Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Plitvice Falls, Croatia

A three-hour drive from the nearest big Italian city through amazing coastal mountain roads and isolated farms and wilderness, Plitvicka falls is worth the travel, even in the middle of winter. Formed by 16 lakes dammed by plant materials naturally deposited by the water's current, the lakes and the waterfalls were inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It's a beautiful and magical landscape to walk through, but it wasn't always like that: it was the place where the Croatia war for independence started and ended. This place must hold a spell over people, willing to fight and start a war over something that is for all intents and purposes pools of water spilling over each other. But to be there is to really appreciate the power of such a place to entrance.

My visit to the park was somewhat of an unintended sidetrip gone right. New Year's Eve was (mistakenly) celebrated in Zagreb, Croatia's capital. Having nothing to do the next day, the decision was made to drive to the park, a mere two and a half hours away. (The windy mountainous roads made it more like four hours.) Arriving to the park, we realized that it remained popular with the locals, who took advantage of the lack of patrols by entering through the unguarded sides for free. The situation may be different in the summer, when the park's popularity (visitors reaching almost a million) surely forces the park administration to put in more guards to ensure everyone pays the exorbitant $25 fee.

The park must be very beautiful in the spring and summer. Based on the pictures one can see online, the landscape is more verdant and more fantastic. The water's blue, vegetation's green, the rocks' brown, and the mist rising from the water blend to make what surely seems to be a hallucination.

But winter itself is not bad. Other than not being too crowded, the place becomes a winter wonderland of frozen waterfalls, snowy bridges, branches covered in ice, and the intermittent snow. Instead of a hallucination, one is surrounded by the eery silence and harsh reality of a landscape in hibernation. Of course, it didn't help that the trails were completely iced over, and walking past especially the taller falls and holding onto the measly wooden branch handrails was in itself a gamble.

On the other end of the park however is a New Year's Day party thrown by the park for the brave souls who decided to come. Free music, free food, and woodcutting competitions--the festive atmosphere completely makes up for the party that Zagreb promised but did not deliver. Some people however quite obviously were having too much fun...

(It is illegal to swim in the lakes, by the way. But these two drunk guys just got dirty looks and a stern finger wagging, nothing more. )

The ticket at that day were actually discounted because the ferries were purportedly not running. But after we made it past the party towards the docks, we were surprised that the boat was running, after all. Although it didn't go to the very opposite of the park like it usually does, we were nevertheless able to see the park from the water, as it is supposed to be enjoyed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Forte Verena (Asiago) and a Late Winter Hike

Forte Verena is located on the highest peak of the Asiago Plateau, roughly 2,000 meters above sea level. It is part of the series of fortifications built by the Italians along their northern borders before WWI as a protection against any attacks by the Austro-Hungarians (despite being "allies"), as a retaliation for Italy's claim to Trentino, Alto-Adige, and Friuli-Venezia. During its construction, Forte Verena was top-of-the-line, made to withstand any known forms of bombardments during the time. However, WWI was significant in human history as the first modern war, and the construction technologies introduced in Fort Verena were some of the many techniques that were laid to waste by this new way of waging war.

On May 24, 1915, the first fires shot by the Italians during the war were from Fort Verena, directed at Fort Luserna, a corresponding fortification by the Austrians across the valley. The higher elevation afforded the Italians commanding views of their targets, but poor weapons caused more civilian casualty in nearby Lusern than military gain. For months, the Italians bombarded the surrounding Austrian forts from this commanding position, while being met with a sizeable but not as effective artillery response from the Austrians. Ground troops were also involved during the battle, but the mountainous terrain made any significant advances for both sides impossible. In addition, the Italians had to contend with scrappy yet determined volunteers on the Austrian side aided by snipers from the Meraner Standschutzen battalion who were able to exploit the terrain for their advantage.

