Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Euro Chocolate 2008

"Euro Chocolate” is one of the largest chocolate festivals in Europe. The delectable celebration of all things chocolate takes place in Perugia, Umbria each year.

Euro Chocolate 2008 proved to be a great occasion to visit the beautiful, medieval city of Perugia for the first time.

The streets were packed with chocolate enthusiasts, learning about the origins of chocolate, watching artists carve out delectable sculptures with huge blocks of chocolate, participating in contests in the hope of winning chocolate and, of course, sampling some of the finest chocolates in the world.

Two small geniuses, who couldn't have been more than 12 years old, skillfully played chess with giant chocolate chess peices.

I have been known to devour insane amounts of chocolate on occasion, but I really outdid myself this year. And after hours of walking the streets of Perugia eating chocolate, I still found room for dinner...

... A plate of regional cheeses ...

... A sample dish of bruschetta ...

... Tagliatelle al chingiale (that's noodles with wild boar sauce), and a bottle of locally-produced red wine to wash it all down with.

It was truly a great day. If you are staying in Rome or Florence and have access to a car, I highly recommend doing a day trip to Perugia (just 160km from Rome and 140km from Florence). Chocolate or no chocolate, Perugia is not to be missed!

Monday, 7 July 2008

Rome: Teatro dell'Opera

The Teatro dell’Opera, also known as the Teatro Costanzi, is a popular venue for opera and ballet enthusiasts, putting out numerous major works annually. Since it’s opening in the 19th Century, the theatre has hosted some of the most celebrated productions, including "Tosca" by Giacomo Puccini in 1900, Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" in 1964 and Verdi's "Don Carlos" in 1965, to name a few.

During the summer, the opera company offers performances at the outdoor theatre at the Baths of Caracalla, providing a great atmosphere with the ancient Roman ruins as a backdrop.

Prices vary, depending on the production. Half price tickets are offered for students, youths (under 25 years) and seniors (over 65 years), excepting tickets for the first night of a new production and for the cheapest seats. Discounts may also be offered on tickets purchased on the same day of the performance; however, it is best to buy tickets in advance for the most popular performances.

The Teatro dell’Opera is located just a few minutes walking distance from the Repubblica Metro Station. Address: Via Firenze, 72, 00184 Roma (RM), Italy.

Website: http://www.operaroma.it/

Box Office Hours: Tuesday - Saturday 9am-5pm & Sunday 9am-1:30pm. The box office also opens one hour before performances. Reduced box office hours may be in effect in the summer months. When the theatre is closed in August and September, tickets can be purchased online.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

What to Order in an Italian Coffee Bar

Ordering a coffee in an Italian coffee bar can be intimidating. Below is a list of types of Italian coffee which you can find at any coffee bar in Italy.

A small, strong cup of coffee, or “espresso”.

Caffè Macchiato
A “stained” espresso, meaning an espresso with a few drops of milk. You can order a caffè macchiato “con latte freddo”, with cold milk, or “con latte caldo”, with steamed milk.

Caffè Doppio
A double espresso.

Caffè Lungo
An espresso made with double the amount of water, thereby making it weaker.

Caffè Stretto
An espresso made with less water – very strong!

Caffè Hag
A decaffeinated espresso

Caffè Americano
A strong American-style coffee served in a cup that is larger than an espresso cup but not as large as what you would get in America.

Caffeè Corretto
An espresso with a shot of cognac, grappa, amaro, baileys or other liquers.

Caffè Freddo
A cold espresso, normally served in a small, glass cup. You can also order a “caffè freddo con panna”, with whipped cream.

Caffè Latte
Normally served at breakfast, a caffè latte is a shot of espresso with an abundant amount of milk, served in a large glass.

An espresso made with steamed milk, served in a cappuccino cup. Normally served at breakfast.

Cappuccino Freddo
A cold espresso with cold milk, normally served in a mid-sized glass.

Caffè Marocchino
An espresso with a splash of steamed milk and cocoa powder.

Granita di Caffè
A slushy beverage made with iced espresso, separated by one or two layers of fresh whipped cream.

