Thursday, 31 October 2013

Buon compleanno

Food and wine are discussed endlessly and with great passion in Italy by all Italians well at least the Italians we've met in Milan. Cristina, my delightful Italian teacher, is no exception. Knowing this, I tried a technique I've experienced many times from the other side of the classroom desk, but one I've not used for a long, long, time, that is until last week. Remember in class when the teacher was about to launch into some dreary topic and then someone asked a question. A quick, innocent, slightly off topic question, strategically posed to divert the teacher's attention. It's an oldie but a goodie, and it still works!

So in my Italian class last week, as Cristina gave me yet another table of verbs to conjugate I innocently asked,  "Scusate ma Cristina, c'è un vigneto vicino a Bergamo?" For the next few minutes we were spared the verbs while Cristina told us about the wine of her region and her favourite vineyards. Then she described the Italian sparkling wine from the Franciacorta region and recommended her favourite restaurant there - Solive.

Mission accomplished! Verbs avoided for at least five minutes.

Not only did that seemingly innocent question postpone the dreaded table of verbs, but it also gave me the perfect location for a weekend away to celebrate Stefano's birthday. Lunch at Solive, a taste of the famous Franciacorta sparkling wine, and after lunch, a wander through the beautiful vineyard displaying its autumn colours.
 At Solive our limited Italian skills were put to the test when the waiter explained that he was the menu. In his charmingly understated way he described the regional specialities from which we chose, home-made ravioli with sage, butter sauce and beef with polenta, mushrooms and grapes. Each dish sounded delicious and it was.

After lunch we jumped back in our little car, 
opps not that one, but our almost-as-cute Fiat 500 from GuidaMi, the Milan piblic transport car share that we've joined. 
Following another of Cristina's recommendations, we drove to Pilzone on  Lake Iseo where we spent the night at Hotel Araba Fenice and possibly slept in the very same room that Winston Churchill used when he secretly visited Lake Iseo towards the end of WWII.
The view from our room was hard to leave but a stroll around Pilzone, and another glass of Franciacorta from the hotel's lakeside bar, tempted us downstairs to watch the sunset.
Pilzone seemed typical of the towns scattered around the lakes in Northern Italy. It is set along a thin ribbon of land between Lake Iseo and the mountains with narrow lanes that wind their way up the hillside from the lake front. 
On the weekend we were there Pilzone was very sleepy, although the caravan parks dotted along the lake shore suggest that in summer it is a much more lively town.
On Sunday, we embarked on a slightly hairy drive around the lake to the town of Lovere.  Tunnels, single-lane stretches, over-hanging cliffs, the odd cyclist or two to pass and some challenging blind corners requiring a beep on the horn made for a not-so-relaxing but most scenic drive.

But the most nerve wracking part of the drive was exiting the autostrada on our return to Milan. We missed the exit. Thankfully we'd met a new navigational friend, 'Can-do Candy'. Once we asked her how to find the way to IKEA from where ever we were, we returned to feeling 'relaxed and comfortable'. Candy's automated southern twang originally annoyed Stefano, but as he followed her directions through the maze of Milanese streets he confessed that in a crisis, Can-do Candy's accent had become most reassuring.
Thanks to Candy we made it to IKEA at Stefano's request!  Incredible I know, but the birthday boy had a hankering to end his weekend of celebrations with a ...
Buon compleanno Stefano!

Stare al caldo fino alla prossima settimana...

