Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Friuli Veneto Giulia (FVG), aka The Friuli

It's a big name.  FVG represents the area of Italy surrounding Venice.  It shares roughly 100 miles of border with Slovenia.  With Slovenia being part of the Euro Zone it's easy to cross back & forth across the border ...if there's a road across... but the roads still reflect the past with access being quite limited. In one border town (Gorizia / Nova Gorica) the train stations are a couple miles apart.  And strangely, you can only access the Slovenian station by foot from the Italian side. It wasn't so bad because the cars can come within 50 feet of the front of the station but there is no way to drop someone off right at the front of the station. 

We chose to stay in Gradisca d'Isonzo, a medium sized town that feels more German than Italian (so neat, clean and fully caucasian).  It's a wine town, not a tourist town.  Lunch is from 12-1:30, dinner starts around 7. We were using it as a base for touring in many directions.  It's less than an hour to multiple attractions in both Italy & Slovenia.  

We programmed our Garmin to avoid the highways in getting from Venice to Gradisca.  At one point we found ourselves driving through the fortifications of Palmanova, a city that appears to be laid out like a spider web.  It's very cool to see on a map. 

Entrance to Palmanova 
We started off our visit to Gradisca with lunch and then doing laundry.  Arriving at 2:30, we learned that we were VERY late for midday dining but we were able to get sandwiches at a small place where a young family was also dining.  And then we met the same family again at the laundromat. Turns out they are from Hungary (although the husband is originally from Canada.)

It was a holiday week, with Wednesday being Assumption Day. Other than making it harder to do touristy things, the holiday didn't seem very significant to the locals.  Tuesday was market day (we love the way vans arrive and unfold into  "showrooms").  

Market stall; note the vehicle under the canopy. At the end of day,
everything folds up and then on to the next market
As expected the market had wonderful seafoods, cheese, vegetables, fruits, and plants. It also had lots of clothing at "good" prices (i.e. cheap). There was also a dog show on Tuesday…the show seemed to focus on LARGE dogs (Bernese Mountain Dogs, Mastiffs, Great Danes, Poodles, Irish Wolfhounds, …). They were impressive to see especially since living in San Miguel we have become very use to seeing very cute small dogs.

On Wednesday we had planned to go to Aquileia & Grado.  
Aquileia, a Roman port city founded around 200BC, has some interesting ruins and a Basilica with colorful Byzantine mosaics in the apse and a floor full of other fine mosaics (covered with a glass walkway to aid viewing). The city was attacked by the Visigoths in 401 AD and then by the Huns in 450 AD. It recovered and was then destroyed by the Lombards in the late 500's… Many residents fled and founded nearby Grado & Venice. We had hoped to see Grado but it is a beach resort and was overrun by vacationing Italians taking advantage of their mid-week holiday.  Well actually we don't know, all we know is there was no available parking within miles… We enjoyed exploring Aquileia though.
Aquileia Bascilica 

Closeup of the floor mosiacs

Another day we drove to nearby Slovenian attractions,  Škocjan Caves and the Lipica Stud Farm.

Škocjan Caves is a World Heritage Site and has one of the largest known underground canyons in the world and it has been inhabited since the prehistoric times. It has around 100,000 visitors per year. Tours go out hourly and a vaguely split by language. They formed our group of maybe 150 visitors into one Slavic tour and two English tours. It was quite impressive, with the suspended Cerkvenik Bridge crossing about 50 m above the river…not great if you are nervous about height but we managed. However, photos are absolutely not allowed.  And this was strictly enforced.  Given the challenge of getting a decent photo in a cave, it makes sense. They would never get those hundreds of visitors through the cave if they all had to get even a few GOOD photos!

We had some idea what to expect at the Lipica Stud Farm, but didn't realize that this is the true home of the Lipizzaner Stallions.  (Actually the name of the town is Lipizza in Italian).  That was one of those "Duh" moments.  If you are familiar with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, they feature performing Lipizzaner Stallions. The stud farm was founded in the 16C by the Austrian Emperor to assure a good source of strong war horses. We learned:
  • the adult Lipizzaner is characteristically white, but the foals are brown, reddish or grey; they turn white only after six to ten years.
  • only the stallions that succeed through rigorous training and can successfully manage key "steps" , the levada, the kapriola and the kurbeta...see photos below) are allowed to actually perform or serve as studs. The others are available for sale, starting at around 6000€ (if I remember correctly). If not sold they get to simply enjoy life on the farm.

The Lipizzaner Show

Lunch time...note the dark color of the colts

One day we drove up through Slovenia for the impressive views over the foothills of the Alps and then back around through Cividale del Friuli (a charming town and center of wine industry.) We enjoyed lunch (mushroom risotto for Pat & lasagna for Bill) and then tried to get lost in the wine country of the Colli region. We did succeed in going around in circles but Garmin was there when needed to get us reoriented. I had hoped to get "accidentally" cross over to the Slovenian side (the Brda wine region) but as previously noted, roads that actually cross the border are rare.

For a small area the FVG has a lot of cultural differences reflecting it's time as part of the Venetian Empire and its time as part of the Austro Hungarian Empire.  Let alone the fact that like so much of Italy, each city tends to consider itself very culturally different from its neighbors.

We were along the Slovenian/Italian border for more than a week. Interesting territory.  So easy to travel across the border (no border control). So much shared history.  Yet so little inter-mixing.  But why should we be surprised?  After all, that is the story throughout Italy.

On our final day in the area we drove to Trieste.  The landmark Miramare Castle was built by the Austrian royal, Maximilian. Apparently he enjoyed it off and on for a few years before going to Mexico to become "Emperor". That reign was short-lived, ending when he was executed in Queretaro in 1867. He clearly made the wrong decision. A life of leisure in a lovely castle or …

Miramare Castle

Trieste is a very patrician looking city and it can be amazingly windy. The winds were definitely performing while we were there...they were gusty and strong.  There were times when we could barely move forward. At other times we feared our glasses would blow off our faces. 

Bill trying to walk into the wind in Trieste

Byzantine Mosaics in Apse of Basilica di San Giusto (Trieste)
View of Trieste from one of the Piers

We visited the castle, wandered around town and had yet another great lunch, this time at Trattoria Nero di Seppia. The fresh anchovies were delicately fried and, were so tiny the bones were totally inconspicuous. Bill enjoyed his tuna steak with pesto & wasabi. We topped this off with a fabulous chocolate dessert (combining the best of chocolate mousse with the best of chocolate decadence) along with Illy expresso (Trieste is the home of Illy.)

Illy Coffee from the home of Illy (Trieste)

OK, you know we can't wrap this up without some wine related details...

The interesting thing for us is the huge range of grape varietals in the area, including many that you are unlikely to find elsewhere. The region is dominated by white wine production, making roughy five times more white than red wine.

The white wine grapes include  Chardonnay, Malvasia Istriana, Müller-Thurgau, Picolit, Pinot bianco, Pinot grigio, Riesling, Ribolla Gialla, Sauvignon blanc, Traminer, Verduzzo, Vitovska, Welschriesling and Tocai Friulano (now called Friulano so Hungary can "protect" it name Tokaji.  We're hearing lots about how the European Community requires dropping treasured customs...). 

The red wines are frequently blends of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. But there are also red wines made from the local Pignolo, Pinot Nero, Refosco, Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso, Schioppettino and Tazzelenghe. 

Now you ask, did we try them all?  It's hard to say for sure, but we certainly tried.  ;-) The local Enoteca helped us in this regard. 
Wine List at Serrinisima Enoteca

If we were doing this again, we would split it into two stays, one centered in Cividale & one in Trieste.  Both cities are small and cute and they each have a selection of good shopping and restaurants.  Great places to hang out for a few days.

Oh speaking of shopping, Pat even found an outlet mall for rainy day entertainment. Oddly enough it was in Palmanova, the fortified city with the spider web layout.  (The mall was outside the old town.)  Also nearby is an Ikea Home Store.  In the middle of nothing...just handy to lots.  Anyway, it is becoming the anchor store for a HUGE new shopping mall opening in November.   

