Copenhagen summer

In the last twelve months, we did dedicate some of our travelling time to Nordic countries. I will also include The Netherlands in the bunch (weekend in Amsterdam at the end of April)- my classification of a Nordic European Country is a place where the actual summer as we know it, never arrives. Yes, it can be sunny and the light lasts until late in the evening. Yes, it can even reach 20 degrees celsius and have bright days without a cloud in the sky. But it can also go from sunny to cloudy to windy to freezing in 10 minutes, in any given day, from April until September. In this bunch I will add Copenhagen, a city where we spent 4 full days, thanks to a nice bank holiday in Italy. It is a quaint, not too big city, very civilised, clean, bike friendly and very pretty. It is not a mind-blowing place, but it is a very good representative of the Nordic way of life. Tall pretty women, good looking well groomed stylish guys, very famous restaurants, very expensive everything. 

The city has parks, canal and a sea front. It has a whole lot of weird looking statues, both of real and somehow fantasy creatures: 

The most iconic statue in Copenhagen is of course the one of a little sad woman looking at the sea- the little mermaid. Needless to say, there is nothing exceptional about it, if not the hype around it. This is how it looks: 

Although this is REALLY how it looks: 

 

Of course, there were Danish Pastries, Danish Hot Dogs, and well, LEGO:

Within one of the city parks, there is a beautiful Botanical Garden, with long and high glass houses, open to the public, where one can get warmer from the chill wind of June, and can wonder at tropical plants of all sorts. The park itself is really nice on its own. 

All in all, walking around was very pleasant and there were always some nice, beautiful details that could be captured: 





The land of ice and fire (and wind and rain and liquorice and sheep)

So this year, this has been the destination of choice: 

I always had in the back of my mind the idea of exploring the most northern part of the world- as well as the most southern- I actually started looking into travelling in Antartica, but it is something I must leave in the wish-list for a while, as it is very expensive (money!), very far away (flying long distances!), and pretty time consuming (needing 4 weeks!)- all aspects that, I am pretty sure, will take a while to have all happening at the same time. So I figured, we do have here in Europe some wild territory that can satisfy this arctic desire. 

Against all my personal believes, I also left someone else do the bookings for me. I thought, there must be someone who knows Iceland much better than me, so why not let them design my itinerary? In my defence, I have to say I did not have the time to learn and study the map and and figure out what would be best to see etc etc. So I relied on an agency specialised on Iceland and Greenland (Island Tours) to book all the accommodation, and therefore to design the itinerary that we would follow. On my side, I booked the flights and got ready for the trip :-)

Our itinerary took us all around the country, literally. We followed the "ring", which is Road N.1 - a paved long road that goes all along the coast, and allows visitors to do a full circle by car, and touches the most important and beautiful points. This gives the possibility to drive safely and comfortably all over, except towards the interior part. That would be a trip on its own, with big 4-wheel drives, and completely different sceneries (wild glaciers, gravel windy roads, black deserts, remote lakes). We also included the Western Fiords, which are very special indeed and I do recommend to include them in the itinerary.

We started our trip landing in Kelfavik (the international airport), which is in the South Western part of the country- from there, we tackled the country counter clock-wise going through Selfoss, Vik, Hofn, Eglisstadir, Husavik, Akureyri, Siglufjordur, Hvammstangi, Dragsnes, Isafjordur, Latrabaarg, Olafsvik, and back to Reykjavik. 

So first a couple of facts. During the summer time, the days are long (while there, we had about 20 hours of daylight a day), and the average temperature is 12 degrees. That is, the thermometer can go from 8 to 20 degrees, but most of the time it stays around 12-13. Also, it is very cold, because there is (almost) always wind. And it can be rainy and foggy, and that can affects the actual viewing of landscapes and landmarks. 

Another fact is, the country is extremely, ridiculously expensive. And not in the sense of "Europe" expensive compared to say, Asia. This is the most expensive country I have ever visited. Expensive especially for the quality of what is given back. So for example, sleeping in a farm, with bathroom in the room, with bed and breakfast could easily cost 200 euros, even though the set up is extremely basic and in the middle of nowhere. The food is also very expensive. In such farms, a dinner with one soup, a dish either of lamb or fish, and one beer, could be around 50 euros per person. When we had wine (and extremely average bottles), it would skyrocket to up 80-90 euros per person. 

Last facts, Icelanders are welcoming guests, but at their own pace. Everywhere we go, from the very fancy place to the very basic farm, service was always extremely slow, and most often pretty clumsy. They are experiencing double digit growth in tourism related business, and cannot be bothered to speed up or improve the quality of their services. Very often, in the middle of nowhere, there are only very few choices (if not only one) to eat something (that is, if you are not self catering), and therefore they feel no pressure to perform any better. 

Besides all this, the place is very very interesting- and these people are a bit crazy I think! They love liquorice to such a level, that they have entire aisles of super markets only covered by candies and Haribo packages. They drink Coca Cola like there is no tomorrow, they crave the sunlight and dress very lightly even though it is 10 degrees outside, they have weird museums scattered around the country, and believe in trolls and ghosts even though they will not admit it, and one of the country delicacy is rotten Greenlandic shark. 

 

So when driving through the country, this is more or less the ordinary scenery: 

During the fist part of the trip, in the South West, South and South East coast, one can experience they most "typical" and unique landmarks of Iceland. From the Blue Lagoon in Keflavik ( a beautiful hot spring which has been nicely fitted to accomodate guests, so you can soak in water heated by the cracks between continental land masses....!!) , to the famous and extremely exciting Geysir! To the black sands at Dyrohaley, to the glacier that goes into the water and blue icebergs flowing into the sea at Jökulsárlón. Along the way, there are many beautiful waterfalls. 

