Dreaming In Italian


A trip to the kingdom

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Without a visa it’s possible to stay, at least legally, in Italy (or any combination of Schengen countries) for just 90 days. Since we arrived in Italy on the 23rd of February last spring we were faced with a choice. The house was rented until the first of June. So we would be over the 90 days. We could return to the U.S. and cool our heels somewhere there or leave Italy for enough days and go to a non-Schengen country for a few days and return from Italy on June 1 without overstaying our time. Well, since we were already thousands of miles away that was an easy choice. Since Karen had friends in England who could host us for a few days and the UK is NOT a Schengen country, we opted to explore a bit there.

The notorious Ryanair cheapo airline is indeed inexpensive and definitely cheap. As you probably know, they charge extra for everything except using the bathroom on the plane (and it’s said that they considered charging for that as well). They no longer charge for carry-on luggage but there is a twist. They seem to be very insistent that the carry-on not exceed certain dimension and those dimensions are smaller than the standard carry-on sizes for other airlines. They have spawned a whole sub-industry of slightly smaller suitcases. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of our landlords (and friends) Antonella and Victor, we were able to borrow a pair of Ryanair sized suitcases for the trip. Not only that but Antonella stored our other suitcases (4 in total) for the 10 day duration of the trip. Everyone should have such friends.

So on the appointed day we flew to London Stansted airport which is in the middle of nowhere north of London. As a welcome, we were greeted by a hostile immigration official who seemed convinced that we were trying to overstay our Schengen 90 day stay by a short trip to the “kingdom”. So we had an unpleasant conversation for about 20 minutes before finally being allowed into the country. Not a good start. Then we took a combination of trains and subway to Sutton, south of London for a stay with Gill and Simon. One stop along the way was at the Blackfriar’s tube station where we had our first pub experience. Simon is VERY knowledgeable on the subject of pubs and advised us well throughout the trip. We had a fine stay with them and went into London 2 times via train and subway as well as some more local trips with our hosts. To tell you the truth I wasn’t really taken with London. It’s an interesting enough place with lots of buildings going up everywhere, some fine architecture, the incredible Victoria and Albert museum and impressive amounts of beer being drunk by Englishmen.

Interior of our first pub in London on the way to Sutton

Interior of our first pub in London on the way to Sutton

An antiquities room at the Victoria and Albert Museu,

An antiquities room at the Victoria and Albert Museum

A large airy hall of sculpture at the V and A museum

A large airy hall of sculpture at the V and A museum

I have a special interest in woodworking. One of many amazing pieces at the V and A

I have a special interest in woodworking. One of many amazing pieces at the V and A

The me the two real highlights of the trip were the V and A museum and dinner with Davide and his partner. He was the best Italian teacher that I ever had in Bologna and now works for Google of all things on some kind of cultural partnerships that they have with museums in Italy.

So then we were off to Edinburgh Scotland. It too is an interesting city. Lots of history and Scottish pride (and interesting accents). It seems that every building is build of stone rather than brick. An impressive castle, terrific whiskey, scary sounding food (haggis anyone?) and a climate which is, well, bracing. The Scots are a tough breed. They have to be to brave the weather. I did finally screw up my courage and tried some haggis and was pleasantly surprised that it was actually pretty good. I rewarded my courage with a fine whiskey to end the meal.

The very impressive Edinburgh castle

The very impressive Edinburgh castle

A view down the "Royal Mile" from the castle at this end to a Royal Palace at the other

A view down the “Royal Mile” from the castle at this end to a Royal Palace at the other

And here's the haggis - atop mashed turnips and mashed potatoes along with the obligatory beer

And here’s the haggis – atop mashed turnips and mashed potatoes along with the obligatory beer

After the 3 or 4 days in Edinburgh we made a two night stop in York. It was much smaller than the other cities that we’d visited with an almost intact wall around the old city that is quite walk-able. It also has an incredible railroad museum. The steam powered and coal fed engines are really something to behold and there were a bunch of them as well as something as modern as a Japanese bullet train.

