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Archive for August, 2012

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After refilling the well on the Istrian coast of Croatia, I returned to Italy, to the familiar and beloved hills of Umbria. I spent a summer here two years ago and the country mouse in me was ready to reconnect to the farmland and medieval hill towns. Although neighboring Tuscany gets all the glitz and glory, thanks in big part to a certain book and movie, it is Umbria that has heart.

Actually, I haven’t traveled here enough nor will in my lifetime for this undiscriminating eye to appreciate the idiosyncrasies that make these two regions differ. If you are drawn to the ochre and green fields that form a quilt of hay, olives and grapes against the lavender hills and deep green cypress trees, then you’ll love Umbria. If you marvel at the charms of Cortona, Montepulciano, Siena and the granddaddy Firenze (Florence), then you’ll want to visit Orvieto, Spoleto, Assisi and the little daddy, Perugia.

My home for two weeks is Spello, sitting on a hilltop just south of Assisi. This is small town Italian living. I pass the corner gelateria each morning on my way to my daily hike. The locals are drinking espresso, playing cards, wondering who this American is bopping about. There are several family-owned markets, enotecas with their stacked shelves of wine, art galleries, tourist shops selling the pottery this area is known for, and a selection of cafes with spectacular views to the valley below. I see Assisi with its Basilica honoring St. Francis gleaming in the sunlight.

As I venture through the maze of archways and alleys, past churches and houses, I see centuries of history in the limestone and brick. There is an amazing contrast once you step outside any of the Roman “gates” that mark the entrance to Spello as the realities of modern life begin here. I walked to the SuperConti, a mini Walmart of sorts the other day. It was amazing how quickly I was sucked back into the lure and convenience of prepackaged food and all-in-one shopping. As I worked my way back to my apartment in the old city center, the sky opened up in a much needed glorious rain storm. I ducked into a pizzeria to wait it out. For just a millisecond, I felt a frustration that I couldn’t jump in my car and drive home,

And then I remembered, that is not why I was here. I don’t need a car, I don’t need prepackaged food, or prepackaged anything for that matter. If for only two weeks, all I need are the hills.

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Romance in Rovinj

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I swear, I didn’t mean for it to happen. I didn’t come to Croatia looking for love. OK, maybe in the back of my mind, I hoped, I craved for a summer fling. I had heard it was a place ripe for affairs of the heart, a place for romance and escape. I knew there were many before me that discovered an unsuspecting admiration and yearning to return. I admit, it was love at first sight.

I arrived in Rovinj, a medieval hill town on the coast, in the Istrian region of Croatia, on a Sunday evening, just as the sun was set and the music and rhythm of the evening began to build. Istria is the northwest region of the country, untouched by the war with Serbia. It’s an easy trip, for 70 Euros I took the high speed ferry from Venice. I walked 50 meters down the main dock and smack into a vibrant, harbor front community that wreaked of fresh fish grilling at the festival in the main square, along with the melodic mix of Italian, German, English and Croatian spoken among the tourists, the families and locals. The desire to nestle myself into this enclave for boating, sailing, fishing, art and majestic history was immediate.

The Roman influence is evident, Rovinj was once a Venetian stronghold. Roman ruins dot the coastline towns and web of islands. The white, rocky beaches are meandering coves that run along the coastline. The history and craft of Batana wooden boat building is protected by UNESCO for their durability and continued use. I had the pleasure of a sunset cruise, thanks to the staff at the Batana Boat Museum.

My five days exploring the area, renting a bike to venture along the beaches and paths, touring the National Park island of Brijuni, drinking aperol spritz at the many waterfront cafes was intense and action packed. And isn’t that typical of a new love? It’s overwhelming at first, you can’t get enough of spending time, soaking up all the bliss and anticipation. I’m sure this region has its quirks, it’s downside. But I am willing to accept it for what it is, swim in the newness.

My taste of Croatia was a mere appetizer. I knew I would miss Dubrovnik, Split and the amazing Dalmatian coast. It will have to be a long-distant romance for now. Knowing that the word is getting out about this place, I hope it can retain its uniqueness, it’s eclectic spirit. I’m a hopeless romantic – I will welcome the changes and look forward to the day I come back, for a candle lit, seaside three course meal.

Check out more on Rovinj!

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What does taking a vacation mean to you? Does it have to be to a beach, or foreign country? Or perhaps it’s turning off your cell phone and simply not checking emails from work for two days. I assume vacation means many things to different people.

This week I decided to take a vacation within a vacation. Pretty indulgent, right? But the truth is, I never saw my travels this summer as a vacation in terms of frivolously whiling away my time under a palm tree drinking rum cocktails with paper umbrellas. I guess that’s a very stereotypical take on what many picture as a vacation activity.

Travel, the process of going away and exploring parts unknown, has become an essential part of this artist’s life. Its part of my work, my vocation, how I find inspiration and ideas for educating and sharing with others. It just happens to be the kind of work I happily wake up to every day. But I don’t work 9 to 5 and people assume because I like what I do, it must be a hobby. Unfortunately, anything worth doing, is never easy. I often work for sixteen hours straight, or stretches that run from 2-7 a.m. And the time in front of the easel is just the tip of the iceberg.

For the last two weeks, I worked fourteen days straight researching, viewing, listening, tasting, touching, hearing, breathing, smelling, making, talking about, arguing about, throwing out, tearing up and dreaming about art. I decided I needed/wanted a change of scenery to recharge the batteries. I did what Italians, and other Europeans of late do to get away for a summer break, I hopped on a high-speed ferry (www.venezialines.it) out of Venice and dropped myself onto the Istrian coast of Croatia. For several days, the equivalent of a long weekend, I will call Rovinj (pronounced ro-ving, or ro-vin-ya) my home away from my home away from home.

Ironically, this is an artist town. The colors reflected off the Adriatic and medieval cliff side buildings are stunning. These narrow cobbled streets are home to amazing artists and their studios/galleries. It’s understandable considering the inspiring landscape in their backyard. As I put finishing touches on my thesis work, centered on the boat symbol in our culture and psyche, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the Batana Boat Museum. Rovinj is at the center of a historical flat-bottom boat making culture. I’m pretty sure this has just become a working vacation!

In a sense, if a vacation is vacating one’s regular life to step away from every day comforts, to learn, to open your heart and mind to the unique riches of the world, then I’m in for one wild ride. The truth is, though, we can all take a vacation any day of the year. Just take a different route to work today, sign up to help out a local charity or take a new class. In fact, when was the last time you went and sprawled yourself out in your backyard grass? Made cartoon animals out of the clouds?

Who’s to say that’s not taking a vacation, if not for a few moments each day?

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As my visit to Venice comes to a close, I can’t help but consider what draws me here in the first place – the art. At times I’m sure it is the art of living at the foundation of Italian culture and life in general that I find so appealing. But I could spend a year and barely touch the surface of the amazing works of art that call Venice home. It is different than Rome or Florence, two other renowned art cities. Instead of Michelangelo, Venice has Titian as their Renaissance boy-wonder, and what a wonder he is. Along with his contemporary, Tintoretto, he was a dynamic, productive machine. Some would say Tintoretto is the better artist, he seems to have a mastery of form, daring movement in the figure, and rich chiaroscuro. But Titian certainly knew color, the reds unmistakable. The Gallerie dell’Accademia should be at the top of the museum list to appreciate the richness of the Renaissance works.

What I find so wonderful about art in Venice is the diversity of collections that span history. The Peggy Guggenheim Museum, focused on works of the first half of the 20th Century is a spectacular gem, housed in her former retirement palazzo along the Grand Canal. She was an anticonformist who discovered many of the avant guard artists of the day. See Picasso, Klee, Pollack, Miro, Braque and Dali here.

For Italian Impressionism, you can’t go wrong at the Ca’ Pesaro, Venice’s “modern” museum of art, a stunning Baroque building, exhibiting works from the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

There’s a new kid in town, a contemporary museum in a reclaimed customs house at the end point of the Grand Canal. The Punta Della Dogana is a visual feast, developed by the Francois Pinault Foundation. Outside you can’t miss American artist, Charles Ray’s site-specific work, “Boy With Frog,” a white acrylic resin sculpture that draws you in with it’s tenderness and modern counterpoint to the gleaming white architecture of nearby San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore.

It seems every church in every campo has a collection worth viewing, if just for a few minutes to rest your feet and imagine living in a different time, a different place. The beautiful Murano glass works are ever present, the island a worthwhile venture to see the traditional glass blowing technique that makes it so unique.

I will miss these grand houses of art, but revel in seeing everyday in our media-centric culture the modern expression, influence and connection that each of these artists has on our lives.

Here is a short list of my recommended art sites in Venice:

Gallerie dell’Accademia
Peggy Gugenheim Collection
Ca’ Pesaro
Museo Correr
Punta Della Dorgana
Doges Palace
Ca’ Rezzonico
Palazzo Grassi
Frari Church
Scuola San Rocco
Murano
Burano

Arrivederci, Venice! Until next time…

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If there’s one thing Italians know…it’s the tomato! OK, they may know a little something about car design, and some would say they know a lot about amore….but that’s a subject for another post.

I find that when enjoying anything tomato here in Italy, what I have been buying and eating in the United States does not come close. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if what I think is a tomato, specifically a Roma tomato, is the vegetable version of Velveta. It is dull, manufactured, processed and had the life sucked out of it, along with all the aroma, juiciness, and earthy, sweet flavor.

I had the privilege of a tomato cooking lesson upon my arrival to Venice. Several of us “students” we’re hosted by our program director, a native who loves to cook. We walked into Lorenzo’s kitchen and the aroma of fresh tomatoes permeated the air. The Roma tomatoes were twice the size I buy in the US. He had par-boiled them, skinned them, cut in half, and took out the seeds. What was so lovely was the deep, deep crimson color and the absence of many seeds to begin with.

All of these were then placed in a stew pot, no water, oil or seasoning except a pinch of salt, and left to steam for about twenty minutes. In the meantime, we decided to make pasta with a pomodoro sauce. It was so simple, and so divine, in part because of the fresh ingredients, in part because of the camaraderie that makes cooking and eating with friends so pleasurable.

Here’s the recipe: (there are no measured amounts here, just intuitive design!)

In a large pot of water, cook 1 pound of rotini pasta.
In a sauté pan, heat several tbs. of olive oil
Sauté several tbs. of chopped onion
Add a clove of garlic
Add several tbs. of anchovy paste
Add several tbs. of kalamata olives
Add several tbs. of capers
Add a splash of white wine
Remember those Roma tomatoes steaming? Grab four halves, add to the sauté, breaking up with a spoon. Let this all simmer for about ten minutes while the pasta cooks, and then you have a glorious sauce.

Step out to your terrace garden, grab some fresh basil leaves, top off the serving with the basil and some grated Parmesan, and you will be in Tomato heaven.

With all the amazing fresh market stands every day here, there’s no reason to buy a dull tomato. Back in the US, if you can’t grow your own, support the local farmers and insist on cooking with fresh grown ingredients.

Buon Appetito!

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Here in Venice, from my third floor flat on the Campo San Maurizio, facing north, I wake to this view. Venice has several leaning towers, this is Campanile di Santo Stefano. The Church of St. Stephen was founded in the 13th Century and underwent renovations in both the 14th and 15th Centuries. I can only imagine what it must have been like to deal with subcontractors back then!

At 7 a.m. every morning, it is my alarm clock. On the west side of the campo, the sunlight begins its slow crawl down the Gothic faces of the neighboring buildings. To the east, I can hear the rattle of the aluminum store front rolling up as the gelateria welcomes the early risers to espresso and cappuccino.

I hear the clank of breakfast dishes, the caw of the seagull that perches itself on the roof across from my window and the squeal of children hitting a soccer ball below. During these hot days, this is the only time the breeze actually feels refreshing. I will soon close up the shudders for the day, make my way to the S. Angelo vaporetta stop along the Grand Canal, and take the “subway” to school.

For a great 360 view of my neighborhood, here’s a fun link:

360 View of Campo San Maurizio

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Last night I arrived in what I think is one of the most beautiful, uniquely rich cities I have ever seen. Whether your first or fiftieth visit to Venice, the senses are hit from all directions. I stepped out of the train station to disarmingly charming streets of water. The metro is a formidable system of water taxis, (the “valporetto”) that miraculously maneuvers in 5 meter deep water through a maze of gondolas and tour boats. The system works quite effectively, and you can’t beat the view.

The light doesn’t disappoint. This is why artists have flocked here for centuries. The palaces along the Grand Canal are rich terra cotta, burnt siena, saffron, and salmon pink. The water is aqua blue, like the Caribbean, only there is no beach. The water laps up against the old buildings, set on a foundation of alder. Yep, the footings that support the 118 islands that is the city are wooden. Oddly enough, wood submerged to this degree petrifies into a solid, stable state. Who knew?!

I am enamored with the fact that if your home doesn’t have a boat house for a garage, you simply “parallel park” by tying up to the series of pylons that line the canals and enter via the front dock/door. If not by water, the buildings are separated by a system of alleyways and piazzas, or campos. Apparently the city planners didn’t expect modern humans to be lugging fifty pound duffle bags full of t-shirts and art supplies through this intricate maze. I learned rather quickly that one must bust a move before the hoards of tourists claim the alley as their freeway to gelato, or store selling Carnivale masks.

Speaking of which, if you can look past the garish shops, you can discover the intricacies of architecture and design that make this place a treasure trove of hidden gems. As many have said before me, throw away the map, go get lost, and you might discover a hidden piece of yourself.

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