Posts Tagged With: language

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

Italy On A Plate – Il Ragu, The Best Bolognese Sauce Recipe Ever!

In Australia, like the rest of the world we eat Bolognese sauce by the litres. Commonly known as “Spag Bol” – this dish is to be found on menus everywhere, and in every instance, there is a variation made by the chef. Sometimes this is successful, but in most instances, these Bolognese sauces bear little resemblance to anything that you will find in Italy.

However, recently I attended an Italian cooking school in Tuscany, and Paola our chef says this is the “real McCoy”. Bolognese sauce is an Italian meat-based sauce for pasta which originated in Bologna, a city in Northern Italy. There it is often referred to as Il Ragu. It is a rich, thick and hearty sauce that unctuously clings to the pasta. Italians do not eat pasta swimming in sauce but prefer a “drier” sauce that has bold and clear flavours and is equal partner to the pasta.

Bolognese is a complex sauce which involves long slow cooking to let the flavours develop and intensify. This is not a dish for people in a hurry or the impatient. It is based on a soffritto which uses finely diced onion, carrot, and celery which are sautéed in olive oil until the mixture reaches a state of browning appropriate to its intended use. A soffritto is a building block to many Italian sauces and dishes.

Ingredients
• 1 Medium Red (Spanish) onion
• 2 cloves garlic
• I small carrot
• I stalk celery
• 100gms minced pork
• 200gms minced beef
• 400gms peeled canned tomatoes (crushed or chopped)
• 2 tablespoons of torn basil leaves
• Olive oil
• Salt and pepper
• 2 glasses red wine
• 1 glass of red wine extra
Proceedure
1. Mince the onion, carrot and celery in a food processor or chop very finely by hand
2. Brown these with the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat and season with salt and pepper
3. Add the combined meat and brown well
4. When the meat starts to stick to the pan add half a glass of red wine and leave on low/medium heat to reduce again
5. Repeat this 3 times, each time adding wine, stirring and leaving it to reduce
6. Mash tomatoes (if whole) and pour over to meat mixture and leave to slowly infuse with the meat for 10 minutes and then mix
7. Stir in basil leaves
8. Cover and simmer for 2 hours
9. Stir occasionally and add extra hot water if necessary
10. While il ragu is cooking drink the extra glass of wine!

To serve – use any type of pasta that you prefer, but tagliatelle is the Italian choice. In the absence of tagliatelle, you can also use other broad, flat pasta shapes, such as pappardelle or fettuccine, or with short tube shapes, such as rigatoni or penne.

Offer freshly grated parmesan cheese and a hearty red wine such as Shiraz or a Sangiovese.

Do you have any favourite Italian dishes that you would like the recipe for? Yes? Please just leave a comment below and I will blog that recipe for you….

Recipe with thanks from http://www.tuscookany.com

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

The Queen Who Became a King

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This is remarkable story of a Queen who became a King is quite unique, even in the amazing and fanaciful world of ancient Egypt. Queen Hatshepsut meaning “Foremost of Noble Ladies” (1508–1458 BC) and is generally regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. Women had a high status in ancient Egypt and enjoyed the legal right to own, inherit, or will property however; a woman becoming pharaoh was rare. Hatshepsut had been well trained in her duties as the daughter of a pharaoh. During her father’s reign she held the powerful office of “God’s Wife” a term often allocated to royal women.

Her accomplishments were many including a number of expeditions to other counties such as Ethiopia and Somalia. She directed many construction projects in her reign, possibly more than any other previous Middle Kingdom pharaohs. She was often depicted as a man waring a false beard, or in the guise of a lion with a human face and wearing a false beard. She was referred to by both male and female pronouns depending on the situation but was regarded politically as an “honorary man.” She married her half brother when she was around 12. He died young and she assumed the role of regent for her infant stepson. She ruled for 21 years when Egypt was a powerhouse in the region and enjoyed an extended period of peace and prosperity. Her legacy was almost lost to history, because on her death, her stepson undertook to obliterate any trace of her reign.

As soon as a pharaoh ascended to the throne work commenced on his burial tomb. The longer the King’s reign, the grander the tomb became in its decoration and the size. A walk through the Valley of the Kings, and to a lesser scale the Valley of the Queens, reinforced the importance that the Kings and Queens placed on preparing themselves for the next life. For a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, tombs were constructed for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt). The valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from KV54, a simple pit, to KV5, a complex tomb with over 120 chambers). The Valley of the Kings was the principal burial place of the major royal figures of the Egyptian New Kingdom, together with those of a number of privileged nobles. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. Almost all of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the Pharaohs.

I visited the treasures of Tutankhamen in the Cairo Museum which was amazing in its fantastic opulence. He reigned for only a short period so his tomb was a relatively small size in comparison to others. I can only imagine the wealth and splendor that was inside the larger burial chambers and tombs of Pharaohs whose reigns were significantly longer and more powerful than the boy king.

On November 4th 1922, Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, the most complete and well-preserved tomb of any of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs This is what Howard Carter said on making the discovery “…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”

Here are some interesting details about the boy king who has fascinated people since the discovery of his tomb.
• Tutankhamun was only eight or nine when he became ruler of Eygpt.
• Tutankhamun was only King for about ten years before dying in his late teens. It was estimated that he ruled from 1333 BC to 1324 BC.
• Over the years, scientists have used available technology to determine the cause of Tutankhamun’s death. The two most popular theories about his death are that he suffered a blow to the back of the head, either accidentally or deliberately (in other words, murder), or that he broke or fractured his leg which became infected – an infection that led to his death possibly only days later.
• Tutankhamun may have married one of his step-sisters. It is thought that Tutankhamun’s father was Akhenaten. Akhenaten was married to Nefertiti, who bore him six daughters. Akhenaten also had a lesser wife, Kira, who is believed to have given birth to Tutankhamun. It is thought that Tutankhamun married Ankhesenpaaten, one of the daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Confused?
• Tutankhamun’s remains are still contained in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, Egypt.
• His famous burial mask is on public display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The famous gold mask that rested on the pharoahs mummy weighs ten kilos (22 lbs) and is made of gold.
• Cat scans on Tutankhamun’s body in 2005 revealed that the King was about 5 foot, 8 inches tall (180 cm). He was of slight build but was well nourished.
• Approximately 3500 artifacts were found in King Tut’s tomb. It was the first, and to this day the only, royal tomb in the history of Egyptology to be found practically untouched.

The final jaw dropping Egyption experience came at the Great Temple of Ramses (c.1290-1224 BCE) in Abu Simbel. This amazing edifice is carved out of the actual mountain side and is about 38 meters long and 31 meters high. The temple is dedicated to the most important gods of the New Kingdom, Ptah (the creator god of Memphis), Amun-Re (the great god of Thebes) and Re-Harakhte (sun god of Heliopolis), as well as to the Pharaoh, Ramses II himself, whose reign may have lasted 67 years.