The situation didn't break for the Austrians until the following summer, with the introduction of the M11 and some really big Howitzers, which were able to produce greater damages at further distances. Within three months, the Austrians have destroyed and captured all Italian fortifications that were keeping the Austro-Hungarian advance to Asiago. Ground forces pushed the Italians all the way back to Asiago, stopping only due to lack of logistical support, partly due to the severe supply depletion caused by the Austrians' obsessive need to capture every mountaintop...a worthy tactic but one made irrelevant by bigger, more destructive guns and a tendency to destroy everything for the sake of winning. (The ultimate challenge to this tactic was in Pasubio, when the Austrians simply completely blew-up an entire mountaintop instead of trying to capture it.) From there, the Italians were on the defensive for most of the war as they try to stop the Austrians from advancing down towards Vicenza and across the Po Delta. The Italians were only able to completely push the Austrians back and recapture their forts with the Armistice of 1918.


It felt silly to go hiking through the snow in the mountains when the sun is shining and it's 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the plains below, but I would say this is actually the best time to do it. First off, it's not so cold, so short sleeves are completely acceptable. Second, the weather is less wont to turn violent and dump many inches of snow while one is outside. Third, the silence.

Finally, it's nice to be reminded that spring has arrived even if one doesn't really need to be reminded. I don't know what these little flowers are, but they, along with daffodils, were common sights whenever there is a clear patch of ground.

We actually hiked along and through the Verena ski trails, which were empty enough to be traversed on foot (not recommended during high season, when doing so can result in heavy fines). The trails gave me an idea: skiing! I know it is very late in the season, but I wouldn't mind enjoying some slopes in short summer clothes!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Avignon and the Prestige Moon

I wasn't in Italy to enjoy the the big moon this weekend, but the view of the Palais des Papes in Avignon with the moon hanging up above it sufficed...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Charcutepalooza: Corned Beef and Sauerkraut

This month's challenge took a long time to do. Not because it was particularly difficult, but because way too many things such as work got in the way of doing things such as cooking and eating. But this weekend was free and rainy, so I stayed inside and made stuff.

First were these gnocchi, which were puck-like in appearance and texture. After mashing the potatoes, I added flour...more, and more, and more flour. The dough was runny and hard to handle, which made me a little overzealous with the flour. I think the problem might be the potatoes--not enough starch--and the excessive flour made the doughy taste almost too overwhelming. It didn't help that the gnocchi were big, a consequence of being fed up trying to roll the dough and spooning them and rolling them onto flour instead. Clearly, not a success, but the sauce on the other hand was fantastic: butter, sage, chantrelle mushrooms (frozen from last fall), and truffles (again, preserved from last fall). Served with a bit of pecorino and it was perfect.

I also tended to my sauerkraut. As you can tell by the label, the jar was made last week using one full head of medium cabbage. I didn't really see active fermentation, but judging from the build up of salt in the bottom of the jar, the liquid obviously overflowed due to the fermentation. I had to skim a bit of the scum off, which thankfully stayed in one big clump. While transferring it to a bottle, I tried a bit of it and found it too salty. I must remember to rinse it first before I eat it. Hopefully I do not die of poisoning.

Finally, the corned beef. A friend recently threw a St Patrick's Day party (yeah, too early. But more reason to drink excessively) and made corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes all boiled in cider. I was originally going to take the easy route and just make brined pork chops, but I liked the corned beef so much that I decided to make it. The brine itself wasn't hard: salt, sugar, spices, water, mix. Add the beef and let stand for five days. Above is a peek into the bag, since the bag is unruly and I have no pans big enough to accommodate the liquid and meat. It should be ready to cook tomorrow...hopefully it's good.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Italian Beer Series: Menabrea (Biella)

Menabrea is a brewery in Piemonte that started its production in 1846, but has been in continuous ownership by a single family since 1872. It was mainly a local product, until Forst bought the rights to its distribution, making it a ubiquitous presence in grocery stores across northern Italy. Although it prides itself for having retained its independence despite being bought by a larger company, the beer, at least the lager, does not speak for that.

