When I turned 40, I’d never been to Europe. I decided that it was time, and started formulating a plan. I wanted to go somewhere warm where I really liked the food and where it was warm – I was thinking of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. As it happened, I saw a flyer from our local community college that listed a two week language school in Florence that could offer homestays. I attended a short seminar, and really liked the people involved and the price. I arranged for a month off from work, and off I went. Here is a photo montage of the sights. This chilly Portland weather makes me yearn for a sunnier climate, and Italy would certainly do.
Our visit to Bologna earlier this year was wonderful. My favorite part of the visit was the food, of course, but I also liked the red buildings. The Italians refer to the city as “the red one” (la rossa) in part because of the red bricks and roofs in its historic center but also because after WWII it became a center of socialism and communism. Its other nicknames are “la dotta”, or learned one, because the oldest European university is located here; and “la grassa” (fat), because of its cuisine.
We discovered a little canal on one of our walks. In the photo above, Todd is taking pictures of the canal. The photo below is very overexposed on the top but when I cropped that part out, it didn’t seem balanced. My Photoshop skills are not advanced enough to fix it. For a better view of the canal on the other side of the street, see this post.
It’d be amazing to live in a city with old Roman ruins mingled with everyday buildings. This is one of my favorite things about Europe – the old and the new living harmoniously together. I love the sense of history that permeates Europe but some of it is very sad.
An internet aquaintance of mine from Lucca suggested we try Ammodonostro, a restaurant off the tourist path in Lucca. We were the first customers of the evening, not surprisingly. Italians eat dinner later than we Americans tend to. The waitress was very friendly and spoke good English, and chatted with us for a bit before we ordered. We ordered the house red, Le Mura Rosso, produced by Colli Toscani Igt with Sangiovese and Canaiolo grapes. It was a light red with just a bit of tannin.
We weren’t up for a typical full course meal as tempting as the menu was so we ordered a Lucchese specialty, Tortelli Lucchesi al ragù di carne, which is a meat filled pasta with a sauce similar to “bolognese” sauce. Our waitress tried to explain the difference between Bolognese and Lucchese sauces and said one had tomato while the other didn’t, and one had a white vegetable in it but she didn’t know the name. I looked through my Italian cookbooks but could find the difference but I’m guessing it’s either celery or leeks.
The tortelli was delicious! It was lighter than I expected, not at all like the heavy ragus I’ve eaten at Italian-American restaurants. The pasta was fresh, and the meat inside was also light and flavorful. I enjoyed every succulent bite.
Our second course was a tomato and mozzarella salad. The tomatoes were green, as in not at all ripe but it worked because it gave crunchiness to the salad very ripe tomatoes don’t have. The mozzarella was creamy and flavorful, and a bit of olive oil and basil leaves were drizzled and strewn on top. I don’t know if the tomatoes were a different variety, or if they use them green before they ripen, but it really worked in this dish. The only other way I’ve green tomatoes is breaded and fried, and everything is tasty when fried.
Alas, the end of this really nice meal was exasperating. We were both tired and ready to go back to the hotel. (We’d already had to wait a few hours to get into our hotel but that’s a different story.) I motioned for the check, which our waitress acknowledged, but we didn’t see said check until 45 cranky minutes later. Todd asked for it twice, and she agreed to bring it but didn’t. Finally,she did bring it and we paid. I’m sure part of it was that she got suddenly slammed and it seemed like she was the only wait person. I also sure part of it was our non-Italian inability to savor a meal for hours on end. (One of us more so than the other but I’m not naming names here….)
When I was in Italy, I was really inspired by the bright colors worn by Italian men and women. In the past few years, I’ve been trying to incorporate more color into my mostly black wardrobe, and got some fun ideas. When I was there, I wore a green linen skirt with a grey and white striped tee shirt, and an orange sweater draped around my neck. No black! I think the dreary grey Portland winters and springs require bright colors to keep a morose attitude at bay. A glass of white wine helps, too. I can trick myself into thinking it’s summer.
One of the off-beat things my sweetie and I like to do on our trips is to visit local cemeteries. I think it’s really interesting to see the different ways our beloveds who die are honored. My very limited experience is that in France, Italy, and Mexico, cemeteries are contemplative spaces with interesting sculpture and stories. The Maryland cemetery my grandparents are buried in is so boring – the headstones must be flat so the grass can be properly mowed, there are rules about flowers and trinkets that can be left, and very few people wander around. In contrast, we always see people at foreign cemeteries wandering around looking at the graves.
Certosa Cemetery is in Bologna, outside the walls of the city. It was previously a monastery, founded in 1334, and closed 1n 1797. In 1801 the cemetery was established, and the monastery was remodeled and incorporated into the design as the mausoleum. It’s a beautiful cemetery with amazing art and sculpture, and was visited by Dickens, Byron, and Stendhal on their grand tours of Italy. For more information see the Associations of Significant European Cemeteries website.
One thing I really liked about this cemetery was the photographs of people on the graves. It makes the grave seem less anonymous, and gives us a tiny glimpse of who the person was. There were lots of real flowers on the graves, and we saw a number of people tidying them. Sadly, my grandparents’ graves probably haven’t been visited, much less tidied, in years. I suggested a picnic at the cemetery one time but my cousins thought it was a bizarre idea.
Wine Name: Il Gattopardo (Lo scuro)
Origin: Italy (Sicily)
Grapes: Nero D’Avola
My thoughts: The aroma of this wine was very strong – I first noticed its aroma when I walked by the glass Todd had poured for me. It had slight oak undertones, with stronger scent of chocolate and flowers. The taste was good, with a bit of tannin, and a spicy finish. It’s a bit dry, and went really well with my dinner, which was artichoke cheese ravioli from Pastaworks with garlic and olive oil.
I liked the name of this wine, Il Gattopardo, which reminds me of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 movie of the same name. It’s a wonderful period piece that shows the decline of the aristocracy and the uprise of the bourgeoisie. Gattopardo means leopard in Italian.