And then recovered in a warm cafe with lattes and hot chocolate.
- Try the street food. Throughout Warsaw we saw ice-cream stalls. But it wasn’t really ice-cream weather. Instead, at a market in Krakow we tried some (heavy) cheesy pastries, served with a berry sauce. And later in Warsaw we tried some hot apple turnovers. Hot dog (sausage and bread) stalls were common too. (After all, as one of my friend’s colleagues said, “Poland is the land of sausage.” I wish we’d seen more street food. I would have enjoyed sampling it, I am sure.
- Wash it all down with Polish beer. It’s good. And plentiful.
- Bread. We are generally very disappointed with the bread in Italy. Crusty bread with nothing between the crust makes eating a sandwich (panino) dry and difficult, if not downright painful. Only a few examples of sliced bread were available (and scarily these last for weeks), and I’ve already talked about toast. However, we did have some lovely bread that was made in-house by a couple of restaurants, and I also liked the southern variations on panini – puccie (a puccia is like a pizza crust, cut in half horizontally, and filled like a sandwich), and piadine (a piadina is a flat bread, like a slightly thick tortilla, filled like a sandwich, and grilled or fried till it is crispy).
- The Italians really eat very little meat. The meat sections in most menus were very limited. In a casual restaurant, you can get slices of beef (poorer cuts) or the very occasional fillet, usually offered with a green pepper sauce or occasionally red wine. We rarely found pork or lamb on the menu – only in the Italian lakes. Bread-crumbed (much like schnitzel) veal or chicken (the only chicken you’d find on a menu) made a regular but not compulsory appearance. We thought we might have better luck in the supermarkets or butcher shops, and in the north managed to find some fillet steak at about the same price as we’d buy in New Zealand (though not the same quality), which we cooked at home to satisfy our red meat/iron cravings.
- Rocket and provolone. The Italians love rocket. You find it on pizzas, or on top of grilled meat, sprinkled with some grated provolone cheese. Almost without exception, when I saw an Italian woman eatiing a pizza, it had fresh rocket scattered across it.
- Grilled vegetables are on almost every menu. In Spain we loved these because they included capsicums. But here, most of the time, there was eggplant and zucchini only. Delicious, but ultimately monotonous.
- Pizza and pasta were everywhere. We had a variety of both, my favourite pasta from Rome (a funghi tortellini), and my favourite pizza (three different types of tomato, pesto, and buffalo mozzarella) in Monopoli.
- The Italians don’t really go in for desserts. Perhaps because they spend all day nibbling on pastries with their coffee, or eating gelato, there were very few menus with dessert. The occasional tiramisu or pannacotta, and occasional chocolate cake or chocolate fondant, really a French dessert. Our favourite trattoria in Vittorio Veneto had a delicious pear cake dessert, but other than that, pickings were scarce. Probably a good thing, given our regular consumption of gelato. But on the few occasions when we did attempt a dessert (other than the afore-mentioned pear cake), they were 80% whipped cream.
- Breakfast. Cereal pickings were also scarce, with only a few options available in the supermarket. (The Husband was horrified to discover there was no weet-bix!) Yet there would be full aisles dedicated to packaged, take-home pastries, filled with jam or chocolate cream. We decided to try one of these, in the interests of blending in. Essentially sweet bread rolls made to look like the Italian version of a croissant, a cornetto, they were not that appealing. The Food Tour guides mentioned that Italians will often, like hobbits, have two breakfasts. Both are the same – a light cornetto (not as buttery or heavy as a croissant) and an espresso or cappuccino first thing, then another mid-morning, to keep them going till lunch.
- Seafood is a popular choice. Italians love seafood, and it is part of the Mediterranean diet. In Puglia, the seafood antipasti offerings must be tried. You don’t need anything for primi or secondi – a seafood antipasto is enough! And I lost count of the number of seafood pasta dishes I ate. Seafood means shell-fish, octopus and squid more than fish. Seafood is cheap. Fish on the other hand was much more expensive, and charged by the etti (100 grams). The most expensive dish we had was a filleted fish!
- The dish I want to recreate when I get home is the pumpkin gnocchi, drizzled with just a bit of olive oil and parmesan, that I ate in the Trattoria alla Cerva in Vittorio Veneto. I can still taste it. Sigh (bliss).
- “Ahhh,” everyone says when you say you are going to Italy. “Italian food is so good!” And yes, they are right. Much Italian food is truly excellent. But this time we found exactly the problem we discovered the first time we visited Italy. Menus don’t really vary. Traditional Italian food is exactly that, traditional. Except in special, innovative restaurants there is no fusion of old and new ideas, little evidence that chefs here take something traditional and put a twist on it. And certainly no suggestion of a fusion between Italian and another food culture, let alone a fusion between East and West that we are so familiar with at home. The passion about food exhibited by the Italians seems contradictory to their lack of interest in new foods. Is it fear of the foreign? Is it a concern that trying something new could be seen as verging on the traitorous? Is it an inability to comprehend that food from other places, or food that hasn’t been around for hundreds of years, could possibly be any good? Is their national pride so fragile that they fear that different food might be better? Or is it simply an insular focus on what they know, the security of the traditional, and the comfort of eating only the food that mamma used to make?
The waiter asked us where we were from.
“No,” we shook our heads.
“Germany,” said with certainty. (We’ve been mistaken for Germans a lot in the last week or so).
“No,” we shook our heads grinning.
I took pity on him. “Nuova Zelanda.”
“Really?” He was so excited. We were the first tourists he had met from New Zealand.
We ordered two beers, in his café by the sea on a hot afternoon at the end of the Italian summer. Work and school was scheduled to restart on Monday.
He brought our beers, and the customary snacks to go with them. We got talking. He had heard that in Australia and New Zealand, we don’t have “aperitivi” like this.
“No,” we said, sadly. “We’re lucky if we get a bowl of peanuts.”
“Not even olives?” he asked, horrified.
We shook our heads.
“If we want olives, or salami or mortadella, or anything hot, we have to order and pay for them.”
His expressive eyes widened, first in disgust, then in pity. Then, after some thought, they sparkled. “So if I opened a bar there, and offered aperitivi like this, it would be something different?”
We nodded, thinking how wonderful it would be, but doubting our cost structures would permit.
It has been one of the hidden highlights of our trip, and a reason perhaps there have been so many “beer /prosecco shots” on Facebook. A drink is not just a drink in Italy. An aperitivo is a drink, with complimentary snacks to accompany it. And we have had some wonderful food. Rarely have we been given just potato chips (crisps) – though that seems to be the minimum acceptable, and in fact seems compulsory no matter what else we are given. Usually there is a selection of two or three other hors d’oeuvres:
- Salumi plates (mixed meats/charcuterie – salami, prosciutto, sausage), cheese, and bite-sized pastries flavoured with pizza sauce or cheese with delicious Sardinian wines at my favourite enoteca in Santa Margherita. All for 6 euros a glass of wine.
- A little cracked wheat salad in tiny bowls with tiny spoons, olives, and wafer-thin crust pizzas at our afore-mentioned waiter’s café in Pesaro. The two large beers were 4.50 euros each.
- Raw carrots with mustard (and chips) and bite-sized pastries with prosecco in Vittorio Veneto. Best bargain, a glass of Prosecco (six different ones to choose from) for 2.50 euros.
- Pistachios and freshly made bruschetta (at our hotel in the hills of Molise) with a beer. 2.50 euros each.
It’s always a delight, because – even after two months – I never expect it. And the prices? Ridiculous. It would never work in NZ.
Since we left Rome, we’ve been travelling so much that keeping up with the blog has essentially been a business of recording where we’ve been. And that was not the kind of blog I had anticipated keeping. The writing is easy. But the visuals – loudly clammered for in the first weeks – delay publication, and any thought of moving on to shorter, interest (frivolous?) pieces.
But this week, the weather has packed up, and we’ve caught up on sleeping, cooking, organising (and backing up) photographs. So that brings me to a very important topic. Food. More specifically, bread. More specifically, toasted bread. The Italians like bread. There is always bread on your table in a restaurant – usually charged for in a coperto (cover charge) – and this is of varying quality to be frank. And we’ve found some bread we like for sandwiches, and for toast. Except that there’s the problem. Italians don’t toast. They advertise “toast” in bars and cafes, but I think that is similar to our more familiar cheese on toast, or grilled sandwich. (We had a memorable cheese toast at the top of the Simplon Pass – the amount of cheese on the plate would have fed a family of four.) Our first apartment had a toaster, but finding the right bread was an issue. Anyway, we’re realising that that was probably the exception. The journalist in the tower clearly doesn’t eat toast. There was no toaster in sight. And the apartment we’re in now has a sandwich griller, which the owner called a “toaster.” (Poor innocent Italian that doesn’t understand Toast).
So the husband, who is addicted to toast and considers it a perfectly acceptable dinner, has had to resort to the ready-made toast we find in the supermarkets. Each piece is identical, crisp throughout, evenly tanned on both sides. And yes, it comes in a convenient, resealable pack. But it’s not the same. The texture is all wrong and crumbly, the spreads don’t melt on the toast, and most disappointing of all, we don’t get that delicious, toasted bread smell. It didn’t matter so much when the temperatures were raging outside, and the idea of hot food was often repugnant. But now, with colder, rainy days, we miss the comfort of toast.
Who would have thought that a mountain pass would have been closed in June? Certainly not us, when we were planning our first trip to Europe back in 1991. But sure enough, when we got to the entrance of the Grimselpass, the road from Interlaken towards the Italian lakes, the road was closed. So we had to abandon our plans to visit the Italian lakes, these lakes that had such a reputation for glamour and beauty, long before Mr Clooney was famous, let alone owned a villa there.
This year, we finally made it. Our rental accommodation was nearby, an easy drive to the lakes, and we managed to visit the different lakes about seven times in total. Each time we hopefully packed our swimming togs, but we never found a swimming spot where there was room for even one more car. And on the one day we had decided on a swim and a picnic – planning to head out early to a spot that had looked promising – the heavens opened, and thunder, lightning, and torrential downpours all day scuppered our plans.
Lake Maggiore was the closest lake to us, and the one we visited most frequently. A long, zig-zagged lake that reaches into Switzerland, it is the second largest of the Italian lakes. Our first visit was a quick “reccie” – just checking out what was available. It ended badly, as our rental car’s air-conditioning died. In fact, the fan died as well, just as the car thermometer was telling us it was hovering in the high 30s (it said 40+ but we don’t believe it). So we had to drive home with the windows down, hot air blowing at us, and with the high temperatures, tempers were hot too, particularly when our GPS tried to kill us by sending us up a one-way street. (Fortunately, our proximity to the airport meant we could go to the Hertz office, and swap our car without much fuss. Panic over!)
Our next visit was up the west side of the lake, to popular Stresa and beyond. As usual, we set off late, and decided immediately to start looking out for some lunch spots. At Lesa, before Stresa, we found a nice restaurant right over the lake, with a car park not too far away, and enjoyed some lake trout and a glass of wine. Now, this was more like it. Ferries criss-cross the lake, summer holidaymakers head out on motorboats, and the dark blue-green water is dotted with little white triangles from the sail-boats out enjoying the breeze. Tree-covered hills – it seems wrong to say mountains when the Alps are so close – rise up steeply from much of the lake, giving it drama and beauty. And lovely villas – some now hotels – and gardens line the shore. This was what we had hoped to see in 1991.
We returned to Lake Maggiore twice more. Once to take a ferry across to one of the more northern towns. We had plans to visit one of the garden islands, but frankly, we were tired from a long day driving the previous day, and we enjoyed pottering through the streets of Verbania, looking in some of the shops, and enjoying another delicious lunch on a terrace right by the lake. Our other visit to the lake was back to Laveno-Mombello (isn’t that a great name?), to take the cable car recommended by some English guys who rent a flat near us and fly for Easyjet. Cable car is, however, a rather grand name for what turned out to be a large bucket, just enough room for two, dangling from a cable, scaling a mountain (if I climbed it, in a bucket or not, it’s a mountain not a hill). At the top however was a restaurant (of course) with a most spectacular view. We decided a bottle of wine was appropriate here, after the journey up, and took our time over a pleasant lunch, in slightly cooler temperatures than at the lake below. You can see a theme beginning to develop here, I’m sure.
Lake Como was, of course, a must visit during any stay in the Italian lakes region. Como itself was a pleasant enough town, with piazzas, gardens, statues, and naturally, a duomo. But the attraction of the area is of course the lake itself. Here the lake is narrower than Maggiore, and the hills seemed steeper, the villages forced closer to the shores of the lake, making for much better picture-taking. Rather than take a slow ferry ride, we opted to drive up to Bellagio for lunch – about half-way up the lake. The road on the map looked a reasonable size, and was shaded green for “scenic” so that sounded promising. We soon found though that the road was made for horses and buggies, or maybe a few tiny Italian cars. So it was a slow drive, hair-raising at times, when passing trucks or large cars down from Germany for the summer. The road rose to give us beautiful views of the lakes, sneak peeks into large villas (was that George I saw?) with large gardens and grand entrances, through old villages where the streets narrowed even further, and finally to Bellagio, where some patience, and a slight argument with an Italian, scored us a park.
Bellagio is a beautiful little village right on the lake, a stop for the ferries, with a villa and gardens you can visit. We thought about it, the gardens looked attractive, but there was a hotel with a terrace over the lake, and the perch risotto was calling to us (me). Besides, after that drive, some wine was necessary. (Don’t worry – a long lunch, and afterwards a walk and compulsory gelato, saw the driver sober enough to navigate the narrow windy roads to get us home).
As much as we liked Como, our favourite lake was the smallest and least well known, Lago d’Orta (Lake Orta). To the west of Lake Maggiore, separated just by a mountain or two, Lake Orta’s main feature is the island of Isola di San Giulio (Island of Saint Julius). We visited the island, where Saint Julius supposedly built his last of 100 churches in the fourth century. Now home to Benedictine nuns, there is a Walk of Silence, through the old buildings and with peeks out at the lake and back to the town. However, the medieval town of Orta San Giulio, where you board the ferries to the island, was also a highlight. A lakefront piazza, a Wednesday market (though disappointingly set up for tourists rather than locals), lots of little shops and restaurants and gelaterias, made for a very relaxing and pleasant atmosphere. Lunch (yes, again – it saved us from cooking dinner in the evening in the heat) on a terrace overlooking the island was relaxing, and delicious. I never expected to find great food in the touristy Lakes region, but this was the good quality Italian food we never found in Rome. Before we headed home, we visited a park above the town, overlooking the lake. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sacro Monte (Sacred Mountain) is a park filled with about 20 chapels, built in the 16th-18th century. The chapels were interesting, the temperature was cooler, and the views … well, the views were spectacular.
It may have taken 22 years to get here. But the wait was worth it.
We couldn’t resist. Knowing there was a food tour of Trastevere, a neighbourhood we wanted to visit anyway, was irresistible. So we signed up for the twilight tour, as that was the one that offered wine tastings.
Trastevere is a neighbourhood on the west side of Rome, across the river from the historical centre, and the opposite side from Testaccio and the port. For millennia, this was the wrong side of the tracks/river. This is where the new arrivals to Rome ended up, where the immigrants or non-Roman citizens lived. It’s where Christianity took hold, with the Santa Maria di Trastevere thought to be the first church to hold mass in Rome. And where the Jews were forced to live, till they were relocated across the river in the Jewish Ghetto in the 16th century.
This Friday evening, though, was all about Food School, our graduate night class (though open to beginners too). We gathered on Tiburina Island, in the middle of the Tevere (Tiber) river, after crossing the city’s oldest bridge – in continuous use since around 1 BC. And as we crossed the river (Trastevere literally means “across the Tevere), we went back in time, into a unique and historic area. Here, locals will say first they’re from Trastevere, adding “from Rome” as an afterthought. Here, you find postcard Rome: narrow cobbled streets, washing hanging from the windows, ivy-covered buildings, lively restaurants, and even livelier conversations amongst the locals, frequently conducted at street level, or with someone hanging out a window several storeys up.
This tour though, was less theory and more practical, about tasting and enjoying the food, and lapping up some of the history, along with some wine. Our first stop saw us enjoy some prosecco (a dry Italian sparkling wine) along with a classic starter – melon, prosciutto, and burrata, a cheese from the south made from leftovers of mozzarella mixed with extra cream. The creaminess of the cheese, the salty prosciutto and the sweet melon were a perfect combination, as we sat with our fellow students and watched the world go by.
We wound our way through the streets to our next stop, a restaurant wine cellar in a building once housing an early synagogue (founded around 1000-1100 AD). We enjoyed a wine tasting – a Montepulciano grape (the wines from Montepulciano in Tuscany are not in fact made with this grape, but with Sangiovese). The extraordinary thing about the cellar was that it was 160 years older than the Colosseum. We were standing at the street level of 1 BC, and learned that there are several more levels beneath our feet. And that in the room next to us, some major discoveries of bronzes and marble statues made. At least one is now held in the Vatican Museum. We were standing in history, whilst sipping our red wine, and nibbling on spiced veal meat balls, and other delicious treats.
We could have stayed longer – but the bottle was empty, and we were expected elsewhere; namely a delicatessen where we enjoyed an antipasto platter, a pizzeria and bakery (where we were taken into the sauna-like bakery to view the 200 year old pizza oven – wood-fired, with an addition of hazelnut shells – and to marvel at the dough mixers and the wizened bakers stripped to their shorts in the heat), and to a restaurant for pasta and more wine for dinner. As we moved through the bustling quarter of Rome, we saw many churches, lots of restaurants gearing up for a busy weekend, and a crammed bar famous for its Friday evening happy hour with cheap Peroni.
And of course, our graduate programme was concluded with an essential gelato. This time, we were taken to a modernist gelato store, one with experimental flavours (chocolate with tobacco, anyone?), and no restrictions on choosing the “right” combination of flavours. Here we were allowed to let our creativity and taste buds run free. And so we did. (Mine, for the record, was pineapple with ginger, and lemon).