Vienna Calling

There are many good reasons why visit Vienna. These two were a big draw for us this spring:

Two posters announcing great exhibitions in Albertina Gallery in Vienna

The grand imperial city, poetically located in a draught position between the East and the West, saluted us with grey skies and clear, cool air washed by spring rain that we, as it seemed, have just luckily avoided. Not that we cared, really, we came to have a good time. And were served accordingly.

Doors leading to Palmenhaus in Vienna

I dare you to open the door.

It was on one of our walks that I detected my first peonies this year, not really altogether there yet but showing great potential.

View of Burggarten in Vienna: first peonies in bloom

Our every trip gets latticed by food and Vienna has some lovely offerings, I can tell you that:

Delicious meal of tafelspitz in restaurant Plachutta in Vienna, Austria

I start craving the Tafelspitz as soon as we set the date for a Vienna trip. There’s something homely about it but very Austrian indeed: freshly made from local produce, very filling but definitely unskippable. I’d like my horseradish sauce more piquant but I don’t complain at all. I down four servings of delicious broth before you can say Jack Robinson. Then, the rest of the meal.

You’d have to be downright crazy to miss the wonderful Esterhazy cake or Milchrahmstrudel at Demel’s afterwards.

Cakes and coffee at Demel, Vienna

The quintessential coffee served the old-fashioned way (and the only proper way for that matter) at Meinl’s am Graben will spruce you up again.

Coffee break at Meinl am Graben in Vienna

Back to business, both exhibitions are just wonderful. Each of them gave me a light headache, in a good sense. The Russians’ works of art are clearly beautiful and powerful, the German’s clearly huge and impressive. The stories the art tells are universal: the past lurks from behind the present however much we try to pretend to ignore it, influences it heavily, always using the language of art as a vehicle to prod in our faces, and our intellect, to stimulate our brain and cast the light on the path we’re treading now. We’ve been here before, the humankind, we should know better.

 

Wonderful painted ceiling at Museumsquartier, Vienna

Since Vienna has always been artistically and culturally savvy there are many choices. It’s down to your tastes and wallet condition (highly acclaimed classical musicians and artist, that are the essence of Vienna, come at a price) and how far in advance you start to plan (Staatsoper and Musikverein events sell our quite fast). Anyway, there are always very good exhibitions, national (Klimt anyone? Schiele? Kokoschka?) or international, taking place in the many fabulous museums and galleries. The MuseumsQuartier is an example of how well art can be incorporated into city’s everyday. So, there are always many options to explore.

There’s obviously more to Vienna than this but, mind you, it’s only been a sleepover. We’ll be back soon enough.

 

More info (selected):

www.albertina.at

http://www.mqw.at/en/

https://www.plachutta.at/en/home/

www.demel.at

http://www.meinlamgraben.at/Home

www.wiener-staatsoper.at

https://www.musikverein.at

http://www.kameel.at/

PS

When planning a weekend in Vienna please consider that everything, and I mean everything, is closed on Sundays. The Austrians still have it the old way: they work up to 6 PM on Saturdays, after that it’s weekend for all. So, Saturday is for shopping and eating, Sunday for art and outdoors.

 

 

The Land Where Lemons Grow

I read some very good books in the past few months but the first prize, so far, goes to The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee. The way by which I was pulled into its contents is to put it mildly empowering.

Lemons in a bowl

Using the TV analogy, it’s the grandest documentary on such a prosaic subject as citrus growing. Well, as prosaic as a book on growing anything might be, actually, to a person not deeply connected with soil and its produce but only (or at least) caring about the simple facts of life: one has to drink, one has to eat, one has to sleep.

It’s much more than this; it is a monument to citrus and to Italy and what it represents. It is about the long and hard travels of the fruit, its holistic meaning through the eras of wealth and despair on every leg of the journey and how valuable it’s been to people.

There are thousands of different varieties of citrus but they all evolved out of three respectable ancestors. A few of the varieties have had a very special place within culturally and economically diverse parts of Italy and they still do. Citrus is an essential part of Italy, now I’m certain of it. Some of the most magical places in Italy are home to a child of a citrus family: Amalfi coast, Liguria, Sicily, Calabria, Garda, Tuscany. To every true lover of Italy this book is a must-read.

A book cover of The Land Where Lemons Grow

In practically every bar in Italy you can have a spremuta d’arancia, a freshly squeezed orange juice. There’s no doubt Italians have a very special relationship with them. Citrus rulz.

The writing is very gentle and well-balanced. The reader immerses in jaw-droppingly interesting stories about the Arabs, the Normans, the Jews, the Mafia, the Austrians and the Medici among others, and about the actual people of now, living their hard working lives surrounded by fabulous smell of zagara and delicious food. The book is also very informative: there are many historical and scientific facts along with the tender details about the food (rare ice-cream find in Turin or pasta with Amalfi lemons) and the landscape – it is certainly not your typical food book.

I will never again take poor old lemons or blood oranges & co. for granted. Before, I never really truly thought about them, consider them, you know. They’re simply always there at your disposal, omnipresent. But now I find myself even looking at them at the greengrocers’ with an attitude. I wonder about their provenance, the smell of their pre-fruit blossom, the vivid colours of their bumpy skins.

I’m a faithful reader of books: I never go on a trip without one and there is always more than one on my bedside cabinet. I cannot imagine going to sleep without reading at least half a page (I’m being joked about my waning reading stamina before turning in), I suppose reading is a sleeping pill to me, in a good sense, it makes my dreams more colourful. This book was a very pleasant companion and it takes a special place on the shelf.

 

When Is the Best Time to Visit Venice?

Anytime. Really. Well, a proper downpour might not be the desired weather to accompany you but any other choice of weather is just fine. Just go.

One of numerous canals in Venice with parking slots for gondolas
One of numerous canals in Venice with parking slots for gondolas

I’ve been a faithful returning visitor for the best part of my life and I’ve never grown tired of it. Been there countless of times, on day trips, for a couple of days or just a night, summer, winter or spring, slept in desirable luxurious old school hotels by Grand Canal or in shabby pensioni at the end of a scary dark and damp calle, by train, bus or car, and it still overwhelms me every time. It must be the most magical place in the world. I’ve been quite lucky to have so many opportunities to see and feel La Serenissima, I know, and I am grateful for it. Every time another visit is planned I’m just as impatient to get there as a child promised a toy. Once there, it’s pure joy, content and tranquilita.

One of my favourite views during any careless stroll through Venice in Castello, one of the Venetian sestrieri
One of my favourite views during any careless stroll in Castello, one of the Venetian sestrieri

I can clearly remember my first time in Venice. There was an aunt in our extended family that was very dear to us all. She never married and had no family of her own, thus she was very fond of my brother and me, her favourite nephew’s offspring. She considered us two treasures: we were allowed more when we were in her care than at our grandparents’ (not to mention the parents), she was never restrictive, never resentful and always in a good mood despite innumerable broken glasses, vases and decorative lamps. She always had a great story up her sleeve to calm us down after rioting in her wonderful apartment. She would take me to cinema and buy me exquisite pieces of clothing. She took me to holidays on the beach every summer until I finished primary school where she let me harvest the mussels off the rocks on the beach and have them for dinner. Although appalled at the sight of slimy orangey flesh within the black shell, she did try one just to please me. Aunt Olga was a woman who was invited to dine in the most elegant Parisian restaurants, travelled the world, probably had a fair number of suitors yet kept her life simple, modest and devoted to us. When I was 9 or 10 she decided it was time I saw Venice. So we went.

Grand Canal of Venice in a timeless view from Accademia bridge
Grand Canal of Venice in a timeless view from Accademia bridge

It was summer and the sky was as blue as it gets, it was most likely packed with tourists, noisy and what not, but we had a marvellous time. Although I went to Venice a myriad of times after that it was with her that I had my one and only gondola ride. We had lunch in a restaurant overlooking a canal, the dining room lined with heavy velvet curtains in burgundy, the tables set with thick tablecloth so that no noise was produced when a glass was put on the table, very romantic and elegant. We saw all the basic sights, St Mark’s, Rialto, Campanile, Orologio, the pigeons. It was a beautiful trip.

So, don’t hesitate if contemplating a trip, don’t waste too much time on planning what to see and how to squeeze it all in, just go and feel it. Spend time on the walkways, look up to spot the wonderful altanas, enjoy glimpses of hidden courtyards behind rotten walls, breathe in the smelly, salty air and watch the way locals shop at greengrocers’ around the corner or have a glass of aperitivo before dinner. Just go.

A lonely wisteria adorning a calle in Venice

 

Pigeons are a longtime trademark of Venice

A winter fog over Piazza di San Marco and Il Campanille
A winter fog over Piazza di San Marco and Il Campanille

Jump!

I felt a last minute sensation the second I caught a glimpse of the almond tree in its final blossoming stage. At the same time I felt grateful for that occasion. It was rather late in the season, after all.

Blossoming almond tree

But the rewards on our trip to the coast were great nevertheless. There were blossoming peach trees galore and glorious magnolias of different shapes, colours and sizes aplenty. Wisterias have already woken up from their hibernation and proudly displayed their fat buds, which were just about to explode in fragrant bloom.

The day itself was as fresh as a daisy, bright and colourful just as the market day before Palm Sunday. A splash of colour all around.

A colourful market stall before Palm Sunday

The air was dense and heavy with sea salt, a little bit hazy but quite warm: neither coat needed nor the gloves.

Early spring mist over the sunset

The hedgerows and garden trees have already been trimmed, all ready for the Easter time show-off. The land work must have already started too although the fields even now, in the first days of spring, looked abandoned and cast-aside. I guess the soil needs more sun and its warmth to be ready for a serious makeover.

The birds were happy to perform for whoever wanted to listen, a brisk vivace at one moment and a joyful allegro at the next. It was a good day, breaking out of the ordinary for a while. Can’t wait for spring to jump out of the closet!

The tree top in early spring full of chirping birds

More Sunshine Please

A plate of delicious spaghetti and a bowl of green salad

It’s been a typical winter day, the kind that one tends to forget all about even before it’s over. Half light half grey, not too cold but humid, anticipating the deterioration and turning to rain before the night creeps in. Not complaining at all, it’s pitch-perfect for my favourite pastime: reading.

We did manage to do a couple of rounds on the slopes though and filled our lungs with fresh pine tree smelling air for a pleasant aromatherapy momentum. On our last ascent on the chairlift we already contemplated the bookworms’ evening. We had to take care of more prosaic necessities first. The lunch.

And what a great lunch it was! Simple yet fragrant and full of sun and d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s. It’s as simple as your ABC can be, as is the case with so many Italian dishes but it’s the execution that requires attentiveness.

Boil a lot of water in your pasta pentola. While the pot is warming up, skin the lemon off its zest with a potato peeler and cut it, the zest, into thin hair-like stripes. (Save the lemon in the refrigerator and use it the next morning before breakfast squeezed in a glass of tepid water.) Marvel at the fabulous fragrance for a second or two. (The recipe requires a grater, which I didn’t have at hand but cutting it up is just fine. Especially if someone more diligent and patient is willing to help.) Then chop up a handful of parsley (in the same thin stripes fashion as the zest) and take chilli/peperoncini container out of your pantry. Get the man of the house pour you a glass of some fine preferably Italian red. (Although whatever you might prefer will do. Just keep in mind that cooking your meal is a matter of enjoyment not torture.) Warm up some olive oil in the pan over low heat and add to it a smashed clove of garlic and a smashed chilli/peperocino (If using dried version. Otherwise chop a fresh one up). Low temperature is key. Stir occasionally. By this time the water must be boiling already, add a couple of spoons of salt to it, stir and add spaghetti. Don’t forget to set a timer according to the required cooking time. Half way through add the lemon zest and parsley to the garlic-chilli pan, stir now and then, all still at low temperature. Just a minute before the spaghetti are done, fork them out to the pan with garlic-chilli-zest-parsley mixture, fold it gently, add some cooking liquid, turn the temperature to high for a minute and stir in a knob of butter in the end. Done. Serve with a bowl of fresh leaf salad that was prepared beforehand (and preferably by the same helpful person that chopped the zest and took care of the wine).

It felt as if sunshine had stepped in our dining room for a moment in now already bleak winter afternoon: simple, fulfilling and delicious.

After that it was couch only. With a book of course.

 

I happen to check some food blogs on more or less regular basis because I quite like to cook but need a bit more than the regular fact-stating recipe. I like the eloquence of a handful of authors/bloggers I like to check up on. One of them, and the more recent addition to my lot, is an English/Roman/Sicilian rose Rachel Roddy (https://racheleats.wordpress.com) that I check on The Guardian occasionally as well. The recipe that brightened our day is by her. Thank you.