Onward to France

IMG_20171023_143111 Part of Europe’s magic is that you can get on a train in the morning and be in a completely different country in the afternoon, complete with a different language and very different views on how the same batch of ingredients should be prepared to make food. We’re moving on to France today, via train through the Southern Alps. I am unsure of where Italy ends and France begins. On this side of the EU, borders are easy, imperceptible. And the landscape looks the same: sun-drenched fields and mountains clothed in vegetation showing the first hints of fall foliage in yellow and red.

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We disembark at Chambery and catch a local train to Grenoble. The scenery rolls by effortlessly again and I can’t help but think that Europe seems so very small.

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Less than 24 hours in Milan

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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We have arrived later than we hoped in Milan thanks to the Phantom Train fiasco, with our train on to France departing in ~20 hours. Which is a shame, because it turns out Milan is gorgeous and everything I wanted in a city: walkable and beautiful.

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The plaza of the Duomo Cathedral
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The Disco di Arnaldo Pomodoro
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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
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Evening commute at dusk
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Milan bokeh!

Milan also has a Chinatown! With some actually good Chinese food!

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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
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Bubble Tea in Milan

It really is too bad the new EMA HQ didn’t end up here.

Phantom trains in Italy

 

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The Verona-bound phantom train in question.

If you ever need to take the train from San Martino Buon Albergo to Verona, or really from any town to a city nearby, double check where you’ll be catching the train. Or maybe just take the bus.

 

We bought tickets to go from San Martino Buon Albergo to Milan and the day of our trip we sat at the train station waiting a train to Verona, our first point of transfer. We watched the name of our train creep up the arrivals board as it grew closer to departure time. We made friends with a few other tourists who were also waiting for the same train. But the train just never came. The train number passed up and off the board while we eyed the tracks and took turns running out to the parking lot because maybe, just maybe it was actually a bus? None ever came.

 

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Waiting.

 

Ten minutes after our supposed departure time, I ran back to a nearby café to see if they knew what was up. They confusedly pointed me back to the train station. “It hasn’t arrived,” I told them. They were baffled.

We gave up on the train and caught a bus to Verona, now half an hour late for our train to Milan. We had a train to catch the following day from Milan to Grenoble, France. And that would be an expensive ticket to buy again.

 

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On the bus to Verona. At least some transit is available, though we’re going to be late.

 

The bus dropped us off at the Verona train station, where we prepared ourselves to argue our case with a Trenitalia attendant. But the guy at the ticket kiosk took one look at our tickets, heard our story, and after punching some numbers into the computer, handed us new tickets. And the phantom train that never came? The attendant shrugged his shoulders and remarked that he didn’t know what happened either.

Slow time (San Martino Buon Albergo)

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We lived for a week in an Airbnb’d apartment in San Martion Buon Albergo, passing the time in writing and walking the town. The world has begun to hint at a change in seasons, with drifting mists across the fields and cold tile floors in the mornings. We have chased summer south and north for almost a year; but as we slow, winter gains.

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We take this time to rest, letting the time slip by in local cafes over 1 € espressos and in walks through town. It slips through cracks in the windowsill and evaporates in the bubbling water as we boil pasta for dinner, our staple in a town with a local shop that sells fresh pasta.

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We make one day trip to Verona, the nearest city and setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tourists come here to propose to each other on Juliet’s balcony and to leave their names scratched onto adhesive bandages plastered on the walls of the balcony’s courtyard. The sky is overcast as we visit the towering, angel guarded tombs of the city’s powerful Renaissance families. The sky remains gray as we sit on a patio overlooking the Adige River, watching the water drift past over another 1 € espresso.

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One warm afternoon I discover a praying mantis on the ground outside the apartment. It twists over its articulated joints, serpentine-esque eyes tracking me warily. I pick it up to examine it and place it on a nearby bush. It inches off into the brush, swaying unevenly like a twig in the wind, though there is none. In a few minutes it is gone. Soon we’ll be gone too.

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The Truffle Festival of Sant’Agata Feltria

(In Three Acts)

I: Dawn

Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I  can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.

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Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.

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Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.

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Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.

II: Day

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When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.

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We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.

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The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.

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III: Dusk

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We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.

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Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?

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For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.

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As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”

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Afterward:

A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.

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Mostar

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A lone person traverses the Stari Most in the morning.

A couple hours’ bus ride west of Sarajevo, the city of Mostar is a point of pride for the country. When we asked people in Sarajevo where else we should visit, the answer was also “Mostar, because it’s beautiful.”

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One of the old buildings in the downtown, at dusk.

Situated on the aquamarine Neretva River, Mostar’s most famous landmark and namesake is the Stari Most (Old Bridge), a 16th century Ottoman Bridge made of silken white stone. Destroyed in the Bosnian War, Stari Most was reconstructed with the help of the U.N. Protections Force and funding from several countries, in part using stones from the original bridge that were fished out of the Neretva. Local tradition of jumping off the bridge as a right of passage for men has morphed into a tourism attraction, and on a lucky day you’ll see a tourist or two taking the plunge. The bridge is also now a stop on Red Bull’s Cliff Diving World Series.

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Staring down into the Neretva River.
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Stari Most at night.

The downtown area is a tourist hotspot, with market stalls packed full of souvenirs, artisan shops, and restaurants. Most of touristic good sold are likely made elsewhere, but if you find a craftsman at work then you’re likely getting the real deal. Hand-hammered copper reliefs and Turkish coffee sets* make ideal take-home gifts, so as you walk through the marketplace listen for the clink of chisels on metal.

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The touristic downtown market.
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A coppersmiths workshop. Jizve are being molded using lead (silver circle) at left.

Outside the downtown area, the city bustles on, a network of roads full of cars and lined with densely built shops and houses. There are fewer physical signs of the war here; fewer bullet holes or mortar shell scars. The neighborhoods get a bit rougher looking at the city’s edge on the west side, but we had no problems walking through at dusk. If you’re not behaving strangely or wearing anything ostentatious, you’ll probably be left alone.

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The remains of a building.
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Modern cars parked in front of a building, likely damaged in the war and now left to decay.

Oh, and when you’re there be sure to stop by Tima Irma to eat the best kebapci money can buy, served with fresh veggies, cheese, and pita bread. You can even wash it down with a local beer.

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A view at the edge of town.

*A slight word of warning: traditionally, the jizveta are formed by pouring lead into the mold, and then removing it afterward. It’s been done this way for centuries, but if you do get one you might want to test it for lead before using it to make coffee.

**A second slight word of warning: the countryside around here may look dreamy, but don’t wander off into the hills without a guide. Mostar sat at one of the fronts during the Bosnian War and much of the area is still mined.