2014/04/14

Keep digging

Have you ever gone deep into a project only to realize the scope is much larger than you thought?

Insidious leafy thing (no idea what it is)
It's spring cleanup time in my gardens. I've been doing battle with dandelions, creeping buttercup, sprouts from maple and holly, and various nameless weeds, including that insidious leafy thing that spreads like wildfire. For some time, I had been eyeing a "nice to do" but not "need to do" project. Yesterday, I needed a break from weeding. It was a gorgeous day. I had time. So I went for it.

After the major renovation 11 years ago that included demolition of a derelict detached garage and construction of the deck and carport, what had been a combination of lawn and junk in the back yard was nothing but an uneven mess of dirt and rocks. I started the long process of rehabilitation to turn that mess into the native plant habitat it is today. One thing I had to deal with was water running off the lane and into the yard beyond the carport pad. I didn't know at the time that this was due to a clogged street drain. I tried to kill two birds with one stone: accommodate the runoff and make a place for an abundance of rocks. So I created a "water feature"—a little stream that ended in a tiny pond. I built a little footbridge (just a few planks bound together, nothing fancy at all) over it. I filled it with rocks. It looked nice. Even after the runoff was fixed, I figured it was OK to have a dry faux-stream. Sweetie called it the wadi, because it was mostly dry but occasionally caught some water.

Early garden picture -- with rocks
Over time, however, more and more soil made its way between the rocks. Weeds inserted themselves and were difficult to dig up. The feature was no longer a feature but really a bit of a mess. So I finally decided to rehabilitate it.

The project started fine. I removed the footbridge and started to dig out the stream again. I made a pile of the rocks I was digging up and moved recovered soil to a few beds that really need it. When I got toward the "pond," however, I started to realize something. I had forgotten just how much rock was in this thing, not to mention how big the tiny pond really was. One pile of rocks turned into two, and the two started to merge. So many of the rocks are tiny. I kept taking breaks from the hot sun, but by mid-afternoon I realized I'd hit the wall. No more digging that day. And there were more rocks to go.

Sometimes I wonder if I really should have done a massive soil replacement and maybe rented that Cat to regrade the place (would have been fun to drive). The slow rehabilitation has mostly been successful, but the quantity of rocks in this poor excuse for soil is staggering.

I should be able to finish digging today. Then I think I'll put only the largest rocks back into the waterless feature. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with all the small ones. Make a heap in a place where nothing grows anyway, I suppose. What does one do with masses of stones that are too small for anything useful?

2014/04/06

Things we learned...

...and might do differently next time, for surely there must be a next time.

Pack what we need

We liked the idea of travelling as light as possible and getting a cheap suitcase over yonder to bring stuff back in. For many reasons, it didn't work out. First there was the problem with liquids and gels. We would have to seriously cut down on toiletries to be able to fit everything into a one-litre bag. Second, because Firenze was our first stop, and there's where we did most of our shopping, we had to buy the extra bag there (inexpensive ones near the railway station), which meant we had it with us in the car and on the train. And finally, I at least am just not that good at not having the clothes and accessories that I want. Firenze and Roma are stylish places. Although it's practical to dress very simply, I'm just not that into looking like a tourist. OK for Rick Steves, maybe, but not for me.

The same idea (with liquids somehow taken care of) might work better in the summer. As it was, we had to accommodate a wide range of weather phenomena. Spring is a very changeable time of year.

Parlo un po 'italiano

I imagine you can go pretty much anywhere in the world and get along at least to some extent without knowing the language of the place you're visiting. But it really helped us to know at least some Italian, thanks to Duolingo. Sweetie had quite a bit, and did quite well. I reached beginner Italian, and I had to settle for small victories of asking questions and getting answers, of understanding and being understood. We also did pretty well reading signs.

For whatever reason, I find that I really like the sound of Italian and the feel of it in my mouth. I want to keep learning. And use it again.

There weren't any horrible linguistic cock-ups, and only one teaching moment that I can remember. That was when, at the end of a long day, we ordered a pizza and a salad with the intention of sharing them. Sweetie told the waiter "per due," or something like that, intending to convey that the order was for both of us. Two salads and two pizzas arrived (which I'm afraid went down pretty easily). We used Google Translate to look up a word that remained important for the rest of the trip: condividere (to share). Google Translate isn't perfect, but it's pretty handy.