Caffè Shakerato
An espresso shaken with ice and cane sugar, often served in a martini glass. This is normally only consumed during the summer months.

Crema di Caffè (left photo)
An cold espresso blended with cream, topped with cocoa powder, served in a martini glass.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Sunset at the Singita

Twenty-five minutes outside of Rome, there is a popular stretch of beach, called "Fregene". In terms of beauty, it does not compare to the wild, pristine beaches of Sardegna. Rather, it’s proximity to Rome makes Fregene conducive to over-crowding and somewhat murky waters. But what it lacks in beauty, it makes up for with its selection of trendy beach bars.
My favourite Fregene beach bar is the “Singita”. The Singita is known for two reasons. First, they created a new drink, appropriately called the "Singita". It is like a mojito with fresh strawberries and sugar cane, made with vodka rather than rum. It’s a bomb because of the insane amount of vodka that they use, yet somehow it tastes light and refreshing.
Second, trendy lounge music, comfortable garden furniture and large white sheets placed in the sand create a relaxing, cosy atmosphere – a build up to the main event: Sunset. Like New Year’s Eve, everyone makes sure they are ready for the big moment. As the sun begins to set, friends come together to enjoy a drink and complimentary appetizers. When the sun finally sets, everyone takes a moment to watch as the light disappear and then clap when sun disappears into the horizon. At this point, candles and torches are lit and the evening continues under the starlit sky. Sunset at the Singita always feels like the perfect end to the perfect day.

Monday, 17 March 2008

What Does S.P.Q.R. Mean?

SPQR is an acronym for the Latin phrase " Senatus Populusque Romanus", which means 'The Senate and the Roman People'. SPQR was symbolic of the city of Rome 's identity as a civilized, democratic state belonging to the people and the Senate. The acronym has been used continually for 23-24 centuries and is the oldest acronym in current use.

Although there are other versions and interpretations of the SPQR acronym, the above version is widely accepted today. It came into use in the early stage of the Roman republic and continued to be used during the Roman empire. For this reason, the acronym or the full phrase can be found on many famous monuments and documents. For example, the words "Senatus Populusque Romanus" appear on the Arch of Titus in Rome, built in 81 AD to honour Titus and his father, the Emperor Vespasian.

The letters SPQR are still important in the modern city of Rome. Mussolini ordered SPQR written on manhole covers and civic buildings, using the ancient symbol as propaganda for his regime. By order of the mayor of Rome, the acronym now appears on public buildings and other sites throughout the city to symbolize Rome 's historic importance as an empire, as well as its present status as a city of the people. SPQR also appears in the modern coat of arms of the city of Rome, and can be found on tourism brochures, menus and taxis.

Rome City Marathon 2008

It is estimated that 75,000 people lined the streets of Rome on March 16th to cheer on the athletes running the 14th edition of the Rome City Marathon. Over 11,100 athletes from 76 nations participated, among which 10,511 runners crossed the finish line.

Running the Rome City Marathon is a great way to see the city on foot. The 42,195 km course starts and ends at the Colosseum, passing by the Roman Forum, Piazza Venezia, Campidoglio, Circus Maximus, Piazza Navona, the San Paolo Basilica, Via del Corso, Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It passes through several Roman neighbourhoods, giving runners and spectators the opportunity to see much of the city and areas they might not otherwise see while visiting Rome.

Having run the Rome City Marathon twice, I can attest to the fact that it is not an easy course, but it is a great experience nonetheless. Cobblestones, hills and quick turns make it difficult to maintain a solid rhythm and place added strain on your muscles. This is not the course to establish your personal best time. That said, if you are a marathoner or aspire to be one, I highly recommend putting Rome on your marathon wish list.

This year’s marathon was ideal weather-wise. The weather in Rome in March is normally quiet pleasant, not too hot with a fresh breeze coming in off the cool sea, although it can sometimes feel hot when you are a running a marathon on a sunny day. Fortunately, this year, the sky was partially cloudy, giving the runners relief from rays of the hot Roman sun.

