Well that's it for 2016 folks. It has been a hoot and a half, that's for sure. I highly doubt that the next year will be able to live up to the last, so many happy things defined my 2016: getting married, seeing my dearest friends and family altogether in Italy, getting married...! And as you probably know, we closed it off with a bang: the blog won the BEST NEW BLOG award from Italy Magazine! This is truly, madly, deeply, one of the greatest honors that an expat in Italy blogger like myself can be given and I'm really so happy, even more so with the fact that maybe we will have more exposure and I can get to connect with more of you living abroad, living in Italy, or dreaming of doing the former two. In the end, that was my greatest hope for the blog, to put our shared experiences into words and help prepare others for the journey! Speaking of journeys, I just came back from one yesterday. Massi and I spent "capodanno" (which technically is the first day of the year because it comes from "capo d'anno", but is typically used to refer to New Year's Eve celebrations) in Ferrara, Italy, a city in the region of Emilia-Romagna. Ferrara is actually reknowned for its New Year's Eve festivities, mainly for the iconic "incendio del castello" (castle-on-fire) where a wonderful fireworks display is coordinated around the Castello Estense in the center of the city. It involves not only traditional fireworks being shot-off from the four towers, but also a cascade of fireworks that pours over the castle walls- combined with smoke and flashing lights, it really seems like the castle is "on fire".
We spent the first part of the afternoon walking aimlessly around the city which usually results in us somehow hitting all the major sights and landmarks anyways, one of which is the building above, Palazzo dei Diamanti (referencing diamonds for obvious reasons). This building is particular stunning to see in person, the play of lights and angles is amazing considering it was conceived in 1493. It started to get rather chilly (for Italy) as the sun set, so we took that as indication to huddle in a streetfood kiosk (called Take Eat Easy) with some ice-cold IPA. We then started the arduous task of trying to find somewhere to eat. For New Year's Eve, Italians typically participate in what is called a "cenone" which is just a way to say "big, important dinner". This usually involves going out or staying in with your friends and eating an excessive amount which is like every other Friday night in Italy anyways, so what's the big deal you ask? Probably that if you go out, restaurants have a set menu and start taking reservations in advance. So armed with this knowledge, of course we waited until hours before to start asking around to make a reservation...with zero luck. Every restaurant in Ferrara was AL COMPLETO, FULLY BOOKED. It got to the point where restaurants were putting up makeshift signs so they wouldn't have to repeat it to the umpteenth clueless tourist. We were completely at a loss and contemplating having a kebab when a miracle happened. We were able to secure a table for two at a Chinese restaurant just steps from the castle. If you asked our fellow Italian diners, they would probably tell you it was a horrendous experience, but I, on the other hand, found it delightful. The restaurant had managed to jam in another forty people in its basement, with no emergency exit and no way of even walking between tables. The food was late and didn't follow a particular order, the waiters had no idea what was happening, and only one employee (the restaurant owner's son) spoke Italian. But, we ended up paying 20 Euros a person and the wine was unlimited. Let me repeat, the wine was UNLIMITED. So Massi and I had a grand ole' time, watched the fireworks happy as two clams, and danced until I couldn't take anymore Euro dance music (circa an hour is about my limit). I apologize, the photos are in reverse (so as you scroll down, you'll see the start of our trip).
This post has been a long time coming which I apologize for, but in all the havoc the weeks leading up to the wedding, entertaining out-of-town guests, and then jetting off on our African honeymoon, I had absolutely zero free time to write about the latest and greatest food (well, beer) tour that I went on. This is the second of the official Milan Food Tours that I've taken, the first you can read about here: The Absolute Best Tour You Can Take in Milan: MILAN FOOD TOUR.