City mice

A lot of people, including many of our friends, would probably love to stay in a Tuscan farm house for a week or two. There is certainly some appeal in that, and we enjoyed the days when we got out into the country. But we are urbanites. We made full use for our three days in Firenze and could have used at least a day more. We could easily have used two more days in Roma. There's just more stuff happening in cities. I will say, however, that some of the best food we had was in Levanto, which although not tiny is by no means a city. So sometimes you will find great restaurants where you least expect them.

TripAdvisor is friend

We got some excellent restaurant advice from our hosts in Firenze. We said we wanted cusina tipica, and they directed us well. It turned out that they knew about the place that we stumbled upon (and went to twice). They simply hadn't thought that we would be likely to head in that direction. In Levanto, our host gave us a list of restaurants, but without much information. TripAdvisor definitely helped us there. And in Roma, our host suggested one place that was great and one that served us one of the least memorable meals of the trip. So we shall keep in mind that our host might not have the same taste in restaurants as we do. It was through TripAdvisor that we found the excellent restaurant where ate on our last night in Roma as well as the awesome panino place.

Speaking of TripAdvisor, it's definitely a better idea to consult first rather than post a bad review later. The trouble is, you probably need wifi to check it. Bar Due Ponti seemed like a reasonable lunch stop. It promised free wifi. The food was nothing special, but that's true of the little bars. But although the panino was only a little pricy, the beer cost almost €8 and a large but not that large pop cost even more. We were stunned! And the wifi barely worked. If we'd been able to check, we would have found dozens of reviews from people who had had very similar experiences there and who also wish they had checked TripAdvisor first. So be warned: do not go to Bar Due Ponti! And it's probably best to be careful of anywhere that's in the tourist areas.

For the love of money

Visa is lovely, but cash is still king. There are restaurants where you want to go that don't take credit cards. There are shops where the Visa machine is on the fritz. There are plenty of reasons to have euros in your wallet. Fortunately, we never had a problem using ATMs. The exchange rate was what it was and couldn't be helped, and the "ding" from our credit union wasn't bad. At least when you're getting it from an ATM, you can kind of keep track of your spending.

My left foot

The car we rented was a Fiat 500. It was smaller than our Subaru, but it held quite a lot of luggage in its hatch. I found it comfortable to drive. It was a five-speed standard, and I hadn't driven a standard since we sold our Honda Accord in 2002, but after one stall and a few times forgetting to clutch before I turned the key to start the car, I had no problem. I am glad, however, that I never had to hold it on a hill. I'm not sure how that skill has held up! The problem now is that even after more than a week back my left foot keeps wanting to find the clutch.

2014/04/04

The Pisa Fiasco

So we were driving from Firenze to Levanto on the A11. It was around lunchtime, and we were getting hungry. A friend had told us that Lucca was a good place to stop, but the exits came upon us before we made a decision. I think we hesitated because we wouldn't have known where to go. We should have taken that as a lesson.

I have never used a GPS before, but I felt that I should bow to technology in this case. We didn't have any detailed maps, so I thought a GPS would be prudent. The rental agency suggested that we get in-vehicle wifi instead since we had GPS and mapping capability in both an iPad and an iPhone. It cost less. We thought it was a good idea.

Sadly, neither the iPad GPS nor the one in the iPhone seemed to work as well as we had hoped. Same for Google Maps. They were fine at the macro level, but when it came to details, not so much.

Still, we thought we would brave Pisa. Using TripAdvisor, Sweetie had found what sounded like a really good Turkish restaurant. It was somewhere near the Torre Pendente, a.k.a. the Leaning Tower. We thought we should be able to navigate toward it. And yet it seemed that every time I made a turn, it was wrong, and we had to reset and try again. Pisa is full of one-way streets and "you can't get there from here" spots. Once I found myself driving toward a government area where cars weren't allowed, yet getting out of that area was not easy. We crossed the river in both directions several times trying to find our way, all while trying not to have any close encounters with Pisa drivers.

