Valli Del Pasubio, Italy

Valli Del Pasubio, Italy

From one tiny town, to another. I’m still not sure of the exact location of Valli Del Pasubio. It lies between Schio, a city of 30,000 inhabitants (not to brag, but my university has roughly the same population!) and the Pasubio mountain range, which I believe to be known as pre-Alps. That being, they are too small to be considered Alps, though they looked pretty damn mountainous to me. Valli (as I shall affectionately call the town) is mostly residential. Pastel shade apartment blocks dominate its architecture at those parts nearest to Schio, and on the ride through the valley and towards the taller mountains, they become fewer, more scattered, and of a more unique (and ginormous) character.

The town of Valli itself is charming. It is one of my regrets that I did not get the Mmmmmtime to run amok with my purse full of euros through its narrow cobbled streets and outdoor market, or to linger for longer than a sniff outside the bakery, but I can rest assured in the knowledge that I am welcome back in that village. For the people are the kind that welcome not only with open arms, but open homes. I have been informed I have at least two beds waiting for me, should I ever require them. But enough bragging. The thing that struck me most about the gorgeous valley was, of course, its breath-taking panoramic views.

The weather was milder in Valli than in Tuscana or Padua, so I was able, each morning, to sit on the swing in my (host families) back garden and admire the great mass of mountain that faced the back of their home.  And admire I did. Any which way I turned my head were these beautiful mountains, incredible for their imposition if not for their size, and making up for any lack of height with their sheer bulk. However, while I admired the mountains of Valli for their seemingly militancy, on a mountain hike I was struck by their silence, their wildlife, and their colour. Trivia time: the mountains in Valli produce the most beautiful spring water, which is carted all over Italy and sold in ginormous quantities due to its quality. So there you go.

My mountainy excursions did not stop at hikes, however. It was suggested to me That drive...by my host family that we go for dinner on top of one of the smaller mountains. I agreed enthusiastically. While we got into the car, my host-dad gestured for me to take note of the temperature. 28⁰. Nothing strange there. The drive up the mountain was something spectacular in itself, never mind the views that I glimpsed from behind the trees that lined the (very thin) gravel track along which my host-dad navigated with skill. Every now and then he gestured to the temperature gauge. It dropped steadily. By the time we reached the top, it was 12⁰. It was hard to imagine that 1600 ft below us it was feeling like a British day in late August. And so high were we, that the views, though no doubt beautiful, were completely obscured by cloud.

And dinner itself was something quite apart from what I had been led to expect. Dinner? For I had been informed we were on our way to dinner. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that we had parked in front of a farm house, which itself was in front of a pig sty, which was itself overlooking the edge of the mountain. I looked around, half expecting, half praying, that a restaurant would declare itself upon the horizon. But we were on the summit of a mountain. And the cloud obscured the horizon. After a mooch around the pig sty, my host-family led me into the (seemingly deserted) farmhouse. Inside were a few tables, all set up with place mats, and plastic knives A room with a viewand forks in little clear plastic wrappers (to prevent insect contamination as far as I can guess). Light bulb. So, taking a seat at the farmhouse/restaurant table, I eagerly awaiting dinner. And when it came it was delightful. While at first apprehensive of the setting for my meal, I now could not think up a more appropriate place to have enjoyed it. A homely helping of spaghetti Bolognese, followed by a selection of salami, cheeses, and fried polenta. Buon appetite indeed.

As if a farmhouse/restaurant/cheese factory combo wasn’t enough, the mountains The Historical Monumenthad another little marvel hidden up their sleeves: a World War One monument. The monument takes the form of a tower complete with winding staircase and views looking out to the surrounding mountains and overlooking the valley. The monument is humbling for more than just its impressive structure and its situation among the historical battlefields, however. Work began on the monument in 1919, and as surveys of the surrounding areas were carried out, hundreds of bodies were found, lost to the tragic First World War. Determined to build the monument in such a prominent location, the authorities decided to build tombs within the structure, in order to rest the bodies of those soldiers found and to complete the monument to them. Work was completed in 1926, and today it is one of those harrowing, heart-wrenching places that words cannot describe. And while it brought a sense of reality to my week in Valli, it impressed upon me the fact that emotion is international, and powerfully uniting.

My time in Valli marked the end of the beginning of my journey in Italy. It marked my final teaching destination, as well as my final host family. To follow Valli, came a week exploring the beautiful cities of Roma, Firenze and Venezia at my own leisure. And, not that I was aware at the time, but also for your reading pleasure.

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Monselice, Italy

Monselice, Italy

My working days in the small town of Monselice were somewhat more challenging than those in Tuscany. Luckily, my workmates were of the cocktail appreciating kind, and so every day after work, we walked from the school where we worked to the nearest cocktail bar, whilst sweating in forty degree heat. If Tuscany was beautiful for its vineyards, Monselice was beautiful for its seven little churches, nestled in a cusp of rock jutting from a hill, and for its maize fields. Every morning I stood on my balcony and looked out towards Este castle, just visible across a gorgeous field of maize. The only drawbacks to Monselice? The mosquitoes. Sure, there were mosquitoes in Tuscany. And I happen to be one of these lucky people who do not suffer many bites. No, the problem was their sheer noise. After the first day, their drone became (very loud) background noise, and it was more noticeable when they actually stopped their singing. But I digress. Back to cocktails.

In Italy, the Aperol Spritz is by far the most popular appetising long drink in Italy. It is made from Aperol (sticky sweet red syrupy thing), prosecco and soda water. Yum. At €2.50 a pop, they went down like a dream after a hard day’s tutoring. Even better, if you buy enough, and stick around long enough, you will be treated (as we were) to aperitivo, similar in kind to British ‘happy hour’, though, rather than offering 2-4-1 on drinks, you can help yourself to a buffet of Italian treats. I’m talking meat. I’m talking cheese. I’m talking crisps, olives, bread, and salad. And if that wasn’t enough, you get Whole Bowls of snacks delivered to your table (as long as it is healthily stocked with cocktails).

Spritz Hugo
Eat, Sleep, Spritz, Repeat

Great. However, by the third day, I was struggling to cope with the Aperol Spritz. One was good. Two were okay. Any more than that and I started to feel like I’d downed a bottle of washing detergent. (And that is purely my taste). So, imagine my delight when I had the fortune of being introduced (by a local of course) to the Spritz Hugo. Made with Sambuca syrup, prosecco, mint leaves and topped with soda water, the Spritz Hugo quickly (and dangerously) became my new favourite. I would highly recommend to anyone with a sweet tooth (even better if you’re like me and have a whole set of sweet teeth), just remember that, despite its classy appearance and easy drinkability, its still not okay to drink more than two within one hour.

For here was another surprise. Contrary to my former speculations, the majority of the Italians I had the pleasure to drink with, were not heavy drinkers at all (but, of course, there were a few exceptions to this observation). Before my trip, I had imagined that my Italian hosts would be showering me with wine. And, don’t get me wrong, they all did. But I was encouraged to drink wine in a way that made me consider (and in time appreciate) the different tastes, textures and scents that accompany good wine. And the drinking of beer and cocktails is no different. Alcohol in Italy is refreshingly consumed as a thing to be enjoyed, not as means to aid you to enjoy yourself. There is a lesson to be learnt from the Italian way of drinking, and it is this: drink for quality, not for quantity. And enjoy it.

Monselice was a small city. A very small city. It has one train station, one taxi

Pretty sure that is it's tallest building right there...
Pretty sure that is the city’s tallest building right there…

service (bookable only 24 hours in advance), and one school. And while its attractions, including its cute little churches and its old Duomo may not be the most extravagant and while its waitresses may not be the politest (Maleva, I’m looking at you), Monselice will always have a special place in my heart because of the wonderful, wonderful people I had the pleasure of meeting there. The two families I was lucky enough to live with during my two week stay, and the friends I made whilst working, will stay in my life forever. I think there’s just something about a small, quiet town like that…

Tuscany, Italy

My travels around Tuscany marked the beginning of my journey in Italy. I worked for a total of 7 weeks as an English tutor at summer camps, and I had the pleasure of living with the families of children who attended these camps. I have always been a notoriously fussy eater, and the prospect of eating food that would be prepared for me by host families who would probably speak no or very little English was, in all honest, quite terrifying. In actual fact, my first host dad was fluent in English, and asked me on my very first evening if there were any foods I didn’t like. Decision time. Would I be that girl, who listed off every single green vegetable in existence, turned her nose up at homemade dishes I’d never even heard of, refused to try anything new? Hell, no. Instead, I took a deep breath, looked into his eyes, and answered ‘Only shellfish’. (My aversion to shell-fish comes not from a dislike, but more of a deep-seated unnerving that comes from never ever having eaten something that looks so slimy.)

The only way I can describe these delicious things, as I cannot remember their Italian name!
The only way I can describe these delicious things, as I cannot remember their Italian name!

And so it was that it was in Tuscany, surrounded by vineyards and pastel shaded apartments, I learned to love food. I am convinced that the families who were kind enough to host me during my stay in Tuscany were among the best chefs in Italy, heck even the whole world, so enjoyable were my daily dinner time feasts. And not only were my taste buds delighted at dinner, but at breakfast, perhaps even more significantly. For those who have never been to Italy, rest assured that those of you with a sweet tooth need look no further than a breakfast table in a common Italian household for a place to satisfy your cravings. The best of my breakfasts in Tuscany included delicious farm made jams spread of cinnamon French toast, sweet biscuits with chocolate hazelnut fillings, yoghurt, fresh fruit, all washed down with fresh juice and cappuccino.

Of the many meals that I ate in Tuscany, there are three which I would like to

Can you tell the difference?
Can you tell the difference? Try it yourself at the Sapori di Toscana.

describe in detail here. For they are the three meals which changed my entire attitude to food. For the first of these three meals, I was whisked away to a typical Tuscan restaurant and told to expect typical Tuscan cuisine. Rabbit. Okay so it doesn’t sound so dramatic. People eat rabbit in England and Wales on a fairly regular basis, yeah yeah. But for me, this was a big deal. I mean I owned a rabbit as a little girl. And now-well, now I was expected to eat one? As it happened, eating rabbit turned out to be a hundred times easier than I thought it would be-though not a whole lot tastier, I have to admit. After a starter of meats and canapés, down was plonked a silver serving dish of what looked like chicken nuggets. Not quite what I was expecting. I looked to my companions questioningly. ‘The rabbit is on it’s way-this is chicken’. Ah. So it was chicken nuggets. Down was plonked a second silver serving dish of what looked suspiciously like chicken nuggets. Wait, what? ‘The rabbit’, said my one of my Italian companions. And, do you know, if I hadn’t known the difference, I would have sworn both platters were chicken. It was dessert, however, which makes this meal particularly memorable. For here I was presented with the most delicious Italian biscuit-a twice baked cookie called cantuccini. Traditionally served at special occasions, cantuccini is served alongside vin santo, an intoxicatingly sweet dessert wine. Pour, dip, devour. It is safe to say that I became unhealthily obsessed with cantuccini, and can only say I am relieved that it is slightly more difficult to get hold of in Britain (though not impossible-hello, Costco).

Grilled branzino. You should try it.
Grilled branzino. You should try it-head to Il Sassoscritto.

The second meal came to me in the (perfect and untouched) form of a fish. Grilled branzino, to be precise. Scanning the menu of the hideaway seafood restaurant directly overlooking the waters from which it gathers its produce, branzino immediately caught my eye, being the meal over which Gwen Stacy awkwardly introduces the laid back Spiderman to her (rather more uptown) family. I know, I’m so cultured, right? So, when a whole fish, head, tail, fins and all was placed in front of me, I waited with bated breath. I was waiting (praying is more like it) for some instruction as to how to eat the damn thing, which looked all at once absolutely delicious and yet all too close to swimming off my plate to eat. My wonderful hosts, smiling with encouragement, gave me all the Victoryinstruction I needed. Buon appetite. And so, bravely, knife in one hand and fork in the other, I grappled with my fishy opponent until, at last, all that was left was a pile of bones, a head and a tail. And do you know, I have never eaten a fish so fine as that one.

The third and final Tuscan meal to be described was by far less exotic to me than the previous two. But let me assure you, the fact it was a simple, homely Bolognese should not be sniffed at. The restaurant where I sampled this unearthly Bolognese

Tasted at the Birreria Centrale in Florence.
Tasted at the Birreria Centrale in Florence.

is situated ideally in the heart of Florence, and boasts that rare quality of being both a favourite of locals and the lucky tourists who have been introduced to it by locals (as I was). Fresh tagliatelle swirled into a rich sauce made a luxurious mound upon my plate, and teemed with an amount of delectable mincemeat that would make a grown man quiver. No, it was nothing especially new to me, but the flavours were so rich, so fresh, and so superior to any Bolognese I have ever eaten in Britain, that I couldn’t not write about it. The menu afforded a whole range of typical dishes from all over Italy, and I cannot wait to return to stuff myself with another heart, homely, delicious dish.

Florence was the perfect city in which to eat this delicious meal, and nothing quite compares to the atmosphere of excitement that pervades Tuscany as tourists stumble upon hidden marvels and locals offer wide arms and warm welcome. My experience in Tuscany offered me far more than food, however its cuisine stands out in my mind as some of the most delicious I have had the pleasure to eat anywhere. And what should follow food, of course, but drink? Let me tell you of a small town near Padua in which I first became acquainted with the Spritz, and more importantly, with the Spritz Hugo…