2010
Oct 
9

From Adversity, Opportunity or from Venice to Trieste

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 4:18 am  

We had a good day in Venice yesterday. We wandered through the city on our way to Piazza San Marco but the tourist throng was thick so we opted for some less crowded streets. At San Zaccaria, we saw his remains and puzzled over the inscription saying he was the father for John the Baptist. From the entrance of San Salvador we admired the artwork but declined to pay for a closer look. Past San Salvador we mistook the hospital for another church. It did seem strange to have a pharmacy as part of the church. It took us a while to figure out that the identically marked boats docked in the canal next to the hospital were ambulances. Like everything in Venice, emergency medical transport happens by water.

We took the public transit boat to the nearby island of Torcello and visited the Basilica, Church and Museum there. On the way back we got a call from our host. Rather than rent a hotel, we are staying on a yacht. It is well situated to visit the city and we have a good sized stateroom with a private bathroom.

Unfortunately, there was mixup with the booking. We had originally booked for two nights and had changed it to three. This change didn’t make it into the reservation system and so the yacht was rented to a company who were hosting an event in Trieste. So our host had found us another place to stay, not an easy task on such short notice in Venice. When we checked the proffered hotel on TripAdvisor, it didn’t look that good so we made a counter proposal. We would travel with the boat up to Trieste, spend the night there and clear out early Sunday for the next booking. So we leave Venice a day early but get a seven hour ride on a private yacht up the Italian coast.

This is one of the benefits of long term travel. You can accept opportunities like this if your schedule is flexible. There is a real tension between booking things ahead of time and improvising. One gives you peace of mind and often reduced rates. The improv approach offers variety and spontaneity at the risk of a bad experience. It often comes down to a personal preference and many couples represent opposite ends of the spectrum. In our relationship, Carol is the planner and I tend to make it up as I go along.

Update:  6pm

The trip to Trieste turned out to be more exciting than expected.  We stopped in Lignano to refuel.  At the tax free fuel dock there was much animated discussion about the libretto.  My optimistic side assumed this was a celebration of fuel that could be had for a song.  Over lunch, we learned that libretto in Italian is a small book, in this case the ships log.  It was not on board and so they weren’t able to buy tax free fuel.  After lunch we went to the regular fuel dock and then headed for Trieste.

The sea was calm and the sky clear.  It appeared we had smooth sailing ahead but it was not to be.  A fast police boat passed us going the other direction.  This got the attention of the crew.  Sure enough, the cruiser swung around and ordered us to stop.  They tied along side.  So far they haven’t boarded but there has been more animated libretto discussions.

Update: 9pm

Arrived safely in Trieste.  Turns out we were stopped by the taxation police who where only concerned with the colour of our gasoline.

Coda:

We left the boat early this morning and caught the train to Florence.  The trip to Trieste was a more adventurous than expected.  The crossing to Lignano was a bit rough and bureaucratic delays turned a 7 hour trip into 11 hours.  The crew was very nice to us, explaining what was happening and reassuring us in both words and demeanour that the one hour detainment by the taxation police was typical and no cause for concern. In fact their bemused acceptance made it clear that this is life in the tourist interstitials.  It was only a series of coincidences that let us see this part of managing a ship.

If we had taken the original suggestion to move to a Venice hotel we would be none the wiser.  As we left this morning the crew and catering company were transforming the ship into a gleaming party venue stocked with food and wine.  The new tenants would arrive to find everything perfect as if the boat had materialized at the dock.  Thus the illusion is maintained unless you peek behind the curtain.

Still, no regrets.  The journey was a bit rough but the sky was clear and entering Trieste harbour at night is breathtaking.

2010
Oct 
7

Lake Garda and Verona

Filed under: Italy — Tags: — Russell @ 3:29 am  

Lake Garda is a large inland lake in Northern Italy.  A short distance from Verona, it is a popular holiday destination for Italians, Germans and Swiss.  Ringed by a dozen small towns the lake is a great place for boating, fishing or just hanging out.  We spent the last four nights at Peschiera del Garda on the southern tip.  The first day it rained so we headed to Verona, a 20 minute train ride, to enjoy some sheltered fun.  The tourist bus drove through the town with multilingual commentary on the famous sights including the fictional home of Juliet Capulet, and the pipe organ where a musical Dennis the Menice carved his initials, WSM for Wolfgang Mozart.  We stopped for a while at Castel Vecchio which has a fairly good museum.  Whenever the weather got us down a dash of excellent espresso raised our spirits.  The coffee in Italy is fantastic.  I don’t know how Italians survive in North America.

The second day we took the boat to Bardolino.  This town is known for its wine and a festival was just wrapping up.  We tasted some of the local vintage including a very light red suitable for drinking without food.  The town is clearly set up to accommodate huge numbers of tourists but in October the streets were not crowded.  We had no trouble getting a table at one of the many lake side cafes.  More excellent coffee and ice cream was consumed.

On the third day we had lunch in Peschiera at Osteria Goto.  The meal was excellent and the service friendly.  We had a stronger Bardolino which was not over powering but still held its own against a dish of smoked duck.  After lunch we took the boat to Garda which is a bit further north than Bardolino (the town not the wine).  This town lays between two large cliffs and is very touristy. Half the building are hotels.  Still, the tourist shops don’t erase the charm of this 500 year old walled city.  We arrived back in Peschiera just as the sun set.

Today, we travel to Venice where we will stay for three nights and then on to Florence.

2010
Oct 
3

A brief stop in Novara

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 6:32 am  

On Friday we left Paris and flew to Milan.  There our friend Renato picked us up at the airport and drove us to his home town of Novara.  Unfortunately, he is sick with the flu so we won’t be spending time with him as we had planned.  He did suggest a good restaurant where we had excellent pizza and antipasto.

Yesterday, we spent the day shopping, walking around and eating.  We purchased SIM cards for our cell phones so we can make local calls.  This was more difficult than expected since Italian law only allows phones to be sold to people with Italian identity cards.  The very helpful woman at the shop explained that she was not allowed to sell us a phone but that some shops ignored the law.  She also suggested where such shops can be found.  So we were able to get our phones activated in Italy.  We also bought a 3G cellular modem with a one month plan.  The modem was 20 Euros and 150 hours of high speed internet was another 20 Euros.

So now we can keep in touch and access the Internet anywhere.  I also ordered a MiFi on Ebay which should arrive in a few weeks.  This will allow all of our electronic devices to share a single data SIM.  It seems that both on cost and availability, Europe has a much better telecommunications infrastructure than Canada.  To celebrate (flaunt?) this excellent connectivity, this post is sent from a train.

2010
Oct 
2

L’Astrance

Filed under: Paris — Tags: — Russell @ 12:20 am  

A couple of weeks ago, Carol suggested that we go to a high end restaurant in Paris.  I’m was interested but the price seemed insane.  So we kept to the reasonable but well reviewed places.  Then my friend Thomas, whose judgment I trust, especially on things Parisian, asked if we were going to one of the top restaurants in town.  He said it was an experience not to be missed and described a dessert that brought tears to his eyes.  So on his recommendation we made a reservation at L’Astrance.  Not only is this rated as the 16th best restaurant in the world, it has a relaxed attitude towards attire.  This is very important when you are travelling with a small wardrobe.

Our reservation was for Sept 30th which was our last full day in Paris.  What a fantastic end to the month.  We arrived a bit early so we strolled along the Seine across from the Eiffel Tower.  At the restaurant the staff was friendly and courteous.  The menu is something of a formality as there are very few choices.  You choose how many courses you want and if you want wine.  We didn’t consider the question of wine a choice and selected the day’s lunch with wine.  At this point you are in the hands of the kitchen staff who are eminently more qualified to make food decisions.

What followed was a ballet of food as plate after plate of exquisite fare swept into view.  The wait staff coordinated their movements so as to maintain symmetry and synchronicity.  Each course was accompanied by an appropriate wine which arrived at the table still swilling around the glass in a tornado of scent.  It was without a doubt the finest meal we had ever eaten.  Afterwards, we tried to recall the elements but it was difficult due to the complexity of creation and presentation.  Briefly, here is what we remember:

Brioche with lemon butter.  Almond crisp with apple with praline in the center.  Shortbread square.

Tomato juice with sesame yogurt.  Very light white wine.

