, , ,

If you only have one day in Venice…

Monkfish in Venice

If you only had one day in X, what would you do? I put this question to people who have been places I’ve not been to before or don’t know very well. It tends to focus their thoughts and get them thinking of what’s memorable about their city. Of course, I only ask those of a similar mindset who enjoy doing the things I like to do. Spending my one day in Minneapolis at the Mall of America, for example, wouldn’t be my idea of a good time. Before going to Venice, we asked himself to give us an itinerary – to tell us what he would do with one day in Venice. This is what he came up with. First off, we were to take a waterbus from Lido to the San Toma stop on the Grand Canal and then walk to find the following:

  1. Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Huge church with paintings by Titian.

  2. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Via S. Polo, 3052, 30125  – Amazing guild hall completely painted by Tintoretto.

  3. After Scuola Grande di San Rocco, walk towards Campo Santa Margherita, 30100. On the way you will pass interesting tourist shops. At Campo San Pantalon, see if the church is open. If it is, on the ceiling is what is supposed to be the worlds’ largest oil on canvas painting. It covers most of the ceiling. Campo Santa Margherita has quite a number of relatively inexpensive places to eat and drink, especially along the right-hand side, if things haven’t changed. Try the Aperol or Campari spritz. (Campari is the more bitter one.) I felt most like a Venetian sitting on this square, sipping a spritz and watching the world go by. In the early part of the day there is also a market. Later on, there are decent enough restaurants with tourist menus, mostly on the left-hand side. There is also a very good gelato on the right.

  4. Continue walking toward Campo San Barnaba. There are more cafés and bars that are pretty good along this route. There is a popular floating fruit and veg market near the bridge across to Campo San Barnaba. And the square itself is another nice place to relax and watch people. [Note: The outside of this church featured in an Indiana Jones movie.]

  5. Ca’ Rezzonico, Dorsoduro, 3136, 30123  is one of the finest Palazzo’s and is open to visitors. [Note: I had the best monkfish ever, served in a white wine sauce with buttered spinach, in a tiny restaurant by a canal in Dorsoduro – Osteria da Toni.]

  6. Walk back toward the main campus building of the University of Venice, Università Ca’ Foscari, Dorsoduro, 3246, 30123. This route takes you through some quiet little streets and tiny pretty little squares.

  7. After leaving  Ca’ Foscari, continue on back towards S. Toma waterbus and go wherever you want. You can also take one of the gondolas that ferry people across the Grand Canal, and get yourself lost in the streets leading back to San Marco.

So, with only one day in Venice, that’s it pretty  much taken care of. And while you’re walking, keep an eye out for unusual doorbells. Delight in the ordinary.

Venetian doorbell

Venetian doorbells

, ,

Lido

How many Venetian islands are there? I asked myself that question and managed to name 6. Just 94 or so short of the actual total. Yes, there are more than 100 islands within the 340 square km that make up Venice. And one of them is Lido.

Last time I was here, we visited Burano, Murano, and San Michele. Those are the three I can remember. What time we had was spent in the six sestieri: Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo, and Santa Croce. This time, though, we stayed on Lido, probably best known these days for hosting the Venice Film Festival. 

What to do on Lido

We spent most of our time wandering around, looking at the fabulous old houses and villas that line the back streets of the island. Many were once single-family residences and have been split into separate apartments or turned into small hotels. Some, though, seemed to have still retained their former glory. When I win the Lotto, I’ll be back with cash in hand.

Hotel Hungaria Lido

Hotel Hungaria Lido Villa on Lido

Villa on Lido

Canal in Lido

Where to stay on Lido

If your hotel doesn’t have a pool (ours did – Marea Le Ville del Lido) you could check out the beach. But it’s a tad strange. If you’re in the back row of cabins, your view is not of the sea but of the next row of cabins. I’ve heard tell that the front-row cabins go for as much as €1000 a month in the summer season. Madness. And there didn’t seem to be anyone laying around on towels, so cabin use may well be compulsory. I was happy enough with the pool, though. A lovely way to relax after a hard day at the Biennale or sightseeing.

