Posts Tagged With: language

Lucca – A Secret Gem

Another week has passed by in a bit of a haze. After spending 4 hours every morning in Italian lessons trying hard to look on the ball and somewhat engaged, I find that my head is spinning by 1.00pm. The lessons are conducted all in Italian – totally from wow to go. To add more pain the use of dictionaries is prohibited.  When you have a question, the teacher attempts to ease your dilemma by using a convoluted example in Italian and by the time he has finished his explanation, you have hopefully grasped the concept.

This week we had a new bunch of recruits from Holland and Germany and Australia plus the same 2 chaps from Japan (one of which is a right pain in the backside!) -10 in total.  Consequently, the group exercises are like deciphering Morse code with cotton wool stuck in your ears. It is all babble!

What really did my head in was our final exercise on Friday – a passage (about an A4 page) that we had to read, translate and then undertake some grammar exercises. The subject was about a scientist who became fascinated by snails and wanted to write a book about the life of snails. However, no matter how he tried to conceal himself in the bushes, the snails were up to his tricks and hid inside their shells. So he had a bright idea of disguising himself as a snail. He made a shell out of paper mache that he could fit himself into, a rubbery nose with rubbery horns that waggled about and silvery saliva that he painted onto the ground. This pastime quickly turned into an obsession, and eventually he was sleeping in his costume and asking his wife to make him worm fritters.  She in the end, told him he was a loon and he could stick his worm fritters and left!

Now – I am confident that in my next conversation with someone about snails and worm fritters I will be able to acquit myself well. Handy don’t you think?

On the plus side, I feel more confident in conversing with the locals in Italian (not about snails). Some are very patient and will give you time to express yourself. Others revert to English straight away.  At least no one is speaking German to me.  There are plenty of Germans and Dutch here but very few Asians.

Lucca is a really pleasant and friendly place. The city is flat and cars are not allowed in the walls unless you have parking permits and a place to park, which are very limited. Consequently, this is a great place for a bicycle and which there are hundreds. The streets are narrow and cobbled with the buildings rising up on either side for three or four stories containing 4 to 8 apartments where the residents live in close quarters with each other.  So hearing the domestic chatter (and arguments) from your “vicini” is not unusual. For example the family who live behind me have a toddler named – wait for it… Galileo! My goodness he has a big name to live up to.

IMG_1201Yesterday the weather was a lovely so I spent a couple of hours wandering the main shopping streets (lanes) and poking my head into a number of stores.  But the highlight was another lingering lunch in a quiet corner, watching the passing crowds go by. On perusing the menu, I was unable to make up my mind between the chicken liver pate or the Tuscan salami and figs – so my very congenial waiter suggested that I have a half portion of both. This I followed up with a light main of vitello tonnato.  One of my all-time favs – cold sliced veal with a mayonnaise made with tuna and capers.  This was accompanied by a lovely local white wine – Trebbiano which dates back to the Roman times. (This photo is for my brother Peter who is the most patient husband of a champions shopper – Mary)

The best sight of the week was when I was on my way home from class, I passed a couple of older ladies (70’s) – done up to the nines. Blonded hair (yes, I am a culprit of some chemical assistance in this department), large pouting red lips (possibly some filler, and Botox to boot) skin tight black pants and patent black boots, rather flashy jewellery and pushing a very smart baby pram with a hood. From the back they looked like a couple of glamourous (!?) grannies out with the new baby while mum is at work. As I drew closer, I looked into the pram  – my jaw hit the ground – there sitting in pride of place was not a baby but the biggest, white, furry cat I have ever seen. I have since discovered that this was a state of the art bespoke cat pram. Can you believe it!

Today I am indoors as it is raining and thundery. So I have been busy doing some catch up homework in readiness for class tomorrow. Please God, no more stories about invertebrates please?

ci vediamo

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Italia Bellissima!

During language class this week we had to discuss an opinion survey that was recently conducted in Italy. One of the questions was; “what do foreigners rate as the most significant aspect of Italian life”? The majority of respondents said, ” il cucina” . I agree, as I am never disappointed with what Italy has to offer. As the scenery in the regions of Italy differs, so does the cuisine. Here in Lucca, I have enjoyed some interesting and tasty local specialties which I have not experienced elsewhere. I am looking forward to many more to come in the next few weeks.

Just to mention a few of the highlights: proscuitto with white figs (peeled), cuttlefish stewed with tomatoes and spinach, tartare of veal with a tuna mayonnaise with bottarga (a cured fish roe), fresh farfalle pasta with sauteed fresh tomatoes and fresh salmon and basil,  grilled and sliced rare fillet steak with parmesan cheese on rocket (sauced with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, grilled sea bass with buttered spinach and slices of crispy potato.

Not to forget the gelato. I have discovered a wonderful place where they create gelato magic and makes their own flavours –  not the run of the mill fare. Interesting and unusual so in the name of research I have three scoops of different flavours!

Apart form the cuisine, the other obsession that Italians have is news and politics! I am still trying to digest the Italian slant on “news”. It swings from the latest gruesome homicide, to the refugee crisis, and  a swathe of political stories in between. Maybe it does sound like just like home!

