Sunday, June 28, 2015

Milano: a day trip to Varenna-Ensio on beautiful Lago Como

We decided to escape Milan for a day and take the train to Varenna, a lakeside village on the eastern shore of Lake Como. Upon arrival we made our way down to the ferry jetty and followed the footpath leading around the shore to the right. This brought us to the village's pretty waterfront, with its characteristic lake harbour, an arcaded walkway and a little stone beach sloping into the water. Some people were in the water which wasn't too cold. Although we could see that this short stretch of lakeside was a tourist magnet, it is also very charming and lots of people were whiling away half an hour with a cold drink or ice cream sundae.

We wandered around Varenna's picturesque lanes and old fishermen's houses which were unpretentiously appealing. It has somehow a more authentic air than other resorts. Lots of flowers were in bloom making the walk quite lovely.

We stopped for lunch in a traditional little square.There were several locals eating at the restaurant which is always a good sign. Delicious porcini ravioli was the order of the day. After another limoncello we headed up the sloping alleys arriving at the town's main piazza and the lake-shore road. The square is dominated by Varenna's principal church, the fourteenth-century Chiesa di San Giorgio. The restaurants were filled with people in a festive state waiting to go into a wedding. Later we saw the bride entering the church.

Back down closer to the water we walked up one of the tiny pedestrian lanes and stopped at Hotel du Lac for an afogato, espresso with ice cream. We sat outside overlooking the lake and mountains beyond. The view was stunning. We would like to come back and explore the little villages around the lake. What a magnificent spot.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Milano: spires and gargoyles on the roof of the Duomo

Today was the day we were actually going to visit the Duomo, after having admired it from outside. First, we went through the alpini checkpoint. Established in 1872, the Alpini are the oldest active mountain infantry in the world. They are everywhere around the Duomo, very distinctive with their cappello alpini with its raven feather.

Once inside I was struck by how dark it was. There are five large naves divided by fifty-two pillars — one for each week of the year — that support the cross-vaulted ceiling. The Duomo had lovely stained glass windows but not a lot of the gold that often decorates Catholic cathedrals. The construction was commissioned in 1385 with the first duke of Milan granting access to his marble quarries, granting tax exemptions and inviting architects from across Europe. Construction continued until 1813, with some final finishes — one of the five entrance doors — being added as late as 1965.

After exploring the crypt we took the elevator up to the roof. This was the highlight of our visit. It's amazing to walk among the forest of spires, and the view from the roof is unmatched. Since it was  a clear day we could see as far as the Alps and Apennines.

The Duomo is decorated with an amazing number of beautifully sculpted statues and spires. There are more statues on this building than any other in the world, 3159 in total. 2245 of these are on the exterior together with 96 gargoyles and 135 spires. It is said that if the statues were placed on top of each other, they would reach a height of about 5300 meters or 3.3 miles. It was quite breathtaking around the roof. I thought that the outside was more impressive than the inside.

Lunchtime and another tip from our Milanese friends. We had to take a short walk from the Duomo down one of the lanes to Luini where they made the best panzerotti. It didn't take us long to find Luini but there was quite a queue outside. In fact there were three queues that all led to the counter. There were daily specials and from what we could see, because it was packed, all kinds of lovely desserts. We ordered a baked mozzarella and tomato panzerotti instead of fried. A panzerotti is like a calzone but with softer dough. Most people just stood out in the street and ate since there were no seats inside but we found a little piece of wood sticking out of the wall where we perched our lunch. With the mozzarella dripping out it was incredibly delicious.

A walk around some narrow streets with some small interesting shops followed. Milan is considered by many the fashion capital of the world. From looking at the shops and the people watching I can safely say that wide pants are in, as well as beautifully ripped jeans for anyone of any age.

We were advised to go to Gin Rosa where we shared a salad with some special buffalo mozzarella from Paestum. This was followed by some delicious asparagus risotto. Our server offered us some limoncello to finish the meal and like everything at Gin Rosa it was excellent and a perfect way to finish the day.

Milan: Expo 2015 focuses on feeding the planet

This is what comes from drinking too much espresso, a trip to Milan. The inside of illy coffee cups have been advertising Expo for the last year. It was that that first made us think of coming to Milan. Today we boarded the train to take us to Expo. I might add that is was quite a warm and humid day.

The exposition site covers 110 hectares. The theme is Feeding the Planet-Energy for Life. What better place to have an Expo about food than Italy? Over 140 countries are taking part in Expo but not Canada. The first pavilion we visited gave an overview of the development of agriculture throughout the ages.

