Saturday, August 14, 2010


Milan is an interesting city.  It is full of contrasts.  On the one hand, it is fast paced, upscale, and fashionable.  On the other, it is industrial and international.  Nowhere else in Italy did we find so much Thai and Indian food.  We decided to go to Milan in the first place because it is on the way to Switzerland from southern Italy and it is the home of La Scala, a very famous opera house where I hoped to see an opera.

First thing we decided to explore the downtown area.  Milan has the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, and we wanted to go inside.  They didn't let us because our knees were too sexy.  Oh well.  Try again later.

The shopping in Milan is totally ridiculous.  It attracts my least favorite sort of people.  I will relate to you a conversation that I overheard while waiting in line to not be allowed into the Duomo.

High School Aged Girl From New York:  Did I ever tell you that my parents met Barack Obama?

High School Aged Boy From New York:  Yeah.  Yeah, you did.

Girl: Oh.  Well, they did meet him.

Boy: That's really cool.

Awkward silence.

Girl: Like, they shook his hand and everything.

Boy: Yep.

Girl: I just haven't been able to find the right Prada bag!  I don't know what to do!  Like, I really want a Prada bag and everything, but I already bought a Louis Vuitton in Paris, you know, and I don't want to repeat myself, God forbid.  Prada is like, so cool.

Boy: ...

So there was a lot of that icky stuff.  We wandered around in some of the high fashion stores and I was struck by how smart the Louis Vuitton fashion scheme is.  A generic print as a status symbol.  You can put it on anything and it'll look fine, and it costs the people who make it nothing.  Not that I could replicate it, or anything, but I'm not the most visually sensitive person in the world.  I don't get high fashion.  And I hate skinny models.  Stepping off the soap box.

Next stop: castle!  The castle in Milan now houses a bunch of different museums, but Sophie and I were more interested in the feral cats and four-leafed clover that populated the park behind it.  Look at how much we're enjoying ourselves!

The park was really beautiful and unexpected.  I love parks.  Trees and water make me calmer.  As do feral kitties.

We wanted to eat one nice dinner in Milan, and we had heard great things about a place called Nobu that served Japanese/South American fusion.  I should have figured out that it wasn't the right kind of place for me based on its location: it shares a building with the massive Armani store just north of the city center.  As a matter of fact, I now recall that it is called "Armani/Nobu."  Anyways, we sat down to order some drinks before dinner and abruptly noticed that all of the drinks were priced at fifteen euros.  All of them.  Every.  Single.  One.  Want water?  Fifteen euros.  Want beer?  Fifteen euros.  I was so pissed off by the idea of someone even trying to pull some bullshit like that I grabbed Sophie by the collar and screamed out of there. It was like they were making fun of my money.  So not cool.

In the end we ate at a Thai restaurant near our hotel.  The food was awesome and I was really happy about going there, which is all you can ask for in the end.

We saved money in Milan by eating at an Asian-owned Italian restaurant four or five times over the course of our three days.  One of our reasons for eating there was actually to save money, but the other was that it was the only restaurant that we found that was actually open all day.  Most restaurants in Italy close between two and seven, which is almost always when Sophie and I want to eat.  It just so happened that the pasta at this place, which was really pretty good, cost five euros per portion.  In fact, of all the places we went to in Europe, Italy had the best cheap food.  It was the only place we found that didn't have an abrupt drop in quality below a certain price point.  Why I just decided to tell you that, I don't know.  It's my blog and I'll do what I want.

The next day we actually managed to enter the Duomo.

Look!  Stained glass!

The rest of the day we sort of lazed and wandered and ate more cheap Italian food etc.  Saw a Ferrari F1 car.  Saw more fashion stuff.  Saw gelato in front of my face before it entered my mouth.

At night I went to the opera.  La Scala is sort of the spiritual heart of opera in Italy, which is sort of the spiritual heart of opera worldwide, so you will be surprised when you hear me say this: I didn't like it.  Let me explain.

I love opera.  I love opera so much that for a while I thought that I wanted to be an opera singer.  One of my favorite living tenors is Juan Diego Florez, and he happened to be singing at La Scala the night I went.  It should have been awesome.  But there were a few problems.

Step one: I am really, really tired of the Barber of Seville.  I've seen it live several times now, and it wasn't my favorite opera to begin with.  Step two:  La Scala is set up to emphasize privacy over acoustics and ability to see the stage.  There are tons and tons of mostly enclosed boxes, which is where I had a seat.  The problem was, my "seat" was actually a stool that was recessed four or five feet from the balcony, so I that I could only see about a third of the stage, and I had to crane my neck to do it.  The sound was impaired because I was so far back, and it was absolutely impossible for me to look at the little subtitle machine at the same time as the stage.  Step three: I have listened to recordings of Juan Diego Florez singing the arias from the Barber of Seville about a million times, and to tell you the truth, it wasn't that much better hearing him sing in a box at La Scala.  So I left halfway through, and even though it was a sort of blasphemous thing to do, I don't regret it.  I got to spend a little more time with Sophie that night than I would have otherwise, and I think that it was time well spent.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


We decided, as you likely have already gathered, not to go to Dubrovnik after Rome. Instead we headed north to Milan, but our first day we decided to make a pilgrimage to Modena to eat lunch at Hosteria Giusti, taste real balsamic vinegar, and hopefully see a few Ferraris racing around. Ferrari, Maserati, Pagani, and Lamborghini are all headquartered in Modena. Here is what Mario Batali has to say about Hosteria Giusti.

"Northwest to Modena, home of aceto tradizionale, the real balsamic vinegar, and as importantly a tiny little shop called Hosteria Giusti run by Nano Morandi and his wife Laura. If there is one stop on your trip to Italy, wherever in Italy, it must be here. You enter a jewel box of a salami shop with a traditional banco replete with prosciutti, salame, lardo, cheeses, and then your eyes focus on baskets of great wines from around the world… I mean Yquem, DRC, 1st growth Bordeaux and the like, along with the Sassicaia, the Grattamacco, the Gaja and all of the regal wines of Italy. Well what a funny little shop, I thought to myself on my first visit. Well, you walk back to the end of the shop and there is a door, behind which there is the 5 table trattoria of my dreams. Everything I have ever eaten here, from the simple gnocco frittoserved topped with the most fragrant of lardo, hand made tortelloniwith sage and butter, green tagliatelle al porcini and perhaps the most decadent of all, crispy slices of Zampone with savoury zabaglione. There are enough wines in the restaurant alone to serve until the year 2050, but there is a shop across the alley in the back where the real collection lives, probably 5000 bottles of various and exquisite producers and vintages."

'Nuff said. We were going, and we were excited. The train ride was about an hour and a half, and it was about ninety degrees out (that's thirty-thousand degrees Fahrenheit for all you Imperial folks), and our car was full of old Italians with a singular terrified dog, but it was worth it. It turns out (thank the gods) that arcades are a common sight in all of Emilia-Romagna, and we were mostly spared from the sun on our walk to the restaurant. I paid some old Italian lady eight euros for a map so we wouldn't get lost, and we didn't in spite of the fact that I was still without compass and I had (and have) the sense of direction of a stroke victim. I have the navigational equivalent of Capgras syndrome. "You're not north!" I say. "You may look like north, and feel like north, but you're not north. I know north. You, sir, are an impostor."

Hosteria Giusti did indeed have only four tables, and so they required reservations for lunch, the only meal that they served. They were paranoid about flaky tourists not showing up and losing between 25% and 50% of their custom (depending on the size of the table) and so they required you to make a confirmation call before eleven o'clock on the morning of your arrival. It was a sign of our commitment to eating there that we actually made the call. International phone calls on a cell phone are not cheap. But neither was the food that we were about to eat, so we just mentally added it to the bill along with the price of our train reservation, and subtracted both from the tip.

Don't worry. Italians rarely tip. I think.

On to the meal! We decided to drink Lambrusco, which is a fizzy local red wine, to celebrate. It is surprisingly inexpensive and awesome. Why not fizzy red wine? Why not? It wasn't sweet or anything -- it was just tasty red wine that happened to be extremely bubbly. Mit gas, as the Germans say, or sparkling, as we Americans say, which really makes no sense when you think about it. Make my water sparkle, damnit! Like a diamond! LIKE TEN THOUSAND DIAMONDS! Who wouldn't drink diamonds, if given the chance? Who?

Anyways, I really like Lambrusco and I plan to bathe in it when I am wealthy and infirm. Perhaps in the next life.

We began eating, of course, with the bread. And oh, what bread! Honestly, though, I remember very little about the bread other than that it was there, and that I took a picture of it. I like bread a lot, and this bread had salt in it, so it was good by me.

Next came our appetizer: fried zucchini flowers stuffed with creamy, cheesy rice and drizzled with aceto balsamico tradizionale, the really good stuff that you hear about only on blogs like this and that doesn't really exist in the United States outside a few hallowed kitchens. Aged for between ten and a hundred or so years, it starts out fairly acidic but mellows to a caramel and molasses-like syrup after about thirty. It is used sparingly, but it is chock full of flavor. Needless to say, these things were good. Even the tomato garnish was fantastic. Ripe tomatoes are a thing of beauty (and a thing rarely experienced in the USA, even in areas that can actually grow tomatoes) and roasting them just makes them taste even more absurdly ripe and sweet. When I grew up, I remember sugaring and roasting tomatoes just to get them to taste like something other than cardboard. I couldn't make a decent spaghetti sauce until I discovered canned San Marzano tomatoes. Try it. It works.

I had decided to order half portions each of a primo and secondo piatto, while Sophie ordered a whole primo piatto. Hers, freshly made ravioli stuffed with cheese and finished in butter, came first. The waitress gave us the option of adding the Parmigiano Reggiano ourselves. We did. The stuff came from like thirty miles away.

My pasta was dried but made in-house, and served with a sauce of braised duck. I love braised anything, especially on pasta, and I make a killer ragu, but this was definitely beyond my abilities, and much tastier as well.

My secondo piatto, the meat course, was a piece of pork that had been braised and then marinated in olive oil for nine days. Nine days! It burst with fruity oliveness. It was served cold -- the waitress had recommended it because of the heat -- and it was exquisitely tender. The dish came with a small mound of balsamic-marinated onions, which were also excellent and went well with the pork.

For dessert Sophie had a cherry tart and I had house-made vanilla gelato with positively senile aceto balsamico tradizionale. We finished the meal off by sharing a glass of a local dessert wine. I have no idea what the name was, but I think that it was a moscato, and it tasted like honey and melon and cool summer breezes. Yum.

Suffice it to say that we were very glad to have gone to Hosteria Giusti. Aside from our randomly fantastic meal in Le Cinque Terre, it was the best meal that we had in Italy, and on top of that we actually remembered to take pictures.

After lunch we had some time before we expected to catch a train home, and we ended up wandering into a shop that sold balsamic vinegar and other local products. The shop owner figured that if he gave us a tasting, we would fall in love with the stuff and leave the shop with a few bottles in tow. He was right. I bought a bottle of ten year-old aceto balsamico tradizionale, which is good for drizzling on salad. You can try some when I get home.

The only other thing that happened that day was that some idiot smoked on the train car adjacent to us and threw the cigarette butt in a trash can filled with paper, starting a fire and filling the car with smoke. We were spared the brunt of the smoke, but the smell was awful and the train was a half-hour late to Milan because of the whole debacle. I would say that it was unnerving that we couldn't understand Italian, but no one bothered to make any sort of announcement about the fire at any point while we were waiting. The natives sitting across from us were in the same boat. Or train. So it was mostly just unnerving to be sitting in a train that was clearly on fire without any announcements of any kind. I took it as a sign that we were either too far gone to be saved, or that it really wasn't a big deal and if we just sat there the whole thing would take care of itself. That wasn't strictly true, as I'm sure that a lot of Italian administrative personnel did a lot of very serious milling about the area during the fire, but eventually the smoke sort of cleared and the train left without further incident.

