Archive | June, 2011

A glimpse of Infiorata…or; is it better to plan, or to experience travel?

28 Jun

Entrance to Campagna di Roma

There is a mystical ideal balance to seek in traveling (or even just living, for that matter) between planning and serendipity.

I used to be a meticulous planner, pouring over well-loved Lonely Planets (in the days before TripAdvisor, Yelp and Rick Steve’s audio podcasts).  I would read Lonely Planets for the next country on the agenda whist still in another (although somehow never ever actually made hotel reservations in advance).  It’s not that I am terribly organized (I can just hear friends and family chuckling now), just that I loved the anticipation of imagining and envisioning a trip. Yet it’s pretty contrary to be reading a guidebook for cities in Malaysia, while you are lying on a beach in Thailand.

I came by this trait genetically.  My parents just wrapped up a 4-week trip of Europe, and my mother essentially now has a PhD in trip planning for France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.  Got a question about any of those places?  I know Mom would be happy to dig into her 2-inch reference binder to recommend you to reasonably priced but exquisite B&Bs, unique restaurant experiences, alternate routes between destinations featuring scenic routes, fastest routes, routes with the fewest tunnels (newly appreciated as a vexing road feature after a drive across the alps) and routes with the optimal mix between tolls and speed.

But somehow, I evolved (degenerated?) into embracing a much more laid back and unstructured form of travel.  Maybe it was by a lifetime of discovering that things rarely go according to plan, and that it is the unexpected and unsought moments that create the greatest joy.  Like the time a local thief stole my camera in the hills outside of Kathmandu, and I ended up on a chase across the foothills of the Himalaya with a monastery full of child monks to retrieve it.  Or, when I was supposed to meet one guy for a spontaneous rendezvous in Rome; and when the cad failed to show up, I met my Roman soul mate.

Certainly a more go-with-the flow attitude is beneficial in Italy.  Last Sunday I was still suffering from sun exposure on Saturday so we needed a plan that would allow us to be covered up.  Alessandro had heard that there was an antique market in a medieval little town called Campagnano di Roma so after a lazy morning at home we made our way there. Arriving at 2 PM, the town was literally a ghost town.  No one was on the streets and certainly if there had been a market it was over.  Considering that the temperature was 37°C, this was a smart move on the part of the Campagnano di Romans, although disappointing to us.

Although there were no people to be found in the town, there were a lot of flowers and leaves strewn on the streets.  Wait…there seemed to be some sort of pattern.  Through the hazy heat of the afternoon, we realized that the flowers and leaves created tapestries of devotional pictures, and stretched from one end of town to the other. In addition to flowers and leaves, it looked as though cornmeal and coffee were also used to create the designs. Having no idea what all this was for, we wandered delightedly along to appreciate its length, surreal in the fact that no one was there to appreciate the beauty in the wilting heat.

Later, we stopped off in another town called Anguillara Sabazia, and discovered more of these colourful creations lining the streets.  We began to suspect some sort of unifying theme, although the Anguillara Sabazians used coloured sawdust with floral accents. Finally Alessandro remarked, “Oh yeah, it’s Infiorata.”

Infiorata is a 2 century old annual flower art festival that actually takes places in many towns throughout Italy on weekends in May or June, to celebrate Corpus Domini (a Catholic holiday I am not confident in explaining).  In searching images of Infiorata you can find displays that are far more impressive and elaborate than those we saw.  In 1834, even Hans Christian Andersen wrote: “The whole street is a carpet of flowers…. Not even a breathe of air moves and the flowers lie on the ground as if they were heavy precious stones…“.

Clearly we had missed out on the most impressive Infiorata celebrations by not planning in advance.  But I appreciate the magic of stumbling across such a beautiful and unusual display.  Somehow, it makes the discovery belong more to us.

So, what was your best memory of unplanned travel experiences?


My quest for Rome’s Best Gelato serves up 3 contenders

26 Jun

It didn’t start out as a quest.  But when you find yourself having gelato more then once a day, it’s time perhaps to seek deeper meaning in the process.

Many will claim that gelato is better for you than ice cream.  Certainly gelato, whose origin dates back to the court of the Medici in Florence in the 16th century, has been around much longer, and ice cream is in fact a recent variation.  It has a lower fat content and less air, so its flavours are intense and concentrated.