As we kept driving north, the scenery changed gradually to this, on the coast: 

And then, approaching a bit the interior, more like this: 

We spent a couple of days in Husavik, where we could go whale-whatching and experience the rough cold North Sea: 

As we kept going north-west, the fiords became deeper and deeper. We stayed in Siglufjordur, where people were celebrating a long weekend with parties and concerts and camping all together, then we left civilisation for a while, as we started to approach the West fiords. 

One feature that is ALWAYS there, while travelling through Iceland, are sheep, which roam freely during the summer months. They are covered by a thick layer of wool which is highly valued and used for the typical Icelandic sweaters. 

The main city in the West Fiords is Isafjordur, which means "the fiord of Ice". It is a small town, with a commercial harbour, as well as a tiny airport with flights from the capital. It has a collection of old colorful houses around the city center:  

Finally we made it to the most exciting part of the West Fiords- the Latrabjarg cliffs. They are the country's highest sea cliffs, 14km long and about 400m high. The main thing is that they host the largest sea bird colony in Europe, and one is supposed to see millions of puffins, and other sea birds nesting. I am saying "supposed" because to be honest, at least in the stretched that we visited (and we did walk a few kilometres along the ridge), we did not see many birds.. a few seagulls, but no puffins. It was 9 am, and we've been told that the best time to see the puffins would have been at 11 p.m, when they return from the day at sea. We did see ONE puffin, which was close enough for some nice pictures. However, the cliffs themselves were majestic, and we could even see Greenland from there!

Until the last days, we did encounter many beautiful landscapes, and it was made even easier by the good weather, which improved steadily throughout the trip: 

At the end of 16 days in Iceland, we drove 3,800 km and took about 1000 pictures. I had more lamb in these days than in my entire life. I have been soaking in freezing rain, and been speechless in front of some incredible spots, and had a lot of Viking beer. I took many thermal baths, walked on black sand beaches and saw the water exploding from the ground up to 30m in height. Most used item: wool hat made from my mom. Least used item: sunscreen lotion. Happy about the whole experience: very much indeed. 







Hong Kong- the place to be in South East Asia

After leaving Shanghai, I had very high expectations about Hong Kong. Everybody I talked to, who already had the chance to visit this city, gave enthusiastic reviews and told me I would have loved it. Now, some of these people had told me the same about Shanghai, and definitely, it was not love- at all.

Regardless of how it would have been, the first, literal impression I had of this place, was this:

The very first evening, right after arriving at sunset, was spent with this view, on this side of town (Kowloon). I decided, that it was too beautiful, too spectacular, too amazing, that I would rather take it all in, from a distance, before perhaps being disappointed when entering in the bowel of the city. I was so enchanted that I left my camera in its case, and made the minimum effort to document the scene- hence used my Iphone with very poor results (but it's just to give you an idea!).

 

OK so here are some facts:

Hong Kong is one of the two Special Administrative Regions of the People's Republic of China, the other being Macau (which is a 45-minutes ferry ride away from HK). It is situated on China's south coast, it is known for its expansive skyline and deep natural harbor. With a land mass of 1,104 km2 and a population of seven million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world (and you can see it!!!). Hong Kong's population is 93.6% ethnic Chinese and 6.4% from other groups. Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire after the First Opium War (1839–42). The Hong Kong Island was first ceded to the UK in perpetuity, followed by  the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 and then the New Territories in 1898. The British had control until 1997, when China resumed sovereignty. This time period greatly influenced the current culture of Hong Kong, often described as "East meets West" (yes, I took it from Wiki).

So basically the good news is, all the Chinese who live in Hong Kong, while maintaining many of their own traditions (religious, cultural and culinary) have been deeply influenced by the British colonization, in terms of common law, education and administration- so no spitting around, no pissing everywhere, no screaming, pushing or all those disgusting things that the "main-landers" - so are called in HK- do oh so happily.

Hong Kong is a civilized, sophisticated, modern and welcoming place. It is full of people and full of noise- it is a vertical city, as there is a clear lack of space for everybody around. One moment it feels like walking down Fifth Avenue, and one moment later, you are engulfed in the lush tropical forest on top of Hong Kong Island. There's Harvey Nickols and Armani and Louis Vuitton super stores, and then, down the road, the most traditional shops selling dried ingredients for the most exotic Chinese cuisine. There is a highly developed public transportation system, which spans from escalators to ferries to underground metro to trams (and I have been on all of them!).

So while in Hong Kong, we stayed in Kowloon- which is basically like staying in Brooklyn- you have the view of Manhattan but you are not quite in the middle of everything. We booked ourselves at the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Tower- which was beautiful and elegant- however, from our window, right next to us, we could see the majestic Peninsula Hotel - a landmark in the city, famous for its high afternoon teas and its extreme luxury.

The most fun way to go from Kowloon to HK Island is with the famous Star Ferry - which is a true institution here.