The four colossi, including statues of Ramses II, are more than 20 meters high and about 4 meters from ear to ear. They sit impassively guarding the entrance to the temple staring out over Lake Nasser. Their faces are expressionless, giving no trace of the amazing engineering feat that was undertaken to save them and the temple from the rising waters of the new dam.

They and the temple, were carved up into small blocks, carried to higher ground and then reassembled above the high-water mark. Not only were the statues and temple moved but the engineers carved up the mountain that they were carved from and moved it too with the temple inside.

These temples, sat close to the Nile and were probably once brightly coloured and cut into the natural rock. After eleven centuries of oblivion, these temples were rediscovered in 1813 when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt saw by accident the upper parts of the colossal figures. In 1817 Giovanni Battista Belzoni found the entrance, partially freed from the sand. In the following years these temples were often partially covered by shifting sand.

Today, visitors see the reconstructed temples now relocated on higher ground (60 meters directly above their earlier position) after the heroic international rescue efforts to save these treasures from the damming of the Nile and the creation of Lake Nasser. Unlike visitors of the past to Egypt, today’s visitors must adhere to a strict code of conduct including no photography inside the tombs and chambers, or touching of the relics. I was amused to see that many great monuments in Egypt have fallen foul to graffitists. Not today’s baggy jeans and skateboard riding “street artists”, but wealthy well-bred and young noble-men of independent means, making the Grand Tour in the 1800s. On discovering these ancient edifices, many took this as an opportunity to carve their names and dates of their visits into the statue, column or obelisk etc.

Did you enjoy my trip to Egypt? Please leave a comment below…

Next blog – Petra Jordan – A Wonder of the Ancient World

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Wonders of Ancient Egypt

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The pyramids at Giza are just a stone’s throw from the chaos and hustle of the busy metropolis of Cairo and all its craziness. Luckily my room at the Oberoi Mena House Hotel has a verandah where I enjoy cups of tea while gazing in awe at the Great Pyramid which is just a few hundred meters away. This, and five other nearby pyramids stand as testament to amazing human endeavor and the powerful belief in preparing for the afterlife. The Oberoi Mena House hotel was built in the mid-1800s as a pleasure ground for royalty, the rich, and the politically influential. Nowadays, it appears just anybody can get a room here – including me.

The Great Pyramid dominates the skyline at 138 meters and is the tallest of the six pyramids at Giza. It took tens of thousands of men to build over a period of 23 years for the pharaoh Khufu (aka Cheops). They used 2,300,000 building blocks, weighing an average of 2.5 tons each (although some weigh as much as 16 tons). Up to about 600 years ago, beautiful smooth blocks known as “casing stones” covered the entire exterior of the pyramid, encasing the whole structure, before the Arabs began to tear the stones off and recycle them for other uses. The ancient writer, Strabo, said: “It seemed like a building let down from heaven, untouched by human hands.” It has been calculated that the original pyramid with its casing stones would act like gigantic mirrors and reflect a light so powerful, that it would be visible from the moon as a shining star on earth. At present, only a few of these stones are left in position on the apex of the second pyramid.

At Giza, you can also see the wonderful Sphinx crouching on his paws and gazing off to the distance and wondering if the British Museum will eventually return his beard to him. Standing 20 meters high and 72 meters long, the half-man, half-lion colossus of stone was sculpted 4,500 years ago. It was almost lost beneath the desert sands of Egypt as the desert winds piled sand upon him. Many a traveler and explorer paused on their journey to rest in the shadows of the sphinx and did not know what lay underneath its covering of sand. However, today he is fully uncovered and you can walk around him and marvel at his handsome solemn face.

As a precursor to the great pyramids at Giza, in 2611 B.C. the first pyramid was completed, this being the stepped pyramid of Saqqara. It rises in six stepped layers and stood 62 meters high. It was the largest building of its time and a marvel of its day. Up until then, buildings had been constructed out of mud bricks. Imhotep, the architect was also a physician, priest, and founder of a cult of healing and was deified 1,400 years after his lifetime. Not only did he work out how to quarry stone, but he built a magnificent complex that includes several tombs, a remarkable colonnade of columns, and several other smaller pyramids and ceremonial courtyards.

In the tomb of Ptah-Hotep – an important high priest and nobleman of his day, the wall decorations are stupendous. In this tiny room, there are the most wonderful depictions in raised relief on lime plaster of everyday life. It is awe-inspiring that the artist’s skilled carvng brings to life scenes with amazing detail and movement of the figures. There are scenes depicting hunting, fishing, dancing, farming, exercise, personal care (even the ancients had time for a manicure and a pedicure), scenes with birds, fish, animals of all descriptions, flowers, insects, trees and all aspects of fauna and flora of the day. Standing there, I was dumbstruck that these carved reliefs are as crisp and as beautiful, if not a little faded, as when they were created 4,500 years ago.

The first true straight sided pyramids ever built are in Dashur. During the construction of the first pyramid things did not quite go according to plan. As the pyramid grew taller, the architect realized that the base was too small for the height and so had to correct the height by slightly rounding the sides and making it smaller. His second attempt was a triumph! It was the first true straight sided pyramid ever built and has been the inspiration for Pharaohs for many generations after.

What a different city Luxor is compared to Cario; the traffic is manageable, the streets are wide and clean, the standard of housing seems vastly better, there are trees and green grass, and the view across the Nile is to lush fields and plantations. However, the drivers are still addicted to their car horns and so there is a constant cacophony of hooting, honking and general car mania in the streets.

How many times can one express the surprise, pleasure and amazement when in Egypt? Every place I visit I cannot help uttering; Wow!, Oh my God!, Amazing! and other breathy phases of wonder. Luxor Temple is one of these places and is not to be missed.

Built in the 8th Dynasty around 1550 BC, this complex boasts some extraordinary buildings of its day including large dramatic columns, a fantastic obelisk (one that escaped Napoleon’s pillaging) and detailed wall decorations. As the centuries passed successive conquering forces made their impression on this place. There are traces of early Christians who left their imprint of a wall fresco and an alcove with an altar. Then later, Islam arrived and a mosque now sits on top of the Christian artefacts.

Even though the beauty of this temple ranks up there with the best, it is surpassed by the vast and super dramatic Temple of Karnack just down the road. Karnack is not a place for collective worship, but rather a house of the gods; only the temple’s priests and the high nobility were allowed to enter the inner sanctums. This is an astonishingly huge complex of temples, courtyards and a variety of buildings which date back to 3200 BC. It is amazing for the fact alone, that approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling the site to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features is overwhelming. The deities represented range from some of the earliest worshiped to those worshiped much later in the history of the Ancient Egyptian culture.

