Thursday, June 15, 2006

That Puccini...he always gets to me.

This statue of opera composer extraordinaire Giacomo Puccini is at his birthplace in Lucca, Tuscany.

I didn't go to Tuscany on this trip. Puccini found his way to me. Honest!

How? Through NWPR listener Ken Pitman of Prosser, who met me in Copenhagen and didn't know it.

Turns out Ken and I were on the same delayed SAS flight from Copenhagen to Seattle. When he read my blog post about the long trip back to Seattle, something clicked. Ken writes:

"It was the reference to lightning that gave it away. There you were with your NWPR shirt, and I almost struck up a conversation, but then I thought to myself, naw....just somebody who supports NWPR. I was wrong, and apologize in retrospect for not taking advantage of in person someone who I listen to every morning as I commute between Prosser, and Yakima. "

Knowing how I love The Man, Ken sent me this picture he took while in Lucca - possibly at the same time I was basking in the composer's aura at La Scala in Milan! This statue stands in the courtyard of the house where Puccini was born on December 22nd, 1858.

(I once had a boyfriend whose birthday is December 22nd. It went badly. Guess it's just as well I only know Puccini through his music and statues.)

Grazie mille, Ken!

Hey! - that's MY line!

Today's main article in Slate Magazine by Jacob Weisberg uses the title "Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous," which is the title of my post on May 20th. I used the title first!!

His article is about skiing, boating and flying accidents. Mine is about a grand cemetery in Milan.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Opera. The drama doesn't end with curtain call.

In Venice, our opera experience was a small and fairly intimate event held in a 15th century church.

This church is part of a school founded in 1261, Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. It was renovated in the 1600s, and has been an art museum since (I believe.) It's chock full of incredible works of art, even by Venetian standards: statues, tapestries and paintings created by the likes of Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo and other giants. (More images of the Scuola's treasures here.)

This was the ceiling.

The performance was by Musica in Maschera, a fine 8-piece chamber ensemble with a soprano and tenor, and a ballet dancer, performing in authentic 17th century Venetian costumes and masks. All were fine performers, but honestly, the dancer had so little room to maneuver at the front of the church that she ended up looking ridiculous. The musicians were great, helped out by the fabulous acoustics of the building.

So it was a concert performance. Where's the drama?


The singers, for the most part, took turns to sing at the front of the church. When he was not "on," the tenor, a thirty-something in fine voice, was carrying on with his much-younger girlfriend seated in the audience. My friends told me they were actually making out between arias!! And this was a church, mind you.

Now the drama begins.

After the enjoyable evening, our group walked through the little alleys towards the Rialto. Suddenly, we we heard an approaching commotion and saw the tenor, now out of costume, running towards us as fast as his legs would carry him, casting glances backwards as he pushed past us.

A few seconds later we saw what he was running from - his girlfriend, with a look on her face that would turn Medusa's blood cold. Just as she passed us her beau went over a bridge and out of sight. With a heartfelt snort and a look of absolute fury, she abandoned the chase, threw up her hands in disgust and stomped her way toward the canal.

I'd pay good money to find out what happened when she caught up with the tenor.

Is he singing castrato now?

This is the audio spot I sent from Venice on this incident.

Gillian Coldsnow

Lupo, the great Genovese Trattoria.

Remember this picture of my Ligurian seafood platter that made so many readers gasp, salivate and then curse me?

I was just reading over the earlier posts and saw that I'd promised more information on the wonderful restaurant, Lupo Antica Trattoria.

Even though it was barely 25 meters from my hotel, I would have missed it save the recommendation of Signora Arianna. As I've told you, Genoa is a maze of narrow little alleys called caruggi, some of which disappear steeply downward from main streets to goodness knows where.

Now I know some of them disappear into heaven.

Such was Vico Monachette, a stone's throw from the Ramada on Via Balbi, in the heart of medieval Genoa. Lupo's is a warm and cozy little inn, which opened a little early for us, thanks to the sainted Arianna's advance calls. The restaurant prides itself on serving the best Liguria has to offer, prepared creatively. The chef adjusts the menu weekly to accomodate the freshest catch or produce. The bilingual menu's English section was charmingly awkward, a word-for-word translation from Italian.