There were international pavilions, thematic areas, company pavilions, street food and areas for performances. It was vast. We decided to tackle the whole thing by going down one side of the flag bedecked mall and coming back up the other. Korea was our next port of call. With the simple theme “We are what we eat,” the Korean pavilion is one of the most introspective pavilions. The design was inspired by a traditional porcelain pot. It had a lot of stunning light shows.

Several companies have their own pavilions. It being Italy there were several chocolate pavilions. We went in one and watched how they made their chocolate but really we went for the very yummy sample we got at the end of the little tour. This pavilion was so good we visited it twice.

There were lots of places to eat in restaurants and in the pavilions. We stopped at a huge food area representing the various regions of Italy. Each open kitchen had representative dishes. We went to the Piedmont where I had vitello tonnato, which is cooked veal thinly sliced and covered in a tuna sauce. It sounds a bit weird but it is delicious. This with a salad and chinotto to drink was such a good lunch. From here we wandered over to Sicily where we had a cannoli for dessert. So good.

The UK pavilion perfectly merges art, engineering and architecture. Very conceptual, the beehive is in fact a thoroughly executed installation of 169,300 metal pieces, lights and sounds. To get to it you first walk through an English meadow. Once there you can actually walk right inside the installation. It is the most popular pavilion.

In the middle of the expo, Austria invites you to charge your batteries and breathe fresh air in their miniature forest with temperature being approximately 6 degrees less than the general one. A bubble of oxygen in the heat city of Milan, it was delightful. The many sprays kept the plants moist and were refreshing for the visitors as well.

We had to visit the Spanish pavilion, which highlighted the food of Spain and all the excellent chefs that Spain has. It showed the foods from the various regions and we certainly had a feeling of being in Spain when we were there.

At the bottom of the mall we stopped in the slow food pavilion. It was surrounded by lovely gardens of edible plants with lots of herbs. Inside, the displays were quite low tech but they certainly emphasized the traditional way of eating food in Italy, eating from the land, as opposed to eating chickens from battery farms, hormone-fed livestock and genetically modified crops. I was taken aback to learn that 98% of Canadian corn is genetically modified.

Now we were back in the mall ready to make out return journey. By now it was very hot and busy. There were marching bands and various artists from several countries performing traditional songs and dances. We wandered over to the Italian pavilion but there was a long queue and we were past queuing. I did sit on one of the chairs that rocked you in every direction while watching the Italian Tree of Life send off bubbles and change its lighting colours.

We stopped in the Italian supermarket of the future. It was interesting to watch how all the apples were carefully placed in a display with robot arms that twisted in all directions. There was lots of produce including lovely cheeses to buy. Having the curse of carryon baggage hanging over us we just bought some tarallis, little hard biscuits with lots of fennel. They never made it into our luggage.

It was late afternoon and we were glad to return to our hotel in Milan. With the help of a tip from our Canadian friends from Milan we ended up after dinner people-watching at Campari at the Duomo end of Galleria with Seamus having Campari while I had a zucca shakeroo. Zucca is an after dinner herbal drink made of rhubarb and herbs. It is one of my favorite drinks and gives you a great night's sleep. And I did.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Milano: we begin our visit with opera at La Scala

It was less than an hour's bus ride from Bergamo to Milano Centrale, the huge stone train station built by Mussolini. Somehow it had that square Il Duce appearance with its imposing colonnades and massive staircases. After a short walk in the hot Milano sunshine we were checked into our hotel and ready to go exploring.

It was back to Milano Centrale but this time to board the Metro. This was a very easy straightforward task since we could buy our Metro tickets at the hotel. A few stops later we were catching our first view of the Duomo di Milano, Milan's magnificent Gothic cathedral, one of the world's largest churches. Its dazzling white front facade, arguably the world's most beautiful, dominates the cathedral square. The Duomo is literally at the centre of Milan. Streets radiate from the cathedral and giant square. We took this in quite quickly as we were looking for a late lunch which we found in one of the buildings right on the square.

Several floors of this building were a market restaurant with areas serving different types of food. For only €5 I had the most delicious pasta i pomodori — pasta with sweet cherry tomatoes — I have ever tasted. Why do tomatoes in Italy taste like nowhere else?

We were right by the famed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a magnificent shopping arcade covered with a glass and iron roof. The interior of the impressive five-story structure is decorated with patriotic mosaics and statues. The Galleria was constructed during the turbulent era of Italian unification, and for its architect, the Galleria symbolized Italian unity and self-confidence, so it is no surprise that the arcade is decorated with plenty of patriotic symbols. Mosaics on the floor below the dome depict the coat of arms of Savoy and Italian cities are allegorically represented: a wolf for Rome, a lily for Florence, a bull for Turin and a white flag with red cross for Milan. Stepping with the heel of your foot on the genitals of the bull is supposed to bring good luck, so it's no surprise that the mosaics have to be renovated on a regular basis.

