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Author Archives: jillyland

Buona sera (Time to say goodnight to Napoli)

For months, I had puzzled over what to do on our last free day in Napoli. “I want to take a day trip down the Amalfi Coast,” was my optimistic final answer. There was no way I wanted to drive! But when I researched tour companies and bus schedules, I couldn’t find a good fit.

Still without plans, suddenly it was our second to last evening. We spritzed at a place famous for its snacks, except it was the cook’s night off. While the others were inside getting directions to the owner’s friend’s restaurant for a very late dinner, I quietly observed two elderly ladies in high apartments chatting with each other across the narrow street. They began to lower baskets on ropes.

“AN-TON-I-O!” one called repeatedly, starting at a high volume and getting louder. Fortunately, my time in Istanbul had prepared me for just such a moment. With no response from Antonio, I ran out from under my awning, got confirmation with eye contact and a nod of the head, collected the contents of one basket (a bowl of food covered with a plate, a bag of nuts and snacks), and smoothly transferred them to the basket across the street, where they were swiftly pulled up to the fourth floor.

It was quite dark by the time we found our way to a corner table by a window at Antica Latteria and puzzled over the menu. Where the Italian listed pastas with several ingredients, the English vocabulary was limited to translations of “tomatoes and tomatoes” and “clams clams.” As we verified that both were delicious, we got a text from Valeria: “Do you want to go to the beach tomorrow?” And so, finally, a plan for the last day was born.

We took the train down to Sorrento, with Vesuvius moving ahead of us, shifty as always. At the tourist office, they recommended a free beach in the village of [redacted] and which bus to take to get there. The bus was packed, but no one else got off at our blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stop on the side of the busy, twisty, shoulderless highway. We walked on top of the retaining wall until we reached the steep turn off to the village.

Walking past groves of the impossibly large and juicy lemons that the Sorrento region is famous for, we finally switch-backed our way down to sea level. The village was a perfect single street with buildings on one side and the beach, boats and the sea on the other. We found a fish restaurant where we could enjoy the view of the harbour, the bay, and Vesuvius (not where I expected it to be).

We talked about other beaches and other harbours and our travels, we talked about the beach where Leonard met Marianne, and Montreal, and how great it was to be on this beach in this village on a Tuesday, when everyone back home was working. We sunned and swam and solemnly swore to do this again, and then we hiked back up to the road and caught a bus back to Sorrento.

We had a final spritz in Marina Grande, the old harbour, with someone’s laundry drying overhead. After dinner we joined the other tourists in a photographic frenzy to capture the spectacular main event: the sunset over the Gulf of Napoli. It was hard to tear ourselves away. As Dean Martin said: 

Though it’s hard for us to whisper buona sera

With that old moon above the Mediterranean sea

It is time to say goodnight to Napoli

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Pompeii (Naples P.III)

 

Dog Mosaic

chained dog mosaic at the house of Paquius Proculus

I was not convinced that a visit to the ruins of Pompeii needed to be on the itinerary. After having seen the comprehensive exhibit from Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli in Canada, I thought there was little to add to my understanding of the volcanic eruption on August 24th, 79 CE. Thankfully, I was out voted and did not miss this unmissable site in Campania.

The Gulf of Naples is dominated by the hulking presence of Vesuvius, which has the bemusing quality of never quite being where it ought to be. As I travelled around the curve to Pompeii, Vesuvius was behind me when I expected it would be in front, and seemed to move out front when I thought I’d passed it. The twin peaks used to be one before it blew its top, an event which also increased the distance between Pompeii and the sea from 500 metres to two kilometres.

Our post-lunch, late-afternoon visit to the scavi had the advantage of being crowd-free, which made it easier to hear the echoes and see the outlines of the 20,000 people who lived there nearly 2,000 years ago. In my mind, it took no effort to reconstruct the roofs, reanimate the human and animal residents, and replace all the pots, egg cups, baskets, jewellery, and other detritus of ancient life back in its rightful places. The ambience was definitely aided by a small volcano puffing away unnecessarily, getting darker and darker. Someone is monitoring this, right? There’s someone on this? 

The entire city was much larger than I had imagined, from the wide spaces of the marketplace to the temple square. It was impossible to see everything, so we focussed our efforts down certain stick-straight Roman streets; an easy task with the excellent free map and guide that came with our entrance ticket.

The ancient city offered many practicalities and comforts. The sidewalks were raised extra high and crossed with stepping stones to allow for daily flooding to keep the dust down and the streets clean. Humans kept clean in the famous bath houses, which reminded me of a modern Turkish bath. Those were besides the 114-foot recreational swimming pool. Further entertainment options were available at the Amphitheatre (where Pink Floyd performed in 1972), or, if you didn’t like what was on there, the Big Theatre or the Little Theatre. The houses of the rich revolved around beautiful gardens and the vermillion and ochre of their wall paintings was still intact, along with decorative statues and mosaics. I couldn’t miss seeing the practical Cane Cavum (‘Beware of Dog’) mosaic still warning visitors at the House of the Tragic Poet.

One of the delightful surprises was the fast food outlets: a stone counter facing the street with circular holes cut out. Back in the day, the holes held bowls of food for purchase by busy labourers and artisans. I was thrilled to see the first one, then realized they were as ubiquitous as a Starbucks on every street corner today.

At the end of the museum exhibit, there are plaster casts of bodies, including a chained-up dog whose owner did not return in time, a couple embracing in their final moments, a child. It was a painful and powerful conclusion, a sobering reminder of the death of 2,000 people. But leaving the ruins of Pompeii on a sunny afternoon, I was filled with awe and incredulity for the ingenuity of the ancient world, the comforts and vibrancy and humour and creativity of those times. It was good to remember that 18,000 people survived the cataclysmic eruption and escaped the end of Pompeii.

If you find yourself in Napoli, do not miss the museum or the ruins of Pompeii. Until then, you can virtually explore much more information here.

 

On Pizza (Naples P.II)

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I’m in love. I’m having a relationship with my pizza.
– Liz Gilbert played by Julia Roberts

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The first time I encountered something about Naples that didn’t involve a purse-strap slasher on a scooter was the scene above, in which two tourists decide to eat the whole pizza (and buy bigger jeans) in the 2010 film Eat Pray Love. Pizza and Naples were noted on my radar.

I knew from previous trips that eating pizza in Italy is a set-up for likely disappointment on all future pizza. However, since my last visit to the country, many positive developments had occurred, such as pizzerias around the world importing wood-fire ovens directly from Naples! Surely the gap in the playing field had narrowed.

Now, my first time south of Rome, I wasn’t in a hurry to eat a local pizza because I was so distracted by all the other delicious only-in-Naples options, for starters the fresh seafood and fried snacks. And who knew an eggplant panini could be so good! And Caprese salad within sight of the island, with salty sweet mozzarella as big as my head!

The time finally came to grab a pizza. With sore feet unswayed by the enthusiastic stories of fellow wedding guests trekking for hours across the city and eating THE BEST PIZZA IN NAPLES on sidewalk curbs, we decided to pick up a pie at a place we had seen on the way home. While the red-and-white plastic interior did not look promising, there was a wood-burning oven, pizzaiolos spinning dough, and smiling staff who gamely took my (non-neapolitan dialect) order of “Pizza Margherita grande, … [take-away charade]…, por favor, wait that’s Spanish, per favore.”

While our pizza was tossed, dressed, and fired, I had time to peruse the clippings on the wall. It turned out that the neighbourhood joint was part of the legendary 90-year-old, four-generation Michele family pizza making tradition; the current owner started out in his childhood and “carries on this important legacy by offering religious respect.”  I think this will be good, I said sotto voce.

Buon appetito!” wished the friendly older gentleman waiting for his order behind us as we carefully carried our treasure box back down the street and through the seven doors to our flat. My only regret is that we didn’t sit and scarf the steaming pie down immediately.

At a final festive pizza lunch right on the Golfo, Gio and Maddie did the ordering at their favourite place. After starters, Caprese, and then pizza after pizza was brought out, my initial game plan waned and I lost count of how many slices I’d had. I just wanted to have space for one more incredible bite of any kind of pizza, founded on the crisp crunch of a cloud-like crust bubbled and blackened outside, soft and very slightly yeasty inside, with a bright red smear of sauce still holding the warmth of the sun and the richness of the volcanic Vesuvian soil the tomatoes grew in.  

It was in those last wistful bites that I had the epiphany that we can import all the ovens and pizzaiolos from Napoli, but we would still be missing the other essential ingredients, such as those listed by Michele’s: 

i migliori ingredienti della terra campana: l’olio evo, il pomodoro San Marzano dell’agro nocerino sarnese, l’aglio dell’Ufita, il Pomodorino del Piennolo, il Fior di latte di Agerola e così via.

When even the garlic is sourced and named, and pizza making is a lifelong career, it’s a whole different, professional level game, and one of the best reasons to hop a plane and travel to the other side of the world. (A great view and the smell of the sea also doesn’t hurt.)

With a last longing look at the final bites on my plate that I could not possibly finish, suddenly the words of the old Dean Martin song made perfect sense:

“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.

“Naples is Italy in the Extreme”

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“If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go farther south – it gets better…Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper. Naples is Italy in the extreme.” 

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I have never seen anywhere as beautiful as the Gulf of Naples.

After an uneventful two hours rereading Ferrante from Roma Termini, we transferred to an old, dark, underground commuter train in which a sardine would have felt mishandled. On arriving at our suburban station, the interest at looking around and up the surrounding hills was mitigated by the surprise discovery of a sweat gland in the middle of my back, which now was operating in overdrive under the blazing sun. At least the traffic stops for us was my pleasant surprise, as we crossed and recrossed the same streets with our roller bags, taking what seemed to be an eternity to find an address that turned out to be conveniently located five minutes around the corner from the station.

Our host handed us a jailer’s key ring and showed us how to work the locks: the big wooden outer door to the street, the middle inner gate to the courtyard, the metal door at the bottom of the stairs, the metal and glass door at the top of the stairs, the grate across our patio, the outer and inner door to the flat. Then I was done. I wanted to stay in the safe flat with no view, iffy wifi, and not leave.

When hunger finally tempted me to go out, we took a couple of turns to walk closer to the sea … and there it was. A few refreshing degrees cooler, ready for her close up, the awesome Golfo di Napoli, in all her azure technicolor glory, with the smudges of Capri and Ischia in the distance, and Mount Vesuvius lording over it all on the south side. I was dumbstruck.

I closed my mouth and we walked along the sea front until we got to the Castel dell’Ovo (Egg Castle), turning off into the Santa Lucia harbour to eat at La Scialuppa (‘The Rowboat’). As it was too ridiculously early for the strolling, dancing, wedding, fishing, kissing locals to eat at 7 p.m., we scored a waterside table without a reservation, the better to enjoy a pasta with seafood so fresh we could taste the brine of the sea under our feet. The shifting sun painted Vesuvius green-grey and the towns below pink when passing musicians began to offer all the diners folkloric or romantic songs, which layered perfectly into the lapping of the waves, the clinking of the masts and wine glasses, the seagulls’ cries.

We continued our own walking tour into the heart of Napoli, stopping to see the detailed tile floor mosaics of the 19th century Galleria Umberto I shopping arcade. Turning into the narrow, twisty streets, some of them merely a curving set of wide steps down which locals were bringing out their garbage and recycling, we finally cracked and got gelatos at the fifth place we passed. (It has been scientifically proven that one can not walk past more than five gelaterias without stopping.)

Carefully navigating the uneven cobblestones back down to the seaside with my tingly limone gelato, the smell of pizza and calzones wafting around, mixing with the shouts, conversations, and scooters of the locals, I realized that Napoli could engage and reanimate the senses of a zombie.

There were fewer and fewer people along the walkway back. The sky was indigo and Homer’s sea wine-dark as we got closer to the sparkling lights of Posillipo. As we enjoyed the cooling air, I was astonished to recognize the person walking towards us! ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world’! Valeria was a fellow guest of the wedding we were invited to, whose acquaintance I had made in Rome. As it was still very early in the evening by Campania time-keeping, we decided to make the most of it over beverages. Seated at a sidewalk table, marvelling at the Neapolitan custom of bringing complementary snacks (in this case, nuts, salads, bread, open-faced sandwiches, and fried treats) with drinks, and enveloped in conversation, I felt right at home.

 

to be continued …

opening quote from Rick Steves Snapshot: Naples & the Almalfi Coast, Avalon: 2015

When in Rome (mangiamo!)

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“Cut the guanciale likRomee this, in matchsticks.” Paolo held the pig cheek on a kitchen table cutting board, giving me time to write the steps as he efficiently prepared carbonara and vittelo for six.

It was hard to believe that we had only arrived in the Eternal City that afternoon. We had flown down the west coast of Italy, arriving in Rome under that impossibly deep cerulean blue bowl of a sky. After a breathless drive across the city with soundtrack of hardcore and horns, Paolo, Stefania, and their black lab welcomed us to the apartment with a so-called “light lunch” of deceptively simple delicacies of local breads, meats, cheeses, and gorgeous tomatoes, followed by a blueberry digestivo. Then, in case there was any doubt that we were really and truly in Rome, we drove to the Colosseum. There were no lines, so we walked right in, up, down, and around the nearly 1000-year-old landmark, selfie-ing as we went. On the way home, we stopped to pick up a lasagne pan of tiramisu that Stefania’s mamma made in the time it took to mention we couldn’t wait to try tiramisu in Italy.

And that set the pace for the following days. Like exploring the set of a film that we’d seen a hundred times before, we wandered ancient streets with buildings in all the warm shades of sienna, bustling with daily life, scooters, and the smell of something incredible to eat. On our own we checked off must-see Rome: the Spanish Steps higher, the Trevi Fountain more spectacular, the Piazza Navona more impressive in real life than on film. With Stefania and Paolo we discovered more: a lake in the crater of a dormant volcano, a hilltop town that celebrates the harvest by pumping wine through the fountains, a secret keyhole with a perfect view of St Peter’s.

We quickly fell into a new eating routine: a mid-afternoon stop for gelato, a late-afternoon aperitivo that was usually an Aperol spritz. In the evenings, dinner was the main event. One night our hosts took us to a traditional Osteria where we didn’t have to order anything: dishes quickly and magically appeared from the wood-burning oven. That meal, which consisted of at least ten different types of meat along with cheeses, showcased the variety of local Italian cuisines beyond pizza and pasta. Another night we went to have Puglian barbecue: speciality cuts of meat driven up from the heel of Italy included bombette: delicious pork encasing cheese, herbs, and other ingredients, grilled to order in a custom oven with flames coming out the sides so that grease doesn’t drip down into the coals or wood. Served with baked potatoes and salads, it was all housed in an unremarkable building that from the entrance looked like a butcher shop.

Our last day in Rome, we braved the skip-the-line touts at the Vatican and took our chances in the shady queue. It was worth it to finally arrive in the glorious Sistine Chapel and marvel at the bright colours and intricate detail of Michelangelo’s masterwork. After a final spritz, we found the perfect vantage point over the Tiber to watch the sun set over the largest church in Christendom. As the Romans do, around ten p.m. we enjoyed one last carbonara, the perfect finale to our six evenings in the ancient capital, feeling mille grazie that the road had led us to Rome.

Wonderful Copenhagen

to see all the photos that go with this article in the original post, and/or to read it in French, please click here.

Like kids in a Lego store, we could not wipe the smiles from our faces as we balanced on a boat in a Baltic corner.

“This Scandiland hybrid ferry stores the equivalent energy of 600 cars,” came the announcement in English as the wind pushed scarves and hair into selfies. Incredibly, our DeutscheBahn ICE train, the 7:24 a.m. from Hamburg, was neatly parked below.

Forty-five minutes later, once again seated across the train aisle from an elegant German couple, we rolled off the ferry to a cursory passport check before speeding through the gently rolling, tidy green Danish farmland. Views of the stone grey sea were always just beyond, and the train stopped to take on more blonde passengers at every town along the way.

The buzzer was still sounding when Lars opened the extra-wide wooden door to his flat. “Welcome to Copenhagen!” Our room was the first door on the left, with extra high 19th century ceilings, pale herringbone wood floors, a bed made up with white linens, striped chairs, at least five lamps, a portrait of the Queen of Europe’s oldest monarchy as a young woman, and a view of the city.

“There’s the railway station of course, and you can see the lights of Tivoli just beyond.” After pointing out more sights, Lars gave us a tour of the rest of the six-room apartment, with a surprisingly “small bathroom. All Copenhagen apartments are like that. But you will have the place to yourselves this weekend, as we are going to Jutland for a baptism.”

We set out for the Tourist Information Centre to get maps and ended up buying a Kulturnatten button and downloading the free app in English, before setting out to discover the city of Hans Christian Andersen, his “Little Mermaid” and “Ugly Duckling”, trolls, the hippie free city of Christiania, bike lanes and pedestrian bridges, a paper factory converted into a food truck hall, churches turned into art galleries, and parks full of surprises like castles, greenhouses, and a citadel that seemed toy-like in its perfection.

The swirling white floors of the Alexborg Tower could be accessed by a zippy paternoster elevator, which one of us was too scared to enter and one of us didn’t pay attention to and had to wait for the descent to exit. In contrast, the top of the Round Tower was accessed by a genius sloping cobblestone ramp with peep-in-the-kitchen views of the houses. We put on our gloves to admire the bright buildings and vintage boats of Nyhavn, then stood in line with hundreds of blonde children waiting for the Royal Danish Theatre to open.

Unlike Nuit Blanche in other cities, Kulturnatten was clearly a multi-generational affair. From 5 p.m. to midnight, the city was alive with bustling pedestrian streets and the windows of all the museums, theatres, churches and castles lighting up the dark. The children at the Theatre were engagingly introduced to the ballet, seniors ate sausages in squares, and whole families stood in line to see the everything from the Royal Reception Rooms to the thousand-year-old foundations below Frederiksborg Palace. Shockingly, no amount of frigid bluster from the wind could induce any locals to put on a hat or hood.

Mindful of all the articles I’d read about Copenhagen’s high costs, I had carefully selected a budget porridge place in the converted meat-packing district, which turned out to be huge. With no business number, we stopped to get our bearings outside Mother, decided to try the unlimited buffet, and hit the jackpot. The restaurant was packed with locals brunching on fruit juice, bread, jam, Nutella, eggs, meat, cheese, bright salads and endless supplies of flat-crust pizza.

In a long exposure shot on a rainy night where Stoget and Kobmagergade meet, I sought warmth and was quickly distracted by the wares of Illum, established in 1891. Full of flickering candles, soft throws, wooden toys, and gorgeous housewares in natural materials and colours, the department store has all the ingredients for a hyggelit home, which is the Danish foundational philosophy of coziness and focussing on the essential. I bought two felted coasters by HAY and an illustrated magnet by Ib Antoni before I tore myself away. A few blocks away, Irma City, part of the second-oldest grocery store chain in the world, was no less charming. The minimalist interior was full of perfectly packaged, labelled, and displayed food, including pantry staples in glass jam jars.

Our weekend ended where it started: in the warm air outside the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. Coincidentally, we had been seated across from the elegant German couple again on the train ride back. We saw them one last time as we waited for taxis. We all laughed and waved, the smiles still on our faces. No wonder Denmark is always ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world.

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photo by Bustitaway Photography

Prague Postcard

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“When she was eighty, she moved back to Prague.”

My friend was describing her Jewish grandmother, who, after surviving the Holocaust in a Central European concentration camp, joined the family in South America.

I tried to imagine that lady crossing the Atlantic again, at advanced age. What tempted her to travel 10,000 kilometres from the tropical flowers, fresh fruit and warm ocean breezes of her new home to Cold War Czechoslovakia?

Yet I thought I knew. The centre of the city on the Vltava is beyond time, from King Wenceslas to the hundred spires of the ancient capital of the Holy Roman Empire, to the poisoned ghosts of alchemists who tried to spin dreams into gold.

In spring, the Czech lands put on their loveliest dress, a bridal fantasy of petals, pastels and scent. Baby boar are born in the bright green forests, and farmers’ markets fill with the gifts of the countryside.

Of course in summer, Prague is a Kafkaesque nightmare rat maze; the old alleys crowded with backpackers, lads on weekends, wooden puppet hawkers, and classical music concert touts.

In fall, the trees astonish with the reds and oranges of Mucha’s Slav Epic, forests foragers locate mushrooms under a thick leaf carpet, grapes turn into new wine.

Winter is the best time of all to visit Prague. In winter, the clocks stop with a frosty sigh, the cobblestones absorb the chill, and the grey sky behind the Castle offers the uncrowded view seen for a millenium.

I visited Prague with friends the first weekend after I moved to Moravia. It was not the first or last, but it was the best time. Tucked up in an attic flat, we ate Afghan food and drank pints of Pilsner. We bundled up and crossed the Charles Bridge – empty on an early February morning, the statues of the twelve apostles immense and imposing, the snap of the ice in the river breathing the history and promise of Praha.

Fast forward back across the Atlantic, I listened to my friend tell the story of her grandmother. “She died the next year.”

I know why she went back. I thought I saw her walking over the Charles Bridge on a February day like mine, coat buttoned, scarf tied against the wind, crossing the Vltava.