Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fairytale of New York

Quite possibly the best Christmas song of the last 50 years.

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl - Fairytale Of New York

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Snow in Florence, the sequel

Last year, we got some snow in Florence the weekend before Christmas. Well, it seems that sometimes history repeats itself. Friday morning, after I had gotten to work, the first snowflakes started falling, and continued to do so during the entire day. What this meant is that transportation basically completely broke down. Roads were blocked with traffic jams, buses and trains had stopped running, the airport closed down, and everyone was worried about how they would get home. At 5:30pm, I left work on my bike, and while it took me longer than usual to get home, I was probably still significantly faster than anyone out there in a car. It stopped snowing sometime in the late evening, and I would guess that the overall snowfall was something like 20 cm (8 inches).
Saturday, I awoke to a beautiful winter landscape. The sun was shining and the snow was still there. Since I didn't think that buses were running again, I walked through Cascine park to the center of Florence (I had to get a panettone to bring my parents from a bakery there), and then continued on to Piazzale Michelangelo to take in the view from there. Back in the city, I stopped briefly at the Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce for lunch, before making my way to the Duomo. I had been planning to go up to the cupola, but was waiting for a weekend with nice weather, and this was the day. The view from up there was spectacular, all the more so with all the roofs covered in snow. I managed to make my way home by taking a bus that was going in my direction -- apparently a minority the buses are equipped for snow, but there's not enough capacity in those, so they're very crowded.
We'll see how the situation develops -- I'm planning to fly back to Germany for the Christmas holidays.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rome, take 3

After the concert the previous day, I decided to spend Saturday visiting some of the sights of Rome that I hadn't seen the two other times I had been in the city. I started out walking to the Basilica di San Giovanni di Laterano, the official seat of the Bishop of Rome (the guy that's usually called the Pope). Inside, it had an impressive baldachin over the altar and a beautiful mosaic in the apse. Of particular interest is also the baptistry, one of the oldest in existence, along with the adjoining chapels of St. Venantius as well as St. Secundus and St. Rufina, with 5th-7th century mosaics.
From here, it was a relatively simple metro + bus trip to Via Appia Antica, the ancient road connecting Rome with Brindisi. The first few miles have some interesting sights, and the bus drops you off a short distance from the tomb of Caecilia Metella, about 3 miles from the city walls. Unfortunately for me, the road is still in use (except for Sundays), so for most of the way you have to contend with car traffic. I made my way to the Circus of Maxentius, apparently one of the best preserved Roman circuses still in existence. The massive scale was pretty impressive, and it must have been even more so in antiquity when the starting gates and stalls were still standing. From here, I walked on, taking a quick look into the church of San Sebastiano on the way, to the catacombs of Callixtus. Unfortunately, they were just closing for their lunch break, so I walked further until the next bar to get a sandwich, then walked back and waited until they reopened. Since you have to go with a tour (included in the admission), I went with the German group, which was relatively informative. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia more, since you could go at your own pace (and take pictures). After the half-hour tour, I walked back into the city, past the Baths of Caracalla and the Coliseum, until I reached the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, famous for the tomb of Pope Julius II, which occupied Michelangelo for much of his life (and remained unfinished, as well as unoccupied by Julius himself).
From there, it was past some anti-Berlusconi protesters to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, to which I had been before but wasn't able to visit properly due to the Madonna of Lourdes. The mosaics here were magnificent, reminiscent of the ones in St. Mark's basilica in Venice. Since I still had some time left before my train back to Florence, I walked back to the train station, and took the metro to Piazza del Popolo, where the church of Santa Maria del Popolo contains some more artistic masterpieces. Among these are the Chigi Chapel, designed by Raphael, two paintings by Caravaggio, and two frescoes by Pinturicchio (including some of the earliest grotesques since antiquity). From there, I returned to the train station and a short time later, returned to Florence.

Black Mountain

Since Kristen is back in the US for a while, I've got plenty of time for myself. So Friday, I took the train to Rome in order to go to a concert at the Circolo degli Artisti by Black Mountain, a Canadian progressive/psychedelic rock band. It was all a rock concert should be: loud and energetic. Black Mountain's music owes a lot to the sounds of the 70's: something like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, with a touch of Pink Floyd added in. Led by Stephen McBean, guitarist and lead vocalist, the band has a second vocalist in Amber Webber, who also sings in the side project Lightning Dust with bandmate Joshua Wells. I love Amber's singing: alternately shattering and shattered, she can be powerful and fragile all at once. Lightning Dust's album "Infinite Light" was on heavy rotation for me last year, and I'm sure that now Black Mountain's new album "Wilderness Heart" will do the same (I got the album at the show). The band doesn't do stage antics, so they might seem disinterested to some, but they concentrate on the music, which was tight and well-crafted. No banter in between songs, but they cracked up at the odd request for "Me and Bobby McGee" from the audience.
The opening act, The Night Terrors, played decent, though somewhat repetitive psychedelic instrumental rock, which had the advantage of frequently featuring the theremin.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Spello and Gubbio

