Thursday 19 March 2015

Day 52: Tuscany! (Day Two)

Continued from Day One, Part One and Part Two.

Day Two of our Tuscany travels took us to two different cities in one day: Pisa, home of the world famous leaning tower; and Volterra, a tiny mountaintop Etruscan town with views all the way to the sea.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is in fact only one part of the Campo de Milagros; it is the bell tower attached to the main cathedral and the baptistery across the way. We were really lucky with the weather and the combination of clear blue sky, brilliantly emerald grass, and bright white churches was almost eye-watering.

We remained with our tour group to see the inside of the Cathedral, but opted to break away midway through in order to better explore the area ourselves independently. I liked the alternating black and white striping of the interior as it appeals to my simplistic, colour-blocking aesthetic and the altar was, of course, stunning.

The Leaning Tower itself was smaller and shorter than I expected it to be, and at 16 Euro to get to the top we decided to stay planted. It is quite beautiful though, with its symmetry and patterns in the stone.

Of course, we had to take the classic cheesy tourist photos, which took over an hour to get right and is WAY harder than you think it's going to be!

I'll give you one guess as to who took up the most time:


At any rate, when we were FINALLY done being ridiculous tourists we got a chance to relax in the sunshine at a little cafe, enjoying some of the local specialties (pasta, and a Tuscan Sauvignon that I admit I much preferred to the super dry red we'd had the night before) before being herded back onto the bus to head to Volterra.

During the two hour drive we entertained ourselves playing the group guessing game Head's Up, which I believe was created by Ellen DeGeneres. It was a cheap buy in the App Store and WELL worth it for hours of hilarious entertainment, especially in the "Adults Only" category. When playing, the game actually takes video of everyone and you have the option to save the clip to your camera roll. Suffice to say given the theme we were playing with the video is *not* appropriate to post here, but I burst out laughing every time I rewatch it!

At the end of it we arrived in Volterra. We were repeatedly told that the current claim to fame of this town is that it was mentioned as being the seat of power of the ruling vampire clan The Volturi in the book and movie series Twilight. However, the actual movie wasn't filmed here, so...yeah. We never did clap eyes onto any vampires, but that may have been because the day was so frigid and windy that everyone was huddled up inside, undead bloodsuckers included.

Panoramic view from the entrance to the city; way off in the distance is the sea, visible on clear days.

The town is gorgeously picturesque with its narrow winding stone streets and sunset coloured buildings stacked all on top of one another. The residents clearly pay attention to detail, as well, evidenced by the well tended florals and succulents outside every door and decorating parts of the walls.

The view of the "rolling hills of Tuscany" at your feet is nothing to sneeze at, either.

We wrapped up our visit in Volterra quickly...

(not without stopping for a tiny pastry first!) 

...and headed back to Florence, where we went straight to dinner and enjoyed one of the best meals I've had in Italy thus far. For antipasti, tomato basil bruschetta and a selection of prosciuttos and cream cheese served with this strange, donut-hole-like concoction that I surmised was a sweet dough yet dusted in salt. I didn't get any photos of this because I was too busy stuffing my face with it, naturally.

For primi piatti (first course) it's always, always pasta: this time, a duo of mezzaluna pasta (a large, half moon shaped type of ravioli) in a delectable tomato sauce, and gemelli pasta in a pesto cream sauce. 

For secondi piatti (second course) it was chicken cooked to perfection in a mushroom and ham cream sauce, served alongside steamed spinach.

Dessert was fresh berries piled on top of cream, all encased in a basket that turned out to be made out of chocolate. I think I ate more that evening that the rest of the trip combined.

What better way to burn off all those calories than dancing the night away in one of Florence's night clubs? (Ignore the fact that we earned them all back in drinks, but whatever.) Bamboo was the place, chock full of local Italians (a nice change from the American college crowd we usually run into) with great music and our giant group of 20 people wasted no time in taking over the dance floor until the early morning hours.

Day Three: Siena!

Saturday 14 March 2015

Day 51: Tuscany! (Day One, Part Two)

This post is a continuation of the earlier "Tuscany! (Day One, Part One)" posting, and I'm going to keep it brief since I have so much to catch up on.

