Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fashion and a fresco...basically: Milan.

Fall break descended quickly on the Rome campus last Thursday as students scattered across Europe for their 10 day break. With their departure came my own time away from Rome as Lynda and I headed north for a mini-vacay in Milano and Lago di Como. (I'll tackle Lake Como in another post)

I love fashion. I do. I don't consider myself to be a very fashion forward person, mind you, but I do love to look at clothes, shoes, and handbags. I do love to shop and buy clothes, shoes, and handbags, and there's no where in the world better than Milan to do just that. Milan is home to such fashion icons as Prada, Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, Versace, and so many more! I felt underdressed just walking around in the city. Still, it's a pretty unique city compared to Rome, Florence, and Venice.

Milan is a newer, more modern city and lacks that "old world" Italian charm. Yet, it has its own character and its own feel. For one, it's a fairly clean city in my opinion. Yes, there is graffiti from time to time because what city doesn't have graffiti, but it's not like Rome where every surface is covered. It's a polite city. When exiting the metro I was shocked that people stood to the sides to let you exit. That would never happen in Rome!! People crowd in the entrance of a train and it's sometimes challenging to get off before the doors close. I was shocked to see people lined up along the right side of the escalator so that people could pass on the left if they so chose to climb the escalator stairs rather than allow it to carry them up.

We were in Milan for two nights and two and a half days. We didn't have a lot on our itinerary other than try to see DaVinci's The Last Supper fresco, visit the Duomo, see the La Scala opera house, and perhaps purchase some high fashion items at discount prices.

We started our time in Milan by visiting Piazza di Duomo. I was unprepared for what I saw as I ascended the stairs out of the metro. The view before me was breathtaking!! WOW. So much bigger and ornate than I'd expected. Milan's Cathedral is the world's third largest church after St. Peter's in Rome and Seville, Spain's Cathedral. Milan's church is a monstrous Gothic cathedral that seemed to go on forever. We spent some time admiring the architecture and then wandered the city knowing we would be back the next day for a closer look.
We spent the evening walking the calm streets of Milan before settling on a Rick Steve's suggested restaurant for dinner. We were not disappointed by the food and had a lovely first meal in Milano.

We awoke much too early on Saturday as we wanted to try to get seats on a bus tour that included a stop to see DaVinci's famous fresco. In order to see the fresco one must make reservations months in advance, but because we hadn't officially decided to go to Milan until September we were too late. So, we arrived at the ticket office only to be told that the morning's tours were sold out, but that there was space on the afternoon tour. Whew! We paid for our tickets and set out to find some discount designer clothing stores that I'd read about.

We were unable to find the first store we looked for, but we did stumble upon Via Monte Napoleone--Milan's fashion street. As we meandered down the street we came face to face with Stella McCartney's store, Prada, Valentino, Gucci, Hugo Boss, Armani, and more fashion icons. It was overwhelming to be on such a street. There is no way on earth that I would ever be able to afford anything from any of these stores nor do I think I would ever want to buy anything considering that I could put my money to better use.  Besides, we were on the hunt for discount designer goods! 

We made our way to two other shops in different areas of Milan (can I just say how proud I am of Lynda and myself for navigating our way to these stores? They were in the suburbs of Milan and weren't easy to find!), but failed to purchase anything. There wasn't anything that I felt like I HAD to have. 

After shopping we rested with a quick lunch and made our way back to the Duomo to meet up with our tour. The first stop on the tour was DaVinci's Last Supper.  I wasn't sure what to expect when I saw the fresco, but it certainly wasn't what I saw. The work is beginning to deteriorate after years of abuse and lack of preservation so the religious community that houses the work restricts visitors to groups of 25 people who are allowed to view the work for only 15 minutes at a time. Before you can enter the area the fresco is housed in you must go through 2 detox chambers to remove anything that could harm the painting from your clothes, etc. You'd swear you were entering the secret chambers of the CIA or something given all of the hoops you have to jump through! But, let me tell you this....soooooo worth it!! I was overwhelmed by the sight of the freso. DaVinci's work is genius and moving. The fresco was so much larger than I'd anticipated and richer than I'd imagined. I am so glad we got to see it! I could have stared at it for hours rather than a mere 15 minutes....
No photos are allowed of the this is the best I could do: a shot of the outside of where the fresco is located.

