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Paris pleasures

21 Oct
21 October 2017.
No matter how many times we visit, I get a little thrill to be in Paris. After arriving by train at the fabulous Gare de Lyon, our Algerian-born-married-to-the-mob-Italian-speaking taxi driver whisked us to our pied a terre near the Opéra Garnier and soon we were looking over the rooftops of the city.
Paris was quite the change of pace after a week in Pesaro and Bra. We hit Avenue de l’Opéra on Saturday afternoon at high shopping time. Mamma mia! I was feeling a bit panicky as the crowds swarmed left and right! No one seemed to walk to one side or the other and enormous families took up the whole sidewalk. Kind of reminded me of Roma, and not in a good way!

Every Paris album needs a gratuitous Eiffel Tower shot.

We eventually found our pace, managing to weave creatively, clinging to one another and refusing to be separated. We found the nearby Monoprix (no thanks to the apartment rental agency which gave us the wrong address) for groceries and headed back “home” as Ric, who had been nursing a cold for a couple of days, was feeling the full fury and needed some chicken soup and downtime.
Prepared chicken soup was something we had trouble finding in Italy. Not so in Paris! Lovely chicken broth with vermicelli (not just “noodles”), a fresh baguette, some nice white wine, and early-to-bed.
So we took it easy in Paris. The weather was not bad. Only rarely sunny but, as we like to say, at least it wasn’t raining. Overcast is fine as long as I do not have to deploy an umbrella while touring. We managed to explore some places we had not been in our prior visits, take some long walks through familiar neighborhoods, and have some fine culinary experiences as well.
Below, a selection of pictures from our stroll around The Marais on a nice sunny day.
Ric thought I was crazy to suggest a tour of Père Lachaise Cemetery, but after a two-hour wander we were both happy we’d gone. Crowds were light early on a fall Sunday, and by the time other tourists and Sunday gravesite visitors appeared, we were leaving. So many famous writers, musicians, philosophers, singers, artists, statesmen, and military figures are interred here! Not all are figures from bygone times. One of the artists from “Charlie Hebdo” that was murdered in the attacks of 2015 is in Père Lachaise. Memorials honor war dead and there are several moving monuments to the Holocaust.
Another less-known site is the Jacquemart-André Museum. I have had this in my sights for a few visits and finally found time to go. What a fabulous place! While quite popular with French visitors, we heard no English this day.  This is a private museum created in the mansion of Édouard André (1833–1894) and Nélie Jacquemart (1841–1912) to display the art they collected during their lives. And what a collection it is! They apparently had unlimited funds, no kids (which helps), and could not stop collecting. The reception rooms and private quarters alike are from another era and a lifestyle we only see in films. There are masterpieces by Donatello, Luca Della Robbia, Botticelli, Signorelli, Perugino, and more. Italy seems to have been their favorite country-of-origin.
Part of the mansion was used in the 1958 film “Gigi.”
An unexpected bonus was a special exhibit, “The Hansen’s Secret Garden” the private collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art collected in just two years (1916-1918) by a Danish couple, Wilhelm and Henny Hansen. Renoir, Matisse, Degas, Gauguin, Monet and more. We were dumbfounded to trip across this and had the privilege of up-close viewing in a very intimate setting. The exhibition is supposed to go to other major museums around the world, although only Ottawa is singled out on the website. If it comes to a city near you, go.
Food in Paris is very important, and food experiences are very important to the Bartons. We were, however, a bit tired of restaurants after a week without a kitchen. The chicken soup night was a relief and we also decided to make a nice French ratatouille in honor of our visit to the capital. This became the prime component of a few relaxed dinners at “home.” There were some excellent culinary experiences, too.

Moules alla Meuniere at Au Trappiste. The waiter will recommend a beer to pair. Frites on the side, of course.

