Tag Archives: Italy

Napoli

Napoli

We were all a bit sad to get on the train and leave behind the good times in Bologna, but I was still excited to see Naples, a city I hadn’t yet visited before this trip.  As soon as we got off the train, it was obvious that we had moved south.  After snowy Bologna, the temperatures in the 50s felt like a heat wave, and the famed grit and disorder of the city were immediately evident as we pushed through street vendors to get to taxis, which then had to circle around the periphery of the city to take us to our hotel, because of a rally going on downtown.  Naples was certainly dirty (I have never seen so much dog poop on sidewalks), and wild (nor have I been in so many reckless taxi rides), but still struck me with a particular beauty, especially when we opened our hotel windows to see a gorgeous view over the colorful city out to the water and Vesuvius in the distance.

antique splendor, Villa Pignatelli

We dined for the first time in Naples in a tiny, single room restaurant, where I had pasta alla siciliana, with eggplant, tomato sauce, and provolone cheese.  Lunch was followed by a visit to the Università degli Studi Suor Orsola, where our visit was being honored with a special seminar on food culture in Italy, at which a number of local professors spoke, and our own was invited to give an impromptu talk about our class.  That night, we had our first taste of Neapolitan pizza, which has a thicker crust (more like American pizza) than other typical Italian pizza.  Afterward, we headed to yet another beautiful theater, Teatro Mercadante, but this time for an Italian rendition of Macbeth, which had been very interestingly modernized.

Castello dell'Ovo

Castello dell'Ovo

Our last day was packed, as we tried to do and see as much as possible in Naples.  In the morning, we had a guided visit of the food still life exhibition at Villa Pignatelli, a museum that also has beautiful gardens and old interior decor.  During the afternoon, I walked with a few of my classmates along the shore, as we enjoyed the sun and the first truly blue skies of the trip, and passed fisherman, dog walkers, and lovers along the beach.  We ended up at the Castello dell’Ovo, a small ancient castle that juts out into the water, and offered impressive views of the city and the sea.  In the afternoon, we visited the Garofalo pasta factory, where the owner explained their methods as well as their innovative marketing and the philosophy behind their brand.  The visit culminated with a walk through the factory itself, where we saw, tasted, and smelled, pasta in its many stages of production, from cutting, to sorting, to packaging.

spaghetti

spaghetti waiting to be cut

For our final meal, we dined at the Città del Gusto, a center for cooking, learning, and eating for local students, where we had pizza, shrimp with potato and broccoli rabe, ricotta-stuffed pasta, fish with vegetables, and a chocolate cake, like a miniature Vesuvius with a molten chocolate core.  Now I’m back at Princeton, about to be a second semester senior, and for the first time in awhile I don’t have any more travel on the horizon (if long and treacherous trips to the library to work on my thesis don’t count).  Instead, I’ll be trying to enjoy all that I love about this place as much as possible before graduation.  This trip to Italy will definitely be among my most memorable Princeton experiences.  To see more of the story in photos, visit my Shutterfly site.

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Bologna

On Monday, we caught the train to Bologna, to spend two days in the city made famous by lunch meat.  We checked into a cozy hotel right in the city center, off Piazza Maggiore, the main square, and home to the suggestive Neptune fountain, and famously unfinished San Petronio Basilica.  As soon as we arrived, we left for a walking “gastronomic tour” of the city, where we learned about Bologna’s traditional cuisine, which is heavy on meats and fat.

prosciutto, salame, mortadella, formaggio

meat-filled lunch

One of the highlights of the tour was a visit to the Atti shop, which makes traditional bread, pastries, and pastas.  The owner explained the history of the family-run shop and the different types of products they make, letting us taste uncooked tortellini, meat bread, and cakes, which were all delicious, and made me wish that I had brought a bigger suitcase for a collection of food.  The last stop on the tour was a butcher shop, where we dined on a lunch of various sliced meats and cheeses.