So! After our delicious lunch at the Cinta Senese farm outside of Siena we finally made it to Florence. After dropping our things off at the hotel (four people to a room with only one hotel key issued, natch) near La Piazza Independencia we immediately split up into two groups to begin our two hour walking tour of Florence. Our guide Lisa was an exuberant local Tuscan who was obviously clearly proud of her heritage and Tuscany in general. (She got in several good-natured digs against Rome during our tour, though the way she said it made me wonder if it was just a Tuscan vs. Rome thing, or more of a Rest-of-Italy vs. Rome thing...)

We were lucky to still have clear blue skies (still freezing weather) and started our tour by walking through the famous Florentine open air markets. Most of the stalls offer similar merchandise and it's largely leather goods (purses, wallets, jackets, and shoes) and silk products interspersed with the traditional touristy tchotchkes, Murano glass products, and one or two ceramics stalls.

The salesmen here are by far the most aggressive I've encountered anywhere. At some stalls "aggression" comes across simply as sellers standing in the front of their stalls calling out "Hello my friends, come here, look at these lovely purses, good deal for you." At others it manifests as blatant sexual harassment and leering, quickly escalating to sheer rudeness after you politely decline to view their wares. This particular quality culminated in a confrontational shouting match between one particular vendor and I in the middle of the crowded aisle after he sneered "I only liked you from behind anyway" and I told him exactly where he could go and what he could do with himself there.

Suffice to say I did not purchase this particular beauty from that guy!

Rubbing the nose of the lucky Florentine boar (their answer to Rome's Trevi Fountain) in order to one day return to Florence!

We made it to what is arguably Florence's biggest (and in my opinion, most beautiful) attraction: the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore near the city center. The facade is an absolutely stunning neo-Gothic style faced in white, green, and pink marble. The photo below in no way does it justice; coming around the corner of a narrow side street and stumbling onto this scene is utterly jaw dropping. I wasn't the only one to stop dead in my tracks in awe.

The Cathedral face by night. I love this cathedral so much because the construction style is interesting and ornate without being totally overwhelming (unlike traditional Gothic, which is often comical with its borderline ridiculous over-embellishment) and the simple colour palette appeals to my love of colour blocking. NONE of these photos do it justice!

Like most Italian churches the cathedral is organized in the shape of a cross. The entrance is at the base, opening to a long nave and an altar at the far end (underneath that dome, which happens to be the largest brick dome ever constructed in the world). On either side of the altar are small rounded chapels, such that the design of this church is not only that of a cross, but of a daisy as well (the nave being the stem, the altar being the center, and the small chapels the "petals") since Florence is known as the City of the Flowers.

The attached bell tower, which is the feature I adore the most.

The interior is surprisingly simple, with the intention of encouraging worshippers to focus on the message and communing with God rather than being distracted by decorations. As an easily-distracted-by-shiny-objects Christian, I got it.

The back of the church *does* feature a unique clock unlike anything I've ever seen: a "sun clock" from 1443 that's divided up into 24 wedges, with one hand that rotates counter clockwise. The clock ends at the 24th wedge at sunset of each day and is still in working order. Weird and wonderful!

The interior of the dome above the altar is, like many I've seen in Italy, painted with scenes from the Last Judgement. With gruesome depictions of burning hell populated by demons and sinners intended to frighten churchgoers, and God and Father Time standing judge o'er all, there's plenty to see and interpret. Until your neck gets sore.

From there it was off to the shopping district and Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) to see the view of the river.

Cheesin' with my GoFundMe sponsors for this particular trip: Drew Manchester and Robin and Byron Moore! Love you guys!

Ponte Vecchio

We capped off the night after dinner trying out some Tuscan wine in a very chill, rustic wine bar. After a 15 hour day of running around like maniacs it was wonderful to have a chance to sit down and unwind with my one true love. :)

Tuscany: Day Two Part Two soon as I get the motivation.

Monday 9 March 2015

Day 51: Tuscany! (Day One, Part One)

This past weekend I got the chance to put my travelling boots on (yes, I do actually have boots and I travel in them) again and headed to Tuscany on a school-organized trip to Florence, Pisa, Volterra and Siena. That's a LOT to be packing into three days, and my exhaustion shows it, but I had a complete blast!