The queen's train that brought her from London to her palace in Edinburgh

The queen’s train that brought her from London to her palace in Edinburgh

The engineer's part of the engine

The engineer’s part of the engine

The Mallard holds the worlds record (established in 1938) for a steam engine. It's quite a beast

The Mallard holds the worlds record (established in 1938 at 124.5 mpy) for a steam engine. It’s quite a beast.  The drive wheels are 6’8″ in diameter.  You can just see Karen’s shoulder on the right of the picture at the height of the numbers. 

And this is what the engineer of the Mallard sees.

And this is what the engineer of the Mallard sees.

To wrap up the trip we had another incredibly unpleasant experience at the Stansted airport where they threw out almost anything vaguely liquid or could have been liquid at some time in the past. Be forewarned, going through security when leaving England on Ryanair is not for the faint of heart. I was SO glad to get back to Bologna in the land of beauty, good food and a relaxed lifestyle. We stayed for 2 nights and then returned home – 89 days in a Schengen country.

Ah, back in Bologna. The view from our hotel room window.

Ah, back in Bologna. The view from our hotel room window.

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Bella Napoli

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Beautiful Naples. A couple of years ago I met a guy in Bologna who was from the area of Naples. He was extremely proud of his area and proclaimed that Naples was the “piu’ bella citta’ nel mondo” the most beautiful city in the world. It became a running joke with us. I really couldn’t believe that it could compare with, say, Paris or Rome not to mention a bunch of other beautiful cities in the world. Karen and I had thought to take a little trip down to Palermo in Sicily, which I have visited before and enjoyed but talking to Italian friends (I’m no longer in touch with the “piu’ bella citta’” guy) I was convinced that Naples must really be special so we changed our plans and went there instead. You can take a high speed train from Bologna that takes a total of about 4 hours, hitting speeds as high as 300 km/hour (about 180 mph).

Well, I still dispute the piu’ bella statement but must say it is an interesting place. It is also dirty, chaotic, unruly and noisy. We stayed in an old part of the city not far from the Duomo (which just means cathedral and often refers to the principle church in an area). The streets were amazingly narrow, just room to walk in single file along the street (no sidewalk of course) and not be run over by a small car going down the same street. Obviously, being that narrow they are one-way but that certainly didn’t stop people on motor scooters from going in the wrong direction at a fairly fast rate of speed without a helmet and sometimes with a kid on the back. Welcome to Napoli where most rules don’t apply. Speaking of motor scooters, eating in a restaurant along a busy street (this one 4 lanes of nasty traffic) one evening there were scooters that avoided the traffic by simply taking to the sidewalk instead. What a crazy place. Crossing the street could present quite a challenge. We opted to just follow locals who seemed to think nothing of just walking across the street as traffic whizzed around them. This included an intrepid mother with a baby in a stroller who crossed the street in the midst of such traffic.

The little street where we stayed

The little street where we stayed

And of course there is laundry

And of course there is laundry

We did go to Pompeii one day. Karen liked it but I was unimpressed. To me it just looked like a city that was recently part of a war zone. A lot of crumbling ruins. Also I found that much if not most of the really interesting stuff – mosaics, wall paintings, etc. – had been moved to the Archeology Museum in Napoli where we could see it without being run over by tour groups while walking very irregular streets in sweltering heat.

Pompeii scene

Pompeii scene

Pompeii mosaic floor that was still there

Pompeii  floor that was still there

Pompeii mosaic in museum

Pompeii mosaic in museum

Another Pompeii mosaic in museum

Pompeii fresco in museum

And another

And another

Yet another

And another mosaic

Part of the erotica room at the Napoli museum

Part of the erotica room at the Napoli museum

There is a pizzeria in Bologna called Spaccanapoli. I never understood the significance of the name until I visited Napoli. It is the name of a very long straight street (see the photo below) that “splits” (spacca) the city. There really was a lot of interesting stuff to see, stuff to eat and trinket to buy everywhere. And, of course, speaking of pizza, Napoli is the center of the universe for this dish. It is good and cheap. A friend in Bologna had told me that in Naples you just eat the pizza margherita – tomato sauce, good mozzarella (often buffalo milk mozzarella) and a few leaves of basil. A typical offering was 4 euros for a pizza which would definitely fill you up. That and another 4 for a beer and you’re set. And it is VERY good!