We were getting really hungry (and cranky), and our plans weren't working. We found ourselves heading back out of town toward the highway. I was thinking that we would not find any decent food if we kept going, so I decided to turn around and try again. And what happened? Almost a duplicate of what had happened the first time, including finding myself driving toward the government area. Every time I'd see a "Torre Pendente" sign with an arrow, I would not see another, and I'd be stuck. Unbelievable. It seemed that we just weren't going to solve the Pisa puzzle.

By this time, we were starving. I stopped at what seemed to be a place we could get panini, but they showed me some frozen items. Grazie, no. I kept driving, kept getting more and more lost, and finally found another bar. This time, there was fresh food to be had, pizza or panini. I ordered two panini to go, waited for a bit, and then brought the food to the car, where we decided that any food (and the panini were pretty good) was better than no food.

Having finally got lunch, we drove out of town again. We were stopped at a traffic light when we looked right. There, across several kilometres of open space, we could see the Torre. It was like a great big middle finger taunting us. I wish we could have snapped a picture, but traffic started moving again, and we lost the chance.

No Turkish food. A good hour and a half wasted. Stress levels high. But we found our way easily to the A12 (which runs toward Genova) and proceeded on our way. Maybe someday we'll see the tower up close and get some of that Turkish food. I have a feeling that the only way to do that easily is to go on a tour bus. At least then someone else has to navigate and drive.

2014/04/03

In-flight entertainment

The longest legs of our flights to and fron Italia were run by Delta and KLM. The planes had personal seat-back screens, same as Air Canada has. Not only are those far better to watch than shared drop-down screens; they also mean you don't get censored movies! And the selection was good in both directions. Ever since the demise of Blockbuster, Sweetie and I have fallen way behind on movies, so it was nice to do a bit of catch-up.

I always eliminate movies that would really suffer from watching on a tiny screen with the wrong aspect ratio. That meant that even though I would have liked to have seen Twelve Years a Slave and Gravity, there was no way I was going to try on an airplane. But a lot of movies run on dialogue, so those are the ones I favour.

I don't usually watch rom-coms, but for some reason I like to while flying. Maybe it's just a need for light entertainment. And I had been intrigued by trailers I saw for Enough Said, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (in his final role). I wasn't disappointed. It wasn't even really a rom-com, although there were comedic elements, as life has. It's the story of two older, divorced people who get together and the complications that result--mainly from Louis-Dreyfus's character, a maseuse, having Gandolfini's character's ex-wife (Catherine Keener) as a client. I liked how the script was purposely left a little messy. No neat tying up of all the loose ends. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini had a really good chemistry, and Keener and Toni Collette (best friend) were good in support. I might not have made the time to watch this if I weren't stuck on an airplane for several hours, but I'm glad I did watch it.

That was the only movie I saw on the way over. I slept a fair amount to try to get on Italian time. But on the way back, on the extra-long day, I watched three movies. Just got on a roll!

First was Inside Llewyn Davis. Sweetie and I had wanted to see this when we were stranded in Boston last winter, but we arrived just a bit too late for the start and so instead saw Philomena. But as a musician with some knowledge of the early 1960s folk music scene, I still wanted to see the film. It's by Joel and Ethan Coen and loosely based on a memoir by the late Dave Van Ronk, whom I once interviewed. Right from the start, I was drawn in. Llewyn is rather unlikeable, as has been noted elsewhere, yet I was still interested in his story. There's a lot more going on than you first know. Plus, Oscar Isaac is both a good singer and very easy on the eyes. It contains typical warped Coen humour while still showing a lot of heart. I loved this movie so much that I convinced Sweetie that we should get it on pay-per-view when we got home. I loved it even more the second time, and she was hooked as well.

With not much of a break, I then watched The Butler. This is the Lee Daniels film based (again, loosely) on the life of an actual White House butler. It's hard to go wrong with Forest Wittacker as the lead, but he is also well supported by Oprah Winfrey (wife), Cuba Gooding Jr. (friend), David Oyelowo (elder son), and even Clarence Williams III (although I thought Terrence Howard was a bit wasted as a philandering friend). And then there are the various presidents: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon. With Alan Rickman playing Ronald Reagan, you almost like the guy. It's a bit of a movie-of-the-week, but Daniels did delve into some of the darker and more difficult aspects of the story.