For those who might not be super familiar (as was I before this trip), Tuscany is a region north of Rome that is famous for wine, food, and art, among other things.

The most well known city is arguably Florence (Firenze, in Italian) that holds claim to Michelangelo, and the most beautiful cathedral I've ever seen. More on that later. Based on what I saw from the bus window (and believe me, we spent *plenty* of time on this bus) the landscape is dominated by rolling hills made positively verdantly green with long grass that literally flows in waves in the wind, sometimes with a few sheep to be spotted roaming them. Other hills are dotted with pale gray-blue olive trees and some with scraggly brown vineyards. Nothing's really in bloom right now since it's still winter, but we've had a few days here recently that herald the slow arrival of spring. I can't wait to go back to Tuscany then.

At any rate, we were up bright and early on Friday to be on the bus at 7 AM. Most of my fellow students spent the three hour drive sleeping, but I was too amped and excited to be on the road again so I spent the time listening to Gipsy King's "Volare" on repeat and staring out the window. It's how I got this shot, of the aforementioned rolling green hills!

Tuscany doesn't need any editing. (Doesn't this look exactly like the Windows desktop image though?!)

Our first stop on our journey was to a pig farm in the western province near Siena called Azienda Agricola Baruffaldi run by the passion of Daniele Baruffaldi, a former financier in Milan who gave it all up to raise the Cinta Senese pig. So named for the white band running around its black midsection ("cinta" is the Italian for "belt") and the region it is native to (Senese, or Sienese), the Cinta Senese is a unique heritage breed of pig dating back to the 1300's, as made evident by its presence in several paintings from the time period depicting rural Tuscan scenes.

 The fresco "The Allegory of Good and Bad Government," painted in 1338 in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy.

The breed nearly went extinct due to a slow reproduction rate (sows only bear about 8 piglets a year versus the average 25 of the standard white pig) and lack of profitability for large scale farming (the Cinta Senese take two years to become ready for slaughter as opposed to the 9 months for white pigs; in addition, as a wild pig they also need way more space to live and forage for the wild foods that make their meat so flavourful: the Cinta Senese farmer's association mandates that there can only be 4 pigs per acre of land!) but has slowly been coming back due to the efforts of Daniel and his fellow pig farmers. They have DOP status in Italy (protected designation of origin) and according to Daniel there are only about 1000 of them in all of Italy. Each pig is registered with the Italian government at birth and given a "passport", a unique serial number stamped onto a plastic yellow disk that is inserted in each ear. Every time you buy a certified Cinta Senese product, then, it should come with a label stating all of the "passport" numbers of the pigs that went into that particular piece of salame, and you can go to their website and look up what farms they came from, when they were born, when they were slaughtered, etc. Talk about knowing where your food comes from!

Daniel started with three females and one male, though the ratio can be much higher--according to him, like any good Italian man, one male Cinta Senese can satisfy as many as fifteen women! (Cue giggles from all the students and blushing chortles from our Catholic school staff chaperoning us, especially that of our translator as Daniel speaks only Italian.) He now has about 200 of the animals and practices only natural reproduction in his herd. His love and passion for these pigs is evident in his exuberant explanation of their history and the benefits of their meat, and his respect for their life cycle and their purpose to humans. As a foodie, this is probably one of the biggest steps forward I've taken in my culinary education and I was just eating it up!

Literally. After getting to pet some of the piggies and seeing an exceptionally squeal-y baby, Daniel took us back to his charming little hilltop house to enjoy a generous spread of Cinta Senese products: a few different types of salame, some with fennel seeds; an incredible pancetta which was my favourite; a guanciale which is just so ludicrously rich it should be buying me a Bugatti; and a few other thinner shaved cuts whose names escape me. Rounding out the meal was a simple tomato basil salad made from tomatoes Daniel grows in his own garden and loaves of locally made bread and pecorino cheese, served with olive oil he grows and presses himself. Indeed, Daniel Baruffaldi has me convinced that he is THE Renaissance man of Tuscany.