Liz, Cherri, Arianna and I began our meal with an antipasto of grilled radicchio in a roquefort-pine nut sauce. The bitterness of the vegetable was perfect with the creamy cheese and nuts. There was still a little crispness to the radicchio, which contrasted nicely with the velvety smoothness of the sauce.

Our primo piatto was a fresh herb-filled pasta called pansotti, which could be described as triangular ravioli. These little "potbellies" (for that is what the word means, I'm told) came dressed in a creamy walnut sauce (salsa di noci) that screamed, surrender to me!

You've seen the picture of our grilled seafood entree - scampi, prawns, salmon, octopus, and little white fish. It was just barely seasoned. I really appreciated the restraint. The chef was obviously skilled and could have done a million things to the dish, yet chose to respect the quality and freshness of the ingredients and let the food speak for itself. You know, this takes a generosity of spirit - to take oneself out of the equation and let the seafood be its own star. Bravissima.

Our other entree was a typical Ligurian dish - fish and potatoes in basil pesto. So simple, so delicate, so fresh, and oh, so delectable.

The house red wine was an excellent dolcetto, the charms of which I've already sung loud and long in several previous posts. It's most definitely my favorite red now.

We finished up with the best tiramisu I've ever tasted. If you've ever tasted the "faboo" tiramisu made by my dear friend Tina, you'll know this praise is not easily earned. Lupo's version was whipped up to an ethereal airiness, yet the tremendous chocolate, coffee and grappa flavors stood confidently through those creamy layers. But just as I was about to swoon from this, Arianna gave me a taste of her tarte tatin, as warm upside-down apple tart. (Yes, it's a French dessert. Let's not quibble about that while I'm having a moment here.) O Puccini! O Rossini! O Verdi!!! See why I love Genoa so?

As we were leaving I spied The Quartet and wandered over. They were in the middle of rolling their eyes over risotto dell'arancie, Orange Risotto. I wished it was time for dinner to start all over again.

Lupo. Just one more reason I have to get back to Liguria.

Gillian Coldsnow

The devil made him do it. (It could have been the great Genovese olive oil too.)

Genoa’s best-known musical export could well be the violinist Niccolo Paganini, still acclaimed by some as the greatest violin virtuoso of all time. Born in the port city in 1782, he was a performer of such brilliance and drama that women would faint at concerts. Even some men would weep. How to explain such incredible virtuosity? Oh, of course it had to be......could it be......SATAN? (reverberate! reverberate!)

Gosh, if I was Genovese I would really insulted. What do you mean, you don’t think one of our boys could be this good unless he consorted with the devil?

In any case, Paganini’s favorite instrument was a Guarneri, nicknamed Il Cannone (“The Cannon”) because of its soaring resonance – some even say it’s an aggressive sound. The violin is considered Guarneri’s finest creation; the last of the great violins made in Cremona. At Paganini’s death, he gave Il Cannone was given to his beloved city of Genoa.

And that’s where we saw it, in a glass case in a dimly-lit room in the Palazzo Tursi Museum. I don’t know all that much about violins, but I could tell there was something different about this particular instrument. I later read that the neck is short and flat – and obsolete. There are dark spots in places – greasy fingers? did Niccolo forget to wash his fingers after indulging in Genovese farinata? Just imagining Paganini’s very hands on that violin before me generated a frisson.

Also in that room is the only copy every made of Il Cannone. The virtuoso gave that to his favorite student. It’s possible that’s the only reason we remember the student’s name, as this instrument is known as the “Sivori.” Tsk. He played second fiddle to...his violin?

(Sorry, it was too good to resist.)

Il Cannone is not confined to life in a vacuum. Every year the winner of Genoa’s "Paganini Competition" (open to anyone under age 34) earns the right to play the hallowed instrument on October 12, Columbus Day. Great way to tie it in to Genoa's other favorite son, Christopher Columbus. But the person who created the most controversy with Il Cannone is an African-American musician, Regina Carter. In 2001 the City of Genoa invited her to play jazz on Paganini’s Guarneri. (There's that whole devil thing again!) It was scandalous, but ultimately, Miss Carter charmed all the skeptics, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Incidentally, pictures are not allowed at the museum. The images above are from the City of Genoa website.