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Venice, take 3

A week ago Monday, we boarded the ferrying Rovinj at 6:30 am for the 3+ hour ferry ride from Rovinj to Venice.  We were among the few using this as a means of moving to Venice. There were literally hundreds of others using it as a day trip. 3+ hours over, 3+ hours back and 3 back to back tour options for the 7 hours of time in Venice. Venice is well worth seeing even if only for a day, but somehow it is mind-boggling to seriously consider that approach.

Fishing boat returning home as our ferry departs Rovinj for Venice
We were in Venice for 5+ days.  We stayed in a small B&B in Canneregio (a bit off the main tourist route). Unfortunately we arrived at an unstaffed vaporetto (water bus) stop with no Euros to buy tickets.  So we hauled our bags up and down way too many bridges as we searched for an ATM and then for another convenient vaporetto stop. 

Our temporary home- fortunately there is no bridge to cross for the main entrance.
Our room is on the lower right.
It can be very hot in Venice in August (and it was).  It can be very crowded in Venice in August (and it was.)  Still, while it was in the 90's it was less humid than we expected and there was often a well-appreciated little breeze. The crowds weren't a problem either. First we weren't doing all the requisite tourist sights (we've done them a couple times) and when we did decide to revisit Basilica San Marco, we learned it is easy to get reservations.

Rialto Bridge with Gondola Passing Under...
it looks peaceful (but it's a rare moment)
Our plan was to wander the lesser visited parts of Venice and visit Padua and Verona. Castello and Cannaregio surround San Marco and the touristy San Marco Square and Rialto Bridge areas. It was busy along the Grand Canal but as you stroll away from the canal there are quiet neighborhoods, fine little trattorias (with good food & wine) and wonderful gelato shops.  Who needs more?

We had planned to visit Verona and Padua, but our host at the B&B advised us to enjoy some quieter spots, Palestria & Vicenza. Forget the fake Romeo & Juliet balcony. Forget trying to take in an opera that starts at 9pm (in a place that is more than an hour train ride from Venice). Relax.

So what did we do for 5 days?  We tried to see Venice more as locals.  We wandered neighborhoods we'd never seen before. We took the vaporetto to the Lido (an island that protects Venice a bit like a breakwater and serves as the resort and beach area).  From the Lido we took a bus which took a ferry to the island of Palestrina.  Palestrina is where the fishermen live and work.  The exposed side of the island is all beach (with coarse sand). The other side is lined with small villages with fishing boats (and small yachts.)

Fishing boats on Palestrina

Bounty from the Fishing Ristorante Da Nane in San Pietro.  Those round little calamari were the sweetest ever!

Our bus back to the Lido, on the ferry from Palestrina
On our first trip to Venice we had visited Murano (noted for its glass works) and Torcello where we had lunch. Torcello predates Venice. It has two ancient churches (one from the 5th century and one from the 11th century), a couple fine restaurants and not much else other than nature reserves and paths.  Nicely rural.  We repeated the day this year, bought a little jewelry on Murano and had a very nice lunch at Villa 600 on Torcello—the spinach raviolis with salmon were outstanding, as was the Pieropan Soave--we didn't know soave could be that great!  The only way to Torcello is to stop at nearby Burano and catch yet another ferry over, hence we've included a photo from the Burano stop below as well.

Your basic farm stand from a canal boat on Murano
A very fine soave at Villa 600 on Torcello
11/12C Church of Santa Fosca on Torcello
Colorful Burano (island know for colorful houses & lace)

Cathedral of Vicenza with dome by Palladio

We also made a day trip to Vicenza by train… Vicenza is noted for it's wealth of palaces & palatial buildings by Palladio (early 16C architect).  While you may not recognize the name, Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's mansion) and the White House feature Palladian architecture.
An anonymous building aspiring to be
a great Palladian Palace...but only from the front.

   The Palazzo Chiericati is one of Palladio's major works.
Palazzo Chiericati is noted for it's this case Pat makes a "cameo" appearance.
This is the Olympic Theater. Behind the three doors are full 3D-street scenes,
easy for the audience to see, but hard to capture in a photo...

We also enjoyed the amazing mosaics in Basilica San Marco.  Pat couldn't resist mimicking the many other visitors in sneaking a couple photos (despite the many admonitions to the contrary.) The view over Piazza San Marco from the top of the Basilica is well worth the effort to climb the steep steps.  We were surprised at how few pigeons there are in the Piazza now…it could have something to do with steep fines for feeding the pigeons...

Central Mosaic from Inside Basilica San Marco.  Yep, there is a lot of gold there...

View of Clock Tower from the balcony of San Marco, with a Tourist in front...
The rest of the time, we wandered among the charming old buildings, bridges, canals and, yes, shops.  …finding way too many spots just screaming to have their pictures taken.  And searching out the next gelato or wine stop, …

Cute (& common) doorbells & mailslot

Azerbaijan Pavilion for the Biennale Art Exposition

The following are shots of store window displays...

Carnivale Masks are popular
Carnivale costumes are also popular displays...I didn't seen anyone buying them though...
Murano Glass figurines are equally popular, but I only saw one orchestra...
And of course this case a string of marshmallow.
A curiosity, but not very tempting. 
And here are shots of typical gondola rides (which start at around 90€ or approx. $120!)
Don't expect a something very private...
But gondolas do offer some great photo ops

Our three Venice visits have been spaced 10 years apart,1993, 2003 and 2013. Guess we'll be back in 2023...and the Rialto will still be a wondrous sight.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Croatian Istria

Could this be San Miguel?
Istria is a Croatian peninsula located very near to Trieste, Italy (but separated from Trieste by the short, maybe 6 mile-long, Slovenian coast.)  Istria has become quite renowned for it's truffles. It is also noted for having been part of many countries…including Venetian Empire, Austrian Empire, Italy, and Yugoslavia.

Istrian cuisine and wine lived up to expectations. Two gourmet meals. One at Monte with superior preparation & presentation.  One at Zigante where we OD'd on truffles...each course, including dessert has shaved truffles. We also enjoyed Segutra, a tapas bar (we went twice). The seafood was also excellent. 

Rovinj center is on a hill and features winding, steep streets like San Miguel. Along the streets are the requisite galleries and clothing shops.  Pat tried to check out ALL of the clothing shops but that was even too much for her.

Between meals we explored Rovinj, the nearby hilltop towns, much like in Tuscany or Umbria, and the neighboring seaside resort of Porec. Two notable hill towns are Motovun and Groznjan (cute, good views, lots of galleries and truffle shops).

During a sunset cruise on a small ship (there were 11 passengers and the captain) we spent our time photographing the harbor and sunset, watching the dolphins and talking with a Norwegian couple who visit Istria every summer.. 

Basilica in Porec
Anticipating more truffles
The highlight of Porec is the marvellous Basilica (built 543-554) with gleaming Byzantine mosaics.If we weren't already planning to see lots more ancient architecture we would have also gone to Pula, known for it's well-preserved Roman Amphitheater.

Frito Misto & Salad at Segutra
The menu & kitchen at Segutra

Rovinj at Sunset

Dining on the rocks

Looking up at Groznjan

Looking down from Motovun

Mackeral & Fries in Porec

Just another dish with truffles... ;-)

The area attracts a broad mix of nationalities and many languages not familiar to us, English was fortunately spoken everywhere as the "common" language. Our experience with Spanish, French and German helped us recognize a surprising amount of the words from the many unfamiliar languages…not enough to be useful but fun to observe.

We stayed at a lovely B&B which was part of a business including the Dbrovac Winery and Green Grocer (farm stand). Needless to say we enjoyed many fine wines, as well as some wonderfully fresh fruits and veggies.

OK, speaking of wines,  the two most noted grapes in Croatia are Malvazija (Malasia) & Plavac Mali.  Both result in fine wines.  Malvazija (white) is made in a range of styles, all dry but some more powerful than others. Plavac Mali is a red, related to Zinfandel.

Next stop: Venice.