Thursday, April 28, 2011

Provence 3: Marseilles and the Calanques

Finally, to Marseilles, the dirty maritime metropolis of Southern France.  Big, dirty, dangerous Marseilles: there's nothing to love about you, but you give so much to those who care to look, even if just for a moment.  Merely a big city, a collection of a million lost souls, you welcome with open arms those who only want a place to belong...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Provence 2: Avignon to Arles

...Onto the beautiful countryside of Vaucluse, the walled town of Avignon...

The mighty walls of Pont du Gard...

The strange stone buildings of Les Baux du Provence, indistinguishable from the surrounding moon-like landscape...

Past vineyards...

lonely Roman ruins through olive groves...

And majestic churches and abbeys seen from miles away.

Arles, a sleepy little town containing treasures from the Romans who once made a mighty city out of this Ligurian, Gallic, and later Phonecian trading port.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Provence 1: Aix-en-Provence to Avignon

Late winter/early spring called for a road trip through Provence, and there was no other choice but to get on a car and go.  Sure, it was far too early for lavender season, but Provence definitely does not and did not disappoint.  First was a drive through countryside roads lined with plane trees and dotted with castle ruins to the elegant and chic city of Aix-en-Provence...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hop on the Italian Booze Cruise!

Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa, Rome's reputed best pub for Italian craft beer and considered one of the best pubs in the world, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary by sailing a very big boat from Rome to Barcelona and back carrying a lot of beer for a few lucky people.  The itinerary includes debates and discussions about beer, free supply of high-quality Italian craft beer, as well as a beer-centric tour of Barcelona, all for a not-so-bad price (starting at 275 euros).  Now, I've never heard of Spain in general and Barcelona in particular to be a great heaven for craft beer, but I think the free flow of craft beer on board is enough of a motivation to go.

Italian Beer Series: Pedavena (Belluno)

Pedavena is fairly well-known in the Veneto when its unionized workers stood up to Heineken's efforts to close the brewery by setting up a cooperative brewery. Before that, it was an historic brewery that started operations in 1896 that grew to become one of Italy's biggest beer producers by the 1960s despite major set backs during WWI and WWII.  During the late 60s, the factory halted production of the Pedavena line to focus on production of Dreher, which the company acquired in the 20s (to form the Birra Pedavbena-Dreher-Venezia Group).  It was not again until the late 90s when Pedavena restarted to produce its namesake line to celebrate its centenary and as a sort of symbol of pride after Heineken (which bought the group in 1974) threatened to shut down its operations.  Pedavena survived after it was sold to Castello and allowed to continue production in the local brewery.  Oddly, Castello is also partly owned by Heineken, which makes it suspect if the deal was made merely to ensure Heineken saves face and keep producing and selling in Italy under the facade of "local production". 

Although the Pedavena brewery produces and sells beer on-site at its local factory, this review is for its bottle product. The label does say that it is a "product of hops flowers," so it shouldn't be much of a surprise as to what the dominant ingredient is. Upon pouring, the beer is clear and golden and produces a head that is white, coarse, high, and moderately lasting that leaves a modicum of lacing. The aroma is very strong of hops with underlying bits of hay. The taste is initially very bitter with a hint of sweetness, rounded out with a sourness (not citrus, just sour) that negates the bitterness of the hops. Its 5% ABV and and almost soda-like carbonation puts it along the lines of other mass-produced beers. All in all an inoffensive brew. I'm looking forward to visiting the brewery to see how the bottle stuff compares to the locally produced and served product.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Movies in Italy: A Little Romance (George Roy Hill, 1979)