The next day, we visited two other hill towns in Umbria: Spello and Gubbio. First up: Spello, just a few miles away from Assisi, but much quieter and less crowded. I would guess it's probably one of the prettiest towns in the area. There's not that much to do other than wander its picturesque streets and visit two churches, but that's pleasant enough. In addition, the area is famous for its olive oil, which we had a chance to taste (and buy). There's also some nice art by Pinturicchio in the two churches: a finely frescoed chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, and a Madonna with Saints in the church of Sant'Andrea.
Afterwards, we drove to Gubbio, stopping on the way to have a picnic in the hills with a view of Perugia. It's larger than Spello, and with more sights, but without the sunny hill town vibe of Spello. That doesn't mean it's not hilly, though: to get to the main square, we took a public elevator. Further uphill, we visited the cathedral and the Palazzo Ducale, where we were lucky enough to get free admission (it was the day of culture, or something like that), and saw a nice exhibition of Umbrian maiolica. Finally, it was off to the cable car up to the Basilica of Sant'Ubaldo. Described by the Lonely Planet as looking "frighteningly like an open-topped human birdcage," that seems like an apt description. The church at the top was decent enough (more remains of a saint!), but the ride up was definitely the highlight. Afterward, it was back to Florence.


My parents came to visit last weekend, and since they've been to Florence several times now, we decided to go out and see something new. We decided on Assisi and surroundings, so Saturday morning we drove down from Florence, hoping that the weather would stay nice (it did for the most part). Assisi is, of course, the home of St. Francis of Assisi, where he preached, and is now the goal of many pilgrims.
The city itself is much like many other hill towns in Umbria and Tuscany: steep streets, bare stone houses, many churches. The highlight here is the Basilica of St. Francis, where the saint's remains are stored. Consisting of an upper and a lower church, both decorated with some fantastic frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto, among others, it really is a sight to see. We then went to see some of the other churches in town, among them the Romanesque Basilica of St. Clare (with her remains) and the Duomo di San Rufino. The town is nice enough, but I do wonder what St. Francis would have to say about the crass commercialization.
In the late afternoon it started to rain, and since we still had plenty of time before dinner, we drove down the hill to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was built around the Porziuncola chapel, where the Franciscan movement started. I liked the small chapel, but like with the sights in town, I'm guessing they have much more significance to true believers.
After a mediocre dinner in town (note to self: make reservations for the recommended places), we walked up to the Rocca, from which we had a great view onto the monuments of the city, lit up in the night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Last suppers

Italy abounds in depictions of the Last Supper. Of course, there's the famous one in Milan by Da Vinci, but every convent or monastery (there are a lot of those) has a refectory, and the popular motif to decorate it is a scene of the last supper. Also in Florence, several famous ones exist, and since I've seen pretty much everything else a tourist would think of visiting here, I decided to go to the ones I hadn't been to.
Already last year, I visited the Cenacolo (refectory) of Ognissanti for the fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio, directly next to the church of the same name (but not with the same opening times). A fairly traditional take, though the birds in the background add a nice touch.
Last weekend, I took the bike across town to the monastery of San Michele in San Salvi, where there's another fresco by Andrea del Sarto. This one is a bit unusual in that Judas is sitting next to Jesus (instead of across the table, isolated).
Finally, yesterday I went to the final ones missing in my collection, all conveniently close to the market where I had to go anyway to get produce. First stop was the Cenacolo di Fuligno, with a fresco by Pietro Vannucci, known as 'Perugino'. No pictures allowed here, though the sign only prohibited flash. I've noticed that the rules concerning taking pictures in churches/museums/etc. are not very consistent, so usually it's better to just take pictures and not ask. The worst that can happen is that they'll ask you to stop. The last supper, by the way, was pretty standard.
Next stop was the Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia, with a fresco by Andrea del Castagno. The people here looked less realistic (Judas looks like a satyr), and the background has fake marble insets. From there, I went to the nearby Chiostro dello Scalzo, which features some beautiful monochromatic frescoes by del Sarto depicting the life of John the Baptist. (No pictures here, either)
All of the places described here can be visited without an admission charge, though the opening times can be limited, so check the museums site of Florence first. It goes without saying that these places are off the radar for most tourists (and don't appear in most guides), so you'll likely encounter few other visitors.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Leonard Cohen and band in Piazza Santa Croce

After a longer drought in terms of pop concerts, we went to not one, but two concerts by big acts this week. First up, on Wednesday, was Leonard Cohen in Piazza Santa Croce here in Florence. This was probably the biggest concert in Florence this year, and it seemed like half the city was here. The start of the concert was a typical Italian situation: apparently not anticipating that anything could actually start on time, the first two songs were basically disrupted by people trying frantically to find their seats. I also had the impression that Cohen needed a little while to warm up (not surprising, considering that he's 75!), but after a few songs he had found his groove. He played most of the favorites on his Live in London album (a fantastic album -- check it out), and added some of his older songs, like Chelsea Hotel No. 2, Famous Blue Raincoat, and The Partisan. Like Bob Boilen, I was particularly intrigued by Javier Mas, one of Cohen's bandmates, who got to shine on various stringed instruments such as bandurria and archlute, especially on an extended introduction to Who By Fire.

