Friday, September 29, 2017

A perfect day

It's perhaps a little unconventional to nominate a perfect honeymoon day as one in which my sister and a friend tagged along, but last Saturday, we really did have a wonderful day. The weather was great, the scenery spectacular, the food good and the company fun.

Post-wedding, my sister took the opportunity to travel a little in Italy also, before heading back to New Zealand. By coincidence, we happened to be in Bologna on the same day, so in the morning, we set out for Ferrara, set a rendezvous point on the edge of Bologna, and picked up Jess and Jo for a trip to the Opera02 agritourism centre, located in the hills about 50 minutes from Bologna.

Emilia-Romagna, the region which is home to Bologna (and Ferrara, Parma, Modena, etc.) is known above all for its fine produce and cuisine. Amongst its world-famous products are Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, mortadella sausage (the original "baloney"), and Balsamic vinegar, as well as recipes like bolognese sauce, lasagne and tortellini. We knew we wanted to do some food tourism while we were there, and picked Opera02 because it offered two kinds of food tours - balsamic vinegar and lambrusco wine tasting, because it had good restaurant reviews, and for its stunning location in the countryside.

It delivered on all points. We learnt a lot I didn't know about Balsamico tradizionale di Modena. The first thing being that there is such a thing as Balsamico tradizionale di Modena. It turns out that, while the vinegar you can buy in the supermarket labelled "Balsamico di Modena" probably is authentically produced in Modena, it's actually not the super high quality (and expensive), certified "Protected Designation of Origin" stuff. The Tradizionale vinegar is aged longer, produced differently (from cooked grape must only) and must be certified by the governing body and placed in a specific bottle.

We tasted balsamics (by the way, the name comes from "balsam", as it was used to dress wounds and as a medicine for things like sore throats before people thought of it as a condiment) of different ages, plus one which was used as a traditional sweetener before Europeans had refined sugar. You really could taste the difference between them and the standard supermarket stuff. All the vinegars produced at Opera02 were made in the same process, but there was a big price jump between those which had the tradizionale label (aged longer and certified) and those that did not, so all of us opted to buy the 12 year aged but non-certified variety. This is meant to be used as a condiment with strong cheese or meat, rather than as a salad dressing, due to its strong flavour (and price!)

The "battery" where tradizionale vinegar is aged. It starts in the biggest barrel on the right, and then after a year, some is scooped out and put into the next barrel. The sizes decrease as the vinegar loses volume to evaporation, and each barrel is made from a different type of wood to impart different flavours to the balsamic. The barrel on the right can then be topped up again from a large vat.

Part two was a tour of the wine-making part of the operation, where they produce a variety of red and white wines, but particularly sparkling lambrusco wines. I'm no expert on Italian wine, but I gather lambrusco has a bit of a bad rap. A sparkling red is not to everyone's taste, but it was enjoyable, and we all particularly enjoyed the sparkling rosé lambrusco.

Bottles in riddling racks
Next was lunch, on the most beautiful terrace in gorgeous weather. It rained most of the next day, which made the recollection of our lovely lunch all the sweeter. The food was great too.

Our view

Lamp friend

My sister's travelling companion Little Shark trying to steal some dessert

The perfect day continued back in Bologna, but I think I'm going to have to make that a Part Two. Ciao!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ferrara fun

I recently read a book set in Renaissance Ferrara. While the book was pretty average and most of the action took place within the walls of a (fictional?) convent, it did quite a good job of evoking an atmosphere of a fog-bound, broodingly mysterious city. The reality was somewhat less mysterious, and definitely less foggy. Ferrara is a city of quiet charms rather than in your face attractions (we didn't go to the castle and the cathedral was closed due to earthquake damage, so this may not be an altogether fair statement). It was a nice place to wander around for a day though, although there was a lot of hustle and bustle so it wasn't really a quiet, relaxing destination for all that.

We started at the Palazzo Schifanoia, renowned for the "Hall of the Months", decorated with frescoes representing the months of the year, along with different gods in "triumph" for each month. Much of the hall is damaged and faded, but there are still some beautiful and intriguing works of art on display.

Each Olympian god has a chariot drawn by different beasts. Here it's monkeys

And here swans
Next to the Hall of the Months is the Hall of Virtues - and that's pretty much all that there is to see at the Schifanoia. But well worth seeing.