Since it is one of Milan's most popular attractions, the Galleria is constantly crowded with locals and tourists, the latter often snapping pictures or gazing at the spectacular architecture. Others window-shop at the upscale stores or take a break at one of the Galleria's cafés.

On the other side of the Galleria was another square facing onto the famous La Scala opera house.   La Scala, as the Teatro alla Scala is locally known, was built at the end of the eighteenth century. The opera house soon became one of the world's most revered venues and numerous famous works by composers such as Verdi and Bellini premiered here.  We thought let's try to get tickets. This meant a trip back to the level of the Metro where the ticket office was located. We were in luck, La Scala had productions every night while the Milan Expo was open. There wasn't a huge variety of tickets left but with the recommendation of the ticket seller we were going to the Opera tonight.

The outside of La Scala isn't very imposing but in contrast with the exterior, the building's interior is sumptuous. Its foyer is decorated with fluted columns and large mirrors line the walls. The auditorium, known for its exceptional acoustics, has a seating capacity of just over two thousand. It is lavishly decorated with red velvet, silk and gilded stucco. The chandelier is made of Bohemian crystal and contains 365 lamps. The podium is one of the world's largest with a total surface of 1,200 square meters. Surrounding the orchestra section are little boxes that climb up many floors. Our little box was unlocked for us. It was in direct view of the stage and we were the only people in it.

Since we were a little early we decided to find the bar. It was down one floor in a massive ballroom. Not too many people were in there before the performance. Nevertheless we enjoyed our €12 glasses of prosecco with some nibbles. After all, we were at La Scala.

The first opera was Cavalleira Rusticana and the second Pagliacci. Both were extremely well received with Pagliacci receiving a standing ovation. We enjoyed both performances.

It had been a very busy, long day for us full of unexpected surprises. Tomorrow, Expo.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

El Port de la Selva: summer gets going with art and entertainment

There was much excitement back in the village as this was the big night, Barcelona versus Juventus for of the Uefa Cup. Instead of watching it at home we decided to go to the ballroom in the village, where we could watch the game along with the locals. Decked out in blue we headed to the game, bought our beer and ham and cheese baguette and grabbed a seat. The atmosphere in the room was incredible with pounding of tables and lots of Barcelona FC chants. It was much more fun watching the game in the village and there was jubilation at Barca's 3-1 victory even if Messi didn't score.

The next day it was the beginning of the Tramontana art display. This is an annual event in which lots of huge sculptures and other creations are displayed along the promenade. The theme is the tramontana wind. Some of the sculptures in iron and wood were really creative. Others were perhaps wanting. One was a thin rod of iron with a painted plastic bag tied to the end. Anyone can enter from professional to amateur.

On a walk the following Saturday night we were at the extreme far end of the village when we heard music coming from a drinks shack that is erected for the summer. It is a bit out of the way at the shingle beach. A couple of guys were playing their guitars and singing lots of music that we liked. It was funny since eventually they wound up for the evening but one French lady would say, “encore," or “por favor" after each song and they would happily keep playing away. The setting is quite beautiful with the beach on one side and a giant rock cliff on the other side. Music is going to be happening there every Saturday throughout the summer.

Sunday lunchtime there was a jazz/rhythm and blues duo in the next village a kilometer or so inland at Selva del Mar. We could hear the sounds of the concert in a little square outside one of the  restaurants as we approached. The music was very good so we decided to stay for a while. In Spain no one minds if you just have one drink and sit and listen. There isn't the mentality to push a lot of drinks or food. It was a very pleasant couple of hours listening to the chanteuse who had a really wide repertoire. I loved her rendition of Amy Winehouse's Rehab.

In the evening we went to Playback. This is an annual production where the villagers pick a song and lip synch it with lots of choreography, while decked out in wonderful costumes. A lot of work is put into this event. Similar events are held in all the villages and towns. This year was particularly good but it was quite funny as the crowd seemed to forget that it was only lip synching when Edith Piaf and a few other singers performed. They were clapping like mad in the middle and shouting, "Bravo." An incredible amount of work went in to some of the numbers especially from "Cats" and the "Lion King." The performance plays to very appreciative packed houses for three nights. We have been asked to take part but I think it is a Spanish thing.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Algarve: Lagos, many beaches but not much charm

This morning we headed off to Lagos in the western Algarve. We stopped at a  few places on the way to see if we could find somewhere we would like to live. All the time there were beautiful beaches off in the distance. A golf course wasn't the solution as it had only vacant lots and no houses. A lovely apartment building up another horrible road was just too far from everything. Although you could see the beach there was no obvious way to get to it.