Arcade Fire in Bologna

The next day, we went to Bologna for the I-Day festival, which had the impressive lineup of JoyCut, Chapel Club, Fanfarlo, Modest Mouse, and the highlight: Arcade Fire. We had rented a car (there's no way to get back from Bologna after 8:30pm using public transportation) and got there quite early, during the first set. Since it was still quite empty, and also sunny, we sat down in the shady grass at the outskirts of the festival grounds during the decent sets of JoyCut (an Italian indie band) and Chapel Club. The crowd started to grow a bit during Fanfarlo, who played a good, though brief, set, and seemed genuinely excited to be there, taking pictures of the crowd. I think their neo-folk/indie style resonated well, at least with me (maybe it's the trumpet, but they reminded me a bit of Beirut). Next up were Modest Mouse, and Kristen joined me in front of the stage. I wasn't too familiar with their music, but I liked their energetic set. They were a good opening for the highlight of the evening: Arcade Fire. What can I say? They're an awesome live act, and a fantastic stage presence as well, going all out. I thought the songs from their new album, which sometimes seem to go on a bit long on the record, worked much better in a live setting. And there's nothing better than thousands of people singing along on Keep The Car Running or Wake Up. Apparently the concert was broadcast live on Italian radio, and there's a YouTube of that here.

Things You Don't See in the U.S. #8

Cigarette girls. At least I've never seen one, but Wikipedia says they still exist.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Duck Askoi!

Below are some photos of duck askoi and other animal-shaped vessels.

Friday, August 27, 2010


August in Italy means everything shuts down and everyone goes on vacation (as we've said before). Many stores close for the entire month. It also means many people abandon their dogs.

These signs go up on one of the main roads out of Florence every summer. It says, "The mongrel/bastard is you" and "abandoned for vacation."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Permesso di Soggiorno Epilogue

I recently found out about a service called Sportello Unico, which is an office that helps people with immigration issues, such as permessi di soggiorno. I don't know why I didn't find out about this two years ago. It's part of the government, so, at least in theory, they have official information. They even respond to questions via email. Here's the website. Below is some other useful information.

You're welcome.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Stile Liberty in Florence

Ever since we got back from Barcelona last December, I've been meaning to go around Florence in search of the art nouveau buildings here. While there isn't such an abundance as in Barcelona, they do exist, albeit a bit outside the Renaissance center. In Italy, art nouveau is called 'Stile Liberty', after an English magazine which sold exotic artifacts.
Today, while Kristen is still in the USA, I took my bike and rode around the town in discovery of some hidden gems. First stop: the Russian Orthodox Church in viale Leone X, built between 1899 and 1903 from plans by the architect Michail Préobraženskij.
I had never imagined that there could be a Russian church in Florence, let alone one that's so attractive. Unfortunately, it was closed, so I couldn't go inside, but from some pictures on the internet, it looks very nice as well. Maybe one of these days we'll call the church to make an appointment to visit. From there, it wasn't far to the Giardino dell'Orticultura, with its Tepidarium built in 1880 by Giacomo Roster.
Apparently, in the summer you can go inside to have tea with butterflies. (I'm guessing that means there are butterflies around while you have tea...) We'll certainly have to do that when Kristen is back. Staying on the outskirts, I made my way to via dei Della Robbia, where Villa Ciuti is squeezed in between other, blander, apartment houses.
I guess they don't get too many visitors, because a lady came out as I was looking at the house and taking pictures and asked me if I was looking for something. Now heading towards the eastern part of town, I biked to via Scipione Ammirato, where there were two houses next to each other by Giovanni Michelazzi, probably the most important Stile Liberty architect in Florence, who was active between 1902 and 1915.
Here you can see Villino Broggi Caraceni, probably the most unconventional of the buildings I saw today. After a quick refreshment of gelato, I biked along the Arno to the Ognissanti church (which is definitely not art nouveau), a few paces away from which is the Casa-galleria Vichi, also by Michelazzi.
It's quite the contrast, and looks fairly normal from street level. I imagine hundreds of tourists walk by every day without noticing the beautiful building they could see if they looked up. I know I've been by there several times without noticing it. For my final stop I crossed the river and made my way to a residential area to via Giano della Bella and the two Villini Lampredi, again by Michelazzi.
This is the one at number 13. Both are a bit more conventional than the ones I saw earlier, but beautiful nonetheless. I then made my way home, convinced that I had seen a part of Florence that not that many other people even take notice of. It's certainly worth searching out at least some of these buildings next time you're in Florence, though.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fabrizio De André

Despite living in Italy for more than two years now, I don't listen to very much Italian pop music. To be honest: most Italian pop music is really awful. It shares this property with most German pop music, by the way. But since we've been listening to more music at work recently (not because we're more lazy, but because we've improved our experiment in such a way that we can now play music without disturbing it), I've been exposed to more Italian music.
The one artist I've come to like is Fabrizio De André, a cantautore (singer-songwriter) who was active from the sixties up until his death in 1999. He has been compared to (and was influenced by) Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, both in his musical style (though he does enunciate much better than Dylan!), and in the importance of the texts in his work. It seems that his lyrics are sometimes taught in school nowadays, and certainly my Italian colleagues have a pretty good grasp of his most popular songs. Of course, the texts are also the area that I have difficulty with, since my knowledge of the Italian language is still lacking. There are however translations of some of his songs available, and for German-speaking readers, there's an entire website with line-by-line translations.
Many of his songs concern themselves with people at the edges of society: murderers, prostitutes, rebels, etc. Textwise, one of my favorites is "Carlo Martello ritorna dalla battaglia di Poitiers" ("Charles Martel on His Way Back from Poitiers"), a satiric song in which Martel is tricked by a prostitute, complete with archaic language and musical accompaniment on the harpsichord.
You can get an idea of his output by searching YouTube for some of his most popular songs: "Il testamento di Tito", "Il pescatore", "Andrea", "Fiume Sand Creek", "Creuza de mä". There are also two good compilations available: Blu and In Direzione Ostinata e Contraria.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Opera at the amphitheater

Instead of watching the semifinal Uruguay-Holland, we chose a more cultural alternative, and went to see "The Barber of Seville" at the Cascine amphitheater yesterday. Cascine is a rather large park (one of the few in Florence) that stretches along the Arno from downtown to near our apartment. It's nothing special, and I had never heard of any events taking place in the amphitheater, but it seemed like a nice evening activity. The opera was a production of the Teatro Comunale, where we had seen several pieces before, and it did not disappoint. Billed as a "low-cost" performance, it might have been lacking in fancy sets, a big choir on stage, or super-titles, but certainly not in ideas or humor. This started during the overture, which was staged as a rather bumpy train ride, in rhythm to Rossini's music. The young cast -- Enea Scala as the Count of Almaviva, Salvatore Salvaggio as Don Bartolo, Stephanie Lewis as Rosina, and Mauro Bonfanti as Figaro -- sang well (with the discreet amplification helping to lift their voices above the orchestra in this open air venue). In the end, it was a nice balmy evening with some very good entertainment.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hamburger Bun Instructions

That's right. These are the instructions on the back of the package that explain to you in detail how to toast a hamburger bun (it also lets you know that they can be eaten at room temperature).

"Per una buona tostatura Vi consigliamo di portare la piastra ad una temperatura di circa 200-220oC, di tagliare a meta' il panino e di appoggiare per circa 1 minuto sulla piastra la parte interna (mollica) senza schiacciare. Il panino puo' essere scaldato anche in altro modo (es. infrarossi); e' importante, pero', rivolgersi sempre la mollica verso la fonte di calore. I panini 'non tostati' devono essere consumati a temperatura ambiente."

It's not important if you don't speak Italian, the point is that there is a paragraph describing what to do with the bun. I would have to conclude that this is not a familiar subject here. Everyone knows what a hamburger is, but some of the details don't make it. Often they just eat the meat by itself.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July!

grilled burger with potato salad and insalata caprese

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Objects Restored

I made a website with pictures and descriptions of all the objects I worked on during school. It is here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup

The World Cup is more than halfway done now, but it's still a big deal. Of course, the big disappointment here was Italy going out in the first round, after tying "lowly" Paraguay and New Zealand and then losing to Slovakia. People were certainly not expecting a repeat performance of 2006, and were heaping criticism on the coach even before the tournament started for picking the wrong players, but the final game was nevertheless a blow (although they had to admit that the Italian team really only started playing 15 minutes before the end). Since then, the number of Italian flags hanging on balconies has decreased somewhat, but the interest in the tournament has remained, at least from what I can tell at work.
Italy being Italy, it's of course more difficult to watch the games here than it should be. Since the state-funded RAI networks only bought the rights to some of the games (about one a day), the others being shown on subscription-only Sky, most games during the day are also not available for online streaming. So for some weekend games, we've gone to an Irish pub downtown (where we saw the glorious German victory over England this past weekend), otherwise we're reliant on some poor quality pirated streams of ESPN, BBC, or Chinese TV.

Some Pictures

These are some pictures I've taken with my phone over the past few months.

This diagonal pole device is attached to a truck. It's used for moving things from upper-floor windows to the street or vice versa.

Tee hee.

I always see people taking pictures of produce at the market, so maybe people want to see market pictures. Here is part of the pecorino selection at one of the stands.

This seems to be the standard way people prune trees here. It seems excessive and looks stupid.

Virtual chips.

Monday, June 21, 2010

New Music Recommendations, part 6

  • The New Pornographers: "Crash Years"
    These guys have been one of my favorites ever since "The Bleeding Heart Show" was on heavy rotation on my playlists for something like 8 months. "Crash Years" is my favorite song from a good album which is great music for a fun summer.
  • L'Arpeggiata: "Via Crucis"
    The newest album from this improvising early-music group manages to make dour religious music sound cool.
  • Joanna Newsom: "Good Intentions Paving Co."
    About as foot-tapping, head-bopping as you can expect to get from Joanna Newsom, from probably the best album of the year so far.
  • Sleigh Bells: "A/B Machines"
    A much-hyped band, you either love them or hate them. I'm waiting for a party to really rock out to their songs.
  • Elvis Perkins in Dearland: "Chains, Chains, Chains"
    I haven't quite decided what genre to categorize this band in (Elvis Perkins is the son of Andrew Perkins). Folk? Singer/songwriter? Rock? New Orleans? Probably a bit of everything. Their self-titled debut, and especially this song, is of my favorites from late last year.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Report on Tolfa, Round 2

(Last year's post is here.)

It was cold the whole time, except for maybe 2 days when it was pleasant during the day. The heat wasn't on in my room for all but 3 days, but with 3 blankets it was OK. It rained almost every day and was always windy. The cook said the weather was abnormal for May. I got more eggs for dinner than cheese this year, which was an improvement, however we had cheese (and bread and tomatoes) almost every day for lunch. We were more prepared for the lack of things to do this year, since we all brought our computers to do school work. So we had lots of movies to choose from in the evenings, as opposed to last year when only one person had a computer and we had only 2 movies. Even with internet keys that work through cell phone lines, however, there was little or no internet connection. I also brought motion-sickness medicine this year for the 30-40 minutes of twisty road between Civitavecchia and Tolfa, which the bus drivers like to traverse as fast as possible. The showers consistently alternated between scalding and cool water. Also this year we were there for 3 weeks, instead of 2 like last year.

On the plus side, the work wasn't bad. I did 3 objects: a Roman-era cooking pot, a bucchero Etruscan pitcher, and a marble piece from a Roman sarcophagus, and I got to use a micro-abrasive sandblaster. Also, we saw the donkeys again, and there were 5 or 6 this year, up from 3 last year. There weren't any geckos, lizards, or lightning bugs this year, though, but there was a lot of wisteria on a wooden structure outside the hostel (old monastery) for a week or two, which was pretty. And I got to eat at the Subway in Civitavecchia again.

Two other groups stayed at the hostel while we were there: a group of archaeology students from Sicily who were only there for a weekend and a group of Norwegian high school students who were very loud and were there for several days.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Polbo á feira

Here's a recipe of a specialty of Galicia, that I tasted while I was there. It's pretty fast and easy to make, as long as you're not squeamish about preparing and eating octopus. I used frozen octopus, which makes it easy to keep and apparently tenderizes meat somewhat.

  • 1 large octopus (figure about 500 g/1 lb. per person for a main course)
  • coarse sea salt
  • paprika/pimentón
  • olive oil
  • potatoes

In a large pot, place enough water to cover the octopus completely, and bring to a boil. Wash the thoroughly under running water, paying special attention to the suckers on the tentacles. With a pair of scissors or a knife, remove the beak, located at the center of the tentacles.
Holding the octopus by the head, dip the tentacles three times into the boiling water, allowing it to come back to the boil between dips. This curls the fine ends and makes them more attractive once cooked. Now place head down in the water and simmer until you feel no resistence to piercing. A rule of thumb is to cook for about 20 minutes, then leave it in the water for another 20 minutes while it cools down slightly. At the same time, peel and roughly cut up some potatoes and add to the boiling water.
When everything is cooked through, remove the octopus and cut each tentacle up into slices with scissors or a knife. You might want to discard the head, but if not, cut this up, too. Spread the pieces evenly on a - preferably wooden - platter, distribute the potatoes, and sprinkle with the salt. Holding a teaspoon full of paprika or pimentón in one hand, tap it lightly with the other over the platter to colour it evenly. Finish off with a generous trickle of olive oil, give a fork to each person and dip in!

(based on Jamie Oliver's recipe)

Some Signs

"I know those words, but that sign makes no sense."

It says, "This store will remain closed the whole month of May." No comment.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Kristen is doing a "stage" again with her school in the region of Lazio, south of Tuscany, so this weekend I rented a car and went to visit her. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't very good (it rained most of Saturday and some of Sunday), but we nevertheless had a good time. Saturday, we went to Tarquinia, where we first visited the Etruscan necropolis. In contrast to the one we visited near Sovana, this one is famous for its painted underground tombs. While most were simply decorated or had feast or hunting scenes, some others had ... ahem ... expressions of different standards, shall we say.
Afterward, we went into the town, where a medieval festival was supposed to be taking place. The expected equestrian events and battle didn't take place though -- I'm guessing due to the weather. So we headed towards Viterbo and picked out an agriturismo in which to spend the night. For dinner, we went to nearby Tuscania, a pleasant little medieval town. We ate at the ristorante "Kyathos", where we had a good dinner, and probably the best value meal we've had in Italy (25 Euros for two people, multiple courses, wine and cover).
The next day, we went to visit Viterbo, which was also pleasant enough. The highlights were the frescoes in the town hall, as well as the well-preserved medieval quarter. We only saw the papal palace from the outside, where several popes were elected. We then went to the hot springs, again opting for the free variant at Bullicame. Here we bathed in the waters that Dante had already described in the Divine Comedy.
Tacendo divenimmo là 've spiccia
fuor de la selva un picciol fiumicello,
lo cui rossore ancor mi raccapriccia.
Quale del Bulicame esce ruscello
che parton poi tra lor le peccatrici,
tal per la rena giù sen giva quello.

Speaking no word, we came to where there gushes
Forth from the wood a little rivulet,
Whose redness makes my hair still stand on end.
As from the Bulicame springs the brooklet,
The sinful women later share among them,
So downward through the sand it went its way.
Not many people were around, and we almost had the springs to ourselves. Finally, after a decent lunch, I dropped Kristen off again in Tolfa, and drove back to Florence.


Last week, I had an encounter with another Italian stereotype: break-ins. When I came home Friday, the neighbors were outside and told me (in Italian, so I understood maybe 80%) that there had been thieves and that their door was blocked and ours broken. I went upstairs and indeed the outside door was open, though the inside door was intact. Our other neighbors (with whom we share the outside door) came out and told me that they had found the lock on the first door tampered with, but were able to somehow open it. The lock was broken, though. Our other neighbors (the ones I had met downstairs) were not so lucky and were not able to open their door anymore, so they called the fire department, who came and climbed over our balcony to theirs to break the balcony door and then let them in their apartment. Since I was gone Saturday and Sunday (see an upcoming post about that), my neighbors offered to buy a new lock and install it, and I got the new key when I came back Sunday.
I'm happy that the crooks were apparently incompetent enough not to make it even through the first door. However, this wasn't my first encounter with theft in Italy: last summer, some DVDs were stolen out of a package that I got from Amazon. Amazingly, they were anonymously returned after I posted a note about it in the building lobby (which meant the thief lives in the same building). Since then I have packages sent to my work address.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Last week I attended a conference in Ourense, Spain. I actually had never heard of the city before the conference, but it's a pleasant place in a beautiful region of Spain. The conference was very well organized, even if the program was quite full -- I usually only had about 10 or 20 minutes a day of free time in between talks, group lunches and dinners, excursion, receptions, etc.
After the conference, I spent a day visiting Santiago de Compostela, an hour away, and location of the airport. While I myself didn't walk any of the Camino de Santiago, I saw plenty of pilgrims there. I did attend the pilgrim's mass in the cathedral, mostly in order to see the botafumeiro being swung at the end. It's quite the spectacle for a liturgical celebration. The city itself is small and cozy, and there's a lot of life in the evenings when the local student population comes out. I stayed in the very nice Hotel Pombal, having been moved there since the original hotel I had reserved was overbooked.
Getting home was a bit of a challenge, but I was quite lucky. Due to the volcanic ash cloud, most flights in Europe have been canceled and airports closed, as I'm sure you've heard. I was booked on a flight to Bologna via Madrid on Sunday. When I found out Saturday evening that Bologna would also be closed on Sunday, I immediately called Iberia. After about an hour on hold, having the call dropped, and having to call their German call center since no one in the Spanish call center spoke English, I was finally able to change my destination to Rome, which was still projected to be open. I did make it to Rome, where a large crowd of people were trying to make arrangements to travel to their home countries -- Germany, England, the Netherlands, etc. I managed to get a train to Florence a few hours later, so I had better luck than the many people who were affected by the announcements that all trains from Italy to Northern Europe were fully booked until Friday! I was extremely glad to be back home, even if it was a few hours later than planned.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Fried Chickpeas with Chorizo and Spinach

We've made this recipe twice now and it's tasty, fast, and the spinach even makes it sort of healthy. I don't think it's necessary to add the breadcrumbs and put it under the broiler -- just combine everything at the end and serve. Kristen makes a vegetarian version with seitan chunks instead of chorizo.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


For the Easter holidays this year, we wanted to go someplace warm, relatively cheap, and preferably not all too Catholic (so that the holidays wouldn't interfere with the vacation). So when we found a good fare to Cairo, we took advantage. It would also be my birthday, so we'd be celebrating in Egypt.
In the end, we spent a week traveling through the country (that's the absolute minimum of time, in my opinion), stopping in Luxor, Aswan as well as Cairo. Luxor surely had the most monuments: as the site of ancient Thebes, there were many temples, including the famous Luxor, Karnak, and Hatshepsut temples, as well as pharaonic tombs in the Valley of the Kings, among others. In Aswan, we visited Philae temple as well as the old quarries, took a felucca ride on the Nile and took a quick trip to Abu Simbel on the morning of my birthday. Finally, we took in the crazy and crowded city of Cairo in two days, seeing the Egyptian museum and the Islamic monuments of the old town, as well as seeing a multitude of pyramids -- the famous ones at Giza of course, but also the older ones at Saqqara and Dahshur. In Dahshur, we even got to climb down into the Red Pyramid, which was an Indiana Jones style adventure, and ensured that our legs were sore for a few days afterwards.
All in all we had a great time, even if traveling in Egypt can be frustrating at times: as a tourist, you're of course prey for all the touts trying to sell you camel rides, felucca rides, taxis, and any kind of souvenir. Then there's the haggling, which is necessary for almost anything -- certainly for taxis and at the souq. In Cairo, we were tired enough of this that we specifically sought out metered taxis, and a fixed-price fair trade shop, and I'm convinced that we saved money in this way. Finally, there are constant demands for baksheesh from most anyone, and I'm sure there are a few corners of the monuments that we avoided seeing because there was a guard there who we were sure would try to point out some obvious things ("face... cow...") and then ask for some baksheesh. Nevertheless, the beauty of the country and its sights more than balance out these inconveniences, and we're happy to have had the opportunity of going there.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Palazzo Medici Riccardi

We're slowly making our way towards the end of the list of sights in Florence we think are worth seeing. As today was a warm but rather cloudy day and seeing that this was one of the Sundays the Bargello is closed, we opted for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It also helped that Kristen had a combination museum ticket from one of her school trips that was also good for this site. In fact, when we got there, Kristen showed her combo ticket while I was getting my money out, but the attendant had already given us two free tickets. Good deal.
The palazzo was originally the residence of the Medici family before they moved to the much grander Pitti Palace. Today, there's some space for temporary exhibitions and a small collection of Greek and Roman marble statue heads, but the main reason (and really, the only reason) for visiting is the Chapel of the Magi, with its exquisite frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. These depict (of course) the magi, but are more aptly a family portrait of the Medicis living up to Gozzoli's time. There's a lot of animal life in the scenes (of course most of it on a leash, or being hunted), and it's very finely detailed. Still, if you're in Florence, you can probably spend your 7 Euros admission in a better way.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rome again

