V is for Venice

Venice: In my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

As mentioned in my S is for Souvenirs post, this was not my first trip to the city of love. Nor was it my second. It was actually my fourth, and that in itself testifies to the magic of this city.

What I find with many popular cities when travelling, is that people will often go to a city to seek out things to see within that city. In Berlin you might go to the Brandenburg Gate, in Rome to the Colosseum, in Paris to the Eiffel Tower, and in London to Westminister Abbey. It would no doubt be considered a failed expedition if a number of those ‘things to do’ weren’t ticked off the the list.

Venice is different.

Venice is a city that is enjoyed just for being itself. Sure, there are piazzas and murano glass islands and architectural glories to marvel, but I genuinely believe, and have also heard it said from others, that the beauty of Venice lies simply in being able to walk through the maze of worn alleyways, crossing bridged canals and watching gondolas glide by as the gondoliers whistle or sing away in Italian.

That’s why the best way to enjoy Venice is to put the map away and just wander.

That’s right, wander.

There is definitely something to be said for getting lost in Venice. In fact, I’m inclined to say it’s the only way to truly enjoy it. Follow the main drag and you will end up in Piazza San Marco in half an hour, with your fair share of souvenir shops guiding your way through crowded narrow alleyways.

Steer away even slightly from the main drag, and you’ll find yourself walking alone across beautiful bridges, passing locals doing their grocery shopping, and children on their way to school. Of the 409 bridges in Venice, no two are the same, and with the warm ochres, autumn oranges and rusty reds that paint the buildings, there is no tiring of the beautiful surrounds.

You could spend a whole day just wandering like this and never lose interest.

This particular trip to Venice happened to take place just when the big freeze across Europe began. It was -4 degrees and freezing, but despite fog and cold, it did not dampen my admiration of the place. It did, however, make for a relatively brief wander, with frozen toes determining our return home after just three hours.

Even after four visits, I’m still eager to return to Venice. There is something magical and terribly unique about a city immersed in water, yet there isn’t a canal or submerged building that looks out of place.

I don’t know that I’ll ever tire of the old buildings, quiet alleyways and rocking Gondolas. What I do know is, if you haven’t already, it’s about time you too, went and got lost in Venice.

Click on any of the photos below to enlarge


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P is for Pizza, Pasta and Pigging Out

Look at that menu. I mean really look at it. As if choosing a pizza isn’t difficult enough without three folded pages of small print selections. Just in case you were wondering and don’t possess my inquisitive procrastination skills to justify counting how many pizzas there actually are on that menu, I’m happy to inform you that there are eighty seven.

87!!

I’m not the first, and I certainly won’t be the last, to declare that Italians know how to cook a good meal. I mean, hello, any country that can even think of 87 pizza toppings, clearly knows what they’re doing. They’ve got skills I tell you.

Now before we begin, let’s get a couple of things straight. I love food. Eating to me is less a survival skill than it is an activity I look forward to participating in several times a day. With food comes cooking, which I love, and socialising, which I love, and just the general enjoyment that comes with eating yummy yummy things.

Fact number two. I am a fussy eater. This presents a slight problem for someone that likes to eat several times a day. I never got over that phase where you stick your nose up at vegetables and poke around at lumpy mashed potato. Yep, I’m one of those. 

My host mum serving up her amazing lasagne. Love her.

So, to find a place where I can pick anything from a menu and 99.9% of the time immensely enjoy it, is no small victory. But it is a victory that Italy can claim as its own.

I’m always very spoilt in Italy.  The benefit of staying with host families and friends, is that you get cooked everything traditional style. Every time I visit my host mum, Marilena, she makes a point of cooking me the local dishes and Italian faves. Lasagne, Gnocchi with Ragù, Pizza, Bean Minestrone, and my favourite, Cappellacci di zuca – a kind of ravioli filled with pumpkin and served with ragù. Buonissimi!

This trip was no different, and I’m sure the scales can prove it.

Home made salami chillin' out in the garage

What I did during my week in Italy was determined according to a well-thought out plan of what food I needed to eat and where: Marilena told me which days she wanted to cook me her specialities; two special trips were made into town to an amazing pizza place called Arcabaleno, which sells hot squares of pizza for about 1 Euro wrapped in paper ready for you to eat standing up there and then; I met up with a friend at a restaurant well known for its Cappellacci; and I even made a trip out to the Italian countryside while my High School friend, Maurizio, and his family made me home made pizza, topped with the home made salami they had hanging in their garage.

It really doesn’t get more authentic than that.