The ferry arrives right in the middle of Central- the heart of the city. As the guide said, if HK was a country, Central would be its capital. All the administrative and financial institutions are here. Here it's where business is done. And lot's of it. There are different areas around Central, such as Soho, the Mid Levels, Lan Kwai Fong. They are all close to one another- basically by walking around, after a while you realize you have been in all of them more than once! The first thing we did was the most touristy one, which is the Peak Tram- that takes you up the Victoria Peak (I think it's called like this...) where you can have the best view on the Victoria Harbor:

Once we came back down, we walked through Soho and the Mid Levels, and found out that at the bottom of tall, corporate skyscrapers, the city was alive with markets, real traditional, real Asian, colorful-smelly-loud-slimy-strange-cool markets. Some of them sold all sorts of dried foods, from sea food to chickens to pork heads, to lizards- they are all ingredients for some legendary traditional Chinese soups that I am not sure I will ever want to try...

The second day, it was dedicated to Kowloon. This is a much less sophisticated area-while in Central, the crowd is characterized by high heels, expensive bags, suits and ties, and Westerners, here is much cheaper, much more Chinese. Our friend Edoardo (who lived there and LOVES HK) called it "The Dark Side", which is a funny way to describe it, but sometimes it fit perfectly!

Here I insisted in visiting the Bird, Flower and Gold Fish Market- and guess what- it was very similar to the one in Shanghai, with the only difference that it was clean, tidy, open air, and with hand sanitizers every 5 meters (OK they had SARS a few years ago, so they are a bit paranoid about this, but rightly so and are very well disciplined). They are Chinese after all, and they love their birds in the wooden cages, they love their exotic gold fish, and their crickets in their pockets.

In Kowloon, there are the famous "night markets"- which start at around 6 pm and go on until around midnight- I think they are totally overrated and not so interesting, but we walked through them nevertheless. At first I thought I wanted to sit down and eat at some local eatery- they seemed widely popular.. but I was soon discouraged by the look of many of them (ok, I know, I should have tried, but I just could not get myself to sit there..).

The food in Hong Kong is a big part of the whole social life. People eat out at all times, every day. There are all sorts of restaurants, from French to Italian to Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese- all the degrees of regional Chinese cooking. I had the best Beijing Duck of my life, as well as many other Chinese dishes which were quite awesome. So if you go to HK, make sure you dedicate part of your time to enjoy its F&B..

 

So yes, I am a fan. Hong Kong is one of the world's leading international finance center, yet its high-rises are literally rooted in tradition. Chinese customs are tamed by years of British colonization, which gives the city its sophistication and yet its local flare. It's fun and loud and modern and elegant, and I can't wait to be back (possibly at The Peninsula, next time :-)).

Sicilia: the land of the Arancino (and many other awesome foods)

So you have read about the wonders of Siracusa, the amphitheatre, the rocky hills, the Duomo of Noto.. now let's cover the most important part of my experience in Sicilia- the Food!!  

First of all, Siracusa, with its shores on the Mediterranean, offers excellent seafood. Which is not only fresh and tasty, but excellently cooked. The very first evening we went to "Trattoria Medusa, da Kamel", right in Ortigia. Besides some dishes of Pasta with the tastiest tomatoes I had in a long time (and I live in Italy, where tomatoes normally taste of something), I had the best seabass (Branzino) ever. Another place we went, this time for lunch, was "Spaghetteria Do Schogghiu". Spaghetti with fresh Sea Urchin, and nothing else. Simply bliss. Also a whole lot of other fish and Pasta varieties, but the Sea Urchin are THE food to try here.

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 Lemon Granita

Lemon Granita

But let's focus on the essentials, the basics, the best part of a trip to Sicilia. Call it street food, call it snacks, these bits of heavens can become breakfast, full meals, refreshments, or simply crave-stoppers.  

It starts with breakfast- with Granita ca Brioscia. Granita is a semi-frozen dessert, made from sugar, water and other flavoring, and although one can find it all over Italy, I can confirm that the one in Sicilia is different in texture. Also the flavors are clearly unique, the most typical being Almond- and Almond is pretty ubiquitous in the sweet foods of the island. They also add cinnamon, and it's just something perfectly balanced, not too sweet, but fresh and yet creamy. Now this is only part of the equation- the granita is eaten together with Brioscia- which is a soft bread, highly rich in eggs and butter (and deliciously yellow inside). It is puffy and soft, and this is how it goes: you tear a piece of brioscia, then take a spoonful of granita, pour it on the bread, and eat it. Just like that. I can assure you, you will be happy to wake up in the morning knowing that THAT's what's coming next. And it's only the beginning of the day.

 Coffee flavored granita, with brioscia. 

Coffee flavored granita, with brioscia. 

The next one, in my opinion, is one of the most delicious pieces of food I -can safely say- ever had. I am not a sweet tooth so I could easily bargain my breakfast with something salty- and being in Sicilia, this can only be the Arancino. One Arancino came from the mind of someone (a genius, I believe) who just wanted to have a whole lot of delicious flavors all together. And it wanted to be completely happy and satisfied and full at the end of it. It is literally a ball of overboiled, kind of sticky rice, with a filling of slowly cooked meat sauce (it can be ragu, or even a stew) AND a heart of cheese. All this is rolled in finely mixed bread powder, and gloriously fried. It can have various fillings, like spinach, or eggplant and tomatoes. In every culture you can find such things, like the croquetas in Spain, the supplì in Rome, but none of them come close to the original one. The outer part is crispy and inside the cheese melts and and the meat blends with the rice.... it is simply addicting.

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Another item that adds to the list, can be considered a dessert, a sweet indulgence during the day, breakfast, or all the above. It is the internationally famous Cannolo Siciliano- with a crispy shell of fried dough, filled with a thick cream, made with ricotta and sugar, to which then can be added crumbles of pistachios (another specialty of Sicilia!), or candied fruit (especially orange peels, and cheeries) or chocolate chips.


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And now the best part of our culinary experience in Siracusa- it happened in the open market of Ortigia. Our friends took us in the heart of it, in one of the shops. It is called "Caseificio Borderi", and despite not even being a restaurant, it lists number ONE in the Restaurants ranking for Siracusa, in Trip Advisor. Basically it is a narrow, long shop, that starts welcoming guests already outside, with a table full of cheese on display, dried pachino tomatoes, and the owner, a white haired guy, talking to people and making a bit of a show, preparing samples of all the delicious things that surround him. Then inside, there is a busy counter, full of all possible delicious cheeses and meats and pickled vegetables. We are welcomed with a small glass of wine- just by walking in- and I can assure you, we were not the only one who got such treat (our friends are friends with the people owning the shop) - almost every one is greeted in such wonderful way! And all of a sudden, on the counter, this lady started preparing sandwiches, bruschettas, plates with bites of cheese and all possible delicacy (a saffron cacio! A cheese with truffles coming from Mount Etna! Sun dried pachino cherry tomatoes, on a crispy slice of bread! Dried sausage! Porchetta! Smoked yet still fresh mozzarella!). When we thought it was finally time to choose what to buy (because at that point, after all the free sampling, you will definetly want to buy something!), we have been stopped- of course, we had to have dessert! And we were served a beautiful cannolo with a glass of Passito. Now, all this was a full meal. A delicious lunch, made of samples to try and taste and eventually of course, buy everything you can fit in your luggage. One can also go in and buy a sandwich, for 2 euros (but you will still be served a whole lot of things to try). Here below you can see some pictures I managed to take between one bite and another. I have also to say that the people in the shop were extremely efficient, very busy, and super nice. Highly recommended an for once I agree with TripAdvisor!

Berlin, part 2: Iconic Landmarks

Berlin is a place open to experimentation- there is no fear of mixing the old tradition with the new. Some places are iconic, like the Alexander Platz Television Tower, which is THE landmark of the city and can be seen as soon as one leaves the airport. 

Some are architectural masterpieces, where the building not only encases a museum, but its own walls and corners and windows talk to the visitors and participate to their experience. This is the case for the Judisches Museum, the Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind. It is one of the largest Jewish Museums in Europe. In two buildings, two millennia of German Jewish history are on display in the permanent exhibition as well as in various changing exhibitions. German-Jewish history is documented in the collections, the library and the archive, in the computer terminals at the museum's Rafael Roth Learning Center. The main building is a twisted zig-zag and is accessible only via an underground passage from the Berlin Museum's baroque wing. Its shape is reminiscent of a warped Star of David and inside, filled spaces are alternated to "voids"- empty, hollow places, that should remind the visitor of the emptiness, the void that has been left after the Jews have been deported.  An irregular matrix of windows cuts in all orientations across the building's facade, and in this building there is never a 90 degrees angle. We ended spending there more than 3 hours, and it was an enlightening experience.

And finally this time I made it- I organized and booked in advance and we got to visit the Reichstag Building! It is the building that hosts the German Parliament (Bundestag), which moved to Berlin after the capital changed from Bonn. The entrance is free but one must register and book the visit at least 3 days in advance. There is a glass dome that tops the old original building- which has a 360-degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape. The main hall of the parliament below can also be seen from inside the dome, and natural light from above radiates down to the parliament floor. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which would not only cause large solar gain, but dazzle those below. The view was really amazing - despite the weather!!

I think the most iconic picture though, is the one below. The skyline of Berlin, with dozens of cranes, molding and shaping the city, constantly building, stone and concrete, so that the visitor is never tired of coming back, and any new addition blends with the ones already existing, as if it has always been there.

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Berlin, part 1 - a flight back in time

I love Berlin- as my friends know, it's one of my favorite cities in the world. Since I went for the first time (at the LOVE Parade in 2003..!!) I realized there was something special about it. It is not Germany as the usual (and mostly wrong) stereotypes- it is scruffy, a bit messy, edgy, alternative.. young, vibrant, forward, modern.. historic, interesting, layered with so many pivotal events in the history of Europe, that every time I had been there, I came back with some more knowledge about this continent as we know it today. It is undoubtedly the land of Architecture, where people established through buildings their rules (see the Soviet Style Blocks in the Eastern Side of the city, or the Stasi Headquarter), their power (see even today, the American Embassy, or the Reichstag with the glass dome), their warnings (the Holocaus Memorial, the Wall Museum, the free permanent exhibition "Topographie des Terrors,  the Checkpoint Charlie), their culture (Museum Island with the Pergamon and others) and their optimism in the future (the Sony Center, built where there was nothing, in the no-man land between East and West Berlin, once the wall was put down).

Having been there many times, I always try to see something new. One thing it did not change was the weather, which was bad, even though it was early July (bad meaning rain and 15 degrees.. even 12 degrees one morning...brrrrr).

So one thing I HAD to see was Tempelhof. I am passionate about aviation and mostly about places that have been abandoned and left as they were back then.. just as if they were emptied yesterday and nothing changed (like the ghost town in Kolmanskop in Namibia). Tempelhof was one of the 3 active airports in Berlin, and it closed in 2008. It was built back in 1930, when the Nazi party was emerging, with its peak in 1933. They envisioned it to become the airport of Germania, their ideal city, capital of the Nazi Empire in Europe. Of course this was short lived, and also the project was too big and ambitious to even be completed. However, they created a system of buildings that together are not much smaller than the Pentagon in the US.

