A Glimpse of The Pope

Papa Francesco, Via Gregorio VII

Papa Francesco, Via Gregorio VII

1395491142564Yesterday was officially the first day of spring in Italy. The weather in Rome has been sunny and warm for some time and yesterday was no exception so we went for a walk to the gardens of the Villa Borghese. On the way back, we noticed that there was a crowd of people lining a small area of our main street Gregorio VII, close to where we live. Carabinieri were stationed all around and the street was closed off, so of course we stopped to find out what was going on. Turned out that the Pope was due to arrive at the Church of San Gregorio (a rather ugly church in my opinion!). We decided to join the crowd to watch his arrival.

View of the Vatican from Via Gregorio VII

View of the Vatican from Via Gregorio VII

It was quite funny listening to people’s conversations and many were discussing how he would arrive. Would he be on the popemobile or would he just stroll down the steps close by, which lead from Vatican city down to the street? I guess the Pope has done away with a lot of pomp and ceremony and people think he might be walking about in the streets, which is maybe what he would prefer! Anyhow a few minutes later the Pope drew up in his car, just an ordinary dark coloured vehicle that anybody might be in. He stepped out and waved. He has a lovely smiling face and I was glad to have caught a glimpse of him.

 So why was the Pope there? Every year since 1996, the anti-Mafia group Libera has observed March 21st, the first day of spring, in memory of the victims of organized crime. The Pope attended a prayer vigil in the church and appealed to Italian gangsters to give up their lives of crime and avoid eternal damnation. An excellent appeal but I can’t imagine that there were any gangsters actually in church to hear his words. Anyhow, the newspapers have his message in their headlines today so the word is out!

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Great Beauty and Great Ugliness

Fontanone dell'Aqua Paola

Fontanone dell’Aqua Paola

Not far from where we live is the fountain above, which was featured in the opening scene of La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) which just won an Oscar. The fountain was actually built by Pope Paul V, the Borghese Pope who was also responsible for the completion of St Peter’s Basilica and who (as was the tradition in that time), made his nephew Scipione Borghese a cardinal. The latter was only 26 years old at the time and subsequently embarked on a career as patron and collector of the arts, so thanks to him we have the magnificent Villa Borghese. The fountain is fed by an aqueduct which brings in water from Lake Bracciano around 50km from Rome.

Viiew of Rome from Gianicolo Hill

View of Rome from Gianicolo Hill

Anyhow, in the opening scenes of the film, we see a Japanese tourist either fainting or dropping dead when he views the vista of Rome (see above), from the vantage point of the fountain which is on Gianicolo Hill.

 1394913618222It is interesting to hear what the Romans have to say about the movie. Many just hate it as it portrays a rich and decadent Rome which is a very far cry from how ordinary people live. People claim that it gives non-Romans a false picture of what life is really like in the city. The images of the city of Rome as portrayed in the movie actually do exist and and I have to say that central Rome really is very beautiful. However, most people can’t afford to live in the centre and just a couple of miles out of the historic centre are apartment buildings cheek by jowl and not what most tourists would see when they visit Rome. The ones built at the turn of the century and in the early 1900s are charming but the ones built in the 50s and 60s are positively ugly and I’m referring to middle class housing. 1394913454402In the periphery, it gets even uglier with concrete blocks side by side. Life in Rome is getting harder for many people with the present economic crisis. Many young people, even those who have completed their university education, can’t afford their own space and still live with their parents. The cost of living has gone up and even our friends who have jobs or pensions say that their money does not stretch as far as it used too. I really hope that the new government can bring about some change but the bureaurocratic wheels grind slow here so nobody is holding their breath. The movie shows a Rome that might be a reality for perhaps 1% of the population but many people are just surviving or actually struggling to make ends meet.

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The Start of Lent

IMG_2014030744111Its a beautiful sunny day here today and around 18C with lots of spring flowers in bloom as you can see above. A welcome change after a slightly wet week with cooler temperatures but quite a week. There were Carnival events at the weekend, on Monday, an Italian movie won an Oscar creating a stir, Tuesday was Martedi Grasso (pancake Tuesday) and Wednesday was Ash Wednesday marking the start of Lent or Quaresima as it’s called here. In the past month, shops have been selling carnival costumes (similar to what we see in the shops at Halloween in Canada) and little kids have been walking around all dressed up. 1394212227148I kept seeing what we call confetti (known as coriandoli here) in the streets and thought that there must have been a lot of weddings taking place but here they throw rice at weddings and coriandoli at Carnival.

 Incidentally, confetti here are those sugar coated almonds. A small town called Sulmona in the mountains in Arezzo is noted for making them and each shop there vies for a superior display by arranging them in the shapes of different flowers. They are usually given to guests at baptisms and weddings.1394212397831

 Anyhow, Martedi Grasso is traditionally the last day for feasting so there are parties and various celebrations. I had a choir practice that evening and to my surprise, after we were done, our choir leader produced bottles of sparkling wine and little snacks and pastries including those sheets of fried or baked dough sprinkled with icing sugar called chiacchiere or castagnole which are only made before Lent. On Ash Wednesday, the Pope traditionally leads a penitential procession on Aventine Hill from the Basilica of San Anselmo to the Basilica of Santa Sabina, where he says Mass and gives a homily. I didn’t go to this but on TV they showed Papa Francesco during the homily, facing a couple of pews of Cardinals saying “When I see in everyday life some power struggles to take up space, I think: ‘These people are playing God the Creator’. They still have not realized they are not God”. He certainly takes the bull by the horns. We all know that power struggles in the Vatican are not new, so I guess not everybody approves of his way of doing things.



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Italy’s New Prime Minister

Matteo Renzi and Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Matteo Renzi and Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

I live in a bit of a bubble here since I can’t read the newspapers easily nor can I follow the news commentaries on radio or TV. Its like being on a permanent vacation. However, even I have been drawn into an interest in politics with the appointment of Matteo Renzi as the new Prime Minister. He’s the third PM in a short space of time to be appointed by the President rather than elected. At 39, he’s the youngest PM in the history of Italy and has chosen a young cabinet with an average age of 48, half of whom are women. This in itself is notable since positions of power in the the Italian workforce are still very much male dominated. Sadly, it seems to me that already, the women are not being taken seriously. At their swearing-in ceremony, the media did not debate their capability (some are inexperienced and have heavyweight portfolios) but their fashion sense. Clothing, shoes, make-up and even tights were commented upon. I didn’t come across any comments on the men’s suits, ties or socks!

I must confess that I find Italian politics quite baffling. There are more than a dozen parties with ideologies ranging from extreme right to extreme left and its quite hard to keep track of them. The government is formed by a coalition of nine parties so getting agreement on anything is quite a feat. Then, any proposed change has to be approved by the Senate (upper chamber) as well as by the Chamber of Deputies (lower chamber). Membership of the two chambers is very different so approval by one does not automatically favour approval by the other. Incidentally, for some strange reason, those aged 25 and above can be voted for as representatives in the lower chamber but only those aged 40 and above can be voted onto the Senate. Furthermore, those 18 and over can vote for those in the lower chamber but you have to be 25 or over to vote for members of the Senate.  What I find most confusing is that leaders of the parties are not necessarily in Parliament. So for example, Renzi has never served in Parliament nor will he now that he’s the PM. Silvio Berlusconi lost his Parlimentary seat but remains as head of his party which recently split to create yet another party. Renzi has promised to cut taxes and reduce unemployment which is around 17% among the under 40s and over twice that among the under 25s. How he proposes to do this is not yet clear but everyone is waiting to see how it all shakes out. I hope that his reforms bode well both for Italy’s youth as well as its women.

Palazzo del Quirinale

Courtyard, Palazzo del Quirinale

Just as an aside, the President, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are all housed in different buildings.  The Senate is in Palazzo Madama near Piazza Navona,  and the Chamber of Deputies is in Palazzo Montecitorio just off Via del Corso. The President is in the Palazzo del Quirinale which sits on Quirinale Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome. It was once the seat of the reigning Pope and subsequently the Italian Kings. There is a church in the courtyard which one can’t normally enter except on Sunday morning when there is a free concert. Another item on my ‘to do list’!

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Lemon Bars


The lemon trees in our neighbourhood are loaded with fruit right now and it’s there for the taking. The branches hang over the walls of people’s gardens and if not picked, the lemons just fall on the ground and rot. Same for the oranges. Since I love that tart lemony taste, both in savoury food as well as in sweets, we’ve been picking lots of lemons.

1393248564113Last week, I made some lemon bars which were yummy. I found the recipe on the internet in ‘Mel’s Kitchen Cafe‘ but made a few minor modifications (mainly less sugar) so here it is. The shortbread crust was delicious in itself and the addition of the lemon topping was sheer decadence. I did end up freezing some of the bars as I had made an orange olive oil cake the day before so we had a glut of teatime treats, but they taste better when fresh. So make them and eat them, which is not difficult to do!


13/4 cups (~260g) all purpose flour

2/3 cup (150g) icing sugar

1/4 cup (~40g) corn starch

1/4 tsp salt

6 oz (175g) butter



4 large eggs

1 cup (225g) sugar

3 tabspns flour

2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

2/3 cup (160mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 3 lemons)

1/3 cup (80mL) milk

pinch of salt

Sift the flour, sugar, salt and cornstarch. Cut in the butter and mix to form a dough. Press into a 9 X 13″ tin and leave to chill for 1/2 to 1h. Heat oven to 180C (350F) and bake crust until golden brown ~ 20 mins. Lower temperature to 170C (325F).

While crust is baking, beat the eggs, then beat in the sugar and flour. Add lemon juice, milk and zest and mix well. Pour over hot crust (the crust should not be left to cool). The topping is very liquid at this stage and one can’t imagine it thickening but it does. Bake 20-30 mins until topping is firm to the touch. Cut into squares and dust with icing sugar.

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Papa Francesco and Valentine’s Day

1389693535858In honour of Valentine’s day, I’m posting a picture of the above sculpture which we saw on a column in one of the temples in Kanchipuram. Several temples have erotic sculptures which can be quite explicit. Some of the gopurams have a small series of naked figures in one of the corners. We were gazing at these in one of the temples we visited when an elderly man came up to us and explained that they were there as a form of sex education for young people who in the old days would have no other way of finding out about the facts of life. But I digress……………..

 We returned to Rome just before Valentine’s day and heard that Papa Francesco, for the first time in the history of the church, was celebrating the day by blessing couples engaged to be married. The ceremony, originally planned for 7,000 was to be held in the Nervi Auditorium. However, the response was so positive that around 25,000 were expected and the event was held in St. Peter’s Square.

pic20140217153727The weather is bright and sunny here and since we live a few minutes walk from St. Peter’s, we wandered down to take a look. The Square was packed with people holding flags and balloons. There were readings by various people on marriage interspersed with pop songs about love. A bit of a media circus in my opinion but then I’m old and cynical! The Pope tweeted a message saying “Dear young people, don’t be afraid to marry. A faithful and fruitful marriage will bring you happiness.” He later mingled with the couples and gave his blessings.

 1392648089940We did not celebrate the day with anything special but we did go to Lake Bracciano for Sunday lunch yesterday where we enjoyed a fine meal in a restaurant on the edge of the water, with Valentine’s day decorations hanging from the windows. Not that we chose this restaurant because of that but rather for the food. You know you’re getting old when food is more important than romance!





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Travelling and Eating in Tamil Nadu

1391592046726We’ve actually left Tamil Nadu and are enjoying the sunny beaches of Goa. Since I’ve already written about Goa in a previous post, I thought I would describe our travels in Tamil Nadu in general, and tell you something about the food there.

1391933135133We had flown to Chennai with a good idea of the places we were going to visit ( Mammalapuram, Kanchipuram, Pondicherry, Thanjavur, Vailankanni, Trichy, Madura; see map) but with no plan of how to get from one place to the next. Most of our destinations were 60 to 100km apart and we discovered that hiring a car with a driver to cover these distances only cost around $25 – $35. 1391932630332

We figured that this was a good deal and we ended up choosing this means of transport for the most part. Since we arranged our cars on the street rather than through our hotel (more expensive) and didn’t want air-conditioning as we like travelling with the windows open, we sometimes ended up with ancient vehicles and on one occasion, an equally ancient driver who drove in his bare feet and didn’t speak a word of English. Within the towns, we took auto rickshaws which are plentiful and sometimes creatively painted. The roads have all manner of vehicles, bullock carts, bicycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, cars and trucks, all going at their own pace. Almost all trucks have a colourful painted sign saying ‘Horn OK or Horn Please’. The horn is used to warn the vehicle in front that you are behind them and need to be given way. Surprisingly, this works well and the traffic always seems to flow smoothly despite the narrow roads and variety of vehicles. I’ve been in more traffic jams in Toronto than we ever came across in India.

 1392136453382One of the nice things about having a car at your disposal is that you get to see the countryside and you can stop where you like. Tamil Nadu produces a lot of rice and we drove through vast fields of rice paddies. Because it was the end of the second monsoon, the rice was in the process of being harvested. This is still done by hand for the most part though we did see a couple of mechanized harvesters. It’s a backbreaking job to harvest rice manually and the wastage is enormous. Over 40% of the crop is lost through inefficient harvesting, loss to rodents, and spoilage. Many plant researchers are aiming to develop more prolific rice plants but it seems to me that it would make more sense to find ways of improving harvesting and storage.

pic201402112210371391934712524Many of the villages still have mud huts with thatched roofs. The next step above is a tiled roof and the more affluent have a brick or concrete house often painted in funky colours. Every village has a little market area with vendors selling fruit and vegetables and there’s always a stall selling flower garlands which are placed on shrines or thin jasmine garlands sold by length for women to decorate their hair. It was good to see schools in rural areas and it pleased me to see lots of young girls on their way to school.


pic20140209140723The food in Tamil Nadu is pretty spicy even for breakfast. Breakfast consists of little steamed rice cakes called idli or coconut and rice pancakes called oothapam served with a thin lentil curry and a cocunut chutney, or a spicy type of fried doughnut, or deep-fried very thin rounds of dough called puris served with curried chickpeas. Dosas, paper-thin, very large rice pancakes are eaten at all times of day and are served plain or with various fillings. The coffee which is grown in south India is excellent and just delicious. Fidz thought it was as good as coffee in Italy which is high praise indeed! Lots of street stalls sell coffee and it is served in a little glass together with a little pot so that you can pour from one to the other to make it frothy and cool it down.

pic20140209140810Food, even in many restaurants, is served on a banana leaf and there are vendors in the market, just selling banana leaves. Most people eat with their hands and every restaurant has a wash-hand basin so you can wash your hands before and after dinner. Luckily, they provide foreigners with cutlery which was lucky as we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat rice with our hands!

1391932783073Our best meal was at a seaside shack in Velankanni where we had freshly caught sole and lobster, grilled right there in front of us, and served (at our request) with just salt and lemon. No cutlery, even for foreigners here but we managed quite well with our hands.



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Temples in Tamil Nadu

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy, Rooftop View

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy, Rooftop View

Tamil Nadu has a number of towns where there are Hindu temples going back to the 7th century. Temple architecture in the south is different from that in the north. Typically there is an outer enclosure and the entrance is surmounted by a high decorative tower called a gopuram. Within the enclosure is the main shrine often adorned with a gold dome, and I’m not talking about paint but plated with real gold!

Gopuram Detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Gopuram Detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Some of the larger temples have more than one enclosure like the Ranganatha temple just outside Trichy which has seven and which is one of the largest in India. The Meenakshi temple in Madurai has a single enclosure but it has four entrances each with a huge ornate gopuram. The more ornate gopurams are rich with painted iconography with images so packed together that its hard to take them all in.

Brideshwara Temple Detail, Thanjavur

Brideshwara Temple Detail, Thanjavur

I preferred the older Chola dynasty stone gopurams which have spectacular carvings. The detail worked in stone is exquisite.

1389716622554The innermost enclosure contains the main shrine devoted to a particular god and within the enclosures, are minor shrines. Lots of activities going on in the outer enclosures. There is food such as coconuts and rice for offerings on sale. There are areas where food is cooked in some temples which is given out to the poorer devotees. Some people just seem to be sitting around, either waiting for a specific prayer time or perhaps the temple is a more pleasant place to sit than being out in the street. All the priests are men but it seemed that the majority of devotees were women, just like in our churches!

1391564767492Tamil Nadu has churches and mosques as well. What I found most interesting about these is that they have elements of Hindu temple worship. You don’t enter churches without removing your shoes and many have large spaces in front of the altar where you sit on the floor. In a church in Vailankanni which is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, I saw a man approaching the altar with a small coconut tree with the coconut still attached to the end which he left by the side of the altar. Immediately outside was a large tonsure hall where pilgrims could get their heads shaved which is often done among Hindus as a form of sacrifice and devotion.

Mosque, Nagore

Mosque, Nagore

We visited a Moslem mosque in Nagore whch had an outer enclosure with five turrets, closer in style to a gopuram than a minaret, with both men and women praying at the same time whereas in most traditional Moslem mosques, men and women pray in separate areas. The chants sounded more like Carnatic music than Islamic. Again, there were people just sitting in the courtyard looking like they were just passing time. All in all, religion seems more like a way of life here than it seems to be in the west.


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Ecole Francaise D'Extreme Orient

Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient

The Union Territory of Pondicherry (now called Puducherry) actually comprises a small district separate from the state of Tamil Nadu with its own Chief Minister. The city itself is on the sea about 100km south of Mammalipuram. It was owned by the French until 1954 and there are local people who speak French perfectly.

1390321192304Shocking though it seems now, the city was once divided into the French Quarter called Ville Blanche (White Town) and the Indian Quarter called Ville Noir (Black Town). Still referred to by the same names on maps, the two sections are separated by a narrow canal and the difference between the two towns is striking. White Town is closest to the sea and has wide tree-lined streets with French names and colonial style buildings. With its 2km sea wall and Promenade, and high-end restaurants and heritage hotels, it’s a little like a small town on the Cote d’Azure. Black Town has narrow, crowded, and busy streets and is like every other small town in India. Needless to say, people now move freely about the city.

1390321376574The Promenade on the seafront is a busy place in the evenings with people walking briskly for exercise and others strolling about chatting with their friends. The temperature at this time of year is perfect. About 25C to 30C during the day with an ocean breeze dropping to the low 20s in the evenings. We noticed quite a few people walking around with what appeared to be headphones except that they didn’t quite fit into the headphone wearing demographic (granny in a saree). We realized that they were wearing earmuffs for the cold! If you look closely at this photo, the husband is wearing earmuffs and the wife has a wooly hat.

Matrimandir, Auroville

Matrimandir, Auroville

Pondicherry was a trading port in antiquity and interestingly, remains of Roman amphorae dating to the 1st and 2nd century AD were discovered at Arikamedu,  an archaeological site about 7km south of the city. The amphorae contained garum (fermented fish sauce), olive oil and wine. Incidentally, the ones carrying wine were the most plentiful! Presumably, the Romans brought these goods to India and went back with pepper and spices since pepper was worth more than gold at that time. Speaking of gold, just outside the city is the experimental township of Auroville which has a huge building in the form of a gold sphere called the Matrimandir, at its centre. Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman called Mirra Alfassa (also known as ‘The Mother’) to be a place where all nations could live in harmony and not be separated by race, politics or religion but pursue a higher consciousness. Over 2,000 people from a number of different countries live in Auroville and the Matrimandir is the meditation centre.  The Mother was closely linked with Sri Aurobindo, a philosopher and yogi who founded the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. No ‘White’ and ‘Black’ towns here but I couldn’t help wondering how many poor Indians could have been fed or educated with the money it took to build the Matrimandir.

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Mammalipuram and More Festivals

Panch Rathas

Panch Rathas

Arjuna's Penance

Arjuna’s Penance

Mammalipuram (formerly called Mahabalipuram) is a small coastal town about 60km south of Chennai.  It is famous for its Pallava Dynasty (7th – 8th century) monolithic, rock-cut temples and shrines.  They really are quite amazing with fine relief sculptures carved out of the granite. There is a small hill on one side of the town with many of these cave shrines and close to the shore is a group of five called the Panch Rathas.

1390225901549The Pongal festival which lasts for 4 days was still on when we were there and as in Kanchipuram, there were elaborate sand paintings outside the doorways.

Many day-trippers from the surrounding villages had come into the town to picnic and celebrate as Pongal is a holiday. The town was teeming with people and it was a challenge to see inside the smaller shrines as everyone seemed to want to take family photographs with various combinations of family members in front of the most interesting sculptures. After a while of patient waiting, we gave up and just enjoyed watching the people.

Krishna's Butter Ball

Krishna’s Butter Ball

There is a giant boulder on the hill called Krishna’s Butter Ball (the deity Krishna was playful and liked to steal butter!). It is about 5 metres wide and is delicately balanced on a smooth surface, apparently defying the laws of physics. Of course, many wanted to be photographed appearing to hold the boulder in their palm and it was quite funny watching these whacky photos being taken.

1390226064020We were lucky to be in Mammalipuram during a classical Indian dance festival. Performances were held every evening outside the Shore Temple and since they were free, we took advantage of that and went every evening we were there. Most of the performances were Bharatnatyam which we love to watch. The dancers performed with live musicians and their movements and facial expressions were spell-binding.

The day we left Mammalipuram, bikers on all types of motorbikes were riding into the town from all directions. There was some sort of a biker’s festival scheduled for that day. Though it might have been interesting to watch, the noise on the narrow streets was deafening. A good time to leave!

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