Their amber lager is one that is largely defined by its "weakness". The hoppy aroma is almost nonexistent, maybe because the head is composed of fine bubbles that does not last at all even with vigorious pouring. The watery consistency perfectly underlines the really subtle flavors of hops and grass. A pleasant mild bitterness finishes off, that goes away as soon as it comes. at 4.5%, the beer won't make you feel anything even after a few of their half-liter bottles. Good for spicy foods where the refreshing taste would cut down the spice (in retrospect, so does water). Or if you want to taste the beer, maybe a drink with your bread or white rice.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Better Days in Sendai

It's surreal seeing Sendai in the condition it is in now. A few years ago--9 year ago, to be exact--I spent my summer in the city as an exchange student. I remembered loving the city, especially the times when I was walking back home alone after school, wandering around the city and discovering new things. I still have vivid memories of discovering a temple in the middle of a bamboo forest on top of a hill, the path to which is hidden by masses of blossoming hydrangeas. Driving through a mist-covered forests to go to an onsen. Driving along almost deserted beaches (the Japanese do not really have a beach culture) to get to Matsushima Bay, which was probably fundamentally altered by the ensuing tsunami. Enjoying the Tanabata Festival, and helping my host family make okonomiyaki for their neighborhood festival. Sadly, I have lost contact with them. I can only hope that they are fine. I hope that the city builds itself back up again, and I wish to visit it again when it does so.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Venetian Mardi Gras

Carnevale in Venice has always been associated with upturning expectations. Laws were excused for a couple of weeks of fun, people wore masks to disguise class or cultural distinctions, and the lower and upper class alike roamed the streets and openly criticized and caricature anything and everything. In light of this, it is quite a folly to come to Venice bound with certain expectations of the festival, thinking it genteel and restraint compared to the raucous that typically characterize New Orleans or Sao Paolo's celebrations. I came with such preconceptions, and was expecting a night of mask-wearers roaming the streets enacting the dream-like atmosphere promised by the brochures.

There is a lot of that sure, but walk away from the lagoon and San Marco and things become different. The alleys get more crowded and the atmosphere becomes more like a street party. There are makeshift dance parties around drummers and bands and the occasional portable bar. Unlike the usual rococo gowns associated with the festival, the costumes are more hand-made: men in women's underwear and fairy wings, holding toilet plungers; big groups wearing painter overalls with top hats; cyclists in glowing helmets. a fellow partier, who was (sadly) very popular with the ladies, was wearing a Berlusconi mask and a shirt that said "Maniaco Sessuale". He was mobbed everywhere we went, followed by the chant "Silvio, Silvio! Va' fa' un culo!" There is no unity in anything--whatever you can get together is what you wore that night.

There were those famous costume balls I'm sure. But down in the streets it got too crowded to think about those. Honestly, I have never seen Italians like this: an out and out street party, binge drinking, and dancing...everywhere! Usually discrete, it seemed like for a day every Italian decided to be Spanish. Around the Rialto, the traditional home of the best nightlife in Venice, one rounded a corner and a DJ set was happening and Big Bird was headlining. Students from Padova, Bologna, and Ferrara were everywhere, making for a hip and overindulgent crowd too young to give a damn. Crowded, sweaty (even in sub-30s cold), loud, and dizzying...very, very far indeed from the promises of a "restrained" Venetian Carnevale.

The night of course gets very weird and surreal in a place like this. The more intoxicated the crowd (and the stronger the smell of marijuana) became, things got weirder and weirder. Every beginning to a narration of the night's events seems like the beginning of a joke."So an angel, an Indian, and a sexy nurse gets into a car driven by the devil"..."we almost hit a transvestite Tina Turner walking down the road"...It's just weird, or may be its just impossible to describe. Or maybe its just not meant for descriptions. You see a mad doctor, santa, and Tom Brady peeing in the Grand Canal...does one even bother to ask, "why?"