I was in a mood for moules et frites. We tracked them down at two decidedly different venues: Au Trappiste, a Belgian beer emporium that also served great mussels, and Leon de Bruxelles, a mussels-specialty chain that also had some decent Belgian beer. I usually like my mussels sautéed in wine ala Meuniere, but after trying Leon’s Provençale style as well as au Roquefort, I need to expand my repertory at home. My cravings were well-satisfied. Leon is definitely on our list for the (inevitable) next trip to Paris.
We splurged on one dinner/tour, Bustronome. Unfortunately. Ric was still not feeling well and could barely taste the food. Since it was pre-paid he bravely went along. I found the food quality and creativity excellent although the wines were nothing special. We were served a 6-course meal and although the fish wasn’t one of my favorites, everything was done nicely, very fresh, very beautiful. Portions were appropriate to a 6-course meal so we didn’t quite waddle away.
The nighttime tour of Paris was terrific. We drove slowly through the streets on the double-decker bus passing almost every landmark you could name: Place du Concorde, the Louvre, Opéra Garnier, Musée D’Orsay, Invalides, La Tour Eiffel, and more. The bus has a panoramic glass roof and since all diners are on the second level, everyone had a great view. (The kitchen is on the bottom level.)
A couple of years ago we enjoyed a phenomenal meal at Les Papilles, where you eat what they are cooking. At least at dinner, that is the case: no choices, one set four-course menu. We went for lunch this trip and at lunch there are a few bistro meal choices. We aren’t fools. We ordered the chef’s recommended entrée et plat. This day it was a delicate cauliflower soup served with bits of bacon and cauliflower with a dollop of crème fraiche followed by a delectable porc en cassoulet. How they do it out of a kitchen the size of our master bathroom, I do not know. The owner, Bertrand Bluy, is no slouch in the selection of wines and brought us a lovely carafe that is far beyond what most would offer as house wine, well-matched to the day’s menu. Luckily Ric was feeling much better and able to taste and enjoy the food. 
We love going to the market wherever we are traveling and we shopped at Monoprix on Avenue de l’Opéra several times.The first time we checked out it was with a young man who was very engaging with the customers that went before us. Nice to us, but with a language barrier no real kibitzing. The next time we went to his station, as usual he was visiting with people then turned to ring up our items. He indicated to me that some dark chocolate we had would not scan. (I can understand enough French in situ.) Bummer. He set the chocolate aside and rang up the rest of the order. I turned to tell Ric the chocolate would not scan and could see he was irritated. (We like a square of dark chocolate after dinner.) Then the cashier laughed and handed me the item in question. “Joking,” he said. I guess we were accepted as regulars at that point. The Opéra Market was also a find, just around the corner from our flat, with an assortment of products that puts 7-Eleven to shame in a space not much larger than some walk-in closets.
Of course even Paris can have bad food. You can read about a terrible pizza experience which I will post soon over at Our Weekly Pizza. (Hint: Dominoes would have been better.)
So we bid adieu to Paris, her fine moules, amusing grocery clerks, and bad pizza. The Eurostar whisked us to London from where I will resume our story when I have time. À bientôt!
And if you haven’t seen enough, here are a few more photos from lovely Paris. 
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Off the beaten – Piemonte

12 Oct
12 October 2017.
Leaving Le Marche and moving across the country, we took three trains to reach Bra in the Piemonte. No, it is not named for a feminine underthing. That word in Italian is reggiseno. There was, however, a bra thief that struck there.

Kitty has a view…of trains. Tromp l’oeil in Bra.