That night we went to the home of one of our professor’s friends, whose family makes Fabbri liqueurs.  We tasted the cherry amarena, mixed with prosecco, and toasted our first night in Bologna, while snacking on some light antipasti: miniature pizzas and spinach rolls.  The house itself was also an attraction, with fascinating art and decoration all around.  The next morning, we had yet another city tour, but this one focusing on the history and attractions of the city, such as the San Petronio Basilica, the San Stefano church, municipal building, and university, which is usually considered the oldest university in the world, and has an ornate interior decorated with hundreds of crests of its past students.

old students crests

crests at the university

Though I had visited Bologna once before, I truly fell in love with the city on this trip, and not only because it was where we had the most fun (we met up with one of our classmates studying abroad there, and one of our favorite Italian professors on sabbatical).  It seemed like the perfect mix of historical and picturesque and modern, and was both traditional and filled with the vibrant young atmosphere of a university town.  Although it may not boast as many guidebook attractions as other Italian cities, Bologna seemed like a good place to go an spend a long period of time, without the swarms of tourists, but still with plenty to see and do.

San Petronio

San Petronio

On our last night in the city, as the snow that had begun falling earlier that day began to come down harder than ever, we trekked in a bus to a remote agriturismo to have a rustic meal.  We watched a pasta-making demonstration before sitting down for a long, though not particularly good, meal.  But our disappointment in the dining experience went to show how our group had truly become a piccola famiglia by that point.  What could have been a truly terrible dinner was filled with laughter and hilarity, proving that the company, and not the food, is often the most important part of the meal.

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C’era una volta

On Sunday, we drove out of Milan toward the northern lake country, for one of my favorite days of the trip, the “medieval dinner.”  Our bus barely made it up the steep gravel roads and dropped us off in front of the gates of a large stone house, where we were warmly welcomed by Elena, the owner, who immediately ushered us inside.  As we warmed ourselves in the spacious living room, adorned with interesting artwork, she recounted us the story of the house and her family’s relationship with it.

medieval house

outside i Vallicelli

Known as i Vallicelli, the house has records dating back to the early 1500s, which describe all of its past residents and their professions, although there are structural indications that the building existed since the 1000s.  Elena had moved into the house with her husband when she was younger, and the historic building and the surrounding natural beauty inspired her.  The property was almost a miniature natural preserve, with various wildlife and fruit trees, and when her children were born, she began making homemade jams.  This hobby has since expanded, and our tour of the house next led to the modern kitchens and storerooms, where the incredibly delicious preserves are now concocted and packaged.

also raspberry jam on the side, yum.

orange tart, the final dessert

After our introduction to the charming property was complete, we began the real business of the day–a feast.  The marathon meal (which would last about 4 hours in total), began with light appetizers: breads, regional cheeses and salami, tomato and olive pastes, and some of the homemade preserves.  Each course had been paired with a specific wine selected by a sommelier, and we clinked glasses for our first brindisi with a sparkling rosé.  Moving to the table, we began the first course, two types of quiche, one onion, and the other ricotta and spinach, accompanied by Pinot Bianco. We switched to red wine for the main course: beef, marinated in wine and spices for a week, and polenta, which had been cooking in an iron pot over the open fire since we had arrived.

polenta

polenta on the fire

By the time the vegetables arrived, we were all wondering if we would physically be able to survive the massive meal, but the cheesy cauliflower was too good to pass up.  Finally we were served a dessert wine, and made it to the final course, but there were two different desserts to finish: spiced wine-soaked pears, and an orange tart. Despite the fact that we finished off the meal with espresso, everyone was asleep about 5 minutes after we settled onto the bus…exhausted by the portions, and dreaming of polenta.