 Excuse the baby talk. It's impossible to avoid when they're so darn cute. (I'm not sure what it says about me that I can still eat them up later with no bad feelings, but nonetheless...)

Oink oink!

The Cinta Senese meat and fat is high in Omega 3 fatty acids and good cholesterol, making it one of the "healthiest" porcine varieties around.

That's the man himself, there! It was freeeezing cold and windy that day, which is why I suspect that little baby was protesting *so* very vociferously at being removed from Mum for a bunch of tourists!

Part of Daniel's beautiful house and garden--absolutely something out of a Tuscan painting.

My favourite pancetta, with such an incredibly unique flavour I've never enjoyed anywhere else, is found in that bottom left corner.

According to the website I found for Daniel's farm,  he offers these kinds of tours and experiences regularly for a cost of 30 Euros (15 for the educational tour and 15 for the delectable meal afterwards). I can't possibly endorse this heartily enough if you have even a passing interest in eating delicious food, animals, pigs, Tuscany, food sustainability, eating locally, or just generally having a sweet time. If you can't make it all the way to Tuscany, it looks like some Cinta Senese pigs have made their way to San Francisco in a groundbreaking effort to improve their genetic diversity across the pond.

Coming soon, because somehow "study abroad" apparently actually does involve this "studying" thing: Day One, Part Two, wherein we tear ourselves away from the Tuscan sunshine and head down into the valley to explore Florence.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Day 49: How to Visit the Galleria Borghese

It is my opinion that we as a society use the terms "awe-inspiring" and "breathtaking" far too often, diluting their meaning--until we have a moment that truly DOES strike us dumb with amazement, effectively resetting our perceptions in a way that can leave us slack-jawed and silent.

Thus was my experience at the Galleria Borghese today, after weeks of waiting for this moment. I was primarily so excited for this because my favourite artist of all time is sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the Galleria Borghese houses some of his most amazing pieces. You might recall my tear-stained moment in front of my favourite piece of architecture on the planet, The Fountains of the Four Rivers, in Piazza Navona a few weeks ago. I couldn't wait to see some of his smaller scale works, though the Galleria houses many more incredible artists as well.

So, here's what you need to know to have a successful and fulfilling visit to the Galleria Borghese!

  • Tickets MUST be reserved online in advance here, as the museum only admits a maximum of 250 people in two-hour slots to better allow patrons to view and enjoy the artwork without overcrowding. Because this is revered as one of the best museums in all of Italy if not the world, it's very popular and bookings sell out days in advance regularly. Book ahead as soon as you can! Tickets run about 11 Euro for full price, less if you're an EU citizen or meet other qualifications.
  • As I mentioned you only get two hours to view the museum, so do arrive about 15 minutes before your appointed time to make sure you can pick up your tickets at the Box Office and enter right on schedule. They WILL shoo you out very efficiently and very effectively about 5-10 minutes before the official "end" of your admission, so it's imperative to be on time.
  • You will be required to check all umbrellas, handbags, backpacks, and luggage regardless of size--so don't bring anything terribly valuable. It's free. They do NOT check coats or jackets, so if you bring those be prepared to carry them around. Interestingly, the brochure says that camera and camcorders have to be checked as well, but all of us on my visit were taking pictures very openly and no one stopped us.
  • Dress up! I always like to dress up nicely when I visit museums, out of respect to the beautiful art I'm seeing--often housed in incredible buildings. It's not a requirement, of course, but certainly helps to set the tone for the treasures you're about to view. It's easy to feel shabby in jeans and sneakers next to the magnificence of gilt and marble.
  • GET THE AUDIO GUIDE! It's only 5 Euros and is easily the best 5 Euros I've ever spent. The audio tour lasts 90 minutes (out of your allocated 120 minutes) so it takes up the majority, but offers tons of interesting information on each room and the notable pieces within. However, the audio guide is hand held and must be held up to your ear--very annoying when you need two hands for photography or holding on to youngsters. Bring your own headphones so you can plug in to the jack and loop the audio guide around your neck with the provided lanyard to have both hands free.
  • Move at a steady pace throughout the rooms. The audio guide is fantastically designed to keep you on track to stay within the 2 hour time limit, though it's tempting to dawdle in some of the rooms since the guide hits on only the main pieces and there's so much left to see and explore. Personally I know I'm going to need a second visit (without the audio guide, this time) to go back and see the smaller, but no less captivating, items I missed this time around. Fortunately there are laminated placards (in multiple languages) in most rooms that explain the smaller pieces not covered by the audio guide.
  • There's a fully stocked cafe on the lower level adjacent to the ticket office and coat check if you need to fuel up before or after your visit.
I think that's it in terms of the how-to's! Personally, this is the most amazing and *truly* breathtaking museum I've ever been to in my life, and I've been incredibly fortunate to see some of the most well-known in the world (the Met, the Louvre, MOMA, everything in Washington DC, etc.). If you only have a few days to spend in Rome and are trying to decide on what to see, this should absolutely be at the top of your list. The magnificence, combined with the fact that you're only given two hours, makes this an easy choice for everyone, even those with only a passing interest in art. 

Note: I have to preface all of the following photos by saying that I don't think there's any camera in the world that can truly capture the breathtaking beauty of seeing these pieces in person, as they were intended. I also committed to using only iPhone (5S) photography on this trip.

The Galleria Borghese is located within the Borghese Gardens, which is accessible by a few metro stops and is right next to Piazza del Popolo. Personally I just walk there from my university (about a 45 minute jaunt). I love the Borghese Gardens for many unrelated reasons, not least of which because it's a very romantic place to spend an afternoon--the entire (huge) park is shaped like a heart, for Pete's sake!

This is the fresco ceiling of the very first room you enter, wherein I promptly (very nearly) burst into tears at the detail and the magnificence. To say I was overwhelmed is a dramatic understatement. From the tiny piece I futilely tried to capture with my iPhone, you can see Jupiter (the Roman god-king, the Greek version of which is Zeus) on a cloud, radiating light, welcoming Romulus [ascending on the cloud to the bottom left] to the after life. I could have spent an entire hour on my back gazing up and taking in every minute detail!

My homeboy the god Bacchus (of wine and celebration) in the main entrance room, with the dragon of the Borghese Family above him.

Canova's "Pauline Bonaparte", depicted holding the golden apple that was the subject of "The Judgement of Paris", a scene which is conveniently also painted on the ceiling. This is the first room you walk into after that amazing first reception room, and this sculpture is no less incredible. Observe the creases in the fabric of her couch cushion, of the plumpness of her toes and feet and curve of her back--and remember, this is all made OUT OF STONE!

In the next room you are treated to the first of several Bernini masterpieces, his "David". Here the biblical figure of David is portrayed in the midst of his fight against the giant Goliath, about to fling the stone that would be his making. One of the things I love about Bernini is his ability to capture movement in stone, and this particular figure is so fluid you almost flinch in fear that David might whip around and let loose with that stone at any moment.

Bernini's "David" from the front. Observe the front leg tensed and braced as a foothold, and he biting his lip with furrowed brow in concentration. Don't even TRY and tell me you're not impressed by that.

Shortly after "David" you'll see another Bernini masterpiece: "Apollo and Daphne". Here is yet another example of Bernini's genius in capturing movement, fluidity, and texture. Everything from Apollo's garment fluttering out behind him to the texture of the laurel leaves that sprout from Daphne's fingertips at the moment of her metamorphosis is absolutely jaw-dropping.

"Apollo and Daphne" from behind, which is in fact the original view that viewers were treated to upon entering the room, such that they wouldn't understand the true craftsmanship of the piece until they circled around to the sides and front, to be fully grounded in amazement at the unfolding.

Another of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's famous works, "Pluto and Proserphina" here in the Emperor's Room, depicting The Rape of Persephone.

Though this is not my all-time favourite of Bernini's works, this particular image of Pluto's hand gripping the thigh of Persephone has been one of my more treasured and revisited images of art for years. I never stop marvelling at Bernini's ability to make the indentations of his fingers into her flesh so vivid and real.

