Sunday, December 2, 2012

Verona: The Town of Romeo & Juliet Wears a German Frock for Natale in Piazza



Glass ornaments at Verona's Christmas Market
 
 
Yesterday the air turned crisp, and in the distance I could see the Dolomites had been dusted with the season’s first fallen snow. December and winter had arrived in Veneto and, as the saying goes, It began to feel a lot like Christmas. So, we put on our coats, hats and gloves, hopped in the car and drove to Verona where, for the 4th consecutive year and until December 21st, the town known for Juliet’s balcony will wear a more German-style frock.

 
 
Christmas Decorations at Christkindlmarket, Verona
In coordination with the community of Nuremburg, Verona’s elegant passageways and piazzas have been lined with typical Alpine wood huts and stands selling artisan Christmas decorations, wood and ceramic gift items, herbal teas, warm and fuzzy winter slippers, scarfs, hats and earmuffs, dried fruit dipped in dark chocolate, jarred gherkin pickles, fruit jams and horseradish. And, as if all that wasn't enough, there are at least a half-a-dozen food stands sending off the titillating scent and sizzle of grilled bratwurst sausages, fried potatoes and sauerkraut. Nearby, beer and vin brulé kiosks abut tiny—standing room only—café tables where even the most disciplined dieter can’t refuse a pause from perusing the gift stands to warm up with a cup of steaming spiced-wine or bite into a hot sausage sandwich chased down with a glass of golden German brew.

 
The Nutcracker standing guard
I feel safe to say, judging by the languages I heard crowding the poetic surroundings, that the ‘Christkindlmarkt is an international event. I turned more than once to hear fellow Americans—maybe tourists, maybe residents—praising the red, gold, green or white glass tree ornaments. A group of Brits enjoyed smelling the spicy, fruity scents of loose leaf tea before picking their favorite to take home. The Italians seemed intent on checking off a few gifts from their Christmas shopping lists. And the Germans proudly mixed, stirred and turned their gastronomic delicacies over hot, steaming stoves.

    
It was a delightful winter afternoon spent in beautiful surroundings, and thanks to the Bauli pasticceria group—Italy’s foremost maker of panettone and pandoro—Verona has a Christmas tree or two that easily compete with some of the more famous trees back in the States.

So, if stepping toward the holidays in an international setting entices you, I suggest you put Verona’s Christmas market on your things to do list.  I’m glad I did.

http://www.nataleinpiazza.it/2012/                   http://www.bauli.it/en/
 
 
 
Christmas Star falling outside the Arena in Piazza Bra, Verona, Italy
                

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Che cosa sarebbe Venezia senza i suoi Gondolieri?

Vogando sotto Il Ponte dei Sospiri


L’altro giorno mi è caduto lo sguardo su un blog post sulla pagina Facebook di una mia conoscente, intitolato: Le 10 cose da fare a Venezia (la gita in gondola NON è una di queste!). Io ho lasciato commenti, così come altri. Quelli che avevano fatto la gita in gondola nel passato non erano d’accordo con il titolo e pensavano unanimemente che non si potrebbe venire a Venezia e NON fare una gita in gondola.

Alcuni dei miei lettori sanno che sono sposata con un gondoliere di terza generazione, per cui i miei commenti potrebbero sembrare diretti a sostenere l’attività di mio marito—credetemi né lui, né i suoi colleghi, hanno bisogno del mio aiuto. La maggioranza dei viaggiatori che arrivano a Venezia fa in modo che il loro budget includa la possibilità di vedere “una volta nella vita” Venezia dalla prospettiva che solo una gondola può dare. E anche se io ho saltato la gita in gondola durante la mia prima vacanza a Venezia—stavo viaggiando con un’amica e abbiamo erroneamente pensato che fosse meglio lasciarla alle coppie d’innamorati—ho imparato da allora che non è limitata a chi cerca romanticismo, ma è sicuramente il modo più speciale di scoprire l’intreccio dei canali che si snodano attraverso la città.

La conversazione su Facebook è continuata per un po’. Io ho dato il mio contributo, forse riempito con più entusiasmo del necessario per Venezia e le sue gondole, ma poi ho deciso di farmi da parte quando il commento di una veneziana ha rivelato “odio” per la categoria dei gondolieri—i suoi motivi tenuti per sé, come lecito. Ma la parola “odio” è molto forte, così come il sentimento. E se invece questo commento fosse riferito al settore della ristorazione: “Il servizio in tale ristorante è stato scadente, il cibo anche peggiore, perciò io odio tutti i ristoranti.” Non avrei dato molto peso al commento.

Allora, questo post non è inteso a puntare il dito contro chi non è d’accordo con me o chi vede i gondolieri—in base alle loro esperienze—sotto una luce diversa rispetto alla mia. Sono informata del fatto che ci sono residenti che non sono simpatizzanti dei gondolieri. Questa non è una cosa nuova. Perfino il grande commediografo veneziano Carlo Goldoni ha scritto nel 1700 che i gondolieri, una categoria dalla quale sembrava essere intrigato, erano o amati o odiati. Tuttavia, la conversazione su Facebook mi ha spinto a chiedermi: Che cosa sarebbe Venezia senza i suoi gondolieri?

Molti viaggiatori vedono i gondolieri unicamente come un’attrazione turistica, mentre molti residenti li vedono come rumorosi, turbolenti, “pensano di essere i padroni della città”. Entrambi punti di vista hanno una vena di verità e no. Ma mi chiedo se l’uno o l’altro gruppo ha mai pensato al contributo che i gondolieri danno alla loro città—turismo a parte—e il beneficio che porta a Venezia avere qualche centinaia di gondole che scivolano sui suoi canali ogni giorno? Senza i gondolieri e le loro gondole, le fragili fondamenta di Venezia sarebbero probabilmente in condizioni molto peggiori. La gondola è effettivamente il deterrente giornaliero al Moto Ondoso—il danno provocato dalla scia e dalla risacca delle barche a motore alle fondamenta della città. La presenza dei gondolieri in ogni canale, largo o stretto, forza le barche a motore—spesso troppo di fretta per rispettare i limiti di velocità—a rallentare. Cosi, la loro presenza da sola aiuta a proteggere Venezia.

Un’altra situazione che coinvolge i gondolieri e la loro città, che recentemente si è riaccesa ma senza ottenere molta attenzione locale, è che più gondolieri sono stati minacciati, non solo verbalmente, da quelle persone che trafficano “borse griffate” per strada. Non solo queste persone vendono prodotti illegali, alcuni distendono la loro merce e ostacolano le zone di lavoro dei gondolieri. Quando è chiesto loro di spostarsi la maggior parte lo fa. Tuttavia alcuni hanno capito che l’amministrazione locale non sta facendo dell’eliminazione del loro traffico illegale sulle calli di Venezia una priorità e hanno tirato fuori armi da taglio o bottiglie rotte contro quei gondolieri che contestavano il posto dove avevano deciso di “aprire bottega”. I gondolieri hanno formalmente portato la questione all’attenzione dell’amministrazione locale, dei Carabinieri e dei media, non solo in difesa del loro posto di lavoro ma per il rispetto e l’amore che sentono per Venezia e soprattutto per mettere fine al degrado in cui versa la città. Tuttavia l’amministrazione locale, fino ad ora, ha scelto di guardare da un’altra parte, lasciando le azioni intraprese dai gondolieri—qualche volta pacifiche, altre volte no—di essere bollate come “motivate da razzismo”. Non hanno forse diritto i gondolieri, in possesso di una regolare licenza, di lavorare tranquillamente nei traghetti a loro assegnati? O serve che qualcuno si faccia male prima che la città affronti e freni il problema? Venezia non merita più rispetto, se non altro per tutto quello che regala ai suoi residenti e a tutti quelli che viaggiano per vederla?

Concludendo questo alquanto inusuale post nel mio blog, il messaggio che mi piacerebbe mandare è che la categoria dei gondolieri non è fatta di angeli o demoni. Sono uomini di tradizioni che hanno famiglie, lavorano sodo, godono la vita, qualche volta esagerano, e spesso lasciano volare troppe parolacce dalle loro labbra. Per quanto riguarda mio marito, e molti suoi colleghi che mi hanno sempre dimostrato rispetto e gentilezza, io posso testimoniare che amano la loro città e il loro lavoro, e né loro né la categoria meritano di essere odiati. Penso che per tutte le ragioni portate sopra la città e i suoi residenti dovrebbero invece sostenerli.     

What would Venice be like without her Gondoliers?




Rowing beneath the Bridge of  Sighs

The other day my eye caught a blog post on an acquaintance’s Facebook page titled: Top 10 things to do in Venice (riding a gondola is NOT one of them!). I, along with a few others, left comments; those that had taken a gondola ride in the past disagreed with the title and agreed that, well, how could anyone come to Venice and NOT take a ride in a gondola?

Some of my readers know that I am married to a third generation gondolier, therefore my comments might come across as a pitch to keep my husband rowing—believe me he, and his colleagues, don’t need my help. The majority of travelers who come to Venice do budget for the “once in a lifetime” chance to see Venice from the perspective only a gondola can provide. And though I skipped a gondola ride on my first trip to Venice—I was traveling with a girlfriend and we erred in thinking that a gondola ride was best left to lovey-dovey couples—I’ve since learned it’s not limited to romance seekers but is indeed the most special way to explore the lifeline of canals that twist and turn through Venice.

The Facebook page conversation went back and forth. I made my contributions, maybe filled with more enthusiasm for Venice and her gondolas than necessary, but then decided to step aside when a local Venetian’s comment turned to reveal “hatred” for the category of gondoliers—her reasons kept to herself as she has the right to do. But hate is a very strong word, and sentiment. And if instead this remark was applied to say the restaurant business? “Service at such and such a restaurant was lousy, the food was worse, therefore I hate all restaurants.” I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the comment.

