Thursday, December 18, 2014

Italia : Venezia

Mainland, Venice

Now that I am on a roll I just want to finish this mini travelogue as fast as I can. Venice was the last stop on our Italian trip. Having seen the Venice of the East , you'd think there is not much of a surprise here. But Venice (Venezia, as the italians call it) was a whole different experience. Built on wooden platforms supported by wooden stakes driven into the ground, this city on water has a very special ambience that is all at once charming and haunting. It is said that Venice is slowly sinking  and a lot of the people and offices are moving to the mainland. Let us hope this breathtakingly exotic floating city will not disappear that fast on us. One can feel the effect of deteriorating structures if one is able to pay any attention to such things amidst the resplendent glory.

Welcoming Duck at our Venetian rental place

Our train reached Venice around noon. The last station was at the edge of the mainland. From there we took a vaporetto or water bus to Venice. Here we changed our style a bit and all ten of us stayed in a townhouse charmingly named Ca' de l'Oca or the house of the duck. It is named after a board game of sorts like 'Ludo' or Candyland. There was a picture of it on the kitchen wall.

It was in a residential alley and so quintessentially venetian that we could feel like a resident even if for a few days. We bought groceries and gathered in the living room and went out and came back as we pleased as if in our own homes. Except for the plumbing going awry and causing a strong fishy smell it was the best way to stay at the end of the trip. HAunt even found the time to cook rice and chicken fry for us on the last day. Our first Indian food in ten days was a welcome change. She is a pediatrician but aren't we blessed that she also loves to cook?

St. Mark's Church
It rained constantly in Venice and since we were already armed with umbrellas and ponchos this couldn't stop us from going about. First in list of course was St.mark's church. It is believed that the church contains the relics of the apostle St.Mark. This apostolic connection appear to be more tenuous than the trail of St. Thomas the apostle in India. We managed to squeeze in through the valiant efforts of our cousins running ahead to find a place in the queue before the doors closed for the day. The inside was as magnificent as expected but we could see slow deterioration settling in on the edges of beauty. Culprit being the constantly seeping in salty winds. Managed to click a few pictures before we were told it is not allowed inside this church.

Piazza San Marco - St. Mark's Square

We spent time at St. Mark's square the next day which was rather sunny. Went up the green topped bell tower in the square to get an aerial view of Venice which was totally worth it. Got a few good pictures from up there too.

View from The Bell Tower

We also visited the famous glass blowers of Murano and watched the demo of a glass vase and horse being made in front of our eyes. For that horse to be made so fast before the hot glass sets and to be so stable, the glass maker needs to be an expert with a training of at least 5-6 years.

Murano glass
Glass can be so beautiful when made into jewelry and artifacts of brilliant colors and shapes! On the way to Murano, we passed  Isola di San Michele which I later learned to be a  cemetery for mostly famous people.

San Michele, Venice - seen through the rain

I was haunted by its silent brooding presence in the water with the waves constantly breaking on its fortified walls as the boat got closer. Of course there is a dome for the church even on that island which gives any architecture definition and grace.

What is a visit to Venice without a ride on the gondola? The gondolas are built narrow and long so as to navigate the narrow waterways between the buildings like in the picture here. Now it is mainly a tourist thing. They are very expensive to own, around $50,000.00 or so. Our gondolier inherited his gondola from his grandfather. We were extremely lucky to have one rain-free evening so we could actually enjoy the ride.

Grand Canal, Venice
The ride took us to the Grand Canal where we saw many famous buildings overlooking the canal. There was one that was supposedly occupied by Napoleon. That venetians travel mostly on boats is a source of amazement to me. To not feel the ground under your feet all the time must be odd? One of the places I wanted to visit, was the Doge's Palace.

As we reached this last part of our trip I was slowly being besieged by the most villainous cough and accompanying flu. That I was almost down and out by the second day in Venice was sad but I did make the most of the time there. Who has time to fall ill when such excitement beckons? It was good that we were were in a home together so I could actually rest as if I am home while others were out and about. That this pest of a cough will blow into a full fledged nightmare once we got home and will put its chokehold on me for the next few weeks was not known at the time. I am grateful that the kids didn't get it while traveling.

Ciao, Italy!

On the last day we were all scampering to clean up the villa, catch the right vaporetto to mainland and to get on our planes on time etc. It was a great trip. While we enjoyed it to the hilt and speak of it fondly to this day, it was also great to be back home in our own cozy lair and just chill. Not to mention catching up with our gentle cat, Zeus.