And here's an in-depth article (bilingual) on the technical aspects of Il Cannone.

I leave you with a Paganini quote:

"I am not handsome, but when women hear me play, they come crawling to my feet."

Gillian Coldsnow

Friday, June 9, 2006

Move, over, dogs. Here come the cats.

Venetian doges/dogs had their turn in an earlier blog post, but the cats of La Serenissima should get their due. After all, there are lions lying all over the place! The lion is the symbol of the Republic's patron saint, Mark the Evangelist. But you can see some live Venetian felines at this site.

One kitty that caught our attention lived in a bar near our hotel. Ljiljana was especially taken with Martino, and even took Melinda there the following day to meet that fine cat.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

You don’t need fava beans and chianti to enjoy fegato.

Okay. So who goes to Italy to eat liver and onions?

I know, I know, my odd tastes are nothing new. But for years I’d read (again, damn you, La Cucina Italiana, for getting me so obsessed) about the utter delicacy with which Venetians prepare calves’ liver. So one evening, I dined at a little trattoria in Venice with Sanni, Barbara, Beverly and John, with Blaine and Sandy at the next table. I ordered fegato alla Veneziana.

I made sure my dinner companions all got a taste. The verdict: very positive.

The liver was tender and mild, thanks to an overnight soak in milk. It was sliced thinly, the cipolle (onions) sautéed to just the right degree of caramelization, and the pan deglazed with a good white Veneto wine. Mine came with a side of Arborio rice, a perfect foil for the rich pan juices.

My dinner was made so much better by the fabulous company. We laughed and roared, and giggled when the suave, charming, devilish waiter Lucio decided to anoint us with new names: Barbara rose to canonization immediately as “Santa Barbara,” Sanni was “Sonia,” and John was “Don Giovanni!” I was dubbed Giulietta. (Beverly – I can’t, for the life of me, remember what he called you!)

As the plates were cleared away, I introduced the group to the joys of caffe corretto, or ”corrected coffee,” set right with a little splash of spirit. That night we chose Sambuca. And why waste an evening with a devilish waiter without introducing flames? So in broken Italian I asked for “sambuca la fiamma.” Float a few espresso beans in a shot of the sweet anise liqueur, then flame it. I had my saucer in hand, ready to snuff the flame, but we were having such an animated conversation about sambuca that I failed to actually put out the flame. Our glass broke – in a perfect straight line around the circumference of the glass. Italian crystal, man!! It even breaks with style.

Oh, sambuca la fiamma? A big hit with the group. Almost as much as Lucio.

Finding the REAL Venice. (You have to look for it!!)

Venice can be hard to take, especially if you go to THE tourist areas.

Piazza San Marco is a surging throng of tourists pushing their way to the Palazzo Ducale, or the Basilica, which dates to the 9th century.

I found it absolutely impossible to take in the Basilica treasures. I'd been waiting decades to see the mosaics and sculptures, but a few minutes is all one can get. You are part of a continuously moving line which begins at one door, snakes its way through the immense structure then ushers you out through another portal. The whole experience lasts just a few minutes. Even though Mass was in progress in one of the chapels, the constant hum of a thousand whispers never subsided. In fact, it was even punctuated by ringing cell phones. I was really annoyed by the lack of respect.

However, there still is a lot to enjoy in Venice, far from the madding crowd. Having grown up on a small island, I adored the ubiquitous proximity of water. As you probably know, there are no streets in Venice (well, there are streets in parts of Venice, such as Lido, out of the main tourist thoroughfare.) Instead one gets around on foot and by boat.

Above: pull your boat right up to your doorstep!

One evening, I saw a couple of men standing by water's edge with a leather sofa and love seat. They were obviously waiting for transportation to take their newly-acquired furniture to their home. Venetians probably wouldn't do well with massive Costco shopping trips.

Above: one of the larger canals in a busy area.

