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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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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