One famous aspect of Karnak, is the Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re, a hall area of 50,000 sq ft (5,000 m2) with 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are 10 meters tall, and the other 12 are 21 meters tall with a diameter of over three meters. These glorious columns are all heavily carved with scenes; of the King of the day paying homage to a variety of gods; scenes of gods giving the king the benefit of their deity such as wisdom, strength, sexual prowess etc. The colums are topped with capitols in the shape of papyrus or lotus flowers. They are abundantly decorated in hieroglyphics telling stories of the King’s ascendancy, conquests and battles, and his importance and wealth.

In some places, which are not exposed to the weather and the sun, you can see the vivid colours that these walls and columns were once painted. Using colours derived from minerals such as: black from charcoal or soot, white from crushed animal bones, red from the crushed bodies of female scale insects (carmine) or red ochre, blue from Lapis lazuli, and green from malachite. With this limited palette the artisans created a wondrous spectacle that only the king and the high priest ever saw.

Adding to the artistic endeavors successive Kings added to the Temple of Karnak by initiating various works and additions to be completed, such as, a small limestone sphinx from Tutenkhamun. The most impressive addition, is an obelisk erected by Queen Hatshepsut (1473 -1458 BC). It is 97 feet tall and weighs approximately 320 tons (some sources say 700 tons). An inscription at its base indicates that the work of cutting the monolith out of the quarry required seven months of labour. Hatshepsut raised four obelisks at Karnak, only one of which still stands. The Egyptian obelisks were always carved from single pieces of stone, usually pink granite from the distant quarries at Aswan, but exactly how they were transported hundreds of miles and then erected without equipment, such as block and tackle, remains a mystery. This was a gigantic engineering feet commissioned by an amazing woman.

More of her story in the next blog – The Queen Who Became a King…..

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Cairo – Chaos, Cars and Commotion

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The landing at Cairo airport will be the smoothest ride that I will experience in Egypt over the next ten days. The roads are choked with traffic day and night and the condition of the roads is precarious. Peak hour starts at 5.00am and continues until 2.00am the following morning. That leaves a window of three hours where the roads are virtually un-clogged by cars, vans, trucks, donkey carts, motor bikes, horse-drawn wagons, pedestrians, bikes, scooters, buses and anything else on wheels or foot. This clammour and chaos, I am assured by my guide Ahmet, is normal, except for Friday which is a holiday and Cairo’s streets are amazingly quieter, even serene.

We leave the airport and pull onto the ring road that skirts this vast city of almost 20 million people. No one in their right mind would actually try to cross Cairo in a straight line. One could be hopelessly lost amidst the endless traffic jams, accidents and the maze of streets, alleys and no-go zones.

I soon learn that traffic rules are largely non-existent and drivers are notoriously unpredictable. Driving here is not for the faint hearted. I feel sorry for any new car salesmen as there are no new cars on these roads and new car sales are certainly not an economic benchmark of the Egyptian economy. All the cars are covered in dings and dents, rusted and in various stages of dilapidation and disrepair. When an Egyptian car fails to proceed it is often left where it stopped. I saw a police car that had 2 flat tyres, a missing back window and it generally looking rather dead – it had obviously been abandoned when it last failed to proceed.

Public transport is virtually non-existent. There is a bus fleet which is totally inadequate to service the enormous population of non car-owners . Official public transport is supplemented by a vigorous and entertaining fleet of private vans that ferry people around the city for a fixed price on a fixed route. These buses are mainly white VW Kombie vans of an indeterminate age (Moses was a boy when they rolled off the assembly line). They have a myriad of amusing and colorful decorations inside and out. The seats have been rearranged to make sure there is a maximum payload of at least 12 people in the back. This number can be stretched by including a few more customers in the front with the driver and children being accommodated on knees. This ancient fleet putters around the streets with their engine panels propped open – I suppose to aid the cooling of the engine in the searing heat of Cairo.

The vans’ decorations are a reflection of the owners’ personalities and can range from bumper stickers that are placed anywhere, to aerials (the more aerials, the better the radio reception possibly?), a variety of colorful bobbing, bouncing and eye-catching dash ornaments plus an abundance of geegaws that hang from the mirror. The driver is usually hunched over the wheel with one arm hanging out the window with a cigarette hanging from his fingers, the other hand grasping the wheel and constantly honking the horn. This “horn language” can vary from a friendly toot (Hi!), to a series of peeps (I see you – can you see me?!) or a strident series of long blasts (Get-out-of-my-way-you-mug!).

Traffic blockages are a way of life. There are very few traffic lights or traffic policemen. The traffic flow does not move at a steady pace, but in bursts of speed and then inexplicably it comes to a complete grinding halt for a protracted period. Intersections are locations for vigorous horn blowing, hand gesturing, and if irked sufficiently, verbal abuse. There does not appear to be any traffic code other than “he who is bold – wins”! Everyone pushes their way onto the intersection, and then slowly, inches forward by either giving threatening looks to other drivers, or encroaching so close to another vehicle that a scrape of metal is inevitable, unless the other driver backs down. A traffic policeman can sometimes be found in the midst of this melee waving his arms around in vain.

Added to this mechanical stew are the pedestrians. They cross the street anywhere, any time and in any number. The old, sick, the infirm, mothers and babies, men with loads on their shoulders, school children – all throw the dice of luck and venture off the curb and into the unknown. Their lack of fear is a marvelous thing to behold. I am amazed that the gutters are not running with blood and that there are not piles of bodies and wrecked cars on every street corner.

Cairo’s skyline is a wreckage of a different kind. Many buildings are in various states of construction or demolition. It is hard to tell the difference between the two. New buildings are mushrooming up everywhere but remain unfinished with no windows, like rows of missing teeth. There are gaping holes in walls, reinforcing bars sticking out of the roofs as if they are the quills of an irate porcupine. The concept of a finished building with running water, completed bathrooms, windows, doors and walls is entirely unecessary when seeking to fill it with inhabitants. Numerous apartment buildings are let in a variety of unfinished states and the residents no doubt, pay exorbitant rents to live in such squalor.

The pressure on Cairo’s resources to constantly support the veritable tidal wave of immigrants from the country areas is a major problem. Some 95% of Egypt’s population lives in Cairo or the delta region. These families are forced into living in incredibly cramped, overcrowded and desperately poor conditions. As more people arrive, the levels of poverty increase and the standard of living is just appalling for the masses. The evidence of this is everywhere: pollution and garbage in the streets, the river and the irrigation channels choked with domestic garbage and industrial waste, filthy streets with a few street sweepers making futile attempts to clean the garbage from the roadways, buildings once beautiful and functional, now in a state of serious decay and decline.

The limited fertile agricultural land that surrounds Cairo, and other cities and towns is being overtaken by dodgy and often illegal housing development. Hope remains high that the revolution of the Arab Spring, and the downfall of the oppressive regime of the Mubarak dictatorship after thirty years , will see a change for the better. However, change cannot come soon enough for millions who are desperately poor and oppressed.

Vestiges of a once grand and mighty Egyptian empire are to be found in the ancient sites and museums. Already, I have been swept away by the amazing scale, magnificence, artistry, engineering prowess, splendor and incredible genius of these ancient people going back over five thousand years to around 3,500BC.

Stay tuned for the next blog – Wonders of Ancient Egypt. It will take your breath away….

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St Petersburg – Caviar, Vodka and Canals

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After a few days of smooth sailing I am settling into life onboard, my home for the next two weeks. We arrived in St Petersburg, Russia’s gilded “Window to the West” planned by Peter the Great as a progressive city the equal of any in Europe. This grand city is located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The city was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. From 1713 to 1728 and from 1732 to 1918, Saint Petersburg was the Imperial capital of Russia. The city was built by conscripted peasants from all over Russia plus a number of Swedish prisoners of war. Tens of thousands of serfs died during the building of the city.

In 1918 the central government bodies moved from St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) to Moscow. It is Russia’s second largest city after Moscow, with almost 5 million inhabitants. In 1924 the name of the city was changed to Leningrad and in 1991 back to St Petersburg.

What a surprise this city is! On this beautiful warm and sunny morning (one of the only 40 sunny days they get here), I was delighted and surprised as to what lay before me. This city is a confection of 17th and 18th century neoclassical/empire style buildings. The large and impressive buildings and palaces that line the streets and canals are typically 3 – 5 stories high with large symmetrical windows and doorways. They are decorated with Greek style pediments and columns, iron railings and iron lace around the overhead balconies, many overflowing with baskets of flowers. The impressive palaces are vast and are identified by the gold crests over their doorways. Painted in soft pastels of cream, yellow, blue, ochre, and white they make this vista a restful and a pleasing palate to the eye. The grand civic buildings are vast and utilise impressive architectural details such as massive columns, rich ornamentation, large soaring staircase leading to gigantic doorways guarded by an array of sculptures standing guard. The most decorative are the Russian Orthodox churches with facades decorated with assorted colourful mosaics, intricately carved wood work, fancy stone and brick work and the gilded “onion” domes gleam in the sunshine.

The most impressive of all the buildings and palaces is The Hermitage. This is the oldest museum in the world, founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great wife of Peter 3rd (who was assassinated in 1762, supposedly in a conspiracy led by Catherine) and has been open to the public since 1852. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of the Russian emperors.

Catherine was said to have been a prodigious lover and a woman with a large sexual appetite and numerous lovers – they say numbering in the hundreds. She died in her mid-sixties (probably from exhaustion) and at that time had a lover in his mid-thirties. What a “cougar!” -to borrow an American expression.

In her lifetime Catherine acquired 4,000 paintings including old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals and a natural history collection filling two galleries.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 began in Saint Petersburg when the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. In March 1917, Nicholas II abdicated both for himself and on behalf of his son, thus putting an end to the Russian monarchy. Immediately after the Revolution of 1917, the Imperial Hermitage and Winter Palace, were proclaimed state museums and eventually merged. The range of the Hermitage’s exhibits was further expanded when private art collections from several palaces of the Russian Tsars and numerous private mansions were nationalized and then redistributed among major Soviet state museums. Particularly notable was the influx of old masters from the Catherine Palace, the Alexander Palace, the Stroganov Palace and the Yusupov Palace as well as from other palaces of Saint Petersburg and suburbs.

In 1928, the Soviet government ordered the Hermitage to compile a list of valuable works of art for export. In 1930-1934, over two thousand works of art from the Hermitage collection were clandestinely sold by the communist regime, at auctions abroad or directly to foreign officials and business people. The proceeds no doubt found their way to the pockets of the Communist Party Leaders. Who said that high level corruption is only to be found in the decadent West?

Overlooking the huge act of theft on the part of the communists, the collection is vast and extremely impressive, ranging from Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other antiquities, Flemish and Dutch Maters, a vast Italian collection, a large sculpture gallery, a large number of Impressionist paintings and a modern art collection. It is said that if you spent only 1 minute looking at every piece in the collection it would take 7 years of your life.

During World War II, St Petersburg – then Leningrad, was besieged by German forces. The siege lasted 872 days from September 1941 to January 1944. The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest, most destructive and most lethal sieges of a major city in modern history. It isolated the city from most supplies except those provided through the Road of Life across Lake Ladoga, and more than a million civilians died, mainly from starvation. Many others were eventually evacuated or escaped by themselves, so the city became largely depopulated.

Today, St Petersburg appears to be thriving. There is evidence that the government is spending money on improving the local infrastructure and on the restoration of these wonderful buildings and palaces. It is said that St Petersburg is Vladimir Putin’s favourite city, hence the flow of money to complete these civil works.

There are many tourists about from all corners of the world – on foot, in coaches, and moving along the vast network of canals in open boats. If you have not procured an independent tourist visa prior to arrival, you can only travel about under the supervision and control of a local guide. The need for hard western cash is evident when you visit many of the popular tourist sites, museums, galleries etc you will amazed at the huge numbers of people they let into the buildings and at times you feel like cattle being herded along.

The complete lack of regard and care that many of the priceless works of art are housed in and maintained is astounding. Hordes of people crowding into rooms and galleries – pressing up against art works, open windows allowing smog, humidity and dirt to drift in and settle everywhere, the lack of security which allows naughty children, and adults alike, to touch exhibits, and the crush of humanity in small rooms can be overwhelming.

Here are some Russian tips and facts:
1. Russians don’t usually say “please” or “thank you”
2. There are a lot of police in Russia, most of whom do nothing other than to try to rip you off
3. Russians drink a lot of vodka
4. 10% of the governments income comes from the sale of vodka.
5. Russians do not have a sense of style. If it looks cheap and nasty – they love it
6. The only alcohol-free zones in Russia are McDonalds
7. Young Russians are attractive, fit and lean – older Russians are fat and ugly
8. Russians love to criticize their own country, but will be offended if a foreigner does
9. Russians aren’t politically correct. Go ahead and tell a joke based on ethnicity, appearance, or gender stereotypes; just steer clear of jokes about somebody’s mother or father. You won’t be understood
10. Russians never shake hands over a door way, they believe it leads to arguments

I would like to give you a challenge… Not Russian Roulette but can you make a Russian immigration official smile? These people have a the countenance of a head from Easter Island, impassive, blank and bloodless. Give it a go – I dare you!

Please leave a comment below – do you have any interesting Russian tips or facts?

Categories: Food, Wine and Cooking, Language, Photography, St Petersburg, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stockholm – Venice of the North

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The flight from Rome to Stockholm via Munich was uneventful but I was fascinated to watch the Italian landscape change from the chaotic patchwork of farms to the cool green meadows of the alpine region of the Alps. The stone houses and barns of the Italian countryside are surrounded by brown fields, newly ploughed or a tapestry of ripe wheat and corn waiting to be harvested. Dense oak forests hug craggy hillsides where small hill top towns adorn the summits and spill over the edges like icing dripping over a cake.

As I fly across the Alps, the landscape changes to a vivid green in the deep valleys that vast glaciers cut between the mountains long ago. Nestling in the bottom of these glacial valleys, are quaint villages of white houses with red roofs which cluster along the river banks that meander through these picture book valleys. On either side of the valleys, the mountains rise up vertically from the valley floor. The verdant meadows give way to rocky grey summits where in some sheltered pockets there is perpetual snow.

The view from the aeroplane window could be described as panoramic unlike the sight of my lunch tray which drew gaps of horror not delight from my lips. Lufthansa as you know is the national carrier for Germany so this nationalistic fervour may account for a dinner of meatballs (closely resembling male anatomical parts) floating in a soggy soup of sauerkraut. This may not be the wisest meal to feed to 100 or so people who are trapped in a tin can 30,000 feet above the earth for 4 hours -the atmosphere in the plane may get a bit ripe after consuming this dinner!

My wish for cooler weather after the unrelenting heat of Italy was granted. On arrival in Stockholm, I was greeted with driving rain and a cold blustery wind whipping the fallen leaves out of the gutters. The drive from the airport was through dense pine forests and after about 45 minutes we are in the centre of Stockholm. What a beautiful city this is. There is water everywhere. The buildings are low rise and this makes for an intimate city on a human scale. No soaring canyons that block out the light and create great wind tunnels.

Founded around 1250 Stockholm is a conglomerate of 14 islands on the coast in the south-east of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Mälaren and it has a population of around 1.5 million. Sometimes called the “Venice of the North” Stockholm is known for its beauty, its buildings and the many styles of architecture. The first part of the name (stock) means log in Swedish, although it may also be connected to an old German word (Stock) meaning fortification. The second part of the name (holm) means islet. We explored the city by foot, bus and canal boat gaining an insight into the life of the City and its different sectors.

One of the islands is Stockholm’s core – the present Old Town – Gamla Stan which was built on the central island in the 13th century. This small island is a warren of cobbled streets, interesting buildings dating from the Middle Ages and later, cute little squares and tiny green spaces. There is a central square which is surrounded by beautiful buildings and is a congregation point for many tourists who flock there to people watch or take a breather to rest their feet after navigating the treacherous cobble stones.

Gamla Stan is also the site of the royal palace, an imposing square building that overlooks many parts of the city and other islands. Today this is the administrative centre for the Royal household and a place where important ceremonial duties and functions are carried out. It is an impressive sight when it is time for changing of the guard at the palace as a large cavalry troop parades through the streets, all gleaming, pressed and handsome on their chestnut horses.

The city originally rose to prominence as a result of the Baltic trade between many of the neighbouring countries: Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Germany and Poland. This ideal geographic position also brought many wars and disputes to its shores, the aggressors hoping to steal more land, power and wealth. These battles see-sawed over the centuries particularly between Denmark and Sweden and to this day there seems to be some underlying tensions often disguised as humour.

The next leg of the holiday is a 2-week cruise around the Baltic. We made our way to the harbour where we could see giant ferries that traverse the Baltic from Stockholm to St Petersburg, Helsinki, Estonia and other ports to the east and to the west Copenhagen, Oslo and other ports along the way. These giant ferries take hundreds of passengers and trucks, bikes and cars traversing the shipping lanes of the Baltic.

Our ship was easily identified by its gracious nautical profile and the 5 masts that will carry the sails when we are out to sea. It is the largest sailing ship in the world and carries about 300 passengers and 150 staff. All your creature comforts are catered for, a beauty salon for massages and facials, gym (I am not inclined to venture in there), a coffee shop where you can get a coffee and sandwich, 3 restaurants, a pool deck with a small pool and 2 hot tubs, 2 bars and lounges, quiet nooks to lounge both in and out of the sun.

We set sail around 6 pm and head out to sea through the myriad of pretty islands that make up Stockholm’s harbour. We turn east and head for St Petersburg – a 2-day sail away. I sink into life on board – relaxing by the pool in warm sun (no scorching Mediterranean heat here), reading, gazing out over the deep blue sea, contemplating the world from the other side of my eye lids, lulled by the quiet as the only sound is the swishing of the wind and the waves.

Some people say that the only clock needed on board is the one in your tummy. The day starts with breakfast where there is an ample buffet of fruit, yoghurt, smoothies, juices, hot savoury dishes – prepared and on order, smoked salmon and the trimmings, freshly baked bread, rolls and pastries. Lunch is a buffet – a range of salads and cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, deserts, ice creams and a daily bread and butter pudding, to supplement this there is a made to order pasta dish. Afternoon tea is served on deck – mini rolls and cakes and cookies. At dinnertime savouries are served with cocktails in the lounge and then dinner comprises a selection of appetisers, salad and soups, main course and finishing with cheese and dessert. After all that if you wake up at 2.00 am and have the munchies there is 24-hour room service.

If you enjoyed this blog please leave a comment below and forward this onto your friends. Thank you.

Next port of call – St Petersburg – stay tuned for more fun on the high sea.

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

Rome – A Night at the Opera

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Next stop is Rome.

While I was away in the countryside of Tuscany and Umbria I had forgotten how hot and steamy Rome can be. The black basalt cobble stones radiate the heat up through the soles of your feet and make your feet ache and the perspiration drip off you. I ventured out most mornings for a walk but soon after lunch, retreated to the sanity of the air-conditioned hotel room – defeated by the heat. However, as the sun sets the Romans come out to dine and enjoy the descending cool of the evening.

My hotel is located near the Piazza Novona, which is a mecca for tourists and sellers of art (good, bad and indifferent). They set up their easels to display their work and sketch artists try to lure passing tourists to pose for them.

I am amazed by the number of street venders who mingle amongst the crowd selling a variety of practical and unusual wares, such as: packs of tissues, socks, paper parasols, hats, fans and the most amazing and optimistic seller of all, was a chap clutching an armful of colourful brooms and dustpans. I thought to myself – who would come all the way to Rome and to the Piazza Novona and think that they need to buy a dustpan and broom?

Eating out in big cities and tourist hot spots can be a really disappointing event. My first night, I ventured out of the cool of the hotel and sat in a busy bar overlooking the chaos of the Piazza Novona and while sipping my prosecco I knew that the food at any of the restaurants surrounding the piazza would live up to my worst fears – the food would be terrible and overpriced. However, on this occasion I struck it lucky. I ventured away from the Piazza into the back streets and happened on a small restaurant with out-door dining in a quiet street – I was not disappointed.

The menu read well and seemed to show off seasonal fresh food which was well cooked and reasonably priced. Over two nights I enjoyed: an appetiser of mixed crostini – tomato, artichoke puree, and olive paste, and an entre of a light tomato broth with cherry tomatoes and clams and mussels, mains were a whole sea bass grilled over charcoal and a plate of grilled seafood (calamari, salmon, sea bass, prawns and octopus). All delicious! And to cap it off, there is a fantastic gelato bar just around the corner so I could walk home while enjoying a cooling gelato.

I decided to treat myself to a slap up gourmet dinner at the Imago restaurant in the Hassler Hotel. The dining room is an elegant space with interesting and very chic Italian furniture Located on the 6th floor it commands outstanding views over the roof tops of Rome. From here, you can spot all the famous land-marks illuminated after dark. The room is beautifully furnished with tables dressed in crisp white clothes and some tables are fully mirrored and reflect the candle light and the colours of the sunset as the sun drops below the horizon and bathes the room in glorious golden colours. The staff is professional, extremely attentive and every detail is considered such as, when you are seated, a small foot stool appears at your side on which your handbag can rest.

I had a wonderful evening dining on:
• Mezzi paccheri pasta (large tube pasta) with octopus sauce, smoked scamorza cream (an Italian cow’s milk cheese, similar to mozzarella)
• A tartare of three shellfish, oil-flavoured bread and sprouts
• Duck breast tandoori-style served with moscato flavoured peaches
• A wonderful cheese plate with aged parmesan and gorgonzola and pecorino
• Petti fours with coffee

Starting with a glass of prosecco, each course was matched with a wine and vin santo was served with the cheese.

The restaurant has a very special guest that visits every night. He is a very large and impressive looking seagull who comes and sits on the window sill looking in at the diners. Finally, the waiter opens the window and hands him a large piece of bread which he gratefully takes in his beak and flys off to enjoy his dinner too.

The highlight of my days in Rome was a night at the opera at the Baths of Caracalla (Terme di Caracalla), to see the opera Norma. The Caracalla bath complex was more a leisure centre for the ancient Romans than just a series of baths. The baths consisted of a central 55 by 24 meter (183×79 ft) frigidarium (cold room) under three 32 meter (108 ft) high groin vaults, a double pool tepidarium (medium), and a 35 meter (115 ft) diameter caldarium (hot room), as well as two palaestras (gyms where wrestling and boxing was practiced). The north end of the bath building contained a natatio or swimming pool. The natatio was roofless with bronze mirrors mounted overhead to direct sunlight into the pool area. The entire bath building was on a 6 metre (20 ft) high raised platform to allow for storage and furnaces under the building.

The complex is now all but a shell of the original complex and during the summer season a portable stage and seating is erected in the middle of the skeletons of the original buildings. The open air stage is huge and capable of holding a chorus of 100 singers with room to manoeuvre and an orchestra pit able to accommodate a full orchestra. The singers were wonderful and their voices floated on the warm night air.

The heat of the day dissipates and as the sky darkens and the stars and moon rise, you gather together to be entertained and transfixed by wonderful music in a fantastic setting.

Rome is home to some wonderful museums and galleries. I went to see the museum at the National Roman Museum of Diocletian Bath, near Piazza dei Cinquecento, this museum occupies part of the 3rd-century-A.D. Baths of Diocletian and part of a convent and cloister was built in 1565 and is ascribed to Michelangelo. The Diocletian Baths were the biggest thermal baths in the world. Nowadays they host a marvellous collection of funereal artworks, such as sarcophagi, and decorations dating back to the Aurelian period.

This museum’s collection could be considered as one of the most important collections of ancient sculpture in the world. The museum contains the works of art found during the excavations executed after 1870.

National Roman Museum of Diocletian Bath (Museo Nazionale Romano delle Terme di Diocleziano)
Viale Enrico De Nicola, 79
00185, Rome, Lazio, Italy
Zone: Rione Castro Pretorio (Porta Pia) (Roma centro)

Next stop – cooling off in Stockholm….

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

Italy – Painting Under The Italian Sun

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Borgo San Fedele is a little slice of heaven in the Chianti hills close to the small town of Radda in Chianti and only a 15 minute drive to the wonderful Medieval city of Siena.

However – heaven can be a noisy place during the wild boar-hunting season. The quiet is punctuated with the sound of gun shots and the baying of dogs on the scent of cinghiale (wild boar). Hunting is a weekend recreation as the hunters scour the hillsides for these elusive beasts. They are certainly not a pretty sight face-to-face (the boar that is, not the hunters) – dark, bristly and with sizeable tusks. However, on a plate they are a very appealing and yummy meal – made into a rich stew with homemade pasta, in sausages, salami, dried and served in all sorts of ways this is a local delicacy.

Here is a recipe for you to try when you next get a wild boar in your garden…

PAPPARDELLE WITH WILD BOAR RAGU
Ingredients
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 500gms cubed wild boar,(substitute pork shoulder)
• 1 teaspoon fine salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tablespoon diced onions
• 1 tablespoon diced carrots
• 1 tablespoon diced celery
• 1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
• 2 tablespoon tomato paste
• 1 tablespoon plain flour
• 1 bottle red wine
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 sprig rosemary
• 1 sprig thyme
• 1 sprig sage
• fresh or dry pasta, cooked al dente (for 4 to 6 serves)

Directions
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Season the meat with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Once the meat is browned, add the onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. Reduce the heat and cook until the moisture is gone. Add the tomato paste and flour. Add the red wine and herbs. Cover and cook for about 2 hours or more depending how tender the meat is), stirring occasionally. The sauce is done when the meat is fork tender.
Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside. Strain the sauce, blend, and return to the pan. Pull the meat apart and add back to the blended sauce.

Serve over pasta and a generous dusting of parmesan cheese. Eat with a bottle of full-bodied red wine and crusty bread to mop up the sauce.

Borgo San Fedele, our home for the week, is a marvelous story of discovery and rescue from near ruin. It was a thriving monastic community which was built in the 12th century but in 1982, after a gradual decline, the last priest in residence died and San Fedele was abandoned. Like many abandoned monasteries and convents all over Italy, San Fedele fell on hard times and neglect and nature took over. This saw the wonderful stone buildings fall into decay as roofs collapsed and walls gave way under the pressure of encroaching vegetation.

The current owners – Nicolo and Renata happened on this derelict site and fell in love with the notion of rescuing this wonderful piece of local history and bringing it back to life. It is now a place where individuals and groups can come and experience Renata’s and Nicolo’s hospitality and enjoy a unique place steeped in history and surrounded by the lovely Chianti countryside.

I came to San Fedele to attend a week-long water-colour painting workshop. On the first day, our instructor Pat Fiorello was very encouraging and explained that… “painting requires your full self – the left and right brain, the eyes, hands, heart and soul. The technique of painting, the technical aspect of putting paint on paper involves a motor skill (eye/hand coordination) that I truly believe anyone can learn, but that is just the beginning. There is also the emotional expression, the artist’s personal vision, selection of subject, colors, shapes, etc and the intuition and sometimes magic that goes into creating a piece of art. So to think of it as mechanical – doesn’t really do it justice, it is so much more. And I do believe every one can learn and share their own expression”.

With Pat’s careful and positive encouragement, I am hopeful that I can bring all these aspects together to achieve some level of success. However, talent might have some small part to play. As the days unfold, I am amazed that the paint on paper is taking shape, and amazingly enough, it appears that the subject is somewhat recognizable. Thanks Pat!

During the week we explore the local area and visit a number of very quaint hillside towns including Radda in Chianti, Castelino, Pienza and of course Siena.

This wonderful medieval town which has the amazing and famous shell-shaped Piazza del Campo where the colourful Palio (horse race) is run twice a year in summer. Siena is divided into 17 ‘contrade’, that means ‘little boroughs’, which have their own traditions and colours. They are fierce rivals, and the Palio is an event where this rivaly is played out to the enjoyment of the boisterous and partisan crowd. The race is run in the piazza and the riders ride bareback and grip on for dear life as their horses tear around the square.

There was no horse race there on the day we visited but there were plenty of tourists. This is a great opportunity for a spot of people watching at any one of the cafes and bars that surround the piazza. Sitting there in the warm autumn sun, drinking an espresso (or a wine) and watching the passing parade is a real Italian pastime. As one of the ancient cities of Italy, it is a small city with winding lanes and small alleys, so a good map and a sence of direction are needed to navigate this labarynth.

The day passes quickly with a visit to the Duomo – a magnificent structure, striking in its black and white external façade which is adorned with sculptures. The towers, turrets and spires are all richly decorated. The present building was begun in the early 13 Century and the cupola was finished in 1464. The dramatic interior has a pavement of marble mosaics — the work of masters of the fifteenth century depicting scenes from the Old Testament.

Siena is famous for its confectionaries that include Ricciarelli biscuits, gingerbread and delicious sweets made of honey and almonds. However,  a day cannot go by in Italy without a gelato. You must make a trip to GROM. This is a unique gelato experience. They make gelato and sorbet the old-fashioned way with real seasonal ingredients and methods that are reflected in the quality and taste of their gelato. Here are some of their exciting flavours…

• Caramello al sale
• Cassata siciliana
• Liquirizia
• Marron Glacé
• Tiramisù
• Zabaione

Interested in painting? Visit http://patfiorello.com/
More info on San Fedele – info@borgosanfedele.com http://www.borgosanfedele.com/en/history.htm
Need a holiday https://www.ilchiostro.com/

Next blog I will be in Roma… stand by for some food, fun and fantastic sites….

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

Italian Cooking – Pasta, Pizza and Pleasure

I arrive at the hire car office in Firenze and it is pandemonium – bags, kids, customers and frazzled Italian attendants all sweltering in the stuffy confines of an overcrowded office. After much hand waving and raised eyebrows (on my part) I had the keys to the chariot – a Fiat Panda. Have you ever driven a Fiat Panda? Well, it is just like a ride-on lawn mower but with windows and a glove box. I opened the hatch at the back of the car to put my suit case in, only to find that it is too small to accommodate the coffin on wheels that I am carting about. So after much puffing and panting I finally get my suitcase onto the back seat with the assistance of a gent who was standing on the pavement. After graciously helping me he hobbled away holding his stomach where I am sure a hernia was evidence of his chivalrous action.

Luckily, I had arranged to hire a Sat Nav system to assist with the journey into the wilds of the Tuscan mountainside to the east of Firenze. So off I go driving on the wrong side of the road into the twisting crowded streets of Firenze in my Fiat Panda. For the first five hundred meters the sat nav was deadly silent as there was no coverage between the tall buildings and narrow streets of this part of Firenze. Finally, a voice from the wilderness sprang into life and started to give directions. Placing my trust in Susie (I named the Sat Nav – Susie) I made my way cautiously through the crazy Saturday traffic and head towards Poppi and the Tuscan hills.

After 2 hours of climbing and winding through beautiful forests (mostly in second gear and at best in third) I arrive in a small agricultural town of Poppi. This is situated on the Arno river in the very fertile Casentino valley, servicing the farming community around it. Apart from the river, its distinguishing feature is the medieval Poppi Castle imposing itself over the town from the highest point as castles usually do.

I head out of town looking for my home for the next week – Casa Ombuto. There is a rickety wooden sign pointing off-road so I follow it. The road gets rougher and rougher – holes that are big enough to swallow the wheel of the Panda, ridges, ruts and boulders make this a real off-road experience. My goodness – I should have paid more attention to the fine print on the contract – I am sure there is a clause in there about no off roading!

Finally, I glimpse my destination ahead – a couple of imposing stone pillars and iron gates. I follow the gravel drive and arrive in front of some very attractive stone buildings. These are surrounded by lovely gardens and orchards. Further afield from this elevated plateau is a valley spreading out before me and then surrounding the villa on the other three sides are heavily wooded hillsides covered with oak trees and conifers. It is very peaceful with a vivid blue sky above and the sound of birds coming from the forest and the faint hum of bees that are hovering over massive pots of lavender, roses, and oleander that surround a glistening swimming pool and terrace.

The accommodation is a large stone building covered in vines, wisteria and roses. My room is one of five bedrooms (all en suite) in a self-contained apartment. There is a kitchen with a large wooden table, a large sitting room with squishy sofas and wing chairs and the room is dominated by a huge stone fire-place in which you could literally roast a wild boar. The shuttered windows overlook the gardens and the valley in the distance. There is a shaded veranda overlooking the gardens and the swimming pool where comfortable sun lounges beckon and a vine-covered pergola where a couple of hammocks are slung between posts that look very inviting. My home for the next week is going to be comfortable indeed.

The main building is set apart from the accommodation and is the control centre of the cooking school. This is where all the action happens. It houses an enormous kitchen (where we will have our lessons) and very large dining area that can easily seat up to 30 people. Here we can help ourselves to the fridge, cocktail cabinet, refreshments, wine fridge etc at any time of day of night – as long as the last person to leave turns the lights out and closes the door.