Hello, Zeus!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Italia: Firenze, Siena, Pisa, Tuscany

Time really is a missing commodity these days. While most moms turned into soccer moms I was having a relatively peaceful life with piano classes, voice classes and some badminton on the side for the kids. But now my girl has joined Volleyball and my son is doing Cross Country at their schools and voila' there are games sprinkled all over the calendar with pickups and drop-offs galore. Not to mention those practice sessions that fall so cruelly on weekends! I am talking about the Saturday mornings you used to look forward to after a grueling week of activities and those quiet Sunday afternoons that were set aside to gather some calm before the next week's storm. Gone with the wind is all I can say. I am glad the sports activities have come to a halt for the moment. Who knows, maybe one day I will take to sports just like I have taken to vegetables.

Continuing with our Italia trip as you guessed from the title.

From Rome we took the evening train to Florence. Panoramic view is the word for it. Beautiful country side slipping by.  So what is new, those of us from Kerala -read panoramic- might say. But this countryside has its own inimitable beauty. The ten of us had the best seats at a really good rate. A ride to remember.

Il Duomo, Florence, Italy

We reached Florence at night and decided to walk to our hotel which was a few blocks away. Dragging luggage over cobblestones is not a fun walk but I am glad we did it. Florence is the one place I would like to go back to. It has a bit of everything. More amenities like in the US, Tuscan countryside at your beck and call, museums and churches galore. We stayed at Hotel Paris and since the night was still young, walked over to the Dome. Yes, Brunelleschi's Dome. Again like most Italian churches, adorned every inch with some artifact or sculpting and breathtaking as expected. At least from the outside since it was closed at night although well lighted. Then we all went to sleep after a customary dose of gelato.

Painting at the Uffizi

Some of us woke up early next morning to see the inside of the Duomo (the Dome) but some of us like me stayed and rested. Later on we visited the Uffizi Museum and guess what, more famous and awesome paintings, sculptures. Honestly one cannot do justice to the paintings by such a brief visit. The Uffizi shows off all the artwork acquired by the Medici. Medici literally ruled Florence although they started off as bankers. Became very wealthy and powerful and started patronizing art and architecture. Luckily for us, they gave many commissions to such stalwarts as Michael Angelo, Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Caravaggio the list goes on. There were many Medici popes who continued the family tradition in Rome.

Then we went to Galleria dell' Accademia where the famous statue of David resides. As perfect and magnificent as The Pieta, this reminds us once again why Michael Angelo continues to live through centuries.
Looks like he was after perfection. Our hotel was close to Basilica of Santa Croce where Michael Angelo is buried. HAunt went to see it. Unfortunately we didn't make it. The Uffizi Museum by the way was the office building of the Medici where they had their accounting activities. The Uffizi means the office you see. Here is a picture of river Arno from the Uffizi.

River Arno, view from the Uffizi

Since Florence is very walkable like most places in Italy, we walked everywhere. No matter where we went we always ended up at the square in front of the Duomo. At night my kids played throwing some kind of lighted flying toy high up into the air, we had more gelatos and we walked more. The covered bridge with tiny gold jewelry shops was a novelty. Didn't notice that we were on a bridge while passing through!
Ponte Vecchio, ponte = bridge
When everyone opted for rice and pasta as usual for dinner, the kids and I decided to checkout the milkeria we had seen while passing by. We were rewarded with the best waffles, gelato and coffee. Score!

Replenished with a good night's rest we got up and got ready for a tour through the Tuscan countryside that included wine tasting, a visit to the fortified city of San Gimignano, the leaning tower of Pisa, Da Vinci's house among other things. Since it was a bus tour we were time limited. So we had to see Pisa in half an hour through drenching rain. Umbrella peddlers are a dime a dozen since sudden rain showers are a common occurrence. Three euros is the cheapest you can get an umbrella for.

Tower of Pisa on the right, taken by Hcousin in the moment rain cleared a little
If it wasn't for my Hcousin's organizational skills, things would not have gone so smooth for us. She, along with her husband did a splendid job in keeping us together, leading us and making the most of the trip without wasting too much time without the hassles of being on a tour all the time.

View from San Gimignano's town square
San Gimignano was surprise. A beautiful quaint little town on the hill with fourteen towers still standing. We enjoyed every minute. I didn't know that it had a famous ( but of course) little church that housed the remains of a little saint called St. Fina!

