9. Amarone & Risotto (and some history…..)

The last supper and the crucifixion of christ were painted on opposing ends of the monks smoko room in Milan. The last supper was a common theme for artists, so leonardo da Vinci (not Leonardo da’capprio just to clarify) didnt invent the concept. What he did do was jazz it up a little and give the various subjects emotions, telling the story of the betrayl of Christ by Judas in their expressions. Its a big piece, as you can tell by a person in the foreground of the crucifixion. The Last Supper took 4 years to paint so the monks were over Leonardo by the time they got their lunch room back. Leonardo used the face of the monk who complained the most as his model for Judas. Cool guy 😎. Wouldve made a good Aussie that Leonardo.

In world war 2 the Italians under Mussolini fought against Australia. As a result, England and America bombed Milano and destroyed 60 percent of the city. Much of the “historical” buildings are reproductions, re built after they were destroyed by aliied forces. Its very sad. I dont get the impression the Italians bear a grudge against us. Ive heard it described many times now as Italy being liberated by the allied troops, but still. There had to have been huge losses of both lives and property. The monks smoko room was hit by a bomb and it blew the place up, but left the two walls with the two paintings standing.  A miracle?

 

And, sorry da Vinci code fans. Theres 12 disciples and Christ in the painting. No ladies. John is beside Christ and looks a bit girly, but thats cause Johns just a bit of a kid. If the character beside Christ is a woman, then we are missing a disciple? What tha? So, what happened? John ducked out for a leak when they did the painting? Or maybe he was running late? Trying to find a park for his ass? All seems a bit unlikely…

We have been outside the church so its time to go inside. The local guides are invaluable, providing insights and history on things that are quite overwhelming.

You cant really tell, but this roof is not carved. Its painted to look 3D. They cant restore it because they cant find anyone who can paint that well.

 

A crypt within the church. A pope? A bishop? A leader? 

Nup. A pimp. I kid you not. This guy ran brothels and made a heap of cash. Towards the end of his life he made a huge donation to the church in an attempt to buy his way into heaven. Did it work? Dunno. But, they did bury him within the church!!!!

A Milano thing is happy hour on the grand canal (Milano had an extensive canal system but Mussolini filled them in to improve car access). Anyhow, their happy hour involves food, not booze and goes for all of dinner time. For 11 euro we got an all you can eat buffet and a drink (glass of a nice amarone). Good fun!

The Grand Canal of Milano is a buzzing, vibrant area of hip bars and restaurants. Take note NSW, the minimarts have fridges full of beer and you just duck in and buy one and walk out the door drinking it. Yet, no violence……. I popped into a shop that sells arancini balls. I bought one. They are really good. The shop is open until 4am.

Then off to Verona! Verona became famous when little Willy Shakespeare did a Natalie Imbruglia and knocked off a story that already existed about two star crossed lovers named Romeo and Giulliet. I’ll give Willy some credit though, he did more to the story re writing it into a play than our Natalie did when she covered Torn. Anyhow, it put Verona on the map. Sadly, little Willy never actually found the time to visit Verona.

 

Research was done to try to suss out who Romeo and Jules actually were and the Italians think they know. This is the house Jules is believed to have lived in. I think the balcony is a new addition. Theres a statue of Jules below it. If you rub her arm its meant to bring luck and ladies if you rub her boob its meant to help you fall pregnant. Robin wouldnt go anywhere near Jules!!!

 

They worked out where Romeo lived too, but no one goes there….

Italy has a problem. There is so much “stuff” in Italy the whole population could be involved in preservation works, but the government isnt real flush with cash. Its a very tricky problem id imagine.

Verona has an arena (not Tinas sister) like Rome does. They hold concerts there and Opera. Opera singers perform there without microphones to crowds of 10 to 15 thousand people. Its open air, so if it rains they have an intermission. Being an arena if theres a horse in the story they actually use a horse! Elephants have been banned at the Opera nights after one fell into the orchestra pit….

The bridges were destroyed by the allied forces in the second world war but have been re built. Such destruction.

 

 

Ok, enough of Verona. Its lunchtime 😄.

Verona is a short drive from the wineries of Valpolicella. The home of Amarone!!!!! Woo hoo!!!! Amarone means bitter, which is a pity. Amarone is not s bitter wine. Its a long story but the first Amarone was a mistake. The winemaker was trying to make a sweet red wine (a bit like a vintage port) but cocked up and made a dry red. It wasnt sweet like he wanted so he referred to it as being not sweet or bitter. But, its not bitter. Amarone is lovely.

Anyhow, a lovely lunch with matched wines preceeded a winery tour where grapes are spread out on racks to dry and sultana prior to the commencement of the winemaking.

Followed by a short drive to Venice. Venice is accessable by car from the mainland via a bridge. Its a lovely drive across it.

And on to the River Countess, our home for the next week. Its a Dutch boat, Dutch captain with an international crew. Many crew members are from Bulgaria and have backgrounds in studying languages.

 

8. Saying Goodbye to the Fiat 500.

And so it was it came time to leave cascina giardini. Its hazelnuts, its wine, its tomotoes, its chicks that hatched that morning, its bumblebees, Rosa and Andrea. I have travelled a bit in my time. I go somewhere. I listen and watch and learn and then I move on. Rarely does a place capture me. Rarely do I look back as I leave. Im focused on the next place. The next task or the next adventure. Cascina Giardini (the farmhouse gardens) had an impact on me. Im not sure either myself or piggs peake is finished with Cascina Giardini or Andrea. My mind is turning with possibilities……….

 

So, its a 2 hour drive on the Autostrada back to Milano airport to drop off our faithful Fiat 500.

News reports are still coming in on the bridge collapse in Genoa. The death toll is still rising. Politicians are playing the blame game and the company who owns the road has pledged 500 million Euro to help Genoa. Some appreciate the gesture, others question why that money hadnt already been spent on maintenance. There is talk of a state funeral for the dead and equal talk of boycotting the funeral by families of the deceased. Its all very tragic.

We get picked up at Milano airport by our friends at Uniworld and transferred to the Star Hotel in Milano (not the Star Hotel in Newie that Chisel sings about. Quick bit of trivia, Chisel never played at the Star Hotel. And, Ian Moss has never been to Bow River, anyhow……). In the foyer of the Star Hotel is a golden dog which quickly becomes a meeting point.

 

At 5pm we have a briefing involving those on the bus trip to Venice. Basically, tonight is a free night (so we head for Signorvino wine bar). Tomorrow is a tour of Milano and the next day we drive to Venice stopping in Valpollicella for lunch at a winery! 😎

 

Its our 3rd trip to Signorvino. I love it.

Theres an Italian wine focus, lovely food ( we had pumpkin flowers and salumi with a little bit of french bread with topping) a glass of gewurz and a glass of Amarone (grande glass, not piccolo) for 40 euro. As usual, the booze bill was bigger than the food bill….

Then we need a walk to settle dinner. We come across a Disney shop, but its too late. The release nights have been and gone!

 

 

And, if you ever had any doubts about what country you are in, just check out the shop displays!

7. Last Day on the Hazelnut Farm.

A quiet day today driving around the surrounds. The agriculture is quite definite as it the landscape.

At Dogliani the land flattens out and long, flat plains go off to the horizon. The argiculture shifts from grapes and hazelnuts to things like corn, lucerne and cattle. Cheese production takes center stage down this way.

Then lunch at cafe Le Le. Gnocchi with local cheese sauce and tagliatelle ragu. Both dishes are simple and delicious. A bottle of Arneis was required to wet the whistle. Before lunch, little nibbles of pate’, a meat inside a pastry case and some cold meats were provided by the restaurant. A lady was celebrating her 95th birthday, but with a deft movement she switched the numbers on the cake and became 59 again. Brilliant! There were some lovely hounds present too. A big bear of a dog similar to a St Bernard. I showed the owner a video of my bluey and she said “What is that?”

That night, we were sitting on the deck nibbling meats and feeling quite content when our host Rosa decided to make us a platter for dinner. Shed made little parcels of meat in pasta like ravioli. Tomatoes shed grown with tuna on top. Some pate’ on a biscuit and again pesto from the garden. I said to Robin “this is the difference between a 5 star and where we are here. Love.”

 

 

 

 

 

6. Barbera and Nebbiolo on the Hazelnut Farm

And morning time means breakfast on the hazelnut farm. Today we have a local pot set yoghurt, vegan chocolate cake (Italians are increasingly going vegan and vegetarian, gluten free, etc), a croissant that tastes like panatone and a lovely little custard slice. Throw in a fried egg and enough coffee and we are ready to go exploring.

A fiat, followed by a fiat, then a fiat, another fiat and a fiat to finish..

First stop is a little church with 360 degree views of the area
Next stop a castle which is a center for truffles, wine (it has an enoteca) and research.

 

Lunch is a simple affair. Bread rolls with tomato and cheese or ham and cheese for 4 euro. The tomatoes are just so good. Theres a photo on the cafe wall of two goats in a car. They look like my goats Rupert and Winnie. Maybe its their great grand parents Ronaldo and Willma?

 

 

 

Our hosts on the farm are Andrea and his mum Rosa. Andrea studied winemaking for 9 years and on the farm he grows Barbera and Nebbiolo. After going to various Enotecas, trying wines at 20, 30, 40, 50 euros the two best wines Ive had have been Andreas Barbera that him and his dad made for fun and whacked a jam jar label on for 8 euro.
And this bad boy from the famous town of Mango (I kid you not). Similarly, for about 8 euro.

 

 

Mango is about 15km from the hazel nut farm, so Im toying with the idea of getting some for Yellow Billy. The freight is tricky though..

 

August 15 is a bit of a party day in Italy, so Andreas friends came round for a bbq and a few wines. It was a nice group of winemakers and people who worked in local enotecas. We talked shop briefly. Screw cap is coming in, but only on early drinking wines. Diam corks are in use (a ground cork which is put back together after any off odours are removed). We bbqd sausages, veal, pork. The veal and the pork were thinly cut, on the bone and cooked to well done. The burning oak gave a lovely smokiness to the meats. There were sheep skewers., a local speciality. We drank sparkling whites from Burgundy, local nebbiolos, rose’s. Lovely people and a lovely evening.

5. Eating Around Alba

So, its morning and off to brekky on the hazelnut farm near Alba. Its a simple affair. Things grown in the garden and cooked by Rosa in the kitchen. Its wonderful. Rosa only speaks Italian and if you dont understand her it doesnt matter. She just keeps going…….

She grows ox heart tomatoes like my grandfather used to and they are delicious. I told her that and she beamed. I now have permission to go into her garden and pick whatever I want. Its similar here to the farm I grew up on. The seeds from the best fruit are kept and planted next season. As a kid our window sills always had seeds drying on them.

 

The cappuccino was served with a pitcher (like a gravy boat) of something black. When I asked what it was, the answer was coffee. If your cappuccino isnt strong enough, add coffee. Brilliant!

Then a shower……. I kid you not. 3 rooms in Italy, same shower 3 times. Mumma Mia!

We then asked our host what to do today. The drive from Alba to Genoa is called the romantics drive. Robin wants to do that drive. But, our host said he could get us in to Montaribaldi winery for a tour and a tasting. Then, we could go to an Enoteca (wine library) that has over 100 Barberescos in it. Its in an old church in Barberesco. So, romance or booze???? I chose booze. As we sat on the deck at the winery we could hear thunder off to the south and the vineyards were firing compressed air cannons at the clouds to prevent hail. In the middle of all this down at Genoa the weather was bad and a freeway bridge collapsed. The sketchy reports Ive heard suggest around 30 people died as a result. A sad day for Italy.

 

The vineyards themselves are on significant slopes. Tractors have caterpillar tracks, not wheels. The vines have fruit on them 40cm from the ground, then a tall, skinny canopy. Most are impeccably maintained despite appearing almost impossible to even walk around or bend down to.

Genius! But, a bottle that big is probably a couple of grand. Expensive to make…….

The Enoteca of Barberesco. Barberesco has sandy soils making lighter wines and clay soils making heavier wines. The last few years the weather patterns have been unpredictable. 2014 was wet and the wines taste a bit vegetative. 2015 was stinking hot and the wines are good for younger drinking, but classic styles of Barberesco were not produced in these years. Trying the wines at the Enoteca lets you see these things.

 

Off to Alba for a walk around, then dinner. Theres enotecas everywhere.
White truffle is the towns speciality, so stores selling truffle oil, truffle cheeses.
Roosters for your Sunday roast or a pig biscuit filled with hazlenut chocolate.
For dinner we grabbed a 250ml jug of house wine (I suspect an unoaked barberesco, fine but not exciting. They do a lot of these cheap, simple wines for everyday chugging without thinking) and zucchini fritters. The waitress was lovely and verbally offered menu items.

 

She was talking to customers from all over the world in pigeon this or pigeon that. Raw meat?, she offered me. Im thinking she means carpaccio (something thinly sliced and dressed) or steak tartare (hand cut with egg yolk, spices, onion). But, no. Basically a rectangular tray of un-cooked mince comes out. Right……. Anyhow, an enjoyable evening before coming home to nibble on truffled cheese and drink Arneis 😎.

4. Arrived in Alban

Morning has broken at Lake Como and we have wandered down for breakfast. Paula is looking after us and she is just lovely. She has been our source of information while here having spent nearly 40 years in the area.

