Paul's Travel Pics

Monday, February 01, 2016

Spectacularly Delicious Bologna

The Bologna of my memory was elegant and delicious in so many ways. Here we were at the midpoint of a 23-day journey down the full length of Italy, somewhere between the Dolomiti Alps and hilly Le Marche, and stumbled upon this cosmopolitan and yet medieval gem that we almost skipped.

I don't even know where to begin to describe a city so full of history and culture, and perhaps more interestingly to myself, grand culinary traditions. Despite being reasonably well-known it is still largely ignored as a destination among casual tourists, most passing through on trains between obligatory whirlwind stops at Florence and Venice. Most would also pass by fabulous locales such as medieval Ferrara and Padova along the same train line, but I digress.

And we almost made the same mistake before realizing what a perfect homebase Bologna would make for exploring Emilia-Romagna's wealth of World-Heritage-worthy towns -- Modena, Ferrara and Ravenna. We considered splitting our three nights between Mantova and Ferrara, but at the end chose to stay all three in Bologna, next to the train station for the convenience of transport and still within a 20 minute stroll to Fontana del Nettuno and the heart of the city.

Between day-trip excursions we spent several half-days, as woefully inadequate as it now seems in retrospect, for exploring one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in all of Italy, and arguably the best one not already declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some say that UNESCO designation is only a matter of time given the city's plethora of historical legacies starting with its unique urban landscape of porticoes and its medieval university, in fact the oldest post-secondary institute in the Western world.

You can't help tiptoeing into these hallowed lecture rooms with utmost reverence for the 900+ year old temple of higher learning and its legendary list of faculty. Literature majors would follow in the footsteps of Dante, humanities majors in the shadow of Petrarch and science majors in the example of Copernicus, hopefully with happier story endings. With the walls still decorated with Renaissance frescoes as well as hundreds of emblems representing its graduates from centuries past, history looms overwhelmingly heavy for a first-time visitor like myself, let alone freshmen students.

While lecture halls scatter throughout the city among countless faculty buildings, the university's historic heart remains at the Archiginnasio Palace which now houses the largest public library in Emilia-Romagna alongside the 17th Century Teatro Anatomico, one of the world's oldest dissecting rooms for medical schools. No cadaver is dissected on this marble table anymore of course, but the Teatro still serves in an inspirational capacity to the university's army of 90,000 or so students.

My favorite hideout in town was the medieval complex of seven interweaved churches known collectively as Santo Stefano, located just a few minutes' walk east of the Archiginnasio. Most visitors come mainly for the 5th Century church of the Holy Sepulchre, but what I enjoyed the most, aside from the photogenic Romanesque arches and domes, was the tranquility of this ancient centre of worship -- chapels, courtyards and all.

The insulated climate inside the 4th Century chapel of Vitale e Agricola was a godsend as we coped with the last heat wave of the summer (33 degrees Celsius in mid September!). Even with its seemingly never-ceasing flow of pilgrims the complex was peaceful enough to serve as a free-entrance worship and recreational space for the locals.

Even more charming was the triangular Piazza outside of Santo Stefano, surrounded by an assembly of stately 15th Century Palazzi and largely used as a pedestrianized courtyard by the everyone from the neighborhood. It was the best place to people-watch especially during the early evening ritual of passeggiata when the senior folks sat and chatted passionately about football while the grandkids honed their dribbling skills around the Renaissance pillars.

But the one unmistakeable feature that separates Bologna from its Emilian neighbors is the endless rows of porticoes, made mandatory back in the Middle Ages while the likes of Modena started banning them. From Santo Stefano we could walk almost entirely covered in this all-weather shopping arcade, 40 km long and spread out over tens of city blocks, all the way back to our hotel nearly 30 minutes away.

Orientation in Bologna is simple even for first time visitors as the imposing landmark of Torre Asinelli, an astonishing medieval work of engineering, is practically visible for miles around. While the city once boasted more than a hundred such towers back in the 13th Century, today only 20 or so survive, many remaining in private hands and at least one bookable as an unconventional (and steeply priced) hotel.