One night I met up with a group of friends at a bar for what they call an aperitivo. Basically what this involves is complimentary snack food on the basis that you’ll be buying drinks. Now, I’m not talking peanuts in a cracked bowl. I’m talkin’ smoked salmon, olives, prosciutto, fresh bread, cheeses, pieces of pizza and savory pastries.

My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

This is what cappellacci di zucca looks like. Thanks to Google for the image (it never stayed on my plate long enough to get a photo of my own)

Needless to say, I pigged out in Italy. The flavours and the care the Italians put into their food is evident in the enjoyment one experiences at every meal. On serving, the cook always waits in anticipation for appraisal, but I personally have never had to force a polite “it’s delicious” without genuinely meaning it. In fact “it’s delicious” would be an understatement for most of the meals I’ve had the pleasure of feasting on in Italy.

Like I said, they’ve got skills.

I have tried to replicate recipes back home, but they just don’t have that same oomph about them. I can only conclude that a) I’m a terrible cook or b) I need to go to Italy more often. It’s a tough call, but I’m leaning towards door number two.

Either way, I ate my way through Italy. Many a time I had pizza cheese dripping down my chin and pasta sauce splashed on my cheeks. I inhaled every meal like it was going out of fashion and whilst my table manners were probably appalling as I spoke with my mouth full, there simply was no time to concentrate on anything else but devouring and savouring that mouthwatering food.

And I’m happy to say that the Italians, they love it. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing someone enjoy something you’ve created from scratch. And in that, I’m more than happy to oblige.

Buon appetito!

Maurizio's Dad making pizza bases

Very excited about the lasagne I'm about to inhale

Being served pumpkin gnocchi with ragù

G is for Galaverna

After spending a relatively mild few weeks in Germany, Poland, Scotland and England, countries usually known for their cold winters but which struggled to hit below zero whilst I was there, I arrived in Italy expecting much of the same. The forecast was for sunny skies and a tame 10 degrees.

Of course, it turned out to be the most bitterly cold of them all, with a top of minus four during my trip to Venice (but that’s another story).

Whilst the cold was moderately off-putting in terms of getting dressed into layer upon layer and mustering an enthusiasm to leave the house of a morning, it did provide for this wonderful phenomenon: galaverna.

Galavera in Ferrara, Italy

Galaverna. Galaverna. I kept hearing the Italians throw the word around but I’d never heard of it before and had no idea what it meant.

What in the bloody hell was galaverna?!

After several people tried to explain it to me using unfamiliar Italian words, I came to a rough understanding that it was a build up of frost from the weather being so damn cold over many days and not being able to thaw. I then proceeded to explain that there simply was no word for it in English.

Of course I was wrong.  The dictionary told me that ‘hoarfrost’ is the English translation for the Italian galaverna, and though I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it, perhaps those of you living in countries that annually reach temperatures below zero have.

For those of you who, like me, haven’t, it is described by the faithful online dictionary as:

Frozen dew that forms a white coating on a surface.

Yes yes, that’s all very good, but what the definition doesn’t explain, is just how beautiful it is.

The trees and bushes turn white with the build up of this ‘frozen dew’, which becomes more and more prominent as the days continue in cold succession.

What it ends up looking like is snow. Snow without all the slush and mud under your feet. It is, quite simply, stunning to admire as everything turns white.

While both hoarfrost and galaverna are two words I’m not familiar with, I find it fascinating that they exist at all. Not content with calling it ‘a build up of frozen dew’ or ‘frost pretending to be snow’, somewhere, sometime in history, someone actually gave it a name. I don’t know why this amazes me so, but it does. To be able to give a name to something so beautiful, really is quite gratifying.

That said, I have to admit that galaverna just sounds so much better on the tongue than hoarfrost. Don’t you think?

Galaverna in Ferrara, Italy

F is for Ferrara

Once host to the House of Este dynasty, Ferrara is now admired for its medieval beauty and cultural importance.

Situated in the North-East of Italy, just an hour south of Venice, Ferrara has for the last 10 years been my second home.

Exterior walls of the Piazzo dei Diamanti - the diamonds at the bottom of the palace are tilted slightly downwards, those in the middle straight on, and those on the upper half of the building slighty upwards, to give the illusion that the palace is bigger than it actually is.

The centre of the city is full of treasures, with its magnificent castle, charming narrow lane ways and Romanesque cathedral.

The Palazzo dei Diamanti is one of the most influential examples of European Renaissance architecture, with its exterior walls covered with protruding diamond-shaped marble blocks. Legend has it, that a real diamond was hidden in one of the blocks, but though many have tried, none have discovered it, if it does indeed exist.

Dating back to 1135 and stretching over two kilometres long, Via delle Volte is one of the longest still existing medieval streets in Europe. A picturesque street, it is named for the volte, or arches, that join the buildings on either side together. They were once used as passageways to join the merchants’ houses on the southern side to their warehouses and shops on the northern side.

Via delle Volte

While Via delle Volte is certainly the most famous of the streets in Ferrara, it is most definitely not the only one of its kind. All the narrow streets of this city are archetypal of the colourful arched cobbled lanes that Italy is best known for.

But whilst the city itself is a beauty, it is the people that keep me coming back.

As I mentioned in C is for Castles, I first travelled to Ferrara as a 16 year old exchange student. It was my first time travelling alone and I was both anxious and enthusiastic to meet the host family that would replace my own for the following three months.

I arrived in the European winter of 2001, not long after the 9/11 attacks, which very nearly saw my parents calling off the trip altogether. I am so grateful they didn’t.

My host sister, Sara, and I, 10 years on.

I was greeted by my beautiful family, the Maietti’s, who cared for me as one of their own, and perhaps even more importantly, fed me as one of their own (Italian food, naturally, gets its own post). I was placed in a school where I was likewise greeted with open arms by a bunch of the nicest people I think I’ve ever known.

My classmates were so very interested in Australia and our way of life, and just as interested in making sure I was happy and at home in their classroom. My closest friends also did me a great service during my first week of class, making sure I was well informed of every swear word the Italian language had to offer.

Since 2001, I have returned to Ferrara every few years to visit my host family and classmates, and each time I am greeted as if it were my first; with many cheek to cheek kisses, warm embraces and smiling faces.

This last trip was no different, and while I did spend some days reacquainting myself with the city, it cannot be denied that I spent the majority of my time catching up with old friends, eating AMAZING food, and spending time with my second family.

The Piazza in Ferrara

 

Il Duomo - Ferrara's Cathedral

The Piazza

C is for Castles

Perhaps the highlight of the entire trip was castle spotting.

Whilst I absolutely love living in Australia, the laid back way of life, the climate, the land and the people, it is a sad fact that for all this we, as a relatively ‘new’ country, miss out on the history that countries in Europe have to offer.

One of the perks of said history is the castles.

Standing in front of a Katy sized doorway at Wawel Castle, Krakow

Big or small, new and old, crumbling or unspoiled, extravagant and simple. I don’t care how they come, but boy oh boy do I like a good castle.

The idea of secret passageways, miniature doorways and hidden rooms just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Of course, this all stems from my love of fantasy stories, naturally. But what amazes me most is that no matter how many castles I see I still feel as if I am being transported back in time to a moment when castles were alive with nobility, scandal and intrigue. The feeling is so overwhelming that I’m certain were I to close my eyes, I could see the nobles wandering the castle grounds and the stable boys attending to the horses.

Like I said, I do love a good castle.

The first castle that caught my eye was in Krakow, Poland. We visited Wawel Castle at night when all was a bit eerie, but it was still perfectly beautiful, made even more so by the fact that it sits on the hill that hosts the Dragon’s Den, a limestone cave said to have been inhabited by the legendary Wawel Dragon.

My Auntie and I with one of the canons my grandfather made

Whilst the cave is closed during the winter months, the appeal of a city and a castle built upon the ashes of a dragon was all quite extraordinary to this impressionable young mind.

Now to England, where we find ourselves in the ancient town of Rye, which happens to be where my father grew up, his father before him and, some many years later, where I also did some growing up of my own. But more about that in another post.

Ypres Castle was built in 1250 and is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Rye. Once used as a prison, it now hosts the Rye town museum.

It’s a small fortress, but I love it all the same, especially after hearing of my grandfather’s part in the making of the canons that now sit outside the castle, as well as my father’s accident falling off one of the castle walls. Boys will be boys.

Ypres Castle, Rye, England

When I was 16, I went on a student exchange to Italy where I stayed with a host family for three months in the small town of Ferrara, about an hour south of Venice. The following year I went back to visit my host family. About three years later I moved there to study for a year. A few years after that I returned again for a visit. And this year, just over a decade after my first visit at the ripe age of 16, I returned once more to my host family, host town and host country.

Castello Estense, Ferrara, Italy

Needless to say, Ferrara and Italy both hold a place close to my heart.

Did I mention Ferrara has a castle? And a moat? AND a drawbridge?