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Food, Slowly

On Saturday, the first full day in Italy, we left Milan and drove through the snow-dusted countryside to Pollenzo, a small town which is home to the Universita degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche, the relatively new gastronomic science university associated with the Slow Food movement. We took a short tour of the university itself, which offers seemingly too good-to-be-true courses on things like “cheese” and “food marketing” and both undergraduate and graduate degrees in gastronomy, and food culture, communications, and science (it’s not actually a culinary school, where any practical cooking takes place though). There was even a “sensory room,” for performing tests on different types and ingredients of food, including, naturally, taste tests. The complex also houses the Banca del Vino, a literal “wine bank” which stores cases of promising modern wines from Italian vintners to stand the test of time.

Gastro University

University of Gastronomic Sciences

The highlight of the visit to campus was a meeting with Carlo Petrini, the president of the Slow Food Movement, which is an international movement, that in addition to countering the modern plague of fast food and highly processed ingredients, seeks to promote sustainable and fair agriculture and a return to local, fresh, traditional recipes and ingredients, to be cultivated, prepared, and enjoyed with care and appreciation. Petrini spent most of the day with us, lecturing a bit on the history of the site, sharing a meal and casual conversation, and presenting a video on the principles of Slow Food, which was both thought-provoking and inspiring. His message really resonated with me, and still has me thinking about the importance of food in our lives, both culturally and nutritionally, and how many different aspects of society the seemingly simple act of eating touches–from science to business and international economics.

No visit to the Slow Food headquarters would be complete without a meal, however, so we spent a large part of our visit in the restaurant on campus, for a multiple course lunch. The menu: vitello tonnato (cold veal with tuna pate), flan di broccoli con fonduta (broccoli flan with cheese sauce), tajarin al sugo di salsiccia di Bra (Piemontese pasta with meat sauce), and panna cotta. The pasta, traditional to the region, was homemade with 40 egg yolks per 2 pounds of flour!

so much more delicious than it looks

incredible panna cotta

The panna cotta was indisputably the most impressive part of the meal, however, a sweet creamy dessert, with an indescribably light yet rich consistency, somewhere between the feel of sour cream and pudding, with caramel drizzled over the top…definitely something to be enjoyed slowly.

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La Vita alla Milanese

Only an hour after I finished my last fall semester exam on Thursday, I was headed to Newark airport with the rest of my Italian seminar (since down time is for the weak). We arrived in Milan on Friday morning, and checked into a lovely four star hotel (thanks, Princeton!) in the neighborhood near the Stazione Centrale, coincidentally enough on the exact same street I stayed on two weeks ago. The first thing I did in Milan was to break one of my cardinal rules of travel–I napped for 5 hours. Usually I subscribe to the theory that jet-lag is best avoided by staying up and going to bed at a normal time in the new time zone, but this time I just couldn’t resist.

La Scala opera house

La Scala opera house

Five hours later, I struggled out of bed, along with my fellow napping classmates, tried to put on something classy-looking and headed out for a night “alla Milanese”, at La Scala, the famous opera house, where we saw a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Our seats were far, far up in the Galleria, basically the furthest away seats that can be bought, but we still were able to see the stage fairly well, especially if we stood up occasionally. And in front of our seats, tiny screens displayed the words being sung, either in Italian or an English translation to make it easier to follow along and understand the plot. I certainly didn’t expect it to be disappointing, but I was still surprised how much I enjoyed the show–the costumes and sets were exquisite as well as the singers, and the plot was fairly fast-paced. 

in La Scala...just before they told me not to take photos

Overall an unforgettably impressive night on the town. During the two thirty-minute intermissions we were able to mingle and buy drinks with the other opera-goers (many of whom were wearing their furs). It felt like quite a local night in the city of fashion, and a cocktail afterward across the street from the hotel finished it off, ensuring that I got a restful 8 hours of sleep, even after the long nap.

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On the Road Again

Life since December has been a whirlwind.  Not only did I take the exciting trip to Sardinia that I wrote about a few weeks ago, but since then I’ve been busy finishing final papers and exams (due to Princeton’s unusual schedule of having fall semester finals after winter break).  Somehow in the midst of all that I managed to squeeze in a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan to see Josh for a few days last week, which was relaxing and wonderful.  I’d been to Ann Arbor for a few rushed days before, but this was the first time I really got to walk around downtown, see the UMich campus and get a feel for the city.  I loved the downtown area, which reminded me in some ways of Charlottesville, but almost seemed to have more exciting little shops and restaurants to explore.

