Thursday, October 21, 2010


I am officially a convert, and not the only one. Something happens when the best possible version of a given product is available just two blocks away. It seems to melt even your most ardent convictions and standards for yourself. I have, for most of my life been able to avoid getting hooked, while still enjoying the occasional indulgence of this particular substance. The enjoyment of it has always been high, but I know it's effects on me are stronger than for most, so I have avoided regularity of consumption, in kindess to my body.

That is until recently.....

It all started with trying to coax myself out of jet lag, and then continued with the demands of running a household, parenting and homeschooling in a place far from home, without speaking the language. When I first started trying to reduce I had intense headaches of withdrawal. Then I succeeded in getting it down to every other day, and that seems to be the best I will be able to do until we leave.

In case you are wondering, I am talking about coffee, and not just any coffee. I have had some of the best coffee in North America. I have been to the Blue Bottle in San Francisco, I occasionally patronize some of the more remarkable coffe shops on Vancouver Island with organic and/or ethical and yet yummy drinks. I gluttonously enjoy a coffee a few time a month, normally. Frankly, there is nothing that could have prepared me for the allure of European coffee, and within that; Italian coffee, and within that; L'Altroverso. I have now had amazing swiss coffee, and fantastic Italian coffee in multiple urban centres. However, the best of the best of the best is Altroverso, here in Pavia. Which happens to be just up the road from us. And it happens to have dissolved all my pre-conceived ideas about my own consumption of the beverage. I fantasize about it.

The funny thing is that it isn't just me. My Man is a notorious coffee aficionado, and unabashedly hooked. Friends who have stayed with us here or visited, and are just as well traveled (or more so) and either as much of an aficionado as my Man or as previously coffee-averse as I was (or more so) are all hooked, and not one of us regret it for a second. I am not sure how this fixation of mine will work out when I eventually leave, but who knows, maybe it will make it easier to avoid coffee in North America? Where could I possibly go from here?

We go to L'Altroverso pretty much daily, greeted by the smiling faces you can see by following the link. They have all sorts of food and sweets as well but we go always for cappucinos, or "cappuc", and sometimes the yummy cream or marmalade filled croissants or "crema brioche". The cappucinos are warm without being too hot, sizeable without being vast. The milk is frothy and the espresso is so smooth and flavourful that I never need to use sugar; there is just no bitterness. We sometimes sit down at the little tables in the shop or stand at the bar and quickly but gratefully gulp it down, other times one of us gets a few to go and brings them to the others. They are always always very very good. This is the coffee that dreams are made of.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ten things NOT to do in Florence with Children (and how to have fun anyway)

  1. Don't go with shingles or any other painful condition or disease. My Man came down with shingles the day we left, and due to miscommunication and slight insanity we went anyway. He spent half the trip in bed in the hotel. Not so much fun for anyone, especially him.
  2. Don't neglect to book tickets to the Uffizi gallery ahead of time. We tried to book them through our hotel upon arrival and there were none available. No "Birth of Venus" for us.
  3. Don't go the first or last Monday of the month or neglect to check opening hours for everything you go to in detail. We tried to go to the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace on two seperate days. The first one we weren't ready to go until it was almost closed, and the following day it was supposed to be open except that it was the first Monday of the month. We arrived after a 20 Euro taxi ride to locked gates, and then walked all the way back. The view through the bars:
  4. Don't get a hotel just outside the historic part of the city and then expect your 3 1/2 year old walk all day long. Ask your hotel if they can provide a stroller or bring one yourself. Better yet, book a hotel close to the historic part of town (of which the Duomo is the center). You will pay a lot more, and it will be hard to find availability, but taxis are expensive and a bit of a hassle, and you will see much more of the city.
  5. Don't go to a cafeteria for dinner. These are super cheap deli/salad bar type places. You get what you pay for, I don't recommend it. There are zillions of really yummy restaurants in Florence, many quite kid-friendly. Just allow yourself enough time for a sit-down meal. Foccacia or pizza are good quick dinner options too.
  6. Don't book your hotel through a third party, speak to or book with the hotel directly. We booked through an online third party who claimed we had a room even though the hotel disagreed when we spoke with them directly. We didn't have a confirmed room until an hour before we left. When we arrived late at night it was to rooms at our four star hotel that smelled moldy and had visible mold in the bathrooms. When we mentioned it to the hotel folks the next day, they switched us to much much nicer rooms for the rest of the trip.
  7. Don't book your hotel at the last will end up with very few choices and slim pickings. If you want to get something in the old part of the city close to all the sites, do yourself and your children a favor and book early early early. You can usually cancel a direct booking with a day or two of notice.
  8. Don't expect to do anything cheaply, at least not with a family. It is in Europe. It is a major tourist destination. It is accordingly expensive.
  9. Don't forget your camera or camera battery. This one makes me cringe a little. Between all three adults, we only had three cell phone cameras. I had plugged in my battery to charge it and left it behind. If I had a better memory it wouldn't be as much of a problem, but I do regret not having a good camera in such a beautiful city.
  10. Don't go for only two and a half days, there is way too many cool things to do and see to limit it to such a short time. Or rather DO go...just go for longer!