There is an abundance of news commentary programmes here. On every second channel there is some beardy bloke with too long hair, that needs both a wash and a brush, and wearing designer glasses sprouting his informed (and ill informed) opinions depending on which side of the socialist spectrum you sit. They think that Greece is a laughing stock of Europe but they do not realise that they are only one step away from the same fate. Hard work, punctuality, precision, good governance, innovation are not in the Italian vocab. Maybe that is why we love it here. The whole sense that life has gone on like this for centuries and if we don’t rock the boat, long may it continue.

The Italian way is in their DNA: old men sit in the shade, drink coffee and argue,  old ladies do the shopping and complain that the bread is stale and the tomatoes are soft, young girls wear tight pants and impossibly high shoes, handsome young men wear very tight pants and a self satisfied look, and tourists are the only people to eat before 8.00pm,

Ah – Bella Italia!

 

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Mushrooms, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Lucca,Tuscany – A Living Picture Postcard

 


Buon giorno,

Here I am in Lucca – having enjoyed 2 days of sunny warm weather– up 30 degrees. This is ideal weather for sitting in a shady spot and drinking an aperol spritz (or a glass of prosecco) and watching the passing parade. After a few rainy and cool days in London this feels like coming home. Italy has that instant appeal of warmth, friendliness and accessibility.

On arrival at Pisa airport, I was met by Francesco my taxi driver to Lucca. He did not speak any English so my rusty Italian got a rude awakening. I think that I acquitted myself well as he did not drive off the road in fits of laughter at my linguistic abilities.

We arrived in Lucca, unloaded my cases at the front door of my apartment (rented through AIRBNB), and rang the bell (twice) and with increasing urgency. Alas – no answer. Francesco had a worried look on his face. I am sure he thought that he might have to take me home as an unexpected boarder. I had a fleeting thought that I could be one of the cases that wary travellers fear – an internet scam – there was no apartment and some slippery scammer had my money.

I found my landlord’s number and Francesco called it for me. After a number of rings there was an answer and Francesco informed them that their new lodger was at the door. He then told me (in Italian) that my prospective landlady was in hospital after delivering her first baby at 8.30am that morning. Dad would be on his motor scooter and be there in 10 mins. Phew!

In ten minutes he rounded the corner on one wheel and zipped up the lane full tilt; off came his helmet and I was greeted with a grin from ear to ear. Obviously he is a very proud new dad. And today Mama and baby came home. There was a knock at my door and the new family was there to show off the incredible tiny bundle – Ginevra. I have already offered myself for babysitting duties.

My apartment is spacious, comfortable and spotlessly clean. It is located on the edge of the old city inside the walls that ring the town. Completely surrounding the ancient city, the walls we see today date back to the 17th century. They are crowned by 4 km of green parkland, where people walk, cycle or stop for a picnic. Just another example of how, over the centuries, though buildings last, their roles metamorphose as times change.

I have explored some of the streets and squares nearby. Everywhere is walking distance and is quite flat – so pedestrians and bicycles rule the road. The public buildings are very grand, old palaces with wonderful medieval facades, impressive churches, twisting alleys that open onto small piazzas. Behind high walls one can glimpse gardens and courtyards. The streets have been full of tourists and holidaying Italians enjoying the last days of the European summer vacation. Hopefully this week I will see a quieter Lucca and be able to explore further afield.

Tomorrow is my first day at school – so more of that later.

Ciao

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Namibia – Gin and Tonic With The Lions

The white saltpans of Etosha National Park in the central north of Namibia are vast. The saltpans stretch over 20,000 sq km. Etosha means “great white place” and was once a super-lake. Today, it is dry, flat and hot with very few rivers and creeks which only run during the rainy season. At that time, as the saltpan fills, thousands upon thousands of water and wading birds migrate to it. There are also many man-made waterholes which surround the enormous saltpan that stretches as far as the eye can see. The most amazing of all the animals that congregate around the waterholes are the Etosha elephants. These wonderfully huge creatures are intriguing to watch as they come to the waterholes to drink and “bathe” themselves in the white mud which then turns them into huge ghost-like creatures.

The elephants happily share the waterhole with a variety of animals including many antelope and zebra. However the elephants seem to have an intense dislike for ostriches. One young male elephant takes this enmity to an extreme – every time an ostrich approaches the waterhole, the elephant sucks up a trunk full of water and gives the ostriches a good hose down. The ostriches reply to this indignity with much fluffing of feathers, flapping wings, shaking of tails and stomping of feet while retreating to a safe distance to wait for another opportunity to approach the waterhole when this rambunctious elephant had his back turned.


Waterholes are often places where old and sick animals come to die. The heat of the plains and the rough, rocky ground are hard on old feet and the grass is often dry and brittle. These weary animals make their way to a waterhole in the hope of sweet, soft grass and the coolness of the water. It is interesting to observe this cycle of life as it turns a full 360 degrees. Eventually, these aged, sick or wounded animals become the life giving meals to a whole range of other animals from the big cats, to the scavengers like jackals and hyenas, and of course the vultures, storks and buzzards circling in the sky that will their descent onto the carcass.

On my last game drive in Ongava, my guide Bono suggested that we visit a distant waterhole with the hope that we would see the resident pride of lions which we had tracked in the morning. On arrival at the waterhole in the late afternoon we saw at a short distance, in the thick bush that surrounded the waterhole, a number of giraffe nervously approaching the waterhole. They were cautiously eyeing the open ground around the waterhole as this is a very dangerous place for any unwary animals. Sure enough, there was a huge male lion and lioness lying in the grass metres from the waterhole. The giraffes, pushed by thirst, approached the waterhole but the sense of self preservation made them reconsider and they retired back into the thick scrub to wait for a safer time to drink.