Ann Arbor theater

State Theater in downtown Ann Arbor

However, in my recent tradition of not staying anywhere longer than a week, I’ll be leaving Princeton almost as soon as I’ve just returned to it.  After my last exam on Thursday morning, I’ll be headed to Newark airport to…guess where…Italy, once again!  This time I’m traveling with my Italian seminar (the full title of the class is Italy: The Land of Slow Food) which has been studying the literature, culture, and history of gastronomy in Italy for the past semester.  As the conclusion of the class, we’re taking a trip to Italy–to Milan, Bologna, and Naples, as well as some of their surrounding areas.  I’ll be traveling with my 12 classmates and my professor, and we’ll spend the week learning more about contemporary and traditional Italian cuisine and the Slow Food Movement, while certainly doing a LOT of tasting along the way.  Look for some delicious posts, starting this Friday, when we land in Milan, and continuing throughout the next week.

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Ciao, For Now

During our last full day in Sardinia we made the long drive from Cagliari, which is far in the south, all the way up the east coast back to Olbia. Along the way we passed through the mountainous regions, even catching glimpses of snow-capped peaks in the center of the island. The road, known as l’Orientale, also took us through some incredible towns that seemed to barely cling to the sides of the mountains, where the side streets were pericolosissimi–not only was there barely enough room for one little Fiat on the two-way streets (which people natually parked on anyway), but they twisted around blind curves, and were unbelievably steep. One such town we drove through was Orgosolo, famous for its beautiful and fascinating murals, many of which comment on life in Sardinia.

welcome to Orgosolo

welcome to Orgosolo

Olbia, when we finally arrived, was much more charming than my guidebooks had made it sound, but was another town that I could tell would be unpleasantly swarming with tourists in the summer (and way out of my price range, since it’s close to the posh Costa Smeralda resort area). Now, during the off-season, it was calm and pretty, perfect for window-shopping in the expensive stores, and wandering down the quiet alleyways and along the shore.

Olbia in the morning

I felt like we had just arrived, and it was hard to give up the keys to the rental car, but soon we were landing again in freezing Milan, after having enjoyed the mild weather of the Mediterranean (it was in the 60s for most of the week). During the last 15 hours in Milano, we toured La Scala opera house, and wandered around the fashion district a bit, returning to our new favorite Asian-run Italian restaurant for one last pizza. I’ll be back before long though…I’m returning to la bell’Italia with my Italian Slow Food seminar in just two weeks! We’ll be leaving on the 21st of January, and I’m looking forward to seeing Milan again, as well as journeying on to Bologna and Naples…so look forward to more blogging coming soon! I’m in the process of adding the most recent trip photos to my Shutterfly site, so continue to check back for a closer look.

Buon 2010

a Milan office building wishing a happy new year

Update: As of the evening of Jan. 8, the new album is all up.  Enjoy!

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Bites, Beaches, and Birds

outside the Duomo

near the Duomo in the castello district

After our day exploring the great outdoors, we arrived in Cagliari–Sardinia’s biggest city (population somewhere around 100,000), situated on its southern coast. I had already seen Cagliari last summer, but it was interested to see the island’s bustling capital in the winter, decked out in Christmas lights, and with a busy night market near the port, selling everything from fresh olives to traditional rugs. We spent the next morning wandering around the castello district, the city’s historic and picturesque area, situated high above the modern city. In the afternoon, we took a short excursion to some of the other towns on the southern coast, toward Pula, Nora, and Chia, where there are now-deserted beaches, that must be packed in the summer, and of course more ruins along the shore. On the drive there and back, we finally caught a glimpse of the island’s legendary wild flamingoes…they’re all over the Sardinian postcards, but I had been starting to doubt their actual existence until we saw tons of them hanging out in the salty pools on the side of the road.

