Monday, May 10, 2010

European trip, 2010: Northern Italy, April 22th to 28nd

The Train, multiple countires: April 22nd 2010

Thursday morning we took a somewhat round-about route (I tried really hard to plan things efficiently as possible, but sometimes my best efforts turn out to be not as good as I intended) to Milano, Italy. We started out taking a train from Interlaken to Bern where we had to switch to a different train which took us to Zurich. From Zurich we switched to another train that carried us on to Milano. Unfortunately the ride from Zurich to Milano was a little rockier than any of our previous train rides and both Andrew and I were feeling a little queasy at different points throughout the trip. We survived it though, and arrived in Milano at around 2:00 pm. From there we had to switch trains again to the local commuter trains to reach our host. Now, I have to say that sadly, Italy’s local commuter trains are not the most pretty of beasts. Many of the cars are heavily graffitied on the outside, and old and smelly on the inside. They run, though, and got us where we were going on more than one occasion, so I guess that’s a step up over many of the cities in Canada.

We arrived at the train station nearest our host's place of work (place of study, really, since he is a PhD student) around 3:00 pm. He picked us up, and drove us to the University for a tour and meet ‘n greet. This was for Andrew’s benefit rather than my own, as our host became acquainted with Andrew when he (and his wife and child) came to Edmonton for a stint in the lab Andrew works in at the University of Alberta. I listened as politely as I could and tried to remain focused on the discussions, but superhydrophobic surfaces and water droplets are somewhat outside my realm of study/interest/understanding. Around 5:30 pm we headed home via the supermarket. We ended the day with a delightful dinner with proper Italian pizza, and made plans for the next day.

Venezia, Italy: April 23rd, 2010

Our first destination for our stay in Italy was Venezia, or in English, Venice. Another train ride was in order for this day (2.5 hours), but it passed in relative comfort on the Italy Eurostar (way cushier than the local commuter trians). After a slightly longer-than-necessary wait, we managed to grab a map of the city and directions to the nearest grocery store, then off we went to explore. The first few steps outside the train station were wondrous--a little like entering Disneyland for the first time, I suppose. The main canal was right there, there were bridges, there were boats passing on the river...oh, and there were gorgeous, old buildings. We snapped a couple of pictures right away.
Our first view of Venezia out of the train station.
The main canal, from a bridge as we crossed.
The side trip to the grocery store took a little longer than intended--both in the length of time it took us to find it (went one street to far at first), then switching cashier lines when we were ready to pay (Andrew thought we were being told we needed leave the line because we had too many items for the express counter), but eventually we were off. We walked mostly without aim, turning down which ever tiny, narrow streets seemed interesting. Occasionally we checked our map to make sure we were at least progressing toward San Marco, which was our goal. If you have never been to Europe, you may not realize, but there aren’t really shopping malls like there are in North America. Shops, and boutiques are crammed into buildings amongst the historic architecture of Europe. So in Venezia (and Milano, and Florenze, etc) shopping in done out of doors with a mixture of stores inside buildings, and outdoor vendors.

In Venezia, fancy, decorated face masks, and glass are particularly famous. Many of the shops carried one or the other of these and sometimes both. We decided it might be nice to pick up a mask, which we eventually did on our way back to the train station at the end of the day. We chose to support one of the smaller vendors, who decorated the masks onsite. She was very friendly, which was why we went back to her, and spoke at least three different languages (English, Italian and French). Eventually we wound our way to San Marco (it took as three hours, maybe?) and paused there for some time to admire the architecture. Ultimately we choose not to go into any of the museums, so we just got an external view. We started working our way back around 4:00 pm, in order to catch our train home. Although the weather wasn’t spectacular (rather grey, with a light pattering of rain at some points) we had a very nice day, ambling the streets on our own.
San Marco square.
San Marco square.

