Postcards from Paradise

The Amalfi Coast is a photographer’s paradise. Oh who am I kidding, it is everyone’s nirvana!

The coast envelopes you. With its small towns climbing up the cliffs the see-through blue waters crash against the rocky beaches below. Sun, surf and seafood make it the perfect vacation and the tan lines and postcard perfect pictures are the best souvenirs I brought back.

Capri's open waters.

Capri’s open waters.

Positano beach.

Positano beach.

A colorful cliffside city.

Positano-a colorful cliffside city.

Mount Vesuvius.

Mount Vesuvius.

Sorrento sunset.

Sorrento sunset.

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Being a Florentine Artist for the Day

platesFlorence is a town of artists. Sadly, I am not among the gifted.  My stick people drawings are disproportionate and any songs I attempt to play on any instrument sound like car wreck.

So, as you can guess, I usually shy away from any event that would showcase my child-like artistic ability. But for the summer I’m in town where no one knows me; therefore no one can judge me so why not take full advantage of that.

I’d seen plenty of drawing classes offered but knew for that you had to have at least a little bit of talent. Then I heard about pottery painting, an ancient Florentine art, and thought how hard it can be to paint a plate.

Trying to draw a straight line by spinning the plate and not moving your hand.

Trying to draw a straight line by spinning the plate and not moving your hand.

So I signed up for a class and soon learned painting a plate is harder than you think if you can’t even make a straight line.

Enzo, the instructor handed me a bright white plate, handmade by a local artisan who collects the clay from the same clay well used in the Renaissance. He then explained the paints and brushes we’d be using. The paint is made from iron oxides and water, the same type of paint they’ve used since the Renaissance.

After the explanations the painting began. I, of course, had unintentionally sat at a table of artists, fashion designers who could not only draw parallel straight lines but intricate designs, too. So, as they created their own complex designs on the plate, I followed the recommended “easy” pattern.

One of the artists at my table.

One of the artists at my table.

I put easy in quotations because for me it was anything but easy because it required many straight lines. It wasn’t stress-free but it was fun! After I had accepted the fact that I’d be no Michelangelo, I decided to go for an abstract Picasso style.

me

My attempt at painting.

When I finally finished, Enzo came over and within a few minutes had miraculously fixed my many mistakes. With his help my fleur-de-lis turned from a red blob on the middle of my plate into the recognizable icon!

Enzo carefully correcting my mistakes.

Enzo carefully correcting my mistakes.

While it is not sale-able and I doubt even my mother would want to showcase it, I’m extremely proud of it. I might even claim that, after Enzo’s touchups, it is my best piece of artwork.

I had a blast painting my own piece of ceramic pottery. And for an hour or so, to the people passing on the street, I looked like a real Florentine artist and I felt like one with paintbrush in hand as I hunched over the spinning pottery wheel.

Whether you are a beginner or an artistic genius, I recommend experiencing firsthand the ancient Florentine art of pottery painting.  Learn the history of the art, let your creative juices flow and there is an added bonus. You have your very own handmade Florentine pottery souvenir to show off to everyone back home!

My class and their finished products.

My class and their finished products.

You can reach Enzo by phone, 339 13.15.990, or at his pottery studio, Officina Ceramica. Or message him on Facebook, Offic Lab.

He offers painting, modeling, raku, workshops and pottery parties.

It is 25 euros per person for a group of 5+ people. 30 euros per person for any group fewer than five people.

Churches and Chants in Florence

Think you’ve seen everything churches have to offer? Tired of just viewing beautiful artwork, divine statues, and numerous blatant hints of Catholicism that are sprinkled around the churches?

Michelangelo's crucifix.

Michelangelo’s crucifix.

Experience churches in a whole new way, the Italian way.

Churches are living museums, until mass time, then they are places of worship. At both times, a church is considered sacred so dress appropriately with both your knees and shoulders covered. They don’t play around here, if either are showing you don’t get granted access inside.

To see another side of churches attend a Catholic Mass, all spoken in Italian.

Here is a list of churches and their Sunday service times. The one’s bolded are the most popular churches in Florence.