What happened is that the airport was spared by the heavy bombing from the Allies at the end of the war. Although Berlin was mostly completely destroyed and reduced in crumbles, this point must have had some tactical advantage for the winners. Once Berlin- and Germany- were split between France, UK, US and Russia, this airport fell into the American sector. It became a military base for the American troops residing in the city- and in the meantime they restored the building (which was anyway damaged during the bombings in 1945). They used one part of it as living quarters for the troops, and one other as "hotel" for visiting guests, and also an elegant place where to hold balls, parties, and big meetings. In 1948, the Soviets blocked the other Allies access to goods, by blocking railways, roads and canal access. In response, the Western Allies organized the Berlin Airlift to carry supplies to the people in West Berlin. Aircrews from the US Air Force, the British Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the South African Air Force, flew over 200,000 flights in one year, providing up to 4700 tons of daily necessities such as fuel and food to the Berliners. .

By the spring of 1949, the effort was clearly succeeding and, by April, the airlift was delivering more cargo than had previously been transported into the city by rail. The success of the Berlin Airlift brought embarrassment to the Soviets who had refused to believe it could make a difference. The blockade was lifted in May 1949 and resulted in the creation of two separate German states.The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) split up Berlin.In remembrance of the airlift, three airports in the former western zones of the city served as the primary gateways to Germany for another fifty years (and thanks Wiki for this part of text).

So today, they use the area around the runways and surrounding as a recreational park (http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/). And the buildings.. well, they are almost all empty. As the Americans left them, once they left in 1994, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

There are organized tours of the buildings, in German and in English (info here: http://www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/visit/tours/building-tours/). We booked the English one on Saturday afternoon, and it lasted around 2 hours. We visited the hotel for American Military visitors (and that was quite spooky.. never ending corridors, with hundreds of empty rooms, each door open, no lights...) the Cargo Area, the bunker (from WWII, for the German Military troops), the Canopy where the Nazi would have their rallies before the war, and the main check-in areas, as well as the American amenities, such as a Basketball court and an abandoned Squash court. Overall, a very interesting visit that I highly suggest.

 

 

 

 

 

Parco Sempione, Milano

So the rule is that, you don't need to go thousands of kilometers away to take the best pictures. It's easy to say, but it's also easy to feel uninspired by what for us is the usual landscape. It takes an extra effort (at least for me) to remember to bring my camera along, when I go for a stroll in Milano. Don't take me wrong, I love Milano, I believe it's full of hidden corners where beauty waits to be discovered- but because I live here, this beauty is even more hidden. So last Saturday, after going to the most fun shop of exotic/international food in Via Paolo Sarpi - Chinatown, in Milano- we walked to Parco Sempione, and I made an exercise, I tried to depict the typical city park details, to give relevance even to the most granted spots. Maybe they are not the most exciting, but later, working on them, I realized that these details could belong to any city park- Central Park, Tiergarten, Jardin du Luxembourg- where city people go and chill..

 

Have you ever eaten a frog?

Apparently it looks like I am one of those few "illiterate" that did not have frogs in my list of favorite delicatessen. Ok at least between the four of us who had lunch together at Antica Trattoria Ferrari a few weeks ago. So let's recap. Bob and Peggy came to visit from the US for our wedding- they are extremely well-traveled and are not afraid to eat anything. I witnessed Bob, two years ago, having a "Finanziera"- a typical dish from Piemonte, a mix of pork testicles, lamb brain, and even rooster crests- and actually enjoying it. Antica Trattoria Ferrari is a great restaurant in the Villaggio Ticino, in Pavia, and it is famous for its Risotti. But also for seasonal regional food. One of them being fried frogs - Pavia is a region of rice fields, hence the Risotti.. and the frogs!

The restaurant itself is a gem full of objects and memories from another time- the late 1800s. There is a big fireplace at the entrance, burning in the winter time. There are books, paintings, seppia pictures hanging on the walls, an old gramophone in the middle of the main dining room. There are a lot of bottles of Grappa, and wine.   

And there is the food- delicious, abundant, so full of genuine taste, it's heartwarming..  

I should have taken pictures of the 5 kinds of Risotto we had, but in that very moment I just could not choose my camera over them. Here is a small gallery to give you.. a taste of it.  

 

 

Tired flowers....

There has been some big celebrations around here. What is left, after a week, besides the burning memories, the vivid excitement, and the exhaustion- what is still witnessing the happiness and the joy and the laughter-  are some tired flowers, that I don't want to throw away. They are slowly fading, but I find their tiredness a bittersweet remark of memorable times.

A home dinner in Genova, Italy

Last Saturday I had dinner in a lovely home in Genova. There had been a lot of rain, and the view from the place was very dramatic because of the heavy clouds in the sky. Also, there is a beautiful garden with amazing flowers, and I took some pictures even if it was raining! Then we had a great dinner, with lasagnette al pesto and focaccia. Delicious...

Pictures of model-boats by the sea..

I spent a long weekend in Zoagli, by the sea. The weather was not very nice, but I brought my camera and had some fun with my Lensbaby. Here are some romantic and ethereal pictures of model boats blending with the background. There is also a real big cruise boat, which with Lensbaby almost looks like a model boat itself.

Enjoy!

A ladies adventure in Southern Africa... part 3 (the end!)

So finally we reached Botswana. Again, it was a 70 km ride from Vic Falls to Kasane, and then about one hour from Kasane to Muchenje, going through the Kasane international airport (which made Isa feel pretty safe about her flight back with Air Botswana... not). When we arrived, we were stunned by the beautiful view and welcomed by very friendly stuff.

