Sunday, 5 October 2008

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Random Thoughts that Don't Go Anywhere Else

One night in Florence we saw an Italian man yelling up at a woman leaning out a window. "Elisa, let me in! I love you!" You can't make this shit up.

Slow Food
I saw a sign in Florence advertising a free bus from one McDonald's to another (hosted by McDonald's). Seriously.

On the Road

Americans have one of two reactions when they find themselves in front of other Americans while traveling:
1. Immediately make friends and ask where they're from. Like how dogs make friends with other dogs. (I'm not suggesting Americans are dogs. It's just the same kind of friendliness.)

2. Shamefully avoid eye contact and pretend you don't understand what the other person is saying, while still speaking in English yourself.

I generally opt for #2 until it becomes awkward, then launch into #1.

What is it with the Canadians and their need to wear a flag all the time? I saw one girl with the flag on her socks. It's like they're desperate to make sure they're not mistaken for Americans.

I wish we had a bar on every corner that sold espresso, pastries, and sandwiches, and stocked a full alcohol shelf. I loved going into these bars for breakfast and seeing the regulars stroll in for their coffee and a quick chat.

I highly recommend getting your hair cut in foreign countries. But you have to go to the old school barbers, not salons. I did this all the time while on our honeymoon trip, and once in Italy. For very little money, you're in a non-tourist zone, with the soccer team banner on the wall, the straight blade razors, the odd photos of whatever, the local sports rag on the bench, and gruff men hanging around. If you can get a shave, do it. This is always super refreshing and scary. It's particularly cool in Italy because you feel like you're going to get whacked as you're getting the shave.

Of course, even for me, the quality of the cut is a crapshoot at best, so there is some sacrifice involved.

Hard Work
Every afternoon, you'd see hordes of semi-conscious tourists collapsed on every available surface near the Fountain of Trevi or the Spanish Steps. Some actually dunked their tired feet in the water. I also watched one Spanish family self-destruct on the bus. The dad, an overweight sweaty fellow, threatened to beat his teenage daughter if she didn't shut up. He was stubbornly holding up some GPS device, so I'm guessing there was a disagreement about directions. "Ask the bus driver about it!" he yelled at his wife. The grandmother looked on stoically, as if wondering why she was with these idiots. Honestly, dragging your grandmother around Rome in that heat should be considered elder abuse.

Finally, Rome in Three Days

The Return of the Rental Car
Good god, this was a trial. First, we only had the weak ass map in the Rough Guide. Luckily, the road of the Hertz garage was actually labeled on the map. But then, after somehow fumbling our way from the autostrada to the city center, we spent the next hour aimlessly driving around in search of a gas station. Central Rome, designed for the chariot, not the automobile, does not have ample land to waste on gas stations at every highway exit. It's like trying to find a gas station in midtown Manhattan, but 100 times harder. I had essentially resigned myself to returning the car half full when we chanced upon a station. (Incredibly, it cost over $60 fill up our car, which I believe had an 11 gallon tank.) Then we spent 30 minutes trying to get to the car park, which was on a street composed of two one way sections heading in opposite directions. The garage lay at the exact center of both.

This is all in a Deathrace 2000 driving environment. My Manila-bred driving skillz kicked in and I, through the grace of God, avoided damaging the car or killing any pedestrians or scooters. To top it off, the polizia pulled us over to do some random document check. Kind of like a DUI checkpoint, but with fascist overtones. Anyway, we made it.

Food in Rome
Generally a disappointment, so I won't bore you. We stayed in an apartment in Trastevere, a great neighborhood across the river from the main part of town (thanks for the suggestion, Sam!). There are dozens of outdoor eateries here, and both tourists and locals flock to the place, creating a party atmosphere every night. However, the food varies dramatically from place to place. It's like trying to find a good Italian restaurant in North Beach or a good Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. We eventually found a pretty good pizzeria after some wandering.

We broke down and joined a tour, and had a great time! Paolo, our beefcake guide, described the horrors of gladiator life in a wonderful droll Italian accent. After hearing all this, I was mostly amazed at the historic accuracy of the Asterix comics, which I read religiously as a kid. All the weapons, armor, descriptions of the events, were spot on!

Then, Christine, a perky British classics student, took us on a tour of the Palatine Hill, where Rome was founded. "Are we all here? Brilliant!"