So I had the brilliant idea of doing the Beers and Bites Tour with all my Canadian friends who had arrived the weekend before the wedding in Milan, I thought it would be the perfect low-key pseudo-bachelorette/welcome to Italy shindig, and I did I ever hit the nail on the head! We ended having a private tour, in the sense that there was no one else except my girlfriends and I that had signed-up. This was ideal for us, but I can definitely say a shame for everyone else. The Beers and Bites option is new and hasn't quite got up to speed in popularity with the traditional food tour but it should not be overlooked. I think it's a fantastic way to spend a non-traditional evening in Milan if you're not overly familiar with the city. It's essentially a great way to get a buzz and have someone to hold your hand, guiding you through the maze of Italy's up-and-coming craft beer scene (while also supervising you so no one ends up in the canal from one too many!).
The tour starts off as all tours do, with a meet and greet with the guide and as you'll see in the first photo above, the girls were all stoked about ours. I feel terrible, but I've completely drawn a blank on his name during the moment of writing this. I really want to say that it was Marcello or Luca, but then again, I think every Italian man is named Marcello thanks to the million times I've watched "Under the Tuscan Sun". Anyways, names aside, ours was STELLAR. He did the tour in English, naturally, and just had a wonderfully laid-back nature about him. He wasn't overly oppressive like some guides can be, nor annoyed or condescending when we asked for the umpteenth selfie or photo of the evening or when we asked a hundred non-beer-related questions. My friends visiting from Canada commented on this afterwards and particularly appreciated the fact that he was conscious of letting us girls catch-up with each other during the tour.
The photos above are from the first stop where the brewing company was named "Minchia"- want to know the meaning of that? Take the tour to find out! I'm not going to describe in detail each beer or bite, also because being on the smaller side, I'm not sure I can even remember past beer #3 which is always an excellent indicator of how much fun I had. I should mention that what's great about doing a beer tour in any European city like Milan is that you can take your beer with you as you wander around, so it's not that you're required to throw back an entire beer in a manner of minutes each time. I think there's no beating a warm summer day and an ice cold beer in hand while you take in the sights and sounds of one of Italy's most underrated cities. I say this because every time I take a Milan Food Tour, I find myself enjoying Milan more and more. Your guide will weave you in and out of nooks and crannies that you'd never find on your own and that's the beauty of doing these tours.
I'm not a beer expert by any means, but I'm definitely a food expert. I mean, eating expert. And the "bites" on this tour were beyond expectations. My favourite was the little cone of seafood (below) we each got to nibble on as we perused the crowds along Darsena. The fish came from Milan's seafood market, often said to be the best in Europe, it supplies some of the biggest names and Michelin-starred restaurants across the unofficial capital of finery.
The tour lasted from 5pm until past sundown, to be honest, we all lost track of the time. Our guide was ever so kind and at the end of it, even called around to his favourite Milan restaurants to get us a table. I'm consistently impressed by the hospitality shown by the Milan Food Tour hosts and this was just a small gesture that really translates into much more for anyone visiting the city, whether it's your first or fiftieth time. Another plus of the Beer and Bites Tour is that it's a nice combination of walking and the occasional sit-down, it's not overly heavy in history-book facts, which I prefer. It's really, truly how a beer tour should be: laid-back, informal, and loads of fun. Even my girlfriends who don't like beer, loved this tour. I'll sign-off now and leave a smattering of photos. Go to the website by clicking on the hyperlink you have any specific questions about the Milan Food Tours or the Beers and Bites Tour. Cin cin!
This post is a bit delayed, I had written it almost three weeks ago and I'm only getting around to posting it now. I will also be doing a wedding post, a Milan tour post, and a honeymoon post, so keep checking back in the next few weeks!
I know I said I’d be good about posting new content every Friday, but turns out when you’re two weeks out from your wedding, there’s very little time leftover after tastings, meetings, and table planning!
So I’m back at work, August vacation is over (mine was not overly extensive since I only took a week off) and most Italians are slowly coming out of their beach-induced comas to re-start the dreadful countdown to the next vacation. I suppose that would be Christmas which truthfully, is not that far away.
For Ferragosto this year, we had our traditional day out in the mountains of Abruzzo. You can even check out last year’s post here: Ferragosto in Abruzzo's Mountains
We always stay in Pacentro, a town nestled into the mountains overlooking Sulmona and made famous by the fact that Madonna’s family is from here. The day of Ferragosto is always one that reminds more of something Canadian than Italian- we spent the entire day camped out in the open air with a fire, blankets to lay down on, and enough food to feed a small village.
We didn’t move much from Pacentro during our five days there, but one day we did feel compelled to check out the #1 thing to see in Abruzzo according to TripAdvisor: Rocca Calascio. It’s a fortress on the very top of a mountain and apparently considered the highest in the Apennines at an elevation of 1, 460 metres. It was simply stunning and made me feel like I was coming up to a Game of Thrones set. I’ve included photos but just know that they do not do justice at all to the sensation you get stumbling up the cliffs and looking down at the drop on either side (this would absolutely never be allowed in Canada, it’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen).
The other place we went to (on our 8 year anniversary), was Ortona. We essentially picked it out of a hat but in the end, it turned out to be more destiny than odd luck- Ortona was the site of a significant battle during the second World War between the Germans and Canadians. Canada eventually came out victorious, but not after losing a huge number of young soldiers, some that even came from Alberta. In the morning we went to the seaside and the afternoon we spent at the Moro River Canadian War Cemetery. I was extremely emotional seeing all the graves of sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers who would never return home to Canada again. There were even some engravings that said ‘resting in Italy but living on in Canada’. We did a very quick tour of the town center before going back to Pacentro- the last photo above is of the preparations in progress for an "antichi sapori" event taking place that evening.
After heading home to Bergamo, we spent the weekend out on the motorcycle, first touring Monza’s Ville Reale (on a very, very rainy day) and then heading to Bellagio on Lake Como.
We just got back from a day in Rome yesterday. I say “day” because we left Bergamo Sunday morning, arrived in Rome for noon and left promptly 24 hours later. To say it was a whirlwind trip doesn't do it justice. I would also love to say that the motive for the trip was food as is most things I do in this life, but unfortunately that wouldn't be true either. We went to check off yet another bureaucratic fun task- the attaining of a nulla osta (yes another one, they love these things) for our wedding. This entails going to the Embassy of Canada in Rome and presenting a book-size folder of documents procured from your prior Canadian home essentially saying you've never been married at any time between the ages of 16 and your current age, then you have to swear it, then you have to show proof of actually being Canadian and of actually having a real-life Italian that wants to marry you. But enough of that, very boring indeed, suffice to say that we are now in possession of this magical nulla osta that gets us one step closer to getting married here in Italy.
I know what you really want to hear- what did I eat. Well ladies and gents, Massi and I had the opportunity to take one of the tours offered by The Roman Food Tour. We took what was probably one of the most popular, if not the most classic- concentrated around the historical center and featuring stops at The Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. As background information, I should disclose that this was my fourth international food tour, the previous being The Greenwich Village and NoLita tours in New York City, as well as the Milan Food Tour. Hence, I'm getting pretty well-versed in food tours. It's a hard job, but someone's gotta do it right?
The Roman Food Tour: Wine and Food Tour in the Historical Center
The Roman Food Tour is a 4-hour walking tour that promises you'll eat like the Gods and learn some cocktail party pleasers along the way. Our group had about 15 people in it, I thought the size was good because hey, the more the merrier. Food tours in general are always a good time because everyone is on vacation and typically chatty and wine-happy. This particular tour has five stops. The meeting point is at Antica Salumeria, a stone's throw away from the mythical Pantheon. Our guide was Raluca, an expat herself to Rome which I always find to be an endearing touch to tours. They often know even more about Italy than the Italians because they've had to learn the ropes themselves and they bring a mix of local/expat insight to the table. Raluca is very kind and approachable and was filled with 'did you knows' about everything from the origin of the handshake (the Romans invented it) to the way to distinguish artisan gelato from 'artisan' gelato.
Our first stop consisted of speciality coffee and introductions where I absent-mindedly ordered water, having already prepared my tastebuds for something less coffee-flavored and more alcohol-flavored. I ended up stealing most of Massi's delicious coffee granita:
Next, we tackled aperitivo time back at Antica Salumeria. There was almost a slight guffaw here when the waiters gave us plastic glasses for our Frascati, a delicate DOC white wine produced in the province of Lazio where Rome is found. This perhaps wouldn’t bother anyone since most of us are just wanting to get the bottles popping and the good times rollin’, but I could see the rare wine enthusiast get a bit squirmy on this topic. The spread of affetati (cold cuts of different cured and cooked meats) and cheeses was extraordinary. You are first presented with pieces of mozzarella di bufala; the creaminess and slight sweetness of the buffalo’s milk is both an olfactory and gustatory experience. It goes down much too easily between sips of Frascati. You then have your choice (dangerous) of a variety of Italian cured meats and cheeses, all hand-picked of course by the tour and cut fresh. Don’t miss out on the coppa di testa. I won’t translate it for you, but it’s marvelous and not an intuitive choice that most tourists would make themselves.
The next stop is Hotel Fontana, directly across from the Trevi Fountain and arguably the star of the whole show. You’ll climb up to the top of the hotel where a jaw-dropping view of the fountain awaits. It’s undoubtably a hidden gem that if not priceless, is more than worth the tour cost itself to get a reserved table there. If the view was the star of the show, the wine wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. While you pity all the cramped tourists below, you’ll sip on the finest wines Italy has to offer like a queen. Our samples included a 2010 Barolo and an Amarone della Valpolicella. The Barolo is to die for, as is the black truffle spread and 100 year old balsamic vinegar from Modena that you’ll taste to accompany the wines.
“Dinner” is a tris of pasta just a short walk from Hotel Fontana, again partnered with a yummy wine that I absolutely forgot to note the name of. The atmosphere in the restaurant is rather unique- the walls are covered with drawings and the first floor filled to the brim with tourists. This stop is the weakest link on the tour in my opinion but Rome may be to blame for this one. Being so tourist-centric, you very typically have to be in the know and get out of the historical center to eat a decent dish of pasta. Every terrible plate of pasta I’ve had in my 8 years experience of Italy has been in Rome and unfortunately this one didn’t break the pattern. After Ranluca finished her speech about the joys of pasta and the importance of the al dente concept, we were given three different types of pasta that were probably cooked another 20 minutes past the point of al dente. To be honest, it was similar to something one might get from Olive Garden or any Italian food chain in North America. Was this a one-off? It’s possible. Did the other tourists on the tour (a mix of British and Americans) realize? Not sure. I think if you had travelled anywhere else prior to Rome, the chances are very high that you’d have already experienced a really good plate of pasta. If you hadn’t and Rome was your first stop, well ignorance is bliss in this case.
Our final stop on the tour was at Pompi, said to be home to one of the city’s best tiramisu. There are now four of them in Rome but this one is conveniently located near the Spanish Steps. You get a choice of different spins on the classic, or you could just go for the original which is what I did…sorry I don’t have a photo of the tiramisu, it was literally in my belly within five minutes. It comes in an adorable little box like takeaway and is a cute idea which enables you to enjoy it wherever you please during your evening in Roma. The Spanish Steps would be ideal however they are currently being renovated so best to have a backup backdrop for devouring your dessert.
The view of the Trevi Fountain and the wines served at this stop are the stuff dreams are made of. The guide is knowledgable and entertaining and you definitely get your money’s worth of food and friends at the end of it all. (The negatives section below looks way longer than the positives but it's just because I had a bit of explaining to do, list-wise, the positives would far outrun the negatives!).