Many people have heard of Asti and Alba, but Bra is a smaller town with less than 30,000 people, famous as being the place the Slow Food movement started. For such a tiny place it had amazing restaurants. Two out of our three dinners there were truly stellar.
Boccondivino was the first restaurant to be opened by the Slow Food Movement in the 1980s. We found the food to be inspired without being pretentious, and prices unbelievable for the quality. It is Michelin-listed; no stars, but still! Even excellent Piemontese wine was available by the glass for €3-5 per glass. Our total bill was only €70 including a shared antipasto (a roasted yellow pepper wrapped around tuna pate), two secondi (rabbit for Ric that was perhaps the most beautifully prepared rabbit we’ve ever seen, and roasted guinea fowl for me), a shared dessert, four glasses of wine, a grappa, and caffè. We so appreciated the impeccable-but-not-stuffy service and fair pricing to go along with memorable food. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment, I did not even take any food photos. That is a good thing.
We so enjoyed Boccondivino that we wanted to go back on our third evening. But I did not call until lunchtime Friday and they were completely booked. I sought out something completely different: a seafood restaurant in land-locked Piemonte. Ristorante La Bula serves only seafood and the reviews were terrific so we reserved a table. It may be landlocked, but this part of the region is quite close to Liguria where seafood is a religion.
I think I woke up the owner when I called to make the reservation in the mid-afternoon and we were the first to arrive half-an-hour after they opened. They did not look like they expected a big crowd. It is a lovely space, tucked back under the portico of a very old building, but modern and chic.
I am happy to say a few more dinners arrived and we had an amazing dinner! It was the best seafood dinner we have had since leaving Roma. We started with calamari alla griglia con crema di ceci (grilled calamari with creamed chickpeas, much like a soft hummus), then shared tagliatelle con ragu di polpo (pasta with octopus ragu). Ric had the fried Mediterranean goodness of fritto misto, while I enjoyed the branzino alla griglia con verdure (sea bass with vegetables). The wine list included many regional wines, but we snuck across the border to Liguria for one of our favorites, Vermentino. A lovely grappa capped off the dinner. I might not have reason to return to Bra, but if we are ever within 50 miles, I would detour to eat here.
Boccondivino night 1, La Bula night 3. Where did we eat on night 2 in this food capital? It was not so much where as when: we ate in the 1950s. Our B&B recommended Badellino and on the strength of that recommendation (after all, he also recommended Boccondivino) we made a reservation. We were first to arrive, but the restaurant quickly filled, mostly with locals, it seemed. The menu was uninspired, the presentation and preparation even less so. There was an antipasto cart where for €13.00 per person the woman in charge of the dining room would load a plate for you with beef tartar, the local bra sausage served raw, insalata russie (I abhor insalata russie!), guinea fowl salad (no doubt made from last night’s leftovers), and a few other rather unsavory looking items that had been sitting at room temperature. Can you say ptomaine? As a primo we chose a pasta which was pretty good, made from the local sausage that was mercifully cooked. My main course was roast beef Barolo, which was, in fact, a tender piece of beef in a Barolo sauce, but it was so lonely on the plate, just a slab slathered in the gravy, no side dish, no color, not even a sprig of parsley. It looked like something served in a church basement in the Midwest when I was growing up. Neither of the servers spoke any English, which was odd in a destination that attracts an international wine crowd, and the décor of this 100-year-old establishment might last have been spruced up in 1959. We paid the same here as we did at Boccondivino! At least they had grappa and the wine was a good value.
So what did we do besides eat? This is an amazing wine region after all. We took two daytrips: Alba and Cuneo.
We enjoyed traveling some by Regionale, the not-so-fast workaday trains of the Trenitalia system. Trains that are taken more by Italians commuting to work or to shop, and by students from middle school through University. There is a lot of commuting between cities like Torino and Bra and Bra and Alba. Every day we encountered swarms of students: out in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. 
We also saw a wide variety of agricultural landscapes, quite different from other regions of Italy. Corn fields dominated where we expected grapes, and small vineyards clung to hillsides. There were more hazelnut (filbert ) trees than in the Willamette Valley! In Alba, vacuum-packed bags of dried and roasted nocciole (hazelnuts) were in nearly every shop and a hazelnut torta was a featured dessert.
Bra is not really in the hills where they produce wine. It is rather on the edge, whereas Alba is right in the Langhe. In Alba, we found an immensely attractive town, very focused on the upcoming La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). We are not truffle fans (you either are a fan, or are not, IMO) so I am glad we missed those crowds. We also found that Alba is the home of Ric’s favorite grappa, Sibona. We dithered for about five minutes before deciding to ship a winter supply home. You cannot buy this stuff in the U.S. 
In a small world moment, the little cafe we chose for lunch had a slight Oregon connection: the owner’s sister-in-law is in the wine business and knows Ponzi.
Now a departure for a few fashion photos. As anywhere in Italy, style is important and even in these little towns of rural Piemonte there were some interesting trends that caught my eye. 
We also ventured to Cuneo, capital of the province that encompasses Alba and Bra. This is an amazingly beautiful city, very busy and a delight to wander. There are no tourists, it seems. True, no big “sights” or “sites” but that is what off-the-beaten-path is about: Seeing places that do not attract the hordes. We only had a few hours, but could easily have stayed a few days. It is nestled up against the Maritime Alps. I would love to see it in winter when the peaks are snowy.

