Holiday musings

Tonight is that one night of the year when we watch football. It’s the Euro 2008 Final and Germany vs Spain are two teams close to our hearts. France is our favorite of course but they were kicked out even on the first game. In few minutes, one country will be celebrating to the rapture, and as I type, Spain stands the chance since they already scored a point earlier.

Anyway, have you ever experienced preparing for a holiday not knowing exactly where your feet will take you after the first destination. That’s exactly what we are undergoing right now. Our first destination – Budapest – is already written in stone as I have already a dental appointment to meet. We may stay there for a week, two weeks, it depends on the follow-on treatment, but as to which country we are proceeding to afterwards is a big question mark. Greece is way too hot in July and with the heatwave we experienced last year, I begged H, and he agrees with me, that we have to postpone the trip till September when the weather gets cooler.

Well, wherever that is, we are driving off on Thursday, the car will be packed to the brim with boxes of wine, clothes and things. Water and electricity in the house will all be turned off as we might be away for two months. And who knows, after those 2 months, we might just go straight to where H would be next assigned to. Which country? We really have no clue!

Anyway, let me share with you my first sunflower of the year – my pride and my joy, so far the biggest size ever, at 24cm in diameter!

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side view

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it’s way way taller than me so i had to tilt the camera at almost 80degree angle!

Lavanders

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My lavander in early June

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….. harvested in late June

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 …..pruned, gathered into bunches, they’re now ideal as home decor and room fragrance.   The yellow and orange buttons are santolina or cotton lavander florets.

For a good night sleep, fill a fabric sachet with florets of lavander and place them next to your pillow.  Sweet dreams!

Fete de la Musique

They call it “Fete dela Musique” (Music Festival).

The sound of musical concerts were heard all over France tonight. Shows were held on the streets, on the squares. in some churches and other venues to welcome the arrival of summer which officially starts 21st June of each year. This date is also the longest day or summer solstice. Starting tomorrow, the day starts to shorten by 1 to 2 minutes until the winter solstice which is the shortest day of the year.

We just arrived from a concert, 3 minutes drive from home. We were treated with 4 hours of Russian and some Eastern European music and the performers are excellent!

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This is the small square where the concert was held.

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This sister and brother had to bring their own sofa!

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They’re so good! Bravo!

A town-hopping wedding anniversary trip

It’s only for a long weekend but it has to be Italy, it must not involve long hours of driving, and sleeping in the car is a must.   For us, a driving holiday is not complete without the latter.  It not only makes for a cheaper holiday, it also forms part of the adventure. 

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Sleeping in the car is no different from sleeping in a motorized caravan – towing your tiny second house in a 2 x 3 meters of space so you don’t have to spend for hotel stays.  We have reflected buying a motorized caravan, weighed the pros and cons, but with our travelling style and preferences, we have stuck with the car.  The car could easily hurdle small village roads, climb up steep hills, park almost anywhere without getting noticed,  and the toll fares and ferry-crossings are 50% cheaper.  With a motorized caravan, it is more limiting – not practical to drive to town just to do the shopping or marketing, harder to negotiate tiny alleys, heavier to drive uphill and costs more on camping bills.

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And so, it was an “eenie-meenie-minie-mo” sort of itinerary drawing, selecting only the highlighted towns or villages in our map of Italy.  We didn’t know what’s in store, we just drove and drove waiting to be surprised.

DAY ONE –

First stop:

Mondovi, Piedmont region

The Piedmont region comprises the Italian alps (where Mont Blanc is.  This famous mountain, the tallest in the Alps, is jointly owned by France and Italy, but the tip apparently is tipping more towards Italy).  The capital city of Piedmont is Turin.  The drive to Turin is 2 hours but we did not feel like tackling the horrendous traffic of this highly congested city.  We just wanted to go on a leisurely drive and enjoy the alpine scenery, without the snow, as they have already melted at this time of the year.  It’s like driving in Switzerland but the scene is more provincial, the buildings rundown but just as charming.

We chose Mondovi because our watch says that we would reach there just in time for lunch.  We found a big carpark just at the entrance to the town, the grounds of the train station but now closed and converted into a free public carpark.

The beauty about Italy and France is, you can still find free parking even at the town center.  Even if you stay all day long, or all night long, nobody will accost you for overparking.  But beware not to leave your car for days and days on end unattended for you might just find a car carcass when you get back. 
In England though,  even in the most remote of villages, of the most obscure hinterland, you are obliged to pay like 2GBP per hour (87PHP = 1GBP) at a maximum stay of 2 hours!   I honestly don’t know why the limit of TWO hours!  But desperate to do some sightseeing, you will say, “Oh what the heck! I’d like to see what this village has in store..” and then you walk about 30 microseconds, passing few half-timbered houses, decorated with pots of hanging violets, and the roaring sea on the other side, and that’s it!  Nothing more.  Sightseeing over!  So you go back to the car feeling ripped off of 2GBP for some pots of violets and a roaring sea which you can watch while the car is moving anyway!

back to Mondovi….

We saw this restaurant in the piazza, no hype, no nothing, just a simple sign saying “Restaurant de Piemont”, saw a chef in white apron coming in – ahhh! a sign of gastronomic wonder, so without dilly-dallying,  we went in.

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The place was full by the time we had our main meal.  We were probably just the only tourists there.  We were secretly watching this gentleman, still the classic Italian, dining in his bowtie attire, later covered with his napkin.  Italian men of whatever age are generally smart dressers…even smarter than the French.  

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A selection of antipasto….or hors d’oeuvre
We didn’t order for this but it was a good photo opportunity!

I had Primo or first course of green salad – shredded carrot, shredded cabbage, sliced tomatoes with nary a dressing except for a dribble of olive oil – but it was awesome!  why oh why that whenever  i attempt to concoct a green salad at home, it’s not always as delicious!  am i missing something? 
H had pasta with the most beautiful tomato sauce.  You can always rely on Italian cooking:  simple as it may be but rises to gourmet heights!  all because they use only the freshest ingredients! That  Italian cuisine, for your information,  is half the reason why we venerate this country….

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Secondo…or main dish
Roast beef with 3 chunks of chips, few slices of courgette, a button of cauliflower, a square of turnip..and a sauce to die for!

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Dolceor dessert
Baked peach with (burnt) almond topping…heavenly good!

This touristic menu which comprises a glass of wine, primo, secondo, dolce and caffe costs only 14euros per head.

Images of Mondovi

Mondovi left us totally awed by its charm. No pretension, no hype, only the genuine splendour of the town and the locals’ love for colour and the arts. Art that is manifested everywhere: in their religion, in their architecture, in their murals, in their daily life.. We are definitely adding it to the list of places to take our guests to: for everything that one will truly enjoy for a real Italian experience, sans the tourists, is to be found there.

And as regards to H and me, we shall return there in the winter when the snowcapped mountains in the background and the white alpine scenery will render it even more breathtaking! And when that time comes, we shall treat ourselves to some more gastronomical cuisine which that part of Italy is famous for!

Second Stop:

Santuario di Vicoforte

After Mondovi, the next highlighted town in the map is Ormea. But there is one name next to the former which is also in yellow highlight, Sant. di Vicoforte. We bet it is another mindblowing place of interest but we never really thought about it seriously as our concentration was to follow the direction to Ormea.But while negotiating the sudden rush of traffic, a magnificent dome in green was slowly appearing in the distance. Gee! that dome looks like the Vatican dome in Rome! It’s so huge! H’s interest was also taken so he decided to make a stopover and find out what this beautiful structure is.

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Santuario di Vicoforte is among the most important monumental churches in Piedmont.
Built in 1731, her dome is the biggest elliptical dome in the world: 37m x 24m x 75m

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The fresco of the 6,032 sq.m. of the dome’s vault was completed in 1752

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This 16th century shrine to the Virgin Mary is the original structure in what used to be a small sanctuary, until a basilica was ordered built by the duke of Savoy


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Statue of Duke Carlo Emmanuel 1 of Savoy who sponsored the construction of the Basilica

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The Palazzata in the background. It surrounds the square and was built in different periods.
It used to accommodate penitents and pilgrims and used to house a hospital and a hostel. Now it’s a home for retired clergy.

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The architectural complex of the Sanctuario
The squared building on the right used to be a monastery built in 1600, but suppressed during the Napoleonic area.
Today, it is a diocesan spiritual meeting centre for pilgrims and tourists and a venue for congresses, conventions and meetings

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One last look at Santuario di Vicoforte before going to our next destination.

 Driving in the Piedmont region

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I had the camera on shutter mode all the time because of the many interesting sights that we keep driving past.

I was particularly impressed by the old and abandoned railway houses along the highway. They are still standing there, left to rot or being used as storage for wheat bales or some junk. They obviously have been elegant structures in their prime and I can only treat the Italian authorities with unparalleled adulation for not smashing these historical gems despite the crumbling walls and dilapidated tiled roofs. If this was England, they would have been, ages ago, turned into “Pay and Display” carparks if not a Tesco supermarket or some architectural eyesore of a housing estate.
Sure, you can trust the Italians for not ruining their landscape just for the sake of progress. I admire them deeply for having their sense of aesthetics intact. Even new apartments, new buildings, they are designed to complement and flow with the landscape. Italy, truly, is home to beautiful buildings and the Romans, the masters of concrete architecture.

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I was also tremendously fascinated by the scatterings of medieval villages with a common characteristic: that of a high church tower standing on the highest ground. The clay roof-tiled stonehouses are either perched on a hill or cloistered in the valley, bordering a fast flowing river or peeking below a ruin of some castle.

Not that I am not used to seeing a hilltop village with a high church tower as its common attribute. I live in one and my village is surrounded by countless of them. But French villages are very different from Italian villages. Well, I should qualify this statement. I live in Provence where Italian influence is so strong so there is a big similarity. The difference: The Italians prefer their buildings rundown, roofs left to discolour with age, to be replaced only when on the verge of collapse. Century-old paint on houses left to chip off for yet another century. Every shop signage merely drawn by hand. Plants allowed to invade the whole facade of their houses either to disguise a crumbling wall or to add charm.

But think about it, despite this seeming sense of abandon and disregard, Italy is one of the richest countries in the planet. They have one of the most high tech infrastructures and they invent/manufacture tools and machinery to make their life more comfortable.

But they still prefer making their own pasta by hand, few minutes before mealtime, so they are fresh, because as I mentioned earlier, fresh ingredients are the key to Italian gastronomy.

And despite the double solid lines in the middle of the road, inside a tunnel, in a curving tunnel, they still overtake and drive with incredible speed. They even drive in the centre of those solid lines, as if sneering at us for being so coward as to abide strictly by traffic suggestions. I swear I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes for countless of times and it would have been a feat taking photos of them in flagrante delicto. Or maybe they treat these solid lines as kind of… murals…yeah, road murals to appreciate as a form of art.

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……………………………………………………..

Third Stop:

Ormea

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Orange line: from Mondovi to Ormea

One hour drive from Mondovi is the town of Ormea, population: 1,900The only place I had ever photographed like crazy was Venice. I once said in one of my Venice travelogues that every nook and cranny, every square meter of the place, even a simple laundry line, or a doorbell, everything is delightfully photogenic that I was endlessly clicking the shutter of my camera. Well, after seeing Ormea, I can now officially announce that it occupies 2nd Place in my list of “Most photogenic places”  

Images of Ormea

It was 6pm and we were already getting hungry after a long day of driving and sightseeing. Too early for dinner yet but just perfect for an aperitivo (italian for “aperitif”, an alcoholic drink served before a meal).

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For 2 glasses of campari and generous servings of chips, peanuts and olives, our bill came to only 4 euros

Marble statues

After the aperitivo and on our way to collect the car from the free public carpark, we saw an immense number of statues scattered around the town. They are, apparently, made from the typical black marble prevalent in the area.

Dinner in Ormea

We have been seeing the word “funghi” in shop signs and restaurant menu boards. Funghi is mushroom in English. It’s their specialty in this region of alpine forests, hills and rivers. I told H in an extremely assertive manner that I have to have fungi for dinner. Though I always mispronounce it and he always corrects me.

M: FUN-JI
H: no! it’s FUNG-GI!

and this dialog kept on and on like a broken record. I admit, I must be so thick that I can never pronounce it correctly.

We both wanted to try this mushroom thingie so we ordered exactly the same dish (which is very rare because we always make it a point to order two different dishes and split them 50-50. That way, we get to taste two different menu in one meal.

So for our Primo Piatto (first course), we had the FUNG-GI

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“Sugo di funghi porcini”
Pasta with porcini fung-gi (and) sauce

Wow! that fung-gi was dee-licious! I love love it! They must have fried it lightly in olive oil then added to the pasta. The whole dish is simply divine!

Then for our Secondo Piatto, we just couldn’t resist ordering pizza. Quatro stagione for H (four seasons)
and verdura for me (vegetable)

So for a 1/4 litre of vino, primo, secondo, dolce and caffe, ALL TIMES TWO..our bill was 34.50euros. Surprisingly cheap! To think that the restaurant is quite upmarket. If it was in the coast, we would have paid double!

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funghi porcini. I’ll probably just buy 4 pieces of it. 26euros is a lot of money

Our palates satisfied, our bellies embarrassingly full, badly in need of quick digesting, we had to take a walk into the dark alleys before calling it a day.

On our way out, we saw another statue by the bridge

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Then back to the car to spend the night. It was in a car park by the river, just few meters walk to the public restroom, so “no problemo”

DAY  TWO –

The next day, we went back to the same bar cafe for a breakfast of caffe latte and croissants. You can always trust the Italians for serving you the best coffee in the world. No, they don’t grow coffee in their country. They also have to import the beans from South America and beyond. It’s just that they have a way of processing it, up to the brewing stage. Making real coffee is an art in Italy.

M: Awesome coffee! Let’s have another one!
(H called waiter.)
H: altra caffe, per favore…(another coffee, please)
(waiter quickly went into action)
H: zut! I said “caffe”! that would mean espresso! i should have said “caffe latte”!
M: (not wanting to hurt H’s feelings) It’s okay, dear. I don’t mind short, black coffee in the morning …..

The short, black coffee came and I was short of squeezing my nose to prepare myself for the strong bitter taste, at 7 in the morning..(like what mothers do to their kid’s nose when they force him to swallow bitter medicine). But wow! that was awesomely good, too!

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If you fancy having a croissant or a roll at an Italian cafe, you can simply reach for it in the bread glass cabinet like this one. Call the attention of the waiter, or if he’s not there, make sure to include it when asking for the bill.

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Italian cafes is a place for neighbours or friends to congregate. Probably a place to get to know strangers, too. Benches are usually installed right infront of the counter so clients can chat with the waiter. We noticed that almost everybody coming was chatting with the waiter. As it is a very popular town cafe, I bet they all know each other since birth.
 

Fourth Stop:

Pieve di Teco
Region of Imperia

Pieve di TecoWe left Piedmont and drove into the next region bordering the Mediterranean sea, Liguria. Pieve di Teco lies in the province of Imperia, one of the four provinces (Savona, Genova, La Spezia) of Liguria whose coastal area is called the Italian Riviera.

Images of Pieve di Teco

Fifth Stop:Bagnasco  

From Pieve di Teco, we started driving back towards home and stopped by at a village to have a picnic.

What was impressive about this village was the proliferation of murals! Almost each and every house has a mural in its facade. It all started with a competition some years back and then all these paintings stayed on!

DAY THREE –

Nice, France
Let me share with you our meal which cost us an arm (after the cheap meals in Piedmont, Italy)

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Entrée 1 (chef’s suggestion)….Chickpea salad
Look at the quantity!  I thought we were supposed to eat the entire bowlful of chickpea salad, but as soon as we served ourselves with moderate portion, the waiter took the bowl away, never to be seen again!
We don’t usually eat chickpeas as i find it boring but this dish caught us by surprise! mouth-watering with a sublime aftertaste.  It’s perfect as salad! It was mixed with herbs, minced onion and olive oil.
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 Entrée 2 (part 2 of chef’s suggestion)..fried baby squid, steamed squid, vegetable tempura, dolma (stuffed vine leaves), chunk of artichoke

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Plat principal (or main dish)…barbecued prawns.

We were a bit disappointed because the prawns were not fresh!

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Digestif of rosemarie wine.

This we enjoyed so much that we even asked the waiter where can we buy it.

Fantastic Nice

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That despite going there so often, we always find it enchanting, lots of things happening….

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…and the timeless people-watching

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…and the endless mental guessing game!
– this family is British…we can tell!

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in the morning, this spot is a flower and flea market
in the evening, it transforms into an alfresco dining…with few antique stalls in between which makes it extremely lively

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tourists of all races make Nice a very cosmopolitan and vibrant city

Promenade des Anglais

Promenade des Anglais is named as such because in the 19th century, wealthy people from England came to holiday here for the beach and sunshine. Today, this long promenade of 7km is very popular for skaters, bikers, picnickers, jammers, tourists, etc. There are showerooms/restrooms in the area for backpackers who choose to sleep on the beach in the summer.

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View from the hill

You can reach the top via an elevator, steps or tourist train which you can catch at the Promenade des Anglais.

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the stony beach of Nice
This was where i saw topless women for the first time: of any age including grannies

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The beach at 8pm (in June)

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I reckon these people are from the AVF (Accueil Ville Françaises). AVF is an association formed for new arrivals in a town, they could be French people or foreigners who just relocated/arrived from another region/country. I once joined the Nice chapter and it was fun going to the many social activities e.g. visiting the mayor and having cocktails with him, beach picnic, walking tours, soirees, learning how to cook paella, dancing lessons, etc