I finished up with The Heat, a cop buddy movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. It's silly and over the top, but it's supposed to be. I was thoroughly entertained, and I laughed out loud several times (something you probably shouldn't do on an airplane). Bullock is great as the uptight FBI special agent who eventually loosens up, and McCarthy is phenomenal as the foul-mouthed Boston native who breaks all the rules but gets the job done better than anyone else. Her dialogue is especially sharp as she repeatedly punctures the Bullock character's carefully crafted façade. As a women's comedy, Bridesmaids didn't really work for me. This one definitely did.

Think Sweetie will let me watch The Heat again?

2014/04/02

Planes, trains, an automobile, and some cabs and buses

Normally we book flights ourselves, but this time we enlisted the services of a travel agent in New Brunswick who was recommended by Sweetie's sister. She got us a really good return fare with only a little inconvenience. Delta and Air France on the way, KLM on the way back, but really the flights themselves were sometimes operated by different carriers because Delta and Air France and KLM and AirItalia are part of a code-share group.

To Firenze

Getting out of Vancouver proved to be more difficult than we had thought it would be. Friends had recommended that we travel as light as possible and not check luggage, which made sense. You don't want anything to get lost on your way to vacation. Our intention was to each have one roller carry-on and one backpack-sized under seat piece. Once in Italia we would buy a cheap bag and fill it with stuff we had bought and check that on the way back, because if a bag gets lost on the way home it's much less of a big deal. But you know how the best laid schemes o' mice and men oft gang aglay, especially when the Transportation Security Administration is involved.

We both know about putting liquids and gels in containers of no more than 100 ml each and then putting those into a resealable plastic bag. We've never had a problem with that before. But this time, maybe because of the Malaysia Air flight, they were strictly enforcing the one litre bag limit. Do you know how much a one litre bag holds? Pathetically little. We had to get out of line at security, redistribute some stuff between roller bags and soft bags, go back to check-in, check our rollers with liquids through to Firenze, and hope for the best. We were glad that at least we were early enough to handle this.

The first flight was to Minneapolis, where we had a layover of several hours (the price of saving money on the flights). We flew through Minneapolis two years ago on our way to New Orleans, but I hadn't remembered that the airport was as big as it is. It's quite nice, actually. There was so much shopping that I joked that they should have had a mall directory. And then I saw one! We had time for lunch (good salad bar in the food court) and even time for Sweetie to have her boots polished by a shoe shiner who entertained us with a story of a rich woman from Miami who was hitting on him to piss off her husband.

We finally left on time for the flight to Paris. I had already got some sleep on the first flight and I managed a little more on this one. They also fed us a couple of times, kind of like in the old days.

I wrote on Facebook that Aéroport Paris–Charles de Gaulle was horrible. Maybe it's not always, but it was for us. We had an hour and a half between landing and our flight to Firenze, which seemed like plenty. But as we walked down Terminal 1 toward 2G, we hit a security checkpoint. Really? We wouldn't have been on that flight if we hadn't already been cleared, but here was another. It took a good half hour to wend our way through the lineup so our stuff could get X-rayed again. We then had to go outside. Outside is secure? We were put on a shuttle bus that twisted and turned up hill and down dale and around a loop until we finally disembarked outside 2G. If you look on CDG maps, you probably won't see a 2G. That's because it's not finished. The building was clearly still under construction. We went through a lineup to have our passports chopped (stamped with a visa), then quickly walked up a flight of stairs and down a long corridor. An airport worker had told us that boarding for our flight had already closed, but it seemed to me that we had enough time, and I was right (she was referring to another flight). At the "gate," we waited in a clump for a few minutes, then went outside (again) to get on another shuttle specifically for our flight. Sweetie said, "It looks like we're going back to where we were." Sure enough, we went around the loop and twisted and turned up hill and down dale until we were back outside Terminal 1, whence we walked across the tarmac to board our small regional jet for Firenze. It was positively Kafkaesque.

Your mileage may vary, but I have to wonder how it would, considering the weird way in which CDG is laid out.