 

Breakfast is a simple affair, but eggs that are so yellow, tomatoes that are so red, house baked heavy bread, coffee so good that I leave out the pinch of sugar I normally put in and a home made sweet custard pie to finish on. Just so beautiful both the place and the food.

Breakfast guests include wasps, bees and swans all of whom seem to respect the peace of the place. Paula sets a place for the bees and the wasps where its quieter hoping they will dine alone….

After brekky we jumped in the car to drive from Italy, through a finger of Switzerland and back into Italy. As soon as we got in the car the rain started. It lasted for hours as we drove. Just bucketing. Around the Lake areas the land is so steep that the rain quickly forms fast running streams running down the slopes. Luckily the Fiat is a diesel so it just ploughed through all the water. The Switz border is in a forest area just before a long tunnel through a mountain. I stopped and wound down the window to talk to the border security and show passports, get stamped, do vehicle checks etc. The guard just looked surprised when I spoke to him and waved me through. As we left Switzerland I think the border was in the center of a shopping district!!!!

Can you just pop over to Switzerland and get me some cheese dear?

Anyhow, all rough driving in pouring rain. Stopped at one point for a cute dancing waters display and a pizza and an espresso.

 

Stopped at Alba for bread, cheese, tomato, avocado, wine and salumi. The salumi shop closes in the middle of the day and re opens at 4pm. We met the nicest guy and had a great chat about his family members in Australia and the meat, wine and cheese he sold despite neither of us speaking the others language. Similarly, the lady selling fruit and veg next door.

 

With the heavy rain fading we arrive at 430pm at the hazelnut farm come vineyard which is home for the next 4 days.

 

 

Winding down after the drive….

A vespailed peach tree

Hazelnuts nearly ready and yummy plums the size of grapes

This place is so beautiful. Corn, chickens, cherries, pomegranate, peaches, plums, tomotoes, pumpkins, egg plants, pumpkins, zucchini, sunflowers and every few moments I find something new. The vineyard produces Nebbiolo and Barbera and the winemaker here is young and smart. The 8 euro wines he is producing with a jam jar label on them are very good. Such an idyllyic place. The family owned it as a weekender but decided to do it up and make it accomodation. A huge job, but what a result!

3. Pizza, Panini and Prosecco in Bellagio

Theres a “train” that tows carriages full of tourists around the coast between the towns of Griante and Mellagio. Its just a converted tractor dressed up. Its great fun. People love it and if the NSW government is following this YOU DONT HAVE TO RIP UP THE STREET TO BUILD IT. Theres nothing wrong with simple solutions people!

 

We had a chat with the lady making the pizza and she lives 2km away up steep windy roads. Being a food cart it has to go home each day, but she wont drive it. To scary driving bendy steep roads in a 3 wheeler!

 

Dogs are encouraged everywhere. Thinking back to Peck department store in Milano people were shopping with their dogs. Again, such commonsense. The Hunter Valley is currently struggling with food codes banning dogs from cellar door. Can anyone tell me why?????

An ad for schoolbooks I think…..

And, the explaination for the fireworks last night. 11 Agosto at 1030pm at Menaggio. The local towns compete for who can put on the biggest and best display. Wow! Its a serious competition for little villages.

 

Beer time. Italy also has a growing interest in craft beer leading to the production of all the ingredients domestically.

Nice beers, but at 6.5 euro its back to the minimart and the 1.5 euro becks for me!

Back at the minimart buying Becks and I ran into another favourite grape Nero D’avola. A lovely wine.

The avocado took me back to my childhood when avocados were good and half an avocado would be served at a dinner party as a course. It was buttery, nutty, blemish free, just delicious.

 

I planted 8 avocados on my farm last year but lost them all to frost. So, it was back down to the shores of Lake Como for pancetta, pickled mushrooms, dark heavy bread, avocado and a sip of Nero. Tomorrow we drive to Alba, but, looking at the map, theres a piece of Switzerland sticking out in our way. Stay tuned……

Lake Como

Rightio, morning it is. So, we went for a quick walk after breakfast to see some local cultural pieces.

 

Then, grab a shower. Now, im not going to say the shower was small, you just had to get out of it if you needed room to do something like change your mind……. Anyhow, the pressure was good and the hot water was plentiful. But, everytime I tried to wash something youd hear a bang as I hit the glass.