 

Off the beaten – Le Marche

11 Oct
11 October 2017. We decided to veer away from our original plan of going to Roma. As our son said, “You lived there almost five years! Why are you going back already?” On reflection, we realized we were mostly going there to eat at our favorite places, and to see our friend Eleonora. Sorry Ele, but Derek made sense: we decided to go to one region we’d never visited — Le Marche — and to Piemonte, where we have only visited Torino. Rome will have to wait.

The view from our room. The beach was never any busier than this.

For Le Marche it is difficult to pick one base. It is a region with such geographic diversity that it is time-consuming to get around only by train and bus. With a thought to visiting Urbino (famous Renaissance city) and Ravenna (for the Byzantine mosaics I have been wanting to see for years) I booked us into a very nice hotel in Pesaro (say it PAYZ-a-row).
Pesaro is an Italian beach town which in July or August would be swarming with bronzed bodies. In late September many hotels were boarded up for the season and the beach was deserted. No doubt the reasonable price for our room in the five-star Hotel Excelsior was due to the season. While in Oregon people still swarm to the coast in the fall, in Italy the season is over, no matter how nice the weather.
Offseason made for easy, if long, day trips to Urbino and Ravenna, with quiet walks and dining in Pesaro in the evening. Then there was the up-close view of the Adriatic from our balcony.
We really enjoyed walking around Ravenna and ogling the magnificent mosaics. Having dabbled in mosaics myself, I am in awe of the work done centuries ago. We had perfect weather and lucked into a fine lunch at Il Paiolo. Since Ravenna is in Emilia-Romagna, home of the piadina, we were able to get piadine made by people who really know what they are doing. It may seem simple, but a great piadina is not common. Mediocre ones are.
Urbino was interesting but it is a city of hardscape without much green to relieve it. We toured the Palazzo Ducale and were suitably impressed, but overall, we prefer quainter, less severe towns and more drama in our scenery. The Le Marche landscape surrounding it is lush and begs exploration with a car. It was a long bus trip made interesting by the other passengers and the little rural towns we passed through showing a slice of small-town Italian life.

These people are buying fish. I was amused by the view. The awning is down because the kiosk faces the morning sun. Wouldn’t you think they’d orient the kiosk the other way?

We were less-than-thrilled with seafood in Pesaro. I expected better from an Adriatic town. It wasn’t that the product was poor: it was in fact very fresh. But the preparation was uninspired. Simple grilling would have been best. There was often too much breading and a propensity to fry. With little seasoning, everything tasted the same. Even vegetable options were limited to potatoes and the ever-present insalata verde. Italians do not do great salads, which is a shame given the amazing ingredients available. Prices were not bad, but for similar prices in Lincoln City, we eat far better seafood. And I have had far better in Roma.

Pesaro is a working port and fresh fish is available on the docks.

After trying two seafood restaurants that were right on the beach (the scenery surpassed the food), we turned our attention to a little osteria in the centro storico, Osteria Pasqualon. We were warmly welcomed and served a simple but excellent meal of vitello alla limone, patatine fritte, erbe di campagnolo, melanzane parmigiana, and spiedini misti. (Veal scaloppini, French fries, sautéed field greens, eggplant parmesan, and mixed grilled kabob.) No fish. The price for all of this, with wine, was about €37.00. And that is another wonder of getting off the beaten path: you can find amazing food in Italy at an unbelievable price.
Pesaro was relaxing after Venezia – maybe too much for some people who feel they have to fill every day to the brim. We had had four busy weeks since we left home and more to come. We saw some places from this base that I am happy we got to see. And it was a great opportunity to practice my Italian as outside of the Hotel Excelsior the available English was limited. We liked having a base and not having to spend a series of one-and-two night stays to see some small towns.
P.S. – We are in Paris now. I am trying to catch up with blogging, but we are rather busy enjoying ourselves. Part II about Piemonte coming up soon!