The flight from Paris to Firenze was blessedly uneventful. Once there in the small airport, it took a while for our bags to show up, but show up they did. We then took a fixed-price cab directly to our hotel. We knew that was the only sure way for us to get there at that point.

While we were in Firenze, we walked everywhere. We logged many kilometres a day, and did get a bit foot and leg sore at times, but Firenze is mostly flat, and it really felt great. Plus we had to get the only exercise we could to offset all the wonderful food we were eating.

I love the top deck of a double-decker bus
For our day trip to San Gimignano, we took a regional bus. We knew the bus station was near the main train station, Santa Maria Novella, and we had plenty of time, so we walked there through neighbourhoods somewhat west of where we had already been, which was fun. We walked by the Mercato Centrale, an absolutely enormous market, both indoors and outdoors, just as people were setting up. Once at SMN, we were a bit lost. Fortunately, there was an information place across the street. We were directed to the right bus station in time to buy our return tickets to San Gimi. We rode out of the city and through the Tuscan countryside on top of a double-decker bus to Poggibonsi, where we changed to a smaller bus for the short hop to San Gimi. Coming home, we did the reverse, minus the double-decker (not that time). It was all pretty smooth.

It was late afternoon by the time we were back at SMN. Our legs were tired, so we decided to wait for the #12 bus, which we knew ran down our street. We also knew that it made a big counterclockwise loop around the city. What we didn't know was that the loop is really big, and we were at about 9 o'clock while our hotel was at 12. It's too bad it got dark while we were travelling, because we could have had a great tour of the Oltrarno. We did get a nice view of city lights looking north from the Parco Bardini. I think we will always remember the phrase "Prossima fermata" (next stop), since we went through so many of them. I think it took us about 45 or 50 minutes to get home, about twice what it would have taken had we walked. An adventure in public transit!

Firenze to the coast

It's possible to get from Firenze to Levanto by train, but it would have been slow and difficult, so we rented a car to drive there. The only car rental places are at the airport, so we had a cab take us out there. We might have been able to do it on a bus by that point, but also by that point we had an extra bag with stuff we'd bought, so a cab seemed like a better idea. The driver took us to the aiport terminal, and when we said we needed car rental, which, duh, wasn't at the terminal itself (I should have thought of that), he laughed and laughed at the silly touriste but was nice enough to take us to the other side of the autostrada, laughing all the way.

Hilltop village seen from the A12
The drive to Levanto was my first time becoming part of Italian traffic madness. Fortunately, most of the driving was on the autostrade (A11 and A12). But that was its own kind of adventure. No leisurely passing! There are people not even in sight when you shift to the left lane who will be on your ass at 150 km/h in half a second. I learned how to pass quickly. Driving the narrow hill roads in and around Levanto was an adventure too. I felt so Italian when I passed a Piaggio Ape (slow three-wheeled pickup truck) going uphill with just enough visibility. Sweetie almost had a heart attack. By the time I drove back to Firenze, I was totally in the Italian road groove, except for the 150 km/h part. I kept it to 120 or less.

For our first visit to the Cinque Terre from Levanto, we took the train. It runs right along the coast and through several tunnels. You have to make sure you take the right one so that it stops where you want to stop, but for the most part it was easy peasy. Electric train, by the way. No diesel smoke.

Some roads lead to Rome

After we drove back to Firenze, we cabbed from the airport to the train station. We hadn't done quite enough planning and so weren't sure which train to take, but we opted for Italo, the private line, which was an express train straight to the station in Roma. We're pretty sure TrenItalia would have taken us a lot longer. The Italo train travelled at 250 km/h for most of the way. Never gone that fast on land before! It was quite comfortable, although there were a lot of tunnels, so the wifi was pretty inconsistent, and slow anyway. Boy, are we spoiled! Once in Roma, we opted for a cab again. We might have managed that trip on the metro, but again, when you don't know where you're going, it's probably best for someone who does to take you there.

We walked a lot in Roma as we had in Firenze, but we also used the metro, which is quite a nice subway system, if not yet very extensive. There are two lines that run roughly perpendicular to each other and apparently one more still under construction. When you build anything in Roma, you often have to slow way down to allow archaeologists to do the digging first.