Now, this post is not meant to point fingers at those who disagree with me or who see the gondoliers—based on their experiences—in a different light than I do. I know there are locals who are not fond of the gondoliers. This is nothing new. Even Venice’s cherished Commedia dell’Arte scribe Carlo Goldoni wrote in the 1700s that the gondoliers, a category he seemed to be intrigued by, were either loved or hated. Yet, the Facebook conversation pushed me to ask myself: What would Venice be like without her gondoliers? 

Most travelers see gondoliers as solely a tourist attraction, while many locals see them as loud, boisterous, and “they walk around town as if they owned the place”. Both points of view have a vein of truth and untruth. But I wonder, has either group ever stopped to think about the contribution the gondoliers make to their city—tourism aside—and the benefit a few hundred gondolas gliding through the canals bring to Venice on a daily basis? Without the gondoliers and their gondolas Venice’s fragile foundation would probably be in a much worse condition. The gondola is actually a daily deterrent to Moto Ondoso—the damage made by the wake and the undertow of motorboats to Venice’s foundation. The gondoliers’ presence on any canal, wide or narrow, force motorboats—often too much in a hurry to obey speed limits—to slow down. So, their presence alone helps protect Venice. 

Seahorse ornament on a gondola 
Another situation that involves gondoliers and their city, and has flared up more recently, but hasn’t gotten much attention is that a few gondoliers have been threatened, and not just verbally, by the people who traffic “designer bags” on the street. Not only are these people selling illegal goods, some set down their wares and block the gondoliers’ work stations. When asked to move most do, however some now understand that the city administration isn’t making the elimination of their illegal trade on Venice’s sidewalks a priority and have flashed weapons and broken bottles to threaten the gondoliers who challenge where they decide to “set up shop”. The gondoliers have formally brought this to the attention of city officials, the Carabinieri and the local media, not only in defense of their workplace, but for the respect and love they have for Venice, and above all to put a stop to the city’s decline. Yet the city administration, so far, has chosen to look the other way, leaving the actions taken by the gondoliers—sometimes peaceful, sometimes not—to be brushed off as being “racially motivated”. Don’t the gondoliers, who are licensed to work at their given gondola stations, have the right to do so in peace? Or does someone have to be harmed before the city will address and curb this problem? Doesn’t Venice deserve more respect, if for no other reason than for what she gives to her residents and all who travel to see her?

In closing this rather unusual post for my blog, the message I’d like to send is that the category of gondoliers isn’t made up of angels or demons. They are men of tradition who have families, work hard, enjoy life, at times exaggerate, and often let a few too many parolacce fly from their lips. As for my husband, and his many colleagues who have always shown me respect and kindness, I can testify that they love their city and their jobs, and neither they nor their category deserve to be hated. I think for all the reasons I’ve stated above that the city, and its residents, should instead give them a little support.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Playing Tourist at Home...


I've spent more than two decades living in a country that millions of vacationers come to every year. So, yesterday when my husband and I had the pleasure of showing some dear friends from Los Angeles around Venice, I decided to take a vacation, too—by staying home. I thought I’d take you along with us and post a photo or two a day over the next week or so. I took all the photos either from our water taxi or while on foot...so let's go on vacation...together!
View from the Canal
Venetian Intersection
Entrance to University of Ca'Foscari

Merging onto the Grand Canal
Little Red House-Grand Canal

Palazzo Balbi-Grand Canal
Seat of the President and Council of the Veneto Region

Approaching the Accademia

Looking Back and Reflecting 
Campo San Vio

La Dogana: Imagine what it was like to lower your ship's sails and go through customs here!
Santa Maria della Salute

Saints Todaro & Marco--I never tire of living this!
Ducking under the Ponte della Paglia 

Lining up behind a row of gondolas while looking up and "sighing" at the recently restored Bridge of Sighs.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Poetic Afternoon and Lunch at Lake Garda's Riviera Gardone



Gardone Riviera landing

Though I haven’t dedicated much time to my blog of late you may or may not have noticed my absence. I haven’t forgotten about you or my blog, and I certainly haven’t strayed from writing. In fact, I’ve been spending most of my time, right here at my desk, picking away at my keyboard, revising my women’s contemporary fiction Beneath the Lion’s Wings. In the last few months I’ve received some very good feedback supporting, and criticizing, my manuscript, and a lot of valuable pointers on how to improve it both from professionals in publishing and other fellow writers. It’s almost where I want it, and soon it’ll be on its way to a special someone who is intrigued by the byline. Keep your fingers crossed…

An inviting path for a quiet stroll



But, the other day when my husband said “Amore, you haven’t been away from that computer screen in days. Why not pick a nice place for lunch or dinner, and we’ll go out?” I jumped at the offer—I really did need a break. So, I picked the lovely Ristorante Gabriellino in Gardone Riviera, Lake Garda for a lakeside lunch. The restaurant is very nice, with excellent food, service and a spectacular view of the lake. The owners attend to every detail including the very high quality food preparation and presentation, and the locale's charming ambiance. I was quite impressed by the tasteful décor and asked if they had hired a professional; no, they’d done that, too. 