The next two shots, though, show a very different canal scene - one I loved. A narrow little canal in a residential area, at dusk. All the boat motors were silent, and the only sounds I heard were of peoples voices - talking, laughing, some singing in the distance.

(Love that laundry line hanging out ACROSS the canal!)

This is another little canal, in daylight. I took this picture while riding the back of a private "taxi" to a great glass factory on Murano Island.

Here's the audio spot I sent from Venice about the difference between San Marco and the quiet areas.

I was last in San Marco at the height of tourist season, in July 1971. I don't remember it being choked with people. Arianna told me that these days, the Piazza is just as busy in January as it in July. And Niccola (a local) told me that Venice can accomodate 20 thousand people a day, according to environmental studies....yet there are at least 40 thousand visitors daily! No wonder it's sinking.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

I Gondolieri


Zefferelli's "Aida" in Verona

The image below is from Verona's Piazza Bra webcam, at about 6PM local time on Tuesday 6/6/06. (Yes, I know wayyyyy too much has been made of this date. I'm not paying too much attention to it.)

When we were in Verona on May 25th, the set was in front of the Town Hall. As you can see, it's now right outside the Arena, where Verdi's beloved opera has been performed every summer for a good many years.

This year "Aida" premieres on June 25th.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Arriving in Venice.

Earlier, I wrote about arriving at the pier in Venice. After that we boarded a little water taxi to our hotel, the Amadeus.

From L-R: Blaine, John, Sanni, Arianna, Sandy, guide Christina (back to camera), Venetian boatman, and Melinda.

Our luggage went on a different boat. As I was boarding the water taxi, a little skiff loaded with our luggage zoomed off. I was rather alarmed to see the skiff was named the "Trashbagger!"

There were no mishaps with our suitcases. Maybe because of the strong presence of law enforcement.

The Doges of Venice.

Being a Republic, Venice never had a king. Instead, it was ruled by the doge - a word which comes from the same root as duce and duke.

Our Venice guide Laura pointed out pictures of the various doges in the Palazzo Ducale. They'll all gray-haired men! It was the practice to pick an old man as doge, to make sure that his reign would naturally be short. Here's more on doges, in the audio spot I sent from Venice.

Here, then are some pictures of the Doges of Venice.

Whoops! Better makes that "The DOGS of Venice."

Hey, if Verona's top ruling family was so into dogs, why not see how the canine has thrived under Venetians?

But seriously, we all noticed more dogs in Venice than in the other cities we visited. They were better groomed, and very well behaved. I remember hearing just one dog barking during our time in La Serenissima. On our walk to the Rialto on Saturday morning, I loved seeing how dogs fit into daily routines. Couldn't help but take some doggy snapshots. This one below is one of my favorite pictures.

I just love the way this little one below is patiently waiting for its owner, who runs a vegetable stand at the Rialto market. No leash - dog knows to stay close. That's a box of mushrooms behind this lovely dog, labeled "funghi."

While most were small dogs, I did see a couple of larger animals, including this one who gallantly hiked up the steps to the Rialto bridge with owner and shopping cart.

Canine duo waiting while owners sip caffe at a bar.

Walking by a souvenir shop. See the little hand-written notice advertising toy gondole?

Well, at least she's wearing one.

Verona's Piazza Bra (here's their webcam) is a big, full, beautiful... SQUARE, flanked by a Roman arena, fountains, statues, and a great restaurant and shopping area. Our guide Alberto told us "Bra" is derived from a word in the Veronese dialect that means "big wide open space."

This Roman gate flanks Piazza Bra. I believe those little brick projections on the top are called "crenels," and were for the archers to do their job with some protection. Clever design! (You'll see crenellated Roman walls all over Verona.)

This picture really doesn't do justice to the beautiful gate. The blocks of marble range from snowy white to a rose pink. Actually, glance around this beautiful city, and you'll notice a lot of that pink, thanks to the local marble known as "Rossa Verona." You'll see blocks of it used in the construction of the arena, which dates to the first century B.C.