It isn't only sculpture on display, of course. After hiking up a very long spiraling staircase you'll get to the second floor, the painting gallery, that houses several Caravaggios and other well known paintings. This one in particular caught my eye (the artist name slips my mind, regrettably) because it is in fact NOT a painting--instead it is a mosaic, made up of perhaps thousands of tiny miniscule tiles. Amazing!

Close up on the tiles--how's that for attention to detail!

Ah, okay--a shameless selfie in the back gardens of the actual Villa Borghese (the Galleria is inside) after my visit.

If you have any questions in preparation of your visit or on the museum itself, feel free to leave them in the comments. Ciao, bellos!

Monday 2 March 2015


Hi all!

I’ve been in a creative slump recently, hence the lack of updates on the blog—but today I did manage to get an Italian inspired recipe up on my other blog, Lekker and Liquor. My fellow study abroad friend Gracia and I managed to book our tiny dorm kitchen for two hours on Friday night to whip up these amazing Tomato Basil Mussels, and they’re hands down one of my favourite meals ever. Check it out, and in the meantime, know that I’m still working on new material.


Monday 16 February 2015

Rome Restaurant Review: Dar Poeta

Food and drink are two of my biggest passions in life, and one of the primary reasons I chose to study in Italy. In this world of molecular gastronomy, fusion, and food trends I find myself continuing to relate to something more simple: seasonal, wholesome, uncomplicated foods that taste great and are good for you. It resonates with me on a much deeper level. Italy appears to agree with me, as one of their cardinal rules, apparently, is to never put more than three ingredients on a pizza and everything is fresh and menus arranged according to seasonality (and local sourcing, in most cases.) 

Speaking of pizza, I'm here to point you towards what is arguably the best pizza to be found in Rome. Remember, though, that the caveat to all of this is that NAPLES has the best pizza. Rome only really discovered pizza in 1911 at the World Fair when Italians learned what other Italians were eating around the country. Suffice to say, I do prefer the pies in Naples. However, when one has a craving in Rome, the place to turn is DAR POETA in Trastevere.

About a 30 minute walk from St. John's University campus, Dar Poeta is located down a seemingly seedy narrow side street at Vicolo del Bologna 45/46--you'd walk right past it unless you were looking for it.

 Lotsa graffiti. (Pepe stops hustling for NOTHING!)

It's a small restaurant of two levels, with the larger groups being seated in the basement. They saw our loud group coming and immediately escorted us down the narrow winding stairs. Red and white checkered plastic tablecloths cover the tables (with red paper being thrown on top once you arrive) and the walls are simply decorated with quotes in Italian which I cannot read, but assume are about pizza.

The restaurant's menu is almost only pizza, though I spied maybe two or three calzones on offer and a large selection of bruschetta (of which the blue cheese and honey was my favourite) as well. Beer and wine is available, though skip the red--the white is fine. Then it's on to pizza!

The first time we went I ordered the Bufalata pizza with light red sauce, buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and basil.

I found it highly enjoyable with the oozy fresh cheese and easily polished off the entire thing.

 Pepe smiles for nothing, not even delectable pizza. The rest of us were just impatiently waiting to get the picture taken so we could dive in.

Which we did, promptly. (Scraps is going to kill me.)

My second time around, though, I opted for their namesake pizza (the Dar Poeta, obviously) that comes with thinly sliced zucchini, garlic, spicy salsiccia (sausage) and hot peppers. The sausage is OUTRAGEOUSLY good, and while zucchini on a pizza sounds was really, really good.

This time, my new Irish friends and I opted to finish our meal with the dessert calzone--a MASSIVE beast stuffed with melty Nutella and sweet cream and topped with powdered sugar and cocoa powder. It was UNBELIEVABLY delicious and decadent--plan to share it with at least two other people. (Our group of six split it amongst ourselves!)

The cheapest pizza starts at 6.50 Euro, though the majority are 9 Euro, and while the restaurant is just about always at capacity the wait is short and I don't think reservations are needed. (I've been reliably informed that this is NOT the case during high season or summer, though.) The staff is young and friendly, and always willing to offer suggestions on where to go out afterwards. It's become a huge favourite among the gang, and probably at the top of the list where I would take visitors to Rome. Highly recommended!

Disclaimer: Please note that all photos are mine, and are not to be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without my express written consent.