Our tour was slightly rushed at some points and I'm not sure of where the culprit might be, whether we were slow eaters or we got off on the wrong foot while waiting for our colossal meat and cheese boards at Antica Salumeria (they took awhile to arrive). This was not a problem at all for the group, I think everyone was fairly oblivious to this however, as an Italian-speaker, it was quite blatant to me that there was some tension at our stop at the Hotel Fontana. The fellow there gave our poor tour guide a berating for being late, responded to her questions rather rudely and all in all was clearly in a hurry to get us to leave ASAP. I must emphasize, this was not the fault of the tour but it created a feeling of inhospitality for anyone who might happen to understand Italian (or body language really).
This tour is perfect, in my opinion, for first-timers to Rome because you get a sampling of everything from food to culinary facts to sight-seeing. You will leave wiser and a few pounds heavier!
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Find and book The Roman Food Tour here: http://foodtourrome.com/
This past weekend, Massi and I woke up at 4am to board a bus to Assisi in the region of Umbria. This was my first church trip as we went with the other couples from our marriage course and our priest, Don Stefano. After having spent so many hours with these couples, we've slowly been building a relationship with each other that hopefully will endure past the course and continue as we build marriages and families. The region of Umbria is probably my second favorite after Tuscany, it is very similar, perhaps even more lush and green. We spent the Saturday visiting the Church of St. Francis, stopping just for a quick gelato (beer in our case!) in the afternoon and dinner, before heading to see the musical Chiara di Dio which spoke of the life of St. Clare. I have not been "officially" Catholic for long, I went through the RCIA process a few years ago but it's just such a soul-stirring experience to actually be following in the footsteps of the people I had learnt about and read about in books, to look out over the Umbrian hills and know that Francesco (St. Francis in English) once had the same view...To say a prayer in Clare's courtyard where she would have prayed in peace among flowers and under the bright blue sky. All I can say about Assisi is go. Go especially if you're contemplating God, or feeling a void in your heart, I guarantee you will find the former and fill the latter.
Milan has long been far from my favourite city, but I'm starting to bump her up on my list slowly but surely. Especially after Tuesday when I was introduced to her charm by a friend and local, Tiziana. It's actually quite a small world as Tiziana moved from Milan to Canada so we share not only the ability to annoyingly switch languages with each other, but also the awareness of cultural nuances in both countries. We took the train in from Bergamo, specifically to see Da Vinci's rendering of The Last Supper which is really like a dinner at a coveted Milanese restaurant because you absolutely need reservations and you must make them a great deal in advance. The Last Supper is haunting and also a bit sad in the state that it's in (despite having being recently restored)- sometimes seeing art like this, the fading colors, the cracks, reminds me of time and the slow decomposition of beauty. On the flip side, I guess we must think to use this knowledge and really luxuriate in the beauty of every moment, as it's fleeting, unless it's art done by fresco, in which case, it will last a very long time. Surprisingly the best part of the day (next to the two gelato stops we made), was La Vigna di Leonardo (Leonardo's Vineyard) which can be found right across from The Last Supper. A ten Euro ticket gets you into a wonderfully well-kept villa (belonging to a family of which the name escapes me) and in the backyard, in the middle of bustling Milan, you'll find a small vineyard growing the exact grape variety that was once gifted and curated by Leonardo when he lived in the city. Spring is upon us here in Italy, the pink blossoms on the magnolia trees and the sweetness of almond flowers are everywhere. Oh, and so are the lemons...on Dolce and Gabbana purses, dresses, and shoes that is.