Monday, March 7, 2011

Italian Beer Series: 32 Via dei Birrai Oppale (Onigo de Pederobba)

32 Via dei Birrai's most important contribution to beer making is its official designation as 100% Italian made beer, the first in the country. It seems like a minor feat, but official designations of production or origin in Italy are taken seriously. Parmigiano Reggiano, for example, are strictly defined as the hard, aged cheese from the area around Parma and Reggio-Emilia. Having it any other way isn't just illegal, but also shocking and insulting, indicating a producer willing to abuse tradition simply to make money. In this context, it is then important that a beer in a country of proud wine producers and drinkers is considered "100% Italian". Not to over-inflate its significance, but to some extent such designation allows the country to own the production of beer, despite constant and almost cliché idea that they are not good beer producers (an idea even prevalent with Italians).

Be that as it may, there is one thing that irked me about the beer. After one pops the crown off, one usually expects aroma and ultimately beer. But 32 Via dei Birrai decides that that is not enough. As if trying to straddle the middle ground between common-beer and fine-wine (in a country where common-wine isn't uncommon, guess who this beer is marketed to), the drinker must deal with a funky little cork after opening the bottle. Not really a cork, but an artificial stopper with a cylinder in the middle to tell the drinker where to put the corkscrew. Nevertheless, there is a cork. This begs--nay, insists on--the question: there is a cork!? It's a silly pretentious thing to do, a gimmick to suggest the drinker is encountering a beer more special than any other beer. It's along the line of the tendency among Italian beer producers to dress things up nicely with pretty labels and gaudy bottles to put the "discerning drinker" at ease with the profane drink he or she is imbibing. It's as if they are scared of letting the beer speak for itself, which it is more than capable of doing. Put the thing in a bottle, slap a label with your brewery's name on it, sell it, and call it a day. It can be distinctive like the American micro brews, but I think one of the cornerstone of Italian design, especially modern Italian design--which is also apparent in 32 Via dei Birrai's design for the bottle itself--is its capacity to say so much using so little or few elements. Let's just stick to that and not charge me a premium for the packaging, please?

Anyway, back to the beer. Today I present 32 Via dei Birrai's Oppale, a Belgian pale ale that clocks in at 5.5% ABV, which is fairly low by Italian craft beer standards. The aroma is of fragrant hops, with a slight fruitiness presumably from the yeast. On pour, the color is of light rust, cloudy, producing a medium head. Mouthfeel is moderate, with a somewhat strong carbonation. On first sip, one tastes a bit of acid that turns into yeasty sweetness in the back of the throat. The sweetness is the last to disappear, and everything is finished off with a bold hoppy bitterness. It's nice how the sweet and the bitter balance each other out, but the ending is all bitter. A nice beer, but it wouldn't be particularly my first choice. Nice thing is this is fairly ubiquitous in the Veneto, so if I do want one it wouldn't be too hard to find.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Graffitti Fridays: Genova

I'm all about organizing my thoughts into sets, so here is another "series" entry. As any dismayed visitor to Italy knows, the country is covered in graffitti. Not just a bit of paint in some crumbling walls, but downright heartbreaking remnants of some kid's voyage into delinquency left on otherwise ancient or beautiful monuments. The results run the gamut: poetry, intricate stencils, or entire statue faces or heads covered in neon paint. For this series, I will post a single photo of a graffitti I found that was either beautiful or awful. Not just in Italy however, because innovative graffitti can be found in other, equally "infested" cities across the continent. (There won't be much description though. I just want each post to be almost like a snapshot of street art and urban decay/renewal. Also, I want to post these on Fridays, and usually I'm too busy to write anything on Fridays.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Andrea Palladio Recognized by the US Congress

Original document downloaded from here

Watch out: the recent celebrations of Palladio's 500th birthday gave me an idea. I'm in Vicenza, yet the only Palladian ville I have seen are Villa Contarini in Piazzola sulla Brenta and the crumbling Villa Gazzotti in Bertesina (which I pass on my daily run route). I need to remedy this. I aim to visit one of the sites at least each week, and hopefully post pics and interesting tidbits about them here. As if the almost 30 villas to pick from isn't daunting enough, I will also visit other villas around Vicenza such as Villa Valmarana ai Nani which, although not done by an architect as well-known as Palladio, are beautiful enough on their own to be visited and appreciated. Standby...