At a staggering height of 97 m, Torre Asinelli is open to visitors willing to endure a dark and claustrophobic climb up 500 steps before being rewarded with the most stunning 360 degree panorama of Bologna. A downward view reveals the precipitously leaning tower of Garisenda, too dangerous to be open to the public as it leans even further than its famous cousin in Pisa.

Torre Asinelli also leans but at a much milder 1.4 degrees, which is respectable for a gangly 900 year old medieval skyscraper that has survived multiple earthquakes, including two 5.8 quakes just north of the city in 2012. A westerly view from the top overlooks the 2000-year-old boulevard once known as Via Aemilia and connected with Ancient Rome, some 380 km away.

To the southwest Basilica di San Petronio glowed in the sunset amid the glory of its neighboring Gothic and Renaissance Palazzi, and in the background a monumental tunnel of porticoes, 4 km long and 666 arches in all, ultimately led to Santuario San Luca on the hilltop. Given this wealth of historical heritage, excellent food and very safe streets (I was never bothered once by vagrants after dark, unlike in Florence or Milan), I can't understand why visitor tend to come for business or academic conferences and not for vacation.

The setting of the sun also signified the start of our highly anticipated daily ritual.

Every Italian seems religiously proud of the local cuisine he grew up with, and rightfully so. But if you ask which region best represents the gastronomic traditions of such a broad and diverse nation, along with the passionate discussions that would undoubtedly ensue you can always count on the suggestion of Emilia-Romagna ending up at the table. Consider the king of Italian cheeses in Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of vinegar in Aceto Balsamico di Modena, some of the most prized Salume in Prosciutto di Parma and Culatello di Zibello, and you get the idea. The promise of terrific regional food was half of my reason for visiting Bologna, and for three nights we went out to rub shoulders with the locals and sample the legendary local fare, from the cheap to the not-so-cheap.

Via Clavature 12; one minute walk east of Piazza Maggiore.

Readers may wonder why I'm recommending a food court at a city spoilt for choices for its legendary regional cuisine. But the truth is -- this isn't America where food courts are disgracefully equated with artery-clogging portions of substandard grub -- this is Bologna of all Italian cities, where locals have such high expectations that mediocrity simply isn't tolerated.

Located barely 100 m off Piazza Maggiore, Mercato di Mezzo's prime location seemed to attract well-dressed business types in their happy-hour routine along with red-faced university students jovially enjoying their after-class glasses of wine. What united everyone however was a common Antipasto to be shared among friends at virtually every table, a selection of the best regional Salume and cheeses from the counter at L'Antica Bottega.

Now this doesn't mean that L'Antica Bottega's quality was head and shoulders above other Salumerie; in fact I have yet to come across a bad Salumeria anywhere in Italy, and outstanding Mortadella Bologna IGP could be found at neighborhood Conad or COOP supermarkets, at even cheaper prices (~1.2 Euros/100 g) especially when they're on sale. Yet one could easily see the appeal of this upmarket food court, bringing together wine bars, the Salumeria, Pasticeria, and even a Pescheria under one roof at the historic heart of the city.

The star attraction was a Tagliere of select regional Salume, cheeses and bread large enough to make a light meal or a very large picnic, for a very reasonable 10 euros. On this day we had Salame Felino, Prosciutto Crudo di Modena, some Coppa and Ciccioli, not to mention Bologna's own pride, succulent slices of Mortadella.

A couple wedges of Pecorino cheese, a few crumbles of intensely zesty Parmigiano-Reggiano, some radicchio and the local variant of Tigelle flatbread rounded up this filling Antipasto. Adding an order of deep fried calamari and shrimps from the neighboring stall of Pescheria del Pavaglione and a glass of local Pignoletto from the bar, this authentically Bolognese dining experience cost less than a 20 euro bill for two, with enough change left for gelato.

Bill for Two Persons
Tagliere (from L'Antica Bottega)10 Euros
Frittura di Gamberi e Calamari (from Pescheria del Pavaglione)5 Euros
Glass of Pignoletto (from the wine bar)2.5 Euros
TOTAL17.5 Euros (CAD$24.5)

That was just the cheap end of the local dining spectrum, after which we moved onto something more upscale and were rewarded with one of our best meals in Italy.

Via Guglielmo Oberdan 43/a; 2 minute walk north of Chiesa di San Martino.

If I'm asked to pick three memorable meals in Northern Italy, immediately coming to mind would be Il Bertoldo in Verona, Il Fantino in Modena, and this little trattoria located halfway between Bologna station and Due Torre. To be fair it is priced somewhat at the Ristorante range (2.5 euros for Coperto, 4 euros for a glass of house wine), but nobody should complain given the exceptional quality of dishes served.

Oberdan's theme was everything Bolognese from the Parmigiana to the Ragu to the Pignoletto. We started off sharing an Antipasto of Parmigiana di Melanzane, ubiquitous all over Italy with different peasant variations but elevated to extravagance here at the birthplace of Parmigiano-Reggiano with a copious, pillowy layer of this sharp and unmistakeably nutty cheese lavished on top. Laden with artery-clogging richness for sure, though it was certainly one of the best Antipasti of our trip.

For Primo it was THE classic of all Italian classics, a local favorite imitated and bastardized all over the world as Spaghetti in Meat Sauce -- except the locals would never perform the sacrilege of pairing Ragu Bolognese with Spaghetti whose rounded and smooth surface simply does not pick up sauce very well. Our Tagliatelle al Ragu Bolognese, pictured above in split-portion, came with a characteristically thick and rich sauce that wasn't exceptional by itself until the addition of the one ingredient that would put the exclamation mark on any Emilian dish. As any local already knows since childhood, genuine, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano simply makes everything better.

The theme of rich, traditional Bolognese dishes would continue with our Secondo of Guancialino di Maiale, or baby pork cheeks, stewed slowly in a sauce of artichokes into a tender, buttery texture as if the Antipasto and Primo weren't fattening enough. In the context of such calorific recipes it's not difficult to understand Bologna's nickname of la grassa -- I would have gained 10 pounds too had I stayed here for a couple more weeks.

We finished with another creamy concoction in the form of Panna Cotta, which had us stuffed to our throats after sharing the three earlier courses. With Antipasti and Primi priced mostly under 10 euros and Secondi in the mid teens, prices were very reasonable for an authentic multi-course meal at one of Italy's gastronomic capitals. My only regret was not having enough time in Bologna, as I would have loved to try their Lasagne Verdi on another visit.

Bill for Two Persons
Parmigiana di Melanzane9 Euros
Tagliatelle alla Bolognese9 Euros
Guancialino di Maiale in Umido con Carciofi14 Euros
Panna Cotta5 Euros
Glass of Sangiovese4 Euros
Glass of Pignoletto4 Euros
Bottle of Water2.5 Euros
Coperto 2.5 x 25 Euros
TOTAL52.5 Euros (CAD$73.5)

Via Jacopo della Quercia 2/2; five minute walk to the north of the train station.

One evening we returned from an excursion to Ferrara and needed a restaurant in the vicinity of the train station. As the extremely popular Trattoria da Via Serra was out of the question without prior reservation, we settled for our second choice of La Corte dei Ghiottoni for a seafood dinner.

For Antipasto we shared a Zuppa di Polpo e Ceci (pictured above in half-portion), a chunky stew of tender chickpeas and young Mediterranean octopus that came out quite good, but not as spectacularly fresh and savory as some of the other Zuppe (Il Bertoldo again comes to mind) we had on our trip.

A better dish was their signature Spaghetti allo Scoglio, available only in two or more portions and overloaded with heaps of fresh clams, mussels and red shrimps. To be frank the seafood still wasn't the absolute freshest and most flavorsome compared with seaside Veneto or better yet, Salento, but nobody should expect that in landlocked Bologna. Still the pasta soaked up the savory juices of the molluscs very well and I did thoroughly enjoyed this dish, particularly that giant mound of seafood served.

At 14 euros per person I thought the Spaghetti was somewhat of a steal, and when factoring in the free Antipasti of Crostini upon arrival, free Contorno of vegetables and a half litre of house white for just 5.5 euros, our seafood dinner turned out surprisingly affordable. Our final bill of 50 euros did not include Dolce, but then there was a decent Gelateria right next to our hotel anyway.