Prawns in veg soup.  Made with the broth of the prawn.  Veg sliced very thin.  Served with Gewürtztraminer

Fish course with tamarind sauce.  Grilled squid rings with Asian chili peppers.  Spinach condiment

Foie Gras fused to the thinest slice of toast as if it has been grown by the duck.  Tender breast of duck.

Indonesian roll (candied outer shell) chili pepper, satay.  The roll delivered a succession of tastes. Licorice condiment and black Japanese garlic.  Wine – Rich pure Cabernet

Chili sorbet with some fruit.

A dessert of fig, almond foam and toasted rice wafer.  Walnut cake with chocolate mousse.  Cardamom and coffee ice cream with butter ginger cookies.  Eggnog in the eggshell.  Wine was Italian, a taste similar to port but not fortified.

Fruit plate.

Coffee.

Heaven

2010
Sep 
29

Can you mime a dry cough?

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 2:51 am  

The pace of our Parisian activities has slackened over the last few day. We started settling down into a more comfortable rhythm and we both caught a bit of a cold. After a couple of days Carol started coughing. So in my quest to win a “best husband of the year” award I agreed to go and buy cough syrup. Normally, this would not be noteworthy but it was not as easy as you might imagine.

The language problem was a bit challenging. I studied French for four years in elementary school but it never really clicked.  My pronunciation is appalling. No matter what I try to say it comes out as: “S’il vous plaît mettez le fromage de chèvre sous le radiateur”. You should see the kind of haircut such a request produces. Luckily, I acknowledge my bad French and left the house armed with a scrap of paper with the words, “sirop pour la toux sèche”.  Thanks Google Translate.

DilutionThere are lots of stores in Paris with a distinctive neon green cross outside. These appear to be pharmacies but appearances can be deceiving. At the nearest green cross I made several attempts to read my 5 word script. This was not successful. Resigned, I just gave her the scrap of paper and she immediately went to the shelf and handed me a package labelled toux sèche. Flush with triumph I also asked for Ebu-profane and was provided with some pain killers.

I arrived back at the apartment and gave Carol the box. She read it for a while and asked where I had bought it. It turns out that these green cross stores sell regular drugs and homoeopathic remedies. Our opinion of homoeopathy is summed up nicely in this xkcd comic.

Carol did try the syrup and is feeling better so this completely confirms the effectiveness of massive dilution on petty curatives.  In my next blog post I’ll reveal a surefire way to make money by investing in lottery tickets.

2010
Sep 
28

A Passionate Empiricist

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 8:22 am  

I enjoy Ted talks.  In particular I love the combination of a rational empirical approach with human compassion.  Hans Rosling embodies both and his latest Ted talk is inspiring and informative. 

If you want to see more visualizations of world health data, check out the GapMinder site.

2010
Sep 
25

Versailles

Filed under: France — Russell @ 8:21 am  

Versailles, of all the places to visit in and around Paris, generated the most conflicting advice.  Everyone warned us about the crowds.  Several people suggested skipping the palace but visiting the gardens.  The problem is that it seems silly to travel all that way and not tour the palace.  We arrived on the first train of the morning during the shoulder season.  I can’t imagine what an afternoon at high season would look like.  In the end, the palace, though beautiful, seemed more like a chore.  The rooms and artwork are beautiful, but the crowds make it difficult to see.  Eventually, we were able to get past the crowds into some of the grander parts of the palace.  Here the rooms are larger and moving is easier.

Free of the palace hordes, we spent most of the day enjoying the gardens.  It is difficult to convey the scope of these gardens.  The total area is over 10 square miles.  The features are all to scale so there are few places where you could feel snug and comfortable.  It is more suited to watching hundreds of courtiers enact a historical battle than to a small picnic with friends.

A mile away from the palace, easily accessible on foot, tram, segway or golf cart, is the Trianon Gardens.  Built originally for Madame de Pompadour by Louis XV, she died before construction was complete.  Eventually, Louise XVI gave it to Marie Antoinette.  After visiting the formal French gardens of the palace, this seemed built on a more human scale.  There is a small, fake French hamlet, complete with mill.  It reminded me of Portmeirion but grander and more beautiful.  There are two palaces on the grounds as well as a small theatre where Marie would appear in plays.  She would often play a serving girl or some other lower class character.  Only members of the royal family were permitted to attend these performances.  There is also a hexagonal marble room next to a pond for listening to music.  I guess the musicians would play in the building which would amplify the sound for royalty dallying nearby: a sort of 18th century iPod.  While not as impressive as the main gardens, this smaller garden was definitely the highlight of the trip.

