Monday, December 15, 2008

Notable Differences Between Prague and Italy (specifically Rome)

We have arrived safely in Prague. We found ourselves in a very, very cold and rather sparse apartment, but it warmed up overnight (apparently the Prague city government decides when the heat works) and for something like $50/night, we are in luxurious quarters for the price. So far, we have not heeded our normal travel practices, which is to avoid restaurants where people greet you outside and to go to local coffee shops. I am writing this e-mail from a Starbucks (it has free WiFi). Last night we also ate at a deserted tourist restaurant. Nevertheless, the food was tasty (mmmm goulash and potato soup) and hearty and after our adventures leaving Rome at Fiumicino and our lack of food during travel, we were ravenous. More on the Fiumicino saga later at The Island of Misfit Toys.

Here are the notable differences we've observed so far:
1. No dog poop.
2. Colder. Much colder.
3. Less rainy.
4. Absence of lingerie stores.
5. More English speakers, or at least more English voluntarily spoken.
6. Crazier currency.
7. More monks, and dudes with guitars. Those are mutually exclusive categories, so far.
8. More messenger bags, possibly.
9. More knitting and crocheting in public. Woo hoo!!
10. ZERO scooters.
11. Praguers seem like "morning people."
12. And, last but not least, a general absence of popery.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Trattoria Da Maria

Having been thwarted twice in our attempts to eat at this establishment, Mr. Dirteens and I finally succeeded this evening. Italian restaurants don't always have posted hours and they are often open odd hours, when they are, in fact, open. These temperamental and unpredictable hours cause me to build up a lot of anticipation and hope for delicious food. Trattoria Da Maria did not disappoint.

When we walked in, the place was kind of grimy. It looks like a school cafeteria, with glossy mint colored walls and the tables are covered with standard plastic red-and-white checked tablecloths. At 7:30 PM - super early for the Ligurian dining set - the place was already quite crowded. We sat on the second floor, which was serviced by two tweeny (and teeny) waitresses. The kitchen is on the first floor, so the waitresses yell orders down the dumbwaiter.

Our menus arrived very promptly. I assume they are written by "Maria," and the handwriting is quite unintelligible. Before we had a chance to look through the whole menu (Primi, Secondi, Contorni(?), and Dolci), our waitress asked if we were "pronti?" Not being ready, and as we were fumbling a bit for the Italian necessary to continue conversing in her native language, she switched to English and we pulled out an order for two minestrone alla Genovese. Dang. It was phenomenal. The cannellini beans lent a creamy texture to the soup, the parmesan was peppery, it was... pestolicious.

For round two, we took our waitresses recommendations and Mr. Dirteens partook of the "Stoccafisso." This dish consists of Ligurians taking some dried out cod, soaking it, and adding potatoes and olives. While the fish remains quite chewy, it is more delicious than it sounds. Quite tasty actually. I had the "Polpettone" It has the texture of a fish cake, and is formed like a large patty, encrusted with cornmeal or flour. Some websites describe it as a meatloaf, and that is quite accurate. However, the polpettone is lighter than most meatloaves and it is vegetarian, at least at Da Maria. Apparently, Ligurians make their version of polpettone most often on the weekends. Don't ask me why, this website just says so. In any event, the combination of vegetable, potato, cheese, and egg, was scrumptious.

Having enjoyed our waitress's recommendations, we also permitted her to choose our desserts. We were a little crestfallen when she brought out identical desserts, since it would have been nice to sample two different creations, but at practically the first bite, we were too drunk to care. From what we could tell, the desserts were a very simplistic tiramisu, absolutely drenched in marsala. I'm almost feel a little tipsy just reflecting on that first boozy bite.