Bill for Two Persons
Zuppa di Polpo e Ceci10.0 Euros
Spaghetti allo Scoglio x 228.0 Euros
Vino Bianco della Casa 1/2 Litre5.5 Euros
Bottle of Water2.0 Euros
Coperto x 25.0 Euros
Crostini al Pomodoro e SquacqueroneFREE
TOTAL50.5 Euros (CAD$70.7)

As mentioned we strategically booked our three nights near the train station, in fact right across the street at the four star Hotel Mercure Bologna Centro, on sale somehow for just 77 euros a night. It was ideal for our day-trips to several impressive yet underrated destinations nearby, to be covered in the next series of posts.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Easy Hikes in the Dolomites - Part 3: St. Magdalena in Villnoess

This was a bittersweet photo, capturing the picture-perfect bottom half of the world-famous postcard view of the Italian Dolomites, with the idyllic village of St. Magdalena resting like a jewel among lush green subalpine pastures.

But it wasn't quite complete as the top half -- the majestic, vertical rock face of the Geisler peaks, one of the most recognizable symbols of the Dolomites -- was all covered in mist in this unpredictable mountainous microclimate. The pictured Baroque chapel of Ranui is another landmark most often photographed with the Geisler in the background, but it wasn't to be during our 2-night stay in early autumn.

These were our last two days in the Dolomites, as part of our 23-day journey down the full length of Italy from the Austrian border to the heel of the boot, though the scenery would appear more German than Italian to the uninitiated. South Tyrol used to be the southernmost part of Austria until early 20th Century, and everything from the wooden alpine architecture to the "danke schön" from the bus drivers all indicated just how distanced from Rome we were.

On this day we moved from Ladin-speaking Val Gardena to the German-speaking valley of Villnöss, from one of the region's most popular resorts to a sleepy hamlet better known to photographers than to casual tourists. While the two valleys are only 5 km apart on opposite sides of the same mountain, getting from Ortisei to St. Magdalena took us two bus transfers and 90 minutes through some spectacular mountain roads.

Our home base in the valley was the historical village of St. Magdalena, a loose collection of timber houses located at the farthest end of the valley before the paved road zigzagged up towards the alpine meadows. Despite the unpredictable weather we would attempt two easy hikes -- a section of the Adolf Munkel Weg at the foot of Geisler mountain, and the spectacular Panoramaweg, legendary among photographers and the main reason for our stay in Villnöss.

Upon arrival at St. Magdalena we quickly dropped off our bags at a little family-run Pension, having no time to recover from our morning hike at Seceda before setting out for our second of the day. The Panoramaweg from St. Magdalena to St. Peter was supposed to be a short 2 km stroll on a well-maintained path thought to be accomplishable within an hour, which turned out to be a gross underestimation on my part.

Near the trail head of Panoramaweg stood one of the most photographed buildings in the entire Dolomites, the famous steeple of St. Magdalena's village church as featured in numerous promotional brochures for the Villnöss valley and for South Tyrol as a whole. Small and unimposing as this gothic church might appear from up close, its claim to fame would be justified from a different perspective at the opposite hillside.

This was exactly what we came to Villnöss for: the iconic panorama that coined the name Panoramaweg, a view of St Magdalena with its 15th Century church in the warm afternoon glow, surrounded by grassy meadows in the shadow of the Dolomiti peaks of Sass Rigais and Fermeda.

Sadly it turned out to be our only chance to enjoy this spectacle as the entire valley would become shrouded in fog the next day. After spending an awestruck 20 minutes we continued onward in the direction of St. Peter, taking the Panoramaweg for part of the journey and switching to the lower Sonnseitenweg (sunset way) in the second half of the hike.

The mid section of the hike traveled through some heavy woods before the slopes opened up into subalpine pastures teeming with the locally prominent Brillenschaf sheep. What was anticipated to be a 60 minute stroll turned into 130 minutes, and it was 18:00 when we finally reached the outskirts of St. Peter.

Under a golden sunset we finished our hike at the baroque parish church of St. Peter, the valley's largest village and perhaps a more convenient base for our hikes than St. Magdalena in retrospect. I would have loved to spend more time to explore, but we had to hurry up for dinner before catching the last bus of the day at 19:50 back to St. Magdalena.

The best surprise of the day came from an outstanding local restaurant at this remote corner of the Dolomites. This wasn't ritzy Cortina d'Ampezzo or even Ortisei -- this was middle-of-nowhere in Italian or even Austrian terms where nobody would expect a restaurant of this calibre.

On St. Peter's main road, near the chapel of St. Michael

Prior to our trip I had heard of this restaurant being described as pretentious or expensive by other reviewers. But if you trust my tastebuds, I would venture to say that it served excellent food at fitting prices -- not cheap, but reasonable for the quality of ingredients presented.

Even after two hikes all it took to fill our stomachs were one Antipasto, one Suppe, two Primi, and of course some crispy homemade wafers which went exceptionally well with herbed cream cheese from the local Brillenschaf sheep. Even better was the soft and succulent sheep ham, so delicate and unoffensive in flavor that my wife couldn't detect any trace of the gaminess typical of lamb. The Schinkenspeck was also top notch in an Antipasto that, despite its relatively high price tag of 12.5 euros, wouldn't be considered overpriced in similar restaurants in Bolzano or Verona.

The next course became my wife's favorite soup of our entire trip, a Cappuccino of Porcini dominating with the robust, woody flavor of wild harvested Boletus and topped with a delicious Porcini foam. While the portion was arguably small for 8 euros, no mushroom fan should be able to complain about the depth of flavor in this little cup of concentrated creaminess.

My own favorite was this porcini-infused Mushroom Risotto, served with some deep-fried Chanterelle and a towering crisp of cheese that tasted somewhat of Parmigiano but was more likely locally sourced. I would have loved a grilled rack of Brillenschaf lamb, except we were running dangerously close to the departure of the last bus. For this reason alone I would have preferred to stay at St. Peter instead of the sleepier St. Magdalena, just to have a proper 3 hour dinner at Pitzock, the way the locals do.

Bill for Two Persons
Speck with Lammschinken12.5 Euros
Steinpilzcappuccinno8.0 Euros
Schwammerlrisotto x 223.0 Euros
Glass of Mueller-Thurgau3.2 Euros
Glass of Prosecco3.0 Euros
Bottle of Mineral Water4.0 Euros
Coperto x 23.0 Euros
TOTAL56.7 Euros (CAD$79.4)

The next morning we took our fourth and final hike of our four days in South Tyrol, taking the morning bus up to Zanser Alm at 1680 m above sea level. Our initial plan was to start out from Zanser Alm, hike to Tschantschenon Alm and take the popular Adolf Munkel Weg to Geisler Alm before hiking back down to Zanser Alm.

Except this alpine weather was so changeable that the brilliant sunshine from the previous afternoon had completely given way to heavy cloud covers amid a temperature drop of nearly 10 degrees. For safety reasons we shortened our hiking route, cutting the 9.4 km hike by a third and enjoying only a small section of Adolf Munkel Weg.

Starting from 1680 m we hiked up to the 1900 m alpine meadows of Glatschalm, a patch of grassy pasture dotted with the typical Tyrolean grey cattle and centred by a rustic mountain Rifugio. At 38 euros per person per night this would be ideal for a relaxing weekend stay, except for the 40 minute uphill hike to get there.

Taking Trail 36 to Glatschalm, we kept traveling southward towards the intersection with Adolf Munkel Weg (Trail 35) where we turned left towards Tschantschenon Alm. Upon reaching Tschantschenon Alm we would turn north again and walk downhill back to Zanser Alm.

Despite the inclement weather we did hike a portion of the dramatic Adolf Munkel Weg almost directly beneath the majestic 3100 m peak of Sass Rigais. Venturing too close to the slopes wouldn't be smart however due to frequent rockslides underneath these crumbling limestone peaks.

The cloud-covered peaks of the Geisler mountains would have been spectacular on a clear day as I have often seen from fellow travelers' photos. This was an easy hike of 6.4 km with only 270 m of elevation gain along some gentle slopes, which we finished in a little over two hours in light drizzles.

At 12:45 we arrived in time for lunch at the homey little alpine inn of Zanser Alm, a working farm with its own pastures, a cattle pen and a rabbit enclosure, conveniently located between the bus terminal and the Adolf Munkel Weg.

This secluded Gasthof would have been a perfect home base in better weather, perhaps in the warmer months of July or August, to sleep in the midst of nature for a very reasonable 30 Euros per person, or 45 for half-board. The Adolf Munkel Weg is just 20 minutes uphill, and it's even possible to hike up to Seceda or Rasciesa and take the cable car / funicular to Ortisei in the neighboring valley.

Perhaps it was the hiking in cool weather, but we worked up enough appetite to dare taking on one large soup, one pasta, one dish of Knoedels AND a Bauerntoast on top of everything. Our feast started with this wonderful Cremesoupe of autumn squash, so creamy and sweet with the flavor of organic pumpkin that we rarely taste in the cities.

Our first Primo came in the form of Penne with Wild Mushrooms and Speck. While this wasn't the Porcini that I was hoping for, I had to appreciate the availability of wild harvested mushrooms at such an out-of-the-way mountain lodge.

Next came perhaps the most famous of all Tyrolean dishes, three fist-sized, old-fashioned fried Knoedels to fill our guts after a full morning's hike. In a twist of patriotism (or political mockery?) the three Knoedels, or Canederli in Italian, came unabashedly in green, white and red -- spinach, herbs and beets.

The Italian colours on our plate came as an amusement at this German-speaking, former Austrian province at the northeastern corner of Italy, less than an hour's drive from the border. Political observations aside my favorite flavor was spinach, followed by beets, in a dish of Knoedels / Knedliky / Knedli better than anything I ever came across in Central Europe (Knoedelland, as a friend of mine would say). Seriously I had never once finished a dish of Knoedels, mainly due to their sheer mass rather than any suggestion of unpalatability, until this meal.

And the Bauerntoast you ask? We barely finished a quarter and packed up the rest back to our hotel room. That's the inconvenience of staying at the tiny village of St. Magdalena -- only one walk-in restaurant remained open in the off-season, and the excellent Pitzock at the neighboring town of St. Peter was closed on Sundays. This filling rye bread with layers of delectable Tyrolean Speck and Cheese would become our dinner for the night.

Bill for Two Persons
Cremesuppe with Squash5.5 Euros
Penne with Wild Mushrooms, Speck and Tomatoes8.0 Euros
Canederli Tricolore8.0 Euros
Bauerntoast with Speck and Cheese9.5 Euros
Weissbier x 29.0 Euros
TOTAL40.0 Euros (CAD$56.0)

On the way back we got off the bus one stop early to visit St. Magdalena's other famous landmark, the private church of Johanneskapelle with its Baroque spire and 17th Century frescoes. We made an attempt, 7 months in advance, to book a two-night stay at the historic Ranuihof which owns this chapel, but never received a reply and settled for a small Pension closer to the village centre.

But we certainly couldn't complain about the warm hospitality from Haus Florian, a 4-room operation run by the friendly Heinrich and his family, despite my terrible spoken Italian and even worse German. For two nights we enjoyed a comfy room with a balcony facing the quiet side of the house, and notably Satellite TV with more Austrian and Bavarian TV channels than Italian ones.

The convenience of a 3 minute walk from the bus stop was indispensable, and needless to say one could always count on ginormous Austrian-style breakfasts to be served in subalpine South Tyrol. However as I pointed out, St. Magdalena wasn't an ideal base in retrospect due to the lack of a supermarket at the village centre, and that the only walk-in restaurant (Edelweiss) apparently stops serving food around 19:30, based on our experience of walking in one night looking for dessert.

That said, we did thoroughly enjoy our time in the serene valley of Villnöss, worlds away from our 9-to-5 job in the city. Passing by St. Magdalena's fire station I came across the most beautiful vintage fire engine, in pristine condition and probably still ready for action if called upon. Is that a Mack? Please leave me a comment if anyone knows the history of this vehicle.

This concludes our four easy hikes in four days in the Dolomites, certainly one of my favorites among the outspread and distinct regions of Italy. The next morning we would begin another segment of our 23-day journey with a 3.5 hour train trip from German-speaking Brixen to the Italian heartland of Emilia-Romagna, spending the next 3 nights in historic Bologna.