Ceiling in the Hall of Virtues

The rest of our time was spent wandering around the city, full of arches, alleys and cobblestoned streets. 

Duomo selfie

Street leading to the Duomo

In front of the castle

A particularly photogenic street is the Via della Volte, a cobblestoned medieval street covered in arches.

The castle and its moat by night

The duomo by night

Spooky statue of Savonarola, the firebrand Renaissance preacher who was born in Ferrara
Maybe not the most action-packed place and a day is probably enough, but it was a nice visit. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Smug bastards on tour

This post is going to be about 90% photos and bragging, so if you don't like either of those things, you had probably better skip this one.

On Thursday, we got up bright and early to take a cable car from Malcesine to the top of Monte Baldo, almost 1800 metres up. We were already equipped with tickets purchased the previous day and armed with the fruits of my internet research that was full of disgruntled people complaining about waiting in queues for hours to get up and down the mountain.

No such trouble for us (here is part one of the bragging) - we arrived fifteen minutes before the first departure, were about third in line, and had plenty of prime window space on both of the cars. The first one up the mountain is fixed in position, so you need to get a good spot, but the second revolves around, so everyone can get a good view, but you inevitably end up staring at the mountain side for half the trip.

It was a glorious sunny day and the views over the lakes and mountains are just stunning. Luckily enough, the sun in the morning is on the perfect side to shine down on to the lake and since we were on the first car, it was nice and peaceful up there as we strolled along the flat ridge line enjoying our surroundings.

Looking towards the south

I need my dad's bird identification skills here

Channelling the Sound of Music on the mountain top

Cute alpaca friend

Looking at the north end of the lake

Fabulous, right? Here's the bragging part two, louder, braggier and uncut. By the time we were heading back down to the cable car, the trickle of people walking the other way had turned into a steady stream. The cars coming up the mountain were full, whereas we were the only two on both of our trips - which meant that we circumvented that staring at the mountain half the time thing.

View of Malcesine from the funicular. I made a cool timelapse of the trip down but I can't work out how to upload it here :(

When we arrived back at base, we found the fabled queues had indeed built up, going all the way along the corridor, down the stairs and into the lobby, with more people arriving all the time. Boy, was I smug! The best thing I've found about being married (so far) is the opportunity to say "aren't you glad you married such a smart wife?" I'm sure there are other good bits too, but thus far that and the ring are the only bits that have really changed. So if you're planning to visit Monte Baldo, #1 get a smart wife and #2 go first thing in the morning.

We were back down by 10:30 and after that, we stocked up on Italian bread, salami and cheese and spent the afternoon chilling out by the pool at our apartment. Just what the doctor ordered.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Gardians of the Galaxy

Honeymoon Day 4, Wednesday, was all about relaxing and taking it easy on the shores of Lake Garda. Our apartment, a rather bare but spacious and functional space, was located a couple of miles from the pretty town of Malcesine, on the eastern side of the lake. We headed into Malcesine first thing, primarily to wander around and take plenty of photos of the picturesque cobblestoned town and its gorgeous lakeside setting.

After our walk, it was time for lunch at Re Lear, in a cobbled square in the centre of Malcesine. It was quite an unusual place, since it had a quick menu with the likes of pasta carbonara or croque monsieurs alongside a gourmet tasting menu, focused on local "zero kilometre" food. I have some issues with food miles as a concept, as it fails to take into account other factors such as differences in heating or cooling or fertiliser use in different parts of the world, which can mean that your apples from New Zealand are not actually worse for the environment than those from France (yes, some bias for my heavily export-dependent home country as well), but as a tourist experience, I do like the idea of tasting fresh local products, which tend to be made with more care than somewhere that's just microwaving a frozen dinner for undiscerning tourists they know they'll never see again.

My favourite dish, an entrée of sea bass raviolo with rhubarb foam
After lunch, we headed south down the lake to Bardolino, an area reputed for its wine. There are lots of places you can taste wine in the region, but we opted, for convenience, to go to the Zeni wine "museum". It was evident going in that it would be a bit touristy and that the museum was basically just a bunch of old equipment in a room, but sometimes it's okay to do the touristy thing because it's easy and set up for people, as opposed to fetching up at some working vineyard where they're not really expecting tourists and maybe don't speak English. Plus, as it turned out, the staff was really nice and friendly, and it was overall a good experience.