Yep, The Estense Castle is pretty impressive. Smack bang in the centre of the city, this moated medieval fortress has bared witness to every stage of the city’s colourful history since its foundations were laid in 1385. Whilst some amazing stories about the castle have been told to me in Italian over the years, I’d be well pressed to do them justice with a poor translation and my dreadful memory, but I would nonetheless recommend a visit to this beautiful castle if you’re ever on your way North to Venice.

My first view of Edinburgh Castle, from the Grassmarket

The last castle I’d like to share with you is the gem of them all.

Having never before been to Edinburgh, I was absolutely taken aback by its beauty. The streets, the buildings, the architecture – it was all nothing short of amazing. Of course Edinburgh will get its own post, but its castle, well, it made such an impression that it probably deserves its own post too. Alas…

When I first spotted this magnificent structure, I was being taken on a tour through the streets by my dear Italian friend who now studies in Edinburgh. The irony of an Italian showing around the British born Australian was not lost on us, although it was even more prevalent when I found myself cooking her my Italian host-mother’s pasta sauce recipe. But I digress.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

We were walking down the cobbled stone streets of the Grassmarket, admiring the beautiful bookshops, architecture and quaint little narrow passageways between buildings, when one of the wider side streets opened to reveal a towering rock cliff face, which literally morphed into the castle perched atop it.

I was absolutely speechless. Without getting all melodramatic on you, it was for me so overwhelmingly magnificent that I actually felt a bit choked-up.

Truly, this is the moment and the place that will stick with me as the absolute highlight of the entire trip. I was completely enamoured. I felt like I was standing before a castle from a fantasy story, in Westeros or in Middle Earth.

It made such an impression that I was compelled to write a poem about it. As I’ve said before, poetry is far from my forte and this is certainly no prize winner. But raw as it is, the meaning is clear: I love you Edinburgh Castle!

A Kingly Embrace

I walk cobbled streets
You hide behind stone
But with each passing crossroad
I catch glimpse of your throne

As cliff becomes castle
Turrets touching the skies
All turn to your fortress
With passionate sighs

You observe from above
The tenderness of others
The embrace of a friend
Brushing lips of two lovers

But when friends have long gone
And love starts to wither
The distance between us
Brings a tremble, a shiver

For in heart and in soul
I belong in your towers
Perched upon rock face
Dreaming for hours

And though distance remains
Between me and your grace
Please await my return
To your kingly embrace

Edinburgh Castle emerging from the cliff face

Humour, flirting, and education at the coffee table

30 Day Book Challenge – Day 30

Favorite coffee table book

Well here we are.  The final day of the 30 Day Book Challenge.  Who would have thought we’d make it this far?  I certainly had my doubts.  There were good times, bad times, an extended deadline, and a few unexpected intermissions, but 30 books and 57 days later we reached the finish line.  Woo!

I’m mildly disappointed that Day 30 has to end with my ‘favourite coffee table book’, seeing as I don’t actually own a coffee table.  I would’ve liked to end with a BANG! Like, the most expensive book you ever bought.  Or the best book EVER created in the entire universe!  But alas, what am I if I cannot improvise in the face of a challenge?

So let’s see.  If I had a coffee table, what book would I like to live permanently upon it?  I’m going to go with the Lonely Planet Italian Phrasebook.  I purchased this book when I was 16 before heading to Italy for the very first time.  It was truly invaluable, but also highly entertaining.

My friends, English and Italian alike, would always find great pleasure in reading certain sections of this book, particularly that relating to dating, romance and sex.  Subtitles such as “Breaking the Ice”, “Classic Rejections”, “Making Love” and “Afterwards”, may give you some idea as to the sort of ‘phrases’ they included for a traveller’s convenience.

The best included:

‘Do you come here often?’ – Vieni spesso qui?

‘You’re not my type.’ – Non sei il mio tipo.

‘You turn me on.’ – Mi ecciti.

‘Was it good for you?’ – Ti è piacuto?

‘Faster!’ – Più veloce!

I can only imagine being in the sort of situations that require these phrases and asking the other person to “just hold on a moment while I consult my phrasebook.  Ah yes, Più veloce!”

Ha.

In any case, I think it would keep people interested and entertained when they come over for coffee.  Don’t you?

~storytelling nomad~

Books, Birthdays and Best Friends

30 Day Book Challenge – Day 22

Book you plan to read next

And with another extended absence I offer my sincerest apologies and propose we turn a blind eye to my blogging indiscretions and continue with the 30 Day Book Challenge.

Agreed?

