this isn’t a food blog but…[montecatini]

en route to montecatini alto
Montecatini Alto

I can’t help but try the pizza here everywhere I go (this time I ordered one called the Positano: pomidoro, fiori di latte, prosciutto cotto and porcini – “the most important mushroom”) and today I also got to learn the story of “how pizza came to be.”

Starting out as a pita (meaning “press”) in Greece, the pizza slowly evolved into a dough pie sprinkled with oil and herbs and cheese. Pizza as we know it today originated in Naples in 1889 when a baker named Rafaello Esposito made a special pie for the coming of Queen Margherita that featured the colours of Italy: green basil, white fiori di latte (a cheap mozzarella) and red tomato. That was the first pizza ever made and was consequently called Pizza Margherita.

Another fun fact: While we might be used to having our slices with mozza cheese, fiori di latte is used almost exclusively throughout Italy, and, due to its sweeter nature, is also a very popular ice cream flavour!

My perfect Italy [riviera di levante]

The Italian Riviera, and specifically the Riviera di Levante which lies east of Genova, was, as everything seems to be here for me, breathtaking. The towns here were essentially built up instead of out so the whole area is composed of narrow winding roads that go left and right and in u-turns and up and up and up into the hills which are dotted with huge colourful houses that look down onto the Golfo di Genova and the Ligurian Sea.
Continue reading My perfect Italy [riviera di levante]

In the narrow Genovian alleys

While visiting the east coast of the Italian Riviera, we drove to Genova to wander around seemingly aimlessly among the labyrinth of bars and shops that lined the narrow alleys of the city.

Walking through the streets, it would seem the area’s claim to fame was being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus – a statue stands erected six meters high in the port of Rapollo and a corner of a brick wall in midtown Genova marks the place where Columbus lived – but the residents here will roll their eyes and will instead only talk about the narrowness of the Genovian alleys: originally a strong and prestigious trading port, Genova became largely overrun by pirates (true story!), and when the city expanded it was built with some impossibly narrow corridors in order to confuse and stall any looters.

These tight corridors now pass for regular walkways through downtown Genova, and on this weekend night were packed even tighter with crowds of droopy-hat and winter-jacket wearing university goers, hipsters and casanovas. But these crowds weren’t outside lining up to get in – their plastic beer cups were already in hand and full. No, it was the exact opposite of the current state of Vancouver night life: the party district of Genova was being sustained by the act of loitering around outside and drinking.

The happy crowds weaved through the mazes of bars all night, occasionally popping in for another cup of beer or a shot of something in flames, then lighting up another cigarette (not prohibited anywhere) and running into another happy crowd they knew (thought how they all found each other in that maze is unbeknownst to me). There was no police manning the shadows (there’s apparently no money for it), but there wasn’t any need for it either: the hordes of people assembled, meandered, or loitered in the streets outside jovially (albeit sometimes a bit loudly) all night without so much as a confrontation.

We walked around in circles (on purpose!) with and against the crowds well past 3am, and so I, too, will only be able to speak of the narrowness of the Genovian alleys. And rightfully so: excited to see that pile of rocks in midtown Genova that resemble a corner of Christopher’s wall, I took a closer look only to see a sign that says, “This probably was the house of Columbus.”

Getting lost at Carnevale

It was the Italian equivalent of Friday the 13th when we set off on our road trip to Venice.

My cousin and I, armed with little red pepperoncino key chains which resemble horns and are the only thing that can keep one “safe,” were spared, but our accompanying party had no such luck and so despite our best efforts we were soon running late, getting lost and going in circles before we found ourselves in front of our hotel in the town of Malcontenta (“discontent”). Tired, but not at all disenchanted, we eventually made our way into the city for a night of wandering around aimlessly – the thing to do in Venice.

The Carnevale, originally started over 1000 years ago as a way to celebrate and feast before Lent (“carnevale” stemming from the words ‘meat’ (carne) and ‘to remove’ (levare)) was intense: the crowds milling throughout the calles with their cacophony of languages carried us like helpless fish from campo to campo (‘square’) and we couldn’t help but get lost in the winding, narrow passages that make up this surreal city.

But that is exactly what any good guidebook will tell you Venice is all about: literally ‘getting lost’. The sinuous and often cramped alleyways were constructed as such on purpose by the Veneti who built the city on the islands in the lagoon after fleeing the mainland from the invading Lombards back in the 5th century (Fodor’s Italy 2012, p.189). The disorienting vias therefore, devoid of vehicle access, were devised as a defence mechanism against the invaders, eventually allowing Venice to evolve into one of the most beautiful pedestrian cities in the world.

Walking then, was a must to really experience the Carnevale. Pushing through throngs of people in hippie costumes, carnival masks and capes that mashed at every turn and every street was exhausting and exciting. Being spit out into a campo, finally able to take a breath, was an endless thrill: this was where the magic happened, with regular shops slipping into celebration mode and discotheque music being blasted out of even the most demure coffee shops, allowing the usually solemn squares to be transformed into dance floors, with kiosks, music stages, and even ice rinks being erected for the occasion. The whole city was adorned with hanging lights so even the narrowest, most hidden pathways were welcoming to meander through, inviting the spine-tingling opportunity to lock eyes with a masked stranger before they passed anonymously by and disappeared forever.

Yes, everyone should visit Venice at least once, but like anything in Italy, this should be done “con calma.” Our pepperoncinos served us well but stories circulated of misunderstandings, lost reservations, and overcrowded lineups. This is the norm. Venice has no “off-season” but the crowds are part of the wonder, part of the chaos. And Carnevale, with its masks and its mystique, only adds allure to this majestic city that can make everyone feel like royalty, but always gives them the option of getting lost.

First impressions: Pisa

I love Italy.

I love the way people speak the language, the hint of warmth in the air even when it’s supposed to be cold out, the fact that it is absolutely normal to be called “bella” as a term not only of endearment but as a salutation, and the idea of going for walks along the river Arno just because.

leaning tower of pisaPisa, so far, is wonderful. I was lucky enough to land in PSA on a sunny day (a warm 14 degrees) so my cousin took me to the Piazza dei Miracoli where, among other wonders, the leaning tower stands. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I wasn’t expecting to see it so soon.

It blew my mind.

Its angle (defying gravity), its size (smaller but more profound than expected), its pure existence (always so surreal in photographs) – here it was right in front of me, leaning under the glow of the sun. It was breathtaking. I fell in love with it the way I fell for Venice.

I love Italy.