If we had booked a shuttle earlier, we could have saved some money going to the airport to leave, but we listened to our host who spoke of a car service and didn't think that we should have done better. Still, the car was convenient, and we didn't have to wake up as early as we would have to get on the shuttle.

Security in Roma was fast and efficient. Seriously! The flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. Schiphol Airport is pretty nice but quite spread out. We grabbed some lunch and then went through the place to get our passports chopped again. We were supposed to be at our gate an hour before departure, which seemed like a lot to me. Close to that time, I ran off to get some espresso. By the time I had returned, Sweetie had all our stuff with her in a lineup. Security right at the gate! That explained the hour. We had to move from one waiting area through X-rays and porno-scanners (not sure if opt-out was even possible) and then into another waiting area.

The flight went fine. KLM knows how to do things. It was long enough for me to watch three movies. But that's the subject of another post.

2014/04/01

Pushing the customs limit

We went to Italia for lots of reasons. One was to see sights, of course. Another was to eat great food. But one more was definitely to do a bit of shopping.

Florentines make shoes. They make leather handbags and other leather goods. They make all kind of things. This makes me feel very ashamed of the fact that almost no one in Canada makes shoes. At least some people do make handbags, leather and otherwise, as well as clothes and jewellery and other items. In Italia, however, it seems pretty normal to have goods made there. There are artisan shops everywhere. Here, artisans often struggle to compete with cheap goods imported from low-wage countries. Maybe Italians appreciate quality more than a low price tag? Maybe they buy fewer, better things and keep them longer? I really hope we can get there.

In the meantime, I was happy to take advantage of Italian workmanship. I bought this super cute pair of spring booties, leather with zippers and a stacked leather heel. They were made right in the city. Sweetie and I bought soft leather Italian-made handbags at the Mercato Nuovo, for a good price. She also bought a flowy top and skirt as well as some sandals, locally designed and made.

We also gave a lot of business to a shop that sold tops and hosiery by Philippe Matignon. I thought it was a French company, judging by the name, but apparently it's based in Italia. I don't know where the items are made (failed to check!), but man, the tights I bought are excellent. I love Hue tights, which I get at Hudson's Bay, but these were better, and seem to be more durable. Time will tell. I would love to find more.

It was easy to get inspired to find nice things. We saw a lot of great street style in Firenze, both women and men. And a lot of menswear shops to help the men look better. We saw good style in Roma as well, a bit more businesslike, less edgy. In my mind, Firenze is like Montreal, Roma like New York. I have always loved how Montréalaises create their own style, and we saw a similar thing in Firenze.

One thing was odd, though. We had read that Italians dress for the season, not the weather, and we definitely saw that in Firenze. It wasn't yet all that warm, but even on nice days, a lot of people were still wearing puffy coats and scarves and things that looked quite wintery. It's true that mornings were chilly, but they must have been rather uncomfortable by the time they went home from work. Almost always when we saw people dressed more for the weather, they were tourists. Like us.

2014/03/31

Mangiamo!

When Sweetie and I go out to eat, we rarely choose Italian. I make pretty good pasta dishes at home, and I've learned to make good polenta. I make my own pesto genovese. Going out for Italian never seemed to be that much of a treat.

That is likely to change, but only if we can find restaurants that do it right.

It's rather silly to talk about "Italian food," or even "northern" and "southern." Those categories are just too general, or else they indicate that the restaurant is serving a broad variety of more-or-less Italian dishes. I always knew that Italia is a country of distinct regions. It was unified only 140 years ago. Now I know even more that regional Italian cooking is about a lot more than north and south.

Toscano

Wherever we stayed, we sought out restaurants that served cucina tipica of the region or even of the province. In Firenze that meant food of Toscano or even specifically of Firenze. We never did try Bistecca alla Fiorentina, which is a huge mass of rare T-bone steak (way too much for us), but we partook of as much other Tuscan food as we could.

