Sunday, August 09, 2009

Happy Birthday to a fabulous 10-year old!

Today is my niece's birthday, and while I'm on a different continent, I couldn't allow the day to go uncelebrated. And here's proof:

We had a little piece of cake, made a candle, invited a few little friends along, and sang "Happy Birthday, dear Elyssa, Happy Birthday to you!"

May your day be blessed with family, laughter, good food, and most of all, love. Your Auntie is very proud of you and loves you very very much!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Of salt mines and white gold

Salt is the stuff of life... apparently. Try living without it, or at least try living in the Middle Ages without it. Salt is what gave Salzburg its wealth, and its name.
Kendra and I decided to do something a little different yesterday: we toured a salt mine! The tour took us approximately 1 km in and 200 meters down inside a mountain. The Salzwelten at Hallein is the largest mine in Europe open to visitors. It's looked over by the two strange peaks we tried to photograph. Those pesky clouds!

A little history before the fun stuff.

The Celts were the first to mine salt out of this mountain, starting back around 500 b.c. until the first century A.D. It then lay undisturbed for a millenium until about 1185 when it was rediscovered. Along with the salt, a few surprises were unearthed in the form of bodies of celtic miners, perfectly preserved by the salt. At first the mine was considered to be haunted, since the new miners thought they were the first ones to have found the treasure in the mountain, and thought the preserved bodies were ghosts. Evidence of mining in the celtic period continues to surface to this day.

The miners in the Middle Ages soon realized it was too big a job for traditional tools, so they used an innovative technique of pumping water from higher up the mountain into the cavities of the cave. The water would carve out new spaces and dissolve the salt in the rock, forming a saturated brine solution. This brine was then transported out of the mountain using km-long wooden pipes to the nearby town of Hallein (from the celtic word for salt), to large boilers that would, you guessed it, boil off the water and leave behind the salt. This salt was so valuable that they called it "white gold". The boilers required a lot of fuel, and this was provided by cutting down trees on all the nearby hillsides and sending the logs down the Salzach river to Hallein.

In the 1500's, Wolfgang Dietrich von Raitenau become prince-archibishop of Salzburg. He took full advantage of the wealth from the nearby salt mines both for his own profit, and the enrichment of Salzburg. When half the city burned down due to a candle being knocked over by his clumsy treasurer (so the story goes), von Raitenau is purported to have said, "if it's burning, let it burn." He then took the opportunity to rebuild Salzburg according to his taste, with inspiration from the Italian architecture he had admired in his youth spent in Italy. His aim was to make Salzburg into a model Renaissance town. He must have succeeded to some extent, for he is remembered to this day for his building plans and achievements, and Salzburg itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Now for the fun! The tour started with a fashion makeover with protective white garb. Don't we look fabulous!

A short walk to a little train, where we straddled a long wooden bench, sandwiched in (literally, the guide kept calling out, "sandwichen!") together. Into the mountain, through ever narrower tunnels. Then a short walk to another larger chamber for the first movie clip. Throughout the tour we got little snippets of the story I told above, acted out by von Raitenau and his clumsy treasurer to make it more interesting.

Next stop was a short ride down a wooden slide! These slides were apparently used by the miners to reach lower levels quickly. Apparently they also used to organize slide parties for visitors to the mine.

A barge carried us across an underground brine lake, formed by pouring water into the mine from above. The ceiling was unnaturally flat, and showed some wave marks where the water must have eroded the rock.

We crossed over to Germany underground, then later back into Austria through a different tunnel. No wonder Bavaria thought this mine should be theirs!

A second longer slide took us to the lowest point of the tour. Here there was a chamber where one of the celtic bodies had been found (of course replaced with a replica). Then a long escalator back up to the train level, and out to the surface.

A few things I learned: I don't think I would enjoy working in a mine, the wooden slides were a blast, and there's a lot more salt under mountains than I ever knew!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Do NOT take the exit Radstadt Ost!

Unless you actually want to find the hotel!

Let the fun begin! Warning, this post has only one token picture, the rest is words, and it doesn't really give a lot of news, just a funny little story about finding our hotel in Austria.

Our directions, as written by RCI, the timeshare exchange company, to get to our resort in Radstadt, Austria were a little different from reality. We discovered the real directions (in brackets in blue) through a combination of phone calls, much wandering, and finally a city map in a parking lot.

Here's the comparison:

1. Take the A10 in the direction of Salzburg. Exit at Altenmark/Radstadt and follow the B99 to Radstadt.
(Ok, even though Radstadt is not really marked on the exit. Easy enough to figure out)

2. Exit at Radstadt and NOT Radstadt Ost.
(Wrong! Exit at Radstadt Ost, NOT Radstadt West - the only other choice)

3. At the exit turn right and go over the bridge.
(Ok, the bridge is an overpass)

4. Turn left under the bridge and right at the crossroads.
(Turn left AFTER the bridge... the main road veers right, so technically this is a left turn. But at the next step they've got their directions mixed up. If you turn right at the crossroads you end up nowhere. You have to turn to the other right, a.k.a. left)

(4a. They neglected to mention a very important turn-off to the right from this next road, more like a veering off the road up a driveway. Without this clue you end up back in Radstadt town and have to make the whole circle again)

5. The reception (for check-in) is at the Sporthotel Radstadt, which is top right. Timeshare apartments are next to the hotel. (Check-in is not at the Sporthotel, but at the timeshare reception around and behind the hotel. They were very nice, and sent us on our way with slightly more clear directions)

I can't blame the resort, and my suspicion was confirmed by the manager here, who says she has asked RCI more than once to fix the directions. A combination of language barrier (I hope) and mixed up directions (yes, take the exit vs. do NOT take the exit; right vs. left).

The moral of the story is: always Google map your destination, get street view if possible, and get street names with the directions!

We had a good laugh about the whole thing, and learned to take directions with a grain of salt. Maybe you had to be here to get the joke.

Our place here is very nice, comfy, relaxed, with a fantastic view. We are well, safe, and now know our way around Radstadt extremely well!

Memory Lane


How could I think that I would be able to drive past without stopping? Thankfully Kendra knows me well, and insisted that we had to spend at least one night here. I'm so glad.

Every street, around every corner, memories flooded back. I almost expected to meet myself in some of these places, or to see other members of the BCU team headed for coffee at the Bar Cristallo. I remember going with Mamma to the Peratoner or the Pasticceria San Giorgio. I could almost picture people I knew enjoying their ice cream at the next table at the Gelateria Artigiana or the Casa del Gelato. And I could see myself walking off to school from home or going into any of the myriad giornalai to buy the latest issue of Topolino.

But this time we stayed in a hotel (a Best Western no less), which placed us right in the middle of town, prime location for exploring and for visiting the open market on Saturday morning. Which we did.

I dragged Kendra to as many places as we could pack into one evening and one morning. At the speed I was walking, that was a lot!

First, a pilgrimage to our old apartment, then panino con gelato at the Gelateria Artigiana. A tour of the downtown, pointing out various stores, buildings, pasticcerie, banks, and other places that hold memories. Supper at L'Antico Cervo (now just Al Cervo), then a Skype call home for fun.

Breakfast at the Peratoner (yummy!), a walk & shop through the market, second breakfast at a bakery on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a trip out to the shopping on Viale Venezia (all new since we lived here), lunch in Piazza Risorgimento capped with more ice cream at the Casa del Gelato.

Arrivederci, Pordenone!

Whirlwind through Northeast Italy

We drove from Reggio Emilia to Verona, where of course we had to see the famous Arena, and the more touristy Juliet's house, with her precious balcony.

The Arena was ancient and impressive. We wished we could have stayed, as they were getting ready for a presentation of L'Aida.

From Verona we breezed our way towards Venice, making one VERY IMPORTANT stop at a rest area known as an Autogrill. As children, my sister and I used to call these restaurants which cross over the highway as "hangovers", and were puzzled why our parents thought it was so funny. Now we know better.

Ah... Venezia! La Serenissima... the most serene... city on the lagoon. We spent two nights and one full glorious day in this unique beautiful city. We truly indulged in the luxury of Venice, from our hotel which was directly across the street from the water busses (and then only 15 minutes to San Marco), to a peaceful ride in a gondola, to our afternoon high tea in a restaurant opened in 1720 in Piazza San Marco, to the Baroque and Opera concert in the evening. A beautiful, perfect day!

The next morning we took some time to see the beach, get our feet wet, so we could at least say that we had touched the Adriatic Sea. Unfortunately that's all we had time for this time around.

For this leg of the trip, our timing seemed to be perfect. We arrived at the ferry boat just as a ferry was docking, and got on. When we arrived at the hotel, we got the last of only 3 parking spots (!!!!!) at the hotel. We saw ads for the concert and were able to get tickets the next morning, and got front row seats. On the way back, however, our timing seemed to falter. We got to the ferry boat and joined the line-up. Just as we were preparing ourselves for a one sailing wait (and enjoy a granita from the bar strategically placed at the head of the line), they asked for one more car. I don't know how they did it, but they squeezed us on, with barely a few centimeters to spare! I don't think Papa' would have like this one bit!

But it all worked out, and we were on our way to Pordenone.

To be continued...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Too good for words

This post is all about Parmigiano Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico, but it was all too good to put into words, so here are some pictures with captions. Some speak for themselves.

Mixing the curdles curds :-)

Testing the curds: are they ready?

An empty cheese cone, clean and ready for the next batch

A fresh Parmigiano form, pried loose from the bottom and raised to the surface. Each big vat makes two forms

Fresh cheese, receiving its name and date by compression from a plastic stamp inside the metal band

Stamped Parmigiani, soaking in a salt bath. Not quite the Dead Sea, but a cheese sea


Can I take one home, please?

The cheese stretched all the way up to the high ceiling, and all the way down the long room. Each form must be washed individually once a week!

Maurizio, owner of the B&B Bosco del Fracasso, where we've been staying, showed us around his Acetaia. He explained the whole process to us, and let us taste different ages of aceto. It was yummy!

Stage 1: cooked grape must, allowed to ferment about 2 years

Young (3 years old) fermented must at the first stage of becoming vinegar, in old wine barrels

A series of vinegar barrels made from different woods. The smallest is the oldest (12 years), and as it gets depleted, it is refilled from the next biggest barrel, and so on, until the 3-year old vinegar makes its way down the line.

After all this, we had to buy some vinegar!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A castle of a day

On (what day was it, and does it really matter when you're on holidays?) ... a couple of days ago, we ventured up into the hills of southern Emilia Romagna (borders northern Tuscany) for some hopefully cooler air, and a view of some local castles.

Our first stop was an open-air market in a little town at the feet of the hills, called Traversetolo. The market was very large, but mostly made up of clothing and shoe vendors. Still very fun to walk through. We bought fruit and some sandwich fixings, then headed up into the hills.

UP, literally, by winding switch-backs on a very narrow track. Thankfully there was very little traffic coming the other way! We found the first castle, had our picnic, then took a tour. The view from up there was stunning, and well worth the breathtaking (literally) walk up from the parking area.

This castle was built starting in the 900's, and was a fortress for Matilde di Canossa from around 1046. Matilde, we found out, is a local historical celebrity, who at one time held power over a large area from Tuscany to southern Lombardia. The castle is largely undamaged, as it was built on very solid and enduring ancient lava bedrock. Some living accommodations were added in the 1300's for a family that took over the lands from the Catholic church, to whom the heirless Matilde had left her property.

We decided we had time for one more castle, so we ventured forth on the narrow track to the principal castle in Matilde's little empire, the castle at Canossa. This one is much more in ruins, a result of both violent attack (Matilde was apparently quite the despot), and natural erosion of the much less stable sedimentary rock.

This was a beautiful ruin, and we thoroughly enjoyed our little walk through time and history.

According to some very old documents, it was Matilde who gave the first recorded gift of balsamic vinegar to the visiting emperor Henry IV. Fitting, since this is the land of balsamic vinegar. More on that later, but it involves a visit to the balsamic production facility right here we're staying, and a surprisingly good taste test.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Back for more

Italy, that is! Kendra and I landed in Milano yesterday, after a long but very smooth trip. We just got back to our hotel from a busy but wonderful day in Milano, visiting the Duomo, the Castello Sforzesco, and four (count 'em - four) different bookstores. Or was it five? (Mondadori x 2, Ricordi MediaStore, FNAC - yep, 4. Oh, and the book fair just off the Piazza del Duomo). Our priorities are clear. Of course we also had to do a bit of a quality test on the gelato and granite available to tourists.

We also apparently were called out here to test their thunderstorm system. Let me tell you, it works great! At least we were already in the tram on our way home.

Tomorrow we're heading back into the city for a bit more Sforza stuff: castle tour and museums. Then off to Reggio Emilia for the next stage.

Elyssa and Amy, if you see this blog post, please let me know if your kitties have special names. I also have to tell you that they made a couple of friends today, who will be keeping them company for the rest of the trip. They may also make their way back to Canada with me. AND I made the acquaintance of two cats inside the Sforza castle today. I wonder what their story is, and if they know the Warrior code?

More later, and don't forget to check out Kendra's blog for more news along the way. Just follow the link on the sidebar.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Tears for Italy

L'Aquila and towns nearby, Abruzzo, Italy. I know, with the partial memory of a traumatized 4-year old, what this feels like. I pray for comfort and help for the survivors and the families of those who have been lost. I pray for wise decisions for support and rebuilding. And I cry for the tragedy that has once again rocked this little country, so dear to my heart.

It's been a while since I've posted anything here, and yet I find myself coming back with a sad post. Sometimes these things are necessary.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Magic Kingdom or Disneyland?

Saturday... Magic Kingdom! Probably the park we've been the least excited about, only because we've both been to Disneyland, and expectations were high. We took it a bit easy in the morning, being the first morning in our non-Disney resort, with separate bedrooms, full kitchen, and even two sinks in the bathroom! Luxury indeed.

Ok, back to the park. First, it's huge. Even the parking is so far away from the park entrance that we had to take the Monorail to get there. We headed straight for Tomorrowland, towards our favourite (we thought) ride, Space Mountain. With Fastpass in hand, we looked around for other stuff to do. So we tried a Stitch ride (missable), a train ride around Tomorrowland (cool), and the Buzz Lightyear ride. This was a fun, interactive, video-game type ride, much like the Toy Story ride at Hollywood (hmm, could they be related?). I was losing big time (I guess the gun wasn't working), but then I must have hit something big because I jumped ahead of Kendra's already impressive score! I love these rides!

And the rain arrived. Oh well, by now we were resigned. And when it rains, it pours. Within a couple of minutes there was a river where there had been a walkway. We stayed dry as best we could, but c'est la vie!

Across the park to Pirates of the Caribbean, and here's where the comparison with Disneyland really took off. We were a little disappointed. Sure, Jack Sparrow is believable and makes the ride, but mostly because the rest was a little... boring. Not at all as we remembered it from Disneyland.

Time to use our Fastpass for Space Mountain, so back we trekked. And... another disappointment! No music on the ride? No dizzying, rotating tunnel to launch us into space? At this point I'm willing to entertain discussion on the relative merits of the two parks, at least with regards to these two rides. Any opinions out there?

We decided to drown our disappointment (not too difficult in this rain) in Fantasyland. Peter Pan, Snow White, and It's a Small World soon restored our park-hopping enthusiasm. Then it was back to Main Street for some shopping, and a ferry ride back to the parking lot.

To be continued... on Kendra's blog.