Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Monte Isola, part 2, & Verona

Okay, the last section of my Italian vacation. The next day my friend and I decided after breakfast to wander around the island for a couple of hours before heading to Silviano for lunch at his friend's house.

We continued on from Sensole to Peschiera Maraglio and onward to the small village of Carzano, where we had a Spritz at the local watering hole.

(Who’s a perfect 10? :P )

From there we went up a short trail through Carzano to another village (Novale) with a view over the lake.

At this point we realized we only had about 30 minutes to get to Siviano for lunch so we started a pretty brisk walk across the island.

When we got the village we met Francesco on the road chatting with a friend. We then went to his place where his sister had put on a real spread of food.

After being joined by other family members we started with bread, plates of sliced meats, and some deviled eggs (that I really liked), along with red and white wine from the family vineyard. Then Francesco's sister brought out a big tray of homemade lasagna!

Now were talking. Real Italian home cooking!

It was great. I had myself two helpings of lasagna and was pretty stuffed afterwards but left a bit of space for dessert. Bad thing was, no one had informed me how many courses we were having for lunch. There was still more food to come.

Yep, I had just finished the second course -- of seven!

Here's what we wound up eating:

• Sliced meat and bread (and deviled eggs)
• homemade lasagna
• a local lake fish (can't remember the name, possibly trout)
• veal & potatoes
• a variety of local cheeses
• a selection of fruit
• cake with a meringue coating (with a dessert wine)

Followed with some high quality tequila. (Yes I know tequila isn't Italian but when we were talking the night before the conversation turned to high quality spirits and Francesco mentioned he had a great tequila we should try at lunch).

The lunch was fantastic, and took over three hours. Good thing too because if I tried to eat seven courses quickly I would've exploded.

So after thanking everybody we were back off to the hotel to get our luggage and catch the ferry to the train station to go to Verona. Unfortunately by the time we got there the next train wasn't for over an hour. A nice thing at the Sulzano train station was that there were taps nearby that had water from a local spring (including sparkling water!). So I occupied my time watching various locals come along with empty bottles to fill with spring water.

so we waited . . .

and then we ran into Francesco again! He was returning to his apartment in Milan and it was nice that he could join us on part of the train journey.

I slept most of the train journey. By this point I wasn't feeling all that well. It wasn't from overeating, looking back I think it was dehydration. A lot of brisk walking combined with the fact that pretty much everything I drank that day was alcoholic (spritz, wine, tequila) had done a number on me. Good thing I had an opportunity to rest during the train journey. By the time we got to Verona I was feeling better but still not a hundred percent.

Because of the late lunch and long train wait in Sulzano we did not get to Verona until after 7pm. It was a bit unfortunate because I was catching a train at 6:45am the next day but since the sun wasn't setting until after 9 it still left us with some time to see the sights.

Verona is another city that managed to keep much of its old architecture so the old city is really cool. It's even an UNESCO world heritage site. Check out the pictures:

There is also an old Roman Coliseum, the Verona Arena, that is used now for performances of operas and plays. Anyone I spoke to and any website I looked at about Verona recommended seeing an event there. Unfortunately the events were not starting until the week after we were there. Maybe one day I will get a chance to see it.

We continued to wander around and by nightfall found the Castelvecchio Bridge

The evening ended appropriately with pizza and drinks at an outdoor pizzeria in the old city.

This was my first trip to Italy and I must say I was blown away by the places I've seen. Seriously, these places were like out of old Hollywood movies of Italy. You don't actually think Italy will be like that but in some places it really is: Bergamo, Monte Isola, Verona, all of them outstanding. I was impressed enough that I've already booked my next trip – Rome. It won't be for a couple of months but I'm looking forward to it.

Kudos to my friend Knut for suggesting the trip and making many of the arrangements, and to Francesco for all of his hospitality.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Italy -- Monte Isola, Part 1

From Bergamo my friend and I took a train to the small town of Sulzano in order to take a ferry across Lake Iseo to the small island of Monte Isola. My friend had been there once before and really enjoyed it. Also a colleague of his lived on the island and we would be meeting up with him for dinner.

