Friday, May 3, 2013

Italia Encora

Just a few more descriptions of life in this wonderful, unpredictable country:

Food (cooked and RAW!)


Grating Pecorino cheese over some "plin"
The food in the Piedmont is almost as famous as the wine.  This is the home of the Slow Food movement, a reaction to fast food that emphasizes fresh ingredients based on what is in season. 
The pasta is phenomenal!  Especially these puffy little raviolis called “plin” that are usually stuffed with rabbit meat and served with either a ragu (tomato meat sauce made with veal) or sage and butter.  And a specialty called “tajarin,” a handmade, hand-cut pasta made from eggs.  When tajarin is cooked perfectly al dente, it is the best pasta we have ever tasted!
Super fresh salad with the best oil and vinegar
Salads are always super fresh and served with only the best olive oils and vinegars.  The balsamic vinegars are out of this world.  For dessert, our favorite splurges were a lemon cake that was incredibly moist and tart (topped with lemon rind) and hazelnut cake, a very nutty cake that was just a tad dry until you added some powdered chocolate and a special sauce made from eggs, sugar, and sweet Marsala wine.  O Dio mio!

Amazingly moist and tart Lemon Cake
 Breakfast deserves a paragraph of its own: coffee/tea, juice, yogurt, fresh fruit, fresh bread, and so many sweet goodies like homemade jams and always amazing homemade cakes and apricot tarts all freshly made.  Interestingly, at our both B & Bs, the men of the house did all the baking – and the results were incredible!

The totally RAW salsiccia!
One very quirky aspect of the Piemontese diet is an obsession with raw meat.  Yes, RAW.  At first, we thought it was a language translation problem, and that they must mean rare meat, but we were wrong.  We first encountered this phenomenon in a restaurant when we were served an appetizer called carne cruda. Honest to God, this was a raw hamburger patty on a dish.  (We wish we had a picture, but we were so flummoxed, Frank didn’t even reach for his camera.)  We figured “when in Rome” and managed to eat it.  Not bad, as long as you didn’t think about what you were eating.

Later, at our Asti B & B, Frank asked about the difference between salume and salsiccia since both appeared to be sausages.  The answer was that while salume is aged, salsiccia is “bloody.”  Once again, we thought this was a translation problem and were thrilled when our hosts said they would get some salsiccia for us.  So imagine our reaction when they proudly presented us with a plate of uncooked sausage (this time we took a picture!).  Again, it didn’t taste bad – just an issue of mind over matter.  But I don’t think we would go out of way to eat any raw meats ever again!

Politics and Economic Decline

Home of the first Italian Parliament (in Turin)
We don’t usually get into political discussions in foreign places, but we became friends with Maria Luiza, the marvelous postmistress of Pettanasco, a village near Lake Orta.  She told us the situation in Italy is terrible (tear EE blah, as Maria Luiza pronounced it).  She said that Italy, the land of art and music, is turning into Tunisia.  It truly is terrible to see the sad state of the economies of so much of Western Europe.

Why Italian Road Signs Almost Drove Anne Mad

The Italians are masters at the art of fine living.  When it comes to food, wine, fashion & design etc., their talents are legendary.  But they are a bit weak when it comes to practical things.  For example, their road signs are the worst we have seen anywhere.  It’s not that signage is lacking. There are signs everywhere, sometimes a dozen signs stacked on one pole!  The problem is with logic and consistency.

In Europe, route numbers are seldom (or poorly) displayed, so you need to navigate according to the cities and towns along your route.  The only difficulty is that you need to know what larger city is in the direction that you want to go.  And the whole navigational issue becomes worse when you have traffic circles because every circle requires a decision.  With traffic circles every few miles and crazy, inconsistent road signs, Italy takes this European concept of navigation to a whole new bizarro level. 
Which way do we go???
Here is one small example:
If the road you are driving will eventually intersect with a highway going to Asti and Arona, your road may be identified in a traffic circle with a sign that says “Asti/Arona.”  Now these two cities lie in opposite directions and are hundreds of miles apart, but you want to head toward this highway that provides the option of going to either city.  So even if you have no intention of going to either Asti or Arona, this is the road sign you need to follow to continue on your road. 
As if all this isn’t bad enough, at the next traffic circle, your road sign may say only “Asti.”  Now even though you don’t want to go anywhere near Asti, you have to remember that the direction you want to go is toward the highway that will give you the option of going to Asti, so this is the sign you want to follow.  Can you see how the signage can make you lose your mind?  And there are lots more horrifying examples. The only good thing about an Italian traffic circle is that you can continue around it more than once until you sort out which direction you need to take!  Maybe next time we’ll opt for GPS.
This brings us to the end of our blog for this trip.  Despite a few issues with the roads, we had a fantastic time -- France and Italy are without question two of the most enjoyable countries on the planet!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Romance on the Italian Lakes