Transit Hell
Too cheap to pay six euro for a bus map, but having dropped 20 euro on a three-day bus/museum pass, we spent three hours finding our way to the Museum of Modern Art, where we spent about one hour. (To be fair, it's not a very big museum.) Mostly, we took buses that were headed in the general direction of the museum, and got off when they started to go the wrong way. Jen, to her credit, did eventually sort it all out. I was too busy wailing about my feet.

We also played transit roulette, and just rode buses around until we felt like going back to the center. Because it was 90 degrees out and the buses were air conditioned, this was a great way of checking out the city.

Here's us with our packages from shopping. God my feet hurt that day.

My People
I saw more Filipinos in Rome than I see in San Francisco. Some tourists, lots of service workers. And one group of Filipino teenagers dressed like black hip hop heads, speaking in Italian. Wonders never cease.

Also, I saw more nuns in Rome than I have seen in the last 20 years combined. And 90% of them are from other countries, speaking to the source of new Catholics and the gradual erosion of the church in Italian life.

Coming Home
Over 26 hours of Iberia and American Airlines later, we arrived in SFO last night exhausted and nauseous in a way that only happens after long flights. Jen's brother, Ed, in town for work, picked us up and brought us straight to Daimo where we got a good fix of rice and noodles. Two and a half weeks of Italian food, while great, left us jonesing for Asian and Mexican eats!

Here's a photo of me, looking pathetic and sad, as we leave our Rome apartment at 4:45am.

And here's a photo of Jen scraping dog shit off her shoes with a plastic gelato spoon. Good times!

Like Penthouse Forum for Italian Food

Pienza, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is undeniably quaint and well preserved as far as Tuscan hill towns go. With only 2,500 residents, however, the tourist trade completely overwhelms the place. The stores sell spendy knickknacks, art, postcards, pecorino cheese, and cured meats, but no toilet paper, ant spray, or dog food. I think the locals shop at the supermarket on the outskirts of town (i.e., three blocks from the center of town).

Nevertheless, we found great food at better prices than in Florence. Finally, I got my wild boar, its brown saucy goodness perfect for mopping up with the dry crust that Italians call bread.

Our Agriturismo, Terrapile
Terrapile offered peace and quiet after a hectic couple of days in Florence. It is as amazing as the photos suggest, perched on a little hill just a 15 minute walk outside of town. So pretty, in fact, that scenes from Gladiator were shot here.

We actually stayed in the annex, a little ways off the main house. Aside from Lucia, our host, who lived upstairs, the annex remained empty through our five nights. Dead quiet except for distant dogs barking (always there are dogs barking in Italy).

It was kind of warm and stuffy in the room, though, since converted farmhouses traditionally have very few windows. We left the door open on the first night only to find an army of pillbugs had rolled in overnight. While harmless, the thought of them crunching underfoot as I went to the bathroom in the dark was...unpleasant.

Lucia shrugged. "Ah, it is normal for the countryside. I live with them always. They are here before me."

Used to the rigors of country living, I replied nonchalantly, "Of course, of course. But, um, maybe they are a problem for you when you clean?"

"Eh, no problem. I make them woosh woosh." She made little vacuuming motions.

"Ah, si, si. Well, I think we will keep the door closed anyway. Maybe you can bring us a fan?"

After a day lounging around the pool and cruising Pienza's main drag, we took a day trip to Siena, about an hour away. Siena is Florence's Tuscan rival, with its own unique character and proud history. Its cathedral, while more modest than the famous Florence Duomo, is architecturally significant in its own right. Or so Jen and I learned after we grudgingly shelled out 16 euro for an entrance fee and audio guide (around $24 or 7.5 gelatos). Seriously, it was like the stations of the cross, as we dutifully listened to a mind numbing stream of facts about the place.

Our effort to be good tourists paid off later that afternoon, however, when we spent another five euros each (2.5 gelatos) to watch a surprisingly entertaining movie about the Palio di Siena, the town's famous festival. The event, which takes place every August, culminates in a demolition derby of horses around Siena's main square, and draws aficionado from all over the country.

As with all great events whose roots are lost in time, the Palio involves an elaborate series of rituals. First, as foreplay, a series of male cheerleaders in period costume march around the main square tossing flags into the air, each representing one of the town's wards. The crowd, which has been massing and drinking in the square all morning, grows increasingly restless. After much trumpeting, sword waving, and flag tossing, the horse race finally erupts into an insane spectacle. The wild-eyed jockeys whip their horses with dried bulls penises (look it up), as they barrel into one another and carom off the walls. Three laps of frenzied animal cruelty later, the winning ward surges forward to kiss the horse and rider in a drunken ecstasy of medieval-ness, then scales the walls to claim the silk tapestry called the Palio.