We sat there quietly for some minutes and out from the long, thick grass emerged another lioness and followed by six cubs around eight weeks old. They made their way to the water’s edge and, one-by-one they lined up and started lapping the water. As if this sight wasn’t wonderful enough, another three females with older cubs around six months approached with a huge male sporting a magnificent, thick black mane. They all clustered around the waterhole and drank freely and loudly.


I was amazed how the sound of their lapping carried to where we were sitting some 10 metres away. The lapping of all those thirsty tongues was like the sound of many small hands softly clapping. They continued to drink for quite a while until their thirst was completely sated, as this would have to last them through the night while they hunted.

As each of the lions took their fill, they lay down beside the waterhole and relaxed or grabbed forty winks while the younger cubs played. The cubs spent their time wrestling with each other or sneaking up on the lionesses to grab their tails, bite their hind legs, or crawl over their mother if she was lying down and grab a quick drink of milk. The lionesses were patient up to a point, but if the wrestling became too vigorous, she would get up and go over and give the cubs a soft hit with her paw to quieten them down.


The least patient of all in the pride were the large males. One had removed himself from the group and was keeping close company with a female and discouraged interaction with the cubs. The other male was quietly lying by the water, and every now and then, a cub would approach and try to engage him in some fun. This was quickly rebuffed by a deep growl, a quick flick of his tail or a swat of his huge paw. Everyone seemed to know that these big boys were serious and not into games with the kids.

Sundownders are part of the ritual in the African bush; as the sun set, Bono prepared our gins and tonics. We then sat in the Land Rover with our drinks and watched this magnificent family of 20 lions play, relax and communicate with each other. They were completely uninhibited by us and walked up to the Land Rover and around us to investigate noises in the bush with sharp eyes and keen ears.

My heart skipped a beat and I looked to Bono for reassurance when a very large and fit female approached the jeep and stared at us through the windscreen for five minutes. She was only one leap away from joining us in the front seat. Satisfied that we did not pose a threat, she ambled off to join her sisters and cubs.

Much of this playacting by the cubs is in preparation for hunting. The cubs stalk each other and then pounce on their brother or sister and try to wrestle them to the ground. When they are old enough to follow their mothers into the bush for a real hunt, the adult females will bring to the ground a small quarry so they learn how to kill it by choking it around the neck. Then it will be their turn to try their skill at stalking and bringing down their own prey. There will be many lost opportunities along the way, but eventually, they will take their place as part of this finely tuned hunting machine.

It was a wonderful opportunity to watch and study the lions as such close quarters. Their social and familial bonds are very strong and totally cohesive if the pride stays intact. This is the responsibility of the alpha males in the pride, they need to protect their home range and spend much time proclaiming their ownership by marking their territory, sending out loud calls to warn off any intruders and protecting the females from any threat.


The younger adult males will be pushed out of the pride by the alpha males. These young males will then form a coalition by themselves or join up with other solitary males and become a bachelor group. They wander the bush looking for other prides that they may be able to join, or as they mature, they will try to challenge the resident alpha males. If victorious, the young lion will take the place as alpha male in the pride. These fights are vicious and often deadly.

When a young male is victorious, he will lay down the law to all the females and, if there are cubs in the pride, he will kill them. The females will then come into heat and he can then mate with them immediately to ensure that his genes are carried onto the next generation.

It was a very moving, but nerve wracking experience, sitting in the African wilderness with a huge pride of lions moving about only feet away. They are intelligent, strong, socially organised and formidable. These magnificent animals are indeed king of the African bush!

Categories: Animals, Botswana, Elephants, Giraffe, Lions, Namibia, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, Zambia, Zebra | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Oryx of Namibia – Beauty, Power and Grace

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In the southwest of Namibia, there is a narrow strip along the coast called Sossuslei. Here you will encounter the famous giant red dunes stretching as far as the eye can see. The wind has carved wonderful contours, ridges, gullies and spines into them. Behind the dunes are flat valleys sparsely covered in grass the colour of pale yellow gold. These plains are intersected occasionally with dry creek beds, where groves of small trees add a welcome ribbon of green to the landscape. In the distance, the stark rocky hills and mountains rise up steeply from the valley floor. They make a striking contrast to the grassy plains and are dramatically coloured in hues of black, blue, red and purple to create a rich palette.


This area is in the Namib Desert and is part of the 50,000 sq km Namib Nauluft National Park. This “sand sea” was formed when the ephemeral Tsauchab River was blocked by sand and now the dunes stretch for 400 km along the coast. To the west along the coast there is a cold current that runs the length coast, bringing cooler winds and a little moisture and the escarpment that runs parallel to the coast is some 100 km inland.

Kulala Wilderness Reserve is 40,000 hectares in area and home to oryx, ostrich, springbok and some small carnivores where occasionally, cheetah and leopards can be sighted. It is a dry place with a very low rainfall of less than 4 inches or 100 mls a year. Amazingly the animals have adopted to these harsh conditions and have developed many unique and ingenious survival mechanisms.

