Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snow Blizzard in DC is a perfect time to reminiscence about a few autumn days in Barcelona

The snow started to fall last night and continue all day today. I ventured out once, because people keep telling me how beautiful the show is. When I went out I discovered that during the blizzard it doesn’t matter in what direction you walk, the snow is blowing in your face. Kids and dogs obviously were having fun, but my tolerance for wet and cold (the essence of snow) is limited.
I came back home made myself a huge lunch with eggs and potatoes and started to look at my Barcelona pictures. The autumn sun of Spain looks even more attractive when it is cold and dark outside.

We arrived in Barcelona on the morning of November 3rd and walked from the train station to our hotel.
The hotel was recently featured in New York Times Travel section as one the best bargain hotel in Europe. It indeed was a fine hotel decorated in modern Asian fusion style with great shower and picturesque view from the window on the working class neighborhood.
The hotel had a nice restaurant were they serve an excellent breakfast and very cheerful colonial looking Red Bar.

Barcelona has the strangest setting I ever seen in any other old city. The large part of the historical center with narrow streets and medieval buildings is a poor immigrant neighborhood filled with Doner kebab places and halal meat markets. Patrick absolutely refused to go to any Doner kebab joint. He explained that this is a very bad name for any eating establishment and particularly ones which specializes in kebabs. The name reminded him of the Donner Party (misfortunate group of pioneers who were snowbound in Sierra Nevada and resorted to cannibalism).

After we checked-in in our hotel we had lunch in one of the few local cheap restaurants which did not served Doner kebab. For about 15 euro we had 4 course meal and a bottle of white wine. As you can guess the food was not a gourmet kind but it was freshly prepared, authentic and filling. The place was filled with construction workers and a few elderly regulars. One of the selections for the first course was a glass of fresh tomato juice which locals mix with salt, pepper and olive oil. Not bad at all!

The real estate in this part of the city is affordable enough to have a lot of cheap housing options including youth hostels. These accommodations and incredibly cheap wine attracts students from around the world and make Barcelona the center of youth tourism. Some parts of the historical center are re-gentrified and filled with expensive touristy restaurants and hotels (around the famous Rambla). Only a small part of medieval Barcelona has the habitual charm which associated with oldest parts of Paris (Marais) or Rome. There are a few streets with independent boutiques, galleries, tapas bars mostly filled with locals.

Will continue...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Few more words about Torino before we go to Barcelona

Shopping was somewhat disappointing. And it is not just because the dollar has such unfavorable exchange rate to the euro. There were very few independent boutiques which I used to see in Italy. I don’t care much about brand names, but it looks like as if traditional craft of dress and shoe making is dying and being replace with mass production and Chinese import. There were a few exceptions. Patrick bought for me a very elegant light coat which is though expensive but looks and feels classy enough to justify the price.
There were still a few shop windows where the old world sophistication and charm was looking at your through glass with remembrance of the things past…

I want to come back to Torino once more a bit earlier in the fall, when you still can enjoy sitting in café outside and enjoy the morning cappuccino like we could in the first morning in Torino before it got too cold for that:

And to see the Alps from Parco villa Genero, to take better pictures in Egyptian museum which has the most incredible collection of ancient Egyptian art outside of Cairo.

And of course to eat the glorious pasta

and fish in Peperino restaurant (baked in olive oil with cooked potatoes, tomatoes and olives. Bonissimo!)
On our last night in Torino we went back to piazza Carlo Alberto to the pizza palace in La Smarrita. I had the classic Margarita and it was out of this world!

And than dessert which had all the qualities of sin: it was so beautiful and delicious that it was worth eating even if you will be condemned to hell for eternity

Cheers to Italy!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Profume de Alba

We decided to go to Alba on Saturday. Saturday is the most important market day of the week and we heard that Alba has a very famous market. Our hotel receptionist was happy to explain us where to get on the Alba bus. The bus trip was a joy. Only a small part of the way we were on highway, most of the time the road took us thru little towns and up the mountain covered with vines in vivid autumn colors. An hour later we arrived on the bus station of no distinction with no map and no idea where to go. This was a moment when my limited Italian was squeezed out of me. I picked a typical Italian signora from the crowd and sheepishly asked her Dove mercato? Signora gave me a look. No Italian was necessary to understand: You don't know where the market is??!!!’ and pointed us to the direction where everybody was going.