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Sabbato a Milano

Family and friends have asked, "What do you do on the weekends in Milan?"
Well this weekend we kept it pretty green, although we didn't hire this little car. Here's what we did on Saturday...
Our usual weekend treat is to pop over the road to Bar Foppa where Francesca greets us with the friendliest "Ciao" in all of Milano! Saturday was no exception. 
"Vorrei due cappucini e due brioche crema. Per favore." We try to order in our best Italiano but the guy at the cash register always struggles to understand. Could it be the Aussie accents?
After coffee we walked through Parco Solari to the Sant Agostino Metro where we stopped for a quick look at the Saturday market.
We were on a mission to return a library book so we caught the metro into the city. Then, after a quick stop in the Brera district for Stefano to buy some shoes, it was on to Milano Centrale Biblioteca to return 'Sweet tooth' by Ian McEwan, an unusual thriller by one of my favourite authors.
Just near the Duomo we jumped on the 14 tram for our lunch destination: Chinatown - Yes there is a small Chinatown here.
A stroll along via Bramente, followed by a fairly ordinary lunch and then back on the 14 tram home.
A cuppa and rest on the couch before completing our 'compiti'. Stefano visited the gym while I took my IKEA trolley for a very short walk across the road to visit PAM, our local supermarket.
On our way through the Brera district Stefano couldn't resist grabbing a couple of bargain bottles of wine from Sicily. The bottle we opened for dinner complimented Stefano's saltimbocca perfectly.
It was good to eat in. We'd been out a couple of times this week as our friend Rod stopped over on his way from London to India. 
One of the great things about having visitors is that we can share some of the discoveries we're making about where to eat and drink in Milan.  This week we took Rod to a couple of our favourites for aperitivo, pizza and gelato. 
But that's another blog post.
Cassaforte di soggiorno e hanno una settimana felice.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Once upon a time...

Twenty seven years ago – goodness me has it been that long? – an incredibly naive young Australian girl bought the cheapest airline ticket she could find to Europe.  Like most fairytale heroines this young lass didn't look too closely at the details: not how long the flight took, nor how many stops there were on route, not even the location of her very cheap hotel room. So when she finally stepped onto the tarmac at Prague airport after thirty six hours of travelling she was shocked to see snow on the ground, large men wearing Cossack hats walking towards her and not a word of English to be heard, or read, in the airport arrival hall. Luckily, she found a 'knight in shining armour' – well not quite, but she did find the information desk where one person could translate the address of her hotel into Czech and so being naive, and very foolish, she jumped into a taxi with the first man who offered to drive her to the hotel.

BUT, oh dear, she took one look at the very cheap hotel and spoke to her taxi driver.
"This is the boon-docks. I really don't know where the city of Prague is from here, and that hotel looks like a cell block. I can't stay there. Please take me to a hotel in the centre of the city."
No response from the taxi driver so she spoke a little louder.
"Ahh like I said, that hotel looks too small, and it's too far away, and too dirty! It definitely isn't 'just right'. Please take me to another hotel."
Still no response from the rather impatient looking taxi driver holding his hand out for Czech krona.
"Okay, just take me to the Intercontinental Hotel!"
Finally he understood those magic words "Hotel Intercontinental".

There, the slightly less rich young lass found a room that wasn't too small, a bed that wasn't too big and a hotel that was just right.  So she happily went to sleep and stayed at the Prague Intercontinental hotel for her first two nights in Europe. But it didn't quite end happily ever after just yet...

Twenty seven years later, that not so young and hopefully not so foolish Australian lass returned to the fairytale city of Prague with her real-life prince charming who had to work at the Intercontinental hotel for a couple of days. Stefano was not at all surprised to hear that his wife, who he knows is descended from Hughenden royalty, had previously stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel. What he didn't know was that throughout their three day visit he would be the audience for her endless reminiscing about what Prague was really like in those bleak days before the Velvet Revolution
"Prague castle is just as beautiful Stefano, but you know, when I was here last time I'm pretty sure there weren't any other tourists."
"It's wonderful to see St Vitus cathedral. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that last time you couldn't go inside because there weren't any tourists in Prague."
 "Last time it was a bit easier to see the figures move in the astronomical clock. You know, there wasn't really anyone watching so you could get closer."
"I don't remember any stalls on the Charles bridge...but I do remember the food. It doesn't seem to have changed much. Still lots of soup, cabbage and goulash."
"I can't believe the beautiful shops in Prague...
and cafes and gardens. There's so much colour in Prague now..."

There was just one thing that the no longer so young Australian lass could reminisce about - Czech beer. Stefano's verdict was delicious and he quietly drifted away enjoying the views of this fairytale city in silence.
Ciao, fino alla prossima settimana.