 

It became a running joke. Then Robin tried to do a part leg shaving part contortionist routine, the grand finale of which was dropping the razor and turning off the mixer tap with her arse when she bent over to pick it up. So, showers over and off to the tranny station

 

The trains in Italy (I think) are brilliant. Fast, clean, relatively cheap and hassle free. I love em. So, a short walk to Milano station and a 30 min train ride saw us at our hire car company where a short 2.5 hours later we became the proud owners for a week of a Fiat 500! I Fiat, but I dont believe it……..

 

 

The Fiat 500 wasnt actually the car of choice. But, being technophobes (I have been considering the Amish superior to me in their computer skills lately) we failed to download the offline google maps app so had no sat nav. I need a sat nav! They saved my marriage when they came out. Robin is the navigator but she gets car sick when she looks down. So, for over a decade we drove around together lost with me saying “where are we” and her saying “I dont know, I cant look down”. Anyhow, we could rent a sat nav for 13 euro a day in the Fiat Panda wed paid for or upgrade to the Fiat 500 for 25 a day with built in sat nav. So, Fiat 500 it is!

 

 

So, its time to go Top Gear on this things arse. Keyless entry, self opening boot (with a DOUBLE CLICK of the button, right, like i saw that coming), manual, right hand drive, diesel, push button start, GPS, automatic headlights, automatic wipers, power windows. Wow! Fantastic while its under warranty……… Anyhow, after a brief 30 min working out how to enter our destination into the GPS we were off! In the wrong direction. Then, in the right direction. We stopped at a stop sign to turn right and the guy behind us overtook us at the intersection. Welcome to driving in Italy!!!!!! Everything you have heard is true. Road rules are merely suggestions, taken with a grain of salt. But, we set our sights for Lake Como 😄.

 

 

The drive to Lake Como is amazing. Mountains, tunnels, spectacular scenery, its got it all. Once you get off the toll way you hug the waters edge on narrow twisty roads through towns.

 

Tourists walk the non-existant verge flirting with death by Fiat. In places, the centre line on the road disappears which I think is Italian for “two cars cant pass”. So, driving isnt for the meek. At one point I overtook a car as a motorbike overtook me all on a narrow 2 lane road. Robin screamed a couple of times. Anyhow, we arrived safely at 4pm but with nerves still jangling. First stop was a pub for a schooner at 4 euro. It was hot, cramped but the beer was good. Second stop was the local mini mart for a cold 500ml Becks beer 1.50 euro which we took down to the lakes edge and thorougly enjoyed (sorry inkeeper). Behind us on the mountain is a church. The colours of the mountain look surreal. It looks like a Sound of Music backdrop. The lake itself is 200m above sea level. 150m deep on average but super deep in places where the bottom of the lake is actually below sea level. Just an awesome place.

 

Anyhow, back to the minimart where I bought a 6 euro bottle of Negro Amaro (one of my favourite grapes) and then wondered how to get the wine out.

Back to the mini mart where I bought an ingenious device which easily removed the synthetic cork allowing access. Brilliant!

Early afternoon: About now , my phone went dead. So , i popped it on charge and went out. Where we are staying the road hugs the waters edge. Buildings on one side, lake on the other. BUT, the restaurants have their seated areas on wharves on the lake itself with the kitchen on the other side of the road. It creates this endless game of chicken as staff carrying plates of food and drinks try to cross a road teaming with sports cars, push bikes, motorbikes, rental cars etc all with scant regard to any road rules. I ordered a margheritta pizza for 5 euros and a beer 5 euros off a particularly fit young waitress who I suspect with her yoda like training probably would make the Australian touch footie team. Her acceleration off the mark, her step and her swerve were hypnotic to watch.

It was like watching Patches O’ Houlihan coach a dodgeball team. “If you can dodge a car you can dodge a ball!”

Anyhow, in this gladitorial style of restauranting the only measure of success is survival. She successfully bought me a perfectly executed pizza. Base just dotted with scorch marks, smokey but not burnt. Brilliant! Anyhow, back to the bedroom for some shut eye, or so I thought……..

 

About 10:30pm explosions started to rock the night. I didnt immediately react, but after a few minutes I grabbed a towel and snuck out on the verandah for a look. Fireworks! No great surprise really. Either the Italian military were training or it was fireworks. They had been going for some time, so I didnt bother going to get a camera as I knew they would soon end. But, they kept going. So, I got the camera and took a few snaps. Then, watched a bit longer. Finally, i got bored and went to bed where I could still hear the booming and the sparking. Ive had a little (very little) to do with fireworks, enough to know someone just blew up a shitload of cash. Im curious what it was all about. Will investigate on the morrow……. it was an amazing display over the lake.