Asolo, Italy

I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have two parents hailing from opposite ends of the same country. The north and south of Italy couldn’t be more different, and I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to see both. Mum’s side of the family are from the north, up near Venice, so I really wanted to show some of the little towns and villages in the area that most people who visit Venice never get to. While the island is obviously incredible, I wonder how many people would kick themselves if they knew what they were missing on the mainland…

Asolo is one of those little towns up in the foothills of the Dolomites that you picture when you think to yourself “how gorgeous it must be to hire a car and just drive and explore little medieval cobblestoned villages.” Dating back to pre-Roman times, Asolo has been around for a very long time, and hopefully won’t be going anywhere soon. And getting there is as easy as leaving the Venice islands for the mainland and hiring a car.

With cobbled streets, creeping greenery, delicious food in windows, remainders of medieval buildings, and seriously stunning views, it’s easy to see why so many artists and writers find their way there. Dame Freya Stark, explorer, traveller and writer, was one of those – she visited Asolo for the first time in 1923, eventually retired there, and passed away a few months after her 100th birthday there. That’s her villa in the photo below…

Asolo is one of those towns that managed to retain all of its old-world charm while Venice was being slowly commercialised and destroyed by tourism. They don’t get a heap of visitors, comparatively, and it’s so much more beautiful for that (so if you visit it, please do so respectfully!) – it’s the sort of place you want to find a little table balanced on cobblestones to sit at while you drink wine, a place you’d want to visit with a sketch book and pencil, even if you can’t draw. The fact that there isn’t a heap of big tourist attractions to see and do there is what makes it such a great place to visit as a break from the chaos that can be Venice.

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Around The World In 18 Museums

I’m a bit (a lot) of a history geek, and its International Museum Day tomorrow, so I thought I’d take a look at some of the best museums husband and I have seen on our travels. They’re an easily overlooked activity when you’re travelling because they have a reputation for being boring (probably because a lot of kids were dragged to them against their will at school), but there are soooo many different types of museums out there that are a hell of a lot more fun than what you did back in year 5!

Top left: Banff Park Museum -Top right: Chicago History Museum – Bottom left: Museum at Mondragon Palace in Ronda – Bottom right: Saga Museum in Reykjavík

1. Banff Park Museum, Banff, Canada
91 Banff Ave, Banff
https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ab/banff/index
Cost: free
This museum looks at animals of all sorts native to the area (like elk, mountain goats, bears, wolves). It also has some gorgeous geological displays of stones and crystals and random curiosities donated by locals. And on the way out, for bonus points, there’s a beautiful library!

2. Chicago History Museum, Chicago, USA
1601 N Clark Street, Chicago
http://www.chicagohs.org/
Cost: USD$16.00 per person
This was like walking through a history book in the best possible way. I learned more than expected to about Chicago’s history, random things like how the city flag came to be, and about the incredible work of Vivian Maier, which I’m not obsessed with.

3. Museum at Mondragon Palace, Ronda, Spain
Plaza Mondragon, Ronda
http://www.museoderonda.es/
Cost: €3.00 per person
This old Moorish palace has been renovated and restored, and given new life as a natural history museum. A lot of the ceiling and tile details are original, and the garden (while small compared to some of the other palaces) is stunning.

4. Saga Museum, Reykjavík, Iceland
Grandagarður 2, Reykjavík
https://www.sagamuseum.is/
Cost: 2.200kr per person
This is like a history picture book come to life – with an audio guide to talk you through, you walk through the museum’s displays of figures (all crafted based on descriptions found in the Viking sagas and chronicles), demonstrating events from Iceland’s history.

Top left: Guinness Storehouse in Dublin – Top right: Mardi Gras World in New Orleans – Bottom left: DDR Museum in Berlin – Bottom right: Czech Beer Museum in Prague

5. Guinness Storehouse, Dublin, Ireland
St James’s Gate, Ushers, Dublin
https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en
Cost: €17.50 per person
I’m not a beer drinker, and I still had a blast here! Yes, you get to go through a proper tasting session, and learn how to pour the perfect pint, and enjoy said pint in the rooftop bar with a killer view over Dublin, but it’s also a multi-level museum looking at everything from the beer creation process to it’s many marketing campaigns.

6. Mardi Gras World, New Orleans, USA
1380 Port of New Orleans Place
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/
Cost: USD$20.00 per person
You can read more about our visit to Mardi Gras World here, but basically it’s a tour through one of the warehouses the Kern family use to create the incredible parades floats. You’ll get to see the props and some floats, as well as getting a peek at some of the artists at work.

