Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

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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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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