View from our room.

The very nice thing about Muchenje lodge (muchenje.com) was that in the price we paid everything was included. Not only meaning all inclusive with drinks and food, but also all possible activities. So one could choose to go for the morning drive, the full day cruise, and the night drive, if he/she had the energy, without having to think of the cost per activity. Sometimes in many lodges activities are charged extra, and this imposes a limitation, even if only psychological, to what one can experience. We spent 3 nights there, and all of us decided independently what to do. We went all together on the very first day for the late afternoon drive (many many birds there..), then for the full day cruise drive, but then we all took various drives depending on our mood, energy, or laziness. All meals are served on two communal tables, which gave us the opportunity to meet and talk with many other guests. The atmosphere was always upbeat during these moments. We had our individual huts (2 persons in each one)- on which baboons seem to enjoy jumping and rumbling in the morning hours. 

We were "assigned" our own guide and a rover on our own (being 6 loud women we also guessed nobody would want to join us!!!). The guide name was Kabelo, which in no time it became "Che bello" and the poor guy learned all the words we would use during the drive, namely "elefantino", "bufalino", "uccellino"... all diminutive for some big animals in facts....! .

The best way to enjoy the Chobe National Park is on a boat ride- it just gives you the right perspective, when herds of animals come and drink. Only it was quite a ride by car to get to the jetty- and of course when we went, it was the coldest day! 

And that's how we looked during the ride to the boat...

And yes, many birds can be seen, busy fishing and eating and flying around. We had lunch in a peaceful spot, first populated by impalas, then by elephants and then by a giraffe that took painfully forever to drink. This is what get stained in my memory, every time I am lucky enough to be in the bush- the peace, the calm with which these animals move, the colors of dried plants and the deep blue sky, the softness of the yellow grass once the light turns orange at sunset. It is a sense of cosmic peace, the only place where I feel "one" with what is surrounding me, where we are not intruders but merely observers, where we are not welcome but simply bared, where we are ignored when we would like to be seen. This is why going to the bush makes you only want to return more. This is the catch. Somewhere I have read " I wish I was someone who is going to South Africa for the first time". The first time is like a big hit in the heart, a breathless continuous emotion, a strong drunken feeling of amazement. Then it's all about going back, longing to see those places that gave us such feelings. And when we are back, we take it all in, every detail, every color, every one of those big clouds, it's a mental exercise to make sure that we don't miss anything, that we get embraced by all the beauty, because we know we are going to need the sharp memory of everything once we will leave again. And so it goes. So it's Mal d'Africa..

So eventually we had to say goodbye to Chobe, to Muchenje and to Botswana. We were scheduled to fly out all together from Kasane to Gaborone and then there to Johannesburg with Air Botswana. For some unknown reasons, Marta and I (originally it was Marta and Isabella) had the above mentioned itinerary, while Kate, Jane, Donatella and Isabella were "upgraded" to a direct flight to Johannesburg. We did not have much choice, so we just split and hoped to see each other soon in Joburg! It was a looong wait for our flight to Gaborone, so late that we thought we might even miss our connection. But then we though that Air Botswana, with a fleet of 4 planes, might as well wait for each other. And so it was actually. The flight to Gaborone was on the smallest airplan I had ever been in my life. We could not stand straight, and it was "self-service"- a cooler-box was close to the cockpit, and we could stand and serve ourselves.

 Domestic flights Terminal, Kasane Airport. 

Domestic flights Terminal, Kasane Airport. 

And it did go flawlessly- we landed one hour after the other ladies, and we drove to Jane and Geoff's house for a delicious poiki dinner. Here we had to chance to tell poor Geoff about all our adventures, and laughs, and details, and again laughs. The protagonist of the evening was Benjie, who was pretty happy to have all the attention of these Italian ladies...

And then all of a sudden it was over- but we could still forget about our flights during the sunny day in Johannesburg, while we strolled in Hype Park, and we lunched at Bellini's, and we rode on Kate's car with the top down, until really there was no time left and we had to go.

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Thank you Jane and Katherine, thank you South Africa, thank you Cape Town even if the weather was crap, thanks Vic Falls for drenching us with your spray, thanks little fluffy elephants to make us laugh, thank you Kabelo for showing us a lion and taking us to the designated areas, thanks for Air Botswana to taking us back with our luggage, thanks to my sisters and mother who agreed to go together on this adventure. Thank you to my life, which is full of luck and beauty and I can't wait to see what will happen next.

A ladies adventure in Southern Africa, April 2013- part 2

Happy at Carne, in Cape Town.

After Robben Island, we got back to the V&A Waterfront and had a nice fish lunch, and then hit Cape Union Mart (http://www.capeunionmart.co.za/)- it is one of our favorite shops in South African- clearly meant for outdoor adventures and all possible camping, trekking, anything-out activity. My preferred parts are the clothing and the bbq-ing gears (I am clearly not that adventurous- although in 2008 Isa dragged me to a 3-night trek on the Drakensberg Mountains and then I did buy real serious stuff at the Cape Union Mart in Hyde Park!!!). Clearly that afternoon our long-shot purposes were a bit overshadowed by the late lunch, the shopping and the miserable weather, and decided to head back to our guesthouse. That night we went for dinner at Carne (http://www.carne-sa.com/) - a restaurant from Giorgio Nava, same owner of 95 Keerom, one of my most favorite restaurants in town (http://www.95keerom.com/ ) - Isa and I came here first in 2007, loved the polenta, and officially nick-named the chef "Giorgio Ramsey", for his authoritarian way with the stuff..