Verona's arena is older and in better condition than Rome's Colosseum. The interior is in good shape, while a part of the outer wall still rises above the amphitheater. These are the four remaining arches of that outer wall.

We we curious enough that we paid the entry fee to experience the interior of this imposing structure.

Imagine watching a show on the stage of an ancient Roman amphitheater! That's what happens every summer in Verona. Thankfully, it's no longer spectacles of gladiators and wild animals and rivers of blood. Instead, there are rock concerts, and operas. When we were there, we saw the massive set of Zeffirelli's "Aida" production right in front of the town hall, Palazzo Barbieri (below). It's right by the Arena, waiting to be moved to the stage.

Note: on Monday morning, Pacific time, I saw the Piazza Bra webcam showing the pharoah figure right outside the arena walls! The next staging of Aida is drawing close. Oh that we could be there for it! Maybe another opera trip?
Here's a link to the Arena's official website. It has some great pictures of the productions on the arena stage, and is really worth a look.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

Portions and potbellies....size matters.

Even though I ate incredibly well in Italy, I actually lost a few pounds during the trip. I'm sure it's not just in Italy that portions do not approach the serving sizes to which we are accustomed in the U.S.

What other reasons? For one, meals are not taken on the run. For example, I don't recall seeing a single person sipping coffee in to-go paper cups; it was rare to see people eating anywhere other than seated at a table. Sometimes I'd see people eating while standing at a bar (it actually costs less to have you coffee or snack while standing.)

And the freshness. Man oh man. The fruit and vegetables were extremely fresh everywhere we ate. Nothing seemed processed for long-term storage.

Here's an article from the New York Times on eating the Italian way that delves into this subject.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

Deathstyles of the Rich and Famous

Originally posted 5/20

Il Cimitèro Monumentale ("Monumental Cemetery)

We only drove by Milan's Monumental Cemetery but didn't have time to stop, so you'll have to go the the link above to see details. "Grand" doesn't even begin to describe the entombment of Milan's most prominent citizens. They have to pay for the privilege of being buried here, and must be sure to book a spot years in advance of their Estimated Time of Departure.

One interesting bit that came up with this item: Arianna says that in Italy, burial in public cemeteries is free. She was a little shocked that dying in the US costs money!

As we drove into Milan, we also passed a very colorful and eye-catching tower. Arianna told us many people are curious about the structure, but it has no significance other than its visual impact.

It’s about a hundred miles from Milan to Genoa

Originally posted 5/22

Along the way we passed one picturesque little town after another. They all seemed to have laundry hanging out the dry and small but healthy rooftop gardens.

Along the way, we crossed the river Po and agricultural country. Lots of rice, wheat, some corn – and for some reason unknown to me, lots of stunningly vivid red poppies growing in patches amidst the crops.

We also saw tiny little strips of grape vines scattered here and there – most likely raising just a small supply of grapes for the farmer’s personal winemaking.

As Genoa came within view, Arianna pointed out a old church on the hill above the sea. She said sailors used to go there to pray for safety on their long and often dangerous voyages. Their wives would also go there to pray for the men's safety. Our bus driver piped up that one could be sure some wives prayed fervently for their husbands NOT to return! No doubt.


Liz just paid me a visit in Moscow today, bringing me her photos and some of Cherri's on 3 DVDs. That's a lot of pictures! It's so nice to have her near-encyclopaedic record of the trip to help tell the story of our trip. I'll be re-posting some of the earlier entries with these pictures over the next few weeks, so please come back to this blog often.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

See "L'Ultima Cena" (The Last Supper) in detail.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, pictures are not allowed at Cenacolo Vinciano in Milan. However, I found a zoomable image of The Last Supper.

At this site you can also see the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie which houses the Leonardo masterpiece, as well as the fresco on the opposite wall, a crucifixion scene by Giovanni Donato Montofarno.

And this is beautiful Santa Maria delle Grazie, which houses the Cenacolo Vinciano.

Sorry Romeo, but Juliet's the star these days.

Forget the Arena, the trendy shops and restaurants, the piazzas, castles, bridges and statues. More than any other reason, tourists come to Verona to because of Signora Giulietta Capuleti.