The climate is hot and dry in summer and cold and dry in winter. What little rain there is, will make the many ephemeral rivers and creeks run and this is a boon to many animals who are near death from thirst by this time, such as the magnificent oryx. They trek each day, or every second day, to the nearest source of water which can be hours away from the grass plains where they eat what little grass is left at the end of the dry season.

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The oryx are strikingly beautiful antelope and have developed some unique physiological changes to cope with the heat and lack of water. The blood that circulates from the heart to the body is then sent to their muzzle of their nose where it is cooled. This cooled blood is then circulated to their brain. Also, they do not urinate very often and have a specially adapted muscle in their anus that extracts moisture from their faeces before they defecate.

They live in herds and the newborn calves are able to run with the herd immediately after birth. Both males and females possess permanent horns and are of equal length. The horns are narrow, and straight and are lethal — the oryx has been known to kill lions with them. The horns also make the animals a prized game trophy, which has led to the near-extinction of the two northern species.

The social system of the oryx is unusual, in that non-territorial males live in mixed groups with females, or with females and their young. Groups are composed of 10 to 40 males and females of all ages and both sexes.

The dominance hierarchy among oryx is based on age and size. As they grow, calves test one another in what look like games, though in reality are tests of strength. As the hierarchy becomes established, the need to fight is reduced. Ritual displays replace actual contact, except when evenly matched individuals may have to fight to establish their rank. Along with lateral displays, oryx perform a slow, prancing walk and sometimes break into a gallop. When several males are making these displays, they may clash horns.

Herd composition in the wild constantly changes according to need. Oryx wanting to drink, for example, form a group to go to water, or females with young form a group that moves more slowly. The result is a social system that allows for individual needs but retains the advantage of group living. Oryx range widely over a large area, but their keen sense of smell alerts them to rain in the area, so that groups quickly assemble, often in herds of 200 or more, to feed on new growth.

Categories: Animals, Cheetahs, Leopards, Namibia, Oryx, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 2

OK – now you know what “must have”, you can start looking and the first step is ….

Research, research and then some more research.

Sounds like a lot of hard work – but it is not if you look in the right places.

1. The internet
This is the easiest way to find a villa/apartment. But you may be overwhelmed by the volume of choice. My tip is refine your search as to the
• Location
• Type of accommodation
• Key characteristics that are important to you such as pool, golf, mountains, seaside etc

So examples search strings could be:
• “Luxury villa” + Tuscany + pool
• Budget + “holiday accommodation” + Italy
• “Apartment to rent”+ Venice + “San Marco”
• Beach+pool+villa+amalfi

When your internet search is delivered, look at the first few sites and see if they carry the stock of accommodation that you’re looking for. If not – refine your search string.

Don’t spend too long on each site but bookmark (add to your favourites) the websites that look interesting to come back to later for an in depth search. I tend to shortlist about 5 sites.

Now that you have your rental checklist of “must haves” as well as a shortlist of sites, the fun really begins.

Most sites have search criteria from which you can select, so plug in your “must haves” – number of bedrooms, rental period, pool, location, etc. Now carefully read the detailed descriptions and inclusions of each of the accommodations. If the details do not match your “must haves” there is no point getting hooked on the pretty pictures – move on. When you see a property that matches your criteria either print off the details and pictures, or bookmark that particular property.

I admit that I have a secret pleasure. Once I have a shortlist of say 10 properties I love to get into bed that night and read the detailed descriptions and peruse the pictures at leisure without interruption. I have found that during the night, while I sleep, one or two properties percolate up through my subconscious and in the morning, I have the shortlist in my mind. I then rate the property descriptions by most liked and least liked. That way I can concentrate on a handful of “most liked” properties for in-depth investigation.

Above all, make sure you carefully read what has been described, not what you “want” to read. It’s all too easy to “think” you read about some attribute only to find when you excitedly arrive at your destination that the swimming pool you’ve been dreaming about is in fact a paddling pool, or some such other disappointment!.

2. Ask friends and associates for referrals
Referrals are a great way to source accommodation. If other people have had a good experience when dealing with a particular vendor or renting a particular property, then half the hard work is already done for you.

However:
• Trusting someone else’s opinion is great as long as you have similar tastes and/or requirements.
• How long ago did they rent this property?
• What could have changed since then?
• Has the property been well maintained?
• Is the same vendor and or agent managing the peoperty?

3. Check out the bona fides of the agent/vendor before you send any money
I hear loads of people say they are nervous about dealing with vendors over the internet. I completely understand and have felt the same in the past. The following are a few tips that I use to check the bona fides of the vendor I am about to deal with:
• do they have a corporate website
• are there testimonials on the website
• check out the reviews the villa/apartment on Trip Advisor – contact the most recent reviewers and post a question
• start an email conversation with the vendor and get more information about items and conditions that are on your “must have” list
• ask for a phone number and call them
• ask for references from previous clients
• make sure that you have adequate travel insurance before you send any money

Money, Money, Money!

Once you have the numbers of participants confirmed, you need to receive a non-refundable deposit from them. This deposit is refundable only if other participants take their place. Otherwise other members of your group will have to absorb this extra financial burden.

OK – Now you have your ideal villa/apartment sorted it is time to get the finances sorted.
Show me the colour of your money
When renting with friends and family members you need to make sure that you get a firm financial commitment from them prior to you parting with any of your own hard earned cash. You certainly don’t want to commit to renting a 6 bedroom villa and then a month before you leave on your holiday, someone pulls out of the deal and leaves you carrying the financial burden.

So my advice is to get all your companions to “show you the colour of their money” (and commitment) early! Well before you have to make your initial deposit payment to the vendor.

I work on the basis that the individual cost will include:
• rent
• optional outgoings (air-con, heating, pool, chef, maid service, etc)
• housekeeping (this covers groceries, wine and liquor, household incidentals, etc).

What about housekeeping?

In the past I have found that asking everyone to chip into a housekeeping kitty prior to leaving is the best and the most hassle free way to manage the day-to-day expenses while you are living it up in your villa or apartment.

I have loaded the housekeeping kitty onto a designated credit or debit card for the sole use of making your purchases or getting cash from the ATM. I keep all the receipts and regularly reconcile these against the housekeeping kitty. This is the best way to make sure that everyone feels that there has been an equal contribution to the running expenses and also, as the organiser, you are not out of pocket.

Depending on your anticipated lifestyle, and the group that you are renting with, the housekeeping kitty can vary from $100 per day to $200 per day. That should be ample. Towards the end of the rental period if there are surplus funds in kitty, I have also paid for some meals when out at restaurants, entrance fees and bar bills etc.

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In the next blog I will give you some ideas of making the most of your holiday such as:
• discovering those exciting out of the way adventures
• finding the best local produce
• dining with the locals
• shopping
• making your villa a home away from home .

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Rental Abroad – A Checklist for a Hassle Free Holiday – Part 1

“La Dolce Vita“

A Guide to Renting a Villa/Apartment

Do you want:
• a hassle free Italian vacation?
• to experience living in Italy and being part of the local scene?
• to be not just another tourist
• to eat great food just like the locals?
• to experience “la dolce vita”?

Yes?

Then the answer is; rent a villa or an apartment and get in touch with the real Italians and the unique experience of living the Italian dream.

Renting a villa or an apartment is a sure-fire way to have a fun holiday in Italy. Going to the local supermarket and doing your groceries, getting to know the butcher, the baker, the fruit and veggie man, the wine merchant (really important!), eating fabulous food at restaurants the locals go to, and discovering all those hidden out-of-the-way places that are not in the guide books.

I hear from lots of people that they would love to do this. But for many it just seems too hard, or they don’t know where to start, or they are afraid they will get ripped off.

I have rented apartments and villas all over Italy (and other countries) and I would like to share with you my guide to hassle free renting. Here is a checklist that will help you along on your journey:

Work out precisely what type of accommodation and location you want:
1. Who will your companions be for this rental; just you, or are your family joining you, are your friends coming along as well, and how well does everyone know each other?
2. How many bedrooms and what type of beds will you need in each room – – single, double, queen or king and is the linen provided? Also – be careful if bedrooms join each other, or you have to walk through a bedroom to the shared bathroom/toilet. Very difficult if you have a call of nature in the middle of the night.
3. How many bathrooms do you need – bath or shower? There is no point on having 12 people in a villa and have only 2 bathrooms/toilets. If the bathrooms are not en-suite, I work on the basis of one shared bathroom to 4 people. Separate toilets are a good idea if you have a large number of guests.
4. Is there a washing machine? Finding and then washing your clothes in a laundromat is no fun when on holiday.
5. Is there an outdoor entertaining area? You will want to eat your meals “al fresco” and enjoy those wonderful warm evenings.
6. Is there a pool? Usually pools are open from late May to October. Also, are there any costs incurred in running the pool?
7. Is there air conditioning or heating? Will you need to use this? Italy can be stiflingly hot in summer and freezing in autumn and winter, and importantly, is the cost included in the rent? If not – how is it calculated and paid for?
8. Are there extra cleaning services available and what is the cost per hour? When you are on holiday the last thing you want to be doing is scrubbing the toilets. It is a good idea to organise at least one to two extra cleans a week if there are a large number sharing over a period of a few weeks. Often, there is a weekly clean included in the weekly rental.
9. Is there a chef that will come to the villa and cook for you? Does the chef bring all the ingredients and is this included in the cost? Having a chef is a great idea if you are not in close proximity to restaurants, and after all, you are on holiday and you don’t want to cook dinner every night. Also, you can learn a few cooking tips to impress your friends when you return home.

I remember a holiday where I organised a chef to cook every second night. He was very open to showing us a few of his cooking techniques however most of my friends were uninterested in cooking lessons but when this Adonis turned up there was not one female left on the couch. Not only did he bring all the ingredients, prepare the food, serve and cleared the table, he then washed up and left the kitchen spotless. Worth every Euro I say!