One place that our concierge had recommended was Osteria Santo Spirito in the piazza of the same name. We went there for lunch on our first full day in the city. And it was there that I made a very pleasant discovery: ribollita. A soffrito base, bread, canellini, "black cabbage" (Lacinto kale)—this was so my kind of soup! Some might dismiss it as peasant food, but for me that's a plus. It means simple ingredients and lots of flavour that is very satisfying. Osteria Santo Spirito served a lovely ribollita. That and some house wine were enough for lunch for me.

Perseus had also been recommended. They featured Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but instead I went for a fillet steak that was beautiful, tender, and probably the most flavourful steak I've ever had. The seasoning was superb! And beef always needs some generous seasoning because, unlike pork, it doesn't have a lot of flavour. I enjoyed that steak very much, and there was enough to share with Sweetie.

The best food we had in Firenze came from another "stumble upon," like the Museo Galileo. We were walking on a narrow street on our way to the synagogue when we noticed a restaurant called Acquacotta with lots of Trip Advisor recommendations and a very interesting menu. We went there for dinner. As we often did, we shared dishes so we wouldn't end up with too much food. We had their version of ribollita, which was even more flavourful than the one at Osteria Santa Spirito. We followed that with wild boar in a sauce with porcini mushrooms with polenta, a beautifully flavourful dish. We loved Acquacotta so much that we went back on our last night in Firenze.

We also had lunch in San Gimignano at La Mandragola. This was a fairly high-end, gourmet kind of place, but quite affordable at lunch. They served "elevated" Tuscan food done very well. Truffles were involved.

Liguria

Toscano has become so popular over the last number of years that by now most people are probably at least somewhat familiar with Tuscan cuisine and not just the "red sauce" form of Italian cooking. But how many people know the cuisine of Liguria? Or even that Liguria exists?

Liguria is a narrow province in the north of Italia bounded by mountains and the sea. This is the Italian Riviera, but away from resorts and the capital city of Genova it's quite a rustic area of fishing and terrace farming. The cuisine features seafood as well as boar and other meats. It also features one bit of Ligurian cuisine that most people probably are familiar with: pesto genovese made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil.

Our first night in Levanto, we walked into L'Articiocca like drowned rats, having walked down the wrong street in the pouring rain for quite a way before realizing it was the wrong street. Clara, who I think is the owner, made us very welcome. We had chosen L'Articiocca from Trip Advisor because it featured fresh, local, and organic ingredients when possible, which sounded great. We started that evening with a typical Ligurian appetizer, gattafin, triangular ravioli stuffed with a vegetable-herb mixture, deep fried, and topped with a boar sauce. We were hooked already! Then came one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. We had ordered pasta with pesto, and the menu promised that it was made fresh in a mortar and pestle. What we didn't know was that Clara was going to make it right before our eyes. It was a pesto making ritual, and it sent shivers of delight through my body and throughout my olfactory system. Glorious! And the taste was even better. It was served in the traditional way with a small eggless pasta mixed with boiled potatoes and flat green beans. You might think we couldn't follow that with anything, but the rabbit sausage in saffron sauce was equal to the task.

We had to go back again. After our day in the Cinque Terre, we were ready to warm up with comforting Ligurian food. I thought it was kind of dangerous. When you've had an awesome experience, it's tempting to try to make it happen again, and often disappointing because it was a one-time thing. But if anything, L'Articiocca upped the ante. When we walked in, Clara greeted us like old friends with an embrace and kisses on both cheeks. She then brought us glasses of Prosecco. The best champagne is usually wasted on me, but I've grown fond of Prosecco. This time, we started with crozetti, a disk-shaped pasta served with basil and pine nuts (a sort of deconstructed pesto), followed by the catch of the day, which was a whole John Dory. Clara brought us the fish when it was finished and then was kind enough to take it back to the kitchen to separate meat from skin and bone and return us the fillets. It was a beautiful mild fish in an orange and wine sauce. As if that weren't enough, we asked what the vegetable was that day. First beautiful asparagus of the season!

We're now on the hunt for Ligurian food here in Vancouver. I found one place. I hope it's any good!

Lazio

The cuisine of Roma and the surrounding region of Lazio is quite different than either Tuscan or Ligurian food. When we say "Mediterranean diet," we mean something more like those last two—light, with olive oil, not too much pasta, and lots of veggies. The food in Lazio has richer flavours, more meat fat and stock. Probably less virtuous! We had three great meals in Roma.