I leave you with several pictures of Modena. We did not see any fancy cars, but you can't eat cars, so maybe they're not so cool anyways. The End.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


SO. Rome. Rome in July is just really freaking hot. That is mostly what I remember about Rome: that our room didn't have air conditioning and applying sunscreen was physically impossible because I was forever and always coated in a thin veil of sweat. Charming, no? So most of our visit was spent dashing from one shaded area to another to prevent my pale, pale skin from lighting on fire.

Our first night in Rome, we walked to the Pantheon, which was not too far from our hotel. It is still perfectly preserved, which is amazing compared to every other site in Rome. It was beautiful, although I shamed God by wearing shorts inside. I'M SORRY, IT WAS JUST TOO HOT.

Ceiling of the Pantheon

As per usual, I don't remember about 90% of what we did the rest of the day. I blame nursing school. But I'm sure you would have been enthralled and entertained.

On day two of Rome Fun Times Adventure, we did the next standard tourist-y things: the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. We found an English tour outside to Colosseum and decided to fork over many euros for it. Again, it was 90 million degrees outside and by joining a tour group you were allowed to bypass the 2 hour line that was strategically placed in direct sunlight. HOW MUCH MONEY DO YOU WANT? DO NOT CARE, JUST TAKE ME INTO THE SHADE.

Outside view of Colosseum. Insert searing heat.

The tour ended up being worth it beyond the line skippage, I thought. Our first tour guide was a smashing young Italian lad who may have been a James Bond villain when he wasn't leading tour groups. The Colosseum was satisfyingly huge and impressive and James Bond villain did his best to crush our dreams that ancient Rome was anything like Gladiator. He did not, however, diminish my fantasy that all gladiators closely resembled Russel Crowe. You don't have any photos to prove me wrong, do you? DO YOU? I rest my case.

Inside the Colosseum. Notice how pale I am. I am not built to handle sunlight like this.

After the Colosseum tour we had a break where we could walk around by ourselves, take pictures etc. This is when Joe and I discovered that you have to try really, really hard to exit the Colosseum. There are signs everywhere that direct you to many exits that do not actually exist. Perhaps they have a few ancient tigers left to feed?

Once you enter, you cannot leave!! Except that you can.

After the break, we waited for part two of the tour: Palatine Hill above the Colosseum. Our tour guide for this leg was a young American guide who would have fit in perfectly in
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. I kept expecting him to tell us that Rome was totally gnarly. Alas, he did not.

He was, in fact, very knowledgeable, he just had a manner of speaking that implied he really should have been in a frat house in the 80s. Rad!

After the tour was finished and I was starving and that is about all I can remember about the rest of the day.

Day 3 was allotted for visiting the Vatican. Luckily, Joe reserved tickets to the Vatican museum the day before because-- wait for it-- it was 90 million degrees outside with at least a 3 hour wait in line. Guess who got to bypass the line? Suckers! Everybody should book in advance.

Here we see that it is perfectly acceptable for young children to play with alligators.

The Vatican museum is an enormous maze. Either you go through all of it or none of it. Several times Joe and I veered off to a side exhibit that mysteriously led us back to a part of the museum we had been to earlier. And could we walk back through the exhibit to get back to where we started? The Vatican guards issued a firm NO. You must walk the corridors in the suffocating crowds that you have ALREADY walked through. A tricksy one, that Pope.

Luckily, just about everything in the museum is interesting, even if you have no idea why a Roman emperor would require a giant red marble bathtub. There are sculptures, fountains, frescos, and frighteningly large bathtubs a plenty. The grand finale was the gorgeous Sistine Chapel. While the chapel is stunning, the museum's crown jewel, the entire tourist population in Europe also wants to see it. Because of this, when you enter the Sistine Chapel guards immediately descend upon you and hurry you out the door. Kind of a buzz kill, considering you could stare at the ceiling for hours. No cameras allowed either. The Vatican expressively forbids fun.

Kidding, kidding.

Just outside the Vatican museum is St.Peter's cathedral, also very beautiful and borderline terrifying. Look at this alter. Does not look like it belongs on the set of a Predator movie?