You rock!

So, onto the book I plan to read next.  I have a few sitting on my shelf and am as yet undecided which I will read next, but there is one amongst them that I’d like to mention: La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales.  A memoir/travel book recounting the author’s “love affair with Italy and the most enchanting language in the world”, I think it’s highly probable that I’m going to enjoy it.  Why?  For four main reasons:

  1. I love Italy
  2. I love Italian
  3. I love travel literature
  4. I love the person who gave it to me

Yep, that’s a pretty good indication that I’m going to like it.  Point number 4 is particularly important.  You see, on Saturday it was my birthday.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ME!

Okay, I’m done.  As I was saying, on Saturday it was my birthday, and herein lies part of the reason for my blogging absence.  To celebrate the big two six, I decided to spend the weekend in the beautiful city of Melbourne and catch up with two of my very good friends, both who I’ve known since High School.  On the night of my birthday the girls took me out to an amazing Italian restaurant in Carlton, where I ate far too much and happily indulged in the magnificent company.

One of these lovely ladies is named Priscilla.  She’s not the queen of the desert, but she is many extraordinary things: a talented music therapist in the making; a fellow Buffy enthusiast; a devoted chicken connoisseur (the girl loves her chicken);  but first and foremost she is one of my best friends in the whole world.  The whole world, I tell you!  I can safely say she has been for quite some time in the top three when it comes to those who have supported and encouraged my writing, and I love her very much for it and am so grateful to have her as a friend.

As it turns out, she always knows, as often only best friends do, just what to get me on my birthday.  This year she gifted me the aforementioned book, with the following inscribed message:

Best Friend Love

Thank you Priscilla.  I’m sure I’ll love it, and even if the book isn’t inspiring, you my friend, are.

~storytelling nomad~

Book that is most like your life

30 Day Book Challenge – Day 12

What’s this? You expect a literary equivalent of my unique, quirky, yet oh so fascinating life?  I’m sorry, but such a thing simply does not exist.  There are those who have tried, to no avail, to fit me like a square peg into a round hole, but it just cannot be done.  I am an undetermined shape of infinite sides, curves and acute angles.

But all is not lost.  Fortunately, there exists a short story and an article that both accurately depict small slices of my life, written by yours truly and published on the Australian Reader website and in Biscuit Magazine’s July 2011 issue.  The links for both can be found on my Published Stories page.

Happy Reading.

Not so long ago I used Apple iPhoto to publish a hardcover book of my travel story Belonging, with accompanying photos from the journey, which my brother and I gifted to my parents. Not only did it make my parents very happy, but for a time, I felt like a real writer!

~storytelling nomad~

My favourite place: Planet Earth

I consider myself lucky to have been given the opportunity from a young age to see a bit of the world.  It has made me appreciate not only what is beyond my own front yard, but has also made me recognise that you don’t need to cross oceans to find beauty in a place.  It amazes me how often people are so keen to travel overseas when some of the most celebrated destinations are just around the corner from their own home.  Such is life, it seems, that we always want what we don’t have.  I have included below four of my favourite photos, from places I have been that have taken my breath away.

The first, in the motherland, also known as England and the place of my birth, was taken from the bathroom window of my Aunt and Uncle’s early one morning just after Christmas.  Everything – the ground, the trees, the sky – was white, and it was absolutely breathtaking.

The second looks over the water at St. Helens, Tasmania.  Tasmania is grossly underrated for its beaches, which are some of the most beautiful I have seen in Australia.  The weather may be cooler than say in the Whitsundays, but the pristine crystal clear waters, definitely give Whitehaven Beach a run for its money.  Considering Tasmania is so often recognised as ‘the island’, it’s beyond me why people are surprised by the amount of beaches it has to offer.

Moving on to Venice.  I love that place so much I’ve been there three times.  It really is the most unique tourist attraction in the world.  There is no one monument, place or exhibition that draws you there, it is just the city itself.  Simply walk down any street that doesn’t head directly for the Piazza San Marco and you won’t be surprised to find yourself lost and alone…which frankly, is the best way to explore Venice.

And, finally, a place very close to my heart is Amalfi, along the Amalfi Coast of Italy.  It has to be my favourite place in Italy, quite possibly in the world.  Although, be warned, I may be slightly biased.  See my travel story Belonging in the Published Stories section to find out why.

English Countryside (view from my Aunt & Uncle's house one winter)

St Helens, Tasmania

Canals of Venice, Italy

Sunrise in Amalfi, The Amalfi Coast, Italy

~storytelling nomad~