Bella Italia – European Roots, Regional Diversity, and… Ice Cream

Italy. Bella Italia! Part of the Grand Tour, promised land of the German mind, home of good food and people passionate – not just about la dolce vita but even about dolce far niente (the sweet life and sweet doing nothing).

Furthermore, as a major source of European culture – and simply a neighboring country – it is only natural that Italy should be a travel destination for the “home-r.”

(You ever noticed that there isn’t really a word for someone who is, let alone tries and becomes, at home somewhere – not counting terms such as native or indigenous which raise the wrong connotations?)

So, my wife and I set out for a few days in Rome and Florence…

Part 1: All Roads Lead to Rome?

…and the very beginning of the journey proved interesting:

Sleeper Train Compartment

Sleeper train from Vienna to Rome, compartment for six, leaving in the afternoon, arriving in the morning, two others already inside – a husband and wife from India, he only speaking their native tongue, she also English.
Decently clean washroom for one at a time, cramped and/but lockable (with water from a faucet as well as drinking water in individually wrapped cups) and toilet, which also remained surprisingly clean, except for the stink when some people abused it as a cigarette smoking chamber.
No smoking otherwise.
Small bottles of water already prepared for the passengers, light breakfast of some bread and a croissant, butter or marmalade, coffee or tea; conductor collected tickets he’d give back when telling people their stop was coming up soon and also asked about the drinks requested. Every food item individually wrapped, of course – hygienic, but wasteful.

No hot water for tea or instant cups of noodles – to finish the comparison with a Chinese sleeper train ;)

Oh Italy, oh Rome! The description for how to get to the (first) hostel was easy enough: Just take Metro Line A.
We go to the Metro, and are greeted with Italy’s national pastime, and a word every traveler there had better know: sciopero!


Sign of the strike the day before…

Metro Line A is closed for a strike until early afternoon…

All information desks are packed with people, and they are all for the national railway, not necessarily for local transport. I text the hostel owner, but he doesn’t answer that. Studying the “how to get to the hostel,” eventually, I’d figure out that the ticket vending machines for the railway can tell us how to go, and print out the tickets. Fun, though, when you have to change trains, using trains and stations never before taken, and you don’t get anything like a train schedule on your ticket or anywhere else, except on one screen on the ticket machine. Phone camera to the rescue – what use is a station to change at when the only way to tell how to get there is to know the time and the number of the train to use… a regional train that would go to Pisa, which is far enough away not to be “regional.”

We wait for the train. We find it on the announcement board. Doesn’t say a platform to go to. Still doesn’t say a platform a few minutes before it’s scheduled to depart, when the display changes to tell that this train was canceled. Uhm, okay?!?

Next check at the machine, next photo of the itinerary it displays, next train. This time, a platform number. Let’s go. And go, and go. Those platforms must have been added on to the train station at some later time, and they are nearly a kilometer away from the main part of the station. The train: certainly a regional train. A diverse mass of people, though all Italian judging by language. By their looks, this could just as well be Turkey. Or Xinjiang.

Out at Porta Ostiense, on to the next train. Vatican walls visible, out at Valle Aurelia. Which exit were we supposed to take? The description does not exactly make sense, the streets intersect rather more than expected, but with the description and a view onto Google Maps (good to have a phone contract that allows data usage – although, the phone had at first booked itself into the wrong carrier network, of course…), it seems all clear enough. And it was.

The hostel, Vatican City Inn: what looks to be a private apartment with rooms for guests, in an apartment building off into a cul-de-sac from a bigger road, the Vespas so typical of Italy out front.

Also like a private apartment: Gianluca, the owner, is still here to meet us, and in fact still cleaning up and preparing everything – although it all looks pretty clean already. We are greeted warmly, made to feel almost a part of the family, and after a shower and some fresh clothes, we’ll rest a bit longer in the noonday heat, then head out to adventures in Italy.

Part 2: The Vatican

Walking around the area, almost looking out from the apartment’s balcony, the Vatican City’s walls are often visible, making it pretty hard to miss. It’s also difficult to miss the throngs of people…

The first afternoon, we just went to St. Peter’s Square and from there to Castel St. Angelo, which we had  a look into. Funny how I remember having been here and not been impressed, but it actually offers a lot to see. The mix of ancient Roman and comparatively more recent, the diversity of rooms… though in the library, I can’t think of much else but how cold that could get even in a Roman winter.

Steps to St. Peters ... Pigeon Feathers

Steps to St. Peters … Pigeon Feathers

St. Peters Illuminated

St. Peters Illuminated

Curious Priests

Curious Priests

The Vatican, St. Peter’s and the Musei Vaticani, they are all interesting, but also all swarmed by people and all just too much, of course. St. Peter’s is impressive, especially given its age – but you really have to think of how that was built at a time when most houses were pretty small, certainly no skyscrapers, there was no motorized equipment to help with the construction. Still, the observations that really stand out to us are the numbers of Chinese visitors we’d see here, and the usefulness of Latin to try and decipher the many inscriptions. To a European Buddhist/atheist and a modern Chinese, the lure of religion is less strong than the fascination with all its absurdities.

The Curves of Angelic Alabaster

The Curves of Angelic Alabaster

Another kind of curves

Another kind of curves… with which they probably won’t let you in

Thus, also, in the Vatican Museums. Our favorite object was a Chinese Phoenix Crown hidden away in the ethnographic collection; it was great to see all that there is to see – but in the multitude of the human mass, the revelation about the Sistine Chapel, for example, is that its famous image of God giving Adam the spark of life is big and impressive on the posters and online – and used so much that the Chinese comment is “What is that? Boy-boy love?” – but it gets hidden in the whole range of picture panels that actually adorn the chapel’s ceiling and walls.

Lots of impressions to draw on, but it all takes time and learning to truly appreciate, rather than the mad dash to see a fair bit before the exhaustion from the heat and the – did I already mention them? – masses of people becomes rather too much. Much nices to “paint” oneself…

Enchanted photo-graphein (painting with light)

Enchanted photo-graphein (painting with light)

My highlight, really, was the run I took one morning, all around the Vatican – and a bit longer, actually. Few people, not even all that much traffic, sights to run past, the up and down of Rome’s topography felt beneath the feet and in the legs – and a chance for saying that I ran around an entire country. :-p

Walking around the city to see a bit more of Rome proper, appreciation and enjoyment for the both of us followed: We stumbled upon Gelateria del Teatro, which had me wondering at first because of all the tourist praise they mention on the door, but won us over so that we’d end up going there every. single. day. (and we still wish we could return already).

Gelateria del Teatro

Gelateria del Teatro

Chocolate ice cream flavors – not our thing, but still – from simple dark ones to white with basil, the rather usual nut flavors – but here, it’s not just hazelnuts, it’s hazelnuts from the Piemonte, almonds from Noto, pistachios from Bronte – not only stracciatella, but also a stracciatella alla menta (with mint) – and you can tell that they are using a natural spearmint, not a peppermint or other – several fruit flavors (and of course, the lemon is made of lemons from Amalfi), and our favorites, the mixed fruit and herb flavors that are to be found nowhere else: raspberry and sage; rosemary, honey and lemon; lavender flower and white peach… Out of this world. Or rather, directly out of the riches that this world offers, and then becoming something that takes you right out of the everyday humdrum.

Part 3: Rome Proper

As it happened, I had decided that we should rather stay in Rome a bit longer than try to travel around more, and thus had to get another hostel for the other days in Rome. Again, an old apartment building, but this time a situation more like in a  hotel. Right on Via Cavour, the walk from the subway station to the hostel already offers a tantalizing glimpse of the Coliseum.

A suspicion arose as we went down the road, got closer to the house number, and encountered a Chinese restaurant right before. It would turn out true: one of the hostel owners, the only one we’d get to see, is a Chinese. An even warmer welcome ensued, languages get even more mixed – “Hey, I saw your name, I thought maybe there was some relation to China… I can see what the relation is now.” Advice on what to see in Rome, given in Chinese… in the most enjoyable local’s fashion: Coliseum and Roman Forum, a must-see; Piazza Navona, go and have a look, but don’t be a stupid tourist – eat somewhere else; the Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, home to all the luxury brand stores – go, take the requisite pictures, but forget about shopping there…
We’d actually been there the day before, but anyways: it’s good advice and nice to experience Chinese hospitality again.

A very different view from that room, though, but small and stuffy as it can be, it was also nice enough and with adjacent bath – and do you remember what I said about that glimpse? Just left at the entrance, right down the next road, and there’s the Coliseum. Forum Romanum and Palatinate Hill lie right next to it. Impressive, if mighty ruinous. The power center of the ancient Roman empire – and I’m reminded of Peter Hall’s comment:

“Great engineering solutions are all very well…; but a society that builds splendid aqueducts and sewers, and then leaves its less fortunate citizens to a diet of bread and circuses, is a society doomed to eventual bloody destruction.”

Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization, 1999 (1998): Phoenix (Orion Books), p. 620

 A room with a - very different - view

A room with a – very different – view

Fontana di Trevi, hardly trevi-al for crowd control

Fontana di Trevi, hardly trevi-al for crowd control

Colossal Ruin

Colossal Ruin

Rome, and especially there, around the remains of the empire, is and always has been the most interesting to me because it keeps coming up in discussions of European identity. Either because of the Vatican and “the Christian roots of Europe” or going back a little further to the prior unification of much of Europe under Roman rule, people like to see, and seek, common ground right here. One of the fascinations of Riga is that there, you have a European city that never saw any Romans, has no Latin inscriptions, was founded only around the time Christianity was also introduced there, for a major part through a right and proper crusade against the heathens still extant there… but back to Rome.

Christianity and Rome may somehow serve as foundational to Europe.

The religion really came out of the Middle East, famously splintered into Orthodox and ‘newer’ faiths, and again into Catholic and Protestant – and hardly a modern European, as traditionalist or Christian as they may be, would want to be defined through their allegiance to the Vatican. So, maybe not the best of foundations.

The Roman Empire seems at least as fundamental to the idea of Europe. Certainly, the later emperors in Central Europe – not least, right here in Austria where we live – would bring the two streams together in their role as “Holy” “Roman” emperors. Looking at the actual extension the Roman Empire had, though… Well, that ancient history is a good basis on which to claim that there has always been something of a Mediterranean alliance, sometimes expanded to even include most of the British isles and Central Europe, but giving more support for an inclusion of Turkey (and even Iran, definitely Egypt, and most of the Middle East and North Africa) rather than Eastern Europe.

Then again, it’s all come crumbling down; the ruins were used as stone quarries before they were re-discovered, and we stumbled among them, first in heat, then in rather rainy weather, enjoying the time and suffering from the effect of running around for miles upon miles. That’s tourism for ya.

Palatine, Ruinous

Palatine, Ruinous

There's life among the ruins - at least these gulls liked 'em

There’s life among the ruins – at least these gulls liked ’em

It's still paradise for pigeons...

It’s still paradise for pigeons…

Other day, other weather, other atmosphere...

Other day, other weather, other atmosphere…

Nice pictures, a morning run past the ruins, along a stretch of the Tiber river, and on the former racetrack of the Circus Maximus. This, at least, was impressive in just the way I remember it from my previous visit to Rome: Where the Palatinate and the Forum (not to mention the Coliseum) are all pretty, well, ruined but at least include some remains that make one wonder how people could have gotten such structures built some 2000 years ago, the Circus Maximus looks like it should long since have been plowed under. Chariot races are not so different from modern entertainment as to make it hard to imagine the excitement that must have taken place here – maybe not with hot dog vendors, but certainly with street food. And yet, if you don’t know about the role this place played, it’s just like some fallow field, and with too many stones and too little fertile soil at that.

Circus Pleasuremaximus

Circus Pleasuremaximus

Speaking of soil… We also paid a visit to Rome’s Eataly store. Joy and lessons got mixed there, but I’ll talk more about the food and the cultural lessons on my blogs for those issues, ChiliCult and The Ecology of Happiness.

Part 4: Florence

A Ponte Vecchio Sunset

A Ponte Vecchio Sunset

If there is a place where modern Europe got its start, to the point of enthroning Rome as the center and beginning, it’s Florence. It is here, after all, that textile production resulted in trade, which made sufficient profit to invest in power and glory, strengthening the trade and banking practices that had begun in the Middle Ages and now came to flourish, letting a bourgeoisie rise to aristocratic (and papal) power and support the artists and their new ways that “re-discovered” ancient Rome’s power and glory…

Florence by Guidebook

It’s good to learn more about a place – but maybe one shouldn’t do so while in the middle of said place?

We’d be walking around the city a lot, I’d go on another early morning run, we paid the obligatory visit to the Uffizi gallery. The major enjoyment, though, was simple.

We staid at the Plus Camping Michelangelo campground (where I had been years and years ago with my parents), in one of the house tents they offered. Not the safest, perhaps, but campers are typically a lot that looks out for each other. It is on the hill of San Miniato al Monte, close by Piazzale Michelangiolo, though, meaning that one has quite something of a view of the Florentine skyline even through the campground’s olive trees when getting out of the bathing/washing area, and the greatest of views from the Piazzale proper.

Pizza, a bottle of wine, and a sunset behind Firenze...

Pizza, a bottle of wine, and a sunset behind Firenze… What more could you ask for?

... a better view of the sunset...

… a better view of the sunset…

Self-Portrait over Firenze

… and the photos to prove…

Self-Portrait over Firenze 2

… that you were here.

El Condor Pasa

Unless you are somewhere else, floating and flying

Running down to the city and back up ‘home’ is less nice, but the sights (and shopping) of Florence is all easily seen and done on foot.

Funnily, we fortified ourselves – after having gotten sick of the pizza at Eataly – by becoming regular customers at a rather newly opened, pretty modern, Dim Sum restaurant. The traditional Tuscan panforte and panpepato proved most excellent – so much so that I’ll have to write a proper blog post just on those over @ChiliCult -, Florence proved a capital of gelato (ice cream), indeed… but for satisfying nourishment, there’s nothing better than real Chinese dishes.

dim sum in Firenze

dim sum in Firenze. Oh well…

... nourishing, tasty, satisfying.

… nourishing, tasty, satisfying. Especially with pasta, kinda fitting.

The ice cream, though.

On the very first evening, upon arrival from Rome on a FrecciaRossa, one of Italy’s high-speed trains (comfortable, but is it really high speed?), after getting ourselves and our stuff to the campground, my legs led me straight back to Vestri.

Vestri in Firenze

Vestri in Firenze

A few years ago, when my passions for chile peppers and chocolate had already collided, I went to Perugia for the chocolate fair there, passed through Florence, and sampled the chocolate-chile pepper ice cream at a chocolate maker’s there, the name of which had completely escaped me. It was that Vestri which, whether through dumb luck or muscle memory, we found ourselves in front of. And there, it still was on the menu: Gelato gusto cioccolato al peperoncino.

Normally, I don’t like chocolate ice cream – but that is excellent. Rich in flavor, and with just the right spicy touch of chile pepper heat.

There were gelaterie on every other road, though – or so it seemed. None had flavors quite as exciting as those of Gelateria del Teatro in Rome, but a few explained their products really well and also told where what they used came from.

Bellamia, Firenze

Gelateria Bellamia, Firenze. Only discovered while waiting for the train back, and fantastic in select ingredients…

Renaissance paintings and buildings all well and beautiful…

… but it’s in the combination of traditional and modern I find greater inspiration. We visited the Museo Gucci, the Gucci museum – totally atypical for my interests, it may seem, but it was interesting to see how they present the brand and its wares, position themselves as decidedly upper-crust, high taste and high quality, and draw on the allure of the old and good as well as the uber-modern.

Gucci Museum Florence

Gucci Museum Florence

(I keep coming back to thinking that luxury products have become about nothing much more than extending a perceived brand value ever further and making more profit by providing easy ways for people to feel and show high status – I buy, therefore I am… Not a great development, at the same time at which quality and durability, to the point of the custom-made, could well provide the work and reduced consumption with better goods we could use for living multiply better…)

5: The Return

The train trip back – another glimpse of Europe’s present and future: This time, we shared the compartment with a couple and their young daughter. The mother from Poland and speaking Polish with the child, who was born in Austria and answers in German. The father from Croatia. The couple usually speak English with each other. And they all now live in Austria and speak, or at least understand, German.

Here, in quality and qualities, in drawing upon what is “ours” – as many of the products at Eataly and various of the ice cream flavors at the gelaterie did – and presenting it to the world, in continuing with traditions and making them better for the future, in keeping languages and regional traditions while mingling freely, I see the real inspiration this trip provided. Not to forget that it was fun. Exhausting, but fun.

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  1. Elizabeth

    Brilliant Photos Gerald! Even without the excellent camera, the vision you have would be enough.

    Thank you so much for sharing them as well as the thoughtful commentary of your trip.

    Much to ponder!

    – Elizabeth

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