Saturday, September 20, 2008

Firewood, 'legna da ardere'

This weekend we arrived back in Valtellina to find this:

This was the firewood that S' brother-in-law had chopped up from a tree on their property. Now that the hard work was done, it was our job to put it away.

It was bound to happen. All the delicious meals that S's mum cooked and that I happily partook of wasn't coming for free. Now I was going to pay. ;-)

At first it didn't look like a whole lot to me. What, that little pile over there? We had to move it and stack it up somewhere? Piece of cake, right?

Then the hard work started and I quickly changed my mind. Luckily we had his sister, Valeria, and Marcello giving us a hand. I was mostly the chief stacking engineer. I'll know how well I did in the next months/years. If the stacks of firewood start falling down then my record will be tarnished!

After about 6 hours, this was the result.

Firewood in the storage room on the ground floor:

Firewood under the walkway next to the covered parking spot:

Another stack of firewood up the stairs to the right of the house:

And finally the pile left outside to dry better before putting away:

Wow, that should be enough firewood to keep the wood stove going all winter long!

Dinner at Dario's

I could come by any time...

Il primo piatto - penne con pesce spada e erba cipollina
The first dish - penne pasta with swordfish and chives

It was prepared by chef D, with tomatoes, red pepper flakes, garlic, swordfish and garnished with chives. Delicious, served with a really good white wine (what was the name of the wine, Dario?).

The world needs friends who can cook. I've been very lucky in that respect. ;-)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Villa Litta - Lainate

Yesterday was our annual Maxim summer party for the Milan Design Center. Yes, we get this benefit even if we're not at the hq site. This year, the lunch was at Villa Litta in Lainate, northwest of Milan. Tables were set up in beautifully decorated room. There were about 100 of us, including family members.

The food was provided by an outside caterer. It was a sit-down meal and the food was pretty good. For the appetizer - proscuitto with figs, salad greens and balsamic vinegar. First dish - risotto with mushrooms and pancetta, and pasta with seafood sauce. Second dish - sliced beef done medium rare with fosemary and parmagiano cheese, and roasted potatoes. Dessert - semifreddo with mixed berries, coffee, and a gelato and pastry selection.

In between courses people walked around and socialized. The kids were seated next door in another room and were entertained by a clown.

After lunch, we headed outside for a tour of the villa. This 500 year-old villa is known of its giochi d'acqua (translation: water games?). Our group ended up with a nice and friendly volunteer guide.

Back then, the noble person who owned the villa wanted to build something beautiful and that also involved water for some cooling fun for his guests in the summer. Rocks taken from caves and seashells were used to invoke the seaside.

The walls were covered from floor to ceiling with small pebbles forming these elaborate patterns.

And here you can see the seashells in use.

There were also beautiful marble sculptures throughout.

The most interesting thing were naughty water features. All around the house, there were these water spouts cleverly hidden in the floors and walls.

You never know when you might be squirted by water! You might be walking along innocently when squiiiirt, got-cha!

According to the guide, this was in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, when women were not allowed to bathe. And so these water spouts were clevered designed so that when women walked past, they could be refreshed by squirts of water under their gowns. Clever!

Some of us were trying to figure out how this seemingly random squirts of water was getting triggered. Hey, we're engineers! It couldn't be random since the guide was somehow able to stay dry. It seemed like water would start squirting when almost when he snapped his fingers. And it seemed to happen at the most opportune times, just as someone was walking past the spout. It just couldn't be random.

You had to be careful where you stood. These guys were getting wet, and even the umbrella wasn't helping! So what could it be? We were sure he wasn't holding a remote control, and we searched high and low for secret switches or levers. Although there were some that were controled by a hidden lever - for example when you sat down on one of the seats, water would squirt at anyone standing in front of you. But that still didn't explain all of it. We were scratching our heads...

Then I spotted the culprit. It wasn't a remote control or secret switches. No, it wasn't quite so high-tech. There we people hiding in these secret spots controlling the water spouts. No wonder!

Ahhh, now it made sense. What a fun and clever place. I can imagine guests at this villa having mischevious fun with the squirting water. It's hard to imagine all this was created 500 years ago.

On our way out we spotted a newlywed couple taking pictures.

It was definitely a fun and interesting day with our colleagues and friends.

A Day in Sicily

So we had a day to spend in the southwest region of the island of Sicily, and planned to make the most of it. First, we rented a car for the day. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that we could pick it up in Trapani and drop it off at the airport the next day. That was perfect since the earliest bus to the airport was barely going to get us there in time.

We jumped into the little Smart car we got and headed up the coast.

Our first stop was San Vito Lo Capo, which Stef had heard was a really nice beach town. It was true, the sandy beach was really clean and the water looked beautiful. Unfortunately I wasn't in the condition to go for a swim.

We walked around town and instinctively found what looked like the oldest bakery in town. We bought a couple paste di mandorle to taste and admired the pretty marzipan creations.

It was hot and I needed refreshments. I picked a gelateria/cafe that had oceanview so I could at least enjoy some of the seaside since I couldn't go in the water. Stef ordered granite with gelsi and almond flavors, and I decided to go with pistachio, which isn't that commonly found. I was rather skeptical... what if it was artificially bright green and tasted bad?

Turned out this was the best granite we had the entire trip. My pistachio granita was sooo good. The texture was smooth and there were small ground up pieces of pistachio in there. My whole view of granita changed: it was that good, you didn't miss any of the fat in gelato or ice cream. The almond and gelsi flavors were excellent too. We enjoyed it so much that we ordered another one to share. Not only was the granita good, the service was friendly, bathrooms were clean, and granita table-service was only 2.50 euro! Definitely a must-stop if you're ever in the area.

Gelateria La Sirenetta, Via Savoia, 2 0923/974386

We hope to come back to San Vito Lo Capo next time. It was such a cute and clean town, albeit touristy. We could see the town was gearing up for its upcoming annual Couscous Festival - there were tents already set up along the streets. Couscous is common in the region since Sicily is really close to Africa.

We got back into the car and continued on the coast to Scopello. Again the sea was beautiful, but the beach here was made up of tiny pebbles.

Then we headed inland again to Segesta, known as one of the best preserved Greek archaelogical sites in the world. From the parking lot, we walked up the hill in the sweltering heat to the doric temple.

It was an impressive sight. This huge structure built 2500 years ago! Then we took a bus up a bigger hill to the site of the theater. The view all the way to the coast was just beautiful.

Funny, this shot doesn't seem to show how HOT it was out there. It must've been 40C/100F out that day.

The archaelogical site was still a work in progress. There were some people working there, dusting away with little brushes under the hot sun. I felt sorry for them!

Here's the view of the temple from the theater. It's just amazing.

We still had time, so we then headed to Erice, a medieval town high on Mt. Erice, overlooking Trapani. Now, I've seen my fair share of hill towns in Tuscany, but this town has its own charms that sets it apart.

The cobblestoned walkways led us through the town. Erice is known for important scientific meetings that are held at the E. Majorana center, named for Ettore Majorana, an important Italian physicist who dissapeared under mysterious circumstances.

And of course we stopped at one of the many pasteccerias in this town. Stef had the 'genovesi', a pastry filled with cream, which a local whom we met in Favignana had recommended we try. I had a torta di ricotta with pistachio which was good too. (Ok, at this point, we were feeling the day's sugar overdose...) We also bought some sweet paste di mandorle to bring back to share with friends in the office.

The Castello di Pepoli was really well-maintained.

And because it's so high up, the panaromic views all around were great.

Another look at the castle.

Then it was time to leave. Here I am in our little Smart!

The sun was setting as we headed back down towards the town of Trapani. We could see Trapani below us, and the Aegadian islands of Favignana (on the left) and Levanzo and Marettimo.

We really enjoyed our day in Sicily and hope to come back soon.

L'isola di Favignana

We wanted to make a quick island getaway before the summer ended. We were looking for rest and relaxation so we decided to visit Favignana, a tiny island off the west coast of Sicily. Favignana is also known as 'la grande farfalla', the big butterfly, because of the way the island is shaped.

View Larger Map

We left Milan on an early Friday morning flight, flying a low-cost airline, RyanAir, from Bergamo's Orio al Serio airport. It was a quick 1.5 hour flight to Trapani. From the airport, we hopped on a local bus taking us to the port in downtown Trapani, about 20 miles away. By 10.30am, we had boarded an 'aliscafo', hydrofoil, for the 30 minute trip to Favignana. I was surprised how precisely on time the ferry company was run; the boat left exactly as scheduled.

Before long, we caught our first glimpse of the island. We landed on a dock bustling with mostly fishing activity.

There were fishermen busy cleaning their nets that morning.

By that time, we were starving after all that traveling. We stopped at bar in one of the two main piazzas for a typical Sicilian breakfast: coffee granita and brioche. Granita is basically a frozen ice dessert, but with a smoother texture. I had been dying to try the real thing and I was not dissapointed. It was really good.

Then we picked up our bags and walked less than 10 minutes to our home for the next 4 nights. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our apartment at La Plaza Residence was so convenient, just outside of 'town' and it looked nice.

We decided to rent bikes to get around the island. That afternoon, we were already blissfully happy laying on the beach at Lido Burrone. It was only 10-15 minute bike ride away.

I admired the scenery as the sun went down. The temperature was perfect: hot enough outside so that you wanted to jump in the water for a swim, and the water was cool enough so that you felt refreshed, but warm enough so you could stay in for as long as you liked. Ahh... I could feel all the stress from work and city living melt away.

In the next days, we visited other beaches around the island, but our favorite remains Cala Rossa. It's easy to see why...

The bright blue water in this cove was really amazing. We spent alot of time here, jumping into the water when arriving (it was hot riding over), swimming, come out, apply sunblock and lay down to dry, repeat. I had my swimming goggles which I used to check the fish that were also swimming around. The water was so, so clear.

The only drawback is that this beautiful place also attracts lots of boaters. At its peak on Sunday afternoon, there were easily over 100 boats out there. Luckily the bay is big enough for everyone. Also, it's too bad that the beach is a rocky one; the white sand in the bay doesn't start till after the rocks. Still, the beautiful color of the sea made up for it.

All around the island, you can find tufa rock and caves, which makes for an interesting sight. The island is also famous for its ancient fishing technique of tonnara, of Arab origin, with the trapping and 'mattanza' massacre of bluefin tuna. This usually happens in May and Favignana is one of the few places in Italy where this is still done.

Now, what's good vacation without food? On the first night, we made the mistake of not having made dinner reservations anywhere. It was a Friday night, and although there were quite a number of restaurants in town, the ones that looked good were all full. We finally found a busy one where we were promised a table at 9.30pm instead of 10pm.

Turned out we made an excellent choice. We ate so well and the prices were very reasonable at 7-8euro/dish. I tried a local specialty, 'sarde beccafico', stuffed sardines, for the first time and absolutely fell in love with it. They are these tiny sardines, wrapped around a filling of breadcrumbs, pinenuts and raisins, sprinkled with sugar and baked in lemon juice. Yum!

Stef had a dish of 'involtini spade', swordfish rolls, which he also loved. We ended up eating at U'Spiticchiu 3 out of the 4 nights were there. (We tried a different place the 2nd night, was dissapointed and knew to come back). It wasn't a fancy place, but the food was great and the atmosphere was friendly. We ended up making friends several other tourists who were also eating there every night. Seating is close together in this small restaurant and each night we sat there enjoying our food while conversations flowed easily between tables. I think that really added to the appeal of this place!

For breakfast, we would usually get a pastry from one of the bakeries and sometimes granita as well. This is granita di gelsi, which is mulberry.

For lunch, we usually picked up two pieces of pizza from this breadmaker. I don't what it is but the pizza here is really good even when eaten 2 hours later on the beach. The tomatoes on the pizza are probably locally grown and are oh-so sweet.

There's also a pasticceria that sells traditional Sicilian sweets, like the many varieties of paste di mandorle, almond cookies.

The town itself is small and cute. There are only a couple main streets where all the shops are located.

And it was not unusual to see the local residents sitting outside watching the world pass by. This old man was actually selling fichi d' india, which is prickly pear cactus, a fruit from the cactus plants. I've never actually tried this, but I've seen them on cactus plants here.

Getting around the island on bikes was fun. Well, this was until I had my 'little accident' at the end of our 3rd day there. I was approaching a t-junction where I had to make a left turn when I hit some gravel and went sliding into the road. Stef was ahead of me but he made a sharper turn avoiding the gravel, but when I was there, a car had arrived so I didn't follow his path and went straight into the gravel (which I didn't see till it was too late). The result: scratches an lost skin on elbow, knee and shin. Bruises on my upper leg, knee and ankle (thank god I had on shorts that came to my knee!). It was not a pretty sight, and poor S ended up being a regular at the pharmacy purchasing first aid supplies for me. I was limping for the next couple days and the most comfortable thing for me to wear was a dress that hit just above the knee.

So my last day on the island was pretty much shot. No more swimming. I tried to convince S to go to the beach but he didn't feel like it. (Hey, I tried!) We stayed inside most of the day. Unfortunately I had only brought one novel with me and I ended up reading it twice. I only ventured out for dinner... no way I was going to miss out on that!

The next morning we packed up and headed towards the dock again. We were going to spend the day and that night in Trapani as our flight home the next morning was an early one. At the dock, we saw some fishermen selling fish fresh from their catch.

This time we took the ferry, which was slower, but it fit our schedule.

Goodbye, Favignana, thanks for an enjoyable island holiday...
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