In the end, this fantastic meal (we skipped wine) only set us back 21 euro!! I almost regret posting that price since I fear that the restaurant will learn how good it is and hike up the prices. Chances of that happening are mercifully slim however, since we learned during our visit, that Mark Bittman has already listed this place as one of his "favorite restaurants in the world." Chow.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Two Things to Know about Genoa

1. Allegedly, jeans originated in Genoa (bleu de Genes en francais, minus accent marks that I cannot locate on this computer). While this legend may or may not be true, my spouse and I stopped by a very intriguing exhibit about jeans, in one form at least, at the Museum of the Archdiocese of Genoa. Most of what was contained in the Archdiocese's museum was similar to that which we observed in the Museum of the Treasures of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (also visited yesterday). Generally, the museums contained (dubious) relics, including one that portended to contain hair from the Virgin Mary and another that supposedly contained the ashes of St. John the Baptist! All of these relics were flashy and gilded. As my spouse put it - virtually all of the objects were contenders for "King of Bling" - a little known award bestowed upon gaudy church relics dating from the Renaissance by one medieval scholar.

In any event, the exhibit we saw distinct from the other artifacts in the galleries. The exhibit was called "The Blue of Genoa" and consisted of about a dozen large paintings on denim fabric. The scenes detailed the passion of Christ and were extraordinarily detailed, considering that the artist only painted with white tempera on the cloth. The one exception to the white/blue color scheme was on a painting of "La Flagellazione" (Italian for "The Flagellazione") where the portions of Christ's body that were taking the worst beating had what appeared to be real dried blood on them. This was rather more realistic than how most icons I've seen in the past few days depicted blood, so I found it somewhat jarring. The scale of these paintings was rather huge. From the way the fabric was cut, it looked like the tapestry-like results would have been displayed from various portions of a cathedral, perhaps during holy week. All in all, this was a great exhibition - if you get the chance to go, don't forget to look at the ceiling...

2. Focaccia. Wow. They say Genoese focaccia is the bomb, and it is. On the way back from the archive today we stopped for a bite and it was crispy but tender inside, oily and salty, and some bites seemed to melt away in my mouth. Given that the weather has still been quite chilly, I have not yet bitten the bullet and tried gelato here. That might have to wait for the warmer climate in Rome. I wonder if they'll have focaccia flavored gelato there?

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Room (Without) A View

Shortly after returning to Genoa from Florence, I saw the article in the NYT about touring the city as though it were 100 years ago from the perspective of E.M. Forster. Now, I can't say I've read Forster's novel, but the city is indeed crowded with tourists. Despite the crowds, I enjoyed our short stay and am glad we made the journey. Here's what we did:

Friday: We attempted to leave Genoa at 13:00, but due to the incredibly crappy weather, and corresponding train delays, we left at closer to 14:00. To give you an idea of how bad the weather was, Jeff and I had hoped to take a picture of the discarded umbrellas absolutely littering the streets, but it was too cold and too wet for us to even stop to do so. My hands were chilled to the bone after a ten minute walk to the station. Fortunately, our little travel umbrellas are stronger than what the umbrella salesmen sell all over Genoa, so we were able to withstand the winds and brave the rain.

On the train, we transferred at Pisa and saw some lovely (if rainy) Ligurian coast land and Tuscan countryside. We got to Florence in time to check in to our hotel right around 17:00 - only about 30 minutes later than expected. We got a surprisingly nice room for the money we spent (only 65 euro) at Hotel Cestelli. Our room was massive - about 4 times the size of the Genovese room in which we currently live. The bed was also about 4 times as large as the Genovese bed. Aside from the spaciousness, the room was also nicely decorated and the innkeepers - who are Japanese and Italian but met in San Diego - were very, very nice. The room did not, however, come with a view. Our window looked out directly across an alleyway into an industrial-sized kitchen of some local restaurant.