Summer flea market in front of Villa Contarini (attribution to Palladio is controversial)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Val d'Orcia & Pienza

The drive south from Siena to Pienza is probably one of the best drives I have ever done. In reality, there's nothing "spectacular" about it like the craggy cliffs of the Dolomiti or the vast deserts punctured by distant mountains and mesas like the American Southwest. The valley is really just a series of small green hills with a smattering of farms and buildings here and there, and the occasional hill town or two now and then. Peaceful, but not jaw-dropping.

I think the beauty of the valley really comes from the way in which agriculture dominates the landscape, yet refrains from destroying it. Just like much of the country, farms, vineyards, and olive groves dominate every significant parcel of land. Every corner of the vista is occupied by roads, farms, olive trees, or at least a row of cyprus too neatly arranged to be natural. But each element almost undulates and conforms to the contours of the land. Farm hedges go up and down hill slopes, roads run along the hill sides. Everything works to form a wholesome entity.

Although small, Pienza importance is centered around its urban design, representing the classical harmony of the ideal city of the Renaissance. The only part of the town that actually conforms to the original Renaissance plan is the main square, the church, and the two buildings that flank it. Most everything else were built after the commissioning pope died or were the few remnants of the old town of Corsignano that was torn down to make way for the new Pienza. But the effect is still out-of-this-world, with the chaos of the mish-mashed buildings leading to the relative calm and order of the main square.


This article in Ansa brought me back today to quite possibly my favorite place in Italy, Bologna. True, every other major country in the country has more sights (Rome), more art (Florence), more flash (Milan) more natural beauty (Naples) or more industry (Genova). But alongside Torino, Bologna just has that je ne sais quoi, that spirit that does not rely on its staid past to invigorate its present-day population. Although it could really sell its school--the oldest in the world--as a tourist attraction, the city's life really revolves around its students, which turns this city, like any college town, vibrant and lively, brimming with the possibilities only the youth has the naivete to find apparent. During the day, there are kids everywhere, reading in the main squares, debating, and rushing to and from classes. Heck, even performing at the Piazza Maggiore. At night, Strada Maggiore is filled with revelers occupying dance clubs, bars, jazz clubs, and late-night South Asian fast food. The people walk with a swagger, the traffic moves with an inexplicable urgency, and life just seems to offer a more exciting tomorrow than the one you had yesterday--If given the option, I would move to Bologna in a heartbeat.

The towers referred to by the article. Torre Asinelli, the taller of the two, is also accessible. However, I would not recommend the climb to the risk-aversed acrophobes, as the stairs are tiny and slopes towards the middle; there are no barriers but a measly wooden hand rail between the climber and a very long fall; and the tower's lean makes for a very disorienting experience. I do agree with the findings regarding the traffic around the towers. Not only is it a very busy intersection, the cars also get extremely close to the towers.

The view from above is priceless.

Even though San Gimignano's towers are better preserved, Bologna must have been a crazy sight during the Middle Ages, with up to 180 towers being built. Towers up to 100 meters crowded the centro with sunlight almost completely blocked. When intermittent wars flare up, flaming arrows rain from above. If you were from some backwards town somewhere in the countryside, the view must have been incredibly terrifying.

A few blocks west of the towers down Via Francesco Rizzoli is the Piazza Maggiore. The center of life in Bologna, rarely have I seen this place empty, with dance parties breaking out once in a while.

One of the best things to do is to grab a seat in one of the cafes in the piazza or on the steps leading to the basilica and watch as the setting sun turn everything into gold and people start their nightly passeggiata.