Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Vatican City: Sistine Chapel

Frankly, I thought the Holy See was the Pope. I didn't know that it is the sovereign entity, headed by the Pope, that governs the state of Vatican City. In fact, I didn't know (and still don't) much about the Vatican City, except that that's where the Pope lives and also that's where I can see Michelangelo's The Last Judgment and The Creation Of Adam. You may, like me, remember The Creation Of Adam as a painting of God and Adam's ET moment.

Some trivia I picked up regarding the Vatican City: the guys in clown costumes are the Swiss Guards, the population of Vatican City is less than 1,000, the Pope rides in a motorcade around St Peter's Square on Wednesday morning and addresses the crowds from the balcony of the St Peter's Basilica, St Peter is buried in the church named after him, the art collection of the Vatican is comparable to that of The Louvre (my opinion) and Italians/Europeans/tourists in St Peter's Square jump queues all the time.


This is the line for the entrance into the part of the Vatican that leads to the Sistine Chapel. Although it was a Wed morning, none of us wanted to meet the Pope. I had a change of heart about 5 steps from the entrance into the Sistine Chapel but that meant leaving the line and walking to St Peter's Square (entrance is a short walk behind the end of the queue on the left of the photo). It would have been quite exhilarating to be part of the thousands in the square, judging from the photos taken by someone who was there on the same day. So remember that, the Pope says hi on Wednesdays and there are two entrances, one into the Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel and one into St Peter's Square.


The perfectly manicured gardens of the Vatican museums with the Cupola of St Peter's Square in the background. You can't get to St Peter's Square from the Chapel. 

The museums of the Vatican are astounding in their collection of art and masterpieces. There are thousands of sculptures and paintings in the museums. Hundreds and thousands of them, some surprisingly not what you think the Church would own. Made me realize again how wealthy the RC Church is. Just going through the museums will take more than a day. Those who don't like art and paintings can skip the museums (but what a pity) and go straight to the Sistine Chapel. At least do a quick stroll like what we did, although that left me with a dissatisfied feeling.

Famous statues.

The many statues of gods and heros from Greek mythology in the museum grounds.  Charismatic Christians, proceed with caution.   

Beautiful, elaborate and intricate mosaic floors.

Don't miss the ceilings, which are all painted beautifully.

Besides the awesome paintings on the ceilings, the maps of Italy on the walls drawn by a band of brothers hundreds of years ago were also amazing. Don't forget that there were no airplanes, no GPS, no computers and little navigational tools in those days.

The Last Supper on the walls. What did they eat, other than bread and wine? There's fish and there's...

...a little lamb? Whatever it was, Jesus liberated us from kosher and halal food, didn't he?

A pieta (pity) is a piece of art, usually a sculpture, showing Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus.

You must be familiar with this: Men's brokenness becomes whole through salvation.


Finally, you are in that room. The room is packed tight. Everyone is looking up, trying to see among all the paintings and drawings on the ceiling. And there it is, The Creation Of Adam. A thrill runs down your limbs. A deal was struck with the restorers and the Vatican whereby no photography is allowed of the restored painting. The guards are shouting "No Photos!!" but people continue to click away because the room is so crowded. One of us managed to take this photo. Trivia:  God's finger and Adam's DO NOT connect.

The Last Judgment, the most famous painting in the Sistine Chapel, covered the whole wall behind the altar. Nobody dared to take any photos. It was a goosebumps and tight scalp moment for me. The painting was huge and there were lots of naked bodies. Michelangelo was truly amazing, finishing all the paintings on the ceiling in four years, balanced on scaffolding. Why did the renaissance period flourish so greatly and no other art and cultural movement since then has come close to it? Whatever the reasons, European countries are still reaping from the movement. Michelangelo and his peers wouldn't have known then that they would contribute so much to the income of Italy and Europe.

Do not miss the Sistine Chapel and museums of the Vatican when in Rome. Next time I'm there, I'll get a local guide and spend a few days going through the art collection.

Monday, November 29, 2010

More Of Rome

Small cars are de rigueur in Europe and especially in Italy. After Europe, I am thinking of down-sizing my car.

Mr Bean was here.