 

L’Arte di Venezia

29 Sep
29 September 2017.
Art museums are not high on my list these days. We’ve seen so many. I could live a long time without ever seeing another Egyptian sarcophagus and contemporary art usually leaves me laughing and perplexed, although we have viewed the magnificent Peggy Guggenheim Collection three times. E basta.

Biennale venue, Giardino.

But when you wander into Venezia in the middle of the Biennale, it only seems fitting to take in the event. In this, our tenth trip to La Serenissima, we unintentionally coincided with a Biennale year. So we went. Luckily we got the senior discount.
The venue at Giardino is lovely. I had no idea there were permanent pavilions. In many cases, the building eclipsed the art. Russia’s site and exhibit were very “1984.” That was our favorite of the paid-for venues.
There were some charming pieces around the city that were for public enjoyment. We did not get to hunt down all of them but saw several we liked.

A small portion of Russia’s monochromatic installation.

Korea’s pavilion. The exterior was the best part.

Super-sized and shiny, this rhino contemplates Venezia across the Laguna.

Coinciding with the Biennale was an exhibit at the contemporary museums Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, a first-ever event where one show completely filled both venues: “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” by Damian Hirst. Three of Hirst’s pieces were visible in Venezia outside of the museums and they were crazy, huge, classical-looking works of art reminiscent of much we have seen throughout Italy. That drew us in. How could this be contemporary art?

One of Hirst’s classical pieces on public display.

It is a big joke. Hirst created a fantasy about a treasure trove of items collected by a freed slave, Cif Amotan II (an anagram*) These are wonderfully displayed, many in a before-and-after manner: encrusted with sea life, barnacles, etc., then polished and gleaming after restoration. The Guardian called it “art for a post-truth world.” Click on any photo for a better view and caption.
Hirst went so far as to stage elaborate underwater photography of the salvage operation of some pieces. All of the curation supported the myth in detail. Only when one read the fine print about the materials used was the gag given away: granite, marble, resin, MDF, gold, silver….
We thought it was brilliant, although many critics were appalled. Hirst has the last laugh as people are pouring in to see it and reportedly many pieces have sold. I hope so: he spent £50 million of his own money and ten years putting the show together. When you are wildly successful, I guess you can take risks.

We stopped on Mazzorbo for lunch at Alla Maddalena. A far cry from Venezia proper.

I have to mention a lovely experience we had away from the crazy crowds. This is one of the reasons people should stay longer in Venezia: to get away from San Marco and enjoy the islands where the Venetian Republic was born.

A short vaporetto ride from Venezia is peaceful Mazzorbo, incorporating a wine resort, Venissa. Might have to contemplate staying here some time.

We often visit the laguna islands, but this time we went to Mazzorbo, specifically for a quiet lunch on a perfect day. While most people head to Burano, we got off one stop early on quiet Mazzorbo. The terrace at Alla Maddalena was full, mostly with people arriving by water taxi. And they were having the taxi wait while they dined! We only heard one other table speaking English. Seemed to be lots of Italians in the know about this place. Prices are reasonable and it was far more charming than the places we usually eat on Burano. No reservation? Plan on eating inside which is where the walk-ins were escorted.

My delightful lunch at Alla Maddalena, a mixed seafood grill. Ric had lovely grilled eel.

It was a bit of art-focused trip, more so than usual for us. Punctuated by terrific meals and of course lots of walking in one of the world’s greatest cities for wearing off pasta.

Joseph Klibansky bronze turtles entitled “Baby we Made it.”

Newest shopping opportunity in Venezia, T Fondaco dei Tedeschi in a 16th-century building. Can you say high end?

Sunrise on the Grand Canal.

*I am a fiction

Familiar faces and places

22 Sep
22 September 2017.
When “Taxi Ivan” picked us up in Bolzano last week, we could scarcely contain our excitement. We were returning to Ortisei for our 6th summer visit. Ivan remembered transporting us with our cats last summer.

The street where we lived, temporarily. So charming!