We arrived just before they reopened after lunch, and there was already a large group - of Germans, I swear everybody here is German, we have been counting the non-German cars on the road - waiting outside, so instead of going into the museum, where they offer free wine tasting, we went around the corner to the cellar where you can pay a small fee to taste some of the more expensive wines.

Love among the barrels

We decided to do the "olfactory experience", which consisted of smelling mystery odours in a series of unmarked boxes and writing down our best guess as to what they might be. It was super hard! I knew already I'm not very good at identifying wine tastes and smells, but this confirmed it. Each of us only correctly identified three of the scents. Some I wasn't too far off (I reversed the leather and tobacco samples, for example), but my worst blunder was guessing "red fruits" for coffee! Ironically, I really hate the smell of coffee, so I would have thought I'd get that one for sure. After we were finished smelling, we tasted two glasses of wine and tried to match their profiles with some of the scents we had sniffed.

As our tranquil wine tasting was coming to an end, the big German group appeared downstairs so we absconded up on to the museum/shop level. Here, you got a free tasting glass and could dispense your own wine right from the bottle. Fun for the whole family!

I don't really know a lot about Italian wines, so it was fun to taste a couple (and I'm sure we'll have more opportunities to discover as we go!)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Here comes the bride!

Hello from Italy and from a married lady! It's official and everything went well. I might blog about it later when we get our photos (can't wait.)

Taking a break in a long day

On Sunday, we woke up with hangovers and a mission to get at least part of the way to Innsbruck, about a 7 hour drive away, where we were booked in for Monday night. But first we had to go to our venue and pack up all the decoration and presents that remained there. It took quite a while, so I can only imagine how much work it took for my husband (eek) and in-laws to set up while I was chilling in the hotel room getting my hair and makeup done. 

One hangover-busting Chinese meal later, we were ready to set off on our honeymoon. Seven hours on the road was out of the question, so we settled for a couple of hours driving and a stop in Bad Dürkheim, a cute little spa town in Germany. We selected BD basically for how far it was away, but when we ventured out to find something to eat before taking an early night, we were excited to find out that we had come on the weekend of the Wurstmarkt.

This is apparently the world's biggest wine festival and this year was celebrating its 600th edition. The focus seemed to be more on fairground fun and food than wine from what I could tell, but with our hangovers we weren't looking too hard for the wine section in any case. Jules pointed out that wurstmarkt essentially means sausage fest, which is an interesting way to start one's honeymoon! Sausages aside, it definitely seemed like a good omen for our honeymoon to stumble across a fun special event by chance.

A delicious sausage at the sausage fest
The next day, we continued on towards Innsbruck, Austria, passing over the Alps although not too much was to be seen in drizzly weather. 

Velvety Alpine grass

Castle in the Alps
I knew Innsbruck was in a pretty mountain valley, but I didn't know that it also has so many lovely buildings. Jules spent 7 years living in Innsbruck, so he was my tour guide for the afternoon, spent wandering around the city admiring the lovely architecture.

Normally you'd get a nice view of the Alps, but the moody cloud makes for a good photo too

The famous Golden Roof. We went inside the museum, but there wasn't a lot to see and you couldn't go out on to the balcony

On Tuesday, the forecast was grey and rainy both for Innsbruck and for our destination at Lake Garda, so we weren't in a particular hurry to leave the city. Instead, we toured the Hofburg Palace. Photos weren't allowed, but it was an interesting visit, with a good audioguide explaining the history of the imperial family there, especially Empress Maria Theresa. It's also known for its apartments decorated for the famous beauty Empress Sisi, wife of Franz Josef, although apparently she only stayed in them briefly.

Ceiling in the cathedral

I'm not usually super impressed by church organs, but I loved the effect on this one, almost replicating the look of a cathedral nave in its design

After eating Fleischkäse ("meat cheese" aka a sort of meatloaf - tasty) for lunch, we set off over the Alps and Dolomites for Italy. The low cloud probably hid some pretty views, but it was quite cool seeing it clinging to the sides of the mountains and rising up like steam in the valleys. First stop of our Italian roadtrip is Lake Garda, for a few days of R&R. It's definitely needed - after all the excitement of the wedding and start of the honeymoon we're pretty exhausted and fighting off a bit of a cold. But it's all worth it!

Low cloud in the Dolomites

Driving at the top of Lake Garda