The island has a few cars that are used as taxis otherwise I don't think the residents of the island have cars. There's also a small bus service to take you around the island but the island is small enough that my friend and I were able to walk around. That said, when the ferry docked at the main village of Peschiera Maraglio we took the taxi (the only one I ever saw on the island) to go to our hotel in the village of Sensole about 2km away:

Check out the views from the hotel room!

It was early afternoon so we walked back to Peschiera Maraglio, having a gelato en route, and then decided to take a trail to Madonna della Ceriola, the Church at the top of the mountain.

Look closely at the first picture, can you see it? Well, you couldn't see it from the village and I completely underestimated how high up it was. Needless to say it was quite the trek to get up there, took us a couple of hours. Not that that was a bad thing, en route we went through forested hills:

and two villages (Messe and Cure) where we could stop for a Spritz at the local bar:

Very civilized hiking I must say. Wish Canada had pubs on mountain trails.

Eventually we made it to Madonna della Ceriola and took a few pictures from the church.

We then went back down the mountain a different way and into the village of Siviano. In the village we came across my friend’s colleague, Francesco! (Small world isn’t it?). This was the village he lived in. He was originally going to meet us at the hotel for dinner but since we already met up with him he went with us back to the hotel.

Francesco ordered dinner for us all, a selection of seafood dishes, most of which were fish from the lake, and one pasta dish. There is a significant difference in quality between fresh, properly made pasta, and the stuff we commonly buy in packages at the grocery store. We had a great time and Francesco invited us to his house for lunch tomorrow so we can have a good lunch before we left for Verona.

Tune in for Monte Isola – part 2.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vancouver Canucks

So the Vancouver Canucks lost game seven of the Stanley Cup finals -- again.


Couldn't it even have been a close game? Had to get crushed 4-0?


And unfortunately there was a riot again, just like in 1994 when the Canucks lost game seven of the finals.

I lived in Vancouver in 1994 and happened to be downtown watching that game at a bar on Granville Street. The game ended, my friends and I lowered our heads in disappointment, and we walked to the Skytrain station and boarded the train home.

So imagine my surprise when 20 minutes later we turned on the TV to see the very spot we’d just been at in chaos as hundreds of people were smashing windows and causing mayhem!! I kept thinking it was a good thing we went straight home after the game. Why would anyone want to be part of a riot of drunk angry fans? It's not like they were making deep political statements or fighting for rights from a repressive regime.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the same thing happened. The police prepared for it as best they could but in the end there were too many idiots out that night.


At least I am hopeful that most of the rioters will be caught and prosecuted. Back in 1994 the police appealed for any photographs of people damaging property and the resulting community support led to the arrest of dozens -- and this was in 1994, before the widespread use of camera phones. I'm willing to bet anyone who is damaging property or causing chaos already has at least 10 different pictures of them on the Internet.

Still sucks that the Canucks lost though. I really believed they would do it this time.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Taking a Break from the Desert -- to Italy!

A couple of months ago I was e-mailing a friend of mine from Bermuda and he said he would be in Italy in June on a business trip. It turned out that over a weekend he would be near Milan. Since Qatar Airways flies directly from Doha to Milan I decided to get a ticket, meet up with him, and briefly tour the Italian countryside. I had enough miles to get a ticket so it wasn't going to cost me too much.

So when am I leaving? Surprise, I'm back from Italy now!

I had a great time and saw three different areas: Bergamo, Monte Isola, and Verona. No, I didn’t stay in Milan. My friend said these three nearby areas would be more impressive.

Years ago I used to do a photo gallery slideshow that I would e-mail to friends but I stopped doing that once the website I was using was charging. I think I'll restart the tradition by posting photos and commentary here.

So let's begin with part one -- Bergamo

Bergamo is an old Italian city, surrounded by walls on top of a steep hill for protection. I believe it dates back to Roman times but most of the architecture is from the Renaissance and later periods. I spent my time in the old portion of the city on top of the hill, called the Citta Alta.