Lido beach

Lido Beach

Where to eat on Lido

We ate out every night – easier than cooking in the villa, but that is an option. At first, we stayed on the main drag where the restaurants have a certain sameness about them. That said, I had the best liver and onions ever (Venetian style) at Ristorante Pizzeria Ai Do Mati (49, Granviale Santa Maria Elisabetta). Would go back again in a heartbeat. Of our two posh nights out, the first, at the Villa Mabapa, was excellent. Lovely setting by the sea. Beautiful view of the sunset. Excellent food. Unobtrusive service. And reasonably priced. The second, at the Hotel Villa Laguna, again on the waterfront but closer to the waterbus terminal, was almost as lovely, but twice the price.  Still, the cocktails were to die for, so that lessened the pain a little. If it’s pizza you’re after, I’d recommend Ristorante La Sfera and for those after-dinner tipples, you’d be hard pushed to beat the craic at Bar Lepanto.

 

Dinner at Villa Mabapa Lido

Dinner at Villa Mabapa Lido

Lido is a grand spot to visit and a nice place to stay in the summer as the heat is less oppressive than in the city itself. Were I going back off season – I’d be more tempted by a flat in Cannaregio, but given the weather, the pool was worth the money. 

Sunset on Lido

, , ,

Biennale (2): Arsenale

Biennale Venice

People travel to Venice every other year specifically to see the Biennale. Me? I just happened to be there when it was on. If it’s your first time (planned or spontaneous), here are a few tips. In a previous post, I mentioned the Giardini exhibition. Today, let’s visit the Arsenale. It’s possible to walk between the two, and while you’re walking, check out the free exhibits from a couple of other countries along the way.

The Arsenale itself has a long and interesting history. Begun in the tenth century, it grew to be the largest industrial complex in the world prior to the Industrial Revolution. Each building and area produced a prefabricated part of a Venetian ship or the armor, rope, and rigging that went into them. At its peak, a ship could be assembled in as little as a day. The buildings themselves have withstood the tests of time and are hauntingly beautiful. Not ornate, more evocative. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up a picture of bustling docks with navvies and uniformed officers wandering about, readying themselves to visit foreign shores.

 

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Aresnale Venice

Perhaps even more intriguing though, are the myriad alleyways that lead off the walk between Giardini and Arsenale through the Castello Sestiere. Take the time to wander through the archways and discover the communities living on the other side. This is neighbourhood Venice. This is the real Venice. The place where people get on with their daily lives, for the most part uninterrupted by tourists. Signs remind us that we’re not in Disneyland or Temple Bar, we’re in a residential neighbourhood that deserves our respect.

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Arsenale Venice

Today, the Arsenale complex is primarily used as exhibition space for the Bienniale. The main exhibition hall has lots of installations to see. Walking in through the curtain of hanging ropes, you can’t but wonder what awaits you inside. At this stage though, I was on sensory overload, so I’ll let this video do the talking for me.

The last of the installations in the main exhibit hall was quite something. I think what I was hearing was the sound of an avalanche. Not that I’ve ever heard an avalanche or would know what it sounds like, but I think this was it. I’ve seen the aftermath, I’ve no problem imagining what it could be like, but this was quite something. I’ve noticed shades of black before but never quite experienced so many shades of white. The light changes with the sound and the single sculpture seemed to move of its own volition. All quite amazing.

Biennale Arsenale

The Albanian Pavilion was very interesting. I was particularly taken by the doors, as doors intrigue me wherever I go and often feature in my posts.

Tirana’s Zero Space, where cosmos and chaos are fused with no predetermined contact point, is exposed in this installation through a sensorial experience created by composing elements that aim to include all the senses and guide the visitor in a journey perceiving the free space and true essence of the city. The public is therefore engaged with its sounds, shadows, lack of perception of the verge, but at the same time free to create the space and modify the physical configuration of the pavilion. Intentionally or not, the public becomes not only a spectator but also the protagonist creating a spatial form, growing cognitively into a tourist, or even more a citizen of Tirana.

