Friday, September 27, 2013

Starry, starry night

Once upon a time I was doing some reading about the Byzantine empire, and there was discussion of the mosaics in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which are nice, but not as good as the basilica in Ravenna, Italy. Hagia Sofia was pretty impressive, and I figured that would have to do, because what were the odds of going to Ravenna? Well, guess what. Ravenna is 90 minutes east of Bologna. An easy day trip. So of course a trip became part of the 2013 Sharon and Wilf Tour of Churches, and Eating. 

From the train station it is about a 15 minute walk to the old town of Ravenna. The centre is mostly pedestrian streets and the town has a lively feel to it. First up is the Arian Baptistry. And there, on the ceiling:
To modern eyes this may be John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, observed by his apostles. Back in the day this was pretty seriously heretical, showing Jesus young and obviously human, attended by a pagan river spirit as well as saints. 

The magnificent mosaics of the dome are all that remain in this small building. 

The real fireworks begin at the Basilica de San Vitale:

There is also a mausoleum that is a little mosaic jewel box, including the most beautiful field of stars:

It is quite humbling to look at these mosaics, with all their millions of tiny tiles, that have been in place for more than a thousand years.

Bolonga la Grassa

I think our favourite type of food is Italian - I tend to cook Italian-ish and that's often our choice in restaurants. And yet, we've always found eating well in Italy to be a challenge. It has always seemed darn near impossible to get away from the dreaded tourist menu and the same dozen dishes, often badly done. Venice was the most difficult.

Then we came to Bologna. Bologna la grassa - Bologna the fat - is one if its nicknames. It is a foodie city. And more importantly, it is not a touristy city. Not like Rome, Venice, Tuscany, the Amalfi coast. There is a huge university here - somewhere around 100,000 students, which keeps things lively. And there is a big trade/convention centre in the new part of the city. In fact the biggest trade show of the year is going on this week - the ceramic tile people are in town. (Seem like a quiet bunch)

But what there is not is hordes of tourists in busses and all the infrastructure that they need. There are lots of things to see and do, but mostly the people around us are the local people doing there own thing.

The great thing about this is that it is easy to avoid the dreaded tourist menu. Being tourists we're always wanting to eat too early, but we've managed to turn this to our advantage. We show up right at noon when its not busy and we can have the full attention of the wait staff and tell them we want to eat the specialties of the region or the town. We've been eating such good stuff! 
Antipasto plate in Ravenna.
Pumpkin filled ravioli with walnut sauce for me, salama de sugo with mashed potatoes (and sparkling red wine) in Ferrara.
Parmesan cheese and Parma ham in .... Parma!

The only downside is that after these huge lunches, with wine, there's no way we can face dinner! But I think one good meal a day beats a couple of indifferent ones, anytime. We may have more of a challenge ahead of us as we head to the coast and the more touristy areas. Here's hoping!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Because life is full of surprises

On the flight to Amsterdam the young man next to me was quite insistent that we should go to the town of Naarden. He approved of Amsterdam and Haarlam, but felt that we would really be missing out if we didn't get to Naarden, an historic fort. Our guidebook had nothing about the town, but the Internet always obliges - you can look here: . We took the train from Amsterdam and found ourselves in the not so bustling metropolis of Naarden-Bussom. Being a Saturday there was no info available, but we are resourceful. While we were studying the station map two guys went by printouts with a picture of the fort, so we followed them. Luckily for us they were in fact going to the fort area. 

The town turned out to be a lovely surprise. Within a huge star shaped moat there is a tiny little town - narrow streets with ancient brick houses, shops and restaurants and a Saturday market. We had stopped for a coffee when groups of people started streaming by - dressed in matching outfits. It turns out we were in town on the day of an amateur choral festival. 31 choirs, 1000 participants, 16 venues. They seemed to range from very serious classical music to young people doing 'Glee' type repertoires.
This is one of the old town gates - big moat on the other side, so you pretty much had to be invited in back in the day.
Beautiful old town hall - built during the 1500's, with interior decorations from the 1700's. And yes, after awhile you do stop seeing the bicycles that are parked everywhere - I hadn't even noticed them until I saw this picture!

And while we were in town the sun actually came out!

It made our lunch of beer and croquettes by the canal that much more pleasant!

At the Museums

Amsterdam has all kinds of museums - I expect that you could do nothing but museums for day after day. Heck - the Rijksmuseum alone has 8000 artifacts - practically a lifetime of looking just there.

We decided that we needed to be selective so our brains would not over fill and decided on the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum, both of which have recently been extensively renovated and recently re-opened.

The Rijksmuseum is a celebration of all things Dutch. It is full of a wonderful selection of paintings, ceramics, furniture, and sculpture, not to mention the astonishing building itself. One huge draw are the Rembrants, the highlight of which is probably his 'Nightwatch'. As is so often the case the sheer size of it is surprising. Being familiar with a painting from a book does not prepare you for the impact of the size of the actual painting. The opposite is also true - some of the paintings are surprisingly small.

One thing about a museum of this stature - there is never an off day, a day of peace and quiet. There are always swarms of people clustering about, taking pictures of the pictures. So we didn't really take any pictures in the museum. Well one. Of a boat. A pretty big boat. On a table.
Perfectly to scale, perfectly detailed. 

We did stop in the museum cafe for some fortification:
Classy cafe, with sculptures and everything!

In the afternoon we visited the Van Gogh museum. It is really beautifully done and ranges both widely and deeply through Van Gogh's life. We learned a lot about him, the artists that he knew and admired, how he worked, the materials he worked with. It was really very well done. And the, of course, there were the paintings. If you really want good pictures of his painting the web is full of really good ones. But here are two that we particularly liked:

Those X's may not mean what you think.

And then again, they may. In this picture, for instance:

The bench and the truck? See the X's?

And here, on the city's coat of arms:

(and yes, whole building is slumping to one side...)

These three crosses represent the cross of St. Andrew and are the official symbol of the city.

Of course, in Amsterdam another form of triple X comes to mind.

Forgive the blurry picture - they're on the other side of the canal, second floor. But yes, the red light district it is. 
Early in the morning, late in the evening, the gals are there. Any shape or colour you can imagine. And they are dressed so that there is nothing left to the imagination. The Red Light District has been cleaned up a lot from the bad old days - one stretch of street like this has a day care centre sponsored by the Queen smack in the middle of the block. That's not to say that the clean up has totally tamed this part of town. Between the theatres advertising live sex shows and the shops full of sex toys and the 'interesting' scents wafting from the 'coffee houses' all down the street it is clear that this town still likes to get it on and get high.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cloudy with a chance of meatballs

And here we are in Amsterdam. And it looks just like the pictures - canals and bikes and bridges. 

Everyone we meet apologizes for the weather, but really - it is pretty much as we expected. Sure, hot and sunny would be nice, but cloudy and drizzly is kind of how it goes here.

We have rented an apartment not too far from the train station on the northern end of the Red Light District. We're on a street of restaurants - pretty much any type of food you can think of. The not so sexy sexy part of town is a few blocks away.

Our street.

Our building (We're the three windows of the third floor)
And here is the gateway that takes us to the side door entrance of our building. That's an Argentinian steakhouse on the ground floor of the building next to ours.

Our landlady gave us a couple of suggestions for places to eat. One was a restaurant called Meatballs. And can I just say - Bless the organized Dutch. Streets with street names at every corner! Numbers identifying each business. We found Meatballs even in our stunned post flight state (unlike our restaurant hunting adventures in Japan). And then - they were open for dinner early. No waiting til 8 or 9 or 10 as in Southern Europe. 5:00 and we were sitting at the bar contemplating what kind of meatballs we wanted for dinner. As Henry Ford used to say you can have your car in any colour you want as long as you want black, here the message was you can have anything you want to eat, as long as it is meatballs. It was delicious, and came with delicious and interesting sides. We had the opportunity to try a rhubarb liqueur called Rubarbacello, which was surprisingly good. I'll finish by showing you one of the side dishes from my meal:
Yes, that is mashed carrots and pine nuts, topped with popcorn. Unorthodox, but surprisingly good!