After our visit to the fresco, we re-boarded the bus and headed back to the Duomo where we learned more about it and surrounding structures like the Galleria and La Scala opera house. We went to a museum and passed by Sforza castle. It was a good tour and I appreciated the bus as my feet were beginning to hurt! :)

After the tour concluded, Lynda and I wanted to explore the inside and outside of the cathedral. The interior of the Duomo is massive. The ceilings are ridiculously high and, because it's a gothic cathedral,  the entire sanctuary felt dark and foreboding. We left the interior and headed around the cathedral to take an elevator to the top of the church. For €8 you can take the lift to the very top of the Duomo and see the entire city of Milan and miles beyond. It was incredible to experience the city and the church from that height. To be able to 'explore' the church's architecture up close and personal was a unique and incredible experience. 
Well, after our whirlwind day of sightseeing we decided it would be best if we just grabbed some dinner and headed back to the hotel. We attempted to find a restaurant near the Duomo, but the only places we found were overpriced restaurants that catered to unknowing tourists. Did we eat at one of these establishments? Nope. We did what any self-respecting American would do in this situation...we ate at McDonald's. Ha!

I really only eat McDonald's when I'm in Europe. There's other and better things I can eat at home, but when I'm here and need an American fix---the golden arches do it every time. Exhausted to the point of delirium, Lynda and I ordered our food and sat down. She got her order ahead of me and found a place to sit at a ledge-type table with high chairs in the overly crowded dining area. When I plopped myself down in hunger, thirst, and tiredness, I found myself looking into the faces of two young men who seemed to be mesmerized by something either on my face or sweater. Then, and this is one of the oddest things that has ever happened to me, one of the guys leans over and offers me one of his french fries. Huh? Who does that? Who offers a complete stranger some food from their plate? Weird! I politely said: "No, thank you." He shrugged, gathered up his stuff, and he and his friend left...leaving Lynda and I in hysterics. Too, too funny!! After dinner, we hobbled back to the metro station, made our way back to our hotel, and crawled in to bed. 
The next morning we slept in, ate breakfast, and went to the train station to wait for our train bound for Lake Como. Milan was a quick trip, but honestly I don't think we needed anymore time there. We saw everything that we'd wanted to see, had a lot of laughs, and had some amazing adventures. Now on to Lake Como.....

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Getting philosophical

Each time we visit a monument, church, or other site here in Rome I am struck by the same thought. I find myself amazed at the thought that no matter how different the world's cultures are, how vastly unique they are, we are all drawn to the things that are great, the things of beauty, and those things that have endured.

One of my favorite things to do at one of these locations is to sit down and watch those around me take it all in. I love hearing the different languages around me as those people experience the site for the first time. Watching people react to something like the Colosseum for the first time is so fundamental. I would bet money that nearly everyone has the same reaction: awe, wonder, amazement, and a sense of humility at what man created thousands of years ago. No matter the differences that separate us, we are at the core of who we are people created by the same God, people whose hearts are stirred by beauty, grandeur, and the ability to create magnificent structures.

Sit back someday and watch the people around you and I can guarantee you that you will discover that while there are many things that make us all different, unique...we are still at the heart of things very much the same.
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Friday, October 8, 2010

Cooked to perfection....

Today was perhaps one of the best days that I've had since moving to Rome over a year ago. It was a crazy adventure and I am so glad that this is my life for now...

I have a long list of things I 'have' to do before I leave Rome/Italy to move back home. This list includes things like visit Cinque Terre, go on wine tour, visit the Lakes district, see Sicily, stay at an agrotourismo, visit an olive farm, and take a cooking lesson. I can now cross 'take a cooking lesson' off of my list! (Of course after today, I may just add it to the list again because it was just that good!)

I found the name of a cooking class here in Rome after someone sent me a link to a video a bunch of American students in Rome made while participating in the same class. The class looked like great fun, it was in my favorite area of town: Trastevere, and the chef seemed to be not only engaging, but knew what he was doing. So, I sent out an email a couple of weeks ago inviting anyone who wanted to come as well. Lynda and 4 students responded and so I made our reservation. I was beyond excited!!!