The morning after, we left (too) early and headed for the airport under a proper rain storm. We started our trip to Victoria Falls. At OR Tambo we met up with Jane, Kate's mom, and the team was ready to go!

We arrived in Victoria Falls early afternoon, which gave us enough time to check in at Ilala Lodge (www.ilalalodge.com), take a break, and get ready for a sunset cruise on the Zambesi (which we could book directly at the hotel). The hotel was really nice and had a beautiful view on the Vic Falls Spray.

That afternoon, at 4:30 we got picked up and taken to the jetty on the Zambesi. We sat and started enjoying ourselves- things are done properly down there, and in no time we were served local and fresh Zambesi Beer, Gin and Tonic, and some snacks, to complement the stunning view!
We did not expect to see any big animals, and in facts we saw only one lonely hyppo and one elephant on the shore- on the other hands, the birds-lovers (Marta, Kate and Jane) seemed pretty happy with spotting little and not-so little birds on the river. Isa and I took lots of pictures and had fun with the water reflections and the incredible sunset light. It was very peaceful, quiet, yet so exciting and our eyes got never tired to admire such grandness and beauty, radiating from the mighty Zambesi.

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Ilala lodge was very good for us. It had a nice restaurant so we could have dinner "in house". The service during dinner time was much more efficient than at any other time of the day (45 minutes wait for scrambles eggs at breakfast... mmmm not funny). Also the food was really quite good and also very elegantly plated and served.  Marta and Kate "closed" the bar on the first night, at around 10 pm, which translated in "bush" time means 3 a.m!!! We also introduced Isabella to Amarula, which we then adopted as night-cup until the end of our trip... Also, the bar had some cushions on which Marta's shirt camouflaged perfectly- needless to say we had such a laugh...!  

There are many activities to do in Victoria Falls. The easiest and most accessible one is the walk by the fall, where one can get first hand experience of the loudness and the size of the waterfall. At the end of summer, the water quantity is huge-( I have been other times in Vic Falls, one of them in September, which is when the water gets its lowest point, and the scene is completely different).

Something we could define as epic was the helicopter ride. It would probably need a post on its own- in reality, it only lasted 12 minutes, but it resulted in one of the funniest moment we experienced as sisters and mother together (thanks to Isa and her complete and utter terror of flying!!!!). For some random luck I got chosen to sit in front, next to the pilot, so I had the perfect view! Both the pilot and I could still hear, despite the loudness of the rotors, Isa's screams from the back!!!

We ended our day with a drink at the glorious Victoria Falls Hotel (http://www.victoria-falls-hotels.net/). It is a must-visit and it shows the majesty of the British colonial power and style. It has the best view on the Vic Falls spray and a huge lawn with warthogs grazing and beautiful birds swing by. Feeling very British we had one delicious Pimm's!

And then, after two nights in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, we crossed the border at Kazungula Border post (with much giggling by us naughty Italians, because of the name of the place... yes, how immature, of course!). I guess this will be part 3 of our epic journey....

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A ladies adventure in Southern Africa, April 2013 - part 1.

2013 will be one big year, with many celebrations. So I agreed with Isabella, my big sister, that we needed to take an epic trip. We had various thoughts, which leaned more towards a glam week in New York City, but then we both had the same thing in mind- South Africa! Cape Town, the bush, the sky, the wine and food, the friends...! So that was done. Then slowly this idea was expanded, first to the third sister Marta (my twin), then to our mother Donatella (who just in time recovered from her femur injury). Of course we immediately involved one of my best friends who actually lives in South Africa and is a proud South African at heart (although we agreed that she could well be Italian!)- Kate.  And her mother Jane as well, why not? (and Jane is the reason why I know Kate and my whole South African experience in 2008 was so unforgettable). And of course, my friend Natalia, who is Ecuadorian but lives in Johannesburg and LOVES South Africa so much she eventually chose it as "home" after living in many countries around the world. The team was done!

The Cape Town Team - From left to right: Marta, Donatella, Kate, Chiara, Isabella and Natalia

Then we defined the itinerary- it would be a bit of South Africa (I passionately love Cape Town and had to go there, even if just a few days!) but then some serious days in the bush. So the first 3 days we would be in Stellenbosch and Cape Town, and then we would fly to Victoria Falls and then from there drive to the Chobe River in Botswana. Jane joined us on our to way to Vic Falls, and Natalia left us after two days in Cape Town.

The Zim-Botswana team- from left to right: Isabella, Donatella, Jane, Kate and Marta (Breakfast with colomba at O.R. Tambo, on the way to Vic Falls)

All this had been planned in excruciating details by me and a travel agency (Mahlatini Tour: http://www.mahlatini.com/) by end of January. My fellow travel mates had to endure a million emails from me, asking for opinions about restaurants, tours, ideas, packing lists, itinerary suggestions and so on. My Facebook friends noticed a painful countdown to the departure day. I COULD NOT wait any longer! Then March 29th came and my happiness was just too much. I love South Africa, I realize that I long for it, I need to be there once every so often, need to breath its air, see the immensity of its sky, the roughness of the ocean in Cape Town, the skyline and the brightness of Johannesburg.

Marta and I traveled via Frankfurt to Johannesburg and then to Cape Town (il viaggio della speranza)- Donatella and Isabella traveled MUCH more leisurely from London directly to CT. We decided that the day of the arrival we would want to go to the wineries, somewhere were we could stay and also have dinner without having to drive anywhere.