10. What is the access to the villa? Are there many stairs or a steep pathway to your front door? Remember – everything that you carry in also has to be carried out and that includes your suitcases, groceries/wine, and no doubt, the many wonderful purchases that you will make during your Italian vacation. Also remember that all the trash has to be deposited in the communal garbage and recycling bins on the street.
11. Check the restrictions for car parking. Is there off-street parking and for how many cars? If not, what are the restrictions for on-street parking?
12. Is the accommodation in a quiet area? Check out Google maps/earth, or ask the vendor if it is close to a busy road, train line, industrial or commercial area. I once rented an apartment on a pedestrian only street in Taormina, Sicily. Great I thought – a really central location and no cars. Alas, people partied till the wee hours up and down the street and then all the commercial deliveries had to be made before 7.00am. Thank goodness the windows were double glazed.
13. Is there an Internet connection and/or mobile phone coverage? We are now totally reliant on easy communication and expect that we can call our family and connect to the internet anywhere we go. However – that is not the case in Italy. Find out if your accommodation is connected (wi-fi or dial-up) and is there a cost to you.
14. Is the accommodation child friendly? Stairs – internal and external, a fenced-in garden, a fenced- in pool area, is the garden area safe for children (water features, steep cliffs etc)?
15. Do you want to be close to a village or town? This is important because you will need a car to get around if you are in the countryside. If you have a car and you rent accommodation in a town or village what are the parking arrangements/costs?

16. What services does your local village or town have? Restaurants and bars, supermarket (co-op), specialty food vendors, bank and/or ATM etc, doctor, chemist, etc
17. What are the closest transport links? Train services vary in Italy from rapid express to very, very slow! What is the closest airport and car hire place?
18. What area of Italy do you want to vacation in? Are you hankering for a remote location to commune with nature? Or, are you an urbanite that needs to be near all the action? Or are you someone in between – nature and action? Check out what your locality has to offer: culture, art, music, scenery, nature walks, parks, gardens, boating, beaches, golf and tennis etc, shopping, wineries, food, historic locations, museums etc…
19. Consider the time of year that you take your holiday in Italy? Spring (March to May) and Autumn ( September to November – however take note that late October and November can be cold) are the best. Summer (June to August) can be really very hot especially late July and August. Note – Italians take their holidays in August and tend to holiday in Italy. Consequently, many shops and restaurants will be closed and the prime holiday destinations such as the seaside, islands and the mountains will be very crowded with holidaying Italians.
20. What are the costs?
• Rent per week/month (Remember to ask for a discount for longer bookings or when making low season bookings).
• Rent per week/month (ask for a discount for longer bookings or low season bookings)
• Money transfer costs/bank fees
• Consider the exchange rate – are the rental costs quoted in your currency or the Euro
• Security deposit (refundable how? and when?)
• Chef – paid directly to the chef or the booking agent/vendor
• Extra maid service – paid directly to the maid or the booking agent/vendor
• Extras such as – air conditioning, heating, pool etc
• Are there any other staff such as a gardener or housekeeper who may need to receive a tip?

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OK – now you have your list of “must haves”, you can start looking….

Next blog we will discover how to go about finding your ideal villa or apartment.

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jordan – At the crossroads

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Jordan is a peaceful and law abiding country. Here traffic rules are made to be broken. No matter if the driver is a hot blooded young stud with 6 cylinders under him or a doddery old codger chugging around in a clapped out Toyota – the rule of the road is mob rule!

Unlike the drivers in Egypt, the Jordanian drivers are quite circumspect about using their car horns. So travelling around the streets is comparatively a quiet affair, but nonetheless entertaining. When stopped at traffic lights, it is quite common that one or two vehicles will streak by through the red light, without any concern for oncoming traffic, pedestrians or livestock. At roundabouts which are numerous, drivers merging will edge onto the roundabout and then come to a halt in front of the oncoming traffic and sit and stare when a driver blasts the horn. Pedestrian crossings are non-existent, and if they are marked on the road they appear to be for decoratative purposes only. Lane markings on the roads and freeways are not used to separate the traffic into lanes as everyone drives right down the middle of the line. Camels, donkeys and sheep have right of way. Camels are treated with the utmost caution. If you are unlucky enough to hit one, it will end up sitting in the front seat with you. Then there are the trucks – big ugly oil-dripping, fume-belching monsters that rule the road. You will often see these pulled up on the roadside, with the driver getting out his prayer mat to observe the 5 times a day call to prayer. They certainly need Mohammad in the front seat with them the way they drive.

My driver is Fadi; around thirty, darkly handsome, softly spoken and with the largest and most impressive eyebrow (note the singular – his is a monobrow) I have ever seen. This dark, lustrous growth crowns his eyes like a toupee for the face. Jehad my guide makes very witty observations and comments about Fadi’s eyebrow thatch which Fadi takes in good spirits. Fadi is happy to enter into the banter, making self-deprecating comments as well.

Jehad is another kettle of fish altogether; he is well travelled, has modern and moderate views, speaks several languages and is politically aware and very voluble in his opinions. I sit in the back listening to Fadi and Jehad chatting in Arabic; instinctively I know when the conversation has strayed onto politics. Everywhere I go in Egypt and Jordan – politics is hot.

As a young man Jehad left Jordan and lived in Rome for a number of years where he studied hospitality and then worked in hotel and restaurant management. He met his wife who is Australian, then left Rome for a new life in Brisbane. After a few years and one daughter later he found that he was missing his homeland and needed to return to Jordan and now lives in the capital, Amman.

As we drove along, we enjoyed many interesting conversations about the life, lifestyle and the politics of the Middle East, and Jordan in particular. It seems that most people in Jordan and Egypt are concerned about the right wing Islamic fundamentalists becoming more powerful and influential. This is not a direction that most educated people want to go. They see Saudi Arabia is exerting more pressure to introduce draconian Sharia laws that will make life intolerable for most women in Egypt and Jordan.

