Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Exploring Lake Bracciano

Lake Bracciano is a lake that used to be a volcano crater. I asked Laura if she was worried about the volcano erupting again, but she said that this particular volcano burnt out a long, long time ago. If you drink a glass of tap water in Rome, you're actually having a glass of Lake Bracciano, because it's the water supply for the whole city. This means that motor boats aren't allowed on the lake, and nobody throws any garbage in; Lake Bracciano is the cleanest lake I've seen in my life!

Even though October in Italy is much warmer than in Ontario, it was still too chilly for us to swim - but not for Polvere! Just look at how much fun he's having retrieving his tennis ball! (If you're wondering what his name means, in English his name would be "Dusty".) I was afraid that he might try to retrieve these ducks, but he was very polite to them.

The streets of Bracciano have cobbles instead of pavement, and the narrow windows often have wooden shutters on the outside instead of blinds or curtains on the inside. From most streets in the town you can see the castle where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had their wedding. It's more than 500 years old. A man named Paul Bril made a painting of the castle around 1620, when it looked like this.

Before we left the town of Bracciano, Laura asked Luca and me if we'd like some gelato. I thought that perhaps gelato was Italian jello, but Laura led us into a cafe with an ice cream counter. There were all sorts of flavours of ice cream, but much brighter than in Canada; it was as if a whole rainbow had fallen into the ice cream tubs. On top of each tub of ice cream was a bit of fruit, so that you could see what the flavour was. I chose peach gelato, and what a flavour it had! That first spoonful made me feel as if somebody had set off a blizzard of peach fireworks, if there can be such a thing, in my mouth.
I guess I was as wrong about gelato being ice cream as I was about it being jello. Gelato and ice cream aren't the same at all. Laura says that ice cream has twice as much air whipped into it. It isn't just the amount of air; gelatos have less cream sugar, and more fruit. They are intense.
On our way home, we stopped to visit some friends of Laura's. I loved their shaggy little pony, and picked handfuls of sweet clover to feed him. He ate them all, and then blew gently in my ears and tickled them with his soft whiskers. He looked lonesome with all those cows; I wish that I could have found him a pony friend to talk to.

Some of the cows have to stay inside all the time, so as to keep clean and tidy. They go to different agricultural shows and compete for all sorts of prizes. They win, too!.

Beside the pasture was an olive tree. I thought that the olives would be black and oily and salty, but instead they looked like this. I tried one, but had to spit it out again when nobody was looking.

On and off through the drive to Lake Bracciano and back to Rome, we saw these zippy little sports cars zooming along the roads. They growl like cougars as they speed up. Luca told me that they are called Ferraris, and are Italy's most famous car. One of them was parked (across two parking spaces), and you can see Luca beside it. Perhaps he's saving his money to buy one when he's all grown up. I've certainly decided that when I grow up, I am most definitely going to tour Italy by Ferrari. My Ferrari will be pink, though.
Meanwhile, it's time to say ciao to Laura and Mario and Luca and Polvere (and the gelatos), and climb back into my envelope after giving Polvere one last hug. Next stop: the island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain. Laura said that I'm going to meet a whole flock of ducks there.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Exploring Rome with Laura and Luca (and Asterix and Obelix)

Hermann bought me a little present before leaving Vienna: a book called Asterix the Gladiator to read in my envelope on my way to Rome. It taught me all about the Romans: they all wear dresses and sandals, like that little guy in a green dress over to the right. Even the soldiers wear dresses. They force prisoners and slaves to train as gladiators and then fight each other in the Coliseum. The Romans all have dinner lying on sofas with the tables in the middle, and when they aren't eating they're driving around Rome in chariots.

Naturally, I couldn't wait to ride in a chariot! When Laura opened my envelope and kissed me (the Italians are just as kissy as the Argentines ... who knew?), I asked her what colour her horses were. "Come and see," she replied. I hurried out of the post office, but no chariot was parked outside. There were no chariots anywhere in sight ... just more boring cars. Not one man was wearing a dress, either. This is what it looked like. All the buildings that Asterix and Obelix saw were there, but mostly they're in ruins and other buildings are in their place now. Laura explained that Asterix and Obelix visited Rome more than 2,000 years ago, and that it's changed a lot since then.

I put on my nightgown and had a little nap, and then we had a delicious supper of fish, mushrooms, salad, and aubergines. Laura and her husband Mario drank Sicilian wine, but I didn't really like it and asked for milk. Then I helped Laura reorganize her kitchen cupboards, and found fruit and currant tea and cookies and something called nutella. Laura gave me a spoonful of nutella to taste .... mmmmmm! Nutella is better than chocolate, better than jam, better than anything! Here's a picture so that you can try some yourself!