After all this sightseeing, we visited the Benetton outlet store and Jen bought the Max Pezzali greatest hits album.

Montepulciano and The Big Steak
Only 20 minutes from Pienza, Montepulciano is big enough to feel like it has a real residential base and some culture beyond tourism. After some walking around, we had lunch at a restaurant that turned out to be a real showstopper for Tuscan cuisine. The chef is a bit of a hardass when it comes to tradition, insisting on serving your table wine and water with just one glass (we'd seen this in one other place) and scrawling the menus on rough brown paper. He struts around in a white linen shirt and a little ponytail, looking gruff and threatening. A bit much, yeah, but he has the food to back it up.

Unfortunately, I ordered poorly, due to the Italian-only menu. I started with a French onion soup which was fine, but not awesome. (It wasn't called French onion soup on the menu.) Then, as a main course, I had a bowl of undressed shredded radicchio. I had wanted a salad, but this was a bit grim. I must have looked disappointed when it showed up because the French tourist across from me started laughing, and the two Italian businessmen next to us looked over questioningly.

"Vegetariano?" one guy asked the other.

The dessert, however, blew our mind. In heaven, they serve this exact panna cotta. It comes in a simple glass, with a thin layer of golden caramel. The cream is smooth, and rich, but not too sweet. With every spoonful, I thought to myself, "Is this really good? Yes, yes, it is."

Anyway, this dessert, plus the dishes ordered by the folks around us, convinced us to make a reservation for dinner.

That's when I had The Big Steak. Bistecca fiorentina is up there with Argentine steak, Brazilian churrasco, and Kobe beef as a celebration of red meat. At this place, when you order it, the chef draws a little diagram on your placemat of which cut he thinks you should order. I, for one, would have felt like a big pussy if I opted for the filet, so t-bone it was.

"It is better if you do not eat too much bread," he grunted.

He then went to the kitchen and I actually saw and heard him swing a cleaver the size of a manila envelope. He then returned to our table and showed me the meat on a piece of butcher paper. I nodded in fear and anticipation.

In the photo, I wish I had placed a key next to the meat for scale, because this thing drew appreciative oohs and aahs from our neighbors. Large enough to serve four, it had a gorgeous seared exterior, crusted with chunks of salt and pepper, and a ruby red center. It was glorious. I am salivating right now. Each mouthful bursted with salty, juicy, almost mineral-like goodness.

Jen, thankfully, helped me out.

Then we had panna cotta for dessert again.

Done with tourist spots for a while, Jen wanted to visit Perugia, a college town in Umbria, the province just east of Tuscany. Perugia was a breath of fresh air - literally, as it's stacked high on a hillside far above the valley. While it still had its share of visitors, it felt like a real place, with students livening the city up. Every night they gather on the cathedral steps to hang out, drink a beer, and mingle.

Perugia is also an architectural marvel, with layers upon layers of arches and windows stacked up and crisscrossing like an Escher drawing. Again, though, these medieval flats are used by regular people, not preserved as a museum.

We also had incredible gelato at a place that advertised organic ingredients and Slow Food credentials. My apricot gelato tasted more like apricot than an apricot. It was the Platonic ideal of the fruit distilled and transformed into a refreshing treat.

This, incidentally, was our 3rd wedding annivesary!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Tuscan Countryside

Peter and Coy

My mom has family friends who live in the hills outside Tuscany, so we swung by their place for lunch on the way south to Pienza. Peter and Coy are living the Tuscan dream, and served us up an incredible spread in their converted farmhouse kitchen. First, though, Peter, a superstar landscape architect, poured us flutes of prosecco, then took us around the house and grounds, where they've lived for 30 years.

Lunch: To start, Coy's special figs stuffed with cheese and ham. Then, a batch of impossibly light and crisp calamari with a slice of lemon. Next, baked chicken breast wrapped around eggs and truffles. To finish, fruit and raw walnuts. They keep a big bowl of them on the kitchen table.

Truly a highlight of the trip. Thanks, Peter and Coy!!!

Agriturismo Terrapille

We drove south through the Tuscan countryside to the hillside town of Pienza, which we're using use as a base to visit Tuscany over the next five days. We are staying at Agristurismo Terrapille, a converted farmhouse. This place is postcard perfect, as evidenced by the postcards all over Pienza. That's Jen looking down the gravel road at Terrapille. I've read that there are over 4,000 of these farmhouses ("agriturismos") around the country. Although the amenities vary dramatically from place to place, some rules apparently state that the agriturismos must remain working farms, with a certain percentage of revenue coming from the land. Who knows how carefully that's policed, but our place appears legit, with olive groves and a tractor working the fields every morning. More on Tuscany later...

Our Wheels

Check out the Lancia. Europeans know how to make cool-looking small cars. This is not one of them.


Terrible Tourists
In 2.5 days in Florence we took the requisite stroll around the Duomo and spent an hour in the Academia to see the David. Impressive, yes, but at $10 to $20 a pop for tickets, that was enough Renaissance for us. That buys a lot of gelato. Mostly we just wandered around the old town.
I did rent a cruiser bike for an afternoon and checked out the rest of the city beyond the tourist zone. On the ride, I bumped into the Florence futbol team leaving practice. A gaggle of fans had gathered at the garage exit to catch a glimpse of the stars, snap a cellphone shot, and get autographs. I particularly liked one chubby guy who was straining his team issue kit (in top corner of photo). As each player would approach the gate, he'd flip through his stack of photos and get each one signed with a deranged furor. I think he actually recognized the players by their cars. Florence police take note.

The Slow Food Movement...

...started in Italy in response to the industrialization and MacDonaldification of Italian food culture. Florence has embraced this concept, with dozens of restaurants serving local seasonal fare around plaza Santo Spirito (thanks to Sam for the suggestion to stay nearby). Our favorite, though, was the guy selling tripe salad and sandwiches from a motorcart, proudly emblazoned with Slow Food stickers. For sandwiches, you had a choice between tomato sauce or the plain boiled styles. Every day he'd set up shop and serve up lunch to nearby workers and unsuspecting tourists. Yummy.

I Heart Max

Based on a 3 minute video she saw on MTV, Jen decided that it would be cool to see Max Pezzali in concert. Yeah, we didn't know who he was, either.

We took the bus to the concert venue only to find what looked like a county fair in progress. No livestock or rides, but a lot better food. Dozens of stalls served Tuscan eats, Argentine sausage, Brazilian feijao, Thai noodles, etc., etc. Although I was tempted by the fried dough (apparently a universal fair food), I got a couple of slices of prosciutto and figs in a sandwich.
You could also buy everything from aprons to t-shirts to Peruvian trinkets to decorative plates, and get a massage. Hundreds of Italian youth and families cruised around enjoying the cool summer evening. Later on, the hipsters showed up, and the open air restaurants turned into bars/discos. We later found out that the national democratic party had hosted the fair to celebrate the unification of the country's two left-wing parties. They decided on Florence, a historic center for progressive politics, as the place to kick off their new party.

So Max Pezzali is a cross between Brian Adams, George Michael, and Rick Astley. Apparently, the guy has been around for a while, and his easy-listening pop music draws teenagers AND their parents. The crowd LOVED him. Everyone knew all the words, swayed their hands from side to side, held up lighters (without irony, I suspect), and generally had a great time. At one point, Max whipped the crowd into such a feel-good frenzy that two teenage boys in front of us were singing passionately with their arms around each others shoulders, and couples were joyfully hugging and making out all around us.

Jen loves Max Pezzali.

Florence Bike Taxi

We got a ride back to our hotel on a cycle rickshaw. The driver explained that he and his friends, all members of the local bike advocacy group, ferried people around the city for tips and to promote bikes. This seemed somewhat redundant to me, since bikes are ridden by everyone from bankers to grandmothers as daily transport. But he explained that Florence actually has lower bike ridership than other Italian cities, particularly considering the town is pancake flat.

Bolognese in Bologna

Made a quick lunch stop in Bologna on the way to Florence. Apparently, it's a regional food center (which is what caught Jen's attention), and a university town, which gives it some urban flair.

We had tagliatelle with bolognese sauce (of course) and tortellini with butter and sage at a tratorria which seemed popular with the locals.

Highlight was the incredible chocolate and strawberry gelato, which still remains the best we've had so far. And we've literally tried a different place every day.

Beyond the food, Bologna struck me as a great city to spend some quality time.