The picture does not do it it's terrifying justice: it is massive, pointy and black and looks like a place where kittens might be sacrificed. But though the alter wasn't to my taste, the cathedral really is beautiful. Probably the most beautiful I have seen so far.

And fun fact courtesy of James Bond villain tour guide: why is the Sistine Chapel and St.Peter's so beautiful? Because the Vatican stole all the material from monuments around Rome. The Colosseum is full of giant holes where bronze was dug out of the walls. Massive amounts of marble were 'borrowed' from Palatine hill.

Such is history, I guess. It did seem a little ironic though, that much of the Vatican’s beauty came at the expense of destroying similarly beautiful monuments. It’s like the Bible says: thou shalt not pillage thy neighbor’s Coliseum. I'm pretty sure that passage is right next to: thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s one-humped camel (thou mayst covet the two-humped camels for they are exquisite animals).

I’m really not sure where this stuff comes from. I'm sorry.

We also managed to see the Trevi fountain, which was pretty but completely and totally swarmed by tourists at all times. I quickly became intimately familiar with strangers unique body odors. Never the less, Joe and I managed to throw pennies into the fountain in hopes of returning to Rome one day.

Trevi fountain

Another big highlight of the trip was eating particularly delicious gelato. Some of my favorite in Italy. Our first trip, I sampled yogurt and honey gelato while Joe had caramel and Armagnac. My yogurt gelato was just okay but I’ve become somewhat obsessed with plain frozen yogurt (a la Pink Berry) and ate a lot of yogurt gelato in Italy. Perhaps, ahem, every day. But the honey gelato was delicious and amazing. Joe’s were both delicious, the Armagnac being surprisingly good. Given my distaste for alcohol I didn't think I would like it but that’s the magic of gelato for you: I don’t like ice cream or alcohol but I find alcohol flavored gelato delicious. Congratulations, Italy. You owe me some bigger pants.

The second visit I varied from my usual routine of yogurt gelato and got valrhona cocoa gelato paired with blackberry gelato. Joe got grapefruit gelato. I was persuaded by the valrhona title, a company that makes fantastic chocolate. It was not my favorite gelato but that’s really not saying much as every single gelato I’ve had in Europe has been worlds better than any ice cream I’ve had in the states. I felt similar about my blackberry gelato, but the two paired well. Chocolate berries, arghghgh *Homer Simpson drooling noises*.

Joe’s grapefruit really won out that day though. Joe has a knack for picking out solidly good fruit flavors while I am always entranced by fancier notions. Which essentially means I walk in saying things lik, "Trying to watch the ol' girlish figure, better stick with a scoop of sorbet!" and end up walking away with pistachio, chocolate hazelnut and caramel gelato. Oops. But anyway: grapefruit gelato: a good idea. Naming a grapefruit, "grapefruit": a questionable idea.

All in all, I liked Rome a lot more than I thought I would. I imagined the crowds and touristy nature would turn me off. But while it was crowded, its also a stunning place. Prettier than Venice, in my opinion, with better food and sites to boot. Rome is touristy, sure, but not in the same way as Venice. Venice felt like a cheap carnival that may have once been a great city. It was like attending a Renaissance Fair, if Renaissance Fairs took place in a small, dirty box and everything cost NINE MILLION EUROS. Minus the obvious Ren fair pluses of imaginary fairy princesses and life sized chess games.

…. We didn’t like Venice.

So yes, for all its downfalls, we really enjoyed Rome. We ate good food, saw some incredible landmarks and met a James Bond villain. Alright, the last part may not be strictly true. But that's beside the point. Rome = awesome. The end.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bologna, Part 2

Well, to be honest, all that I did the second day in Bologna was catch up writing the blog, so if you want to see what I did, go ahead and re-read some stuff with that in mind.  We did eat dinner, but the light was bad and the pictures came out all blurry.  The owners of the restaurant, called Trattoria Mariposa, were young and charming, though, and they asked us to draw some pictures for them to put up on the wall.

Who do you think drew which?

Outside they were having a parade for Jesus.  The End.