Albanian Pavilion Biennale

 

But what I’d really come to see was the Irish Pavilion. I was curious to see what we’d installed, what angle we’d taken.  And while visually, I was a little disappointed, the substance was there. The recorded voice of a rural Irish architect recounting the importance of people and communities was quite sobering.

The exhibition charts historic data, documents contemporary life with photography and gets out onto the streets recording sounds and talking to people to build unique portraits of each town.

The accompanying newspaper was the icing on the cake. Nicely done, lads. Nicely done.

Biennale Irish Pavilion

By the time we got to the end, we were exhausted. We’d walked the bones of 8 km. And it was hot. Rather than walk the whole way back, we decided to take the boat shuttle to Arsenale Nord and then catch a waterbus. But he didn’t take us to where we expected to go. Instead, we found ourselves wandering through the entrance of the Arsenale, through the café, out the back through what perhaps was once Navy housing. We headed for the water and spotted a bus stop – Biacini. But this wasn’t a stop that is on the regular route; it’s one where you have to request a stop. Don’t waste the time we did trying to find the button – it’s on the pole immediately inside the ticket barrier to your left. For a few minutes there, we felt a little like castaways.

If you’re in Venice in the next few months, be sure to take the time to visit the Biennale. You won’t be disappointed.

 

, , ,

Biennale (1)

Biennele

People travel to Venice every other year specifically to see the Biennale. Me? I just happened to be there when it was on. If it’s your first time (planned or spontaneous), here are a few tips.

Take the time to do the Biennale justice

We just happened to be in Venice and noticed it was on. I was living in a flat in London eons ago when I first heard of the Biennale. My then flatmate arrived home from work, all excited that she was going. She was appalled that I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. I’ve been carrying a vague notion with me since that it has something to with architecture and sculpture and it was the sculptures I expected but didn’t see. More than 70 counties have individual exhibits tied to an overarching theme – this year it is Freespace.

With the theme of FREESPACE, the Biennale Architettura 2018 (architecture exhibition) presents for public scrutiny examples, proposals, elements – built or unbuilt – of work that exemplifies essential qualities of architecture which include the modulation, richness and materiality of surface; the orchestration and sequencing of movement, revealing  the embodied power and beauty of architecture.

The map is pretty self-explanatory but even sticking your head into each pavilion is going to take time. Engaging with the interactive installations will take more. Reading the bumf will take more again. Think at least one whole day for Giardini and a good half-day for Arsenale.

Don’t overdose

Tickets for both main exhibition areas (Giardini and Arsenale) are valid for consecutive or non-consecutive days – if you overdose on Tuesday, you can take Wednesday off and come back on Thursday. Tickets are €25 with an extra €7 for a guided tour in English.

Dress appropriately

Wear comfortable shoes because you’ll have no problem getting in your daily 10 000 steps at one site alone. Don’t carry any additional weight – it gets tiring lugging bags and backpacks around – some exhibits (UK and Hungary) include climbing steps – lots of steps. Bring water, though. And there’s plenty of space to sit and enjoy, so if you fancy bring lunch, too. But there are cafés and such on site.

Remember to breathe at the Biennale

It can all be rather overwhelming. There’s so much to see and not everything will resonate or make sense. Don’t try too hard though – let it all wash over you and you’ll remember the bits that make an impression.

Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale

Swiss Pavilion at the Biennale

The Swiss played with perspective. Walking through this designed space with its small doors and massive doors, low countertops, and high countertops gave those of average height a good sense of what it might be like to be really tall or really short. At least, that’s what I left with. What they had in mind was to draw attention to the bland interiors of rental properties. Sometimes the obvious needs to be pointed out to me.

Biennale

Russian Pavilion at the Biennale

The Russian exhibit was more of my style. It included a basement room of open luggage lockers, each with something significant inside, be it a photo of a famous person or a book or a hat. Each had a story. The piles of suitcases reminded me of something Maya Angelou said when I saw her speak in London all those years ago – about getting on the next train with as little luggage as possible. Of all the pavilions I visited, this is one I’d like to have spent more time in.