Milano, Italy: April 24th, 2010

After our early start the previous day (we were on the train by 7:00 am) we were able to sleep in to around 8:00 am this day as we were driving into Milano with our hosts. After a breakfast of a cappuccino (for me) and biscuits we headed off with our first destination as the castle of Milano. It was quite a spectacular building, definitely a proper castle with turrets and fortifications, and it must have been quite grand in it’s time. We were free to wander about the interior walls, which gave us a good view of the building and many photo opportunities. As an added bonus, the weather was already demonstrating it was likely to be a decent day, with not too much sun, but pleasant overall. After the castle we continued on along one of the main shopping streets on our way to visit the huge city centre cathedral. First, we passed through a famous archway dedicated to long ago royalty. While under the arch also had to take a turn spinning on the balls of a bull--yes, truly. There’s an image of a bull placed in the sidewalk and you’re supposed to place you heel on the bull’s balls and turn around to ensure you will one day return to Milano. A reasonable-sized crowd hung around it and I found it difficult to butt in and take my turn.
A snapshot of the interior of the castle.
The arch.
Andrew, turning on the bull.
From the arch we emerged by the square in front of the cathedral where we milled around for a bit before deciding to wander around for a little while before heading in. Our hosts wanted to show us a second church, not for away, so we headed over there; however, it turned out this church wasn’t open until 3:00, so we headed back for the main square. En route we stopped at a bakery as our hosts wanted to pick up some marzipan (decorated in the shape of various fruits). As we waited outside Andrew and I wondered about a curious, shell-shaped pastry, which was then purchased for our sampling. I can’t recall what they were called, but they were slightly crunchy on the outside, while soft and chewy on the inside. They were very good and very filling. As Andrew and I munched, we all headed back to view the cathedral. Apparently this church has the 3rd largest dome in the world after Rome and a place in Germany. It was overall quite beautiful, as our most churches from that time, with lots of ornate paintings, sculptures, etc.
The main cathedral in Milano.
At this point we agreed it was time to hunt down some lunch, and decided to try one of the best places in Milano for panzarotte. Similar to our experience in Worms, the best place was quite busy; however, the line up was moving quickly and we waited. The panzarottes were indeed very good. I had one with spicy sausage and cheese, and Andrew bravely went for the panzarotte of the day without knowing what it was--as it turns out, it was “German” with sausage and sauerkraut. They were both very delicious. Afterwards we ambled around the street-lined shops for sometime. If on our own I probably would have wanted to stop in several of them and try on clothes, but with our hosts I didn’t want to slow us up. I just window shopped, which is better on the wallet anyways. It should be noted that clothing in Italy wasn’t actually all that expensive. Definitely the high designers like Cocco Chanel, Fendi, Prada etc., were not within my price range, but many of the higher-priced, average person stores were no worse than going into a Mexx, or a Tristian and American in North America.

After a rest in a small coffee shop we were able to visit the second church, which was in deed very unique. We only took a few steps inside the church and stopped, when our host asked us if we could tell what was different about it. We paused. Andrew looked around closely and so did I. Our host hinted that we would have to be very good to be able to tell the trick from where we stood. I think we walked in a little farther and stopped again. Andrew reacted as if he had realized what was going on and I looked again. I’m not quire sure how I was able to tell, but I too realized the quirk: the front of the church was painted to act as an optical illusion. There was really only a few meters of depth behind the alter although it was painted to look like the church continued on much deeper. Unfortunately photographs of the interior were not permitted. When we’d finished in the church we headed back to where the car had been parked. We’d walked a fair bit by this point and our hosts' son was fast asleep in his stroller.

Isola Bella, Italy: April 25th, 2010

This morning I had faith in it being a beautiful day. I wore capries and sandals--my faith, as it turned out was rewarded. This day was pleasantly spent on Isola Bella. The drive took about an hour and a half (I’m not quite sure as I was busily reading Beauty, by Robin McKinley) to we arrive at a parking lot beside a small dock. We had to wait for sometime after our arrival for a group of friends of our host who were going to join us and seemed to have gotten lost. After a slight delay we were off to the island. At first we just took a circuit of the island. Many of the shops carried things like postcards (for excessively cheep prices), glass jewelry, more masks, etc. I liked to look at the various wares available, but the only thing I picked up was postcards (for virtually every oversees trip I have taken I have sent back a small army’s worth of postcards to friends and family--it’s easier and less expensive than kitschy souvenirs). It’s amazing (being a native North America) how Europeans cram as much as they can into tiny spaces. The streets on the island were only big enough to walk along. I thought it was all very beautiful, but that may because I don’t see such scenery on a regular basis.
The streets on Isola Bella.
Once we were done browsing we paid our entrance into the huge manor house (built by the Borromeo family). We took our time as we meandered through the house, admiring the enormous rooms (including the library, ball room, salon, etc.), and the fine furnishings. Bellow the house was a number of grottos, which although not natural, were designed and built to look like they were made out of rocks. Eventually the route through the house spit us out into the garden. I think the garden was as spectacular (if not more so) then the house. It contained lemon and orange trees (with fruit easily twice the size we see in Canada), palm trees, other spectacular plants (which I cannot name since I am no horticulturalist), plus white peacocks, which roamed freely throughout the garden.
Me, admiring the scenery from the Borremeo garden.
The interior of the garden.
The white peacocks.
After we exited the garden we grabbed some lunch (it was something like 2:00 pm by this point, so I was very happy to sit and have some food). We ate at one of the restaurants on the island, and to our surprise it was not as expensive as anticipated (given the island is something of a tourist trap). I enjoyed grilled a vegetable and cheese plate. Vegetable consumption tends to be a bit low in Europe for my preference, so I enjoyed my lunch greatly. For desert I grabbed pistachio flavoured gelato from a vendor outside the restaurant. Yum! At this point we caught a ferry over to another island, only a few minutes away. This island was mainly shops and restaurants, so we didn’t stay as long here. We enjoyed the view of the coast, watched some people attempting to maneuver the choppy lake on water bicycles, and walked a little further before returning to the mainland and to our car. Again on the ride home I spent much of the time reading (hey, it was a good book).