One  strange aspect of this visit was the modern art exhibition that was being hosted at in the palace.  These rather gaudy, animee themed sculptures were so incongruous I at first assumed they were part of some tourist information display rather than art.  The artist, Takashi Murakami, is well known and the work would probably be enjoyable in a more appropriate context.  However, as displayed it is just annoying.  As with art of any kind, people are furious.

In spite of these strange, brightly coloured statues, Versailles is definitely worth the trip.  We had a great day.  The site is easily accessible by train.  Going early is a must.  Unfortunately, we raced through the initial parts of the palace but it did seem that large crowds were just behind us at every step.  Every line we joined tripled in size shortly afterwards.

The best part of the trip was the Trianon Gardens.  Pack a lunch and find a quiet corner.

2010
Sep 
23

Night Cruise on the Seine

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 3:35 am  

Now that the Museum tour is done we are switching to a more nocturnal schedule.   In comparison to North America, people start socializing quite late.  It is very unusual to have dinner before 8pm.  On Sunday evening we went to the Arc de Triomphe and walked down the Champs-Élysées.  The cafés were full and lots of people were out for a stroll.
On Monday we took a night cruise along the Seine. The trip was very romantic.  In fact a few couples were so swept away in the moment they missed most of the scenery.  The trip started and ended at the Eiffel tower and was timed to see the tower sparkle.

2010
Sep 
19

Picnic Perfection

Filed under: Paris — Tags: — Russell @ 5:20 am  

Carol, Emma and I met yesterday at Le Grande Epicerie de Paris.  Our mission, assemble the best picnic lunch ever.  We bought:

  • Fresh Sourdough bread
  • Foie gras with truffles
  • Comté Cheese
  • Cheese puffs
  • Ham/Olive cakes
  • jamón ibérico de bellota (Spanish ham from pigs fed with acorns)
  • Apple/Raspberry juice
  • Mango Juice
  • Melon Juice flavoured with Jasmin

We walked to a nearby park (Jardin du Luxembourg) and sat amid the statues while little French children sailed toy boats in the fountain.  The food was delicious.  The ham was so flavourful is seemed a shame to eat it with anything else.  Afterwards, we strolled around the garden digesting.  We still had one more stop to make this the perfect picnic.

A short distance away we came to Saint-Sulpice.  Across the road was the perceptual line outside of Pierre Hermé‘s bakery.  Emma and Carol picked out three treats.

The vanilla pastry was simple but rich.

The ispahan pastry had a single perfect rose petal on the top with a drop of dew candy.  This is the signature creation.  The rose scent enhances the raspberry and other flavours.  It takes a while to realize all of the components and we were excited to realize the centre was lychee.


And finally a chocolate pastry.

I’ve heard the term sinfully good but this is the first dessert that made me feel I was doing something forbidden.  This pastry may explain why so many men proposition women they don’t know on the street of Paris.  If the woman has just eaten this she will very likely say yes.  In fact several people did approach us as we ate, not to seduce but out of curiosity.  One Parisian woman asked if it was from Herme and gave us a jealous and knowing look.  We probably shouldn’t have put on such a spectacle in front of the church.

2010
Sep 
18

Arc de Triomphe and Trocadéro

Filed under: Paris — Russell @ 5:50 am  

On the last day of our museum marathon, we started with the Arc de Triomphe.  Climbing to the top affords a tremendous view of the city.  This is not just due to the height but also the fact that many of the major avenues radiate out from the monument.  The monument was built on the orders of Napoleon as a place for his returning troupes to parade.

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Then we went to Trocadéro which overlooks the Eiffel Tower.

There we saw the Marine Museum and finally the magnificent Musée national des Monuments Français.  This museum contains casts of the most beautiful architectural features from all over France.  It was as if some evil villain had stolen the best of the country and spirited them away to his private estate.  If you go to Paris, you must see this.