German Pavilion at the Biennale

German Pavilion at the Biennale – Wall of Opinions documents the voices of people who live with walls, in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, America and Mexico, North and South Korea and the EU’s external border at Ceuta.

The German Pavilion explores the concept of walls, with an interesting series of opinions from real people. It also focuses on various plans by architects for replacing the Berlin Wall space… Another one I’d like to have spent more time at.

French Pavilion at the Biennale

French Pavilion at the Biennale

Many of the exhibitions invited audience participation, the French Pavilion being a case in point. I quite like the idea of rebirthing disused buildings and spaces.

Hungarian pavilion at the Biennale

Hungarian pavilion at the Biennale

As we wandered around, I tried to spot which pavilions have been built by the exhibiting country and which had been adapted from previous years. It was hard to tell. Except for Hungary. From the roof tiles to the mosaics, it was obvious that this had a Hungarian imprint. Inside, the exhibit focused on the public occupation of Szabadság híd (Liberty Bridge) in 2016 when it was traffic-free.

The bridge instantly turned into a restorative place, altering the understanding of liberty and autocracy, formal and informal, public and private in a city context. The placemakers were mainly Millennials, growing up after the political changes of the late 1980s, giving the historical place a dierent function. The event draws attention to a transforming post-social mentality into a new, entitled and free enjoyment of urban public space by recent generations. What happened on the bridge? The exhibition examines fundamental urbanistic issues based on the ideology-free occupation of the bridge. What makes a public space free? How does a city bridge become a symbol of freedom? How can we change our own identity by transforming our city? How an image of a tram route covered by yoga mats can challenge our view of public spaces? The exhibition aims to create an innovative viewpoint within the Hungarian pavilion, allowing for a liberating experience of new perspectives.

Australian pavilion at the Biennale

Australian pavilion at the Biennale

The Australians brought the outside inside in their exploration of the relationship between architecture and endangered plant species, a marked changed from the focus on the built environment.

Nordic pavilion at the Biennale

Nordic Pavilion at the Biennale

The Nordic exhibition was otherworldly and one of those that needed a little more imagination than I was bringing to the table.

Biennele

Main exhibition hall Biennale 2018

The main exhibition hall in Giardini hosts with individual projects and exhibitions and is quite something.

Biennale

Biennale main exhibition hall Giardini

The Biennale runs until 25 November this year. If you’re in Venice, with a day to spare, put it on your list. And if you’re going and know an architect who isn’t, pick up the leaflets and brochures available in most of the pavilions. There’s hours of reading in them.

, , ,

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice. So different yet so much the same. Watch teenagers pilot their boats through the Venetian canals, music blaring from the radio, and you think – all that’s changed is the mode of transport. See buildings rise out of the water, their concrete facades crumbling slowly, damp marks rising, and you wonder if they’ll last another generation. Get inordinately excited when you see the DHL guys make a delivery in their boat festooned in the ubiquitous company colours and you think – duh – of course, but how else would they do business. Spot the garbage boats pulling alongside the yachts and the crew toss their rubbish overboard and you think everything adapts. What topped it for me though was the cops and their radar gun checking boat speeds. And, when I stop to think about it, why wouldn’t they?

And yet life on the water is no different from life on the land except that it’s a little less steady. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching the hustle and bustle and what occasionally amounts to a traffic jam. I keep meaning to check if there’s an equivalent of rush hour. Is there chaos on Sunday when all those boats pull up for mass at the church in Salute? Is there an Audi equivalent in the boat world? What would I trade my 12-year-old Toyota for?  Would I cope with life on the water in Venice?

Viewing the city from the water is quite something. Seeing the hoards of tourists concentrating more on their selfie sticks that on what’s around them is comical. Hearing the chatter cast between the Gondoliers leaves me wondering what they think of it all. Were I living in Venice would I be happy with the daily onslaught? Or would I want everyone to stay home?