On the way we had visited the house where Leonardo Da Vinci grew up. I guess to this date there is no man who has done as much work as he has in so many fields. There were many displays of the prototypes made from the pictures in his codex.

This is a view from the top floor of his house. If you look closely through the rain, you can see the vitruvian man standing up inside the circle. Leonardo helped solve that puzzle among the many other things that he used that always buzzing brain for. Our wine tasting stop was combined with pasta lunch and tasty pieces of meats. Italians know how to make food tasty. The pepperoni and salami that we tasted there even from the  Italian grocery stores were eons away from their counterparts available in the grocery stores here. Full of flavor and great to eat with fresh bread and oils. Yum! The winery was in the middle of Tuscany and the young Italian owner regaled us with many stories. We loved the one about real Chianti wine. If the bottle has a black rooster on it then we can presume that it is the 'real' Chianti wine. OK!

The Duomo, Siena, Italy
Our last stop was at Siena. This is a find! Located so close to Florence, Siena does not get as much publicity as its historic rival. I was taken away by the  beauty of the church, another one called The Duomo. Superlatives are beginning to sound pedestrian when it comes to describing the architectural beauty of italian anything. After viewing the church we walked around a bit before getting back to the bus. My girl had walked off with HAunt. As we returned to where the bus was parked, I was jolted out of my reverie when aunt asked if we had seen my girl. Apparently she had walked off again while our aunt was in a shop. So we retraced our steps, got slightly lost in the process and finally began walking back with a heavy heart to recoup and plan what to do. I made a decision in my mind to stay and comb every inch of Italy till I find my girl. Luckily, as we came closer to the bus, who do we see but the little truant who had walked off safely with the cousins! I burst out in tears but she was not happy being lost when she was not:-) The cousins didn't even know about her being lost because she was with them! Poor aunt, bless her heart was really miserable but I told it would have happened even if she was with me. I think other than me and my husband, my kids are the closest to her and I have no problem sending them with her anywhere because where there is love, nothing else matters. Anyway it ended up happily but I still remember the ominous, high walled, damp streets of Siena that filled my heart with the darkness even if for a moment. After we got back, the cousins went out to see the streets of Florence one last time while the rest of us including our aunt and uncle took some well earned rest.

Next day morning we all packed up, said bye to Firenze as they say in Italy and did the cobblestone luggage drag walk back to the train station. After some wait we got on the train to our next stop, Venice. More of that in the next post.

A painting inside the church in Siena

Monday, December 15, 2014

Thanksgiving Menu Board

If I wait for a more convenient time to write something to go along with the picture, it will be too late since Christmas spirit is taking over the nation as winter is progressing along with pervading cold. By the way, it's been raining cats and dogs the last few days. There was even a thunderstorm not too far from us. Californians are taking it all in their stride thinking of snow piling up on the Sierra snow packs and the leveling of groundwater to get out of the draught. Apparently 4-5 days of rain will not cut it. We need more of the same for a month or two to set us up for next summer's water needs. Let us hope it remains so. Umbrellas are coming out the woodworks and getting damaged left and right. They were built for the slow drizzling rain and mild winds that this region is used to. We need those ultra resilient St. George umbrellas that can battle the might of monsoons let alone what we call "thunderstorms" here in Cali.

So my girl made this board before the Thanksgiving party to put up our menu. H built this board for the kitchen but the surface is too rough to use it on a daily basis. I do bug him on it on a daily basis too:-) But we found some nice bright pens that can conquer the roughest of them and while erasing is still a pain we can at least do some fun stuff like this once in a while. She tried a few things on the board and finally settled on a menu. Us along with many of the guests thought it looked neat. We had of course all those items and some. Ok we are done with TH till next year. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Guest Post:Mashed Potatoes

When I sat down to start this post, my son wanted to add his two cents on the thanksgiving food, especially the potatoes. So I'll just let him have his say instead of writing a full post today. Here it is:

In all my experience dealing with the fluffy goodness known as mashed potatoes, none compare to what was prepared in my household this fiscal year. Now, I do not know what tomfoolery my mother did to create such a delectable taste, but something went right, and I'm very happy to eat these potatoes. IN FACT, they were so good, we had to make another batch just to last out the thanksgiving leftovers, as the originals were gobbled down by us and the rest of the guests. If I were to describe the taste, it would seem to be quite smooth. But what really made the potatoes pop was the gravy, and boy, this year it turned out better than expected.
-my son, the high school freshman and food network enthusiast

He has gone off happily, having finished what he set out to do. I don't have any mashed potato pictures, but I am adding a one of the roasted bird here.

It was a 22 lbs bird and took about 4 hours to roast including the half hour at 500F step from Alton Brown.

I used PW's brine and substituted the vegetable stock with apple juice since I didn't have enough veggie stock. I added 1 more quartz of water and a quarter cup more of salt and brown sugar for the heavier turkey. It is important that the turkey is fully immersed in the brine. Canola oil worked out fine after all. Just used enough to cover the turkey once. Too much can cause more smoke at the 500 degree step. All went smooth this time especially with close to 30 people over and I am really happy and relieved.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Hope those of you who are celebrating had their birds and getting ready for the busiest shopping day of the year. Though I had to login to work today, I managed to do some preparations for the one day late Thanksgiving lunch at our home tomorrow. Will add pictures once I have them. These are the berries I saw on a tree on one of my walks at work. Picked some out for the Thanksgiving decorations. Hope the tree and the owners didn't mind. They looked so awesome and colorful that I just couldn't resist...

Sunday, November 2, 2014


What is it about a rainy day that tugs at your heart strings so gently, yet with persistence? Yes, if you grew up in Kerala you cannot escape this feeling of comfort when you hear the familiar
pitter patter of rain drops. Suddenly you wish you were home instead of at work, with a warm cup of coffee in hand and looking outside through the open patio door at falling streams of rain. So it was that I awoke to a rain drenched Saturday morning in drought stricken California and saw these droplets on my recently planted flower bed. Er.. this is the old veggie bed now turned conveniently into a flower bed since we are Ok however they turn out to be. It is great to see the plants growing and thriving this close to winter days. I know we have some marigolds in there but I have forgotten what other seeds my girl and I planted one fine sunny day a few weeks back. Will put up a picture if they manage to blossom and fill our eyes with beauty.

Work is a wild horse that gallops at full speed despite genuine needs of our lives. So what is one to do other than to get on and try to tame it with your legs since you don't have the reins? I was happy to get a mildly peaceful weekend where I could actually smell the roses instead of rushing to the next planned activity or sitting down to login to work. Took some pictures and then I wanted to show them off. Hey, that is why you have a blog. Right? Enjoy! I will be back with the rest of Italia when time finally decides to listen to me.

I noticed that lately none of my comments are displayed even after I try a few times. Not even in my own blogs! So till I figure out the mystery, know that I do read your blogs, posts, comments.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Italia: Vaticano, Roma

St. Peter's Square
Yup, it's been a while since we finished that much relaxing trip despite the mother-load of a whooping cough that I managed to get shackled to at the end! More of that later. Suffice it to say that the cough was the reason for being quiet this long even when I wanted to write about it before it all vanished from memory. You know fresh memories are one of a kind.

So as you know the four of us set out to see the fabled land of Italia in the midst of last July. The fact that we enjoyed it so much tells me that it is better to take such trips when the stars align somewhat. Trips may not happen at all if we wait for full alignment. No company stocks went down even though we both had much pressing issues at work. Might as well enjoy. After being royally swindled by a mobile plan vendor right at the airport, it was a relief to be met with relatives who had reached the hotel the previous day. Suddenly it felt like we were home. Vodafone is what worked the best for cellphone usage based on the many users we had in our 10 strong family group. We stayed at Orange Hotel in Rome almost right across the street from St. Peters's Basilica. The girl at the front desk was a gem and the free umbrellas offered in anticipation of flash rains that happen in the midst of sweltering heat, cinched the deal for me. I'd stay there again in a heartbeat. Rooms though small were very clean and updated. But we can see such hotels anywhere, what about the history that waits to be admired there? As Roald Dahl would say, just plain marvelous!  Truth be told the initial impression on landing in Rome was not that great. Nothing to write home about with the airport and the drive to the hotel. But once we started the tour all bets were off. Just plain a.m.a.z.i.n.g.

See the maroon flag down the 2nd window, top right?
That white spec in the window? Yup, you have seen the Pope!
I know every single stone in these places have been photographed, video taped and written about all over the net but still can't help talking about it. Take St.Peter's Basilica for example. No matter how many times you have seen the images, nothing compares to actually standing in the middle of that vast square, built with the full splendor of Rome. To top it off we managed to get the smallest glimpse of the  Pope (a personal favorite of mine) when he appeared as a small white spec at the top window of the Basilica. Then when you enter the Basilica and encounter every pixel of the church adorned with some image or structure of infinite value, you realize that you stand not in a simple church but in the sanctum sanctorum of what wealth and power brought to the Catholic Church in its prime. Admission to the Basilica is free but not the Vatican Museum which includes the.... wait for it.... Sistine Chapel! You can even attend one of the many masses being held in the morning if you care to wake up early and beat the crowds like me and H did. The museums are managed very similar to the museums in the National mall. There is such similarity between the US politics and the Roman Republic that it is hard to miss!

Inside St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo (pronounced mikkelangelo by the Italians) and his art looms large all over Italy. I had read Irving Stone's Agony and Ecstacy, yet nothing prepares you for the absolute perfection of 'The Pieta' displayed inside the Basilica. Michelangelo did a few more Pieta's in his life and each reflects the age at which he sculpted it. The Pieta that we all know was done when he was young and so both Mother Mary and Jesus are youthful and perfect in every feature. That alone is enough to immortalize this artist. But then you haven't even seen the David and the lively frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
The Pieta

It is said that Michelangelo loved to sculpt more than he liked to paint, but his most lucrative commissions all were for paintings. This is why he ended up painting people as if they were sculptures. Stone's book talk about how he visited cemeteries at night and dug up tombs to study the human body and paid to get dead bodies for the same purpose. This iconoclast deserves every praise that he is getting. He was also the final architect of St.Peter's Basilica in his old age. The end result of what we see now especially the dome was his vision. He was fortunate to live long enough to leave such grand foot prints on history. Another name that came up while visiting Vatican was that of Bernini. You will know why when you see the pure magnificence of St.Peters Square. Really a 'semicircular' marvel where one can meet to see the Pope if he is free and in Rome to make his little Sunday window appearances at noon.

Roman Forum
Moving onto other other Roman structures, the Pantheon is first among equals. Built during first century AD, this well preserved majestic building holds the tombs of Raphael and Victor Emmanuel, the ruler who unified all of Italy. I never thought I'd care to give another look at the Colosseum, that most splattered of all Roman images. Call me wrong because this is another awe inspiring structure of architectural ingenuity and shows what cheap labor (through slavery), power and wealth accumulated from numerous wars, and absence of direct invaders can do. The National Mall, er... I mean the Roman Forum for example is full of monumental structures, all built to venerate one victor or another. The writings proclaiming various triumphs still visible on their remaining facades. I was intrigued by the remnants of the Temple Of Vesta. The order of white clad virgins that were revered in Rome. The only man who could enter those closed walls was the Pontifex Maximus. Gives you a leeway into how Old Rome influenced the very foundations of the Catholic Church. Pope is also called the Roman Pontiff and the order of nuns follow a theme similar to that of the vestal virgins.

Being steeped in history does not mean we forgot to eat. Enter Gelatos! Gelatarias are sprinkled into the soul of Italy's famous cities and the kids thanked them wholeheartedly for that. Euro being almost time and half of a dollar, we randomized meals between cheap and somewhat upscale places. The most memorable of all roman meals was at a little roadside pasta shop on one of Rome's cobbled alleys. Homemade pasta at its best and cheapest. Each of us got to order a pasta of our preferred flavor and it was all polished off in a jiffy!

Top it off with Gelato from a gelataria on the way and you are all set for a night of peaceful sleep. I am not forgetting the outrageously priced €7,00 (~$12) gelato per person. Wish we had looked up the reviews before settling down to the shocking sitting fee for the tiny bowls of gelato we each had. Rain was a nuisance but having encountered blistering heat the first day, they were a welcome relief and made the day much more manageable. The walking can be almost handled by  10 year olds and above as we witnessed. My girl and boy were patience personified with all the walks and tours we went through. I am sure occasional injections of gelato had something to do with it:-) I'll stop here for now and will come back later with our Florence leg. I leave you with the bust of Raphael found next to his tomb in the Pantheon.

Note: Most photos are courtsey Hcousin with a good eye for pics and a real camera she lugged around which got us super trip pictures. Some are from H's S3 and my good old iphone4 which seems to be finally giving up the ghost. Hello iphone6?