Spaccanapoli from a hillside

Spaccanapoli from a hillside

Miniatures seem very popular here

Miniatures seem very popular here

Napolitano specialties store

Napolitano specialties store

Napoli specialties

Napoli  edible specialties

Mmmm - sweets!

Mmmm – sweets!

If it's not a pizza and it's not sweet - it's often fried

If it’s not a pizza and it’s not sweet – it’s often fried

We also found a nice place to have a light dinner and a very atmospheric bar with, what else, grappa. Also a little cuban rum.

One of those wild Napolitana

One of those wild Napolitane

The bar

The bar

Grappa for me, cuban rum for Karen

Grappa for me, cuban rum for Karen

We did one thing that I tend not to do (sometimes I need Karen’s urging to get over my prejudices); we took one of those hop-on, hop off tourist bus tours of the city. Yes, they probably are overpriced, but Naples is a big city and we did go on two routes so we saw a large swath of it. We wouldn’t have had that opportunity just going it alone in the 4+ days that we were there.

Gulf of Napoli with Vesuvius - from tour bus

Gulf of Napoli with Vesuvius – from tour bus

We also discovered, a bit belatedly the subway. That was great and I would advise any visitor to get lodging not too far from a subway station. It’s fast, reasonably economical and seems to go all over the place. We took it up into one of the hills and took a funicular back down. There are 3 or 4 funiculars and I’m not sure that the one we took was the best but still the contrast with the hill neighborhood was quite a contrast to the old city center where we stayed. It was quiet, clean and almost sedate – Bologna-ish.

The funicular that we took

The funicular that we took

All is relatively serene up on the hill

All is relatively serene up on the hill

Just one other thing, I noticed that sometimes I could understand a word when people were having a conversation. In fact there was a group of maybe 20 something guys at dinner seated near us one night and it sounded almost like a slavic language (at least to my ear) . I asked the waiter and, yes, they were speaking Neapolitan which is more than just a dialect, it’s considered a separate language. Kind of a mashup of latin, spanish, french and god knows what else – everyone that has ever ruled that region.

So did I like Napoli? Well, not too much. Really too chaotic for me. If I want grimy and earthy I’ll take Palermo any day over Napoli. Am I glad I went? Sure, it was quite an experience and I only wish that I’d known more before I went to make better use of the time there since I don’t plan to go back any time soon. Still, I may dream about the pizza (and the spaghetti in clam sauce).

The best pizza is in Napoli

The best pizza is in Napoli

Oh, yes. One more thing. Often a lot of stores were grouped together. There would be a street with 8 or 10 shoe stores. Another with perhaps men’s clothes. Near the Duomo there were stores with everything wedding related: wedding gowns, shoes to match, men’s elegant wedding suits, florists and even a photographer. There was one wedding gown that seemed an “only in Napoli” thing.

Wedding dress?!

Wedding dress?!

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Via San Felice

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

Now I have yet another favorite street in Bologna. I never thought of it as anything particularly special but I have walked along it often because of two reasons. First my gym is on the street and sometimes I just walk the distance rather than take a bus and second my dentist is on that street so I’ve had another reason to come there. I should say one of my dentists because I went to another dentist friend to have my teeth cleaned. Walking along the street I found that there were a number of clothing stores for both men and women that were in the quality/price range that appealed to me. So I’ve bought shirts there last year and my leather jacket and belts there this year. Of course like almost any commercial street in Bologna there is usually a bar (coffee shop) every 100 meters or less and a tabaccheria perhaps every 200 or so. I’ve also noted some interesting stores as I’ll describe below.

Starting from Porta San Felice …

The dental office where I had my dental implant done

The dental office where I had my dental implant done

I’ve never seen a store (actually much larger than is apparent from the photo with nothing but frozen foods – just about anything imaginable.

An entire store for frozen foods

An entire store for frozen foods

For those who are sticklers for cleanliness of person and house plus a variety of cosmetics and perfumes. Seems a strange combination (it’s a fairly large chain in Italy) but clearly is targeted at housewives or perhaps women in general. Most men are not as concerned about household cleanliness and certainly are not big consumers of cosmetics.