The first was at Da Vito e Dina, a family-run osteria in our neighbourhood. Sweetie and I shared a primo of fettuccini with mushrooms. I had expected a tomato-based sauce but instead this was a rich sauce that seemed to be mushroom-based with perhaps some meat stock. Our secundo was Saltimbocca, a dish of veal and prosciutto that couldn't be more typically Roman. It was delicious! We finished with a panna cotta that was smooth and lovely.

The second great meal was a simple lunch the next day after our exhausting tour of the Vatican. Panino Divino is a tiny, very popular place also in our neighbourhood. We were fortunate to get there during a slight lull. They make panini—great panini. I was drawn there by the promise of porchetta, simple and bursting with flavour. Sweetie had a panino with prosciutto, cheese, and a chili jam that was also amazing. If we had a place like this nearby, I'd eat at least one panino a day. I would love to work my way through the dozen or so varieties they serve. And at €5 for a panino and a pop, it was one of the bargains of the trip.

We finished our stay in Roma with a meal at Osteria Delle Commari, an elevated version of local food. It's a lot like places we go to here: fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, including wines sourced in the surrounding region. We started with our new favourite Prosecco. We decided to order two primi instead of a primo and a secundo. We split a house special, gnocchetti with clams and shaved truffles, as well as an order of rigatoni alla carbonara, a very typical regional dish. The gnocchetti dish was beautiful and subtly flavoured, while the carbonara was bold and satisfying. The last time I made carbonara, it didn't come out well, so I'm going to have to work on that. We paired it with a bottle Viognier, not exactly a typical Italian grape, but I saw it on the list, and it came from a winery in Lazio just to the south. It was excellent! We finished the meal with a torta made with ricotta and cherries.

Nature's perfect food

Did we have pizza as well? Oh yes we did. Of the new pizza places in Vancouver, we have been only to Pizzeria Barbarella, which makes thin(ish)-crust pizzas with great toppings—a bit more New York than Napoli, and very delicious. After this trip, I have a feeling we're going to be able to go only to places like that and Via Tevere. What usually passes for pizza in these parts just isn't going to cut it, unless I can mentally call it something else.

Edi House was just a few blocks from where we were staying in Firenze, and we went twice. They make all kinds of food, but their pizza is really good. Very thin crust, great toppings, although don't pile on too many (the Savonarella, named after the mad monk, tended to get a bit soggy). We also hit a place for lunch in the Oltrarno. We can't remember its name, but we do remember that the pizza was yummy. We had one pizza lunch in Levanto at La Piscea, the number one Levanto restaurant on Trip Advisor. They made only pizza, and it was excellent. A slightly thicker crust than in Firenze, with very creative toppings. Ours had pesto on it, of course.

There actually was some pizza more like we get at home, as well as some Sicilian pizza. These were at in the little "bars" that sold pizza by the slice, so it couldn't be the thin crust stuff that has to be eaten right away. I suppose I should have tried some just for research, but I never did. I imagine it was decent at least, but now I'm kind of hooked on Neapolitan style. Might a trip to Napoli be in our future?

Panem et circenses

A quick note on bread. I had already known that you don't butter bread in Italia. You dip it in a good olive oil, possibly with balsamic vinegar as well. In Italian restaurants, we would usually be brought not just bread but condiments as well.

The bread in Toscano was, without exception, curiously bland, as in no salt. In fact, I saw people put not just olive oil but salt as well on the bread, and we took to doing the same. They make bread with no salt! I mean, it works, but it seems weird.

The bread in Liguria was more as we expected. They also make brown bread. It was all quite good! We would dip it in olive oil, but it didn't need salt. Some of it didn't need oil! The bread in Roma was also quite good, and there was more than one variety.

Vino divino

One more note, on wine. With the exception of the bottle at Osteria Delle Commari and a glass at a mediocre Roman restaurant that shall remain nameless, we drank house wine. In this country, that implies an inferior wine. Not so in Italia, where the house wine is something they are proud of. And yet it's relatively inexpensive. We'd get a half litre of red or white for about €6 at most, and it would be really good.

Cincin!