The market was good but not great. I’m a market connoisseur, so everywhere I go I always visit the local market. This could not possibly be the famous market. There were some nice local specialties. We bought excellent dry porcini mushrooms; the selection of hazelnuts was impressive.

The wicker tricycles were cute, but otherwise there were nothing to write home about.

But from the market we could see where the historical center is and proceeded to go that way. That’s where the actions were.
The center was charming, old, and full of people shopping for absolutely spectacular selection of local wines, cheeses, salamis, pasta, chocolates, nuts and other delicacies.

The best Italian wines Barolo, Dolcetta d’Alba, Nebbiolo all grow in Piedmont and Alba restaurants and wine bars proudly present them in beautiful company of all the heavenly looking and smelling food.


and giant salami

and giant green onion

and wines

and more salami

and more cheeses

The star of this gastronomical show was the white truffle. The streets where perfumed with fragrant odors of one of the most expensive foods in the world.

White truffles can only be found in the woods around Alba and it hosts the world famous white truffle market.

There was something else in the air. It was recognizable right away though it didn’t have any physical materiality of mushroom or chocolate. The scent was coming from super expensive stores and restaurants full of wealthy tourists (and some locals too) from around the world. The discreet smell of money was not that discreet on the old streets of Alba.

In the evening on the main piazza near the church the live entertainment was provided for the crowd. The music group was performing traditional Italian songs. The source and inspiration for Italian opera becomes obvious just after a few minutes listening to them.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Across the river

Piazza Vittorio Venneto is located on the west bank of the river Po. From there one can see Gran Madre de Dio church and a huge hill behind it.

The church looks like the replika of Pantheon.

Since we lived near by we decided to cross the river and go up the hill. Several times during our travels in Italy going up hill proved to be a memorable experience. I only want to mention Sanctuary San Luca on Guardia Hill near Bologna which is 287 meters up the level of Po and has the endless staircase covered with porticos which was enough to explain why with all the extraordinary rich food (lardo is a fat of choice) locals there don’t show any signs of weight problems.

Patrick after he conquered Guardia Hill in Bologna

The Turin across the river is an innocent wealthy enclave, where Armani boutique for babies looks normal.

Of course how one can survive without baby Armani apparel!

Here half way up the hill is a gorgeous villa della Regina which was destroyed in bombing of 1942 and now almost rebuild, but still not open for visitors.

But the road still going up and so we are determined to conquer another Italian peak.
The efforts were fully rewarded when we’ve got to the top of the hill and found a romantic and serene park Villa Parco Genero completely furnished in fall attire.

Along the alleys of the park benches are set, where in clear day visitors can enjoy the view of the city and the Alps on the other side of Turin.Since it was a foggy fall day and I could not take a picture of Alps, I asked Patrick to take pictures of me in the park:

The park has strange half ruined sculptures:

Jews were hiding there during the war.

The destroyed old church with the evidence of love which only death can bring to an end gives the last charming touch to the lovely park on the hill

As it happens often the most interesting sites are not mentioned in travel books…

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Trip to Asti

When we asked our charming hotel receptionist what is the best way to get to Asti she was very reluctant to explain and had a lot of objections for us to go there. Many times she mentioned that there is nothing to see and it is impossible to get there. It turns out that she is originally from Alba another medieval town outside if Turin and these two towns traditionally were at war. To this day they are rivals. The old conflicts are still alive.

Anyway we got to Asti by train which departed from gorgeous old train station – Porta Nova.

There we found a city of many medieval towers and beautifully appointed piazza adorned with parking lots. I’ve have never seen outside of USA the town of this size with that many parking lots.

Asti is obviously a very wealthy little town considering dense luxury shopping area, gourmet restaurants and pedestrian crossing on the roads executed in marble.

Preparation for Halloween was in full speed:

The town has a very fine renaissance cathedral decorated with red and cream terracotta

Modern glass building was surprising in the middle of this block:

But street lights were pure delight:

The lunch in the fancy gourmet restaurant was out of this world. Patrick had black risotto with squid ink and it was delectable. My simple plate of pasta with tomato sauce was close to platonic idea of this simple dish.

After lunch we decided to find murals on the old city wall. We read about them in our tourist guide. The long walk along the city wall resulted in finding of this mural:

I’m not sure about the age and authenticity of it.

Almost forget to mention the art of signage in Asti. Here are couple fine examples of the genre:

We of course never reveal to our hotel receptionist that we went to Asti :)

Will continue…