Many will also claim that gelato is made of natural ingredients, a claim at which I am going to have to draw the line.  In fact, when we are trying an unknown gelateria, our test will be to examine the colour of the pistachio gelato.  A bright vivid green means we’ll walk away; it’s full of colorants, at the very least.

But many gelateria do make their own frozen deliciousness from natural ingredients. Mmmmm….heavenly!  Here are 3 gelateria that I have found to be the very best in Rome. In general, a small serving each is plenty for me and Alessandro, and sets us back about 2.50 Euros in the tourist areas.

Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40
(near the Pantheon and Piazza Navona)

Table service at Giolitti

This place is a pure old-school Italian salon.  Established in 1900, I love that Alessandro used to come here with his father when he was a child.  They win hands down in terms of the sheer variety of flavours – I haven’t counted but I imagine its over 50, including some unusual ones like chestnut (marrone), pear (pera) and pine nut (pina) – the latter a rich interesting flavour that I’ve developed a taste for. Even if you order a small (piccolino), you can choose 3 flavours (usually with a small at other locations you get 2).  The danger is that the amount of flavours can lead to some bad combinations.  Usually, I choose well by following a theory of either choosing a group of creamy flavours (crema, hazelnut, chocolate, espresso), or fruit flavours (limone, raspberry, strawberry, etc.) But the last time I chose mango, coconut and watermelon.  The watery-ness of the watermelon and the intense creaminess of the coconut clashed, and I ended up slicing the coconut off.  But the mango is my favourite here.

How it’s done:
You have to pay first (at the cashier to the left of the entry) and then assertively make your way to the counter to get your gelato if you want a cone. The serving staff are elegantly dressed and patient with questions about the dizzying array of flavours, and can speak a little English.  You have to tell them all the flavours you want at once, as apparently there is an intelligence behind which flavour gets placed in which order on a cone. After your gelato is piled up, the server will ask you, “con panna?” which means “would you like whipped cream on top?” This is the only place I choose this option, as their panna is clearly homemade, thickly dolloped out of a bowl with flecks of vanilla (at most places it is an aerated version)

You can also upgrade your experience, and sit at a table in their salon or outside, although this will escalate your price considerably!

(also near the Pantheon and Piazza Novona, right down the street from Giolitti)

An organic cone at Grom, Rome

This is part of an international chain, and just opened up a couple weeks ago (so recently that I am not able to actually find an address for it).  But you can find it by starting in the piazza in front of the Pantheon.  Stand at the fountain in the middle of the square, with your back to both the Pantheon and the fountain.  Walk through the laneway in ahead of you (it will be slightly on the right) and keep walking essentially straight for about 8 minutes.  Although no lanes are truly straight in this central area of Rome, just avoid any major turns. Eventually you will encounter Grom on the left hand side, on a corner, when your alleyway ends in a T-intersection.  Incidentally, if you turn right at that corner, you will get to Giolitti, in case you want to really go deep into your research.

So, sleek and modern Grom uses all organic ingredients, sustainable production and compostable products.  The ice cream is rich, subtle and pure; here I tried their crema (sort of a custard-y vanilla) and cream di Grom (which has chocolate and biscuit in the crema).  Alessandro had a fruit combo with melon, strawberry and mango..  Although the flavours are great and I am always happy to support organic flavours and sustainable production, this IS a chain of 40 gelateria and it did have a “chain-y” feeling to it.  Also it has fewer flavours (about 12 when we were there) and the gelato is kept in covered containers. Perhaps there is a reason for this, but isn’t part of the fun of going to gelateria standing in front of the glass and marvelling over the mouth-watering display?

How it’s done: Line up and pay first at the counter. Try to get a peek at the flavours and ask the servers a million questions.  Get your cone or cup, and they won’t ask you if you want panna if you haven’t paid extra for it at the beginning.

Fior di Luna

A cup is your only option at Fior di Luna

(Fiordiluna Gelato E Cioccolato)
via della Lungaretta 96 (in Trasteve)

We just found this place the other night; recommended by an old friend of Alessandro’s.  Jim Porto is a world-renown Brazilian jazz musician who has been living in Trastevere for the last 30 years.

This tiny little hole in the wall was packed with people who seemed to be buying gelato by the kilo. The wait took a while and seemed to be made worse by the complete lack of a process to line up.  Romans, by the way, do not seem to buy into the concept of a line-up, so be warned!

Finally, I got my cup of gelato.  I chose strawberry and lemon.  They don’t serve cones, only cups; as they are committed to using only organic and natural ingredients and apparently serving cones goes against this philosophy.  This deducts marks from their final score, as I love the child-like feeling that eating gelato from a cone imparts.  Furthermore, I am quite certain a brief phone call to Whole Foods would produce a carton of organic cones.  However, this gelato was heavenly – the pure fruit flavours were gorgeous on a warm summer night – both light and rich at the same time, and completely refreshing.  It doesn’t have an enormous range of flavours but enough that you feel you have a good choice.

How it’s done: crowd in and play to competitive sport of getting served.  It’s worth the wait.

In a future post, I’ll share 2 other frozen Italian treats – granita and grattachecca….

Summer in Rome on the Water – 3 Different Ways

24 Jun

Here in Rome as the daytime temperatures have become scorching, and the sun magnifies off the ancient brick and stone,  it’s a requirement to find some relief!

In ancient Rome, massive, highly functional and impressive bathhouses were readily available to the public.

photo by Anahid Simitian

They were priced so that even the poorest could afford to entry on a daily basis.  Powered by ancient Roman engineering feats such as the aqueducts and thermal heating, they incorporated saunas, hot and cold pools, workout rooms, and massage rooms. They functioned not just a place for hygiene, but also for Romans to socialize and make deals.  Ancient Romans could warm up in the damp winter and keep cool in the oppressive summer.  Such was the scale and majesty of the bathhouses that some were re-purposed as cathedrals (such as Michelangelo’s stunning refurbishment of Basilica Santa Maria Degli Angeli), and their design was the inspiration for 20th century grand public spaces such as New York City’s Grand Central Station.

In today’s Rome, things are different.  Compared to Toronto, where there are scores of free and clean public pools (and I’m not even going to talk about Hawaii), there are few reasonably priced options in Rome to cool down.  In the past week, I explored 3 different options.

Option 1: The Italian Coast

Although this sounds like a delightful option, in reality I was less than impressed.  There are great beaches in Italy, but if you want to make a quick and easy day trip, the options are disappointing. Last Saturday we drove to the beach town of Fregene, ostensibly an hour outside of Rome but more so when you are caught in a line of traffic as we were.

Kitesurfers at Fregene Beach outside Rome

The town itself was pleasant, albeit nondescript, but as far as I was concerned the beach itself was an overcrowded sterile stretch of dingy sand and muddy water.  To make matters worse, the decent parts of the beaches are all private concessions – so to be there, you have to pay 10 euros each for a lounge chair (extra for umbrella), the fringe benefits being that there are showers, bathrooms and no garbage or glass in the sand.  The free sections of the beach seemed to be littered with rubbish and in less desirable locales.  I miss Hawaii, where all beaches are public, free and gorgeous, and the locals care deeply about the welfare of the sea and sand, & pick up after themselves.

The scene at Fregene Beach outside Rome

We found a new class of beach, termed “free with services.” At these breakthrough types of locations you can lay a towel down in the sand without being kicked out, and they have outdoor showers available.  The beach that day was windy and swarming with kitesurfers, which made for great entertainment.  And it was definitely quite a scene on the beach, with hordes of Italians strutting their stuff. But in the end, the water looked murky and the beach was featureless…I give the experience a 3 out of 10.

Lago Bracciano

Option 2: A Lake

On Sunday, Alessandro took me to a little lake called Bracciano, about 45 minutes drive from our place.  As this crater lake acts as the main reservoir for the city of Rome, activities on the lake are restricted to swimming and non-motorized boats, and the water is remarkably clean.  What’s more, there is a charming little medieval town stacked on the banks of the lake.

The crowd, well it wasn’t really a crowd – the scene was much more family-oriented and there were as many foreigners as Italians.  You still had the concession beaches dominating much of the waterfront, but it was easy to find a stretch of free beach and everything was spotlessly clean. A much more beautiful and refreshing experiencing; Lake Bracciano gets a 7 out of 10.

Option 3: The night scene on the Tiber River

Many locals in Rome at this time of year don’t venture out of the house until evening if they can manage it.  Last night, with the assistance of my dear friend Trent, visiting Rome from LA, I investigated the rejuvenating properties of Rome’s Tiber River.

This doesn’t mean that we swam in the river.  Ew.  In fact, the river became too polluted even in ancient times to use for Rome’s drinking water, leading to the construction of the aqueducts drinking water in from sources that did not function as sewage receptacles.

One of the stone staircases down to the River

Instead, we brought a special bottle of Lachryma Christi down to the river at sunset to find a quiet spot to ease into the cool of evening. Instead, as we approached the lovely mid-river Tiberina (a UNESCO site), we saw literally hundreds of restaurants, lounges, cafes and entertainment spaces set up under tents along each side of the river.  The island itself was taken over by a celebration of cinema, L’Isola del Cinema, which I will definitely revisit in the future.

A sophisticated evening lounge on Isola Tiberina

Along with films from Italy and around the world, it looked like it also has workshops like screen writing and production work.  Undeterred by the crowded, we perched on the north end of the island and drank in the gorgeous evening, along with the wine.  It was a perfect evening way to cool off on an evening with a friend I have not seen for a year!

The under bridge scene

After the wine was finished, we wound our way along the Trastevere side of the Tiber.  The variety of places was remarkable – rustically romantic restaurants, sleek lounges, edgy cafes, family arcades…I’ve heard from a friend that the food down here tends to be subpar, but it’s a fantastic place to stroll, people watch and have a cool drink.  10/10.

Insight into how to successfully follow the rules in Rome

17 Jun

This an actual, word-by-word conversation occurred when Alessandro and I were arriving in Rome’s bustling night life district of Trastevere the other evening.  This tightly packed, medieval neighbourhood presents a challenge to park a scooter; never mind a wagon.

We found a place to park after circling for 20 minutes, and noticed that on the other side of the street, 2 men were walking along the parked cars and appeared to be writing parking tickets.  Alex had a quick conversation with them, and then proceeded to park in the precious spot we had found.

As we walked away from the car….

Me: “So, weren’t those men giving parking tickets?”

Alex: “Yes, they were.”

Me: “Why?”

Alex: “Because those cars’ parking had expired.”

Me: “So, don’t we have to purchase a ticket then?” as we walked past the parking meter.

Alex: “No.”

Me: “But those other cars are getting tickets for expired parking.  Won’t we get a ticket too if we don’t even buy parking?”

Alex: “No.”

Me: “Why?”

Alex: “Because we parked on the sidewalk.”

A waste dump gets a makeover – as an entertainment district?

10 Jun

Rome is famous for its seven hills, all of them soaked in history and events.  But there is a remarkable 8th hill that I visited last night.

Monte Testaccio is a man made mountain of trash.

More specifically, it was a meticulously planned disposal mound of ancient clay vessels called amphorae, created between the 1st and 3rd century in what used to be Rome’s harbour. The

Mountain of discarded oil vessels in Rome, image courtesy

clay vessels were used to store and transport olive oil, and then broken into shards to be discarded.  The remains today show fascinating evidence of the size and activity of ancient Rome’s economy and trade with the rest of the world.

The vast majority of these clay vessels were 70-litre containers, and estimates indicate that about 55 million of them were used to create this 11-story mountain.

But as far as mounds of trash go, this is impressive and one of the largest from the ancient world.  Not only does Monte Testaccio provide a fascinating archeological site, but wine cellars were eventually carved into the side of the mountain, and today it has been converted into one of contemporary Rome’s most vibrant night and jazz club districts.  Many clubs have glass walls at the rear, and you can examine how ancient Rome’s legendary planning even extended to its disposal of waste.

Testaccio Nightclub - Wall of ancient pottery shards visible through arch

The neighborhood of Testaccio itself is off the beaten track for most visitors to Rome, and makes for a fascinating diversion for those who want to wander beyond the well-known sights and soak up some bona fide local vibe.  Still the home of local fresh markets and hole-in-the-wall trattorias, the area is slowly becoming gentrified.  It is also known to locals as the site of an old slaughterhouse, which has been converted into a contemporary museum, school for the arts, and entertainment space.  We attended a swish reception there last night in a bar converted from livestock stalls, and viewed an exhibit in an area that used to…well, it was frankly a bit to grisly for this sensitive soul, as there were still hooks and grapples dangling ominously from the ceiling, and vats below them on the floor. 

Getting back to the mountain – why were millions of these clay containers dumped in ancient Rome? It is speculated that since they were cheap and easy to replace, it was more convenient to dispose of them than reuse.  Ah Rome, even 2,000 years ago you weren’t using a 100-mile diet, and you had a lot to learn about the three R’s.  Although it makes for a rich historical record, this mountain is a though-provoking reminder of the legacy of the garbage leaves even from thousands of years ago.  I somehow doubt that the mountains of plastics and e-waste being created today will be recreational sites in the future.

2 places in Rome that are known for all the wrong reasons.

9 Jun

In the last few months I have become an Ancient Roman history geek. It’s not that I’m uninterested in other time periods. On the contrary, I am fascinated by Renaissance Art in Rome, its humanistic phase, and even more so by Italy’s complex role in World War II.

But when I started making plans to spend much more of my life in Rome, I realized that my actual knowledge of Rome’s history and influence on the world was embarrassingly spotty. Although on many trips to Rome in the past I had adored experiencing the ancient art & architecture, I had no narrative to connect it all together. I was vaguely aware there had been an Empire, a Holy Roman Empire, a Republic…but had no idea which came first and what defined each era. I knew Rome fell; was it because of depraved emperors like Nero, and the guy from the movie Gladiator? I committed to doing a deep dive into Rome’s history, chronologically. And when you’ve got 2,700 years to get through, that is a major undertaking. So at the moment I am still firmly in ancient Rome’s decline, about 313 AD, in the historically significant reign of Constantine.

What a surprise it was when I became truly captivated with the drama, intrigue and lasting impact of each stage of Rome’s history. That ancient Rome’s influence, for better or worse, lasted over 2,000 years in the future is remarkable; and ranges from engineering innovations, to the names of American cities (Cincinnati) to current geopolitics (Israel and Palestine).

(I want to give a big shout out to a terrific podcast called The History of Rome, which has been my guide and inspiration throughout my ancient Roman education)

According to Alessandro, I now know more than most ancient Rome history teachers. I’ve decided that since he is weary of me pestering him about things like naming 5 misunderstood Roman Emperors or who built the Pantheon (yes, but who RE-built the Pantheon?) that I would use my blog to set the record straight on my pet peeve of 2 Ancient Roman historical sites that (I believe) are famous for the wrong reasons.

#1: Largo di Torre Argentina


OK, guilty. The first time I visited Rome I was entranced by this sunken piazza close to Campo di Fiori; not because of the ancient history that it contained, but because of an affectionate troop of cats who sunned themselves on its ruins. Yes, this place is often visited due to the establishment of well-known sanctuary for Rome’s homeless cat population. Don’t get me wrong, I love cats and think this is a wonderful initiative.

But seriously – THIS is the actual place where Julius Caesar – probably one of the most galvanizing and influential people of Roman history and therefore Western history – was assassinated by his friends and colleagues. Most people assume that he was killed in the senate house in the Roman Forum. But it was under renovation at the time, so the senate was meeting at Pompey’s theatre.

#2: Milvian Bridge

This bridge over the Tiber was a star of a 2007 movie. It featuring a lovestruck couple who secured a lock to a lamppost on the bridge, and then threw away the key into the river, symbolizing their lasting bond to each other. This movie has inspired so many couples to do the same that the lamppost collapsed, and the mayor had to install posts and chains that couples could secure with their locks of love, and this romantic ritual has been completed on bridges throughout Europe. Even enterprising vendors have gotten into the act; on our stroll across the bridge last night, we saw people selling a huge array of locks._

I’m a big fan of romance, but I was surprised that the plaque next to the bridge did not even mention the fact that a battle occurred here in 312 AD that changed the course of Western history. Emperor Constantine finally defeated his rival Maxentius, thus becoming the first Christian Emperor of Rome. Up until this point, Christianity had been a marginalized, often brutally persecuted sect. Constantine’s victory ushered in a new religious order that changed the course of history.

Perhaps in the end, despite my penchant for ancient Roman history, it’s a positive development that these 2 places, with their history of bloodshed, are now better known for a compassionate sanctuary, and for the mementos of star-crossed lovers. May these 2.0 versions of these ancient sites be a compelling force in influencing the course of our future.

Italy vs China – An Intercultural Comparison

7 Jun

Ever since I fell in love with an Italian, I’ve started building my case for this theory: that although Italy and China on the surface couldn’t appear more dissimilar, many cultural values each country holds dear are remarkably close. I actually love thinking about this topic, since I have a huge affinity for both cultures, and my interaction with both Chinese and Italian culture have irrevocably shaped my life’s path.

It’s important to note that culture is often compared to an iceberg.  What’s visible is merely a tiny fraction of the whole entity, and it’s what is below the waterline that is likely to cause a horrendous impact.

Historically, there is a great deal of common ground for my theory.  Both Italy and China are ancient civilizations, responsible for structures and inventions that still shape our modern societies.  And at least one historian, Gavin Menzies, claims that the Chinese “sparked the Italian Renaissance and that Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions were directly influenced by Chinese technical drawings.” And in more recent history, both cultures have experienced totalitarian regimes.

Certainly, what I would call the “external expressions” of Italian and Chinese culture appear radically different.  Consider the architecture, music, food, and certainly, personal expression. Consider the stereotypical gregarious and affectionate Italian, vs the calm and stoic Chinese. Even the commonly held myth that Marco Polo brought pasta from China and introduced it to Italy has been debunked, thanks to documents predating his trip (such as a will and testament that bequeath pasta to a fortunate relative).

Yet still, consider the importance of food to each culture.  In my life, I have only ever been scolded at a Chinese or Italian restaurant – these cultures take everything involving their food so seriously.  They know the way, after millennia, how their food must be prepared, so don’t bother asking for olive oil with your bread in Italy, or for pork-free ma-po dofu in China.  And food is the ultimate social tool – you take time to savor these meals, and to cherish them with the people who are closest to you.

Speaking of which, family and relationships are paramount.  In both cultures, whom you know means everything.  I’ve been told in Rome, it is simply not possible to get a job without an insider connection, and once you know the right person, you’ve got it.  In China, business is conducted on the strength of the relationships (guanxi) you possess.  On a darker note, both Italy and China have birthed feared organized crime syndicates – the Mafia (Sicily)/Camorra (Napoli), and Triads in China.  In both countries, the organizations were originally conceived as de facto resistance/rebel forces.

Hierarchy and position in both societies are taken very seriously, and it is expected in both cultures to use formal titles, unlike our “low-hierarchy” North American culture where first names, regardless of status, are far more common.  And cultivating “face,” one’s external presentation to the world is embraced in both cultures – where a great deal of emphasis is placed on well-known status symbols – such as the right watch, and the right car.  Interestingly, the Chinese are now one of the top consumers of luxury products in the world – many of which are Italian labels such as Lamborghini, Prada and Versace.

One other area where I see a striking similarity is in the Italian and Chinese approach to rules.  In North America we have a rather rigid approach to rules.  It’s simple – people who follow rules and laws are respected.  People who break or circumvent them are criminals and worthy of contempt.  Our attitude seems well and just, but consider the luxury that allows it to be so.  In culture, its important to avoid a stance of “this is what we do, therefore it’s right; and anything different is wrong.” In Canada and the US, what are our options when we feel that a rule/law is unjust?  We have many.  We can vote someone in or out of office, start a march, create an advocacy group, write letters to the editor, organize a protest, etc. etc. etc.  In Italy, the bureaucratic process to simply pay a bill is crushing (I was told by an acquaintance here that a TV cable company would only cancel his service if he produced a death certificate).  For centuries, Italians have found creative ways to get around the laws on the books, and all agree that not to do so would be impossible to live.  In China, there is a saying, “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away,” and again, it is widely acknowledged that to survive one must understand how to circumvent rules.  In both countries, being a scoff law is not only tolerated, it is respected. This is a very challenging aspect for North Americans conducting business in China, but it can be helpful to be aware that this is an issue, and to understand the reason why.

So, what do you think of this theory?  Last week, I was gratified to meet a British woman who was transferred to Italy after working in Asia, as her employer felt that her time in Asia gave her the culture skill set to succeed in Italy.