Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

L’Ultima Pizza

I chose the title for this post a couple of evenings ago in Levanto when I came to the somewhat melancholy realization that I was about to enjoy my last Italian pizza for some time to come. Thanks to a general strike in France this turned out not to be the case after all, but before I get to that let me back up a bit since I’ve covered a lot of ground since my last post.

Incredibly as I write this it’s only been a week since I bid farewell to my fellow Tour du Mont Blanc hikers in Geneva airport. The tour, which was an extended 10-day version of the same one I hiked last June, was magnificent: on every day but our last we had clear weather to enjoy the spectacular views of the Mont Blanc range, and while I very much enjoyed the largely fogbound June tour, I am pleased that I now actually have a sense of the geography we covered. Although the alpine flowers were mostly finished, the blueberries and raspberries were out in force, so much so that some days I had to discipline myself to take at least 10 steps before stopping to grab another handful.

mmmmm.... berries....

From Geneva I took a flight to Rome, from where I caught a series of trains and buses to Tarquinia, about 100 km to the northwest, to see the Etruscan necropolis and in particular the Tomb of the Leopards painted around 470 BC, which I wrote a paper on nearly two decades ago for an undergrad art history class. Mission accomplished, from Tarquinia I travelled along the coast by train to spend a couple of days in Levanto, a Ligurian beach resort town just north of the Cinque Terre that I visited a few times earlier this year while based in Torino.

From Levanto the easiest way back to Chamonix would have been via Torino, but I decided that I would rather cover some new ground during my last week before returning to Canada (a bit of a recon mission for my next trip here), so I chose a train route via the Cote d’Azur that added about 8 hours to the journey. Thanks to Jean-Marc, our guide on the Tour du Mont Blanc and also an avid reader who lent me a book from his library and gave me plenty more recommendations, I’m enjoying another fiction binge so the time spent on trains goes by quickly between the mostly gorgeous scenery and a stack of contemporary French novels.

Which brings me to The Last Pizza (4 formaggi, incidentally), which turned out not to be the last pizza, because on arriving at Ventimiglia on the Italian-French border I learned that due to a strike in France my connecting trains to Monaco and onward to Nice were canceled until the next morning. Determined to make the best of a warm and sunny afternoon on the Mediterranean I checked into the first hotel I could find, paused long enough for a gelato (yes, I finally seem to have found some new gelato capacity), then changed into my swimsuit and headed for the beach. Next – you guessed it – I went for a pizza dinner (prosciutto e funghi).

Since the first hotel I could find was the kind of place that provides a can of Raid on the night table I didn’t waste any time the next morning and caught the first train to Monaco. By 10 am I was enjoying a beautiful day in Nice, a city I wasn’t sure I’d like, but that I found quite charming, like walking around in a Matisse painting. I spent the better part of today travelling by train to Annecy, a very different city but also charming and a possible future Winter Olympics host, where I’ll spend the night and most of tomorrow before taking the much shorter train ride from here back to Chamonix…. where I’ll spend my last two nights before heading back to Geneva to catch a flight to Bangkok … and from there to Hong Kong … and from there to Vancouver ….


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September 4, 2010, 1310 hours. Autostazione [bus station], Aosta, Piemonte, Italy.

The exact location where back in June I reached maximum gelato capacity (see earlier post). On September 4, I was back in Aosta, having arrived that morning by bus from Chamonix and enjoyed a delicious lunch of insalata, bruschetta, rose wine and caffe in the sunny central square, and still had 20 minutes to spare before my bus to Cogne. Should I put it to the test? Half of me said no, you’re still full from that big lunch, wait until you get to Cogne. The other half could not resist the symmetry of the situation, and convinced me to walk the short distance away to la Dolce Terapia [Sweet Therapy], the very gelatteria I’d bought the coppetta from on that fateful day last June. Una coppetta con fondente e pistacchio, per favore, I placed the order, which was ready within moments. It was a hot day, my hands were full with my luggage, and the gelato was melting fast, so I walked as quickly as possible back to the autostazione, dropped my bags on the ground, and began to eat.

The verdict? I could not do it. More than half of the coppetta went into the garbage can. Apparently, despite having been absent from Italy for 2 months, I am still at maximum gelato capacity.

Cogne and its surroundings are as beautiful as ever, and I’ve spent the last couple of days in the area enjoying some solo hiking in Gran Paradiso. There aren’t as many wildflowers now, and with less snow the views aren’t quite as spectacular as they were in June, but the trails are drier and easier to navigate and the scenery is still stunning. Today I’ll head back to Chamonix where I look forward to meeting the group I’ll be hiking with for the next 10 days on the Mont Blanc circuit.

…. “We look down on the Alps,” a Bhutanese acquaintance said to me a few days ago when I mentioned this as my next destination. “Yes, but they have better wine,” I countered. And better caffe I should have added. Over the last 2 months I had attempted to drink the coffee in Ireland, England, Mongolia and Bhutan and in almost every case was forced to set aside the cup of what I charitably referred to as coffee-flavoured beverage after a few sips (one of the exceptions was in a small cafe on the Aran Island of Inishmoor which served Lavazza – made in Torino! – coffee; the owner had lived for a time in Italy with a former girlfriend, and in true Irish form managed to tell a few good stories in the moments it took for me to drink my tazze of espresso). Call me a coffee snob if you want, but I can’t help it. As a character in a book I read recently said, just a few months in Italy can spoil you for life… in a good way. If any of my fellow Mongolian riders are reading, I am happy to report that the countdown is over: that first caffe in Aosta was even better than I imagined, and I’ve savoured several more since. Though my coppetta runneth over, clearly my tazze doth not.

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It was a week ago on a dead Sunday night in Aosta, the football game was over, the bars had emptied, and I was sitting on a bench with a coppetta of gelato looking up at the mountains I would be hiking into the next day. I had worked my way down to the best flavour: fondente (I type with reverence), a rich dark chocolate that even in melted form could probably keep a spoon standing. Then something incredible happened: I suddenly could not take another bite. I was full! I had reached maximum gelato capacity. Half of me gaped in disbelief as the other half got up and deposited the unfinished coppetta in a nearby garbage can.

All the preceding week since returning to Torino from Chamonix and Mont Blanc I had been restless. A series of thunderstorms was heralding the coming shift from pleasant late spring weather to sweltering summer heat, and my seasonal instincts were telling me it was time to get out of the city. On the one sunny day I decided to make use of a trail map I’d accidentally bought back in April, and headed for the hills above Chivasso 20 minutes out of Torino where I spent several happy hours exploring the forest. Apart from a rainsoaked day trip to pretty Lago Maggiore, I passed the rest of the week glumly watching the relentless downpour. As soon as the weather forecast announced an improvement, I was on the train to Aosta, and spent two absolutely spectacular days hiking in Gran Paradiso National Park.

I would have gladly stayed longer, but Marco had convinced me I should come back for San Giovanni (aka St. Jean Baptiste: Torino and Québec have the same patron saint). And yeah, there was a parade with people in period costume and lots of marching bands, a big bonfire in Piazza Castello, and a fireworks show on the river, the sorts of civic events one should participate in when one adopts a city as a temporary home … My plan to escape back to the mountains on a 6 am train the next day was foiled by a transportation strike. The next day was Saturday so I decided to make a trip to the charming little town of Alba which I’d been planning to visit for weeks, thinking that many places might be closed Sunday and it might be my last chance to get there. I finally made it back to the mountains for a short hike yesterday – this time to Limone in the Maritime Alps.

And then this morning I got on a train to Rome where I’ll stay one night (initial impression is I like it, but I think for me it’s probably best taken in small doses), tomorrow it’s back to Levanto just north of the Cinque Terre where the sea will make this heat more bearable, Thursday night return to Torino and early Saturday morning all packed up and on the plane…

As for my gelato aversion, well it’s somewhat abated. I can once again eat it with a certain amount of pleasure, but the hunger just isn’t there anymore. I really am full. This is also how I feel about Italy. There is much I love, much I am grateful for, and much I still hope to discover, and though I’m not sure I’ll ever again have the luxury of lingering here for three months I feel pretty sure I’ll be back many times to absorb more of this energy. But as with the gelato I’ve taken in about all I can… for now.

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“Are you fucking kidding me?” said a rather unsympathetic inner voice. “You’re in Italy. I-TA-LY.” Even the most independent of free spirits have been known to develop attachments under the right circumstances, so I hope I’m not destroying my image by confessing now that back in April when I woke up my first morning in Torino, I so missed Bhutan that the first thing I did was burst into tears. “Wine. Food. Art. The Mediterranean. Italian. Italians!” the voice went on as I sniffled my way through a cup of Tsheringma tea, then through unpacking and decorating my apartment with the few random objects I had to work with: a birdman keychain that was a gift from Pato on Rapa Nui, a decade old photo of my friend Bobbi and me sitting on a log somewhere in the British Columbia rain forest, the photo of His Majesty the Fifth Druk Gyalpo that Principal Abbot Thinley had given me at Talo (sniff), the prayer wheel from Sonam (sniff), a wheel of life fridge magnet (sniff sniff sniff)… A text message came in from Marco with an address for yet another pasticerria. I wished I had some yak cheese and that Tshe Tshe was there to talk to. “GO OUTSIDE AND FALL IN LOVE WITH THIS PLACE” the voice commanded.

And, well, that’s pretty much what I did. After all, Torino and Italy are pretty lovable.

That said, Bhutan carries a certain quality of energy for me that I’ve only encountered fleetingly and in much less intensity in Italy, and I’d resigned myself to waiting until my next trip back in August to fully experience it again. Or at least that was the case until last week when I finally got right into the Alps instead of just appreciating them from a distance. There were no curious monklets to keep me company (or to whack me over the head with wooden phalluses), no babies offering me betel nut, no farmers inviting us in for butter tea and arra, no tsechu dances. There were however bonjours and buon giornos, ibex, moobex (a term coined by one of the other trip members, AJ – pronounced “ah zhee” en français), grassy meadows, snowy passes, alpine flowers, treeless scree slopes that reminded me of Baffin Island, waterfalls, rushing streams, wines, cheeses, terrines, quietness, and somewhere in all of that, a supply of the spirit I had been missing. I didn’t even care that weather and snow conditions forced us to cut one of our afternoons short, or that the spectacular panoramas which are the signature of the Tour du Mont Blanc were hidden behind fog and clouds for most of our six days of hiking. Breathtaking though they are I am sure, in their presence I imagine one might too easily overlook all the other life around: water droplets on petals, birdsongs, iridescent insects, no less magnificent or deserving of admiration because of their smallness.

I literally dragged my feet on the last day of our trip I was so reluctant to come back to town, but was quickly cheered up by the emails from Sonam and Tshe Tshe waiting in my inbox, a reminder of more good things to come. A little wistful boarding the bus back to Aosta but nonetheless refreshed and satiated, I beamed out a bear hug of thanks to the big old white mountain with its spirit that unlike Bhutan’s, did not strike me with the invigorating assault of a thunderous waterfall, but with something more like the caress of a gentle, steady rain. A powerful, but comfortable energy, the kind that could make a place a home….

Que la vie est belle.

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After a whirlwind tour through Milan, Paris, and London, none of which I’m particularly fond of, I’m happy to be back home in Torino enjoying all my routines: morning coffee and croissant at the caffe-bar across the street, hanging laundry to dry all over my apartment, shopping for delicious fresh fruit, vegetables, pasta, wine, etc., and reading War and Peace on a bench by the river Po.

Milan, apart from the chance to see daVinci’s Last Supper which is well worth the view in person, was a bit of a nightmare. Congested narrow streets, an almost total absence of greenery, impeccably dressed men in a hurry with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, ridiculous prices, and il Duomo – an immense Gothic cathedral that like many other aspects of Milan is just a little too much for me. I sat for awhile at a trattoria near the Duomo watching wealthy Russians, Asians, and Middle Easterners come to get their Gucci on striding by with enormous shopping bags, and laughing to myself at how Prada’s flagship store faces directly onto a giant McDonalds … laughing until I got my exorbitant lunch bill. In my hurry to get out of town I slipped getting into the airport train and ended up with blood pouring down my shin and a limp, but got out of town nonetheless: to Paris.

