Monthly Archives: August 2013

Frolicking in Florence

Some things in life don’t change. A Sausage EggMcMuffin in Rome tastes like the one from Lot 1 in Choa Chu Kang.

We arrive in Florence! Our accommodation requires us to climb a long flight of steep stairs. With all our backpacks and all, the gravity of the situation is clear to us.

We hit lunch and I order spinach and cheese ravioli. Served with spinach leaves and basil flakes, it tastes alright… The inside of the ravioli is dense and cheesy. It’s a decent meal but I think there’s a lot of better food out there! Pretty filling though. Gnocchi tastes a bit strange… I don’t think I’m going to eat any more concentrated pasta balls.

Now we’re in the shopping district and we have entered the Salvatore Ferragamo store. Not that I am ever going to buy anything from it but the way the place is set up, the way the goods put in places of honour, the way the doorways and arches are intentionally taller to convey an impression of grandeur… This place is a study in spectacle. Understated stylish spectacle, maybe, but spectacle none the less. Designed to wow and impress, and I dare say I am a victim. Even though a lot of it is for ladies.

The architecture in the heart of the Old Town, the preserved part of Florence, has awesome architecture. It is grand yet pleasing to the eye… Perhaps this is the essence of Renaissance architecture? Lots of strong lines with elaborate corners and decoration and what looks to be like crenellations. Statues in alcoves and elaborately wrought iron lamps dot the walls. The afternoon sun gives you two different layers of reality to appreciate – two different faces of the same building.

The Santa Maria del Fiore, the largest cathedral in Florence, is magnificent! White and green and shining, Time has dealt a blow to its gleaming facade but it is still monumental. Okay it’s not literally shiny but it’s white surfaces are bright in the light, like the walls of Minas Anor, Tower of the Sun… It is really beautiful! I find it entrancing. As we walk closer and more of it comes into view I am more and more impressed. It’s really a wow-inducing thing. Well tomorrow we shall look at the inside!

The Piazza della Signoria is populated with stone goliaths. Men of gargantuan proportions, muscles in high relief (ha-ha), immortalized into action. I particularly like Perseus carrying the head of the Gorgon. He looks down upon you (his head is tilted downwards) and his defiance of death and conviction of the heroic immortality of his youth emnates from him. The fact that Perseus is carved of a green-black material (should find out) also serves to accentuate the difference between him and the other white marble statues: perhaps he is made of darker, sterner stuff. Other statues tell stories, narratives you guess at and flesh out in your head, giving life to stone, the angle of their marble limbs telling you what’s going on, and the vast repository of human emotion informing your story.

The streets of Florence are quite charming. Very much so! I enjoy them very much.

Dinner is at a couple-run restaurant called Toto’s, on the Borgo SS. Apostoli. It’s been in business since 1968 and management has been handed down from their parents. The owner volunteers to chop a Florentine beefsteak up for us to show us what a 700 gram steak looks like… And we order it. I hope it’s good! On the dinner table, Calzone pizza, pork ribs, and tagliatelle are scheduled for touchdown.

The calzone appears and it’s huge. Oh om nom nom. The steak appears and the owner slices it to ask how cooked we want it to be. He slices it open and it’s nice and juicy! Browned edges and a pink inside and a tiny layer of dark red in the middle. A great beefy taste, chewy and springy and full of the essence of meat. Seasoned with salt and pepper and secret Florentine spices, it speaks to me a secret language of gastronomic pleasure. The Chianti must taken the same course in school because it says exactly the same thing, and our conversation is warmly enriched by its addition. Soon we burst into song, lyrical praise of the flavour of the meat joining seamlessly with the harmony of spices and grilling fat.

The mozzarella embedded in the calzone stretches all the way to my plate as I grab a chunk. Slices of ham are bundled together along with olives and artichokes. It’s salty and doughy and good. And I like how tagliatelle is wide and slippery and zips around the tongue. Whee! To think we only walked into this restaurant because it was the closest available shelter from the rain.

I like Florence!

The day ends with more gelato as usual. There’s this wonderful flavour called ambrosia: a delectable combination of yoghurt, honey, and cinnamon. Oooo. It tastes like what it sounds like. Heavenly indeed! Food of the gods.


Voyaging to the Vatican

This morning’s cappuccino is good… There’s no need to add anything. There’s a good coffee taste there, the foam is slightly sweet, and there’s a subtle chocolate undertone which offsets the overall coffee flavour. Yum.

Now we are walking around the perimeter of the walls of the Vatican. It looks built to keep people out…

The Vatican Museums look extremely well crafted, designed to provide visitors with a certain type of experience – aesthetic and historical wonder? The word for the entrance is ‘veneered’: it is nicely finished, cool and grey and white and marble, a relief from the heat and crowds outside. Luckily for is there is nearly no queue (it takes all of 7 minutes to queue for a ticket, we counted), despite what all the guides saying ‘skip the line’ outside would have you believe.

We see the Chiaramonti Museum, a long corridor filled with sculptures and busts and statues. It is amazing! Over a thousand pieces, all these different materials used for different people. One wonders if certain materials are better suited for people of different temperaments. A pink marble sculpture for a noble lady of cool demeanor? Probably there’s more to do with how you get pink marble but the possibilities of the layers of meaning of that are infinite. These statues speak of power and relationships, for who but the rich could commission such works? Even the most talented and selfless artists need patrons for resources. Is this the final conclusion – that the production of art is shaped by money (a very hasty generalization)? One certainly hopes not.

Statutes and sculptures are cool because there’s the whole 3D layer of meaning. Why some things are more pronounced, more detailed. More scope for dynamic movement. I like friezes, there’s a hive of activity going on within the frozen stone, a message of movement eternally stored in the immovable mass of material.

The Sala Rotunda is huge and impressive. A cavernous hemispherical vault filled with larger than life statues of the Pantheon. An enormous red porphyry bowl spanning 13 meters in circumference sits in the middle. It is huge and looks like it would be good for a bubble bath. Whoops. The gods of the Romans and their emperors look down haughtily upon the mortal masses who pass through. Hercules gazes down upon those who would dare enter his presence… The floor is a super intricate mosaic, superb in detail and carefully striated in colour. The ancients were indeed great! It is now as I behold all these works that I comprehend the meaning of ‘larger than life’ and ‘placed upon a pedestal’. The raw sense of power and majesty that radiates from these statues. Oh my!

There’s a gallery of maps of Italy. Looking at the degree of detail on these hand painted masterpieces it begs the question of how did ancient cartographers map the world? Paper and pen and pack and legs? Wow! To be a real explorer, without GPS and flight…

The Sistine Chapel is awe-inspiring, yet sort of tainted by the touristy mess that enters and leaves. But the artwork that covers the walls and ceiling is tremendous. Everything done in meticulous and loving detail. There’s an undercurrent of bubbling murmured conversation which is terribly irreverent though, and it is magnified by the depths of the hall. But for all the faults of humanity it is still a magnificent place. One leaves with a sense of contemplative wonder, still not daring to utter a sound.

Saint Peter’s Square is huge yet airy. Certainly a place for an enormous assembly, and the appearance of the Pope from an elevated position certainly stands him in literal good stead to address the crowd. It is light and delightful, not quite the solemn pomp that I expected. The obelisk stands in the middle, 4000 years old…it’s age speaks for itself. The columns are enormous and imperious. Strength of the earth, truly welcoming the masses into the rhetorical ‘arms of Mother Church’.

Dinner is more spaghetti: mushrooms ham cheese bacon, tomato cream sauce. Comes served with basil flakes and grated Parmesan. Large substantial chunks of meaty ham. Little crumbly bits of minced pork. Creamy and filling, this is soul food. Tomato cream isn’t easy to get right, but they do it just nice! Tartness offset by the creamy sweetness of it all. My vocabulary is slightly reduced because my tongue is using up all my brainpower, processing how good it is. The earthy touch of the mushrooms complete the homely feel of it all.

Dessert is lemon tart. It arrives, as all dessert should be, as a work of art. Built on a dense biscuit base, then a layer of lemon cream, and topped with a beautiful glazed lemon meringue. The meringue is sweet and delightfully fluffy, while still retaining a hint of lemony-ness. The top of the meringue is especially sweet, and the brown bits are crispy, ooh! Lemon cream is good and sour (though I would prefer it to be ultra sour), and it has a good thick texture, creamy and just a bit sticky. One of the better lemon tarts I’ve ever eaten.

We chance across this mega good gelateria. Gelateria La Romana, on the Via Flavia in Rome. Since 1947. Oh my. It is the most wonderful handmade confection sweet buttery smooth delicate indulgent extravagantly wonderful omnomnom gelato I have ever tried oooooooh

Running Around in Rome

We are in Rome! The heart of the empire… Civilization defined for one thousand years. Oh! Roma Termini, the main train station, is emblematic of modern travel. Functional, sleek, attractive to tourists with everything in English and touristy shops all over the place. Clean and sharp lines shape the place. We step into the streets to our hotel and only a hundred meters away the world is transformed… The streets of the newer side of Rome are lined by newer, fabricated buildings, empty wine bottles, smoldering cigarette butts, advertisements for accommodation and tours.

Now we are walking around the Palatine Hill and Forum area. It is not physically impressive like the vistas of Black Forest or even the Eiffel Tower, but these ruins contain a solemn crumbling majesty, testament to the longevity of stone over the vestiges of humanity. Naught is left of the Senate and the legions and the gladiators and the Republic but the physical foundations are still there. Well yes the impact of Rome on our society today cannot be denied, but where are the ancient Romans now? Stone will ever outlast Man.
Yet it is the significance of Roman civilization that weighs upon the very air of this place. The knowledge of a thousand years concentrated back into the heart of the empire… This is why Caesars ordered the destruction of provinces, architects conceived incredible monuments, artisans crafted incomparable wares, and politics as we know it takes form (well yes tribute to the Greeks too I guess). Ah! Rome.
On a parapet overlooking the Forum we see artists drawing the view. I am entranced by artists at work – the act of creation, ideas taking form, history recorded… There is something magical about it all. This is why I wish I could draw, or I could sing.

Ancient Rome is multilayered, things built on top of each other, successive layers of construction, each grander in scale. The engineering behind it all! To support such grandeur and height and immense facades. It makes me think of Minas Tirith, Tower of Guard, city of seven layers, built on the spine of a mountain…

As we enter the Colosseum the sky is quite literally looming, storm-grey clouds preparing to assault the earth with their fury. Okay, no fury and no wrath, just some wind, nothing like our thunderstorms back home. But you know, to create some mood. As we walk in I can imagine myself a first time gladiator, holding my gladius, peeing in my pants at the prospect of death on the sands. Or did they have pants then? The wind blows in between the columns and it’s dark. Death comes for ye! The crowd cheers, but it cheers for brutality and blood. The roar echoes the pounding of blood in your ears, a drumming tattoo that spells your doom. And yet after what feels like an eternity of insane combat it is over and now it is adulation of seventy-five thousand people. But remember that the only thing that the crowd loves more than a victory, is a victory over the victor… And so it starts all over again.
Ah! Blood and guts and the stink of death in the arena, mixed with a horrific fascination for the macabre. How many consider what has been shed on the rocks and sands as they pose for an Instagram shot (okay I have one too) that says hey look! I’ve been to the Colosseum so I’m cool.

Inside the Colosseum there are many exhibits and artifacts. We are lucky enough to come when there’s an exhibition on the time of Constantine, AD 313, to be exact. Marble statues are the most interesting things! How do sculptors tease out shapes from a single block? To make static stone flow into dynamic cloth, to make rock gain more expression than a thousand words. That creative impulse: can it be found in all mankind, just waiting for the individual to discover?

Now it’s time to get on the train in Rome. The station is something like the one in the Matrix where Neo fought Agent Smith. The carriages are like mini-MRT carriages, with 4 seats instead of our usual set of 8. All in all it’s not bad but compared to Germany! Maybe when I go to Scandinavia (hopefully) it will be even more impressive.

And now dinner in Rome! At a restaurant called Spagheteria dell’Archetto, two minutes from the extremely impressive Trevi Fountain. My order is a mussels, clams, shrimp pasta, cooked in brandy, garlic, and hot pepper. It’s called a Profuso Di Mare… I translate it roughly into a profusion from the sea. Woo! When it comes, there’s a prawn beautifully plated on top of a mountain of shellfish. There are (I counted) 10 clams and 13 mussels, all wonderfully fresh and juicy, with a touch of brine. With the oil-based pasta, woo! Yum. And the prawn is as good as its presentation, soft and oh-so-sweet, melting into juicy oblivion on the tongue. Ah. Italian food. I love thee.

My tiramisu arrives… I have been looking forward to you for so long! It is covered in cocoa powder. The bottom! The cream cheese! The coffee! That delectable dessert contraption known as tiramisu must be my favourite dessert. The cream could be smoother though… The coffee and cake part is good and moist. I do wish there was a little chocolate on it! Together with the sweet white wine it goes well. I hope I can find better tiramisu though! I love Italian food.

Here’s the quote of the day from Yan Yi regarding food: ‘eat things must eat GAO GAO one. If not eat for what?’ That’s right…

Today’s gelato is lemon, orange chocolate, and strawberry. Is good! Okay tomorrow brings the Vatican!

Musing in Marienplatz

Last day in Munich and Germany and we’re in the city center, moving a a much slower pace than usual, owing to food poisoning. Marienplatz is very nice, polite Germans walking around, cream coloured buildings lining the cobblestone streets. It’s maybe 18 degrees, a light breeze blowing, like standing in front of an air conditioner. We are in Viktualienmarkt, full of food stalls and local delicacies. There’s dried apple chips, tart and sweet. So many things on sale! Innumerable bottles of mustard and dips and marinades, leaves and roots of all shapes and sizes, fruits in every shade of yellow red orange green purple (note that there is no blue fruit)… Tropical fruits are really expensive though, one papaya sells for 6 euros! A small coconut is 4 euros. But then there’s all this nice temperate fruit which I am determined to chow down while I’m in Europe. All sorts of little knick-knacks and souvenirs are also on sale, but I’m far more attracted by the prospect of bratwurst and bratkartoffeln. I finally acquire a currywurst… Though I don’t understand why everyone is raving about it. It’s alright. The atmosphere is very relaxed and surprisingly quiet despite the number of people here, compared to Borough Market in London.

There are a lot of clock towers here in Marienplatz!

It’s a nice place. As we leave Germany… Hmm. Everyone says Germany is like clockwork and run like a machine, but to that I have to say, how can anything so smooth and efficient be a machine? To be a machine suggests there is some wastage of resources. The conclusion is that Germany is nothing less that organic: perfectly designed and alive. This country is wonderful! It moves and breathes quietly, with a depth of being that I think only the locals can fathom.

So now it’s off to Rome! On a sleeper train. See you all on the pasta side!

Fighting Food Poisoning

Trams are cool. They chug along the streets on their metal tracks, little engines of economy bearing people around the city. They are so cute! Trams are cute. They are right on time and they fit nicely next to the roads. I love how the tracks crisscross the city, across roads and pedestrian walkways, forgoing their own path. There’s something old school about it that I love. In Germany the trams are always on time and they move quickly – a seamless form of transportation. Fast, efficient, reliable.

Fast efficient reliable is something we take for granted so much. Even Singaporean transportation. Today the tram was our friend in the battle against food poisoning, shuttling us to and from the hospital on the dot. A point of consistency in the swirl and anxiety of everyone falling sick.

Well now everyone is resting and sleeping in our rented apartment (except for me, clearly. Am sitting in a corner typing away) and it’s dark and everyone is fine now.

Food poisoning due to Greek food, I think. Tummies not used to it. So from 4am in the morning the tummy troubles ensue… Luckily I am spared nearly all of it. After forcing myself to vomit and purging my system I’m good to go, but same can’t be said for everyone. Yan Yi is fine too, the theory is that she had 2 shots so the alcohol killed the bacteria, burst the cell membranes and all. It’s bad… The toilet and sink are in constant use and it is decided that we’re off to the nearest hospital, courtesy of GPS navigation. We tried calling the apartment owner and getting a ride but he’s incoherent due to the previous night’s alcoholic exertions, and I give up after 30 seconds. So we troop off to the tram station.

Outside it’s cold and the wind is blowing. iPhone weather report says high of 17 degrees and a low of 12, enough that I’m wearing a windbreaker over a tshirt and I’m cold. Soon enough I put on another sweater to ward off the chill. It’s the wind that kills – it’s blowing at my feet and ankles. Being your typical Singaporean, I see the rain and promptly decide to roll up my pants and put on slippers, choosing to go with the ‘nothing’ half of the ‘all or nothing’ to deal with rain policy: either wear combat boots, or slippers. Clearly I am a silly boy because all the Germans are wearing shoes and boots and I am suffering the effects of my folly. But it’s not super cold and my toes haven’t frozen off yet. Besides, I don’t want wet socks and wet shoes.

We reach the hospital, 2km away, in 6 minutes. German transportation, I love thee. Thankfully God answers prayer way ahead of time and all the people we meet can speak a modicum of English, enough that we are understood and the requisite medical attention is availed.

German healthcare is great. Not sure about the stats but it feels like it’s on par with Singapore, at roughly the same prices – 150 euros for A&E. It’s Sunday, nothing is open. Not even the supermarket! We’re down to plain bread for our food for the rest of the day (we left the house at 7.30am). Oh dear. My slice of bread does taste food though when there’s nothing else to eat.

Well all is better now… Traveling isn’t complete without stuff like that!