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice

Life on the water in Venice speed trap

 

, , ,

Tintoretto

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto. What a great name. With a great story. Of course, there’s always the chance it might not be quite true. I heard it from an Irish man who can spin a great yarn. Tintoretto was a nickname (meaning ‘little dyer’) for one Jacopo Robusti, who was born in Venice back in 1519. The way I’ve heard tell it, he considered himself the one true Venetian painter, as he was actually born in the city – the others were mere blow-ins. From what I’ve heard,  Tintoretto did something to upset the powers that were and there was no way in Hades that he would ever get a city commission to paint as much as a fence, let alone a church ceiling.  This was a tad strange, given that he trained under Titian himself and at the age of 20 was already considered a master.

When the bods at the Scuola di San Rocco were looking for an artist to paint their ceilings and walls, more than one hopeful showed up. From what I gather, Tintoretto was told not to bother. He wasn’t going to be the one hired. But he showed up anyway. On the day, he was the only one not carrying some rolled-up canvases under his arm.

Out of manners, most likely, the bods called him in and asked why he’d bothered to show up. They were commissioning just one small circle in the dome on the understanding that whoever got that commission would paint it all. Tintoretto, so the story goes, or at least the story I heard, calmly went over and pulled a string. Away came a cloth and behind it was the painting St Roch in Glory already painted. A real Blue Peter moment – and a classic ‘here’s something I prepared earlier’.

He stood before them and solemnly bequeathed his painting to the Institute in the name of God,  knowing full well that in the fine print in the Deeds of Foundation (or the Venetian equivalent) it had been written that nothing given to it in the name of God could be refused.

For the next 20 years, Tintoretto worked at painting the walls and ceilings. If you see nothing else in Venice, the Sala Capitolare in the La Scuola Grande di San Rocco is not to be missed. Words can’t describe the magnificence of it all. And my camera phone doesn’t do it justice.

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco
His painting of the Crucifixion is quite something. You could lose yourself in it and not notice the time passing by.  And, if the paintings themselves weren’t enough, the wooden allegoric sculptures by Pianta that surround the room add a sense of otherness that is compelling.

Pianta Scuola grande di San Rocco

Pianta Scuola grande di San Rocco

St Roch is the patron saint of plague victims – and back in the sixteenth century when his type of miracle was often needed, the money poured in. Granted a special title of Arch-Confraternity by Pope Pius VI, it was the only one of its ilk to survive the fall of the Republic. Today, it has 300 members who continue its charitable works as well as look after its artistic heritage.

Admission €10. Waterbus to S. Toma. San Polo, 3052 – 30125 Venezia. Wesbite. Open 9.30 to 5.30 with the last admission at 4.30 pm.

Tintoretto Scuola grande di San Rocco

The Glory of St Roch

, , ,

From Treviso to Venice

Gondalas in Venice

Someone was telling me recently that the best way to be a responsible tourist is not to travel to places that are being overrun. They cited the example of the island of Bali, which gets about 10 million tourists each year, doing untold damge to its ecosystem. Venice has to be up there (billed by the NY Times as the Disneyland on the sea) but I figured if I stayed on Lido, I’d do less damage. That said, getting from Treviso to Venice, to Lido, is quite a chore.

The airport in Treviso is about 40 km from the city and strangely, is actually in the middle of the town – or so it seems. People live directly across the road from it. Mad. The flight from Budapest took just over an hour so I was all set for a quick turnaround, on to the bus and away with us. But we had to wait for those who’d checked their bags – the bus wasn’t going until every seat was full. At €22 return to the Piazzale Roma, and taking 40 minutes, it was quick enough in the end. Tickets are on sale in the arrivals hall with no advance booking required.

Venice

Venice water busFrom there, we had to get a water bus 5.1 or 6 to Lido. This was quite the experience. Water busses are the way to travel in the city but they’re not cheap. A daily pass is €20 with each trip costing €7.50. It was all very exciting. I was like a kid at Christmas. I’ve been to Venice before but still, there’s something about travelling by water that makes the commute special.