One of the many moods of Lago d'Orta
We stayed in a lakeside room on the absolutely gorgeous Lago d’Orta (Lake Orta), one of the smallest Italian Lakes. Since we loved Bellagio on Lake Como when we stayed there back in 2005, we were anxious to try another one of Italy’s exquisite lakes.  We were not disappointed.  This place is heavenly – the air is fresh and cool, and the only sounds are the ducks swimming by, and an occasional ferry boat shuttling passengers across the lake. 

Enjoying the lake from our hotel balcony
Our balcony gives us a view of tiny Isola d’Orta (Island of Orta) in one direction and snow-covered Alps in the other!  This combination of lovely lake, sweet little island, and impressive mountains is impossibly beautiful.




Orta San Guilio

Main square in charming Orta San Guilio
Orta San Guilio, just south of our hotel in the town of Pettenasco, is a tiny village right on the shores of Lago d’Orta.  When we parked our car in one of the visitor pay-parking lots, we weren’t even sure where the town was!  Then, we spotted a long flight of cement steps that took us down into this amazing medieval town hidden from view. 

Our first visit was at night and the town felt coldly deserted.  We found our way to the main square, and it was pure magic.  The square sits right on the waterfront with a fabulous view of the lights on Isola d’Orta which is a small island on the lake, beautifully illuminated at night.  We ate dinner at an outside cafĂ© facing the waterfront where the ambiance might have given the restaurant an excuse for overcharging, but dinner was very reasonable and the food was superb.  A real night to remember!
We returned to Orta San Guilio during the day to check out the weekly market and the vendors who  sell their wares in hand-assembled tent-stalls set up on the main square.  The market was small but offered some of the best inexpensive shopping of the trip. 
Approaching Isola San Guilio
We hopped on a boat to get a good look at Isola San Guilio, that tiny island in the middle of the lake that we had been admiring from a distance.  Known as the island of silence, this tiny island (less than 2 football fields wide and maybe 3 long) consists mainly of a basilica and a monastery. 
Walking along the Path of Silence
The short walk around the tranquil island, called the Path of Silence, felt like a meditation, and thoughtful messages like “Walls are only in the mind” were posted along the way to promote a sense of mindfulness.

Death of St. Francis depicted in a chapel at Sacro Monte
Next we drove up the hill above Orta San Guilio to the Sacro Monte, a complex of chapels dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi in a pretty wooded area with gorgeous views of the lake far below.  The real wonder of Sacro Monte is displayed inside the 21 individual chapels here; painted statues from the 17th and 18th c. depict the story of the life of Saint Francis. The painted, earthenware statues merge with the mural paintings on the surrounding walls to create an amazingly lifelike tableaux.

Lake Maggiore and Stresa

Impressive hotel on the waterfront near Stresa
on Lake Maggiore
Although we stayed on Lake Orta, the touristy lakeside town of Stresa and Lake Maggiore were less than an hour’s drive away.  Stresa has some impressive old hotels lining the lakefront, but the best sights were out on the water.  We bought an all-day ferry ticket and had a fun time island-hopping to Isola Superiore and Isola Bella.
Riding the ferry on Lake Maggiore
First stop was Isola Superiore (aka Pescatori because of the number of fishermen who live here).  This is the only inhabited island and a perfect place for lunch.  We ate fish fresh from the lake of course, and drank a nice white wine on a terrace overlooking the water.
Amphitheater on Isola Bella 
Then we hopped on another ferry for the 5-minute ride to Isola Bella, a 17th c. island designed as a Baroque summer palace.  The palace contained sumptuous rooms and an interesting basement consisting of 6 grottos made from shells and stone pebbles.   Outside, an elabo-rate garden sits on 10 terraces and has an open-air amphitheater decorated with statue-filled niches.  Pure white peacocks strut the grounds adding to the glamorous atmosphere.
Lago d’Orta has definitely made our (long) list of favorite getaways.  We are so glad we made the last-minute decision to stay here instead of on larger Lake Maggiore in the busier town of Stresa.  We only wish we had more time because there are a lot of things to do in the vicinity.  It was hard to leave our magical Lago d’Orta, but Milan’s Malpensa Airport was less than an hour away, so we had an easy (relatively) departure.  More on the challenges of driving in Italy coming up!