Traditionally, the veil has not been part of Jordanian and Egyptian culture; however, many more women are adopting the veil or being made to wear the all-black dress covering the face, feet, hands and eyes. They appear like a black apparition walking along the street. As I sit in the cool air con of the car wearing short sleeves and jeans, I can’t imagine how hot and uncomfortable this outfit would be.

Life in the middle east is difficult; clashing political views, democratic reform is hard fought, equality for women is not enshrined, a hash and water deprived landscape, autocratic governments, equal education and employment opportunities for all unheard of. This being said, everyone I came into contact with was a pleasure to meet; proud of their history and culture, warm and welcoming to a stranger, generous and kind. I would certainly encourage everyone to make the journey and be wowed by the fantastic sights, the great food, the rich culture, the people and the heart and soul of these ancient lands where mighty conquers made their mark, crusaders were vanquished and where Moses is buried. This is an ancient and wondrous land.

Categories: Egypt, Food, Wine and Cooking, Jordan, Language, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Italy on a Plate – Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards – Yummy!!!

Italy has many festivals and “The Festa della Zucca” held in October in a small town Venzone – in the Friuli–Venezia which is Italy’s most North-Eastern region. Venzone is pumpkin central. The town center transforms itself into a Medieval carnival with fire eaters, jugglers and street dancers all parading in the streets which are lit by torches and candles. The locals get into the mood by dressing as nobles, knights and ladies, innkeepers, shopkeepers and merchants. The atmosphere is enhanced as the shops are decorated with pumpkins and gastronomic delights such as pumpkin pizza, pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin crostini and more. The humble pumpkin is elevated to royal status for the occasion.

The origins of the Pumpkin Festival are legendary. The Noble of the village of Venzone wanted to beautify and fortify the town and used the townsfolk as labourers. On completion of the restoration, the workers were not rewarded including a special craftsman who was to decorate the copper dome of the Cathedral of Venzone with a golden ball. But he too was not paid for his work so he craftily replaced the ball on the golden dome of the cathedral with a pumpkin. The Noble realized that he was tricked by the artist only on the day when the ball fell from its position on the dome and smashed to the ground.

Recently I had 8 friends for lunch and like every cook, planning the meal is half the fun. Poring over the cook books, being inspired by far a way places and cuisines and salivating over sumptuous and mouth-watering food photos. However, this time I decided to cook lunch using some of the recipes that I received at the Casa Ombuto cooking school in Tuscany last year. You can read more about this in my other blogs.

The lunch menu was:
Antipasto – Filo Cups filled with Aubergine Sauce (salsa con melanzane)
Prima Piatti – Pumpkin and Parmesan custards (Copette di zucca e parmigiano)
Secondo Piatti – “Jump in the Mouth” Veal with Sage and Ham (saltimbocca alla romana)
Dolce – Tiramasu (this literally means “pick you up”

The Pumpkin and Parmesan Custards were real winners as they were a new taste sensation and a different approach to serving pumpkin. The result is a lovely creamy custard that is slightly sweet from the pumpkin and the complex hint of the smoked cheese. I think the smokier the cheese the better.

So here is the recipe for you to try….
Ingredients
• 350 gms of cooked and pureed pumpkin
• 320 ml pouring cream
• 2 eggs
• 1 tablespoon grated smoked cheese (I used smoked cheddar)
• 50 gms grated parmesan cheese
• Salt and pepper to taste

Method

1. Preheat oven to 150 degrees
2. Pass cooked and pureed pumpkin through a sieve
3. Mix pumpkin, cream and smoked cheese and salt and pepper until smooth
4. Add the eggs and mix well
5. Pour into individual heat proof ramekins
6. Bake in a “bagno maria” (a water bath) for about 45 minutes or until the cream has thickened when you give it a gentle shake
7. Take out of oven and sprinkle about a teaspoon of grated parmesan cheese on top of each custard
8. Place under a hot grill until the cheese is golden brown
9. Serve warm with some crusty bread and a full-bodied white wine – maybe a pinot grigio from Fruili.

Happy cooking and eating… do you have any other favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Just drop me a line in the comment box below.

For information, prices and dates for cooking schools in Tuscany please contact me at varley.e@gmail.com

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jordan, Petra and Other Desert Delights!

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In comparison to Egypt, Jordan is a country that trades on one amazing ancient monument – Petra. And what a monument this is.

Petra from the Greek, meaning ‘stone’ is an archaeological city that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Established possibly as early as 312 BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans who were an ancient people of North Arabia. They had a loosely controlled trading network which centered on strings of oases that they controlled on various trading routes that linked them. Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom, annexing it to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.
Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans, and the centre of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Petra is a symbol of Jordan, as well as its most visited tourist attraction and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as “a rose-red city half as old as time”. UNESCO has described it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage” and one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die.”

As you approach Petra, your anticipation mounts as the impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3–4 meters wide) called the Siq (“the shaft”). This natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway which can be treacherous during heavy rain as you can be caught in a flash flood and swept away.

The gorge is deep, with vertical stone cliffs that soar upwards blocking out the sun which is only able to penetrate to the floor of the gorge as it passes vertically overhead. It is a cool, quiet place. After about a 2 kilometer walk, you approach the end of the gorge and you see before you, a bright sunlight area, the size of a football field and surrounded by high sandstone cliffs.