After resting for a bit, we went for a walk around Ponte Vecchio and to Santa Croce where we met up with our amigo CT (name redacted out of courtesy for the fact that said friend dislikes having an Internet presence) and his girlfriend, visiting from Stanford. Thanks to a surly waiter, we had a nice glass of wine from San Gimignano (where CT and his novia had spent Thanksgiving), and then we went to Osteria de'Benci for some... peculiar, but good food for dinner. Once again, the wine was excellent and the cheese plate was incredibly tasty. I have to remember to pair cheese with honey more often when I get home. The primi we ordered (apart from Jeff's pretty traditional round penne-esque pasta with meat sauce) were the strange part of the meal. CT's girlfriend got strawberry risotto - an unexpected pairing, but savory and yummy. CT and I both ordered one of the restaurant's specialties - homemade spaghetti cooked in red wine. The first bite was pretty captivating, but then I think the taste became a little overwhelming. Jeff and I split our secondi - the MASSIVE carbonata di chianina . The waiter brought out a few slabs of steak for us to choose from and we had to send them back until we got one that was just 1 kg. We weren't able to finish the steak, and while I can say with a good degree of certainty that this was an authentically Tuscan experience, I cannot say that I ever want to eat that much of rather charred, yet undercooked meat again. The meal pretty much destroyed us and we were so exhausted that we returned to the hotel immediately afterward.

- After grabbing a brioche and cafe for breakfast, we started waiting in line for the Uffizi galleries - along with almost every other tourist in Florence. Observing no movement in the line, we called for a reservation, and left for the Duomo. It was amazing. We got tickets to go all the way up to the cupola and the experience was breathtaking - both because of the long climb up several hundred stairs, and because of the frescos, and the views. It may be crowded, but if you find yourself in Florence, go to the Duomo.* Following the Duomo, we went to La Canova di Gustavino for lunch. It was one of the best meals ever. Once I can finally post pictures, I'll explain then.

We walked around for a while longer after lunch, stopped in some bookstores, looked at some churches, and then arrived at the Uffizi. As Mr. FGFC astutely observed, only in Italy, does one pay more for reservations, and then wait in line at the reserved entrance when the other line is moving... [Also, only in Italy are people confused by ATMs to quite the degree of Italians when confronted by a Bancomat. Seriously, these folks are SLOW... and the machine's first language is Italian. What gives?] The Uffizi had some famous art - most notably, the Birth of Venus - but overall the galleries are poorly organized and overcrowded. When we were about ready to call it quits for our visit, we stopped off in a special exhibit of 13th and 14th century Florentine art. This exhibit, in contrast to the rest of the space, was properly curated, cohesive, and fascinating. I loved many of the paintings salvaged from churches - particularly those detailing the lives of the saints - and the relic of San Someone... It contained the saints entire radius AND ulna.

Following a rest back at the hotel, we found an Internet cafe. The proprietor had a dog and was even more surly than the waiter at the wine bar. I'll let Mr. FGFC tell that story. The Internet trip was successful and after walking around some more, looking at more old stuff, we met CT for dinner again at a pizzeria popular with the locals. The pizza was quite good as was the cheap house wine and the desserts - I had panna cotta with frutti di bosce. We lingered and chatted over dinner and then returned again to the hotel for a second blissful night of sleep in the humongous bed.

Sunday: On Sunday, it was raining again. Tant pis for the marathoners - it was the Firenze marathon, in addition to being our last day in Florence. We had only a little time before our train was scheduled to leave at 11:30, so we dropped off our bagagli at the train station and grabbed breakfast and looked at more art. At the left luggage station, I saw my first visibly crazy Italian person. Since then, I've seen the dude who wears CDs around his neck several times in Genoa, but this was my first crazy man in Firenze. He was wearing (p)leather pants, lots of jewelry, and seemed to camp out in the left luggage station all day to chat with the gentlemen who worked there.

For our last day, we decided to go the Galleria dell'Accademia, home of the David. Security at the Galleria was considerably more lax than at the Uffizi. No questions about my knitting needles here. Compared to the Uffizi, the Galleria wins, hands down. The collection is more manageable. David is really huge. His hands and feet are especially imposing, but what they say about big feet is not borne out with David. I read somewhere, that apparently, true to size wangs were not considered artistically appropriate or polite back in the day. Once again, the one exhibit of Florentine art at the Galleria was our favorite part of this museum. The vibrant colors of some of the religious triptychs were astounding as were the depictions of the passion and the emotions of the saints.

We pretty much headed straight back to the train station after the Galleria so there is little else to report. Since this has been my longest blog post ever and my dear spouse needs the computer, I'll sign off here.

* If you have a serious fear of heights or are prone to intense bouts of claustrophobia, skip it only then.