After being in the envelope for several days, I wanted to freshen up a bit. The Paragona's bathroom had a Sally-sized bathtub mounted on the wall, but when I asked for a stool to get into it, Laura explained that it isn't exactly a bathtub. It's something called a bidet. You can wash your feet in it, and you use it to wash yourself off after you use the toilet. In fact, here people think that just using toilet paper isn't very ... well ... hygenic.

Luca has a huge map on his bedroom wall, so I showed everyone where Canada is. We're the only country in the world with a giant bird (Hudson's Bay) standing on its head right in the middle!

The Paragona family aren't soccer fanatics ... but they do enjoy watching tennis on TV. Here's a Djokovic-Cilic match. I enjoyed it, but what I really wanted was to find some of the places that Asterix and Obelix visited, so Laura and Luca and I set off.

Our first stop was the barbershop, where Luca had a haircut. I tried out the chair, but decided to skip the haircut - I like my ponytail!

Then we crossed the Tevere River on the Ponte Sant Angelo, or Bridge of Angels. Do you see them all standing along the bridge?

Vatican City is a small city inside Rome, where the Pope lives. This is where the Catholic church is based. We didn't see the Pope, but this street leads to the Vatican. At the end of this street, you can see Saint Peter's Basilica.

We strolled around the Janiculum hill, topped with beautiful old pine trees, and found this lovely white lighthouse. It turned out to have been a present from people who'd moved from Italy to Argentina. They're happy in Argentina, but they wanted to give something back to their mother country.

You can see just all about all of Rome from Janiculum - look at the views!

This building with the clock tower is the City Hall, called the Campidoglio. It was only built a thousand years ago, so Asterix and Obelix never saw it.

They saw these places, though! The Circus Maximus was a racetrack, where up to twelve charioteers could race their chariots. I tried to get Luca to pretend to chariot-race with me, but he didn't really like the idea. Instead, we went over to the Coliseum. I tried to imagine it as Asterix and Obelix would have seen it, with the roars of the crowds, the cries of the street vendors, and the smells of food and animals. This trailer from the movie Gladiator gives you a hint, but I think the whole movie would be too scary for me.

This beautiful road, lined with stone pine trees, is the Via del Mare, or the Sea Road. The Romans travelled along here from Rome to the old seaport of Ostia. To get there, you had to pass through one of the arched gates in the Aurelian Wall. The Romans built this wall all around Rome and her Seven Hills, along with the Campus Martius. The whole circuit is 19 km, so it takes about five hours to walk the perimeter.

All this history made us very hungry, so we stopped at a restaurant and had pizza. After all, Italy is the country where pizza was invented! They make a wood fire in the oven, and then when it's nice and hot they push the embers to one side and pop in the pizza. It smells wonderful!!! On the left is a tomato-mozzarella-mushroom ham pizza, and on the right is a tomato-mozzarella-sausage pizza. The bakers slide them into the oven on a giant metal spatula, and then the pizzas cook right on the bottom of the oven.

Here are two of the bakers preparing the next pizzas. They have a bowl of tomato sauce on the shelf. Down on the marble counter they have the pizza dough, and they're scattering very thin potato slices and shredded mozzarella cheese onto the crusts. Maybe when I come home we can have a pizza party and try to make our own pizzas this way, even if we don't have a wood-fired oven.

I climbed this pomegranate tree to pick our dessert. Remember the story of Persephone taking one bite of pomegranate and having to spend the winters with Hades, down in the underworld? I took really good care that no seeds stuck in my teeth, just in case!

Tomorrow we're doing a road trip to Lake Bracciano, so I think I'll stop here. It's time to to bed and get my beauty sleep!

bacioni (that's Italian for big kisses)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Roof of Austria

This morning it was still dark when I woke up. The lamp in the living room was on, though, and I could smell bacon frying. I padded out in my bunny slippers and nightgown, to find Hermann already dressed and packing a big rucksack on the table.

"What are we doing today?" I asked him.
"Today," he answered, lacing up a very serious pair of hiking boots, "we are climbing Schneeberg."
"What's a Shnayberg?"
"Well,", said Hermann, "it's the tallest mountain in this part of Austria, about 2,000 metres high. The peak has snow on it even in the summer, so its name, Schneeberg, means Snow Mountain. It's best to arrive at dawn, so this morning we're taking the car. Here, take this plate of bacon and onions. Have lots to eat now, because it's going to be another long day. A very Austrian kind of day, so you might want to wear your dirndl again".
I took my plate over to the computer, because the table was still covered with rucksack. I found this website with photos of the mountain, and it looked like a beautiful hike ... but an awfully long way down from the top.

It was still dark when we climbed into the car, but the sky grew lighter as we drove, and presently we could see Schneeberg, grey in the dawn light. "Wow!!" I gasped. "It looks so dark! Is it dangerous to climb?"

"Well, yes," said Hermann. "But not very dangerous - just a little dangerous." So up we went.

I was eager to reach the top, but there were so many other things to do along the way that it was hard to hurry. (I'd forgotten to change out of my bunny slippers, so it was really hard to hurry.) This tree just begged to be climbed, so up I went. Then we met a great patch of fall crocuses, and I lay down in them and admired their mauve cups against the sky. I even found a white crocus, which Hermann says are extremely rare. Very few people have seen an albino fall crocus. There were gentians, too, making a glorious splash of colour in the meadows.
I could have spent the entire day just exploring the wildflowers, but then, I wanted to climb Schneeberg too. I thought we could have lunch on the top, under the big cross. It was a shock when Hermann explained that it would take another four hours to reach the top ... and then of course, we'd have to come all the way back down again!

I really didn't think I was tough enough to climb all day like that. I asked Hermann if we could climb something smaller, so at least we could get a better view of Schneeberg. He said that of course we could. I was expecting more meadows and flowers, but instead we went up this cliff! It went on forever, and my legs started to ache, but eventually we found ourselves at the top of Öhler Peak. I looked around for a cross, like the one on Schneeberg, but there wasn't anything except the view. But what a view! I wanted to lie on my tummy on the edge of the cliff and drink it all in, but it was so windy up here that Hermann was afraid that a gust might blow me right off.
We had a drink from our water bottles and a couple of handfuls of granola while we admired the valleys and woods below. My heel had a blister from all that climbing, but Hermann had plenty of band-aids in his first-aid kit and had me fixed up again in no time. Now we were ready to continue hiking.
After an hour, and a blister on my other heel, we arrived at Schober Peak. This one had a proper cross, and now I felt like a real mountain climber. And you know what? I'm the very first Canadian to climb this peak! An official gave me a special stamp in my passport to mark the occasion - I can't wait to show you all when I come home.
Schober is 1,213 metres above sea level. I tried to convert it into feet, because my granny says her brain goes funny when she has to think in metric. I got really stuck doing it, so I asked Hermann to help. He took a tape measure from his rucksack, measured the length of one of his feet, and said that it would be about 4,719 feet and 8 inches. That didn't seem fair to me, since his feet are so much bigger than mine. So Hermann measured one of my feet instead, and did some more mental math. This was better - now I can say that Schober is 26,086 feet.

A bit reluctantly, we turned our backs on the cross and took a different path down Schober. We had a spectacular view of Schneeberg in the distance.

"How high is Schneeberg in feet?" I asked.
"It's 8,078 Hermann feet and 44,645 Sally feet."
"That's colossal! And how high would Mount Everest be, Hermann? I've decided to be a mountaineer when I grow up, and I'm going to climb every mountain I can find!"
"Well, wait a sec ..... That'd be a good 190,000 of Sally's feet, I suppose."
"That's .... gigantic! Wow!"
Going downhill makes my muscles much more tired than going uphill. Besides, bunny slippers are no substitute for hiking boots, and my toes started to burn and pinch. After a while, they hurt so much that Hermann carried me in his rucksack the rest of the way to the car.
Climbing mountains is awesome! As I did up my seatbelt, I told Hermann that this was the bestest mountain climbing I'd ever done. He reminded me that it was the first mountain climbing I'd ever done, but that doesn't matter - this is still the bestest!
After supper and hot baths, we turned on the television and saw horses doing a sort of ballet. Hermann explained that this is the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, and that these horses are the famous Lipizzaners. I would have liked to see them perform at the Imperial Place, but tomorrow I'm off to Italy to visit Laura. I'm going to miss Hermann (and I can't believe that I was so shy with him the first day) - but I bet he'll be glad not to have to share the TV remote anymore!
Thank you for everything, Hermann! You're the very bestest!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

An October day in Vienna

Today Hermann took me around downtown Vienna, just as he promised. He gets up much later than I do, so I've started watching television very quietly until he wakes up. I don't understand most of it, of course, but it does help me learn German. I particularly like the commercial breaks. This one made me snort milk out my nose, this one made me want to dance around his living room, and this recruiting commercial made me want to learn how to do all those gymnastics!

I tried to do them in the living room, but I accidentally somersaulted onto the sofa and woke Hermann up. He said not to worry, that he'd been meaning to get up anyway, and could I please crawl under the sofa to see if I'd kicked his glasses underneath? Then he made breakfast: bread and butter with honey and cheese, along with some bacon and onions. He calls it his bachelor's special.

First we took the tram again, with its funny bell that sounds like an old alarm clock. Then Hermann said we were going to ride the U-Bahn (Underground) the rest of the way downtown. It's a train that can't make up its mind whether it wants to stay above ground or underground, so it does both. I wish it just stayed above ground. Underneath Vienna, the train gives a long, hideous scream as it accelerates into the tunnels. The first time I heard it, on our way downstairs to the train platform, I thought aliens were attacking Vienna.

It was such a relief to get away from the U-Bahn and walk. Some of the streets were blocked off for a music festival, and we stopped for a few minutes to listen to this duo playing accordion and trombone. I tried to get Hermann to dance, but he said that actually he isn't very keen on this sort of music. Besides, he wanted to show me St. Stephen's Cathedral, which he says every visitor should see.

I thought that this tall building behind the crane was the cathedral, but Hermann said it was just a skyscraper. We passed a building with a little dome on the top that I was sure was the cathedral, but no, that was the Urania theatre.

Before the cathedral came in sight, we found the Vienna River. It isn't a bit like the Danube with its marshes and wooded banks; this poor river is imprisoned on its way through the city. Otherwise it would cause too much flooding in the spring. If you want to get near to the river, you have to descend these rather slippery stone steps. I had a short swim at the bottom, but the water was so cold that didn't stay in for long. Anyway, it was more fun to check out the graffiti. I wonder why Humpty Dumpty is sitting in his underpants shooting out Euros? Hermann said that he didn't have a clue either.

We passed this church with the green dome on its tower as we walked through the Greek quarter. I thought that this must be St. Stephen's cathedral, but it's just a regular church.
Hermann stopped across from a tall brick building with a hexagonal tower on the top. I asked if this was St. Stephen's cathedral, but he said that it was a restaurant and we were having lunch here. I thought he meant the steakhouse, but he took me across the street and we had a traditional Viennese lunch, starting with frittatensuppe, then Wiener Schnitzel, and Mohr im Hemd for dessert. Hermann couldn't finish his dessert, so I helped him out. He said that he had no idea that a third grader could eat so much!

After lunch we met a pair of beautiful grey horses hitched to a carriage. Luckily, Hermann had warned me that we might meet horses, so I'd taken some carrots out of the crisper. I broke off pieces, so that the carrots wouldn't get stuck on the bits, and held them out on the flat of my palm. The horses took the carrots very gently, their whiskers tickly on my palm, and nuzzled my ears and pockets just case I had some more. Their noses were velvety-soft, and their breath sweet and carroty. I did NOT want to say goodbye to them, but part of being a good guest is not making a fuss. I scratched their necks one last time and hugged them goodbye, and then we set off again.
We found this huge black church that looks almost like a Lego structure, except that Lego uses colours. I asked Hermann if black was an evil colour, but he said no, and went gave me this long grown-up explanation about colour. Anyway, this church isn't St. Stephen's Cathedral either.

We found the United Nations headquarters, although I liked the playground better. Then, at last, just when I'd thought Hermann was playing a joke on me, we turned a corner and saw this extraordinary roof. Finally - St. Stephen's Cathedral! Just look at the roof - it must have taken forever to decorate it. It was hard to see, because it had scaffolding all around it. Hermann says that it's continually being repaired. I guess it's so old that it's like my granny, who's on her second artifical hip. St. Stephen is the patron saint of Vienna, so on St. Stephen's Day (December 26th, which we call Boxing Day in Mallorytown) there are all sorts of special events.

After strolling around St. Stephen's, Hermann took me to the Prater amusement park. For some reason, he doesn't like to ride on ferris wheels and roller coasters; he says it makes his tummies feel wobbly. I asked him how many tummies he had, because I could only see one. Hermann replied that roller coaster rides make his tummy multiply into several tummies, and that each one of them gets sick. Ewwww.
I went on the ferris wheel once, and then spent the rest of my euros on the Boomerang roller coaster. Wheeee! It was already after my bedtime when we boarded the U-Bahn again. I was so tired that I fell asleep on Hermann's lap before the train even pulled out of the station. It may have still been shrieking and screaming, but I never heard a thing. I was dreaming about riding the Boomerang.