Friday, November 09, 2012

INTREPIDO ITALIANO : (Part 7) MOLTO GELATO, MAMMA MIA!


During my trip, eating gelato (Italian version of ice cream) was one of my favorite pastimes. As your intrepid (!) correspondent, it was my solemn duty to eat as much gelati as possible, in order to give you, dear reader, a good account of the tasty treats not to be missed. :D

One of the memorable gelaterias i experienced was Gelateria Vernazza, billed as "Artisan Gelato of the Cinque Terre."


Gelateria Vernazza

Inside the shop, i asked the elderly woman behind the counter if i could take a photo of the poster on the wall (see below), and she gladly agreed. Turned out she was the widow of Pino (check the heart sign, with "a Pino"), and she said that even though he was gone, he lived on in her heart. 


Gelateria Vernazza poster

Their gelato (i forgot the flavor) was proved to be quite tasty and refreshing.



Grom is reputed to be one of the very best gelaterias in Italy, and i saw a couple of their shops in Rome, and one each in Venice and Florence. And there are invariably long queues emanating from their stores, so my expectations were quite high.

I chanced upon one of their branches in Florence, and ordered this cup with 3 flavors, namely: Crema di GROM (Egg cream, 'meliga' biscuits and dark chocolate), Cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate), and Cassata siciliana (fresh ricotta with candied citron, orange and lemon).



GROM!!!! (Florence)

Absolutely divine! You can tell that the ingredients are top-notch. I was licking my plastic spoon when i finished the cup.

Hello Newman had recommended that i try out La Carraia, one of his favorites. I stumbled upon it while searching for an internet cafe nearby:

La Carraia in Florence

I remembered i ordered the Pistachio and Cioccolato fondente (see below) flavors, and Newman was right - i felt two scoops were not enough!


Looks and tastes delicious!


While our guide Raffaele was doing our orientation walk in Rome, we passed by the famous Il Gelato di San Crispino and dropped by. I ordered one scoop each of Basil and Rum Cacao flavors (see below).

Il Gelato di San Crispino in Rome

Both flavors on their own were quite intense; and combined, even more so. Really, really good gelato!

 Unfortunately, there were misses, too. One of them was this one:

latoG in Rome

Their pistachio tasted sort of weird, i can't describe it except to say it was just "off", while the Cioccolato al Cacao was just okay, nothing to write home about.


So-so taste

Another one that disappointed was Mariotti Gelateria, right at the edge of Piazza Navona in Rome (just a 2-minute walk from my hotel). 


Mariotti Gelateria in Rome

Mariotti boasts of one of the widest array of gelato flavors, such that it was rather hard to choose which ones to order.  They serve some unique ones which are not found elsewhere, such as soy. And this one:


Viagra gelato, anyone?

 Yup, Viagra gelato.  I didn't order it, and i don't remember anymore what flavors i did order, but they were lacking in taste. No wonder there were only a few people inside their store, compared to the jampacked Grom shop right next to them 

Speaking of Grom, obviously a return trip was in order, right? I ordered the Cioccolato fondente again, and paired it with Fiordelatte (Whole milk, cream and sugar). Great contrast - ciocolatto was pure bombast, while fiordelatte was sublime. :D
 
 
GROM in Rome
 
Whilst waiting for my flight back to Manila at the airport, one last gelato stop was in order. Thankfully, di San Crispino had an outlet there

This cup was composed of Valrhona (a French company) chocolate, which was intense; and ginger + cinnamon, which proved to be sweet, yet without being cloying. Super sarap! Molto benne!


Il Gelato Di San Crispino at the airport!







Some of my tour mates were kidding me about my predeliction for gelato, and i joked that i was starting a new system of measuring physical activity, called the "Gelato Scoop Equivalents (GSEs)."

For example, climbing up the 463 steps up the Duomo in Florence would be equivalent to three (3) GSEs (meaning i could reward myself with 3 scoops, after all that huffing and puffing to reach the top)

Got it? Let's try another example. Lifting heavy luggage up the train station stairs and onto the overhead compartment of the train...that would be 2 GSEs, thank you. And so on. 