Venice from the Water Venice from the water Venice from the water

As we passed one magnificent building after the other, I was consumed with thoughts of flooding – it wouldn’t take much of a rise in water levels to do some serious damage. The Guardian ran a post back in 2016 about what they called the ‘sinking city’. The pictures don’t do much for real estate potential. I was rather amused, too, at the familiars, who were taking it all in the stride, preferring their mobile phones to the stunning views outside.

Is it possible to be jaded by the city? Budapest can hold her own when it comes to beauty and I’m still marvelling at what she has to offer. I can’t imagine losing interest in Venice. But I’m a tourist – so perhaps it’s different for me.

All told, it took us three hours to get from Treviso to Venice, more specifically to Lido. But it was some commute.

 

 

 

, ,

Tuscan tattoos

Are tattoos to bodies what graffiti is to walls and buildings? I’m not sure. There’s been a lot in the press lately about tattoos and how they colour our judgement of a person who sports them. I’m not sure how I swing on that one, so perhaps this is why I found myself more attentive than usual this week to the tattoos worn in Budapest. For the most part, I don’t give it much thought, except to wonder why anyone would tattoo their face – that’s beyond me. But a couple I came across were particularly fascinating [and this doesn’t count yer man who had Ferencváros italicised across his chest…].

The first was on the décolletage of a young girl of about 18: a blue owl about 6 inches high, with its wings extended to her shoulder blades. It was beautiful, but I wondered how cool it would be when fashion became an issue. A statement that blue would certainly limit your colour palette although, on reflection, a blue sky goes with everything. But how does she cope with the world staring at her chest all the time? That would freak me out.

The second was a gym-body in his mid-thirties. On the front of his left shin, he had a knee-high pair of hands clasped in prayer. On the calf, he had the beatitudes, in English, although he wasn’t speaking English. I’ve seen crosses and all sorts of religious emblems before, but never a full transcript of the beatitudes. And were I to stereotype him, it wouldn’t have been as a churchgoer but then you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the beatitudes.

But each to their own. I flirted briefly with the idea of getting a tatt when I was in Hawaii one year, but I didn’t. There was nothing original in the book I leafed through. And if I was going to mark myself indelibly for life, I wanted it to be with something that no one else had. And that would require more thought than I’m prepared to give it.

IMG_0315 (600x800)In Tuscany recently, the graffiti was just as strange, ranging from clever witticisms to painted anguish. For a while, it was as if I was reading instructions on how to live my life. I should have come to Tuscany years ago. I’ve often wondered what goes through a  mind before the spray can or the paintbrush or the stencil is lifted? Do they have a design, a plan, a burning need to share? Do they know how a few random words on a wall might impact a life?

IMG_0232 (800x600)

This one in Palma had me thinking for quite a while. I actually went back a second time and a third time to see if I could decide if it was the work of one person or two. It took me back in time to my trip to the Holy Land and the graffiti on the wall in Bethlehem. The sense of hopelessness jumped off the cement and stopped a few others in their tracks, too.

IMG_0151 (600x800)

This one, in the walled city of Lucca, the furthest place from Planet Shit you could imagine, had me laugh out loud at first. And then, later, as the heat got to me and I passed it a second time, I had visions of a collective suicide and that sobered me up. Goes to show though, that even in paradise people are miserable.

This week has been a different one. I’ve been (and am) in a strange mood, not sure which end is up. I’m not depressed, down, or dispirited in any way – and for that, I’m grateful – really grateful. I’m actually fine. It’s just as if my people plug has been pulled and while I can happily relate to one or two, anything more leaves me completely blahed. I’ve been crowded out. It’s taking way too much effort to be sociable. It’ll take another week of this horrible 32-degree weather before I can blame it on the heat (and don’t you dare tell me to be grateful it’s not minus 32 – that I could live with). Perhaps in this heat-induced lethargy,  I’ll start thinking about my tattoo.