surreal

landscape near Pula

I also enjoyed some of the best Sardinian food of the trip while in Cagliari. The hotel where we stayed was in the marina neighborhood, close to the port, with skinny cobblestone streets packed with shops and restaurants. Sardinia cuisine has its own characteristic pasta shapes, and includes lots of sheep cheese, seafood, olives, lamb, and pork. During our two nights in Cagliari, I enjoyed tasting lemon veal, sea urchin, gnochetti, Sardinian ravioli (filled with potato, mint, and sheep cheese), and of course some delicious local wines.

mmm delish

olives at the Cagliari market

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Sardinian Safari

baaaa

Sardinian traffic jam

From Oristano we set off for a day trip to the center of the island, where wild and ancient Sardinian sights awaited.  Country roads led us through sleepy looking towns, where farmers sat beside their fields selling their radishes and artichokes out of carts, and old men sat outside the local shops watching the lazy Sunday go by.  We found our way to Gesturi, where the skinny mountain road, and numerous camoflauged hunters, probably out looking for wild boar, took us to the top of a plateau, the Giara di Gesturi…last remaining wild home of the island’s own cavallini, or miniature horses.  At the top, we braved the dirt roads through the natural preserve in search of the elusive horses, of which only 500 are remaining in the wild.  I was sure we would never be able to spot them, but eventually we caught sight of some in the distant forest and pulled over the car to catch a closer look.  They’re no dog-sized pony, but are considered miniature because they have all of the proportions of a horse but are under-sized.  By the end, we even caught one crossing the road, to say goodbye as we left the park. 

mini horse awww

a cavallino of Gesturi

The horses aren’t the only ones we caught in the middle of the road, though.  By the end of the trip, we had braked for goats, swerved to miss calmly grazing cattle, honked at flocks of sheep crossing, and even caught a few plump pigs snuffling in the dirt on the side of the highway.snoooort

After the morning’s animal adventures, we stopped at Barumini, a small town not far from Gesturi, best known as the home of Su Nuraxi, a large complex of nuraghe–the prehistoric stone towers found all over the island–and UNESCO World Heritage site.  The nuraghe are key to Sardinian cultural heritage and ancient history, as they belong to some of the earliest people of the island, despite the fact that very little is known about them.  I took a tour of the nuraghic complex and was able to see the inside of the fortress as well as an overhead view of its layout, set on the bright green pastoral backdrop of Sardinian countryside.

nuraghe

the Su Nuraxi of Barumini

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The Long and Winding Road

Sinis

old tower at the end of the Sinis peninsula

After exploring Alghero a bit the next morning, we took the winding road that snakes along the cliffs on the west coast of the island.  While my aunt Pat watched out for the insane Italian drivers and cows on the side of the road (more on animals in the road to come), I got to hang out the window and take pictures of the moutains and blue waters down below.  Aside from the incredible views, the best part of the drive was getting to experience the eccentric little towns that we passed through along the way–the vineyards and olive groves, colorful houses, and tiny churches.  During one quick stop, an adorable lost dog hopped into our car and tried to hitch a ride while we were distracted taking pictures. 

puppy trying to make his escape

adorable hitchhiker

We took an additional detour on the way to Oristano, our eventual destination for the night, to the Sinis Peninsula, home to endless crop fields, tucked-away agriturismi, miniscule towns, and the ancient ruins of Tharros.  When we finally arrived to the provincial capital of Oristano, we were well taken care of by Maria, a bed and breakfast owner and Sardinian native who talked to me at length about her native dialect over breakfast on her rooftop terrace the next morning.  Oristano, while seemingly more urban than Alghero, still had a lovely downtown area, where we enjoyed shopping at the holiday night market, and the extremely friendly owner of a jewelry kiosk who unexpectedly taught me a lot about Sardinian cultural symbols.

Buone feste!

happy holidays from Oristano

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