My companions are good fun and during the week we get to know each other better and share many a laugh along the way. However, the star of the show, is our chef and teacher – Paola. She is a larger than life character with wild red hair, a big smile and a vibrant personality to match. Throughout the week, she regales us with wonderful stories about life in Italy, local identities and oddities of Italians and their unique way of life. Her passion for food and cooking is evident and it infects us all as we discover new skills and a love for creating artistry on a plate.

On our first night, Paola cooked a welcome dinner starting with an apperitivo of peach Bellinis and nibbles of tiny peppers stuffed with a cheese and caper mouse. Then dinner was served outside in the cool of the night around a huge table, under a vine-covered pergola lit by lamps and candles and surrounded by wonderful hydrangea and roses. An idyllic setting which will add to the ambiance of all our meals over the next seven days.

Dinner started with a mixed antipasto of mouse made with Bresolsa (air dried beef) on crostini, a caprese salad of buffalo mozzarella and a pastry pinwheel stuffed with an olive tapenade; prima piatti – fresh fettuccine with a rocket pesto and grated zucchini and shaved Parmesan; secondo piatti – bistecca fiorentino (T bones – 700 gms to a kilo each) flash grilled then sliced and a served drenched with warm olive oil that had been steeped with rosemary, pink and green peppercorns. This was served with roasted local potatoes and a fried zucchini flower; dolce – a wonderful light apple cake spiked with pine nuts and served with a homemade cinnamon ice cream. Each course was accompanied with a matched Tuscan wine. In case the matched wine ran short there was lots of bottles of house wine on the table.

To top off the evening when the desert plates were cleared about a dozen bottles of different liqueurs, digestives, vin santo, and grappas were put on the table. Luckily my room was only a short stagger away and up only one flight of stairs. This after dinner ritual was repeated every night of our stay so there was much story telling over a glass or two of something.

Our daily routine began after an Italian breakfast of fruit and cereals, cheeses and cold meats. We spent mornings at leisure: lying by the pool, swimming, reading, sleeping, walking, biking or taking a drive to explore the local area and other towns nearby.

Lunch is served at 1.00pm by our lunch chef Rita. This was a delicious selection of dishes including pasta, a vegetable dish, salad, a meat dish and cheese and then followed by a home-made cake or tart. There is wine on the table but most of us chose to take it easy as cooking class commenced at 3.00pm.

After lunch, we had a brief hour to rest and prepare for the foray into the kitchen. The bell rings at three and we congregated in the kitchen where we were presented with our aprons and cookbooks. For the first hour we sat around the table as Paola outlined the recipes for the day. Our class was not confined to just preparing three courses but consisted of an appetizer, pasta, main, and then a dessert course – also there were other dishes cooked during the session that will make their way to the lunch table the following day.

At around 5.30 – 6.00pm we took a break from the hive of activity in the kitchen and sat around a table outside to grab any passing breeze. To restore our energy levels, wine was available, fruit juice and for repast there was a tasty cake, tart or gelato that had been cooked by the class that day. Following the break, we reconvened in the kitchen to complete the list of tasks and recipes for the day. At 7.30 it was time for a quick dip in the pool and a shower before we enjoyed for a well-earned dinner under the stars where we tried the fruits of our labours.

This is a summary of what we cooked in the week:

Pasta e Pizza e Pane
• Pizza – mine was decidedly the oddest pizza on the table – a weird abstract square shape with a toppings that looked like a Picasso canvas
• Pane alle Patate e Rosmarino – potato and rosemary bread
• Rotolo con Broccoli e Ricotta – fresh pasta roll with broccoli and ricotta
• Fagottini di Branzino all Zafferano – pasta filled with sea bass and saffron sauce
• Ravioli da Asparagi con Pesto di Asparagi – pasta filled with asparagus and ricotta
• Ravioli di Barbabietola – beetroot ravioli with lemon and prawn sauce
• Ravioi di Funghi – ravioli with wild mushrooms
• Tortelli di Patate – ravioli filled with potato

Salsa e Sugo
• Salsa Verde – green parsley sauce. A great topping for bread and meats
• La Salsa – tomato sauce.
• Salsa alla Puttanesca. A great topping for crostini and pasta.
• Maionese – Mayonnaise. To vary the flavour add orange juice, Dijon mustard, or white wine vinegar
• La Mediterranea – fresh tomato sauce. This is an ideal topping for bruschetta
• Aromatic Salt – this can flavoured with a variety of herbs such as rosemary, zests of citrus, or rose petals
• Il Ragu – meat sauce
• Pesto de Zucchine – excellent in a vegetarian lasagne
• La Salsa di Senape – vinaigrette sauce

Contorni
• Melanzane con Tagliolini e Proscuitto – stuffed eggplant rolls with tomato sauce
• Muffin di Vedure – vegetable muffins
Primi Piatti
• Cheesecake al Pesto di Basilico – basil pesto cheesecake
• Souffle di Baccala – cod fish soufflé
• Zuppa di Cipolle – onion soup with Tuscan bread
• Sformato di Ricotta Tarufata – ricotta and truffle pie
• Millefoglie di Baccala e Porri su Crema di Rucola – cod fish and leesks with puff pastry on rocket cream

Secondi Piatti

• Faraona al vin Santo e Funghi Porcini – guinea fowl with vin santo and porcini mushrooms
• Petto di Pollo Farcito alle Olivi – involtini of chicken breast filled with olives
• Filetti di Pollo in Crosta di Pistacchio –chicken breasts with a pistachio nut crust
• Filetto di Maiale Croccante con Pistacchi – crunchy pork fillets with pistachios
• Coniglio alla Cacciatora – rabbit in a tomato sauce
• Vitello Arrosto con Porcini – roasted veal with porcini mushrooms
• Vitello Tonnato – veal with tuna sauce
• Fagottini de Ceci con Pori – chickpea “bags” with leeks

Dolce
• Cream di Zabione con Lingue di Gatto – zabione cream with cat’s tongue biscuits
• Cantuccini alla Mandorle – almond biscuits
• Panna Cotta
• Torta di Peshe ed Amaretti –peach and amaretti tart
• Rotolo di Cioccolato con panna – chocolate roll with cream
• Semifreddo alle noci e ciccolato bianco – walnut and white chocolate semifreddo
• Tiramasu

Delicious and loads of fun – I am happy to provide recipes on request – just drop me a line.

In the next Blog I am visiting a very special winery and chatting to the wine maker, a passionate goat cheese maker and more…

Categories: Cooking School, Food, Wine and Cooking, Italy, Language, Photography, Recipes, Travel, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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