My limp made the idea of sightseeing in Paris rather unappealing, which was fine because I’ve been there enough times before to see nearly all the “must-sees”. I did have an absolutely lovely dinner at the home of old friends from my law school days, Dougall and Valerie, who I hadn’t seen in over a decade, who are still as cool as ever (and not just because they gave me a bag of ice for my ankle), and now the parents of two very cute kids. I really hope much less time will pass before we see each other again.

Then it was onto London via the Eurostar train through the Chunnel, where I was very happy to meet up with friends Nicolas and Charlene, then got down to business: get Mongolian visa, see osteopath and physiotherapist (who between them pretty much restored my foot and ankle to their pre-Milan condition), buy boots for upcoming hike around Mont Blanc and a few summer clothes in my size, and take a token doubledecker bus tour. Mission accomplished.

Just before heading off on the above tour, I managed to make it back for a couple of days to Levanto, on the Ligurian coast just north of the Cinque Terre, where this time the weather was sunny and the fragrance was of roses and basil. I retraced some of my steps, an entirely different experience without the fog, and also hiked a gorgeous, if occasionally terrifying, trail around the Portofino promontory.

So… imagine that Neil Diamond was from Newfoundland. Now make this whole scenario Italian. That is the closest that I can come to describing the phenomenon of Nino d’Angelo, aging Napoli pop star. Definitely not the sort of thing I would have come across on my own, but thanks to Marco, who offered me an extra ticket to come with him, Marina and her boyfriend Roberto, and another friend to Nino’s Torino show, I got to see him a couple of weeks ago. Apparently there are a lot of Napolis in Torino who have migrated over the decades for work with Fiat, which made for enthusiastic responses to Nino’s cries of Viva il sud!!! throughout the night. As I repeated to Marina over a pizza a few days later, it was a lot of fun 🙂


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Spring Flowers

[Translation of previous post] This post is dedicated to my dear Mémé, who this past April 24th followed my beloved Pépé into the Light. In honour of them, I wrote the first version of this post in their language, even though I knew I couldn’t even manage these few short paragraphs in French without many mistakes and anglicisms.

It’s true that Italy in springtime is a sight to behold, but it’s her fragrances that I find the most charming. Lemon, lavender, rosemary, little flowers growing everywhere whose names I don’t know, greenery, damp earth, fog, and the sea. And that’s without even mentioning the smells coming from the kitchens: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mozzarella, prosciutto, wine, chocolate, oranges … just to start. These scents are my best memories of Cinque Terre, a small region of the coastline about 3 hours from Torino, which I visited toward the end of April. Having made the happy discovery over the last few months in Patagonia and Bhutan that my foot and ankle, which I injured in an accident several years ago, can once again bear long hikes, I took the opportunity to take first the traditional “azzuro” trail, which takes one through the five villages in about 4 hours, and the next day, the less popular “rosso” trail, which is close to 40 km long. The latter begins at Portovenere, a maritime village with a medieval castle and an ancient church built on top of a pagan temple. The poet Byron spent some time here, and it’s said that he once swam across the gulf to visit his friend Shelley who lived on the other side. It’s only a little south from here that Shelley drowned.

After leaving Portovenere, I spent the next 12 hours accompanied by the scents I mentioned earlier, first crossing a section of narrow path bordered by brush and steep drops to the rocks and the sea. A fall here knocked the wind out of me and reminded me of the importance of staying present in the moment. Next were vineyards, hills, villages, woods and sanctuaries, and often I could not orient myself with respect to the coast far below because of the dense fog. The fog provided a sense of mystery I quite enjoyed, although I no doubt missed some spectacular panoramas because of it. The trail ended at Levanto, a very pleasant seaside resort where I spent the next morning napping on the beach and savouring the local pizza and homemade ice cream before returning to Torino.