Gardone Riviera is a two hour car ride down the A4 Milano-Venezia toll way. I guess I could have found a closer lunch spot in Venice, but my choice was also influenced by a desire to revisit Gabriele d’Annunzio’s former home and gardens Il Vittoriale: the shrine of Italian Victories. Il Vittoriale



The dock
I won’t go into too much detail about who Gabriele d’Annunzio was, except to say that his taste in women, clothes, adventure and life make Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron look like rather secondary dandies. Born in Pescara to a wealthy family in 1863 he is one of Italy’s most popular, and most studied, contemporary poets. A military leader during WWI, a bit eccentric, and most certainly enough of a thorn in Mussolini’s side to receive State funds for the reconstruction of his lavish lake view home and gardens to keep him their—living the good life—and far away from Rome. He wasn’t keen on Hitler, and called him a “ferocious clown” in 1934 and in 1937-38—his last year of life—he opposed an Italian alliance with Germany. I wonder what turn Italian history may have taken if he hadn’t left this world in 1938? Would he have been able to halt Mussolini’s formal alliance with Hitler’s Germany? Or would Mussolini just have sent him further into exile? We shall never know.
View of Lake Garda from Il Vittoriale once home of d'Annunzio

One thing I am certain of is that Gardone Riviera is the perfect spot to dip into twentieth-century Italian history; have a relaxing lunch lakeside; take a stroll along the Riviera’s calm waters; spend a weekend or week dining, reading and resting, and enjoy magnificent views that I promise will bring peace and harmony to your stress filled lives, and send you home wanting to return. I know I want to.


Now sit back and enjoy a few photographs I took of the enchanting estate that awaits a visit from you, too...


Grounds of Il Vittoriale once Gabriele d'Annunzio's Home
Il Vittoriale Amphitheater  http://www.anfiteatrodelvittoriale.it/  Amphitheater Vittoriale


A view from within

The courtyard at Il Vittoriale

Path to the upper gardens

A cool spot to rest on a warm day

View of Lake Garda from the top of Il Vittoriale


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

My Husband's Brief but Frightening Eyewitness account of the Twister that hit Venice on June 12, 2012


  • Il Molo in front of the Doge's Palace overlooking St. Mark's Basin
    I was leaving the Bridge of Sighs canal, rowing back to the St. Mark's Basin with a gondola full of tourists, when I saw the twister forming, lifting water up from the sea's surface and then passing behind San Giorgio Island. If it had it headed for the Piazza I wouldn't be here to tell the story. Thank goodness, it doesn't seem that anyone was hurt, but lots of trees are down and quite a few boats got tossed about.

    Venice, Italy June 12, 2012 about 12 noon

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Second Guest Blogger Matt Kachinski tells us about: The Palio of Siena



When I decided to host guest bloggers I didn't imagine I'd have such a wealth of offers. This one comes from a young Englishman who came to Italy and like so many others fell fast in love with this fabulous country. He now lives in one of Italy's most famous and most beautiful regions: La Toscana...Tuscany. Let's all give a warm welcome to Matt and read on to see what he has to say about Il Palio, Siena's most popular tradition. Grazie Matt!


The Palio of Siena: A Mix of History, Traditions and…Guts



Il Palio di Siena



Yes guts, because it takes guts to run full speed on a bareback horse while wearing silk pants, going three times around a D-shaped square with sharp turns while nine other jockeys will not hesitate to whip you in the face to get ahead of you. There is no second place in Palio: One winner, nine losers.

Horses are the real protagonists of the Palio. There are 17 districts, or Contrade, in Siena, but only 10 run each edition of the Palio. Often jockeys fall during the race, but as long as the horse keeps the cockade on his forehead, it is eligible to win the race, which is not a rare occurrence. Horses are blessed in church right after being assigned to a Contrada; they are haled as heroes when victorious, and are present to the main dinner with all the people of the respective Contrada on the night before the Palio. It is unfortunate that sometimes they get injured. A special "hospice" for horses was instituted about 20 years ago to give the chance to wounded horses to keep a normal life even when limp.

Actually, the Contrada in second place is the one wearing the shame of having almost gotten it. Almost, is not enough. The horse and the jokey will go home, but the entire Contrada will be Purgata, which means receiving a purge. All this, and much more, is the Palio of Siena.