,

There’s more to Parma than ham and cheese

The city of Parma, without the ham and the cheese, is more than just eggs. That said, it takes a little getting used to as from first glance, it’s not the most inviting Italian city that I’ve been to. But that said, it’s a grower, and there are some serious sights to be seen.

IMG_0255 (800x600)Top of my list is the Teatro Farnese – billed as the prototype of the modern playhouse. Work started on this in the early seventeenth century and it was apparently built in just one year, although it wasn’t inaugurated for ten – something to do with changing schedules of visiting dignitaries. The stage is massive. The seats are stadium-style, and the floor space can actually be flooded for special effects. But what’s most enthralling about it is that it’s entirely made of wood. Wood everywhere. Carved, ornate wood that looks other-worldly when the sun hits it. Even the bits that look like marble are wood. I know it was purely my imagination, but I could have sworn I felt the air stirring with faint rumblings of the masses as they waited for the curtains to rise.

parma 2Next up would have to be the D’uomo – the cathedral – with its magnificent depiction of the Assumption of Our Lady painted by Correggio in the sixteenth century. And, quite surprisingly, even given how little I know about art, this gobsmackingly gorgeous piece isn’t listed among his most famous works in any of the bios I’ve read of him. And if this doesn’t rate, then the rest of his stuff must be out of this world altogether. Quite cleverly, portraits of church elders were used as the faces of prophets – no better way to a man’s wallet than through his vanity.

sun-on-christ-smallIMG_0303 (600x800)Third up would be the Baptistry. This is somewhat of an astronomical marvel. On the feast day of St John the Baptist, the sun (if there is any) hits the baptismal font in some way reminiscent of what goes on at Newgrange and other ancient sites. On various dates of the year, the sun hits certain figures  on the fresco-covered walls. Beginning on 25 March and until about 10 April, what sun there is strikes a painting of the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. All quite astonishing and once again has me asking – how, back then (it was completed in 1220) could they do so much with so little and today, with all our progressive technology, we slap up buildings that don’t stand the test of time. Mad.

And it’s not all happening inside, either. The carvings on the outside walls tell stories and are well worth taking the time to read.

IMG_0309 (800x600)IMG_0285 (800x600)IMG_0243 (800x600)It wouldn’t be this part of the world if it didn’t lay claim to a famous composer. Verdi grew up about 20 miles from the city of Parma and has been officially adopted as one of its own. There’s a massive monument to him that’s IMG_0241 (600x800)worth a look-see but bear in mind that it’s only part of the original – the rest having been ‘sacrificed to expansionism’ (?) after the War. It’s down by the rather impressive Piazza Pilotta, which is living testament to the damage done by war. What isn’t there says as  much again as what is.

I can’t quite decide why it took me a while to warm to the city. But I did. And I’d go back. It’s very walkable and has lots of surprises. Home to one of the oldest universities in Italy, it has a culture that has been earned. Perhaps it’s more a university town than a tourist mecca and perhaps it was the absence of large swathes of tourists that made it seem a little ordinary.

IMG_0236 (800x598)It was given by Pope Paul III as a gift to his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Farnese back in the day when cities were given as presents. Parts of it still have the ability to transport you back in time and have you stepping aside for imaginary horse-drawn carriages carrying ladies in hooped dresses and parasols. Definitely one to put on your list, if you’re in the vicinity.

 

 

 

,

Twins, wheels, and hammers

I lived with a chap once who would throw up at the smell of Parmesan cheese. He hated the smell. Absolutely detested it. And this was back in a day and a place where Parmesan cheese came out of a shaker, already grated.  Every time I smell it, I think of him. Weird.

De Wimmen told me once that France would be wasted on me as I didn’t drink wine, eat olives, or appreciate cheese. I’ve grown up a lot since then.

But for years, Parmesan was something I added to stuff – to pizzas, pastas, salads. It was never one of those cheeses I ate chunks of. But in Milan last year, an Italian friend introduced me to the joy that is real, aged, Parmesan, and I was converted. So much so that when I was in Parma (after seeing the Parma ham production facility) I tagged along on a study tour of a Parmesan cheese facility, one of 161 in the region.