This week, I got back into hiking, this time on the island of Elba with my friend Charlene, who was a classmate of mine last year in Toronto. Despite the unusually cold and damp weather, we spent several very enjoyable hours exploring the island’s trails. Of course we also took time to enjoy the local wine, beer and seafood. Yesterday we left Elba for Pisa, where we climbed the famous Leaning Tower and visited the cathedral next to it. It’s in Pisa that I now find myself this evening writing this post (Charlene left for London this morning) sitting next to a window overlooking the Arno river in an 1830s hotel where I can imagine many young ladies and gentlemen on their “Grand Tours” of the continent took rest.

I was in Torino two weeks ago when I got the news of Mémé’s death. After a several hours of researching plane tickets and direct and indirect communications with parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I managed to make arrangements to join my family in Ontario on the Tuesday, which left me with one full day before my departure to Canada. Rather than spend it home alone, I decided to go and see something beautiful to keep myself occupied, and also because it seemed to me the best way to honour Mémé. So that Monday, I found myself at Pralormo, a country castle just an hour outside of the city, where there is an annual tulip festival. The day was warm and sunny, which brought out the delicate perfume of the tulips and other flowers even more. Throughout the garden were young families, older couples, groups of friends, everyone in a good mood and feasting on the good weather, the little well-cared for castle, the bright colours, the fragrances, and the gelato for sale in the market. Mémé never crossed any oceans or walked through any castle grounds, and I’m told, she preferred roses to tulips, but in that garden full of all the hope and beauty of springtime, I still felt her presence. The pretty, sassy young woman Pépé fell in love with in the 1940s, who was still very much with us even after her body had carried eleven babies and lived eighty-four years, after her bones had become thin and brittle and she had suffered so many losses, most recently of her husband and of her twin sister, that woman that we saw in the many photos that my cousins and I, her grandchildren, prepared for the funeral home: her wedding day, in the water wearing her Daisy Duke shorts and holding two little girls (my aunts) by the hand, celebrating her thirtieth, fortieth, fiftieth and sixtieth wedding anniversaries, and proudly holding a new great grandchild in her arms, that woman, I do believe, would certainly have shared in the joie de vivre of such a garden on such a day, and its her spirit that I felt with me and will carry in my heart.

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Les fleurs du printemps

[English translation to follow] Ce post est dédié à ma chère Mémé, qui a ce 24 avril passé suivi mon Pépé bien aimé à la lumière. C’est par respect pour eux que je tente cette fois d’écrire d’abord en leur langue, bien que je sache être incapable de sortir même ces quelques petits paragraphes sans multiples erreurs et anglicismes.

C’est vrai que l’Italie au printemps est joli à voir, mais ce sont plutôt ses fragrances qui me charment. Le citron, la lavande, le romarin, plusieurs sortes de petites fleurs qui poussent partout dont je ne connais les noms, la verdure, le sol humide, la brume, et la mer. Et cela sans même parler des odeurs qui proviennent des cuisines: les tomates, l’ail, l’huile d’olive, le vinaigre balsamique, le mozzarella, le prosciutto, le vin, le chocolat, les oranges … pour commencer. Ces parfums sont mes plus beaux souvenirs de la Cinque terre, petite région du littoral méditerrané à trois heures de Turin que j’ai visité vers la fin du mois d’avril. Ayant constaté avec grand plaisir ces derniers mois en Patagonie et au Bhutan que mon pied et ma cheville, blessés dans un accident il y a plusieurs années, puissent de nouveau supporter de longues randonnées, j’en ai profité pour faire d’abord le sentier “azzuro” classique qui traverse les cinq villages en environ 4 heures, et le lendemain le sentier “rosso” moins fréquenté qui a près de 40 km de longueur. Ce dernier commence à Porto Venero, village maritime doué d’un château médiéval, et d’une église très ancienne bâtie par-dessus un temple pagan. Le fameux poète Byron y ait passé quelque temps, et on dit qu’il ait une fois traversé le golfe en nageant pour rendre visite à son copain Shelley qui habitait de l’autre côté. En faite, ce n’est qu’un peu au sud d’ici que Shelley ait noyé.