The first place athlete, Jonathan Yego Kiptoo from Kenya (photo on the right), finished in 2:09:57, while the first female, Galina Bogomolova from Russia, finished the race in 2:22:53, establishing a new course record in the female category. Bogomolova was awarded a bonus of €75,000 for beating the previous Italian female record of 2:23:47.

The first Italian, a Roman taxi driver named Giorgio Calcaterra (photo on the left), finished the marathon in 2:18:40. Calcaterra has run over 100 marathons and is somewhat of a legend in Italy because of his extreme passion for the sport of running. Runners from my team tell me that he once ran back to back marathons, one on Saturday and one the next day, both in less than 2 hours and thirty minutes. He is the current Italian champion of the 100 km.

This year’s marathon was a great success. I look forward to participating next year in the 15th edition of the Rome City Marathon, to be held on March 22nd.

For further information on the Rome City Marathon, including results, registration details and photos, visit www.maratonadiroma.it.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

The Mystery of the Cappuccino

Tourists in Italy are easily recognizable in cafés and restaurants when they order a cappuccino after 11:00 a.m. or after a meal. Italians consider the cappuccino as a morning beverage. They gulp them down quickly while standing at the bar and then rush off to wherever it is they have to be so urgently. As a tourist or foreigner, there's no shame in taking your time to enjoy your warm, frothy cappuccino.

I have often wondered why it is so difficult to find a good cappuccino outside of Italy. I mean, it's espresso and milk. It should be easy to make. I have also noticed that the best cappuccini (plural for cappuccino in Italian) are in Rome. It seems that as you travel further northward or southward from Rome, the quality of the cappuccini changes. Of course, it's all relative: in my view, even a bad cappuccino is good. I rarely encounter a cappuccino that I consider undrinkable.
Outside of Italy, cappuccini may be made with different milk and coffee. But this doesn't explain the discrepancy within Italy. The coffee and milk are the same all over Italy. So perhaps it is the water used to make the espresso. Or could technique have something to do with it?

When in Italy, I like to go to a bar called "Il Pappagallo" in Rome. Mario makes an exceptional cappuccino. His cappuccini are the smoothest and creamiest I have ever tasted. When I asked him what his secret is, he explained that there are a number of factors in creating a good cappuccino. A cappuccino is made by putting ground coffee into a small filter, pressing it down and putting it into the machine. The water filters through and drips out into the cup below as espresso. Milk is then frothed up using a steamer and poured into the espresso. Sounds simple enough. But it seems that there is more to it than that.

Mario says that you can spot an inexperienced barman by how much coffee he puts into the filter and how firmly he presses it down. Apparently, you should fill the filter with the ground coffee just to the top, not in a heaping mound, and press it down gently. If you use too much coffee, you have press it down harder and the water will not filter through fluidly, the end result being that it will taste too strong. The taste of the coffee will also be influenced by the temperature of the water. If the water is too hot, the ground coffee will also become too hot, thereby giving the espresso a burnt flavour. Finally, it takes a skilled and experienced barman to pour the foamy milk into the espresso. The foamier milk rises to the top after it is steamed, so the milk should be skilfully poured to add equal parts steamed milk from the bottom and frothy milk from the top. This third part can be tricky, but the Italians seem to have mastered this fine art.

Armed with this knowledge, I started to observe the techniques of cappuccino in my travels throughout Italy. There is definitely some truth in Mario's philosophy. I have noticed that (generally speaking of course) the farther north and south you get from Rome, the hotter they serve their cappuccino. They seem to prefer a stronger, slightly burnt tasting coffee. To each their own, right?

Friday, 22 February 2008

Thermal Baths of Saturnia, Tuscany

A few years ago, my boyfriend and I, along with another couple, rented a two bedroom cottage, just outside of the ancient Roman settlement of Saturnia, Tuscany. We enjoyed an assortment of meats, cheeses and wine, and welcomed the New Year with champagne. At 12:30, the guys told us to grab our swimsuits ... we were going for a drive. As much as I enjoy surprises, I was a little apprehensive about driving off into the Tuscan countryside and going for a dip in the middle of the night in some unknown body of water. But I played along.

Our destination was a gravel parking lot. A group of people wearing robes and towels ran by us, laughing as they rushed to their car to get warm. This was good enough for me - I bravely got out of the car, wearing only my bathing suit and Birkenstocks. My boyfriend lit a candle and held my hand as he led me down a slippery, mud-covered path. Five minutes later, I found myself in one of at least a dozen small pools of light greenish-blue water. The ambient temperature was comfortable but cool, making the warm water feel like a soothing, hot bath. Small, marble-like stones, polished by erosion, danced around our feet as we sipped a glass of champagne under the moonlit Tuscan sky. That night was a unique and special experience, one that I will never forget.

According to local legend, the thermal baths were created when the God of Saturn became angry with human beings because they were constantly at war with one another. In his anger, he hurled a lightning bolt down to earth to pacify the humans, causing hot, sulphurous waters from below the earth’s crust to pour up onto the surface. Today, the water temperature remains constant at 37 degrees Celsius, or 98.5 degree Fahrenheit, year round. It is thought to possess therapeutic and healing qualities.

The locals tend to frequent the thermal baths during early hours of the morning, just before dawn. This is advisable if you prefer privacy, as the baths tend to get somewhat crowded during the day. As an alternative to the natural thermal baths, tourists can also visit the luxurious Terme di Saturnia, a four star spa and golf resort. For more information about the hotel, visit http://www.termedisaturnia.com/ .

If you prefer to experience the natural springs without paying, I suggest driving to Saturnia and spending the day. Saturnia is in southern Tuscany, about an hour and a half drive from Rome. While you are there, you might want to stop at a great little restaurant called “I Due Cippi da Michele Ristorante”, located in Piazza V. Veneto 26/A, in the main square of Saturnia (Tel. +39/05.6460.1074).

Craco: The Forbidden City

The town of Craco in southern Italy’s Basilicata region rises up from the gently rolling hills of the surrounding countryside. From a distance, the rugged stone walls of this now abandoned town blend seamlessly with the brownish green landscape, but the outline of its straight-edged buildings and the distinct, quadratic black holes, once windows, make it difficult for this town to go unnoticed by passersby. I happened to notice the town on a hot, September day on my way to Matera.

Warning signs at the edge of the town forbid unauthorized entrance to the buildings. And if that’s not enough to stop people, perhaps the wall of debris –crumbling old bricks, stones and sharp ceramic roof tiles- might deter them from exploring the dangerous ruins that lie beyond. Despite the warning signs, my curiosity got the better of me and I carefully climbed over the debris. I found myself in the cellar of what used to be someone’s house. I made my way up the steep, uneven staircase, all the while thinking that I should turn back before the building collapses.

Upstairs, there was no furniture and the floors were noticeably clear of debris, which is rather odd since there was no roof overhead. The brilliant sunlight coming in through the roof made the pastel pink, yellow and blue coloured walls of each room seem brilliant, almost too bright to look at without my sunglasses. The far wall of the main room had a gaping crack starting from the top corner and narrowing down to the floor. Beyond the crack was nothing but air, just a view of the endless soft rolling hills in the distance. I felt as though I was inside a Salvador Dali painting. Everything seemed distorted and out of proportion -unreal, to say the least. I didn’t dare step too close to the edge.

I stepped out of the house onto a slightly overgrown cobblestone road. I wandered through town, snapping photos and imagining the town's people going about their daily activities. When I reached the centre of the town, I was surprised to see that it was in quite good condition. It was a little rough around the edges but it resembled a modern southern Italian town. Most of the buildings were intact, with roofs and doors, some even had furniture. One can only come to the conclusion that the former residents left in a hurry, facing certain danger. I later learned that Craco was built on unstable ground, over sink holes which began to swallow up the town in 1961. The town suffered severe landslides, causing progressive abandon by residents.

The town of Craco has a rich history. It was originally built for military purposes during medieval times and later developed into a typical southern Italian town, albeit, with its own unique character and charm. Descendents of the town, many of whom now live in the United States, have developed the Craco Society, dedicated to preserving the culture, traditions and history of Craco. They have a website and held the first annual Craschesi del Nord America Reunion in August 2007. For further information about Craco, visit http://www.thecracosociety.org/ .