First off, it is a bit ballsy, if not foolish and misguided, for Mr. Hill to refer to his own movies in an effort to show the "Hollywood" that stands for American culture to Europeans. It is then not surprising that he includes a depiction of a self-absorbed American director in his film, either as an absolution from his pride or an inside joke that he himself may not have understood. Regardless--notable for popularizing the legend of kissing in a gondola passing under the Bridge of Sighs during sunset to ensure everlasting love, A Little Romance's strength lies not on merely solidifying the romantic allure of Venice, but on emphasizing the child-like naivete of Venice's draw. The two young protagonists--who try all they can to cross the border from France to Italy to seal their love in Venice before getting separated--act like adults acting out childhood fantasies. They are thirteen year-olds talking about Heidegger and worrying about food, but snaps into attention when told by a charming man played by Lawrence Olivier about the possibility of eternal love. This comparison between the cold reality of life and the warmth of a romantic fantasy is mirrored by the difference between business-minded and crowded France and easy going Italy, where even a misfired gun directed towards a spastic priest is met with laughs rather than concern. Italy is portrayed as a place where children can be children and adults are forgiven for being responsible. It could have been an insulting premise, but instead of being about an exoticized idea of Italy, the story is more about the lovers and how Italy is transformed to fit the story these lovers are trying to construct. We don't see "Italy," but the process in which we as foreign visitors construct our ideal world grounded on the stuff Italy is made of. Ultimately, just as it is true for the rest of us, these lovers did not see Verona, only the story of Romeo and Juliet; and they did not see Venice, only the promise of eternal love. Their, and our, earnestness forgives our heady silliness.  

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Parco Delle Cascate ,Verona

A few miles north of Verona is the Parco delle Cascate, a small regional park in the middle of the Lessinia hills.  Almost like a  hidden gem by the fact that it is quite difficult to find and to get to, the park is a great display of the prehistoric remains of the area as well as the fossilized seabed that forms these hills.  The park is largely geared towards children, but it would have been very spectacular if seen right after a rainfall or snow melt.  Although I went there when the water was largely reduced to a trickle, it is nevertheless an ideal spot for a picnic, a light hike, and a not so frenetic day for a young dog to meet new friends:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Skocjan Caves, Slovenia

I have been blessed to be in a part of Italy where after only a couple of hours of driving in any direction other than south,  I can get to a completely different country and experience different cultures, food, ways, languages, etc. (Of course, the same could be said of driving to a different Italian region, but simultaneously the same couldn't be said about it.)  One such country I always like driving to if not just through is Slovenia, a mere two hours away from Venice, and thirty minutes away from the largest Italian city (Trieste).  The area southwest of the country is the Kras region, a landscape dominated by rocks that have eroded over time to form subterranean caverns, sinkholes, rivers, and caves.  (The term for such topography, "karstic," was derived  from the region's name.)  In Kras, the greatest manifestation of this phenomenon are the caves, one of which--Skocjan Caves--I had the opportunity to see.

First off, although other caves in the area can also be visited--Vilenica, Postonja, and Grotto Gigante near Trieste--the Skocjan caves are particularly good to see because they are not as oft-trodded as the other ones (Postonja has a train running through it and a museum inside...) and also has the distinction of containing the largest subterranean chambers and the longest underground karstic cave in Europe, as well as one of the deepest underground canyons in the world.  What the other caves offer in ease of visit Skocjan offers in scale and ability to inspire awe and fear.

The caves surprisingly enough were formed by the not so intimidating Reka River, which goes underground through a relatively small opening in the ground.  The opening is so small that a few rocks can effectively block the opening and cause the whole cave system to flood in a matter of hours.  And the view of the river from the outside doesn't prepare one for what is inside:  gothic caves straight out of comic books and a walk alongside (and across!) a canyon 420 feet deep constantly being pummeled by the strong currents of the river, the sounds of which are being echoed throughout the chambers. The river continues for another few hundred kilometers until it resurfaces in the Gulf of Trieste.

The path through the caves start off fairly safe, until one reaches the Roaring Chamber, whereabouts the path goes along the canyon walls a few hundred feet above the river.  Along the way, one can see remnants of old trails left behind by the first explorers of the caves, as well as the earliest tourists to see the caves (which makes one thankful that safety standards have been made stricter since then).  The path is well lit, but I had the good chance to see the caves during the last tour, which meant they were flicking off lights behind us as we left each chamber.  This made for a satisfyingly eery experience, and made the exit back into daylight truly something out of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

After the tour, we enjoyed homemade beer in Gostilna Mahnic, which is located right on the park entrance.  Good brews, and a great way to end an awesome tour through what could be one of the most amazing cave systems in the world.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Roana Bridge

This famous bridge linking the town of Roana to Canove is one of the most famous enduring representative of Italy's modern history in the Vicentine hills.  During its initial construction in 1906, it represented the first time that the seven communities of the Asiago plateau were geographically linked, Roana being previously separated from Canove and Asiago by the deep Valdassa.  Not only did it make commerce and transportation between communities easier, it was also seen as a manifestation of the unity between the Cimbrian communities of the plateau.  During World War I, this bridge was further seen as the connection between the Germanic north and the Italian south as it became a strategic connection between the north and south against the war with the Austro-Hungarians. Francesco Baracca, one of the most celebrated military aviator and daredevil during the war, was said to have flown under one of its arches.  The bridge, however, was destroyed during the war.  Plans were immediately drawn out after the war to rebuild the bridge, the construction of which was completed by Mussolini in 1924.

Nowadays, other than being a major connection for the people of Vicenza to the prime skiing slopes in Roana, the bridge's  fame lies largely on the large number of suicides committed on it.  Much like any tragedy, the people that live near the bridge have turned tragedy into cynical humor: a famous Vicentino advice for the desperate and inconsolable is that "there will always be Roana bridge."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Vorrei la pella nera!

Hopefully the French and Italian governments, along with the cantankerous and racist Bossi, learn like a group of Italian basketball players from one Nino Ferrer who was unashamed to declare his envy of and love for "la pelle nera."  Eschewing the xenophobia that underlies contemporary European politics, Nino's song shows the cosmopolitanism of pop culture--and the possibility of a true cultural exchange--despite Europe's sense of superiority towards the dark continent.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Roman Street Poetry

"poetry is near to vital truth than history." - Plato

Eyesore to some, destruction to others--truth to those who see them everyday, written on the crumbling edifices of history. 

 In San Lorenzo district

 The political graffiti lining the walls of the city

"Work door to door" on an abandoned door by Via Giolitti 

 "I love you from here to the end of the world...and from there, to infinity" - along the banks of the Tiber, by Isola Tiberna

"A blank page is a poem unseen" - towards the Vatican

Monday, April 4, 2011

Vicenza Before a Storm

Unfortunately, I only had my camera phone with me, but this was the scene from Monte Berico as Vicenza braced for a mean (yet brief) storm.  The winds whipped up dust clouds and flying plastic bags, and the rain soaked the northeastern corner of the province, but what my low-fi camera failed to show is the tall Monte Pasubio illuminated by the setting sun, struggling to shine through the dark clouds.  The light further split the city in two: the red tiled roofs of the historic city center and the dark, industrial west filled with tall apartment buildings covered in soot.  Despite the cold and the wind, a few spectators rushed to the top of the hill to experience a rare moment of clarity when one could really get an idea of the tall mountains that border the city from the north.  A perfect spring dusk.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Tonezza' del Cimone and the Bucanevi

Finally, the group's first real spring hike...but it was not meant to be so at first.  The goal at first was Monte Spitz, a 1700-meter mountain that still had some snow on top.  Not only is it high and cold, it is also very far, about two valleys and three rivers between it and the starting point (it is the snowy mountain in the background of the picture below):

Sadly (?), it was everyone's first time doing the trail, and we were hopeless lost once we crossed a river and completely lost track of the trail.  Everything, however, was not completely lost.

Instead of walking through very wet, melty snow, we came across cow crossings-

hiked narrow, exposed trails and saw herds of mountain goats-

chatted with folks cultivating their lands for the first time in months-

jumped between boulders in soon to be not so dry rivers-

found out that there are poisonous snakes in Italy-

And lastly, walked through fields of wild bucanevi or crocuses, the blossoms of which is the plant world's official signal for winter's end and spring's return-

We were all sad to not see the view from the top of Monte Spitz, but I think the alternative was worthwhile.