Cleaning products, personal hygiene and and cosmetics - only

Cleaning products, personal hygiene and and cosmetics – only

The gym that I’ve gone to on the past 3 trips.

My gym

My gym

The only store of it’s kind that I saw in Bologna – nothing but cheese.

Only cheese in this store

Only cheese in this store

And, yes, my favorite pizzeria is also there. It’s the best pizza that I’ve found in Bologna. It may be as good as those actually in Napoli. I need to go back and do a taste comparison now that I’ve had pizza at the center of the universe for pizza – but that’s another post. If you should be there and go for a pizza – avoid a weekend. They don’t take reservations and the wait can be aggravating.

Great pizza at Bella Napoli

Great pizza at Bella Napoli

 

 

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The Neighborhood

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

Our place for 86 days (except the a couple of side trips) is the same apartment where we stayed last year. After almost 3 months you get to know a neighborhood reasonably well. So here is a bit more about where we stayed. First there is the map:

We're at #66

We’re at #66

Starting at the closest place is the tabaccheria. In Italy it is not just tobacco products. They sell bus tickets and recharge cell phones. To add minutes to your phone you give them your phone number, the cellular provider (in my case Vodafone) and hand over 20 euros and voila! You immediately receive an SMS message from Vodafone that you have another 20 euros in your account that usually lasts a couple of months of calls, texts and internet access. Of course they also sell batteries, stamps, lottery tickets, mints and usually a variety of stuff like playing cards, key chains and whatever else will fit in the window. Ours actually has the same street address (numero civico) – #66.

"our" tabaccheria

“our” tabaccheria

Next is the local bar. There are bars everywhere in Bologna. You can barely go 100 meters along Santo Stefano without encountering another one. I pop into this one on occasion for a coffee on the way back from the gym.

"our" barrista

“our” barrista

They have some signs on the wall like you might find in a cafe in the U.S. A couple seem to be either originals or replicas of information for a brothel.

The stuff on the wall

The stuff on the wall

The saying on the right say “we gladly sell to the poor: they have little money … but in compensation there are lot of them” – not a literal translation but that’s how you’d say it in English. If you want to know what the others say, leave a comment.

Just a few steps further on is a very good gelateria. Rain or shine, warm or cold, there always a crowd there in the evenings so you know it must be good!

"our" gelateria

“our” gelateria

There are lots of little “corner” stores and this one is literally on the corner. They are mostly general stores that carry fruit and vegetables, beer, wine, cleaning supplies, pasta, etc. A wide variety of things that you often need – in our case mostly potato chips and beer. Still I continue to be amazed at the variety of things that they cram into these small spaces. An interesting aside, they are mostly run by Bangladeshis.

"our" corner store

“our” corner store

Ah, the wine store. In this case it has been there a long time and still has the name “fiaschetteria” rather than a newer term “enoteca”. It is owned by two brothers that inherited it from their father who founded it in 1947. It’s absolutely my favorite place for wine and grappa. The prices are reasonable and the advice good. I’ve visited a lot of enotecas here and it’s definitely worth going out of your way to stop in here. By he way the wine prices are significantly lower than in the united states. I estimate that a bottle of wine here that costs roughly $10 would cost over $20 in the U.S. Tell ’em that I sent you.

Roberto on left and his brother Giancarlo

Roberto on left and his brother Giancarlo

Of course when I don’t want to go to the Mercato delle Erbe we do shopping closer to home. Also for non food items. So not far away is a store named Verdura; kind of a smaller scale Whole Foods with similar prices. Right next to it is a fairly inexpensive supermarket, Pam, with a limited selection. A little further away is a Coop (another supermarket chain) with more stuff but I usually opt for the Pam while Karen goes the extra distance to the Coop for a greater selection of stuff in general.

verdura

 Pam

The Coop has a salumeria inside among other things

The Coop has a salumeria inside among other things

Via Santo Stefano continues on straight but it becomes mostly a pedestrian area at the beautiful Piazza Santo Stefano. The road however curves to the left and becomes Farini. Karen took a lovely sunset photo there in early March.

Ah, the beauty of Bologna

Ah, the beauty of Bologna

A dop0! (See you later! – sort of)

 

 

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