Florenze, Italy: April 26th, 2010

We struck a bit of bad luck this day. First, I woke up with the beginnings of a cold (the whole left side of my throat and face felt congested) then, once we arrived in Florenze we discovered that all the museums are closed on Mondays. This meant we couldn’t go see the David as planned, and we couldn’t go to the Pitti Palace, which was a definite bummer. The day was sunny, at least, which in my books makes anything at least somewhat bearable. It was also rather hot, although quite tolerable when hiding in the shade. So, although Sandra Bullocks’ character from While You Were Sleeping dreamed over going to Florenze and thought it the best destination possible, Andrew and I were somewhat unimpressed. I liked Venezia better even though the day we visited there it was cool and damp.

We spent a good deal of the day walking. First to the art museum were the David is housed (before we had realized everything was closed), then to the Pitti Palace (where we determined that no, indeed, the museums were closed). Then we walked a bit farther yet thinking we might be able to get into a semi-nearby garden—we couldn’t. In the end we decided to sit for a dessert and a drink then killed time by doing some shopping. I tried a few things on, but didn’t purchase anything. Around 5:00 pm we took a peak in the main cathedral in Florenze. It has a fancy dome, which is really high up (supposedly some kind of engineering feat) so you have to crane your neck to see the art work. Andrew took pictures, some of the few we took in Florenze. We caught the train back to Milano at 6:00 pm, and were back with our hosts around 9:00 pm (we had to wait awhile for our connecting trains).
The dome.

Como (and other small villages) Italy: April 27th, 2010

This was the day we went to see George Clooney’s house. Well no, not really, but we liked to think that’s where we were going. Mr. Clooney has a house in Como, which is a very pretty town on a lake of the same name. Houses are built at the base of mountain, just like you might imagine from a European postcard. Unfortunately, the day we went was not particularly postcard-like. It was grey, cool, and windy. Plus, by this point we didn’t have much in the way of clean clothing so I wore my capries again, and the weather was only barely warm enough. We arrived in Como around 12:00 pm (Andrew and I slept in that morning, me because of my cold, Andrew because...well...he likes to sleep) and wandered around the pier for a bit. If it had been a nicer day it would have been really lovely, but as it was, it was only tolerable. We continued to meander around the town for a while, but as it was mid-day many of the shops were closed (the siesta is a common practice in Italy).
Along the pier, toward the edge of Como (otherwise there were construction cranes in view).
We picked up lunch from a local bakery (pizza and bread) and ate it by a fountain in a small square. I haven’t really mentioned it so far, but I really love the plethora of bakeries found in European cities. They really love their baked goods there; whether it’s bread (which is rarely plain white or whole wheat), rolls, croissants, or fancy pastries, they’re readily available even in the smaller cities we visited. I happen to love bread in all its shapes and forms so this didn’t bother me in the least. I ate chocolate croissants whenever possible, and often had bread covered with Nutella when not. I love the way Europeans eat...aside from the lack of vegetables. Anyways, once we’d finished lunch we walked a little longer and headed up toward a small park were there were several memorials/crypts including one for the inventor Alessandro Volta, and one for the city of Hiroshima. At this point we made our way back to the car and drove farther along the coast.

We arrived in the town of Cernobbio around 2:00 pm (I think) and again went for a stroll along the lake. Judging by the city centre, this town was considerably smaller than Como, and so the main purpose of stopping here was to take a quick look around before catching a ferry, which would take us to the other side of the lake. Thankully the wind had died down by this point, so I was more comfortable with bare legs. In order to kill time we stopped in one of the local restaurants for some refreshment. I ordered tiramisu as I hadn’t had the chance to have it anywhere else in Italy and this was our last day. It lived up to my expectations with a tasty cream/custard filling. Unfortunately we missed our planned ferry at 4:00 pm due to taking are sweet time in the restaurant and had to wait for the next one which was at 4:50 pm. Even then we nearly missed the second ferry as we were confused about which dock we sailed from.
The walk way along the lake front in Cernobbio.
The ferry took us to another small town on the other side of the lake. The boat was quite small, especially when you consider the gigantic ones that cross from Vancouver city to the island. Ten cars fit on this ferry (it was a tight) and we had to tip-toe through the vehicles to get to the seating (outdoors, on an upper deck). On the plus side, by this point the day had warmed and the sun had come out so the crossing was pleasant, as was the walk around the town. We stayed maybe an hour at most as we needed to get back home in time for dinner. We were a little late in getting back; however, as we undertook a small (okay, slightly epic) treasure hunt to locate a stovetop cappuccino maker for myself.
From the ferry as we approached the opposite side of the lake.
Our hosts offered us tea or a cappuccino every morning with breakfast, and I always opted for the cappuccino. They had a nifty little stovetop 2-cup maker decorated with cow spots. It has a chamber in the bottom where you place the water and coffee grinds, and a top compartment that screws on where you place milk. As the stove heats the water in the bottom it evaporates and filters up through the coffee grounds into the top pot that contains the milk. Andrew and our host were gushing about the engineering involved in this design...oh engineers. I commented that I liked the cappuccino maker and might be interested in purchasing one if they weren’t too expensive, and so on our last day we drove to several places in town in order to find a store that carried the right product. I’m now the proud owner of the Tweety Bird model of the Muuka maker by Bialetti.



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