IMG_0385 (800x600) (2)Did you know that Parmesan cheese is only made in the morning?  Milk is collected from the farms twice a day from cows who are fed an all-natural diet of grass and hay. Nothing else. [Oops… doesn’t that mean they’re locked up all the time? Or muzzled? Not good.] The evening milk is collected in the evening and left to sit overnight to let the cream rise to the top. The next morning, when the morning milk arrives, it’s added to the now-skimmed milk from the previous evening. (It takes 16 litres of milk to make 1kg of cheese.)

Some fermented whey is added to the new mix as it is heated in massive cauldron and starts to acidify it. To this is added rennet (an enzyme that comes from the stomach of a milk-fed calf or goat – who knew?). Rennet coagulates the milk and so it begins to curd.

IMG_0368 (800x600)Now, imagine the whisk in your kitchen on steroids and you might come close imagining to the massive one that cheese makers call a spino, which they use to break up the large clumps of curd into much  smaller pieces. All the while, the milk is still cooking. When it gets to a certain temperature, the heat is removed and after an hour or so all the little curds sink to the bottom – and so the cheese begins to form.

IMG_0384 (800x600)This goo is removed from the liquid using a wooden paddle and wrapped in muslin in the shape of a large wheel [I suspect I missed a step and the goo is actually put into stainless steel moulds – which I saw lying around – but I wouldn’t swear to it. Our guide had a fab handbag draped over her arm and I was a little distracted.] There is enough in each cauldron to make two wheels so they’re rather appropriately, if oddly, called twins. The twins are then literally hung out to dry – to rid themselves of excess liquid. What’s left in the cauldrons (whey) is used for the next day’s cheese and what’s not needed goes to feed the local pigs, which will soon end up as Parma ham. There’s a certain holistic something to that, don’t you think?

IMG_0369 (800x600)When a lot of the excess liquid has dripped away, the wheels are moved into round wooden forms and branded with date of birth, origin, etc. (I love this traceability stuff.) They’re turned a few times as the liquid continues to drain and the cheese is still soft. A piece of plastic with the words Parmigiano Reggianno is slotted between the cheese and the edge of the wooden frame and thus the cheese is branded – name, date and serial number. Oh if only they could talk.

IMG_0383 (800x600)These wheels are then put in tanks of sea-salted water where they sit for more than three weeks (about 25 days). While they’re here, they lose about 4% in weight with the average end weight being about 42 kg. From there it’s off to the curing room where they stay for a whole year. But they receive constant care and attention. Every 10-15 days or so, each wheel is brushed, wiped and flipped.
IMG_0401 (600x800) (2)After a year, the cheeses are tested. Each one. An in-house expert takes his hammer and taps the cheese. His trained ear can tell if there are any pockets of air or abnormalities. (Imagine that conversation in a pub – so, what do you do for a living?) And if it’s not 100%, the rind is removed and it’s striped – i.e., it gets stripes. This shows it’s a decent cheese but not IMG_0400 (800x600) (2)good enough to be branded as Parmigiano Reggianno and will retail at slightly less than the real thing. So if you’re being sold  Parmigiano Reggianno  without a rind… be careful… it ain’t the real thing. [And the rind is edible – so no more throwing it away.]

I never knew that you could invest in cheese wheels. Buy a load of them and wait 12 months in the hope that the price goes up. You rent the space at an ageing facility and sit it out.  I bought some at the facility for €13/kg. At the airport it retailed at€35. Same bloody cheese. Perhaps it’s worth looking into.

IMG_0390 (800x600) (2)IMG_0398 (800x600) (2)PS. Lactose intolerant? Apparently if the Parmigiano Reggianno  is older than 30 months, you’re good to go. It’s safe to eat.

PPS. Cheese = milk, whey, rennet. Therefore ricotta is not a cheese. Amazing what you learn.