To enjoy this experience at its fullest you should consider renting one of the many Tuscan villas by Owner near Siena. http://thriftytuscany.com/tuscany-villas


But back to speaking of guts: There is a lot of gut feeling when you attend the Palio. Even foreigners do sense the vibrant nervousness in the air during the minutes that precede the race. All the gaiety, the choral chants, the colors displayed during flag weaving, the high sound of trumpets and transporting rhythm of drums cease. Even the normal chatting that has pervaded the Piazza del Campo since the morning of the day of the Palio fades away. The mortaretto, a salve gunpowder load, explodes, lifting a wave of scared pigeons from one side of the piazza to the other. As if a signal known by more than six thousand people had been suddenly cast in the sky, everyone starts lowering their voice to the point that the chirping of swallows flying above can be clearly heard. This is the moment when the ten horses and their jockeys exit the Cortile Del Podestà inside Palazzo Pubblico and enter the square, slowly heading towards the Canape; the thick tense rope that signals the start line. It may be one minute or hours before the rope falls to the ground for a good start. It may take many attempts to a clean start, but after that all will soon be over. In less than a minute made of screaming, camera flashes, frantic head turning, and heavy galloping that you can feel in your chest, the mortaretto explodes its final salve and the victorious arm of the jockey rises up.


The Palio as we know it today started taking place in the Renaissance. Before that, it was an oxen race. Through centuries the people of Siena have preserved all the sentiment tied with this folkloric event. You might think that people coming from a town just outside Siena share the same feeling, but it isn't so. The Sienese have done an excellent job at keeping the Palio to themselves only. A newborn Sienese may get the Catholic blessing, but you may rest assured he or she will be blessed in the church of some Contrada, usually that of the mother or father, and a Fazzoletto, a foulard, with the colors and symbol of the district, will accompany all his life. Unless he wants to repudiate it for another district, something really frowned upon in Siena. Every Sienese wears the Fazzoletto everywhere during Palio days, and the winners will wave it hard while rushing through the square towards the horse. Be ready to let them pass!

The disorder that follows Palio is soon cleared out. The winners collect their prize, a unique drape painted by a local or international artist. They will go to the Cathedral with their horse, singing their songs and ready to display their happiness during the following days. To everyone else is left the taste of a wonderful party abruptly ended by the very reason they were celebrating. It doesn't matter: next year it will be all anew again.

Matt Kachinski lives and works in Tuscany for Thrifty Tuscany. He will be glad to help you find the finest villa rental in Siena at Private Villa Rental by Owner http://thriftytuscany.com/villa-san-donato/472.htm and give you tips on how to rent a villa in Tuscany at the best price. http://thriftytuscany.com/
Matt Kachinski is originally from England, but after spending a semester in Florence he settled in Tuscany.

Links:
<a href="http://thriftytuscany.com/tuscany-villas" title="Tuscan villas by Owner">Tuscany villas</a> near Siena.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Power of Beauty..."Outer Beauty, Inner Joy: Contemplating the Soul of the Renaissance"


Many of you know I've spent much of the last two years working on my first novel "Beneath the Lion's Wings", and keeping this blog. Both have brought me great pleasure and have opened my world up to those who I would have otherwise never met. Viewers from across the globe have found their way to my blog, and my shared love of writing has introduced me to authors and new friends in New York, San Francisco, England, Australia...well the list goes on. In order to thank my readers and all those who continue to encourage me to write and follow my dream of one day being published, I have decided to open up "Italy to Los Angeles and Back" to some topnotch guest bloggers. 

My first guest is Julianne Davidow. She's a sometimes expat, constant lover of art and the author of "Outer Beauty, Inner Joy: Contemplating the Soul of the Renaissance". 
Julianne's beautiful book can be found at www.juliannedavidow.com  Welcome Julianne Davidow! 


The Power of BeautyI've always been captivated by the beauty of Italy, and particularly by the art and architecture of the Renaissance.  I’m not alone, of course.  Many people are drawn to Italy and experience strong reactions to the beauty that is all around. When the 19th century French writer Stendhal visited Florence in 1817, he wrote of feeling so overwhelmed by the number of masterpieces that he had heart palpitations and was afraid he would faint!  In fact, others have also spoken of having similar experiences.
During the months and years I’ve spent in Italy, I’ve taken countless photographs of Renaissance art and architecture.  But it was when I began to read the works of Renaissance writers that I understood there was a strong connection between the art and the philosophy—and that this connection had something to do with why the art feels so powerful.  I wanted to share my experience with others, and to express why the art and philosophy of the Renaissance are still relevant today.
Outer Beauty, Inner Joy: Contemplating the Soul of the Renaissance, is an interweaving of photos, quotes from Italian Renaissance writers, brief essays, and my own thoughts and impressions.  The book is a dip into the Renaissance--one that I hope will transport the reader back into a time when poetry, mythology, and mystery were important aspects of life.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, philosophers and artists rediscovered writings, architecture, and sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome.   They studied ancient texts, which spoke of love and beauty as being ways to contact a higher spiritual reality.  In the art, they found a sense of harmony, order, and proportion, and wanted to use these same principles in their own work.  But rather than imitate, Renaissance artists developed unique methods of incorporating these ancient ideals.  As a result, they brought beautiful, innovative creations to the world. 
               The writings of Plato played a major part in the unfolding of this art and culture.  Plato spoke of a divine world of forms of which this level of reality is merely a reflection.   He suggests that the reason we love beauty so much is that it makes us remember our former life in an eternal dimension.  
During the Renaissance, it was believed that great artists had special powers, and that they could contact unseen forces, bringing the beauty of higher realms into their art.  It was also believed that those who viewed this art could come into contact with a divine essence.  Perhaps many people feel this way when they look at a sculpture by Michelangelo or a painting by Botticelli, for example.  I certainly do.  There is something about seeing one of these great works of art that seems to put us in touch with a different level of reality. 
Renaissance artists and writers looked deeply into beauty and found meaning in what they saw.  They felt that beauty is a living energy force, and that through noticing beauty we actually nourish it, just as it nourishes us. 
I believe that by paying more attention to beauty when we find it—in art, nature, and in those we love—we expand our ability to discover it more often and in more places.  Through cultivating a greater awareness of beauty, something in us awakens and we can find a new way of living in the world.