Of course, sitting on a gondola in Venice = ZERO GSEs!


(This concludes the Intrepido Italiano series. I'm as pleased as punch for outdoing myself - total of 7 posts for this trip. ;-D)



Thursday, November 01, 2012

INTREPIDO ITALIANO : (GUS Guide) Travel Tips for a Marvelous Stay in VENEZIA


*This post is dedicated to my loyal blog follower, Koryn the Suburban Girl (herself a very good blogger), who will tick off Venice from her bucket list next year ;-D


Venetian gondoliers relaxing under the sun.

I've come up with a not-by-any-means-complete set of tips for the first-time traveller to Venice. It was my favorite stop during the trip, i must say.

1. Chuck the map, you will get lost.

Walking is the main mode of getting around in Venice, and part of the fun is in exploring the small alleyways behind the main avenues, and chancing upon little shops, etc. 

Of course, it is no fun to be lost if you're hurrying for an appointment (or dying to use the toilet). In order to get a general idea of where you're at, or where you'd like to be at, just look for signs like below:


Photo courtesy of Venicetravelblog.Com


"Ferrovia" being the Santa Lucia railway station (more on this later), while "Piazzale Roma" is the bus station.



Photo courtesy of Venicetravelblog.Com
 
"Rialto" being the general area around the famous (and if we are being honest, over-rated) tourist landmark Rialto Bridge, while "S. Marco" is the famous (and not over-rated) Piazza San Marco.

2. Stay in Mestre.

What lots of tourists do is stay in a hotel in the mainland of Mestre, and take the train to the city center of Venice. I would recommend doing this, since hotels in Mestre are cheaper; and it is only a 5 - 10 minute train ride from Mestre to the Venezia Santa Lucia station (where you get off in Venice proper), anyway. Cost is something like EURO 1.20 for a one-way ride, and tickets ("biglietti") can be bought at any newspaper/magazine stand.

Trains run until late into the night, too. The important thing is to make sure your hotel in Mestre is walking distance to the train station.

3. Invest in a Tourist Travel Card.

Depending on how long your stay in Venice will be, go ahead and buy the Travel Card, which comes in 12-, 24-, 36-, 48-hour, etc. increments; and gives you unlimited rides on the "vaporetto" (public water buses) that run on many different routes. 

It will end up saving you a lot of money. For example, a single-journey one-way vaporetto ticket costs EURO 7.00, while a 12-hour card is at EURO 17.00.

Oh, be sure to validate your ticket on one of those odd-looking, yellow-colored machines BEFORE boarding on the vaporetto. Apparently, there is a big fine for using an unvalidated ticket.


Courtesy of Trekki


4. Try the traghetto

Traghetti are essentially gondolas that have been stripped off all the trimmings, and retain the basic seats only. They are good for going ACROSS (not along, take note) the Grand Canal (i.e. crossing from one side to the other side), and there are six or seven designated stops where you can board them. 

They are quite cheap, and used mostly by the locals (who take the short trip across the canal whilst standing up - talk about intestinal fortitude). 

5. Watch your belongings

This advice also applies to Rome and other major cities of Italy, as pickpockets tend to abound in crowded touristy spots. I was really concerned about this, and thought of buying one of those PacSafe wallet/pouch that you tie to your leg underneath your trousers. Eventually, i did try a "neck wallet" that you put underneath your clothes. Not comfy, and i felt rather silly. So it lasted for one day, and i just decided to take my chances thereafter.

So, just use common sense. No stuff on pants' backpockets; leave your credit cards in the hotel safe (just bring cash, an ID and one card at most; and stuff them in your front pocket, and wear tight-fit jeans hehe).

For the ladies, leave the gaudy jewelry and designer bag at home. For the guys, leave your tablet and other gadgets behind; and don't be so busy taking the 'perfect' photos with your DSLRs that you don't realize your other possessions are in danger of being lifted.

 6. Don't eat at restaurants with four languages on the menu.

This screams "Tourist, tourist, tourist!!" Better look for a small, charming trattoria or osteria which locals frequent; and if the menu is purely in Italian.....well, you should have learned some Italian phrases beforehand, shouldn't you? 


