Thursday, December 18, 2014

Italia : Venezia

Mainland, Venice

Now that I am on a roll I just want to finish this mini travelogue as fast as I can. Venice was the last stop on our Italian trip. Having seen the Venice of the East , you'd think there is not much of a surprise here. But Venice (Venezia, as the italians call it) was a whole different experience. Built on wooden platforms supported by wooden stakes driven into the ground, this city on water has a very special ambience that is all at once charming and haunting. It is said that Venice is slowly sinking  and a lot of the people and offices are moving to the mainland. Let us hope this breathtakingly exotic floating city will not disappear that fast on us. One can feel the effect of deteriorating structures if one is able to pay any attention to such things amidst the resplendent glory.

Welcoming Duck at our Venetian rental place

Our train reached Venice around noon. The last station was at the edge of the mainland. From there we took a vaporetto or water bus to Venice. Here we changed our style a bit and all ten of us stayed in a townhouse charmingly named Ca' de l'Oca or the house of the duck. It is named after a board game of sorts like 'Ludo' or Candyland. There was a picture of it on the kitchen wall.

It was in a residential alley and so quintessentially venetian that we could feel like a resident even if for a few days. We bought groceries and gathered in the living room and went out and came back as we pleased as if in our own homes. Except for the plumbing going awry and causing a strong fishy smell it was the best way to stay at the end of the trip. HAunt even found the time to cook rice and chicken fry for us on the last day. Our first Indian food in ten days was a welcome change. She is a pediatrician but aren't we blessed that she also loves to cook?

St. Mark's Church
It rained constantly in Venice and since we were already armed with umbrellas and ponchos this couldn't stop us from going about. First in list of course was St.mark's church. It is believed that the church contains the relics of the apostle St.Mark. This apostolic connection appear to be more tenuous than the trail of St. Thomas the apostle in India. We managed to squeeze in through the valiant efforts of our cousins running ahead to find a place in the queue before the doors closed for the day. The inside was as magnificent as expected but we could see slow deterioration settling in on the edges of beauty. Culprit being the constantly seeping in salty winds. Managed to click a few pictures before we were told it is not allowed inside this church.

Piazza San Marco - St. Mark's Square

We spent time at St. Mark's square the next day which was rather sunny. Went up the green topped bell tower in the square to get an aerial view of Venice which was totally worth it. Got a few good pictures from up there too.

View from The Bell Tower

We also visited the famous glass blowers of Murano and watched the demo of a glass vase and horse being made in front of our eyes. For that horse to be made so fast before the hot glass sets and to be so stable, the glass maker needs to be an expert with a training of at least 5-6 years.

Murano glass
Glass can be so beautiful when made into jewelry and artifacts of brilliant colors and shapes! On the way to Murano, we passed  Isola di San Michele which I later learned to be a  cemetery for mostly famous people.

San Michele, Venice - seen through the rain

I was haunted by its silent brooding presence in the water with the waves constantly breaking on its fortified walls as the boat got closer. Of course there is a dome for the church even on that island which gives any architecture definition and grace.

What is a visit to Venice without a ride on the gondola? The gondolas are built narrow and long so as to navigate the narrow waterways between the buildings like in the picture here. Now it is mainly a tourist thing. They are very expensive to own, around $50,000.00 or so. Our gondolier inherited his gondola from his grandfather. We were extremely lucky to have one rain-free evening so we could actually enjoy the ride.

Grand Canal, Venice
The ride took us to the Grand Canal where we saw many famous buildings overlooking the canal. There was one that was supposedly occupied by Napoleon. That venetians travel mostly on boats is a source of amazement to me. To not feel the ground under your feet all the time must be odd? One of the places I wanted to visit, was the Doge's Palace.

As we reached this last part of our trip I was slowly being besieged by the most villainous cough and accompanying flu. That I was almost down and out by the second day in Venice was sad but I did make the most of the time there. Who has time to fall ill when such excitement beckons? It was good that we were were in a home together so I could actually rest as if I am home while others were out and about. That this pest of a cough will blow into a full fledged nightmare once we got home and will put its chokehold on me for the next few weeks was not known at the time. I am grateful that the kids didn't get it while traveling.

Ciao, Italy!

On the last day we were all scampering to clean up the villa, catch the right vaporetto to mainland and to get on our planes on time etc. It was a great trip. While we enjoyed it to the hilt and speak of it fondly to this day, it was also great to be back home in our own cozy lair and just chill. Not to mention catching up with our gentle cat, Zeus.