Julianne lives in New York City but has been traveling to Italy since 1990. She lived in Rome for two years and in Venice for three.  As a writer and editor, she has contributed to such print publications as the L.A. Weekly newspaper and to RosebudAngels on EarthTime Out, and Departures magazines.  She was also the correspondent for the Veneto region for the online publication, Italy Italia. Julianne's beautiful book can be found at www.juliannedavidow.com 

Monday, March 5, 2012

It took a wedding in Spain’s Basque Country to make me fall in love with a Guggenheim…

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
 
 
Spain has always been a country I’ve wanted to visit, yet for some reason  countries such as Greece, France, Germany, Austria, England, Switzerland and of course Italy have continued to occupy the top European slots on my travel list. And though I’ve always thought my first Iberian stop would be Andalucía, a region which wraps its arms around the cities of Seville, Granada, Cordoba, rubs shoulders with Gibraltar and exhibits a rich blend of ancient Roman, Greek and Muslim cultures it was a wedding invitation that brought me to fly across the Pyrenees and land in Bilbao. 
 
Plaza Nueva, Bilbao Spain

I was with my husband and four good friends from Venice, all who enjoy nothing more than a flavorful meal washed down with a good glass—or two—of wine. So, as soon as we arrived in Bilbao we set foot toward the Casco Viejo or Old Quarters to find the Plaza Nueva—interesting how the New Plaza is in the Old Quarters. Anyway, we journeyed forward because we had heard that the Plaza Nueva is where the best tapas bars in Bilbao can be found.  The entrance to the plaza took us through a small portico which led us onto a large palm tree dotted square. On the opposite side of the plaza the bright blue façade of the Bar Bilbao grabbed our attention. It was crowded with locals—always a good sign that the food is good and probably reasonably priced. My husband and friends are experts at picking and choosing cicchetti in Venice and they proved apt at doing the same with Spanish tapas. Soon our café table was covered with plates of crunchy pieces of fresh bread topped with creamed crab, or slivers of salmon, or layers of hand sliced pata negra— the melt in your mouth Iberian ham known to be the most expensive prosciutto in the world! And as true Venetians are accustomed to doing while on an ordinary ciccheti crawl in Venice we tasted, savored and sipped, paid the bill and then hopped around the corner to the next locale: the Victor Montes bar—serving find food since 1849.


Victor Montes Bar, Bilbao
We stepped inside to friendly smiles coming at us from behind a long black bar covered with platters bulging with Spanish/Basque delicacies; we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect invitation to continue our tapas trail. But this establishment was different than the first more casual Bar Bilbao. Quick glances around made me feel as if I had been taken back to another time of elegance. Black and white floor tiles formed a delightful checkered backdrop to classic wooden bistro chairs tucked beneath white marble table tops. Rows of spotless wine glasses hung upside-down from a brass rack hovering within arm’s reach above the bar. And the honored guests of the house, a line of pata negra ham hocks aged for eight-years, were tastefully displayed in the midst of fine wine, brandy and cognac. Between a morsel of a pata negra, brie and roasted tomato tapa and a sip of Rioja wine I imagined what it would have been like when this proud establishment first opened and women wearing long bustled dresses and  
Tapas at Victor Montes, Bilbao
mustached gents donning Bowler hats stopped by for a snack and a drink just as we were doing that day dressed in jeans, down-jackets and loafers. Or, how I would have liked to have listened in on the conversation that took place there in 1997 when the Guggenheim museum project was signed over a hearty meal; an architectural wonder I’ll come back to in a moment.