We stayed in Agli Orti B&B in a narrow street in Citta Alta. Check out the photo of the street:

When North Americans picture what Italy is like their ideal would be something like this. This street looks like something out of an old movie. All of Citta Alta looks like this which was great for touring around.

It turns out that the owner of the B&B, Ada, is a travel author specializing in traveling in northern climates. She's toured more of Canada than I have!

So I headed over to the main square, the Piazza Vecchia

Here's a view from the other side

And you had better believe that this was a good place to have lunch

I am trying to lose weight but, I'm sorry, I'm on vacation in Italy. You're damn right I ate pastas in creamy sauces, pizzas, gelatos, pastries, and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on! You would too. (No, I don’t regret it. I’d do it again!)

Speaking of which, Italians really love ice cream. There were gelato places everywhere and if you were watching TV it seemed like every third ad was for some type of ice cream or another. I think I was averaging three scoops of gelato every day (it was my friend's fault, he's an enabler). I was thrilled when a gelato place in Bergamo had this available:

Licorice gelato! I haven't had licorice-flavored ice cream for years and I really missed it. That was a treat. It's not for everyone though, my friend accidentally ordered one a few days later at another gelato place and he didn't like it.

I was also introduced to a common Italian aperitif that my friend loves, Spritz. We were having these everywhere -- after a while I was joking to my friend that he's always jonesing for a Spritz. I guess you can't get them in Bermuda.

But I digress. After lunch I went to a nearby church, the Cappella Colleoni

Luckily an English-speaking tour group was walking by so I tagged along with them to hear about the church. The inside was really nice, pretty much what you would expect from an ornate Renaissance church. We then went next door to the Santa Maria Maggiore, which was even more impressive with a completely different style of architecture (I think the guide said Baroque, though the wiki article says Romanesque)

Afterward we wandered the streets:

And went to a café/bar overlooking the city that had been recommended by an American friend of mine who once studied here (and we had our first of many Spritzes during the trip).

For dinner we ate at a local pizza parlor, also recommended by my American friend, near the Piazza Vecchia. The next morning it was back to the train station to go to our next destination.

To be continued.


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

So how's the Arabic lessons going?

It's been a little over two months now of lessons at FANAR and so far it's going pretty good. The words we are being taught are generally useful, my Arabic is improving bit by bit, I'm occasionally meeting with classmates on the weekend to practice, and I'm getting a lot of support from my Arabic speaking friends. Having friends who speak Arabic has been really helpful, especially since the teacher doesn't speak English very well so sometimes when you ask him what a word means he has a tough time explaining it. I usually go to my Qatari friends for clarification. Of course sometimes they struggle a little bit because they have to remember the Classical Arabic word instead of the local Arabic word.

I still struggle with the letter ‘ayn’ and sometimes have trouble differentiating it from the letter ‘a’ (alif). I also don't pronounce it well when speaking. The Arabic word for "yes" contains an ayn but I usually pronounce it with an ‘a’. I used to think that wasn't a big deal because the two letters sound similar but about a week ago I was getting my hair cut at my Turkish barber and was practicing Arabic (he is from southern Turkey near the border with Syria and most Turks from that region speak Arabic in addition to Turkish; the majority of Turks in Doha are from this region). When I said the word for "yes" but using an “a” sound, he actually didn't understand what I said. It was only when I repeated it with an “ayn” that he suddenly realized what I was saying. Guess I have to be more careful.

We don't have to pluralize many nouns yet, which is great because I hate trying to memorize plurals. I still have no sense of the rules for pluralizing a noun. Maybe next level we will start on that.

Otherwise the final exam is in two or three weeks, a square around 90% of my midterm so I'm not too worried. I just need to study my vocabulary more.

I will definitely continue the lessons at FANAR I expect the next set of lessons will not be until after Ramadan (September).


Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A Report on South Asian Workers

My recent discussions about the problems that migrant workers from South Asia face was timely. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, has done a story about the issues facing these workers. I recommend watching it: