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Camping: Canada vs Europe

29 Aug

I know camping. I’ve camped all my life.

So when I went shopping in Rome with Alessandro for our upcoming camping trip, I personally thought our 3-room tent, 2 queen size air mattresses with chargeable inflator, and collapsable table and chairs were overkill.

After returning from 2.5 weeks of camping in the Austrian Alps I now see we are clearly Euro Camping Amateurs. 

How is camping in Europe vs Canada so different?

In Canada, I recall that we went camping to surround ourselves with nature, to rough it a bit.  Campsites might be rudimentary but each ideal ultimate camping pitch isolated you from your closest neighbors and made you feel like you were in the midst of the wilderness.  You walked to fetch water, to find an outhouse, you cooked over an open fire (a hearty breakfast of eggs fried in bacon grease every morning) and sat at a splintery but familiar picnic table, provided at every site. A campfire is an essential part of the experience, as well as being ridiculously far from anything resembling a city.

Our 5-star Euro camping site (Natterer See, 20 minutes outside of Innsbruck Austria) was a new experience for me.  Tucked in a verdant valley within the majestic Alps, the campsite was decked out with every possible consideration.  The sites were packed side by side – think high density Euro-urban city rather than spacious Canadian countryside – and horrors!  not a camp fire to be found.

Packed in like comfy sardines in paradise

Actually, campsites allowing camp fires seems to be a rarity in Europe and this site lists 11 of them in total in Europe on its site. So adjust your pyro expectations.  And campsites don’t come with picnic tables either – so bring your own.

And bring your own lounge chairs, dining sets, potted plants, curtains…..note precision alignment of tent without wrinkles

Speaking of which, most campers brought trailers or caravans with them packed with an impressive pile of gear.  While I thought our little foldable table and chairs were overkill, everyone else had portable dining sets, hammocks, gravity chairs, BBQs and the works.  Our neighbors from Holland actually took pity on us and our little foldable stools, and told us we could sit in their lounge chairs whenever they went out for the day. And we did! Speaking of neighbors they came from Austria, Germany, Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Poland and the UK for the most part.

One of the things we noticed was that our Italian-Canadian tent looked positively droopy compared with it’s German/Austrian/Dutch neighbors.

Our massive, slightly droopy tent with pathetic little folding table and stools

Natterer See, while not rustic, was certainly in the midst of a stunning environment.  And they thought of everything.  For kids, they had an amazing lake with water slide, surf boards (alas no surf), water trampoline and climbing iceberg.  I loved the lake but 2 of the more fastidious members of our party thought it was murky and therefore dirty.

Aaliyah & David hit the….flatness

In addition to this they had a great range of free activities for guests including archery, sumo wrestling and pony rides. One of the best things was the main bathhouse – which was separated into individual showers, family showers, kids showers, and even a dog shower.  The main shower facilities were like those of a spa.  The shared facilities were literally never dirty or out of order, which is actually better than the average state of my home.

The spa-like bathroom. Hot water and hair dryers. No boys allowed. Nice.

One of the other things that is a pure joy about camping in Europe is that 30 minutes drive away from your pristine valley or hiking path or glacier or whatever are innumerable historic towns and cultural events. So one day a glacier, the next day a castle.  And every day a shady cafe with great food.  Nice – best of all worlds!

Charming, be-costumed child making something at a traditional street festival in nearby Mittenwald Germany.

If you get bored with stunning nature, why not hop on the road and visit a castle? I forget where, it was east of Innsbruck.

Not to mention that if you are traveling with kids, the Alps are cow country.  And that means cow pies.  And to David and Aaliyah these provided an endless supply of entertainment even surpassing my iPad.  Go figure.

One of the many, many cow photo shoots

We left our lovely home in Austria to camp near Venice for a couple days – wanting to avoid the scorching heat of Rome as well as the incoming days of rain in the alps.  We stayed at Jolly Camping, which I would avoid if I were you.  Unless, like you are like a 23-year old student who totally wants to get wasted and use the word party as a verb.  The kids liked the pool, but I thought it was vile.

So – camping in Europe. If you are prepared and well situated it can be a great way to explore!  Just don’t expect to “get away from it all!”  Because yes, the camp grounds even have wifi.


Ancient inspiration for a modern day environmental scourge

19 Aug

For the last week, temperatures in Rome have felt like a withering 40 C and above every day (that’s 104 F to my American friends).  In this kind of relentless heat, one has less appreciation for such celebrated fountains such as the Trevi and Four Rivers, and becomes endless grateful for the little, unnamed, under-appreciated fontanellas that dot the city. According to fellow expat-blogger Lazio Explorer, there are over 2,000 of these in Rome alone, and there’s a map to show you where they all are!

Papal water refreshment near the Vatican

Water fountain model Trent with a basic drinking fountain near the Roman Forum

Actually, although some fontanellas are purely utilitarian, many are fantastically unique and creative.  And all flow clear, cool drinking water for refreshment at any time of day.

And people – residents and visitors alike – use them; to refill water bottles, to wash fruit, to splash their faces and to give water to their dogs.  These fountains act as communal water coolers, where children play and adults interact and talk.  I have no idea how old Rome’s fountains are, but the source of their flow is its ancient aqueducts dating back over 2000 years, and many have deep depressions worn into the stone by the water flow over the centuries.

I started taking pictures just to document the wonderful range of drinking fountains in Rome and throughout Italy. But along the way, they made me start thinking about plain, boring drinking water fountains in Toronto and other cities throughout North America.  Not only are they completely uninspiring; from my own personal experience, 80% of the time the fountains in Toronto don’t work.  In fact, here’s an article in the Star validating my experience.

Regal flow near Piazza Barberini

At the same time, we have a massive crisis of water bottle waste on our hands in North America.  According to Mother Nature Network, “bottled water produces up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste per year…that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce. And while the plastic used to bottle beverages is of high quality and in demand by recyclers, over 80 percent of plastic bottles are simply thrown away.” What’s more, the water in these bottles is, more often than not, just tap water.

Compounding the situation, according to Edge Outreach, is that “plastic isn’t biodegradable, it’s photodegradable. That means it’s slooooowly broken apart by photons (from sunlight) into teeny tiny little pieces that can easily absorb toxins and pollute our soil and waterways and even animals when digested. Nasty.”

Roman Fountain near Hadrian's Mausoleum

I’m not suggesting the fact that the scarcity, dysfunction and sheer boring-ness of city drinking water fountains are linked to the appalling dependency on bottled water and the alarming waste it produces.  But here’s my proposal….

What if municipalities around North America commissioned local artists to create functional and beautiful water fountains throughout their cities’ public spaces, indoor and out?

These would provide drinking water for all and add a visual meeting point to our public spaces.  Funds could be diverted from the costs to deal with the waste created by water bottles – or a tax could be placed on the sale of water bottles to fund this.  A friend informed me that in cities like Calgary, new building development is required to include an art installation – what if art installations could be functional and environmentally progressive at the same time?  Americans and Canadians would never face the fear of being caught without a refreshing drink of water, and would be less likely to keep buying new bottles over and over again.  In the meantime, a public relations campaign could coincide with the launch, further raise awareness of the issue while even driving a competition amongst cities to see whose fountains can result in the greatest decrease of bottled water sales?

What would you rather have?


One-forth of Rome's intersection of the Quattro Fontane

Or this + this?

Dried up drinking fountain at Withrow Park...image courtesy of The Star

Water bottle waste...image courtesy of Edge Outreach

Think about it.  Suggest this to your local representative.  Tell a sculptor. Steal this idea and let it flow!

In the meantime, here is a selection of groovy Italian drinking water fountains for your own inspiration!

Rustic and Teutonic in Chienes

Avante Garde in Bressanone (yes, the fountain spouts were labeled for drinking)

Modern and Chic in Verona

Veteran water fountain model Trent demonstrates how to operate and share a tricky 3-pronged flow

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.