Après avoir quitté Porto Venero, j’ai passé les prochaines douze heures, toutefois accompagnée des fragrances que je viens de mentionner, à traverser d’abord une section étroite bordée de maquis et de descentes raides aux roches et à la mer où une petite chute m’a coupée le soufflé et m’a rappelée de l’importance de rester toujours présente dans le moment. Par la suite des vignobles, des collines, des villages, des bois, et des sanctuaires, souvent sans pouvoir m’orienter vis-à-vis la côte loin ci-dessous à cause de la brume, ce qui a donné une sensation de mystère que j’ai beaucoup appréciée bien qu’à cause d’elle j’ai sans doute manqué de panoramas spectaculaires. Le sentier termine à Levanto, station balnéaire très agréable où j’ai passé le lendemain matin à faire sieste sur la plage et savourer du pizza et gelato artisanal avant de retourner à Turin.

Cette semaine, je me suis remise à faire des randonnées, cette fois ci sur l’île d’Elbe en compagnie de Charlene, une copine que j’ai connue à Toronto l’année passée qui suivait le même programme d’étude que moi. Malgré le temps frais et humide atypique, nous avons passé plusieurs heures très plaisantes à explorer les sentiers de l’île. Bien sûr nous avons aussi profité du vin, de la bière et des fruits de mer locaux. Hier nous avons quitté Elbe pour Pise, où nous avons visité la fameuse tour penchée et la cathédrale située à quelques pas de ce dernier. C’est à Pise que je me retrouve ce soir à écrire ces mots (Charlene est repartie pour Londres ce matin) assise à côté d’une fenêtre qui donne sur le fleuve Arne dans un hôtel qui date des années 1830 et où je peux bien imaginer que de nombreux jeunes messieurs et demoiselles faisant leur “grand tour” du Continent aient pris repos.

J’étais à Turin il y a deux semaines quand j’ai eu la nouvelle de la mort de ma Mémé. Après quelques heures de recherches et de nombreuses communications directes et indirectes avec parents, tantes, oncles et cousins j’ai réussi à faire des arrangements pour rejoindre ma famille en Ontario le mardi, ce qui faisait qu’il me restait un jour complet avant de repartir. Plutôt que de la passer seule chez moi, j’ai décidé d’aller voir quelque chose de beau pour me distraire et aussi parce qu’il me semblait la meilleur façon d’honorer ma Mémé. C’est de même que je me suis trouvée ce lundi là à Pralormo, un château de campagne à peu près d’une heure en dehors de la ville, où a lieu un festival de tulipes annuel. La journée était chaude et ensoleillée, ce qui faisait sortir autant de plus les parfums délicats des tulipes et de l’autre flore. Parmi le jardin on trouvait de jeunes familles, de couples plus âgés, de groupes d’amies, tous de bonne humeur, et se régalant du beau temps, du petit château si bien entretenu, des couleurs vives, des fragrances et des gelatos en vente dans le petit marché à côté. Ma Mémé n’a jamais traversé d’océans, ne s’est jamais promenée dans des terrains de châteaux, et, m’a-t-on dit, préférait les roses aux tulipes qu’elle détestait, mais dans ce jardin plein de tout l’espoir et la beauté du printemps, j’ai tout de même ressenti sa présence. La jeune femme jolie et coquette avec laquelle mon Pépé est tombé amoureux dans les années 1940s, qu’on pouvait facilement reconnaître même après que son corps ait porté onze bébés, et vécu quatre-vingt quatre ans, après que ses os soient devenus minces et fragiles et qu’elle ait souffert tellement de pertes, les plus récemment de son époux et de sa sœur jumelle, que l’on voyait dans les nombreux photos que mes cousins et moi, ses petits enfants, avions préparées pour la maison funéraire: le jour de ses noces, dans l’eau portant ses shorts “Daisy Duke” avec deux petites filles qui sont mes tantes aujourd’hui, fêtant ses trentième, quarantième, cinquantième et soixantième anniversaires de mariage, et tenant fièrement dans ses bras un nouveau arrière petite enfant, cette femme, je crois bien, aurait aussi bien su partager la joie de vivre dans un tel jardin une telle journée, et c’est cet esprit que j’y ai ressenti avec moi et que je garderai dans mon cœur.

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