Near lunchtime we pulled into a busy restaurant on the National Highway. What a find. Everyone was sitting at trestle tables choosing their fish sold by the kilo from a chalkboard menu. Some lovely crusty bread and local cheeses were brought to the table along with our wine. Once again I had espada and Seamus had bacalao or salted cod. Both were delicious.

We drove into and around Lagos looking at the beaches and residential areas nearby. Again there was that same feeling of being crammed in, impermanence and of everything being much the same whether it was an old or new development. We stopped in the older part of the town inside the old walls and even it seemed to lack much character.

Somewhat dispirited we didn't really know what to do. This might be good for a holiday but not to stay. We were about to head home when we decided to go back to Praia Verde not far from Tavira where we knew there was a nice hotel. Less than two hours later we had checked in and negotiated a good deal for our stay. The room was lovely. We finished our day with a tasty pizza made in the wood oven in the hotel restaurant. Things were looking up at last.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Algarve: Praia Verde beach and the fishing town Olhao

After a night of swatting mosquitos and getting jarred every time Seamus moved on the mattress, we were a bit bleary eyed at breakfast. The owner asked how we slept and I told her. Apparently the mattress was new. I gritted my teeth and didn't say, "but cheap." I asked if she had a different room with two adjoining beds that we could have. After disappearing for awhile and returning this solution was agreeable and we immediately moved everything over.

Our goal today was to look at more of the eastern Algarve known as the undiscovered Algarve. I had asked the lifeguards yesterday where we could find immediate access to the beach so we had some idea where we were going. The first place seemed pretty tourist tacky with lots of apartments and condominiums for August use only. We moved on to Praia Verde, an area of lovely homes and townhouses. Here you walked down to the beach. It was very nice but when we walked around the residential part we could see that it was pretty empty at this time of year.

We drove further along the beach highway that is called the National Highway. This road was in terrible shape and the roads off it to the beach towns were in worse shape. Portugal really is in a state of austerity. I don't know when the roads were last repaired. Each beach town was worse than the previous one. They were like unfinished or really shabbily finished products.

Somewhat disappointed we drove along the toll road, which is in better shape to the old fishing village of Olhao. Since it was Sunday, all the locals were walking along the promenade with loads of Small Portuguese fishing boats bobbing on the water. There were two huge fish market buildings right in the middle of the promenade. We walked across to the street side lined with very busy restaurants and managed to find a seat outside. It was well worth it when I had some espada or black scabbard fish, which was incredibly tasty.

On our return to our mas, we were met by the owner wearing a very serious face. She greeted us with, "I have some bad news for you." Immediately my mind skipped to you don't know us how can you have bad news. The news was that she had made a mistake in her booking and someone was moving into our new room tomorrow. She wanted us to immediately move back to the old room with the mosquitos and mattress from hell. Now we were very hot and tired after driving around all day. We graciously refused to do it saying we would stay in the new room tonight and move out in the morning. Maybe this was Fawlty Towers.

In the evening we went back down to Tavira, which is a lovely little town built on both sides the river, which then sprawls into a biologically diverse lagoon reserve, the Ria Formosa, as it meets the coastline. Walls are bright white and roofs are bright red. We entered the cobbled maze that was filled with little shops and lots of restaurants. We settled on an Indian restaurant since we never see them in Spain. And I must say we did it all from Kingfisher beer, popadoms, samosas, chutney and wonderful curries. What a treat.

It was a lovely night to wander along the river and cross the bridges. We ended up in an old market with a lot of locals watching a snooker contest. It was a beautiful walk around the little town that was much different from the other towns we had seen so far.

Back in the mas we had a good night's sleep.

Algarve: our first glimpse of Portugal's famed southern coast

The main road we were driving along just north of Seville was really beautiful with a wide median full of pink,red and white oleanders. In some areas they were lining both sides of the road. This combined with the bright yellow sunflowers in bloom, grape vines alternating with olive trees as far as the eye could see made for a stunning drive.

Finally we reached the Portugese border where we had to register our credit card for use on the main toll road. There were no toll booths only cameras taking the car's picture every so often and billing the toll to the credit card. It certainly saved a lot of stopping. Now instead of oleanders there was just a thin concrete median up the middle of the road.

After a short time we arrived in Tavira where we had lunch in a lovely old, canary-yellow building, the Convent de Graca, now a hotel. We sat outside in the former Renaissance cloisters. It was very quiet and pleasant. Lunch was a bowl of beetroot and watercress soup with some yogurt whirled in and a plate of Portugese tapas with lots of local seafood. There were a few very pink people having lunch. The sun in the Algarve is very strong.