7. DDR Museum, Berlin, Germany
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1, Berlin
https://www.ddr-museum.de/en
Cost: €5.50 per person
This is an incredibly interactive museum, encouraging visitors to open cupboards, sit in cars, and listen to the sounds coming through the headphones. You’ll get a disconcerting taste of life in war-time East Germany, including being able to walk through a full “apartment” and rifling through the kitchen, bedrooms and lounge room.

8. Czech Beer Museum, Prague, Czech Republic
Husova 241/7, Prague
http://beermuseum.cz/
Cost: 280CZK per person
Again, not a beer drinker, so this was mostly for husband’s benefit, but turned out it was a really cool little museum! It covered the history of beer, had some crazy beer collections (bottles, labels, model trucks), and at the end of the tour, you received 4 beers to sample. Not little 30ml sips, but full glasses of beer. Enjoy!

Top left: MOMA in New York – Top right: Bier & Oktoberfest Museum in Munich – Bottom left: Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome – Bottom right: Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan

9. Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA
11 W 53rd St, New York, USA
https://www.moma.org/
Cost: USD$25.00 per person
It shouldn’t need much of an introduction – this is THE place to go for art in New York. The modern exhibits change regularly, but honestly, my favourite pieces were the classics like Monet’s Water Lilies and Van Gogh’s Starry Night – you see these in magazines and art textbooks at school, but in real life, they’re something else.

10. Bier & Oktoberfest Museum, Munich, Germany
Sterneckerstraße 2, Munich
http://www.bier-und-oktoberfestmuseum.de/en
Cost: €4.00 per person
This little museum lives in an old (when I say old, I mean from the 1300s) townhouse, accessible by a 500-year old wooden staircases, over a few floors. You’ll find an impressive collection of Oktoberfest paraphernalia (mugs, posters, etc), and can sit down to watch a short film about the history of Oktoberfest. Even as a non-beer lover, this was an awesome piece of history to see.

11. Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, Italy
Lungotevere Castello, 50, Rome
http://castelsantangelo.beniculturali.it/
Cost: €14.00 per person
It took me three visits to Rome, but I finally got to Castel Sant’Angelo! It’s had a few lives, originally built as a mausoleum, and also serving as a fortress and castle before turning into a museum. The most stunning part of the museum are the paintings, Renaissance era frescoes, which have been preserved almost perfectly. Even if you’re not an art lover, they’re worth seeing. Speaking of worth seeing, make it all the way to the top and you’ll be rewarded with one hell of a view.

12. Totem Heritage Centre, Ketchikan, USA
601 Deermount Street, Ketchikan
https://www.ktn-ak.us/totem-heritage-center
Cost: USD$5.00
It’s not a huge museum, but the history it holds is massive. It holds some of the city’s most previous totem poles, as well as other native artifacts (think intricate hand-beaded purses and ornaments).

 

And, because this wasn’t our first (nor will it be our last!) adventure, here are a few more museums worth checking out that we’ve found on our travels…

– Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C., USA
– The Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt

Stay here: The Art Inn, Florence, Italy

The Art Inn
6, Piazza di San Lorenzo, Florence
http://theartinn.com

Once we realised we’d be in Florence for New Year’s Eve, husband and I thought we’d better to book our accommodation in ASAP – it’s not the biggest city in the world, but young people from all over Tuscany come flooding in for it and we didn’t want to miss out on somewhere to sleep!

We vetoed Airbnb and decided to treat ourselves to an actual hotel to ring in the new year. A bit of searching and comparing prices led me to The Art Inn, and I was super sceptical – it seemed too cheap for what t promised. Turns out my scepticism was completely unfounded.

The Art Inn brand is only a few years old, starting in 2013 in Lisbon, and having expanded now to Florence, Seattle and Rotterdam. The concept is boutique hotel specifically located in an area of the city central to both major attractions and public transport, and decorated with art work inspired by the city. Florence is home to some really beautiful art, so it seems like an obvious choice to set up one of their hotels there. So why stay there?

Location. Unbeatable. A few minutes walk from Florence’s main train station and right on the doorstep of the San Lorenzo Market and Il Duomo.

Room size. Enormous! After spending the last several weeks in tiny European apartments and hotel rooms, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we were taken to our room. Very spacious, every room has its own unique pieces of art to admire. And the space doesn’t stop in the room – bathrooms are massive, too..

Amenities. Free wifi, an excellent breakfast included at a cafe a few doors down, in room mini bar, complimentary bottle of water, tea and coffee, tv, iPod dock, toiletries hairdryer. And there’s an absolutely beautiful library/reading room for guests to relax in.

Service. Every email was answered within a few hours, and no question was too silly. We were greeted with a smile and a “hello” every time we left and returned . And when we realised the week before visiting that we had no restaurant reservation for New Year’s Eve dinner, I emailed the hotel, and we had a table at one of the best restaurants in town half an hour later.

Value for money. We stayed for 3 nights over the New Year’s period, with a cafe breakfast included every morning, and paid around AUD $650.00.

Eat here: Flavio Al Velavevodetto, Rome, Italy (Italian)

Flavio Al Velavevodetto
Via di Monte Testaccio 97, Rome
http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/en/home

In Rome’s Testaccio district, the ex-garbage dump of the ancient Romans (literally, there’s a hill around the corner from here that we found while walking around to kill time before lunch that was made from broken Roman terracotta), where the tourists rarely venture, is a bowl of pasta that is the stuff of legends.

It’s a dish that’s just now gaining momentum and becoming trendy (god help us), and it’s so simple it sounds downright boring, made with only three ingredients: pasta, cheese and pepper. Seriously – that’s it. Well, it’s not, there’s a real art to it, and Elizabeth will explain it to you better than I can if you want to take a quick detour to her blog.

I knew we were eating cacio e pepe when we visited Rome, and there’s only one person I trusted to recommend the right place to eat it – and Elizabeth Minchilli didn’t let me down. Having seen a ridiculous number of bowls of this dish on her Instagram account in the year leading up to our trip, all from the same restaurant, it was decided we’d make the trip out to Testaccio to visit Flavio’s.

The restaurant itself is one of those you’d-miss-it-if-you-weren’t-looking-for-it kind of places. No big flashy signs out the front, no neon lights in the shape of pasta bowls, just a little gated courtyard with the name clearly printed above it.

We rolled in right on opening time, because we heard it got busy fast – it did. The place is surprisingly big inside, with several dining areas seperated by walls and corridors. The tables were laid with crisp white linen, and the staff gave the immediate impression of being a very well-oiled machine, to the point of being almost mechanical – I’m guessing the Roman regulars have a bit of a warmer welcome, though.

I knew what I wanted to try well before I saw the menu – cacio e pepe, obviously. A deep fried artichoke. And pasta carbonara. Oh, and a bottle of wine, because, when in Rome…

I’m used to my family’s artichokes, which are marinated in oil and herbs (and are very good), so a deep fried one was very different – and so, so good. The petals were like salty little artichoke chips, and the heart was still soft and sweet underneath all that crunchiness. Perfect starter, clearly, because every other table in the room had one, too.

Then came the pasta – the tonnarelli (like fat spaghetti) cacio e pepe did not disappoint. Perfectly al dente pasta smothered in cheese and pepper is a thing of beauty. Husband said it was the best bowl of pasta he’s ever eaten. Again, a clear winner, because every table seemed to have at least one bowl of this.

The other bowl of pasta I chose was rigatoni carbonara. This is one of my favourite meals, but I don’t order it at home, because most restaurants don’t know how to make it. Contrary to popular belief, carbonara is not made with cream; it’s made with eggs. So when restaurants make it with cream and call it “authentic Italian,” it makes my blood boil. But here, they make it right, with eggs. And guanciale (cured pork jowl, one of my favourite meaty things). And more cheese. And let me tell you, even though it may not look like much, that was the best bowl of pasta I’ve ever eaten (sorry, Nonna).

We washed it all down with what was left of the bottle of wine, used the contents of the complimentary bread basket to mop up what was left of the sauces, rolled out the front door and continued to talk about lunch for the next three days. If you’re only going to eat pasta at once place in Rome, make sure it’s at Flavio’s. And that’s coming from an Italian.

Eat here: S.Forno Panificio, Florence, Italy (bakery)

S.Forno Panificio
Via Santa Monaca 3r, Florence
http://t.ilsantobevitore.com

My auntie is a wonderful artist; she often travels to Italy to paint (because it’s impossible to not be inspired by such a gorgeous country), which means she has plenty of opportunities to find some real hidden gems. When I told her we’d be visiting Florence again, she told me I had to go to S.Forno. She was right.

The beautiful little bakery we found actually looked like it’d be more at home in Fitzroy or Collingwood than a tiny side street in Florence, but the retro decor and feel isn’t just fabricated to be reminiscent of the past. This is actually an old bakery that’s been rescued from certain doom by an enterprising  group of people…

The space has been a forno (bakery) for over 100 years. For the past 40 years, baker Angelo has walked into the store every morning to prepare freshly baked bread for the local Florentines. But something happened lately. After years of 7-day weeks and 18-hour days Angelo needed time beyond the bakery business and local restaurant team behind the successful Il Santo Bevitore came to the rescue. Partnering with Angelo, they have brought the business, but kept the baker, to ensure its place in the neighbourhood is secure for the future.
                                                                            – Lost in Florence

The daily offerings were written up on a chalkboard behind the counter, and assorted baskets were filled with loaves of bread. The front counter’s display case was filled with a mixed bunch of cake trays topped with an assortment of sweet treats, and the air smelt like freshly baked bread. Heaven. Husband and I were told the food was delicious and it didn’t disappoint; we ate cauliflower quiche and a prosciutto-topped slice of foccacia for lunch, and they were divine. While we ate, we watched customer after customer come through the door and leave with arms full of fresh bread.

We weren’t ready to leave after lunch; the atmosohere and people watching was too good. Sitting in there felt like total immersion in Florentine life, and we couldn’t have been happier to be sitting in the middle of it. Also, the sweets looked too good to leave without sampling.

Just to be clear, this is not a coffee shop. There’s no fancy espresso machine or 2 page caffeine menu. The focus is on the dough. But they are kind enough to offer some self-service, stock-standard American coffee and boiling water for tea, so we grabbed some of that and chose two typically Tuscan desserts – a baked rice cake, and a piece of castagnaccio, made from chestnut flour, rosemary, pine nuts and raisins.

Don’t be fooled by the nondesctipt façade; the service and atmosohere are both so warm and welcoming, and the food is some of the best in the city. It seems that they’ve arrived at the perfect balance between old traditon and new innovation, and that should earn them a visit when you’re next in Florence!

Through my eyes: Siena, Italy

When we talk about Tuscany, everyone’s heard of Florence. But not quite as many people know Siena. And the few who do generally only know it for the horse race held there every year, the Palio – horses topped with bareback riders race around the Piazza del Campo in an ode to the times of old. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, maybe this scene from Quantum of Solace will ring a few bells.

But I’m not talking about the Palio this morning, because there’s so much more to Siena than a horse race. The beautiful little city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1995, still looks every bit the picture book medieval town it probably was back in 30AD when the Romans plonked a military outpost there. There are uniform terracotta roofs as far as the eye can see, those beautiful but somewhat difficult to walk upon cobbled paths, and symbolic and religious iconography around every corner. There’s also the incredible Tuscan food, the sweet little corner stores, the steeply sloped alley ways that you just have to wander up and down, and the best door knockers you’ve ever seen.

Welcome to Siena, through my eyes 🙂

Shop here: Libreria Acqua Alta, Venice, Italy

Libreria Acqua Alta
Where? Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, 5176/B, 30122 Venice
When? Open daily 09:00 – 20:00

If you’ve ever been to Venice in the colder months, you’ll have no doubt seen what looks like trestle tables stacked up in random corners of the city (go on, Google it – I’ll wait). The city is not perpetually prepared for a giant street party; it’s ready for acqua alta.

When the tide rises, the waters of the Adriatic Sea come roaring in, and poor little Venice dips even further under water for a while! Those trestle tables go up to be used as elevated walkways (called passarelle), and everyone tries to keep their belongings and merchandise dry.

Luigi found a novel solution for the bookshop he named after this natural inconvenience, which he opened in 2004 – he put his books in water proof bins, small boats, bathtubs, even a gondola, parked in the middle of the store. When you open a store full of books on an island that’s slowly sinking, you have to take some extreme precautions!

It’s a haphazardly arranged shop with both new and old tomes, a fire escape that leads to a canal, and a stairway to heaven made of old books with one hell of a view from the top. The staff member I spoke to, while not terribly friendly, did speak English and was able to point me in the right direction. There are some books in English, French, Spanish – mostly they’re in Italian, though. There’s really not much else to write about this place that other bloggers haven’t already So, here’s another set of photos from this little piece of heaven, because how could you possibly get sick of looking at these?!