Your breath is taken away by the immense stone carved structure before you. There stands Petra’s most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as “the Treasury”). Hewn into the sandstone cliff many centuries ago. This was not a place for storing the King’s wealth but actually a tomb where he would rest for eternity and enjoy the next life.

There are a number of other tombs in the area that are not as elaborate as the Treasury, however impressive nevertheless. These tombs reflect the social status and the wealth of the individual who commissioned their building. Some are just small burial niches, others are more substantial, with carving and decoration on the outside. The very wealthy were able to afford elaborate tombs that are guaranteed to impress and insure a comfortable passage to the afterlife.

Jordan is a country that is 75% desert and the remainder is semi-arid and sparsely populated. The significant minority group is the Bedouins. These ancient nomads call the whole of the Saharan desert home and easily travel across borders with scant regard to passports and immigrations laws. Some have adopted a semi-permanent lifestyle where they live in small towns and villages for part of the year, but regularly return to the desert with their tents and camels for extended periods of time.
Wadi Rum, also known as The Valley of the Moon, is cut into the sandstone and granite rock in southern Jordan, 60 km to the east of the Red Sea port of Aqaba. It is the largest wadi (valley) in Jordan. The name Rum most likely comes from an Aramaic root meaning ‘high’ or ‘elevated’. The stone mountains have been carved by sand and wind erosion for thousands of years, forming amazing and fantastical shapes on the rock face of the mountains. This gives the mountains the appearance that they are melting like a dripping ice cream cones on a hot day. The colours of the rock are fantastic, rich and varied; black, red, warm colours of orange and ochre, creamy whites to vibrant yellows.

I spent the afternoon with Atala – a local Bedouin who supplements his income by taking tourists out into the desert and making them a cup of tea over a small brush fire and showing them his skill of driving in powdery, slippery sand and over rocky dunes. I feel like I have stepped back into time. I ride alongside Atala in his 4×4, hearing stories about Bedouin life in the desert, and how the ancient trader’s caravans used Wadi Rum as a major route through the centuries; trading myrrh, frankincense, and other precious cargos from Asia to the Middle East.

Atala is dressed as traditionally – he is wearing a loose long-sleeved grey gown that falls to his ankles over a pair of loose cotton pants, on his head is the traditional head-dress of a red-and-white checked head scarf (the keffiyeh) secured by a rope coil (agal) around his skull. The red-and-white keffiyeh is a symbol of Jordanian heritage, and is strongly associated with Jordan. The Jordanian keffiyeh has decorative cotton or wool tassels on the sides and it is believed that the bigger these tassels, the more value it has and the higher a person’s status. It has been used by the Bedouins and villagers throughout the centuries and was used as a symbol of honor and tribal identification. The scarf can be tied in a variety of ways and reflects the personal style, as well as, serving a practical purpose to protect the eyes, ears and mouth from the sun, wind and sand. British Colonel T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) was probably the best-known Western wearer of the keffiyeh. He wore a plain white one with agal during his involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War I.

Atala’s handsome face is deeply bronzed from years spent in the desert’s sun and wind. There are lines that crease around his eyes when he smiles and then you are dazzled by his brilliant white teeth. I am not sure what the secrets of his dental hygiene are, and how he maintains such radiant teeth as I note how much sugar he pours into his tea. Teaspoons are not part of local etiquette and he measures out the tea leaves by generous handfuls and the sugar in the same way. He is amazed that I prefer my tea without any sugar.

Gazing at him I, am unsure of his age – he is either incredibly young and has weathered badly, or, of more advanced years and looks fantastic for his age. I suppose he is somewhere in between. A father of 7 children – the eldest is 12 years old and the youngest is 2 years old. No doubt there will be one or two more to follow. The Bedouin place great importance on having children, and in large numbers, as this is an investment in their future and security in their old age.

As the largest minority group in Jordan, the Bedouin receive certain advantages from the government. However the Bedouin place an importance on self-determination and managing their issues inside the tribe. If there is a transgression within the community, they will seek the counsel of the headman to determine the appropriate course of action and appropriate punishment. As a nomadic and free-spirited people the worst punishment that can be metered out is home detention. To enforce this punishment they do not need high-tech monitoring devices – such an electronic ankle bracelets but simply they shave half the culprits moustache off. The moustache, to the Bedouin is a major feature and they are particularly vain about their luxuriant growths. Any self-respecting Bedouin would not be caught dead without his handsome moustache – let alone half a one.

Vanity is not only the prerogative of the men. The women too use cosmetics as Atala showed me. He found two pieces of a particular stone and rubbed them together vigorously. This formed a brick-red powder which he carefully spread over my cheeks in large round patches. He stood back and admired his artistic endeavours and was certain that I would make a good bride price. However, desert life for me is far from comfortable; living in sheepskin tents, milking camels, surviving the elements – searing hot in summer, and bone chilling cold in winter, horrendous sand storms that can block out the sun for days and cover anything that stands in their path.

The Bedouin are to be admired for their pride in their culture and traditional way of life. Harsh and as hard as it is.

Next blog – more about Lawrence of Arabia….

Categories: Egypt, Jordan, Language, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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