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July 10, 2013

Last Day in Bologna


The heat had broken overnight, so we were able to do more daytime walking today. We've been reading Bologna Reflections by Mary Tolaro Noyes, an engaging exploration of Bologna. Not quite a guidebook, it has chapters that examine small facets of Bologna--a particular neighborhood, a segment of history, one building, or a slice of daily life. With each chapter is a tiny map of the area discussed, and often a little walking tour that helps you know where to stop, look up to see yet another medieval tower,or notice the details in a 11th century Palazzo, now a hotel.



We started at Piazza Maggiore, and followed several chapters--through the Quadrilatero market area to pick up some goodies for the following week or to bring home, the Ghetto, past palazzos hidden away on twisty streets. On via Piella we found the window overlooking the Canale Navile, the remaining uncovered stretch of the canals that once crisscrossed the city.


We bumped into the huge La Piazzola market, filled with clothing and housewares stalls, with a few food vendors as well. This is more everyday Bologna. If we had more room in our suitcases, I would have spent more time pawing through the linen stalls for tablecloths and hand towels.


We returned through via Oberlan, and started looking for a place to have lunch. The menu at Ristorante Ciacco looked good, with some seafood and pastas. We had a table down in their cool lower floor, and an attentive waiter. Our antipasti of salmon tartare was wonderful, unfortunately we were disappointed by our pastas, mine with not terribly fresh shrimp and arugula pesto that was so bitter I passed it to Larry, the other a very under seasoned pasta with salmon. On the way back, we popped into the Museo Musica de Bologna, a little museum of instruments, rare books, and musical odds and ends.



We spent some time in the apartment packing up and getting ready to leave in the morning, and then headed out for more walking. We explored via Castiglione in the other direction, through the neighborhood to the old city gate and the large park on the other side of the ring road. People were congregating in the cafes and bars for an aperitivo. We headed back and over to Piazza San Stefano, where we had heard there was going to be a jazz concert. The band was playing, with people sitting in the cafes, leaning out their windows, and perched on the edges of the raised sidewalks under the porticos. We sat on the edge of a portico, and enjoyed listening and people-watching.


Love these heads peering down from a building leading out of the Piazza.



For dinner, we returned to Sale Grosso, the seafood restaurant we had lunch at previously. Another memorable meal, and it was funny to run into Maribel the cooking teacher there with a few friends.We shared an antipasto of fabulous calamari,and I had a wonderful dish of fish under a crisp potato topping, served with a spicy chickpea puree and roasted peppers.


As we walked home we passed more bands playing, and the streets were lively. A perfect ending to our city week.


July 11, 2013

Sunday in the Monferrato--Synagogue and Castello


On Saturday we drove from Bologna to our little rental in the village of Coconato above Asti. In the Fall I had contacted Toni, the owner of the house we rented last time between Asti and Alba. Unfortunately, her places were already booked. She referred me to her friend Karen who was renovating a place. After some e-mails, we decided to go with this little rental--it was in what I'd heard was a great village, it was in an area I'd wanted to explore, and it was extremely reasonable. This being Italy, the renovation took far longer than expected, but Karen kept me informed of the progress with e-mails and photos. The house is just on the edge of the village, and from the main room there's a gorgeous view down the valley and across to other hills. Cute, simple, comfortable. The village has some wonderful food shops and several restaurants, and is vibrant and charming. http://caginotaholidayrental.jimdo.com/




On Sunday, we drove up to Casale Monferrato. There is a Baroque synagogue there that is only open on Sundays. We arrived in town at about 10, and parked in a large lot near the Castello.Many of the shops on via Roma (there's always a via Roma, isn't there?) were open, and lots of people were strolling, and sitting in cafes. We easily found the synagogue. There has been a Jewish community in Casale since the expulsion from Spain in 1492. They were walled into Ghettos for long periods of time, and it wasn't till 1848 that the Jews in the Savoy were given civil rights. In 1931 there were 112 Jews, most were arrested during the War, and today just two Jewish families live in Casale. The synagogue was originally built on the site in the 16th century, expanded and was decorated in the Baroque style in the 18th century. Only on Yom Kippur are services held, when a Minyan can be held as far-flung members of the community gather with a Rabbi. The synagogue is also used for weddings by couples from the US and Israel.



We were given a wonderful tour by a member of the community named Ariel, who made pains to inform an Italian couple from Puglia about the traditions and significance of the Synagogue and the upstairs museum. I was struck by how little this couple knew, and it brought home how such a small proportion of the world is exposed to Judaism. After this couple left, Ariel continued the tour just for us. Upstairs in the Museum are beautiful artifacts--Torahs, textiles, silver Torah crowns, many household and holiday articles. There is also a little museum of contemporary menorahs from around the world in the basement. The Synagogues hours do change often, so check the website before going. http://www.casalebraica.info/?lang=en


Wandered over to the Castello, where the regional enoteca had just opened. Tasted some wines, and bought one bottle to drink, one to bring home. So much wine, so little time.


We had an excellent lunch in Casale, in a restaurant which looked fancy but was very welcoming. We shared an antipasto of a delicious red pepper flan with anchovy sauce. I had wonderful ravioli stuffed with asparagus, and Larry had chicken rolled around an herb stuffing. Local wine, and fun to observe the tables of elderly friends and local families having Sunday pranzo. Osteria Amarotto, http://www.osteriaamarottocasale.it/


On weekends, an outfit called Castelli Aperti organizes open houses or tours of privately-owned castles in the region. On our last trip we were lucky enough to bump into these openings. The website is a bit clunky to use, but the Calendar gives listings by date, usually no more than a week or two in advance. http://www.castelliaperti.it/index_eng.lasso

We'd seen that the Castello di Piovera would be open at 3:30. We raced over, and found parking just outside the gates at 3:30. This area near the Po is much flatter, and the fields are planted in wheat and rice. The elderly Count and his wife gave the tour through the unlived-in castle. About a million rooms filled with an astonishing array of family junk, complete with moldy walls and crumbling faux fresco. Room after room, filled with tools, cameras, rocks and mineral collections, hats, torn furniture, antique weapons, oddball taxidermy (Some ancestor had a thing for alligators) --punctuated by glass-eyed dummies wearing torn costumes and ratty wigs. The best part was climbing four stories up to the shaky-looking tower, then down to the scary basement kitchens. No photos allowed inside, sadly. The outbuildings house artist studios and teaching space for programs for children, and the present owners live in a smaller, more modern house on the grounds. You can certainly see how difficult it is to maintain, restore or sell such an enormous place.



Headed back home, made eggplant and salad for dinner. Good vegetables and fresh cheese, it's hard to go wrong.


July 12, 2013

Monday in Monferrato--Market, Santuario, Hilltop Drive


We woke to the beginnings of the cloud cover starting to lift off the Apinnenes that we can just see from our window. We were starting to run low on food and food shops are generally closed on Mondays in Italy, except for large supermarkets. We decided to head over to the nearby village of Murisengo for their weekly market. Most Italian markets are almost more about the dry goods than the food. Large vans open up to display clothing, shoes, hardware, gardening supplies, toys; and the food is usually clustered at one end. We parked and walked up to the market, peering down a side street to see an older woman tending her stoop against the backdrop of the Alps.




There's always the "Old Guy's Bench" somewhere. Amusingly, the gentleman in the blue vest is one of Toni's neighbors.


We bought picnic supplies,and drove up to the Santuario di Crea, above Serralunga, an attractive stone town perched on the hill. The Sanctuary was built in the 17th century on the site of an earlier church, and over the years small chapels were added on the hillside. You can follow a path past the chapels, peering through little windows to see the frescoes and terra-cotta statues inside. Not great art, a few chapels had slightly odd images, but it was an interesting walk. There are many picnic tables along the route, and lots of people were eating lunch.





After our picnic lunch we went inside the Sanctuary. In a dark hall to the right were hung many 19th and 20th century ex-votos, representations of thanks to Mary for sparing a loved one's life after illness or accident. They usually have a primitive painting of the incident, ranging from a difficult birth, to being trampled by a horse, or a car accident in more recent times. I appreciate them for the reminders of the fragility of life in times past, and for the emotion you can sense behind the events.


We drove down to Moncalvo, but as the town was firmly shut down for the afternoon rest, continued on. We thought we'd drive out to the regional enoteca in Vignale Monferrato. This turned out to be an extraordinary drive, skirting ridges between hilltop towns, vineyards, wheat fields, nut trees, and the mountains in the background.


We saw a sign advertising hazelnut products for sale, and found a lovely agriturismo where we shown around by a charming young man--who turned out to be Matteo, who hosted Joe from Israel a few years ago. This looks like quite the nice place to stay, just outside Moncalvo. We bought delicious hazelnuts, and a bottle of wine. http://www.querciarossa.com/uk.htm

Arriving in Vignale, we learned that the castello where the enoteca was housed was undergoing restoration. Ah well, it was a wonderful drive.


For dinner, we went to the agriturismo just down the road, Cascina Rosengana. Organic produce, you can pick how many courses from the verbal menu and split courses. "One for two" was still too much food. A parade of four antipasti (prosciutto and lardo; local robbiola with condiment; veal crudo with local gorgonzola; zucchini and almond flan). Then agnolotti so perfect it doesn't need sauce, then beef with wonderful vegetables. No room for dessert, but of course bring on the grappa with coffee.




July 13, 2013

Tuesday--Vezzolano and Views


Woke to a bright clear day--so clear in fact that we could see snow on the mountains. We drove the short distance over to Albugnano, where the 12th century Abbey of Vezzolano is just outside the town. As we entered the parking area we wondered if the Abbey was open--there were no cars, and a backhoe and crew were busily digging up the walkway. We walked down, and found the doors of the church locked. Chiuso, (closed), the bane of Italy tourism.


Larry found a doorbell at a side gate, and after a few minutes a woman came to unlock the door. Just inside is a marvelous carving of scenes from the life of Mary, and underneath are portraits of her ancestors. In the cloister to the side of the church are remains of frescos, including a rather macabre one of visions of death. On the other side was an exhibit of other Romanesque churches in the area, which made us eager to find some of them. I love how small they generally are, enclosing a community and built with simple artistry.



Your choice of bathrooms in a little outbuilding outside. The ladies room had a seat, yay.

Back up the road to Albugnano, where we found tiny 11nth century St. Pietro just inside the town cemetery.


We continued up the road into the Centro, following the sign for a" vista panoramica." We parked in a small lot, and enjoyed the view down and across to where the Alps were clearly visible. We walked uphill, and found a pretty little park with benches and a few picnic tables, and the view was even better. Lovely spot, and with the help of my camera lens we could even see to the Superga above Torino.


We had arranged to meet Toni and some friends for lunch, so drove over to Murisengo. We had an excellent lunch at Cafe della Fontana (via Umberto I , 97) where Michela the owner served me some damn fine gnocchi, in a sauce of local gorgonzola. Nice people, good cooking. We had fun meeting Jenny and Kim, Australians who retired, sold everything, and have been traveling the world ever since.

After lunch, we walked with Toni through Villadeati, the village where another of her rentals is located. A Fascist-era wall slogan, and just below a memorial to the village men who were killed in a German reprisal were sobering reminders of the more recent past in Italy.


Drove some pretty roads in the area, and then headed back to Cocconato. Nice evening of a simple dinner, good wine, and a book.

July 29, 2013

Wednesday in Piemonte--Alba and Around


We decided this morning to take a little trip south to revisit two elegant towns we enjoyed on our last Piemonte trip, Alba and Cerasco. Amusingly, we found parking in the same lot we used last time, on the edge of the Centro. We first stopped in the Tourist office for a good map, and then wandered the pretty streets. The last time we were here it was market day, so it was nice to experience Alba on a quieter morning. There were very few others clutching maps or guidebooks, and we enjoyed just walking around, eyeing the rather expensive truffle items displayed in shop windows, stopping for coffee, poking into a church or two. I was amused to see a class of preschoolers being led in fingerplays by their teacher as the other passed out little gelato treats. And seeing that some things are universal, as some children immediately burst into tears when they did not get their first choice of flavors.


I wanted to go to Cherasco, as the last time we were there was on a Monday morning, and the town was firmly shuttered. We spent far too long on the awful truck route south of Alba (where there were several of the roadside prostitutes, I sincerely hope not the same unfortunate women we saw in 2007). We finally arrived in Cherasco, and easily found street parking. Cherasco isn't mentioned much in guidebooks, but it's an interesting Renaissance town to walk around for an hour. Lovely old buildings, a main street bracketed by huge arches, and in cooler weather, several chocolate shops.We didn't think to call ahead to see if we could get into the old Synagogue, which we'll do the next time we're in Piemonte.



By now it was approaching lunchtime. We sat in a shady corner to pull out our phones and look at restaurant reviews. I'm always tugged by places with positive reviews all in Italian, so we called a place just outside Cherasco named Locanda del Prof. It's on an unassuming local road , via Bra 33, in the back of a pink house perched between a seedy-looking motel and an auto parts store. We pulled in, and an elegantly-dressed woman popped out the door to welcome us. They have a tiny patio in the back, where we decided to sit. The owners are a charming older couple, and the food was spectacular.

We began by talking wine. We told the owner that we just wanted a glass apiece instead of a full bottle, what did he have that would be interesting? He brought out an unlabeled bottle from "a friend" for us to taste--a delicious barolo. Yes, please. We ordered carne crudo to share, and a minute later there began a furious pounding sound from inside. We were then served amazing plates of freshly pounded meat, to dress as we pleased. Melt-in-your-mouth. Remembering my marvelous pasta from yesterday, Larry ordered gnocchi with gorgonzola, which was so heavenly he had to guard it from my fork. I had tajarin with an aromatic rago. We split a hazlenut dessert, and ended with espresso. A group of young men accompanied by a large dog shared the patio, and the dog was treated to a dish of meat. If it was the same carne crudo I was eating, that dog had quite the treat. Lunch was 54 euros, a bargain for the quality. http://www.locandadelprof.it/



We rolled out and on to Barolo. We parked and walked over to the regional enoteca. Closed on Wednesday! We got a lot of shrugs at the neighboring wine museum when we asked why, as the sign said it should have been open. Ah well, Barolo had plenty of open shops happy to let us taste and purchase. Because of the complexities of packing for Switzerland and Italy, we did not have nearly the baggage room to buy as many bottles as we would have liked, and Larry was not about to pay a premium to have wine shipped. Ah well, another reason to return.


We stopped in La Morra to admire the views, and then attempted to find the Capella della Brunate, the deconsecrated tiny church painted by Sol LeWitt. A sign pointed ambiguously between two roads. We tried both, eventually headed down a steep unpaved road through a vineyard, but didn't see it. We're probably the only tourists in La Morra who blinked and missed it. Ah well, yet one more reason to return.


Drove home, salad and wine for dinner.

Thursday in Monferrato--Two Churches


We had made plans to have lunch with friends in Albugnano, so decided to stay close to home today. We'd been using the very informative guide to Piemonte Romanesque churches from the Asti tourist office to find these little gems. We headed over to Montiglio Monferrato, a short drive from Cocconato. We easily found San Lonrenzo, just outside the town cemetery on via Romano Gianotti.The door was open, and a handwritten sign on the door tells you to go to the local pizzeria for the key if it is locked. The church was dedicated in 1180, and has lovely carvings with pagan and Christian themes--forked sirens, Celtic knots, lambs and lions, a serpent eating its tail.




The oldest part of the village has a castle at the top, which is opened for special events. Sadly, no one was answering the phone at the local tourist office so we weren't able to get inside to see what are supposed to be remarkable frescoes in the chapel. Because the street leading up to the Caastello looked so narrow, I made Larry leave the car at the bottom, and we slowly climbed the hill to the top. Of course several cars passed us, the occupants probably shaking their heads over the crazy tourists walking up. Quite of a few of the old village houses looked abandoned,and there were many For Sale signs. Gorgeous views down.


We met Jenny and Kim at a restaurant they suggested, Il Gelsomino in Albugnano. There's a beautiful terrace with the marvelous view, but unfortunately today it wasn't open because of the harsh wind and a few sprinkles. Several days a week they offer a four-course lunch (with wine!) for 12 euros. We enjoyed several antipasti--robbiola cheese with a tasty jam, "Russian salad", peppers stuffed with tuna. Then pasta, tasty though obviously not homemade agnolotti, followed by roast veal with vegetables, and finally homemade tiramisu. Decent, simple meal, surprisingly bad wine, but fabulous company and conversation. http://www.ristoranteilgelsomino.it/index.html

We drove around the hillsides after lunch, and eventually would up in Cortazzone, to find San Secondo. Both doors of the church were locked. On a bulletin board was a sign to go to the yellow farhouse down the hill, and Sr. Fiori would give you the key. Larry walked down, and when he returned said Sr. Fiori told him the side door was unlocked. He tried, I tried, we both tried,and the door would not budge. Back down, a conversation with Mrs. Fiori, and the long key was found.



The interior has capitals with carvings similar to San Lorenzo's-lions, -birds, peacocks, seashells, forked-tailed sirens, flowers. There's a 14th century fresco above the altar.



Outside, more interesting carvings, particularly on the south side. Above the arches is a very unusual carving. From the little booklet you can get inside for a 3-euro offering:

"..In its primitiveness is meant to refer to a coupling scene, not common in church decoration, and can be explained in prehistoric local traditions. Some interpret the engraving and other signs of fertility, such as the breasts, as favorable to the birth of children and milk in abundance, or as an ex-voto referring to a difficult birth. "


Headed home. Larry enjoyed a pre-dinner nap. We had a light meal at Cantina del Ponte, a simple place in Cocconato. We shared an antipasti of eggplant mousse with red pepper sauce, a plate of salumi, and tajarin with butter, tomato and herbs. And a wonderful bottle of our new favorite wine, Ruche. Dinner was 35 euros, and very pleasant.


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