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

INTREPIDO ITALIANO : (Part 5) SAN GIORGIO MAGGIORE



The island of San Giorgio Maggiore is one vaporetto stop away from the Venetian mainland. One can even say it's literally within swimming-across-the-Grand-Canal distance, as  one can readily see its landmark church, made of white marble (aptly named Church of San Giorgio Maggiore).

Once you step off the vaporetto and onto the island, turn around and you will be rewarded by an unobstructed view of the highlights of the mainland:
  

Unobstructed view of the Venetian mainland: Bell tower, Basilica San Marco and Doge Palace.

Here's how the grand, imposing church looks up close:


Church of San Giorgio Maggiore


Another highlight is the San Giorgio Monastery, which also presently serves as the headquarters of the Cini Foundation.  No one, save for a few monks, lives inside the monastery; and it is only open for guided tours on weekends, with tours in English alternating with tours in Italian. Cost is EURO 10.00.

I visited San Giorgio Maggiore on a Sunday afternoon, and was struck by how quiet it was. Hardly anyone around. Eventually, only 3 of us signed up to take the guided tour (2 Italian ladies and moi). Rather than split us up, our friendly guide decided to do her dialogue and spiels in both languages. [She was huffing and puffing by the end of the tour, haha!]
   
According to our guide, the Cini Foundation (Fondazione Giorgio Cini) was established by Count Vittorio Cini in memory of his son, Giorgio, who died in an airplane accident near Cannes in 1949. It aimed to restore the island (which was destroyed by military occupation), and make it a center for Venetian culture and history.  






Amongst other things, the former monastery is a venue for cultural and art events. It has two libraries, namely: The Longhena Library, completed way back in 1671; and the modern library (“Nuova Manica Lunga"), which both focus on Italian (and Venetian) history and culture. 

Check out the photo of the modern library below. We were totally blown away by its simple, yet elegant design; and functionality (yes, it has Internet connection!). 


Nuova Manica Lunga

The foundation also owns a complete archive of all known works of the great Italian composer Vivaldi (amongst other artists), and offers scholarships for those interested in specializing in Italian culture.

The latest addition to this place is the Borges Labyrinth, a joint effort by the the Fundación Internacional Jorge Luis Borges and the Cini Foundation. It was intended as a tribute to the celebrated Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and opened on June 15, 2011 (right on his 25th death anniversary).









Look closely and you will see the word "Borges" spelled out. It also reproduced all of Borges' favorite symbols: a stick, a hourglass, a tiger, and a question mark.

San Giorgio Maggiore is defnitely worth visiting on a weekend! Check out their website here for more information on this lovely island.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

INTREPIDO ITALIANO : (Part 4) BELLA BURANO


Burano (not to be confused with the more famous Murano, where the glass comes from) is one of the outlying islands in the Venetian Lagoon; and is known for its lace (a dying art, as only old women still weave it). 

It is also known for its brightly colored houses. Legend has it that it makes it easier for fishermen to identify their own houses in the dark. Not really likely, but let's not quibble :D
 




The gelato in this store was pretty good, too!



   
Girl knocking on door.

 When you're in mainland Venice, tours of the three islands (Murano, Burano and the uninhabited Torcello) are offered as a half-day package.  NO need to take one of these, as it is quite easy to go on your own, by taking the vaporetto (water buses).




 
Taking a photo of people taking a photo.

  
Look! Even their laundry is colorful!

My favorite shot.



There is really not that much to do in Burano, if one is not intent on buying lace and tourist souvenirs. There is a (of course) small Lace Museum, which i didn't go into. There are a fair number of restaurants which looked interesting. Besides that, its charm is really in the laid-back atmosphere and over-all quaintness of the island.

As i was walking rather hurriedly back to the vaporetto stop, i chanced upon a photoshoot right on the streets of Burano. Five or six models all dressed up in alluring attire; and pretty soon, a small bunch of tourists were gawking (and happily taking photos).  

 

Yellow dress setting off her dark brown complexion very well.

 I was initially going to continue on walking, but then stopped and thought, 'what the heck, there's another vaporetto coming at a later time anyway', and joined in the fun. 










 







 
NO points for guessing whom i thought was the prettiest of 'em all! ;-D


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

INTREPIDO ITALIANO : (Part 3) MIGLIOR CAFFE A ROMA?

I had read about Sant' Eustachio Il Caffe at the CNNGO website, and it was heartily recommended as one of the best coffee places in Rome. Thus, since my brain refuses to work without a good caffeine fix, i made a mental note to try it whilst in town. As the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."



Customers crowding inside the cafe



Located right at Piazza Sant' Eustachio, which is sandwiched between the tourist landmarks Pantheon and Piazza Navona, Sant' Eustachio Il Caffe was happily (and serendipitously) located literally two corners away from my hotel! YES!!! ;-D  [with matching fist pump]

Started in 1938, they import Arabica beans from such far-flung places as Ethiopia, Guatemala, Galapagos Islands and the like; and the coffee beans are wood-roasted right in their premises.



One of the rare shops that do not take a day off, it is open till quite late (up to 1 AM in certain days of the week). And there is a steady stream of customers at most hours, a mixture of locals/regulars and curious tourists (like moi).



Photo of menu

The ordering process is quite simple: Just go to the cashier and inform him of your order and pay. He curtly nods and says "Prego", and gives you a stub, which you then present to the barista. He curtly nods at you. Then you wait.  He hands you your drink, and upon hearing you say thanks in your best Italian imitation accent, says "Prego." Yup, no put-on cheerfulness ala Starbucks here! (haha)



What adds to the  mystique of this coffee place is that they have a mini-wall or screen which obscures the coffee machines behind the bar. Thus, customers are not able to see how their espresso, etc. are being made. Supposedly this is to guard their "secret" process of making the coffee drinks.


My particular elixir. . .err, caffeine fix of choice was the Gran Caffe' Especial (EURO 2.60), as pictured below.  





By default, it is already sweetened before being served (which is contrary to common practice of other coffee shops), so be sure to specify if you want it "bitter" when you order. 

I don't know what alchemy goes on behind that screen, but this coffee is seriously pretty good. No, not just good; it was great Full-bodied. Bold, yet smooth. No bitter taste. Totally lived up to its billing as the "best espresso" in Rome. I could drink 4 cups of this every day!


Add caption

They have a few outdoor tables. Please be warned, though, that just like other food establishments, the prices for sitting on a table ("waiter service") and drinking while standing at the bar are different. In the case of Sant' Eustachio Il Caffe, they tack on a EURO 2.50 charge per product. 

So, dear reader, next time you're in Rome, do as the Romans (and non-Romans) do, and drop by here for your espresso fix!




Sant’Eustachio Il Caff√©
Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82
00186, Rome, Italy.

http://www.santeustachioilcaffe.it/en/




Monday, October 22, 2012

INTREPIDO ITALIANO: (Part 2) MUSEO SOVRACCARICO



I had read online somewhere that Italy has 60% of the world's known artworks. Not sure how accurate this figure is, but there's probably a grain (or two) of truth behind it. 


For the first-time visitor cum culture vulture/museum buff, the array of museums and historical sites to be visited is quite dizzying.  In Rome, the most popular ones are the Colosseum, Pantheon and Vatican (in particular, Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel). Then, amongst many other sites and museums, you have the Galleria Borghese, composed of 15th- to 18th-century art works.

In Venice, the Doge Palace, Accademia (largest collection of Venetian art in the world) and Peggy Guggenheim Collection (repository of modern art) vie for attention, with many smaller museums trailing behind. 


DAVID (from wikipedia)

In Florence, you have the renown Accademia (where Michelangelo's famous David statue, with its oversized head and hands, reside). Click here for a bit of history on this masterpiece. Then you have the Galleria Uffizi, the world's finest collection of Renaissance art. 

Unless one is a truly hardcore art/history buff, it is best to research beforehand and select what museum(s) one wishes to see. Ask yourself, "what do i want to see?", and forget about what your friends and/or various websites/travel guidebooks say you should see.

In my case, my head was spinning after 30 minutes inside the Uffizi. Really now, how many 17th- or 18th-century Madonna-and-child paintings does one need to see, anyway? Same goes for battle scenes, posed portraits, etc.  After a while, they all start to look the same!  Museo Sovraccarico (i.e. museum overload) set in rather quickly for me, haha.

There were some 'interesting' discoveries, though. Check out this statue in one of the Vatican museums:



Bill Clinton at the Vatican (from Google)
 
 Looks uncannily like a certain former U.S. president, huh? 

As for the Uffizi, whilst i was along the long corridor to the exit, i chanced upon this delightful work by the 16th century painter Bronzino, titled "The Portrait of the Dwarf Morgante", who was the favorite jester at the Medici court at that time.


Morgante (from art.info)

According to the Art.Info site, this work is unusual in that it was double-sided, showing front and back views of Morgante. Here's how he looks from the back. 

Wallah! ;-D

Morgante (from Discovery News)

I don't know about you, but my head ache went away; and i exited the Uffizi with a spring in my step and a wide smile on my face. 



Sunday, October 21, 2012

INTREPIDO ITALIANO: (Part 1) GONDOLA, OH GONDOLA!!


(This is the start of a new series on my recent trip to Italy, covering Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence and Rome, as part of an Intrepid Travel tour group. Off-hand, i'd say there will be 5 or 6 posts in the series, but depending as usual on my mood and degree of laziness, there might only be this one! :D Your guess is as good as mine, haha)



Parked gondolas, with the lovely island San Giorgio Maggiore in the background.


Riding a gondola (defined officially as a "traditional, flat-bottomed Venetian rowing boat" by Wikipedia) is one of those de rigueur things to do in Venezia (Venice). There is somehow something romantic about sitting on one of these boats, steered expertly by the gondolier (described invariably as a handsome ruffian, with George Clooney-esque rakish charm) and exploring the small back canals in Venice. 

But the Venetian gondola experience does not come cheap. And some people even go so far as to opine that it is an over-rated experience, if not an outright tourist trap.

So, let's talk about the costs. Below are the official prices posted on the Ticket Office. Please note that each gondola can seat a maximum of six (6) persons, so these prices (EURO 28.00/pax for the standard Gondola ride, and EURO 40.00/pax if you want to be seneraded by the gondolier) reflect that. Yup, you will be sharing the gondola with other people! Complete strangers even (unless you are conveniently a group of 6 persons)!



Prices at the Ticket Office

Approaching the gondolier directly is not necessarily an optimal strategy, as online accounts report that they have been known to charge as high as EURO 80-100.00/pax. And of course, should you wish a private gondola ride (i.e. you and your loved one lying on each other's arms, basking in the sunset, whilst the gondolier warbles "O Sole Mio" plaintively), the costs will be steep.




Servizio Gondole

 So, our instant group of 5 bubbly Aussie teen-age girls and one surly jet-lagged tourist (moi) were off, as our gondolier paddled along the Grand Canal. Eventually, we turned into the tight smaller canals for a backstage peek of the less crowded/touristy parts of Venetian residences.


Navigating one of the tight canals


The water at the canals was greyish-green, opaque but not quite murky; and thankfully, did not smell. And hardly any flotsam. One could see, based on the marks on the walls, that the water level can get really high, and portions of Venice (including the lowest point, Piazza San Marco) are under water during certain times of the year.


The water can rise to high levels



The gondoliers tend to be tall, tanned and with muscular arms and broad shoulders (due to the nature of the job), and i was told that it was considered a noble profession, which gondolier families pass down from one generation to the next. 

Ah, for the female readers of this blog, here's a photo of one of the gondoliers:
 

Gondolier in action. Nice striped shirt and cool shades, huh?



And another one of him working hard to steer the boat. 




So what's my verdict on the whole gondola ride experience? Well, it was a bit underwhelming, really. We didn't hear a peep from our gondolier, for one!  It probably would have made a big difference if he provided a bit of background or commentary.

I guess it's something one has to do ONCE, just to experience it first-hand.   

For those who are interested to learn how to row a gondola (i.e. "be a gondolier for a day"), Row Venice provides 2-hour lessons. Not recommended for people who can't swim though, haha.