San Lorenzo: 8, 9:30, 11, 18

San Lucia sul Prato: 9, 11, 12, 18

San Marco: 9:30, 11, 12:30, 18:30

San Maria del Fiore: 7:30, 9, 12, 18

San Maria Maggiore: 7:30, 9, 10:30, 12, 18

San Maria Novella: 8:30, 10:30, 12, 18

Santi Michele e Gaetano: 11:30, 18:30

Santissima Trinita : 7 :30, 9, 10 :30, 12, 18 :30

Santa Maria del Carmine : 8, 10, 12

Santa Croce : 8, 9 :30, 11, 12, 18

San Giovannino Padri Scolopi : 6 :30, 8 :30, 10 :30, 12, 19 :30

Santo Spirito: 9, 10:30, 12, 17:30, 18

San Miniato al Monte: 8:30, 10, 11:30, 17:30

 

For an even more unique church experience traipse to the church overlooking all of Florence, the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte. Along with a breathtaking view of Florence and beautiful artwork, the church holds a unique mass, one done in Gregorian chant.

Gregorian Chants

Abbey of San Miniato al Monte.

This slow melodic sing-song Roman chant dates back to the early Middle Ages. The simple, unaccompanied male voices sing out Latin words in a single line of melody. This hypnotizing 30 minute mass lacks music causing the listener to focus on the words, even if they can’t understand them.

Gregorian chant masses:

Sundays & holidays: 10, 17:30

Weekdays: 7:15, 17:30

Le Vespe Café: An American Breakfast in Florence

Big breakfasts, for me, rank right up there as the cure for all the side effects of a hangover.

I’m sure you know the feeling. You’re eyes are slits to block out the blinding light, your phone’s battery on red and your background a picture of randos who look like they’re having a great time. You feel drained of all energy and starving to replenish the depleted get-up-and-go.

An Italian breakfast of espresso or cappuccino and a small croissant won’t even get you out of the red. What you need is a big breakfast.

To keep in the European mood but still get a large American/English breakfast, turn east on Via Ghibellina in Florence and keep a lookout on the left side of the street for Le Vespe Café or you’ll walk right past it.

Le Vespe's store front.

Le Vespe’s store front.

This rustic little restaurant was recommended to me by a friend who has been living in Florence for almost seven months. I cannot stress enough the benefits of finding yourself a friend in the city. Not only will it save your taste buds but also usually your pocket book because they’ll help you dodge overpriced touristy places with hit or miss service.

Le Vespe Café is a Florence gem and perfect for breakfast after a long night on the town.

It has a cute rustic café atmosphere with mismatched chairs and flower tiled tables. I went around 10 am, with my book stowed under one arm, and found it quiet and uncrowded. (This is a novelty. Because it is so small and intimate it is usually packed, so I would recommend getting a reservation, especially for Sunday brunch.) They were playing an incredible playlist of American music, many of them oldies, which I found myself humming to.

My breakfast of French toast and sausage.

My breakfast of French toast and sausage.

I ordered a smoothie, French toast and sausage. I barely had time to read a few pages of my book when my food was set in front of me. (Though I have heard that their service can be a little slow sometimes so be prepared because you might have to wait.)

The French toast was melt in your mouth. Soaked in butter and sprinkled with powdered sugar, the bread absorbed the Canadian maple syrup I dribbled over it magnificently. The smoothie was refreshing and I could taste the fresh fruits (have I mentioned how good the fruit is here?!?!) in every sip.

Le Vespe Café is a must visit for a full American breakfast/brunch, and don’t worry about getting up early because they serve breakfast until 5 pm, as it truly should be.

Even if breakfast isn’t your thing, Le Vespe Café offers a large lunch menu to choose from. With everything from grilled cheeses to karaage fried chicken, they cater to all kinds of taste from Japanese, Firenze, Canadian and American. It is also a vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free friendly café.

For drinks they have juices and smoothies. They are also a bona fide bar so they have a large selection of alcoholic beverages.

This small restaurant is the perfect place to rub elbows with locals, tourists and study abroad students who are mooching off the free wifi and the amazing coffee.

Le Vespe Café

Address: 6R Via Ghibellina, Florence, Italy

Phone Number : 055 388 0062

Hours :

10-23 Tuesday-Saturday

11-16 Sunday

Menu

Milan Oooh and Awws

The Milan Expo is an $800 million extravaganza hosting around 130 pavilions meant to showcase the country’s technology advances and the steps it has taken to help solve the problem of sustainability and feeding the world. I was left awed and underwhelmed various times throughout the day. In quite a few places I found it hard to see how the country’s pavilion related to the theme. Though, if I was to be completely honest, most people don’t go for the technology. They go for the food.

I tackled the Expo in one day with a set of five must visit places and left the rest up to randomization. If you have just one day to explore the Expo, I don’t recommend this method because I missed some amazing pavilions, including Japan, Russia and Austria.

I traveled to 14 countries in under 8 hours. Here’s a list of the pavilions that oohed me and those that were let downs and made me say aww.

Oohs 🙂
1. Belgium

Belgium pavilion

The doors open and you are handed a free Biscoff cookie. As you nibble on the delicious snack, you follow the smell of chocolate up a ramp. At the top are chocolatiers creating chocolate masterpieces like a chocolate bust of Julius Caesar.

chocolate Ceasar head in Belgium

The Belgium chocolate is reasonably priced and made for a great bus-ride-back snack. As you continue around the ramp, you find yourself under the chocolate shop and staring at weird wheels of plants and fish tanks.

self sustaining plants in Belgium

These aquaponics, an innovative ecosystem combining plants and fish, is just one of the farming systems on display in Belgium.

2. Switzerland                                                                                                                                                                         salt tower switzerland                  Already down to the third story (out of four), the Switzerland towers showcase the greediness of people and the effects of greed on limited resources. While inside, looking up you can see the elevator platform for the upper story. I felt a sense of amazement at how much of the resources were already used. I learned this was because people were taking 10 plus items from each tower when they came through becuase the goods are free. The coffee, apple, and water (where you get a free cup) are about to lose another story. The salt tower on the other hand is shrinking slower.

Outside of the towers, Switzerland has three other exhibits, my favorite being the water-themed exhibition by the cantons of Graubünden, Ticino, Uri and Valais. (It had amazing photographs.)switzerland

3. Tree of Life

tree of life smoke

I saw the performance during the day. With its water works, catchy songs and colorful special effects it was an attention grabbing performance. Or, it would have been if I hadn’t been able to grab one of the spinning top chairs that surround the tree. Those required my full focus and were so much fun!

spinny top chair

Catching glimpses of the show while spinning, I think, is the perfect way to enjoy the show. Though I’m sure at night when everything is lit up it may be even prettier. Add the world spinning as you enjoy the night show from the spinning top chair and it would be a party.

4. Germany

Germany

Out of all the pavilions I explored, I could actually see the theme prominently displayed throughout the entire Germany exhibit. One could easily spend hours inside because it was so interactive from digitized shopping market to bee themed games.

Germany exhibit

Like a playground, everything was touchable in the exhibit as the process from the sources of food to consumption. I consumed flour and barley in the form of a German pretzel and beer.

Germany pretzel and beer

P.S.

Also worth mentioning are the mini pancakes from the Netherlands.

mini pancakes from Netherlands

The sweet combination of fluffy pancakes, Nutella and powdered sugar coated my taste buds and left me wanting more of the child-like snack. While the child-like atmosphere of the Netherlands was refreshing, I was let down by the child-sized Ferris wheel and funhouse mirror maze. holland ferris wheel

P.S.S.

Brazil also would have made it on my list if I could have done the net at night. In the daylight you cannot get the full experience of the ambient lighting that is triggered by sensors.

Brazil net2

I heard the sounds, got a laugh out of watching others fall and about had a heart attack when a dad carried his one year old across the net, but I was missing the lights.

Awws 😦

1. China

China pavilion

Not impressed. The line took so long I was able to watch an older woman, an extremely slow eater, eat a 3-dip gelato cone from start to finish. After the long wait I was let down by the lack of interaction or even interestingness of the exhibit. Also, if you get there in time to view the show in the Harmony exhibit, DON’T! Days later I’m still not sure what the point of the video was and believe me I’ve been trying to figure it out.

2. Ireland

Ireland

Small and foodless this pavilion was a disappointment. Plus, there was no Irish culture performance going on, which is what I was looking forward to. I looked for a schedule of performances times but couldn’t find one.

3.Belarus

Belarus

If you are just trying to see as many countries as possible, especially one’s you didn’t even know existed, I recommend Belarus. All it really is a large turning wheel meant to be a personification of human thought. It takes a total of five minutes to walk through the center of the exhibit. Though, if you dance to the catchy beats coming from Malaysia, it takes more like eight minutes.

4. Mexico

mexico sign

Dodge the upstairs restaurant because they don’t have what I consider Mexican food. There were no burritos, tacos or tamales on the menu instead it had things like octopus and steaks. Instead, grab some tacos from their bar, it is right behind the Mexico sign, but be warned I found them to be crazy spicy! Thank goodness for the Corona I’d bought earlier. The exhibit itself was focused more on looking, not touching. As you follow the ramps you’ll see a show of products that Mexico has given to the world.Mexico painting and vase

Biggest aww: Tomato gelato. I learned quickly just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Tomatoes were not meant to be frozen. They were giving free samples and I have a hard time turning down free stuff. That might now have changed because the gelato tasted like frozen ketchup. Not a good taste to end the evening on.

Menu:

Belgium: chocolate and beer- 9 euros

Germany: beer and pretzel-7.50 euros

Mexico: tacos and Corona- 10 euros

Netherlands: mini pancakes- 5 euros

Italian Wine Tasting Etiquette

Italy is full of breathtaking paradises; but, I would have to say my favorites are the Chianti vineyards.

paradise

Path from the cellar to the restaurant at Castello di Verrazzano.

I can’t quite decide if it’s the peaceful scenery that makes them magical or if it’s the wine that is so generously poured.

Secluded away from cities, things slow down even more than the typical Italian way of life in these secret nirvanas.

Driveway to Castello di Verrazzano.

Driveway to Castello di Verrazzano.

The smell of fruits and flowers clears the mind while the quietness settles it. A few days ago I visited Castello di Verrazzano in Greve which has been producing wine since 1150.

vineyards

Just some of the vineyards of Castello di Verrazzano.

I felt my body relax as I walked through the gardens. As I neared the dining room I could hear the clinking of glasses and loud bursts of laughter. Entering into the dining room, I saw Gino, an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair standing at the head of the table. He had his hand on his hip, the other holding a glass of wine, lips pursed and with one eyebrow raised. Loudly he swallowed and exhaled an hmmm. Dropping the stance, Gino begins to laugh and says, “THAT is how you taste wine like an expert.”

Gino, the enthusiastic sage of Castello di Verrazzano.

Gino, the enthusiastic sage of Castello di Verrazzano. (Photo by Kailey Wagner)

Full of life and love advice, Gino is the go to man for any problem. And as a wine expert he is the perfect man to learn how to taste wine correctly in Italy from.

Step 1: Pour the wine.

Wine tasting at Castello di Verrazzano. (Photo by Rachel Mason)

Wine tasting at Castello di Verrazzano. (Photo by Rachel Mason)

Do not pour to the brim. You are in Italy, a place where wine flows more freely than water. You’re not at a high school party. You can always get a refill. So, pour the wine until the glass is about one-third full for white or rose wine or half-full for red wine. Room has to be left to be able to swirl the liquid.

Step 2: Pick up the wine glass.

Do not pick up the glass by the bowl! Wine is served in a stemmed wine glass for a reason. Placing your hand on the bowl of the glass warms the contents of the glass which could mess with its taste. Hold the glass by pinching the stem of the glass, close to the base, between your index finger and thumb.

Step 3: Notice the wine’s coloring.

While holding the wine by the stem, tilt the glass over a white napkin or tablecloth until it looks like the contents might spill. Stare through the glass and check the wine’s color, opacity and viscosity. Even if you don’t know what you’re looking for stare intently at it like everyone else is. But, it is not the Sistine Chapel so it shouldn’t take you longer than 5 seconds to complete this step.

Step 4: Swirl it.

While still holding the glass by the stem, begin to swirl the contents of the glass. Keep an eye on the liquid though and keep it in the cup and off your neighbors. This is a slow swirl meant to release the aromas of the wine, not to try to make it look like a tornado in a cup. Also, it is not the Daytona 500, let the liquid circle the cup only a couple of times.

Step 5: Take a big whiff.

This is the step, where if you’re like me and have a bit of a nose insecurity, it becomes prominent how large your nose is. To correctly smell wine you must place your sniffer inside the glass, so far that the glass is touching your face and circling your nose. But use your judgment. If you poured a bit too much do not stick your nose so far in that it gets wet. Take a big whiff and try to identify the ingredients. There are three types of wine aromas:

  • Primary Aromas come from grapes and include fruit, herb and flower notes.
  • Secondary Aromas come from fermentation and yeast aromas.
  • Tertiary Bouquets come from aging, oxidation and oak such as baking spices, nutty aromas and vanilla.

One does not simply sniff above the glass or try to wave the smells to your nose. Smells are lost and you can’t fully enjoy the aromas.

Step 6: Take up the stance.

According to Gino’s wine tasting etiquette there is a stance one takes to taste a wine. Place one hand on your hip and with the other hold the wine glass (by the stem!). Make your face look calm and slightly bored.

Step 7: Finally, take a sip.

This is wine, not beer, so there’s no need to shotgun it. Take a sip and let it rest on your tongue for a second. Then begin to swish it around your mouth coating all the inside with the liquid goodness. You’ll register different tastes in different areas of your tongue. Then, very carefully, with the wine still in your mouth, open your mouth suck in a bit of air, this allows the wine to aerate in your mouth, enhancing the intensity of the flavors.

Step 8: Swallow.

After experiencing all the different tastes in your mouth it is finally time to swallow. Let the flavors wash down your throat and warm your tummy. After you taste the wine raise your eyebrow and say hmmmm un-committedly.

Step 9: Judge the wine.

If it was good you could flash a smile and comment on its great balance of flavors, its smoothness or just all around great taste.

If you weren’t impressed you can raise your eyebrow and offer an unimpressed mmmmmm. Then share with others what you liked or didn’t like about the wine.

Remember there is no right or wrong answer in wine tasting. It is all totally opinion based. So don’t be afraid to share your opinion. Because regardless of whether you liked or hated it you’ll have blown everyone away with your amazing wine tasting etiquette.

Venice: The Enchanting City of Gondolas, Masks and Casanova

Like a maze, the watery streets of Venice, Italy, twist and turn causing me to lose myself in this enchanting city.

Canals snake their way through the city connecting all the islands.

Canals snake their way through the city connecting all the islands.

Streets of water and 409 bridges connect the 117 islands making up the city of Venice. Getting around hasn’t changed much since the birth of Venice in 421. Boats and gondolas crowd the Grand Canal and are docked on the side of the watery streets. Visitors wait with their luggage on the front steps of the hotels with water lapping over the bottom step for the water taxi to pick them up. Many front doors lead into the one of the 177 canals, though one day they may be underwater. Venice is sinking about 2 ½ inches every 10 years.

One would think that with Venice being one of the most internationally visited cities in the world and with that much water, the city would be dirty and have a slight smell to it. I was happy find this was not the case. The water, made up of a mix of river and sea water, was a bright bluish-green and my nose did not wrinkle in protest at any time during my visit.

It’s no wonder Casanova chose Venice as his stomping ground. The city has a lure about it. A place perfect for romance. Add the carnevale, with its eight day festivities of masks, costumes, and dances; and you have an intoxicating combination that can lead to all kinds of splendid adventures.

Sadly, I only had a day to adventure, part of that being with a group. I began with a water taxi ride down the Grand Canal. Front doors with steps leading to the water, a woman with groceries in hand stepping onto a boat, traffic lights hovering above streets of water, and gondoliers rowing their sleek black gondolas while wearing bright red and white shirts and straw hats met my eyes.

Getting off the water taxi near Piazza San Marco, I saw a bride and her groom get off another water taxi. It reminded me that all this was not a show for the tourists. Real people live their lives like this, using boats to get from island to island.

Italian newlyweds pose for pictures near the docks.

Italian newlyweds pose for pictures near the docks.

The heart of Venice, as the Piazza is fondly called, is flocked with pigeons. They cover everything from the Doge Palace to the Bridge of Sighs, a bridge that connects the prison to the Doge Palace. The name came from European poets who envisioned prisoners taking their last breath of the outside world before being locked up. Legend says if two lovers pass under the bridge, their love will last for eternity.

Wading through a hoard of pigeons, I passed St. Mark’s Basilica with its Pala d’Oro with over 3,000 precious stones and enamel of gold. Then I ambled around the Clock Tower, with its famous winged lion of St. Mark looking down on me, to the Café Florian. Outside an orchestra played classical tunes that made it easy for me to imagine Casanova weaving his magic over beautifully dressed women having tea. The only café at the time to admit women, it’s no wonder that Florian’s was a favorite of Casanova. Time and money constraints, it is a pricy place, kept me from ordering a drink though the elegant ambience was tempting.

The stomping ground of Casanova.

The stomping ground of Casanova.

After a few minutes of taking it all in, I left Piazza San Marco on the hunt for a cheap gondola ride (prices are more expensive near the touristy spots). On average a gondola costs around 90 euros for up to 6 people for 45 minutes. Instead of a gondola ride I found a glass blowing demonstration.

Glass, the ticket to Venice’s wealth, since 1291 was once confined to Murano Island because of the fire hazard it posed. Considered an art, glass blowing is a skill passed down from father to son or learned through apprenticeships. Watching the artist work with 1292-1832 degree Fahrenheit melted glass made me wonder how many times he’d been burned. As he blew and spun, shaped and molded the melted glass into a vase then later into a horse I was amazed at his focus and his self-confidence. Not once did he falter.

glass blower and vase

The glass blower designed this vase as a practice piece. After he was finished he remelted it.

Still on a search for a gondola ride, I stopped long enough to grab lunch at a smaller sized seafood restaurant. Located on the Adriatic Sea, Venice is never at a loss for fresh caught seafood, therefore I thought it only reasonable to have the seafood spaghetti. I figured cram all the fresh seafood on one plate. And for drink, I had a Bellini, Venice’s famous cocktail. Giuseppe Cipriani’s invention was made of sparkling wine and peach puree. Created in his bar, Harry’s Bar, a popular drinking place of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles, in Venice in 1948. The sweet drink is now a must for all Venice travelers.

Feeling refreshed, I joined my group and we ended the search of a fair priced gondola ride. The tourist guide took us to a small place where a group of 6 of us for 15 euros a piece rode through the side canals for 45 minutes.  Our gondolier, spoke little English, though for a spurt of time he did sing for us. However, it sounded more like a basketball game half-time song than a romantic Italian ballad.

Decked out in the traditional red and white striped shirt and straw hat, our gondolier was picture perfect.

Decked out in the traditional red and white striped shirt and straw hat, our gondolier was picture perfect.

The view from the canals was beautiful, that is once you left the big canals with their motorized boats. In the side canals, I relaxed.

Gondolas take the side canals to avoid the motorized boats that clog the Grand Canal.

Gondolas take the side canals to avoid the motorized boats that clog the Grand Canal.

I let the boat’s rocking and the sound of the lapping of the water against the houses fill my mind. I watched lazily as we passed under bridges covered in blooming plant boxes and other gondolas. It seemed like we had just started when it was time to debark.

With our feet back on the ground the guide led us through a walking tour of part of Venice, with 117 islands there is no way he could show us everything in an hour. My favorite spots of interest were the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo and the market by the Ponte di Rialto. Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo because it looks like the leaning tower of Pisa attached to a house.

This house was built to resemble the tower of Pisa because the man's wife was from there and missed home.

This house was built to resemble the tower of Pisa because the man’s wife was from there and missed home.

And the market because I saw the store of two of the most famous mask makers, La Bottega dei Mascareri. Brothers Sergio and Massimo have created masks for festivals, celebrities like Tom Hanks, and films like Eyes Wide Shut.

Masks decorate all the streets and hang from all the market vendors booths.

Masks decorate all the streets and hang from all the market vendors booths.

One day was not nearly long enough to explore all this charming city had to offer. I’m already planning a return trip for next February so I can participate in the magical celebration of the Carnevale.

Venice is waiting for you!

Venice is waiting for you!