The students, Lynda, and I planned on leaving campus at 9 am this morning in an attempt to miss traffic. HA! How is it that I've managed to live here for over a year and forget that this is Rome, that this is Italy, and nothing ever works like it should?! We were about 10 minutes late getting on a bus and I was freaking out because I was convinced that we were going to be late. (Punctuality is an American trait that I don't see going away anytime soon!) So, we booked it onto the next bus once we made it to Termini only to sit there for another 10 minutes. Finally, the bus began to make its way around Piazza Repubblica and down Via Nazionale. Traffic was slow moving and I was stressed...well, I shouldn't have been stressed by traffic because as soon as we began to move the bus flipped a u-turn and began heading back up the way we just came! What!? Well, it turned out that there was a demonstration of high schoolers in front of the Ministry of Education and that was causing all buses and trams to come to a standstill. Where was this demonstration? Practically right where we needed to be. There was no way we were getting there via public we walked.

The bus was diverted to the Center and we weren't that far away really, but it felt that way as we raced through the streets of Rome. When all was said and done, we were about an hour late. Gotta love Rome...and you have to take it in stride because otherwise you'll go crazy! Below is a picture of the demonstration that kept us from using the buses:

Anyways, we arrived at the restaurant and found the chef, Andrea, and the other woman, Nan, joining us chatting. Nan's husband Bernie was late joining us because of the demonstration so we didn't miss anything. Hooray!! 
Chef Andrea was AMAZING! He was funny, approachable, knowledgeable, and obviously has a passion for teaching others to cook. This made the lesson fun and educational. He put us right to work as we were running late and had 3 courses to cook. On the menu: gnocchi spinaci, eggplant parmigiana, and tiramisu. Well, the eggplant and tiramisu are by far two of my favorite dishes and while I like gnocchi just fine...I could take it or leave it....that is until I tasted what we made.     
Gnocchi. AMAZING! They melt in your mouth.
Chef Andrea only uses ingredients from the Lazio region, the region Rome is located in, and the ingredients are all fresh. What a difference this makes in the taste of the food! Everything was so vibrant and so delicious!! We chopped, diced, peeled, beat, fried, sauteed, mixed, mashed, and everything in between. The result: one of the best meals I've ever was almost as if heaven opened up at that moment and the choir of angels sang "ahhhhhhhhhhh". Seriously. It was that good! 
By far the most incredible eggplant parmigiana I have ever had in my entire life!!

And finally, tiramisu. Perfection!

All in all, it was an amazing day. The students had a blast, we cooked with some great new friends, I learned a lot, and I got to cross something off my list that I've been wanting to do for a long time. I am so blessed!!!
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Thursday, October 7, 2010

When in Assisi...

I spent part of last weekend wandering the hilly and curvy streets of the Umbrian town of Assisi. The town, which sits atop a hill over looking the Umbrian countryside, is a breathtaking mix of gorgeous architecture and breathtaking vistas. It's a peaceful and peace-filled town that I recommend to anyone planning a trip to Italy.

Assisi is located in the region of Umbria and is about 1.5 hours from Rome by fast train. I sped up there on the fast train on Saturday after a meeting for work. Lynda and several students travelled up to Assisi earlier that day and Lynda and I planned to spend the night away from Rome while the students were going to head back in the evening. 

I met up with Lynda at our fabulous hotel, Hotel Ideale. Sadly, it was dark by the time I arrived so I wasn't able to fully appreciate the view from our room. Lynda assured me that it was spectacular. Shortly after my arrival, we went to dinner. We found one of the restaurants recommended by Rick Steves and enjoyed a fabulous dinner of bruschetta, pasta, vegetables, dessert, and Umbrian wine. Yuuuummmm. It was the best dinner I've had in a while. We meandered back to our hotel where we promptly crashed and fell asleep.

I awoke on Sunday morning to a view that had my eyes popping out of my head like something only seen in a cartoon. WOW. That's all I can say. The day started a bit overcast and foggy, but still I could see for miles from my window. The valley below was a colorful vision of green velvet-like hills rolling into one another and running into mountains that raised from the earth like sentries. Spectacular. 

After a yummy breakfast of delicious cappuccini and cornetti, where I was told by the proprietor that I had occhi belle (beautiful eyes), we walked down to Piazza San Rufino and watched the locals scurry to Mass. We sat there for a good half and hour until Lynda had to leave to catch the bus that would drop her at the train station. I ended up staying behind and spent the day in Assisi alone. 

One of the things I like about Assisi is just how peaceful it is. It's quiet. I miss quiet. As I sit and type this, an ambulance is roaring past the convent and it's shrill siren is piercing my ear drums. Quiet is often times taken for granted. Not in Assisi. I cherished it. 

I made my way down into the main Piazza and wandered from shop to shop as I strolled down towards Basilica San Francesco. Assisi was the home of Saint Francis. His image and his love for birds are seen all over Assisi and his basilica is incredible! It may be one of my very favorite basilicas in all of Italy. It is a sight to behold. (See the picture above)

I spent time just gazing upon the exterior of the basilica while watching the tourists traipse in and out. I love people watching. It's certainly one of my favorite activities. From there, I wandered up the hill to a cafe that Lynda had told me about. I ordered a cappuccino and sat outside on the terrace for an hour or so, entranced by the view before me. The terrace overlooked the valley behind Assisi. Small farms and agroturismi dotted the hills and vineyards and olive groves rolled up the sides of the hills. In the distance I could hear dogs barking and shots ringing out as, I assume, men were hunting for dinners. Again, peaceful. I finished up my coffee and headed across the street to Francesco's shop. Here I discovered a balsamic vinegar so delicious that I could quite literally pour myself a glass and drink up. SO GOOD! I purchased some for myself and my dad as well as some smooth and rich olive oil. If you've never had quality balsamic or olive oil, sad day. There is such a difference between the good stuff and that which we're used to getting in the stores. 

For the rest of the day I spent my time meandering through the town streets, sitting in piazzas and watching people stroll by, eating gelato, and enjoying some quality time alone. 

All in all, it was a great day and a much needed respite. 


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Il Colosseo

We visited my favorite spot in Rome last week, il Colosseo. Seriously, I love this structure. It's beautiful, magnificent, imposing, and matter how many times I've seen it. 

As always, it was packed! We were smart and bought our tickets online in advance because nobody wants to wait in a line that seems to be 200 miles long. As you make your way into the Colosseum you are often accosted by people selling cheap tourist garbage, men dressed as gladiators, and annoying tour operators who want to sell you a tour that may or may not be historically accurate. It drives me nuts. 

The day we visited was no exception. Lynda was walking in front of me when an American guy, roughly about 22-25 years old, asked her if she wanted a tour of the Colosseum. She said no and he then said to her: "Don't you want to know what you're looking at?" (I might add here that his tone was fairly condescending.) if this 'kid' knows more about the Colosseum than Lynda. It's laughable, which I did do by the way. Annoying!

So, later on she and I were talking about what had happened and laughed about the possible retorts we could have used had we been quicker on our feet. There was one in particular that I wished I would have thought of earlier...little did I know... 

Anyways, we met back up with our students in front of the Colosseum a while later and guess who was there as well? (Still accosting tourists I might add.) That's right, our "friend" from before. He looked over at us and gave me a 'look'. I am not one to let those types of things go by. I know I should be that person. I should be more mature, more graceful, more merciful....but I'm not. Instead, I turned to Lynda and in a voice loud enough for him to hear I said: "I'm confused. I thought this was where Jesus was crucified?" He started to laugh. I don't know if he was laughing because he knew what I was doing or if he thought I was being serious--which I was not. (May I just interject here that I know that Jesus wasn't crucified here, but this is actually a question that a lot of people pose in Rome because for some odd reason they really think that Christ actually visited Rome while He was alive. I am not one of those people. I was merely being a brat....) Victory! My small-minded comment made me feel less annoyed and somewhat smug. I know, I know. This is not good....but still....sometimes being a bit snotty can feel oh so good. :)
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