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The place of choice was Kleine Zalze (http://www.kleinezalze.com/) - a wonderful winery in Stellenbosch, which happened to host one of the best restaurants in the country, Terroir (http://www.kleinezalze.com/terroir.html).

Finally all together at Terroir!

Check some pictures below from our very short but beautiful stay at Kleine Zalze.

So on Easter Day, we moved to Camps Bay, in Cape Town. I booked ourselves in a stunning b&b, Boutique@10 (http://boutique10.co.za/ ). The view on the ocean was amazing, although the weather has not been nice with us. But it did not discourage us.

On April 1st Natalia left us, and we had some ambitious plans for the day (after a lazy Easter Sunday with a long, beautiful lunch in Hout Bay). I booked online tickets to go on the Robben Island tour (there is a very clever website to book everything possible in South Africa (http://www.webtickets.co.za/default.aspx). None of us (except for our South African representative Kate!) had ever make it to visit it. Cape Town can have some very rough weather in winter time, and that is when most of us always visited it. Even on this occasion, as it happened other times, we never got to see Table Mountain. Or at least, this is the best way we got to see it:

The sea was a bit rough (Isa was not very happy) but it was a cool ride, and long enough to chat and enjoying ourselves.

Once we got on the island, we could not just wonder around- there is a very precise way on which visitors are "handled"- we first went on a very interesting bus ride, and then dropped at the maximum security ward, where we were escorted by an actual political prisoner who spent many years incarcerated there. Of course the name Mandela resonates all the time, but one cannot help to imagine how life had been miserable there for many people. The place was giving all of us a deep sense of desolation, of loneliness and hopelessness. It was pretty emotional, and at last giving a sense of how the Nation resurrected from its own ashes.

LENSBABY! and bits and pieces..

  1. I had not really heard about Lensbaby until 10 days ago- but once I did, and understood what it actually does, I made my research (yes, well, that did not last too long, I am too impulsive) and in no time I placed an order on Amazon for one of their lenses.

So what is it? Better check the website really, for a thorough explanation. Be careful as you might want to get one too very quickly.... Lensbaby.com

So this is what it does in a nutshell:

Luckily I got some flowers on Friday (Woman's day + good boyfriend = pretty flowers) so I could experiment with something sufficiently interesting...

So basically it is a small "tilt and shift" lens, that you can actually move and point into the direction you want in focus- called the "sweet spot"- all the rest around this sweet spot will be blurred and looking like almost in motion. What is really cool about it, is that it has to work all in Manual mode, which kinda brings you back to basics. And also, the lens comes with various "apertures"... which are also manually changed, and are disks with bigger and smaller holes, to let the light in (aka... Aperture), see below:

 The small rings are changed with a small magnet. They go from 2,8f up until 22f. I mean, it is really how a camera works, after all.

The small rings are changed with a small magnet. They go from 2,8f up until 22f. I mean, it is really how a camera works, after all.

I bought a Composer lens, which comes with an optic of 37mm (I think). What is nice is that in the actual "tilting" head, one can change the optics as well, and insert a 35mm, or 80mm, or a Fisheye. All lenses also have their own characteristic blur, like the 35mm (called Sweet 35) has it circular, and the 80mm (called Edge 80) is linear.

I am so excited about it, I can't wait to go out in the city and start taking pictures, and see what will happen... Here you can see what I did today, going around the living room and trying to make it work!

I will be flying to South Africa in less than 3 weeks, with sisters and mother, and I will take it with me- it will be very interesting..!

But this is not the only newbie in my pocket. After working with Roberta and shooting products for the first time, I thought I should do something better than improvising a white background with a random white board - also given the huge headache I had when working on the pictures! Lesson learn. So again, I went on Amazon, and found that with a very small expense one can get something like this:  

When I bought it, I did not think that it could have been too big for our table...!

It is a "photographic kit", meant for products photography, which includes a soft box (80x80cm), 3 lights, and one small tripod for the camera. It is a lot of fun, although I had the time to use it only once so far, and only for 15 minutes or so.

I turned the open side in front of the window, so to have the natural light combined with two small lights.

The one thing I don't know how to solve, are all the wrinkles on the fabric, which is clearly 100% polyester, and I cannot iron it.. I should probably just keep it open and stretched for a few days... and then it will be either me or the box in the house!!

So I tried with this bottle (very good champagne, btw), and played with it and this should be, in theory, the final result:

Clearly still full of imperfections, but I am working on it! I also hand-held the camera, because I did not have time to set up a tripod, and in facts it's not a sharp picture. In facts, it's a pretty crappy one. IN FACTS, the only good thing abut this picture is the content of the bottle.

I want to keep practicing and I can't wait to go out and use my new Composer lens (but I have already said that!). I am also still waiting for a Holga Pin-Hole lens for my camera. I should have enough now for a while, and I really should stop my impulsive purchases (which once were directed to shoes and clothes, and now to all this stuff..).

Hope to have some new good pics soon!

Milano - Tokyo in one metro stop

One day my boyfriend made me a surprise. He told me he would take me somewhere, but I had to patient and not make too many questions. But he told me to bring my camera.. We hopped on the metro in Milano, on the red line. Then we changed on the green one in Cadorna. He asked me "If you could choose, right now, any place where you would like to be, what would it be?". And without even thinking about it, I said "Japan!". I love Japan, I find it absolutely unique and fascinating.. He smiled, like a big, big smile. Then we got off in Moscova, and this is what we found. A fully recreated busy Japanese train station (thanks to a very clever ad-campaign from Fastweb)!