Stomachs satisfied and feeling cheery we said goodbye to the tapas bars, exited the Plaza Nueva and wander down the wide promenade that gently curves alongside the Nerviòn River and through the soul of Bilbao. Pleasant surprises were found every step of the way: a statue of three cherubs standing atop a fountain as if encouraging the surrounding leafless trees to prepare for spring; a Victorian carousel sat quiet while waiting for school children to put away their books and come out and play; well-maintained playgrounds and green spaces filled with laughing preschoolers, doting parents and hand holding retirees.


Nerviòn River and Zubizuri footbridge, Bilbao
One immediately understands that Bilbao is a city developed with family recreation, food markets, theater and outdoor entertainment in mind. The city administrators and urban planners have wisely and artistically blended Bilbao’s traditions with its contemporary growth, and I think they’ve been successful at creating a beautiful, livable city. Our group followed the wide pathway along the river thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have such a well-organized city to live in…yes we all come from one of the most beautiful cities in the world and yet….


Bilbao city tram

Rear entrance to the Guggenheim Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum beckoned us in the distance and unanimously—well almost—we decided that we couldn’t leave Bilbao without a closer look. We crossed the Zubizuri which in Basque means white bridge—a footbridge suspended over the river which much like the Millennium Bridge in London connects the promenade with the museum side of town. Zubizuri was handsomely designed by Santiago Calatrava—it should be noted that in Venice Santiago Calatrava’s work is either admired or disputed. He is also the architect of the very contemporary and “slippery” glass bridge in Venice, the Ponte della Costituzione or as many in Venice still call it Il Ponte di Calatrava. Once across the Zubizuri we stepped passed a carpet of green grass that doubles as the foundation for the city’s tram tracks—yes, even the tram tracks run across well maintained green grass.


We left the footbridge behind and walked down a quiet road. The shrine built to worship contemporary art twisted and towered in the distance. With each step we took the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum changed and showed us a different angle of genius. When we stood near enough to touch its smooth surface it dominated us and became its own surroundings, and as if in a sacred place, our very talkative group of friends was silenced by the beauty and magnitude of Frank O. Gehry’s masterpiece. It is a structure that pulls at your senses, seems to defy gravity, and used up all 
 my digital camera’s picture frames. It curves, it hovers, it reflects, it twists, it leans, and it glistens. Its titanium surface seems cold but is instead warm and welcoming. And as I stood and observed this marvel of architecture I wondered if the ancient Egyptians might have felt the same awe and emotion that was rumbling through me as they observed the genius of their own pyramids.
 
Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao



 
For more information on places I've mentioned see:
Victor Montes Tapas Bar & Restaurant: http://www.victormontes.com/en_bar.htm
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: http://www.guggenheim.org/bilbao
























Sunday, February 5, 2012

A California Sunset, Cambria and Louisiana Gumbo...


Since I left my beloved California in the late 1980s and moved my life to Venice I’ve often been asked: What do you miss the most? It never takes me long to reply and check off the first three things on my list: family, friends and the weather. Often I stop there, but if I feel I’m in good hands I proceed to tell how my heart still sheds a tear for the sight and scent of the Pacific Ocean and its sunsets.    
Sun over Pacific Ocean from Moonstone Beach, Cambria California

Throughout my years in Venice I’ve tried to tackle and cure my California sunset nostalgia. I’ve often busied myself in my backyard at dusk simply to see the sun’s rays reflect their magic across my garden or sat at a westward facing café to watch the shadows of medieval churches encroach upon nearby calle, campi or canals.  I’ve turned my back to the east and stood at the peak of the Accademia Bridge hoping to catch a glimpse of the day’s light disappear behind a cluster of Renaissance palaces, and I’ve climbed the stairs to the top of the ferryboat departing the Lido to eye a glimmer of sun pouncing off nearby islands.  But each time I fail to find an unobstructed view of the sun kissing the horizon I’m left with a tinge of disappointment. From the northeastern coast of this beautiful peninsula the best sunsets are layered hues of gold, orange, pink, purple and blue coloring the sky, and though twilight in the Serenissima is marvelous it can’t quite compare to a California sunset. So, this past month when my husband and I traveled back to California I filled myself to the marrow with the things I miss and was treated to one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. It happened in Cambria, a charming seaside town midpoint between Los Angeles and San Francisco. http://www.cambria-online.com/


Boardwalk along Moonstone Beach, Cambria California

The fireplace was lit in our oh my goodness what a view room at the quaint White Water Inn on Moonstone Beach Drive.  Warm and cozy, a glass of cabernet from nearby Paso Robles in hand, we were glad to put our feet up after a late afternoon walk along the boardwalk—a windswept path that lies opposite the Inn for no other reason than to welcome and guide visitors and locals through the indigenous shrubs, trees, flora and sea life that stretch along the rugged central coastline. 