We eventually found our little hotel well hidden above Tavira. Unpacked, it was time to start checking out the beach. A long stretch of coast here is protected by barrier islands. Access to the beaches was via ferry boat or a narrow bridge and then a one-kilometre walk across the marshlands. For a small fee you could also take a little train. We couldn't really imagine toting our beach chairs and paraphernalia with us. Once we arrived it was well worth it to walk on the beautiful fine sand that stretched as far as the eye could see. Instead of having a swim and walking back to the car wet, we just had a long walk up the beach noting that the beach chairs were €13 a day to rent. It was all lovely but not the beach we would move to.
Back in the car we drove back into Tavira to see where the ferry left from. That was the other option to get to the beach but it seemed like a lot of work.

We had dinner back at our converted mas. The owner was an excellent cook and with her daughter made one of my favorite meals, fish cooked in salt. We have done it and it takes several kilos of salt to put under and over the fish, which cooks in about half an hour and always tastes lovely. These fish were cooked in port wine salt and they too were delicious. With the translation we were never completely sure what the fish was. Dinner was served outside. It was quite a multicultural table with the local owner and her daughter, her Colombian husband, a lovely German couple from Dusseldorf and an American couple from Maryland. The conversation was quite lively if somewhat dominated by the Americans who were enjoying the wine too much. They competed with each other and tried to compete with everyone around the table about everything they had ever done. It was dIfficult to get a word in edge ways. We did enjoy our dinner but I must admit the Basil Fawlty would come out in me with people like these know- it-alls if I had to encounter them too often.

Friday, June 12, 2015

En route to Algarve, we discover beautiful town of Carmona

It was late May in the village and the third week of almost non stop very high winds, which made it difficult to walk and you certainly couldn't swim. We are very tired of the brain shattering winds and are looking for other less windy places to stay. Of course these winds usually go along the coast all the way to Marseilles but our village is known for its winds. A quick decision and we were in the car heading for the Algarve in southern Portugal.

After driving for many hours it was time to find somewhere to stay. There are no chains hotels just off the highways in Spain so you have to come off and take pot luck. The hotels you do find are often right next to a strip joint. Prostitution is legal in Spain, and as many trucks from all over Europe go up and down the autostrada you have to pick your spot carefully. We stopped, checked in and went to a room right out of the 1950s. The bed was very creaky. In fact the whole thing was horrible. Back in the car we drove further until we saw a sign, "paradors." Since it was about midnight we followed the sign up to a hill town called Carmona. A local pointed us to a lovely hotel right on top of the town. We checked in and went for a walk and sat outside for a drink just to chill from our trip. A quick walk around the town was quite impressive.

The next morning we set out to explore Carmona. From the terrace outside our hotel we looked out over a fertile plain. We knew from last night that Carmona is a picturesque, small town with a magnificent 15th century tower. This is the first thing you see and sets an appropriate tone for the place.

Not surprisingly, given its proximity, Carmona shares a similar history to Seville, and was an important Roman city which, under the Moors was often governed by a brother of the Sevillan ruler. Later Pedro the Cruel built a palace within its castle which he used as his royal residence in the country.

As we walked through the narrow cobbled streets we were aware of a great deal of activity around all the churches. There were religious tapestry banners hung over many of the streets. Later in the day there was to be a procession and we saw them setting up a stage for a mass in the main square. There were sensible canopies over streets to keep the burning sun off the local shoppers.

We found the entrance to the town, the Puerto de Sevilla, a grand if ruinous fortified gateway which separates the new from the historic old part of the city. Within the wall, narrow streets meander past the churches and Renaissance mansions. It was fun to peek inside doorways of these mansions to see the huge courtyards within, usually containing giant orange or palm trees.

Up still further is the Plaza San Fernando which was comparatively small but dominated by splendid Moorish style buildings; behind here is a bustling fruit and vegetable market.

Close by to the east was Santa Maria, a stately Gothic church built over the former main mosque, whose elegant patio is retained. Like many of Carmona's churches, it is topped by an evocative Mudejar tower and part of the original minaret may still be spotted. Certainly the storks nesting there had a good view of the town. Dominating the ridge of the town were the massive ruins of Pedro's palace, destroyed by an earthquake in 1504 and now taken over by our parador. To the left the town came to an abrupt halt at the Roman Puerta de Córdoba from where the original Cordoba road drops down to a vast plain.

Carmona was a lovely little find and we would definitely stop there again but now it was back on the road for the final few hours to our destination in the Algarve.