Hello, Zeus!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Italia: Firenze, Siena, Pisa, Tuscany

Time really is a missing commodity these days. While most moms turned into soccer moms I was having a relatively peaceful life with piano classes, voice classes and some badminton on the side for the kids. But now my girl has joined Volleyball and my son is doing Cross Country at their schools and voila' there are games sprinkled all over the calendar with pickups and drop-offs galore. Not to mention those practice sessions that fall so cruelly on weekends! I am talking about the Saturday mornings you used to look forward to after a grueling week of activities and those quiet Sunday afternoons that were set aside to gather some calm before the next week's storm. Gone with the wind is all I can say. I am glad the sports activities have come to a halt for the moment. Who knows, maybe one day I will take to sports just like I have taken to vegetables.

Continuing with our Italia trip as you guessed from the title.

From Rome we took the evening train to Florence. Panoramic view is the word for it. Beautiful country side slipping by.  So what is new, those of us from Kerala -read panoramic- might say. But this countryside has its own inimitable beauty. The ten of us had the best seats at a really good rate. A ride to remember.

Il Duomo, Florence, Italy

We reached Florence at night and decided to walk to our hotel which was a few blocks away. Dragging luggage over cobblestones is not a fun walk but I am glad we did it. Florence is the one place I would like to go back to. It has a bit of everything. More amenities like in the US, Tuscan countryside at your beck and call, museums and churches galore. We stayed at Hotel Paris and since the night was still young, walked over to the Dome. Yes, Brunelleschi's Dome. Again like most Italian churches, adorned every inch with some artifact or sculpting and breathtaking as expected. At least from the outside since it was closed at night although well lighted. Then we all went to sleep after a customary dose of gelato.

Painting at the Uffizi

Some of us woke up early next morning to see the inside of the Duomo (the Dome) but some of us like me stayed and rested. Later on we visited the Uffizi Museum and guess what, more famous and awesome paintings, sculptures. Honestly one cannot do justice to the paintings by such a brief visit. The Uffizi shows off all the artwork acquired by the Medici. Medici literally ruled Florence although they started off as bankers. Became very wealthy and powerful and started patronizing art and architecture. Luckily for us, they gave many commissions to such stalwarts as Michael Angelo, Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Caravaggio the list goes on. There were many Medici popes who continued the family tradition in Rome.

Then we went to Galleria dell' Accademia where the famous statue of David resides. As perfect and magnificent as The Pieta, this reminds us once again why Michael Angelo continues to live through centuries.
Looks like he was after perfection. Our hotel was close to Basilica of Santa Croce where Michael Angelo is buried. HAunt went to see it. Unfortunately we didn't make it. The Uffizi Museum by the way was the office building of the Medici where they had their accounting activities. The Uffizi means the office you see. Here is a picture of river Arno from the Uffizi.

River Arno, view from the Uffizi

Since Florence is very walkable like most places in Italy, we walked everywhere. No matter where we went we always ended up at the square in front of the Duomo. At night my kids played throwing some kind of lighted flying toy high up into the air, we had more gelatos and we walked more. The covered bridge with tiny gold jewelry shops was a novelty. Didn't notice that we were on a bridge while passing through!
Ponte Vecchio, ponte = bridge
When everyone opted for rice and pasta as usual for dinner, the kids and I decided to checkout the milkeria we had seen while passing by. We were rewarded with the best waffles, gelato and coffee. Score!

Replenished with a good night's rest we got up and got ready for a tour through the Tuscan countryside that included wine tasting, a visit to the fortified city of San Gimignano, the leaning tower of Pisa, Da Vinci's house among other things. Since it was a bus tour we were time limited. So we had to see Pisa in half an hour through drenching rain. Umbrella peddlers are a dime a dozen since sudden rain showers are a common occurrence. Three euros is the cheapest you can get an umbrella for.

Tower of Pisa on the right, taken by Hcousin in the moment rain cleared a little
If it wasn't for my Hcousin's organizational skills, things would not have gone so smooth for us. She, along with her husband did a splendid job in keeping us together, leading us and making the most of the trip without wasting too much time without the hassles of being on a tour all the time.

View from San Gimignano's town square
San Gimignano was surprise. A beautiful quaint little town on the hill with fourteen towers still standing. We enjoyed every minute. I didn't know that it had a famous ( but of course) little church that housed the remains of a little saint called St. Fina!

On the way we had visited the house where Leonardo Da Vinci grew up. I guess to this date there is no man who has done as much work as he has in so many fields. There were many displays of the prototypes made from the pictures in his codex.