     We had settled back on the sage colored couch in front of the bay window. The sun was moving closer to the ocean and a flock of seagulls were riding the Pacific wind. We let ourselves breath in the peace of Moonstone Beach.  But as so often happens at that hour of the day I began to feel the first pangs of hunger. Where should we have dinner? I turned my gaze away from the Pacific, set the wine glass down and took a guest diary from the stack on the end table. I turned the pale blue pages and read the thoughtful notations left by other travelers. Their words spelled out the same sense of harmony and pleasure I was feeling and it seemed their sojourns at this gracious Inn had gifted them with all the time in the world. I summed up our restaurant options and conferred with my husband. After a quick call to reserve a table at Madeline’s on Main Street I turned my attention back to the window. The sun had gone from being an enormous white globe splashing light on the deep blue ocean to turning its celestial backdrop gold and orange. I threw on a scarf and jacket, grabbed the camera, stepped outside onto the windy porch and started clicking. The sky burned behind the winter wind and the sea turned to ink. 
 
California Sunset

The sight was incredible and I had to force myself to stop taking photos or risk viewing it alone and strictly through the lens.  Convinced that at least one of the dozen or so photos would capture the moment I returned to the warmth of our room and settled back on the couch next to my husband to watch the longest, brightest and most intense sunset I’ve ever seen slip into night. It was the perfect dose of medicine for my California sunset nostalgia and should hold me over…at least for a while. 

Now a bit about the White Water Inn and Madeline’s Restaurant: A few months ago, as destiny and a Google search would have it, I found the White Water Inn online.  I was drawn in by the photos of crisp-yellow cottages set between a rich green hillside and the sapphire-blue Pacific. The rooms appeared bright and welcoming so I shot off an email requesting more information and then followed up with a phone call. I never expected the voice on the other end of the line would belong to a childhood friend. That’s right! I was calling Cambria, California from Venice, Italy and an old acquaintance from my Southern California neighborhood was answering my call. Not only that, he proudly told me he’s the owner of the Inn. My old friend and I were both surprised and pleased that this beautiful seaside town had put us in contact once again. Coincidence had nudged me in the right direction. I won’t hesitate to return, and I wholeheartedly suggest it to anyone who longs for a relaxing get-away in Cambria.  www.whitewaterinn.com
White Water Inn on Moonstone Beach, Cambria California

We entered Madeline’s—named for the owner-chef David Stoothoff’s daughter—at 7 p.m. We’re not accustomed to eating dinner before 8 p.m. but Cambria is a small town, and most restaurants close by 9. We followed the maître to a lovely private table in an area framed by solid wood racks totting bottles of California Central Coast’s finest wines slipped into pigeonhole slots. We browsed the menu by candlelight and after I assured my husband that an appetizer of Crab and Lobster cakes was simply Polpettine di granchi e aragosta we decided to share an order, and chose our entrees, too. Next, we selected our wine but were told they had just sold the last bottle. No problem. We were open to anything that was red, good, fuller than Pinot Noir, maybe with a hint of Syrah, very little Zinfandel and certainly Californian.  (Now, as I’m writing, I understand our request may have sounded quite high-maintenance and I see why our very professional young waitress was thrown into a bit of a dilemma.) Soon the chef and owner of the restaurant was tableside. He was aware of our wine request and dinner order—I was having the Lamb Porterhouse pan seared and topped with pomegranate and zinfandel sauce, and my husband chose something he’ll never find in Italy: Louisiana Seafood Gumbo. (How gumbo got on a menu in Cambria I’ll explain in a moment.) Chef David Stoothoff was very kind, and very knowledgeable. He diligently pulled out and pushed back bottles of wine from their slots until he came across a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc, aged 20 months in American, French and Hungarian oak barrels. The blend sounded perfect for our plates and palates, and when he told us his father had chosen this wine for the restaurant I was sold. The wine that sounded perfect, and tasted even better, is RN Estate Wine Cuvee des Artistes from Paso Robles.  http://www.rnestate.com/our-wines

The restaurant crowd had thinned and we had finished our exceptional dinner. When the plates were cleared and the crumbs were swept from the white linen tablecloth we asked if the chef had a free moment to chat. My curious streak and plans for this blog post got me to ask David about his restaurant and in particular how the Louisiana gumbo my husband was raving about made it onto his menu. His answer was unexpected and revealed that David Stoothoff is more than a fine chef; he’s a fine American and humanitarian. In 2005 when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast David couldn’t bear to stay in Cambria and watch the aftermath of the hurricane that had destroyed another famous coastline. He knew people would need to be fed and did what he knows how to do so very well. He packed up his kitchen gear, got himself to New Orleans and started cooking for the doctors and Red Cross rescue workers who were trying to make sense out of disaster. For twelve hours a day he worked pots and pans on a stove in a tented make-shift kitchen, and it seems most of the time gumbo was on the menu! David Stoothoff was a blessing for the doctors and volunteers during those long, stressful days. He could have returned to Cambria and kept his experience for himself, but instead he decided to pay tribute to New Orleans and continue to forge a deep relationship between the two coasts by making gumbo a star player at Madeline’s. www.madelinescambria.com