The attraction is Juliet's house, her statue and of course, the famous balcony. We know that the house did belong to the Capuleti family, but was there really a Giulietta? We don't know. And the famous balcony, which will cost 4 Euro for a brief cameo before hordes of rowdy tourists?


The balcony was constructed in the 20th century, at the request of romance-hungry tourists.

The scene at Juliet's house is a horrid tourist zoo. Frankly, I couldn't get a good picture of the statue because of the hordes elbowing each other to pose with her, and rub her right breast for good luck. Look again at the picture above. See how shiny her right breast is? It's very disturbing to see such enthusiastic and public groping.

For many people, Juliet is not just a story. They look to her for help in their love lives. There are two walls at the entryway allotted for Juliet-letter graffiti.

There's even a "Club di Giulietta" devoted to answering letters to the late Miss Capulet. Why do they think they can get help for their love lives from a fourteen-year old whose solution to her own amorous conundrum was suicide?

In Verona there is a house that once belonged to the Montecchi/Montague family, but it doesn't draw even a fraction of the interest in the Capuleti/Capulet home. Boy, in this feud,it's clear to see which family won in the public relations arena.

Incidentally, some streets in Verona bear names used in Shakespeare's play. I saw Via Mercuzio and Via Montecchi while we were driving around.

I understand that closer to home, the Eastern Washington town of Othello has a Desdemona street.

P.S. Charles Dickens' impressions of Verona are in Chapter 8 of "Pictures from Italy." Back in his day, as it is now, the biggest tourist draw was Juliet's house. Some things just get worse over time.

Wines of the Veneto, to the lees.

Verona really is a beautiful city. Cosmopolitan, ancient, scenic, historic. The sidewalks are made of marble! Beautiful, beautiful. But probably hellish when it rains.

After our guide Alberto led us through the arena, Piazza delle Erbe, the various other piazze and the Scaglieri tombs, we took a break in a historic wine bar.

This was our opportunity to taste some wines of the Veneto. I've been reading "La Cucina Italiana" for years, often resenting their effusive descriptions of Veneto varietals, because I just never could find them in the U. S. to taste them for myself. At long last, my chance.

Chief among the Veneto varieties is Amarone, a red of great depth, ending with a slightly bitter aftertaste. ("Amaro" is the Italian word for bitter.) I tried a sweet white, Recioto. It was gloriously smooth, with so many layers of fruit and flowers - I could have sipped on that one glass for an hour of revelation!

This is how wine rounds out a lovely Verona afternoon.

Salute, John, Barbara, Beverly and Sanni!

Cin cin, Arianna!

And salute, Cherri!

What Italian Gyms Can Do for You.

I wish I'd seen it myself.

Cherri and Liz were seated on the subway in Milan, when a woman wearing sheer linen pants boarded and planted her back against the vertical support pole right in front of them. Her black thong was clearly visible. With both hands full with shopping bags, how was she going to steady herself on the train?

When the train started to pull away, Cherri and Liz were treated to a demonstration of the great potential of Gluteus Maximus. La Signora firmly grasped the vertical pole, with both cheeks. And thus she steadied herself for the rest of the ride.

Scusi, Signora! Chi e la sua personal trainer, per favore?

Dear Sueann Ramella:

Saw a portrait in Genoa of a woman that must have been your Italian great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-many=more=greats-grandmother. The portrait dates from the days when Rubens and Van Dyck were in Liguria, influencing Genovese artists. (You do the research, girl.)

I know you descended from her, because she was centuries ahead of her time in fashion sense. On her feet were pointy-toed shoes! She obviously knew those were going to be "da moda" at the time her fabulous descendant was playing resident What Not To Wear expert at NWPR. Oh, I also know she's your ancestor, because....SHE IS SO BEAUTIFUL!!

(Everybody join in the chorus now, "SHE IS SO BEAUTIFUL.....!!")

Photos were not allowed in that museum, sorry. I also can't remember whether the painting was by Rubens, Van Dyck, or one of their proteges.

Thanks for being the live wire who brightens our days at work, Missy!

Love, your Other Asian Mother