Even though we didn't throw any coins in the Trevi fountain during our last visit, we nevertheless made it back for a repeat visit last weekend. This time, my parents were visiting the city, and so we joined them over the weekend. Friday evening, we took the fast Eurostar train to Rome, where we arrived in time for a nice dinner at a Tuscan grill restaurant. Saturday, we started out by going to the Vatican museums. Note the plural: apparently there are around 7 kilometers of hallways in there. We saw all the highlights, including the Pinacoteca, the Roman sculptures, the frescoes by Raphael, and of course the Sistine Chapel. Saving us 45 minutes of walking, we then took the secret door out of the Sistine Chapel and went over to St. Peter's basilica. Kristen and I waited in the square while my parents climbed to the cupola, then we all walked into the city together. We went in some churches near Piazza Navona, including the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, in which the first act of the opera "Tosca" takes place. Our attempt at going into the Pantheon was foiled -- yet again -- by a mass going on inside. After a brief rest at the hotel, we went back to the center to have another good dinner at a restaurant that Kristen and I had been to last time.
On Sunday, we all walked across the city to the Isola Tiberina, from which we took a bus to the Villa Borghese gardens, where Kristen and I had reserved tickets for the Borghese gallery. (actually, we had all wanted to go, and since the museum was included in the Roma Pass that my parents had bought, we tried to make a reservation on Saturday afternoon for the museum. Alas, this is Italy, and so even though the museum is open Saturday and Sunday, the call center for making the mandatory reservations is only open until 1pm on Saturday and not at all on Sunday. Kristen and I got tickets online, but it's not possible to apply the Roma Pass discount online) We were a bit disappointed by the museum, which was small, yet high quality. Several of the most famous works (about one or two per room) were on loan to other exhibitions, including Raphael's Lady with a Unicorn and some of the Caravaggio paintings. On the other hand, the decoration of the villa itself, including the Roman mosaics installed there, was spectacular. We then took a bus back into the city to finally make it into the Pantheon and then went back to the hotel, where we met my parents (who had gone to the Museum for Modern Art in the Villa Borghese gardens) and pick up our luggage for the train trip back to Florence.
I've added some pictures from this weekend to the album of Rome pictures on Picasa.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Olympics Coverage

I've been trying to watch the Olympics -- we don't have a TV -- and luckily Rai lets you watch TV online. So that is nice. However, they only show skiing events, since those are happening in the evening here (they don't bother with curling or hockey). Of course NBC won't let anyone outside the US watch any videos on their site. So I was looking around for a way to watch other events like figure skating, snowboarding, or speed skating, and discovered this list of countries that can watch Eurovision's programming online. Unbelievable. While Italy is not on the list, countries in the Caribbean, south Pacific, north Africa, Russia and other countries bordering China, etc. can watch Eurovision online. Even San Marino, a microstate completely surrounded by Italy, is on the list. Non ho parole.
UPDATE: Evidently, Sky Italia acquired the broadcasting rights from the IOC, instead of Eurovision. But Sky Italia's site has very few videos, and most of them are delivered in blips. And you can't watch anything live online.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Taking your leftovers with you from a restaurant apparently isn't done much in Italy. Once it took three people to figure out what to do, and they ended up wrapping the pizza in aluminum foil. The waiter at the pizza place this evening arranged my leftovers nicely in the box:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


A few months ago, I found out that I had won two free nights at the Park Hyatt Vendôme Paris by participating in a Lufthansa internet quiz. We thought about combining it with a visit to the Paris opera, and were lucky enough to be able to get tickets to a performance of "Idomeneo" -- I realized only afterwards that this was Valentine's Day weekend, so it worked out well.
We arrived on Saturday in the early afternoon after a quick flight via Munich, and checked in to our luxury accommodation. Lucky us were even given an upgrade to a deluxe room, and two minutes after we got to the room, an employee of the hotel came by with a bottle of wine to welcome us. Not a bad beginning. Though it was cold, we did leave the hotel some in the end, and went to see Notre Dame, before returning to the hotel. That evening was the opera, which was at the Palais Garnier, a short walk away from our hotel. It's probably best known these days for being the setting of "The Phantom of the Opera," with it's majestic chandelier. We had no chance of being killed by it falling, though, since we were sitting up in the Amphitheatre seats. Note to prospective visitors: the view from there is excellent, the acoustics good, and the price remarkably cheap compared to most other seats. However, the seats are probably the most uncomfortable that I've experienced: so steep that your feet don't touch the floor, spaced by the minimum amount possible so that your knees are probably hitting the head of the person in front of you, and to top it off, a hard bar poking in your back. We were very happy when the break came. The performance, on the other hand, was world class. All singers were excellent, with the main characters of Charles Workman in the title role and Vesselina Kasarova as Idamante being the standouts for me. The choir, much utilized in this opera, was very good as well, and carried the action.
The next day, we had a nice breakfast (luckily included for us, otherwise it would have cost €42!) and then went to the Louvre. What a pleasant experience after having to endure the pain that is getting tickets at the Uffizi! Of course, we went to see the highlights such as the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and the Napoleon apartments, but we spent the most time in the Oriental and Egyptian antiquities section, which has a very impressive selection. In the afternoon, we met Christian, a friend of mine from college, and his wife Kathrin at the Cafe Angelina, where we had a nice decadent African hot chocolate. After wandering along the Seine at twilight, we went to a cozy Creperie for dinner, since both Kristen and Kathrin are vegetarians, who are not well accommodated at most French restaurants.
Monday after checking out and storing our luggage, we took advantage of the metro tickets we had left over (a pass of 10 tickets simply gives you 10 single tickets) and went to see Sacre Coeur and Montmartre (passing by the Cafe des 2 Moulins on the way), the Centre Pompidou and Pletzl, and the Eiffel Tower, before heading back to the hotel. Before heading towards the airport, I was able to pick up some wine and baguettes, which will contribute towards a very nice dinner soon! Our flight back was slightly delayed, so while we were able to make our connection in Frankfurt, our bags weren't, but they've since arrived.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chocolate Fest

Last weekend there was a chocolate festival in Piazza Santa Croce. They had lots of things I'd never seen before, like sausage-looking chocolate, chocolate that looked like rusty tools, and the chocolate "food" in the picture below, as well as more traditional things like hot chocolate, chocolate covered strawberries, and little chocolates with all kinds of weird flavors added. Of course there were lots of large chunks of regular chocolate as well. Many vendors were giving out free samples.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some pictures

Another in my burned-up-car series:

Remember in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy asks for a pink Christmas tree? I found one:

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Today, we went on a day trip to Cortona, one of the many Tuscan hill towns that has become more popular recently due to it being the setting of "Under the Tuscan Sun," which we've neither seen nor read, however. The weather was supposed to be gorgeous, and in Florence it was still nice, though on the train to Cortona it became progressively more hazy and cloudy. Oh well. We took a bus up to the town, and walked to its main square, where an antiques market was setting up. This being January, there were very few tourists to be found, and some restaurants were still on holidays until March. We got a slice of pizza, and then went past some of the oldest surviving medieval houses in Italy to the Duomo, which was closed, and the Museo Diocesano, which was opening again shortly. Inside the small museum, the highlights were an Annunciation by Fra Angelico and some works by Luca Signorelli. After this, we slowly made our way up the hill to the church of Santa Margherita, which houses the remains of the saint. Then we walked back down into the town, where we had to wait an hour for the next bus to the train station. A tip for tourists: don't go to Cortona on a Sunday. In the meantime, we had a coffee/tea and a "brutti ma buoni" from a local pasticceria. After the 15 minute drive to the train station, we saw that we had just missed the train back to Florence, so it was off to a bar for another hour and another coffee/tea to stay warm while waiting.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Stir-fry noodles

This is one of our favorite recipes. Kristen requests it nearly every week (it also works well with seitan or other fake meat).
  • 250g Asian noodles
  • 500g chicken breasts
  • 1 bunch green onions
  • piece of ginger (thumb-sized)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1-2 small dried chilies
  • 5-6 Tbsp. neutral oil (e.g. peanut oil)
  • 3 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1-2 Tbsp. lemon juice
Cut chicken into narrow strips. Wash green onions and cut into thin rings. Chop garlic and ginger finely. Chop or crumble chilies. Prepare noodles according to package directions (usually you have to cook for 3-5 minutes in water). Rinse.
Heat 3-4 Tbsp. of the oil in a large frying pan or wok on high heat. Add chicken strips and cook for 1-2 minutes while stirring. Push to the side, add a bit of oil and fry the green onion, ginger, garlic and chilies. Add the remaining oil with the noodles and stir fry for another minute. Add soy sauce and lemon juice. Enjoy!

Monday, January 11, 2010


I tripped and hit my chin on the pavement today, so I went to a hospital, since the cut looked kind of big. They did charge me for the visit (Italians just pay into a government-run health care system, so they don't pay when they go to a Dr.). The nurse asked the Dr. why I had to pay, and the Dr. said it was because I was American. However, the total price for the visit and 2 stitches, without bringing insurance into it, was $51.03 (35.65 euros). My somewhat recent emergency room visit in the US, not including the price of medication or lab fees, cost over $600.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lemon-steamed fish

Still feeling guilty after all of those rich meals around the holidays? Try this quick, simple and healthy recipe.

  • 700g filet of zander, perch, or other fish
  • salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 2 organic lemons
  • 1 (small) bunch parsley
  • 400g fresh spinach
  • 200g mushrooms
  • olive oil
Dry off the fish filets and cut into ~3cm (1 inch) strips. Season with salt and pepper. Wash the lemons in hot water and remove the zest. Wash the parsley. Chop the lemon zest and parsley finely and combine. Press the juice of the lemons into 1/4 liter of water and add to a pot or wok large enough to hold a steamer.
Wash the spinach and coarsely chop. Add to the steamer. Clean the mushrooms, slice and place on top of the spinach. Finally, place the fish fillets on top of the bed of spinach and top with the lemon zest and parsley mixture. Drizzle with olive oil. Place the steamer in the pot, close lid and bring the lemon-flavored water to a boil. Once the water starts to boil, cook for about 5 minutes, or until fish is sufficiently cooked. Serve with potatoes, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with some more olive oil.