This is a view from the top floor of his house. If you look closely through the rain, you can see the vitruvian man standing up inside the circle. Leonardo helped solve that puzzle among the many other things that he used that always buzzing brain for. Our wine tasting stop was combined with pasta lunch and tasty pieces of meats. Italians know how to make food tasty. The pepperoni and salami that we tasted there even from the  Italian grocery stores were eons away from their counterparts available in the grocery stores here. Full of flavor and great to eat with fresh bread and oils. Yum! The winery was in the middle of Tuscany and the young Italian owner regaled us with many stories. We loved the one about real Chianti wine. If the bottle has a black rooster on it then we can presume that it is the 'real' Chianti wine. OK!

The Duomo, Siena, Italy
Our last stop was at Siena. This is a find! Located so close to Florence, Siena does not get as much publicity as its historic rival. I was taken away by the  beauty of the church, another one called The Duomo. Superlatives are beginning to sound pedestrian when it comes to describing the architectural beauty of italian anything. After viewing the church we walked around a bit before getting back to the bus. My girl had walked off with HAunt. As we returned to where the bus was parked, I was jolted out of my reverie when aunt asked if we had seen my girl. Apparently she had walked off again while our aunt was in a shop. So we retraced our steps, got slightly lost in the process and finally began walking back with a heavy heart to recoup and plan what to do. I made a decision in my mind to stay and comb every inch of Italy till I find my girl. Luckily, as we came closer to the bus, who do we see but the little truant who had walked off safely with the cousins! I burst out in tears but she was not happy being lost when she was not:-) The cousins didn't even know about her being lost because she was with them! Poor aunt, bless her heart was really miserable but I told it would have happened even if she was with me. I think other than me and my husband, my kids are the closest to her and I have no problem sending them with her anywhere because where there is love, nothing else matters. Anyway it ended up happily but I still remember the ominous, high walled, damp streets of Siena that filled my heart with the darkness even if for a moment. After we got back, the cousins went out to see the streets of Florence one last time while the rest of us including our aunt and uncle took some well earned rest.

Next day morning we all packed up, said bye to Firenze as they say in Italy and did the cobblestone luggage drag walk back to the train station. After some wait we got on the train to our next stop, Venice. More of that in the next post.

A painting inside the church in Siena

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thanksgiving Menu Board

If I wait for a more convenient time to write something to go along with the picture, it will be too late since Christmas spirit is taking over the nation as winter is progressing along with pervading cold. By the way, it's been raining cats and dogs the last few days. There was even a thunderstorm not too far from us. Californians are taking it all in their stride thinking of snow piling up on the Sierra snow packs and the leveling of groundwater to get out of the draught. Apparently 4-5 days of rain will not cut it. We need more of the same for a month or two to set us up for next summer's water needs. Let us hope it remains so. Umbrellas are coming out the woodworks and getting damaged left and right. They were built for the slow drizzling rain and mild winds that this region is used to. We need those ultra resilient St. George umbrellas that can battle the might of monsoons let alone what we call "thunderstorms" here in Cali.

So my girl made this board before the Thanksgiving party to put up our menu. H built this board for the kitchen but the surface is too rough to use it on a daily basis. I do bug him on it on a daily basis too:-) But we found some nice bright pens that can conquer the roughest of them and while erasing is still a pain we can at least do some fun stuff like this once in a while. She tried a few things on the board and finally settled on a menu. Us along with many of the guests thought it looked neat. We had of course all those items and some. Ok we are done with TH till next year. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Guest Post:Mashed Potatoes

When I sat down to start this post, my son wanted to add his two cents on the thanksgiving food, especially the potatoes. So I'll just let him have his say instead of writing a full post today. Here it is:

In all my experience dealing with the fluffy goodness known as mashed potatoes, none compare to what was prepared in my household this fiscal year. Now, I do not know what tomfoolery my mother did to create such a delectable taste, but something went right, and I'm very happy to eat these potatoes. IN FACT, they were so good, we had to make another batch just to last out the thanksgiving leftovers, as the originals were gobbled down by us and the rest of the guests. If I were to describe the taste, it would seem to be quite smooth. But what really made the potatoes pop was the gravy, and boy, this year it turned out better than expected.
-my son, the high school freshman and food network enthusiast

He has gone off happily, having finished what he set out to do. I don't have any mashed potato pictures, but I am adding a one of the roasted bird here.

It was a 22 lbs bird and took about 4 hours to roast including the half hour at 500F step from Alton Brown.

I used PW's brine and substituted the vegetable stock with apple juice since I didn't have enough veggie stock. I added 1 more quartz of water and a quarter cup more of salt and brown sugar for the heavier turkey. It is important that the turkey is fully immersed in the brine. Canola oil worked out fine after all. Just used enough to cover the turkey once. Too much can cause more smoke at the 500 degree step. All went smooth this time especially with close to 30 people over and I am really happy and relieved.