And now the fun and how to have it anyway..... There is a lot anyone can do in Firenzie, without having planned much of anything. It is all about expectation management. Below are the things we did actually do in our 2 1/2 days, and we did manage to enjoy ourselves even without going to the Uffizi. We will have to go back for that. I can't say I mind having a compelling reason to go back to Firenzi.

Go to the Academia and see Michelangleo's David. It is really, heart-stoppingly beautiful and inspiringly grand in scale. But don't wait in the line to get in, you will be there all day. Buy tickets even just a few hours ahead of time through a ticket office or your hotel and pay a little extra. With kids, it is worth skipping the lineup. Go to Vivoli's Gelateria for gelato afterwards or anytime, it is really really good. Expensive; but good, fresh and world renowned. Check out some of the beautiful out of the way churches. They are very old and quite interesting, often containing beautiful and historically significant artwork. Try and learn some of the history about the place. I am no historian, but I found it quite interesting to learn about the Medici family and their reign of hundreds of years. Their wealth is a huge part of what made the Italian Renaissance possible, and thinking about that as a legacy that even today supports the city of Florence with tourism, is kind of neat. What an impact on humanity!
Make friends with other travelers if you can. It seems like everyone is a tourist in Firenze, and as such, we made friends with a German guy named David in the lineup for the "David", who then accompanied us all around Firenze for the next day or so just because we all enjoyed one another's company. I really like making new friends when possible, but of course use your good character judgement! Also allow yourself time to go shopping at the Centro Mercato and anywhere else you notice. Don't forget to or be afraid to bargain in the market! There are really good prices (better than elsewhere in Italy I have been) for leather, scarves, garments of all kinds, jewelry, and you can even get Venetian masks and glass.
If the weather is even a little bit nice, go and walk along the Arno river and cross over at Ponte Vecchio. It is a bridge covered with jewelry shops, and quite a sight. It is quite a romantic and classically beautiful spot. Italian sweethearts buy locks and lock them to the rungs of the bridge and throw the key in the river as signs of their undying love. This is a good one to visit on the way to the Pitti palace and Boboli gardens (if they are open). When the little ones are tired and there are no taxis around and everything is a bit much, opt for a horse and buggy ride back to the hotel. We come from tourist city, and it seems that every tourist city offers high priced horse and buggy rides, but sometimes it is just the right thing to turn a tired bunch into a weary yet contented bunch.
Take some time to walk around the Duomo and marvel at the cleverness of Brunelleschi and the other contributing architects. We didn't go in because the lines were very long, but I imagine it must be well worth it, since even the outside was incredible; all marble mosaics and as beautiful as the Taj Mahal. Allow time to walk along the streets and duck into the things you spontaneously want to see, or even just admire all the gorgeous architectural details of the buildings (notice the turtle holding up the window bars, the flowery eaves, the lion knocker; all above). The Medici's had three different residences/palaces in the city and I think all are now museums, and there are lots of other little museums as well, like the Leonardo da Vinci museum (which is mostly working models of the machines he designed), and many many others. Take the children on a carousel ride, especially if you are near the duomo at night and they need to work off some gelato steam. Give yourself lots of time for meals, ask around for the best spots to eat (someone relatively unbiased if possible), and if you like mushrooms and you go in the Autumn, eat as much truffle risotto as possible! I ate it twice in one day and still enjoyed it immensely! Trattoria Momma ZaZa, which came at the recommendation of a patient local, was my favorite restaurant in Firenzie, but many were good.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Epic Bicyclette Hunt Part 1

For two and a half months we are living near the very center of the medieval part of a small city. If we had a car, traffic restrictions are such that we would have to park at least 5 or 6 blocks away. Only taxis, local traffic, handicapped, and emergency vehicles are allowed to drive in our area, and there is virtually no parking available. We decided even before arriving to forgo living with a car, and rely solely on public transit, our own locomotion and the occasional taxi.

When we arrived and got oriented enough, we realized that we needed a bit of something more than our own feet and the bus and train, at least for the little ones who weren't so used to walking so much. At the merest mention by some of our friends of a bike shop nearby that sold inexpensive used bicycles, we decided that would be the best way for us to get around in our new (short-term) home. Okay, so then we just buy some bikes, right?

Well........not quite. The bike shop was reputed to be adjacent to the train station, an easy landmark we all new. My Man had a quick look for it on the way to or from work one day and didn't locate it. So the girls and I had a quick little look for it on the way to Esselunga (the grocery supermarket here) which is nearby the train station as well. We didn't find it either, but again, not really a serious look. So after I got home, later that night I looked it up on Google Maps, pinpointed the location and set out armed with a map and my adventuresome girls a few days later, determined to find it.

We left at about 11:30 AM, usually a disasterous time to depart for anywhere for us, due to a slightly hypo-glycemic disposition that everyone in our little family shares. We were on a mission, so we went anyway. Bravely going where no hypo-glycemic Canadian has gone before! We walked for about twenty five minutes to the pinpoint on the google map. Nothing. It was a faceless, windowless office building. No shops there. Okay well maybe the pin point isn't that accurate, so lets walk around the block, along the narrow medieval road just behind the office building and see if its over there. Definitely more likely. Again, nothing. Although there was a middle-school getting out for the midday siesta break, and the road was crowded with boisterous Italian kids all wearing the same backpack in different colours.

Bracing myself for the imminent disappointment combined with hunger I thought would be coming from the girls, I gently suggested we head home for lunch and try again another day. I was impressed to notice their cheerful, relaxed and flexible moods; and tried to give them every possible positive affirmation for how great it was to explore with children who were so cheery. I think it was them that saved me from having a sense of failure about the bikes; and it was probably because of that that as a family we decided to spend our oh-so-precious Saturday time together acquiring bicycles.

My Man and I had written off the train station bike shop as mythical, and instead he looked up a couple others, wrote down their names, hours and addresses, marked them on our map and again we set out. This time we hopped on a bus bound for an area East of town that wasn't even on our map. We happened upon a bike repair shop within the first few blocks of our journey (before we even got on the bus), hoping they also sold the occasional bike. We asked if they sold any, but the fellow there spoke no English and in our very limited Italian, we understood that we should come back a different day (for someone who did speak English or for available used bikes?). We then walked for about twenty minutes (crossing the lovely canal below on the way) before we even found the bus stop, but find it we did. Victory number one! After waiting for fifteen minutes, and assuming the bus very late or not running for some reason, we had victory number two, we got on it!

Between the two of us we looked after the children and simultaneously followed what map we had and the numbered addresses and street names quickly flashing by. My man figured out that we were at the right spot, so we quickly hopped off the bus. Victory number three, there is a bike shop across the busy street! We scan ahead for a cross walk (it is scary enough crossing Italian streets with them, I would definitely avoid trying without!) and see one quite close by. We skip up to it, cross over and skip down to the shop. It is closed. There are two men outside it, one of whom looks a bit proprietary. So we ask, "aperto?" The other man, noticing our inadequate Italian, starts speaking to us in English (what a relief!) and assures us that his friend is indeed the shopkeeper. He translates for us and his friend the shopkeeper reopens the door (it is still within his opening hours), and discusses what we are looking for with us.

Unfortunately he only carries high-end new mountain bikes, and hundreds of Euros seems a lot for a bike we won't take home with us when we go. He does have one pretty shiny pink used women's city bike for 70 Euros, but that is a bit more than what we were hoping to pay and there are no children's bikes at all. My eldest is confident on a bicycle, and there really is no point in me getting a bike until we can find one for her, and a bike seat for her little sister. The guys are both really helpful and go so far as to point out another shop on the other end of town we should try. They give us the name and directions and even write out a note saying what we want (in Italian) for us to take with us, knowing they speak no English over at the other shop. So we say 'grazia' and head out to go back home via bus. Then they go above and beyond, and our kind translator offers us a ride to the covered bridge (near where we live and the gateway to where the other shop is).

It is so generous and we are tired and he seems respectable, so we gratefully accept the ride. We get to know him a bit better on the way and find out that he runs a business manufacturing bra parts, and earns a living at it despite the stiff competition from the Chinese. He learns we are Canadian and has actually been to Canada, but not to BC. He hopes to go to our beautiful home of Vancouver Island one day for all the good mountain biking. At the end of the ride we thank him profusely again and walk away for a gelato before we go for another long walk, one friend richer.

Gelati in hand (at dinner time, prior to eating) and tired Sparkle on my back we cross the bridge feeling ever hopeful.......

Next instalment coming soon! And I am looking for pictures for this one too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Sojourn in Switzerland

One week after arriving here in Pavia, my Man's work called for him to be in Zurich, Switzerland for a couple days, so the girls and I decided to go to Switzerland as well, during the same period and into the weekend. Our family is definitely still learning about combining educational/leisure travel with work travel, as well as navigating travel by train in Italy. Language is definitely a barrier we are learning to work with, too. So in other words, it was quite a challenge to get out the door and to the platform with tickets, but once we were on the train things smoothed out considerably. We took one train from Pavia to Milan, and then parted ways. My Man got on a train with colleagues bound for Zurich, and the girls and I got on another bound for Geneva, but got off in Lausanne, near wheresome rather new friends live. It was in the evening, after dark, so we got there late at night (after a significantly delayed arrival as well). The route took us directly over and in some cases, through, the Alps, so we missed quite a bit of amazing scenery. There was very little to prepare me for what I saw when I woke up in the morning, from our bedroom window at our friend's house:

I was in the middle of the Lavaux vineyards, a Unesco world heritage site, and there was Lake Geneva expanding into the distance. Later that day the girls and I went for a walk through the vineyards, down the hill into the village.

There, at the recommendation of our host, we found a great little playground right by the lake. We had popped in to a little grocery store on the way, and had some yummy snacks to enjoy while there, including coffee flavoured organic yogurt, a big treat for me!

Gelato, for Emma

Here is a nice yummy post for all of you, but particularly Emma because she is so keen on Italy in general and gelato specifically. One of the primary pleasures of having the good fortune to live in Italy for a spell is all the gelato. My Man's theory about why Italian food is so good is that they use the whole country for it. For instance, there is literally a couple gelaterias on each block in any downtown center we have been to, and only the Italian appetite for suchgelato could keep all those gelaterias in business, let alone producing freshly made gelato each day. The entire population loving it is part of what keeps the gelato so good. The best place in Pavia is right around the corner from our place and we went nearly every day the first week we were here. I have since tried gelato, or rather several gelatos, in Florence. This includes what is rumored to be their 'best' place as well - Vivo's Gelateria, which was pretty incredible. I also have now found a gelateria a 5-10 minute walk from our place, here in Pavia which has gelato made from organic milk, no artificial colorants, and made fresh daily. Really, it is all pretty yummy. There is definite flavour variation from place to place, but I am yet to have yucky gelato. Below is the organic or 'bio' place's display in Pavia on the left, and the most beautiful display we found in Florence (Firenze), right and bottom:

When you order you ask for a cono (cone) or cupeta (cup) of varying sizes and then get to choose 2 or 3 or sometimes more flavours. There are a huge variety of flavours and some really delicious combinations. My favorite combinations so far are fig (fichi) and pistachio, lemon (limone) and dark chocolate (ciccolato fondante), and pretty much anything with pear (pera), like a milky/caramely one, or milk chocolate or peach (pesca), and the very best (from Vivo's in Florence) pear, ginger, and blueberry all together. I also really enjoyed an orange chocolate flavour just by itself. The girls seem to really like yogurt (yogurta) or what we might call vanilla custard (crema) with strawberry (fragola), or mixed berry (fruitti di bosco), but have tried lots of others too, such as chocolate chip (Straciatella) or caramely crumb something or another (can't remember the name). My man tends to go for limone e cioccolato (lemon and chocolate) every time, in a valiant effort to compare one gelateria to another. Below left is the organic gelateria we frequent here in Pavia (yep that is pretty much the whole shop), left is my cup (cupeta) of fig and pistachio deliciousness, and below is a few flavours in their tubs just waiting for us.

We initially decided to have gelato almost every day as a family to ensure that our initial impressions of Italy had a better chance of being positive ones. Recently however, I have noticed that things are a lot smoother and more fun for the children (and therefore myself) if there isn't quite so many sugar highs and lows for them. I think we will continue to have gelato often, but maybe not every day....perhaps we will limit it to a few times a week instead. How moderate of us, hey? Below is Sparkle enjoying her creamy cherry gelato and Ladybug with her yogurta and panna cotta? Cannot quite remember the name, but it sure was good.

Hungry yet?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Price of Tea in China

I have a confession to make. A couple days ago I spent 36 Swiss Francs (approximately equivalent in value to the US or Canadian dollar at the moment) on one bottle of really amazing balsamic vinegar, 250 ml. Have I gone crazy? Maybe. But we tried it at our friend's house and it was really really really good. I also bought this bottle topper that dispenses it in small droplets, so it should last. And all four of us really liked it. And we are all foodies to begin with. And we were in Switzerland where everything is hugely expensive anyway. The boutique we got it from was in Lausanne, right on lake Geneva. It is such a lovely town, I would happily go back, preferably with oodles of cash. The kind we got is on the left in the first photo. Check it out (and yes, that is indeed an olive oil chandelier):

I also just spent 5.15 Euros on 'American tape,' otherwise known as 'duct tape,' one roll. The US/Canadian dollar equivalent is roughly 7 dollars at the moment. In comparison, here in Italy, one tub of 254 g of Genovese pesto is 3.81, or 5.15 in North America.

Currency is a funny thing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Digs

I began this post just after we arrived here and now we are nearly at the three week mark. There seems to have been enough interest that some of you may still be interested in in hearing a more thorough description of our new set-up. As you walk down our narrow street (which still seems to be a fairly busy road some times of day), you pass some medieval towers that herald from a time when manliness was demonstrated with high structures. Oh wait, I guess that is still happening in our big cities. Anyway, maybe a block or less past these medieval structures is the door to Car College, which is open during the day and closed in the evening/night/weekend. During those times there is a tiny door (can you see it in the second picture?) in the huge the main door that we unlock and pass through and then pass through a gate as well and finally into the courtyard (this view is from our room).
We go up a tiny elevator or three flights of stairs to the second floor, which is actually the third, because the first floor is '0'. Then we walk into our hallway and go into one of two doors on the inner side of the building (facing the courtyard). We have two one-bedroom apartments right next to each other. We began our stay by shifting the two twin beds from one apartment's bedroom (now a work/guest room) into the living/dining/kitchen room of the other. So now on one side there is a bedroom, bedroom, bathroom apartment; and further down the hall on the same side is a mirror image of the same (with our adjustments), bathroom, work/guest room, living/dining/kitchen. The two bathrooms are identical except that they are a each half a room, so the bathroom in the 'living' apartment doesn't have a window. Every other room does, and they are huge, 8-10' tall and about 3' wide. The bathrooms are a curious example of European priorities, as they each are spacious and include a bidet, but have a tiny shower (I don't know how my Man fits in there) and no bathtub. Here are some pictures so you have a better idea, although I don't seem to have taken any of the second/'living' apartment. You get the idea of the kitchen from the one we don't really use in the girls' room. Actually, the door in that same picture is opened up to the hallway: