Death by Rose Petals

Il Roseto di Roma

Il Roseto di Roma

There is a rose garden on the Aventine Hill, Il Roseto di Roma which is on an interesting site. In the 3rd cent BC, it housed the Temple of Flora but in 1634, it was converted into a Jewish cemetery. Three hundred years later,  in 1934, the cemetery was moved and the area became referred to as the Jewish Garden. In 1950, the municipality of Rome decided to create a rose garden to showcase existing and new species of roses. In deference to its past, it was designed in the shape of a menorah with its seven branches forming paths and is now home to over 1,000 species of roses. As rose gardens go, I’ve seen better but many of the roses were already on their way out when we visited early in June so perhaps we did not catch it at its peak.

1402598543395What I found fascinating was the history and descriptions of the roses. In Roman times, roses became a symbol of wealth and grandeur and vast quantities were brought into Rome from Egypt and the Middle East. One type of rose was described as the one Heliogabalus might have used during his dinners. Apparently, Heliogabalus or Elagabalus was a Roman emperor who attained power at the age of 14 largely through the machinations of his aunt who put out the rumour that he was the son and rightful heir of the emperor Caracalla who had just died. Needless to say, Heliogabalus was not capable of ruling and furthermore led a life of considerable depravity, some would say he was likely deranged. Legend has it that he once invited his worst enemies to a lavish dinner. They suspected that something was afoot but the emperor was in such a jovial mood and the atmosphere was so festive that they soon relaxed and partook of the vast quantities of wine and food on offer. When the night progressed to the point where many of the guests were in a drunken stupor, all of a sudden rose petals began to float down from above.  The light shower of petals became a torrential downpour and many of the guests suffocated to death. Murder by flower petals!

TheRoses of Heliogabalus

The Roses of Heliogabalus

Last week, we went to an exhibition of works by English painters of the  Aesthetic Movement. The paintings were from the private collection of Perez Simon, among them many paintings by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It turned out that Alma-Tadema was fascinated by the tale of Heliogabalus and the rose petals and painted the scene in his studio in Paris. The painting is about 4 feet high by 7 feet wide and was the highlight of the exhibition. Not a great photo and you will find better images on the web but you can see Heliogabalus lying on the table wearing a golden dress. It is a beautiful painting and the rose petals look velvety and so real that you feel like touching them and you can almost imagine the perfume. Had I not been to the rose garden the week before and heard about Heliogabalus, I would have just thought of how pleasant it must be to have rose petals floating down on you. Instead, the painting is actually quite horrific when you know what is happening.

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Capers

Wild Caper Bushes

Wild Caper Bushes

While walking around the neighbourhood yesterday, I noticed that the caper flowers were in bloom. Although I’ve used capers in salads and garnishes for years, I had never actually seen capers growing until I came to Rome. Vatican city and some other associated religious institutions, are surrounded by very high brick walls and some are covered with wild caper bushes which grow in between the bricks and cascade down the walls.

Caper Flowers

Caper Flowers

Caper (Capparis spinosa) bushes, also called Flinders rose, are perennials which can tolerate both heat and cold. They are hardy plants which like arid, well-drained soil and can grow in cracks and crevices. The flowers are a very pale pink, almost white, with delicate petals and feathery stamens. Plants can survive for 25 to 30 years. In Italy, capers are cultivated in the south, mostly on the islands of Pantelleria and Salina off the coast of Sicily.

Caper Buds in Vinegar

Caper Buds in Vinegar

 What are sold in jars are the flower buds pickled in vinegar. Here in Italy, we often see them sold loose in salt. The buds have to be picked by hand which is why they are relatively expensive. When picked, they are graded by size and the smallest, also called nonpareil, are the most desirable as they are more aromatic and have a smoother texture. When capers are cured, they release mustard o1401521749288il which leads to the formation of a substance called rutin. Crystallized rutin forms the little white spots you often see on caper buds.

 Caper berries are the fruits which form after the buds have flowered.  They are like little olives and are milder in flavour. Recipes which call for capers cannot be substituted with caper berries. They are filled with little seeds and are usually sold pickled in vinegar with a bit of the stem still attached. They are delicious as a garnish. In biblical times, caper berries were considered to be an aphrodisiac. The Hebrew word for caper berries is abiyyonah which has the same root as the word for ‘desire’!

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A Quick Visit to Piacenza

Wild Poppies, Emilia-Romagna

Wild Poppies, Emilia-Romagna

I arrived in Rome at the end of last week and left the next morning for Piacenza in northern Italy where Fidz had a family gathering. We drove through Tuscany to Emilia-Romagna. The weather was beautiful, sunny blue skies, fields of poppies and roses in full bloom. Quite a change from spring in Ontario.

Palazzo Comunale

Palazzo Comunale

Piacenza derives its name from piacere ‘to please’ and is indeed very pleasing. Surrounded by walls complete with a moat, it dates back to Roman times. Although heavily bombed during the war, many medieval buildings in good condition still survive and there is an air of prosperity to the town. A lot of people travel around by bicycle (the old-fashioned kind) and life seems to proceed at a relaxed pace.

Il Duomo

Il Duomo

We were sitting in a cafe on the Piazza by the Duomo, said to be one of the finest Romanesque churches in Italy, dating back to the 12th century, when Fidz pointed out a curiousity on the bell tower. An iron cage was attached to it accessible by a narrow doorway.

La Gabbia del Duomo

La Gabbia del Duomo

Apparently, it was common in medieval times to place condemned people in such cages in order to make them suffer a public humiliation. This cage (la gabbia, which means iron cage) was commissioned in 1495 by Ludovico il Moro of the Sforza family who was then Duke of Milan, for people guilty of crimes against the church or state. No records exist as to its use so Fidz’s theory that people were doomed to slowly die of thirst and hunger might be true, though I think he’s exaggerating.

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Spring Miracles

 

Samuel Charles

Samuel Charles

Jacob Leo

Jacob Leo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What makes love stronger, days shorter, nights longer, bank balances smaller, homes happier, clothes dirtier, the past forgotten and the future worth living for? The answer is a new baby. We have been blessed to have two new firstborn babies in our extended family. Samuel Charles made his debut on April 15, the day after we arrived in Toronto and Jacob Leo joined us on May 10, just a couple of days before I return to Rome.

1400037118956I’m lucky to have the opportunity to spend a little time with Jacob who is placid and easy to please. Even though I’ve seen many newborns, I’m still fascinated by how small they are. It seems a miracle that their bodies can be so small and so perfect. Apparently, at 3 days, an infants stomach is the size of a walnut and only capable of holding about 25mL. Jacob’s entire forearm is the width of his mother’s hand. The real miracle is the joy that babies bring not only to their parents, but to all around them. I may be biased!

 

 

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Toronto’s New Aquarium

1399385946583

1399383729490A few days ago, we went to visit the newly opened Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, just next to the CN tower. Having seen aquariums (should this be aquaria?) in other places, I was expecting more of the same and I didn’t think any aquarium could come close to the one in Monterey, California so it was a surprise to find that our Toronto aquarium is actually quite spectacular.

1399384079972It includes a tropical reef lagoon, an exhibit of cold-water fish from the Great Lakes, a ray bay, a shark tank, a jellyfish tank and many other habitats. I’m calling these tanks for want of a better word but they are so huge that you can’t see the boundaries for most of them.

There is a 300 ft moving walkway through an acrylic tunnel deep below the 750,000-gallon Shark Lagoon, a habitat occupied by 10 –12 ft sand tiger sharks, largetooth sawfish and dozens of other species.

1399385716028 You can step on and off the walkway if you want to spend more time looking at something specific. In the tunnel, you are surrounded by water with fish swimming beside and above you. You really feel as if you are underwater.

There are supposedly around 13,500 exotic sea and freshwater creatures, comprising more than 450 species.

1399386209587The jellyfish tanks were spectacular. Jellyfish are transparent but turn a deep orange if exposed to uv light. There were pulses of uv light so that you could watch the jellyfish changing colour.

I found it interesting as to how to identify the gender of jellyfish. If you look closely, you will notice 4 little rings in the jellyfish ‘cup’. These are the gonads, pink in the females and white in the males.1399383922095

The sea horses were just gorgeous and there were different types including a spiny one that looked just like an aquatic plant.1399386552919

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What was really interesting was to get a glimpse of the ‘guts’ of the aquarium. There  was a room full of large tanks supplying water at different temperatures. I had never thought about the amount of engineering that is required to run an aquarium but it’s obvious when you think about it.1399386414815

I was mesmerized and could have spent hours just watching the sharks swimming around and th jellyfish changing colour. My photos do not do justice to the aquarium.

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A Little Piece of India in Toronto

Khalsa Day Parade 2014, Toronto

Khalsa Day Parade 2014, Toronto

1398799877429On Sunday, we were out walking in downtown Toronto when we suddenly felt that we had been transported to India. Thousands of Sikh men, women and children wearing traditional colours of saffron, yellow and blue filled the street. Apparently around 80,000 to 100,000 people had turned up to participate in the Khalsa Day parade which was proceeding towards city hall.

 Khalsa Day usually celebrated on April 13th or 14th, commemorates the birth of the Sikh religion founded in 1699 and marks the beginning of the Sikh New Year. It coincides with the celebration of the harvest festival, Vaisakhi, in northern India and the Punjab, and is also commemorated by Buddhists to mark the passing of Gautama Buddha. I’m not sure why Toronto held the parade on April 27th, perhaps the last Sunday in April?

 1398799965195Hair is held to be sacred in the Sikh religion and men are not supposed to cut their hair or shave their beards. It was a colourful and amazing sight to see so many turbans. The women are not supposed to even pluck their eyebrows but I imagine that only the very religious stick to this rule. One young Sikh man who we fell into conversation with, commented that he had never seen so many Sikhs all in the same place at the same time outside of India. Having travelled through India several times, the only time I’ve ever seen this many Sikhs together in the sub-continent was many years ago when I happened to be in Amritsar on the birthday of Guru Nanak who was the founder of the Sikh religion. According to census statistics, 2.9% of the Toronto population are followers of the Sikh religion.

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Happy Easter

Sanko Store Mural, Queen St, Toronto

Sanko Store Mural, Queen St, Toronto

Toronto. April 15

Toronto. April 15

Toronto has had a brutal winter, likely the worst winter on record. We came back for Easter expecting the weather to have taken a turn for  the better but the day after we arrived, we woke up in the morning to be greeted by snow and freezing temperatures. Still, its nice to be back and to catch up with family and friends.

I went in search of displays of Easter eggs in order to post an appropriate Easter photo but came across this fantastic mural instead. It spans the entire wall of a building on Queen St. and the scene above is only a small part of it. No cute Easter eggs but there is an egg in a bowl of noodles and frankly when we arrived a bowl of hot noodle soup was a darn sight more pleasing than a chocolate Easter egg. Thankfully, the weather has warmed up a little over the last couple of days and hopefully, it will continue to get better.

I wish all my readers a very happy Easter.

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Domenica di Palme (Palm Sunday)

1397420475711A number of the activities I’m involved in happen in the neighbourhood called Prati which is on the other side of the Vatican from where we live. The quickest way to get there is to cross Piazza San Pietro which is always interesting as there’s often something going, on in addition to the many tourists walking around. A few days ago, I watched with amazement as a huge gardening truck carrying several small olive trees, stopped by the obelisk at the centre and unloaded them. On my way back, the trees had been planted around the obelisk. I thought perhaps the Pope had decided on some novel garden landscaping but when I related this news about the olive trees to Fidz, he said “its for Palm Sunday”. He told me that here in Italy, its traditional to place baskets of olive branches in church and people take the branches home after Mass and hang them inside the front door.

DSC00032Palm Sunday, which is the sunday before Easter, commemorates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem where he was supposedly greeted with people waving palm branches. We were in a small village just outside Rome and this morning the church was packed. Some people were walking out of church with big bunches of olive branches even before the Mass had ended. Somehow, word must have gone out that the olive branches were running out as all of a sudden a car drove up and unloaded a whole pile more. These were carried into church and placed in a basket at the back while the service was going on. I didn’t wait to see the people coming out into the Piazza carrying their olive branches after Mass as my companions were eager to go for a walk but it was all quite fascinating!

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No Road Rage in Rome

1396961272777You would think that with the Italians being an excitable people and the traffic being a bit chaotic, there would be a lot of road rage here but no. In general, traffic flows fairly smoothly and people are tolerant and forgiving towards each other. This was brought home to me a few days ago when we had an unfortunate incident.

1396961353693Parking space is at a premium on the little hill where we live and one (not me!) has to parallel park within inches of the cars in front and behind.  Imagine how disconcerted we were when we got into the car and it wouldn’t start. Fidz thought the battery had somehow run down so he decided that he could likely start the car by putting it into gear while letting it roll down the hill. First the car had to be extricated out of the parking spot so with me steering and Fidz pushing and cursing, we somehow managed to get it out. Let me just say that it would have been easier with a tin opener! The road down the hill is not only very narrow but also winding so I was very nervous about this whole approach though I didn’t have a better one to propose. Well imagine our dismay when we reached the bottom of the hill and were unable to get the car started. It just gently ground to a halt right in the middle of the road coming up to a busy intersection. Fidz went off to get help while I waited in the car practising what I would say to the carabinieri or other people who stopped to find out why we were stopped in that critical location making a two way street now a one way in both directions. To my surprise, nobody honked, cursed or complained. Cars, buses, vans and even a small garbage truck just made their way around the car when the opportunity arose, without any fuss. After about 45 minutes, a mechanic arrived and jump-started the car and we went on our way. It was just amazing to me and I couldn’t imagine people being so tolerant in many other cities.

Speaking of traffic, people here are quite creative about turning traffic signs into artwork. I leave you with a few examples. 139696149155313969614192591396961590129

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A Spring Break in Florence

View of Florence

View of Florence

Florence is just an hour and a half by train from Rome and we decided to spend two days there before all the hotel rates went up in April and the city became jammed with tourists over the rest of the spring and summer.

Palazzo Guadagno Terrace

Palazzo Guadagno Terrace

We were lucky to get a good deal at a lovely hotel, the Palazzo Guadagni in the area called Santo Spirito, on the opposite side of the Arno from the Duomo. Up on the third floor of an old building wih a terrace on two sides and gorgeous views of the city, it was a lovely start to our visit.

Florence is a small city and all the sites are within walking distance. We explored the Boboli gardens of the Pitti Palace which were close to our hotel and then walked down the hill past Galileo’s house where he carrried out his astronomy observations. Florence is Renaissance capital of Italy and just walking around looking at the buildings is a pleasure.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

The side of the city which houses the Pitti Palace is full of antiquarian shops, little artsy stores and is less touristy than on the opposite side. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio which now houses mostly jewellery shops and made our way to the Uffizi Gallery.

 

 

Uffizi Gallery

Uffizi Gallery

The gallery itself is vast and quite an overwhelming experience with room after room of the most beautiful paintings by all the Renaissance masters and more. Too much to really take in all in a single visit. After a couple of hours there, all we had the energy for was to return to our hotel for a rest and go for dinner.

 

 

 

 

Il Latini

Il Latini

Florentine cuisine is quite ‘meaty’ with items such as wild boar and other game. Nice if the weather is cold but the temperature outside was 20C and the first official day of spring was March 21st so I guess they will be switching to a switch to a spring/summer menu soon. Anyhow, we ended up in this rustic restaurant and as soon as we sat down, they planked a large bottle of Chianti on the table and told us to drink whatever we wanted. My meat dish could have easily fed a family of four! At the end of dinner, they brought us Vin Santo, a dessert wine, and biscotti on the house and when the bill came, we were only charged for a glass of wine each at 3 Eur even though we had knocked back a few glasses.

 

View of the Duomo From a Side Street

View of the Duomo From a Side Street

 

The Baptistry Dome

The Baptistry Dome

The next day, I wanted to see inside the Duomo  which dominates Florence’s skyline and the Baptistry. Even now, in low season, there were line-ups for the major sites so we spent almost the whole morning lining up to get in. Perhaps we shouldn’t have spent so long dawdling on the terrace of our hotel eating breakfast! The Baptistry was spectacular. Converted from an old Roman temple with 13th cent gold mosaic work covering the dome, photograps don’t do it justice. The orignal gold plated doors by Ghiberti are now in the museum but the copy is actually very good and one can’t tell the difference.

We fitted in a few more sites after lunch but there’s so much to see in Florence that it’s impossible to do justice to it in two days. I’m looking forward to returning.

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