Despite the calendar, it did not feel like summer.  Lows of 2 C/35 F and highs of 12  C/54 F were not quite what we expected. We each had to purchase a fleece as a warm layer: our long-sleeved tees and rain jackets just did not cut it.
Nonetheless, it felt like coming home. We stayed in the same apartment we shared with our cats, Libby and Jane, last year. Justine and Siegfried at Residence Astoria greeted us like old friends. We were honored to see Justine had purchased our book for use by her guests! Even the staff in the gelato and grappa store recognized us. It really felt great to come back and feel so at home. And my Italian came back rather quickly, if imperfectly.

That view looks fake, but it very real. The Sciliar and Punta Santner with Compatsch in the foreground.

We managed to carve out two good hikes in our four full days. One was crossing the Alpe di Siusi on a favorite route, stopping for strudel at a preferred mountain hotel. The other a very cold hike through fog across the ridge at Rasciesa. Luckily hot coffee and fine strudel awaited us at the rifugio.
Another day we listened to the forecast of rain all day and decided not to risk a mountain expedition, so we took a bus into Bolzano for shopping and lunch. But we never got our umbrellas wet! Not in 36 hours! It looked like rain most of the day so our time at higher altitudes might have been cut short. Hard to know when to believe a forecast.

One of our favorite rifugi, Rasciesa. We were the first customers at 9:45. As we were leaving, the crowds were arriving.

We cooked several dinners (restaurants get tiring when you travel long term) but treated ourselves to one fine meal at what has become our favorite fine dining establishment in Ortisei, Restaurant Concordia. We were one of only three parties on a Sunday evening, all seated in a cozy room with the woodstove burning. We dithered over many fine options on the menu, choosing an antipasto of involtini with mozzarella and grilled vegetables and secondi of venison and pork, with a fine local Lagrein to accompany. Everything was superb! The owners are wait staff and chef, making for a very personal experience. They were thrilled to hear we returned to them after a great experience last year. It is so nice to go to restaurants away from the main streets, no matter how small the town, and find such intimacy.
Here are a few more pictures from our stay in Ortisei. Click any picture for complete captions.

The canal where we live.

We are now in Venezia and the weather gods have cooperated. We were out in shirtsleeves and ate lunch al aperto twice this week.
Venezia is, of course, very familiar to us. We’ve been here 10 times although I am not sure we should count our one-night-stand in August of 2016 when we came here simply to briefly escape the heat in Roma. We know where we are going most of the time although I am grateful for GPS on the phone when we get twisted about. The first few times we visited we used only paper maps. I am happy to have adopted the electronic form when I see others standing around gaping at their maps trying to decipher Venezia.

Incredible saute of mussels and clams at Trattoria da Jonny.

It was another fine meal we got ourselves into at Trattoria da Jonny. Or rather, I should thank Michele over at Meandering with Misha for getting us there. She raved about it in March and I remembered her post was so inspiring we had to go. We were shocked to arrive and find the place lightly attended while out on the main tourist piazzas things were humming. It was to our advantage: a finely prepared lunch in a peaceful location with only schoolkids and local shoppers passing through. We kept it simple: branzino with spinach for Ric, a lovely bowl of mussels and clams for me, accompanied by seasonal veggies and roasted potatoes we shared. A little Soave washed it down nicely. A lot to eat for lunch but after our three-plus mile morning walk (and knowing we’d do four more miles before the day was finished) we deserved it. Again we are preparing food a casa so a simple salad and more good wine (Donna Fugata why are you not exporting to the U.S?) made a fitting evening meal.
When we travel long like this, our evenings are much like being in the U.S. If we do not go out to eat, and if we’ve had an active day, a simple supper at “home” with perhaps some streaming of American TV is a nice way to chill out. Unfortunately, Amazon and Netflix are wise to our use of a VPN. Although Amazon worked in Ortisei, they are apparently on to us now. We found PBS is still willing to feed our need with their fine programming. Is anyone else watching Ken Burns’ “Vietnam?”

Giant hands support a building along the Grand Canal. Interesting metaphor.

In addition to eating at several new-to-us places, this is turning out to be an art tour of Venezia as we finally attended the Biennale. More on that later. Always new things to see even in a place you’ve visited many times.
Per addesso, ciao!

 

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