The other side is Italy in case you didn't get my awesome Adele reference. Anyways I'm baaaccckkkkkkk! It's 6am over here and this clearly means I have jet-lag because this is an un-godly hour. I officially arrived on Friday afternoon and made the absolute worst 'brutta figura' at the airport, it was really quite embarrassing. As I'm on a mission impossible of trying to migrate my entire Canadian book collection overseas, I was travelling with two large suitcases, my rolling carry-on, and a backpack. In the past, at Linate airport in Milan, the little luggage carts were free. Now they cost 2 Euros! So in an effort to not fork over money for a stupid cart just to go literally 10 meters, I resolved to a stacking method which basically saw me shuffling like a royal idiot in high heels (my usual airport footwear), pushing these bloody bags at at snail's pace. What's worse is customs tried to stop me but then seemed to realize I was just a hot mess and not actually smuggling anything into the country. As soon as I made it through the sliding doors, my stacked contraption toppled over, right in front of all the people waiting for loved ones with the loudest 'thud' at which point everyone gave me the pity stare. Nothing is really worse than the pity stare. Changing subject, the photographs I've posted are from Saturday when we went skiing (well, snowboarding) which was clearly the best activity choice for someone who just arrived the day before. Needless to say, I was absolutely dead to this world afterwards. I had wanted to watch the finale of San Remo that evening and never even got to the point of turning the television on.
+ make sure to check out my newest project, The Jasmine & Jhumpa project where I challenge myself to a year of writing in Italian (inspired by Italian-as-a-third-language author Jhumpa Lahiri of "In Altre Parole"). Visit it here: http://thejasmineandjhumpaproject.weebly.com/
I haven't much to say about this book yet as I've barely turned the first few pages, however there was already an excerpt that I wanted to share from the prologue. These few lines transported me to my backpacking days when I was younger, no one I knew was married, and Europe was a wide-open play place filled with cheap wine and hostel breakfasts that tasted like heaven after staying up dancing the night away in bars with heinous, tacky names like Lux. Ok, I may still harbor pent-up anger towards that club in Lisbon that wouldn't let our 'backpackers-in-heels'-awesome-selves in unless we gave the doorman 200 Euros each. How could he ask such a thing? That was my food money (Portuguese custard tarts are in fact perfect for breakfast, lunch, and dinner thank you very much). Anyways, here is that excerpt I mentioned before going on a trip down memory lane:
"A few days later, on the platform at Firenze Santa Maria Novella, I bought a flask of Chianti with two German boys, the kind of wine they sell in bellied bottles with straw aprons, and after no more than a couple of swigs passed out, to wake up in my vomit three hours later in the corridor of an evening Espresso to Rome. Those were the days..." - Tim Parks
I love sharing photos of Bergamo, she is such a photogenic city but being rather unknown, I feel like she never gets the cover shot of any high-profile travel magazines- you will never find Bergamo on the cover of AFAR (in the voice of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: BIG mistake, HUGE!). Recently I stumbled upon a genius of a photographer, Daniele Boffelli. Whatever you do, check out his Facebook page here. He has snapped some stunning/gorgeous/those are the only adjectives I can recall at the moment because The Bachelor premiere was on last night and those are the only words he used to describe the women...anyways, here is a sampling:
I know, I live in a fairytale. You can all be jealous now. I'd invite you to visit but we haven't furnished our spare room yet so all I can offer at the moment is our very "comfortable" couch or the red-checkered armchair in our taverna next to the fireplace (unless Puffo the cat is occupying it, in which case you'll have to sleep on the floor).
Unbeknownst to us (and only discovered after Massi's friends in the US told him), our House Hunters International episode has already aired once and is scheduled to air again tomorrow! It is not the same schedule that is being followed by the network HGTV in Canada, so I think all of us north of the border are SOL. So if you happen to be reading this and can PVR our episode, please do and tell me all about it! Also if you happen to be reading this and are an internet mastermind and have somehow found our episode, please forward and you will have a lifetime supply of pasta and my eternal love. Or I suppose if you have a time machine to take me back to yesterday, I will obviously honor the aforementioned means of gratitude. Here's the upcoming airdate (tomorrow):
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Jasmine is a former pharmacist turned writer and wine drinker from Alberta, Canada living "the sweet life" in Bergamo, Italy.
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