This car fits one person only! Now if only everybody drives such cars in the cities, there'll be no parking problems and maybe even road fatalities. It's like driving a go-kart.

A walk in Trastevere is absolutely necessary, if you visit Rome. This is the old Roman district, where families still live and the corner stores are still operated by moms and pops.

Look at what bougainvillas can look like.

Whenever I saw them, I'd buy them, the large oval cherry tomatoes that are so sweet and bursting with tomato flavor. 

A coffee and an Italian pastry--heaven.

There are lots of buskers in the streets of Trastevere, such as this artist who could do a painting in 10 minutes, using spray cans and stencils.

Night life in Trastevere is fun, romantic, charming and totally what I imagined Italy would be.

This simple spaghetti with ragu (bolognese) sauce was excellent. What made it better than my ragu sauce was 1) there was less meat 2) fresh tomatoes and puree were used instead of paste, giving a fresher, lighter taste and 3) the pasta was very al dente.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Alla Scala Gelateria, Rome


I mentioned in my earlier posts that the best gelati we ate was in Italy Europe. This is it, Alla Scala Gelateria.

I read in Rick Steves' Best Of Europe (yes, it's the travel bible for Europe) that Florence has the best gelati in Italy but some authorities (cookbooks) rated Rome's gelati higher than Florence's. I think it's hard to get a bad gelati in Italy, especially the ones made with natural ingredients and fresh, quality fruits instead of concentrates or whatever it is they use. You can tell by the duller colors and the tin canisters that the gelati will be good. The less delicious gelati come in bright colors and plastic tubs.

Alla Scala Gelateria (also recommended by Rick; I got to meet this guy!) is a very small gelateria, with standing room for about 4 people only and no place to sit. When writing this post, I googled Scala and found that it makes the list in the top gelateria in Rome. The best gelateria that leads the pack  in Rome, however, is San Crispino (especially after "Eat, Pray, Love"), which I had written down on my notebook but didn't search for because by the time we got to Trevi Fountain, we were too tired.

I don't read Italian but I see the mention of Giolitti, Rome's famous gelati and believe me, Giolitti is to Rome as Ben & Jerry's is to the US--famous because they are long established--and personally, Ben & Jerry's ice cream is about the worst you can eat although Giolitti is very good.

A one-man show: the owner makes the gelati and the brioches and is the only staff in the shop. 

There weren't many flavors to choose from, unlike most gelateria, but the lack in quantity is made up by the quality. Scala's gelati is made daily in small batches to manitain quality and freshness and if a flavor runs out, too bad for you. Scala's top flavor is canella (cinnamon) which unfortunately we didn't know about and so didn't try.

Scala's suggestive brioches (and purposefully placed backdrop).

 I keep a little notebook when I travel, scribbled with names and addresses of restaurants. The brioche was dry eaten on its own but this is how the Italians eat it:

As a gelati sandwich.

Our favorite flavor was pistachio.

Gelati so pure with real flavors that you know straightaway. The difference is so obvious that your tongue will tell you that it's the smoothest, creamiest, finest, tastiest, purest gelati it has ever tasted for you.  Scala's gelati were also the least sweet of all the gelati I ate. The only snag is, they melt faster than other gelati so you have to eat them very quickly or they just stream down your hand, even in cool weather. I like to think that it is because they are so unadulterated with additives like stabilizers. And ladies and gentlemen, for gelati so beyond comparison, Scala's gelato cone is only 1.50 euros!

Yippee! It's free!

We kept trying all the different flavors, eating the gelati standing outside the shop, oohing and aahing as we ate. On the 7th time going into the shop Yi came out with a freebie (super sized), thrilled as a little girl should be in an ice cream shop, as you can see. In fact, when I looked at our photos, I have one of each of us coming out of the shop grinning triumphantly, gelato in hand.


Alla Scala Gelateria is at Via della Scala, 51, Trastevere, Rome. In the photo above, it is in the middle with a bush of  creeping jasmine at the door. Just opposite is a small church (the Santa Maria?) where we passed by and saw the owner, finally resting on the steps. He recognized us, waved, and we restrained ourselves from rushing over to get his autograph.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Osteria da Lucia, Rome

 Outside of Italy, Italian food tends to be heavy and robust and most first-time visitors to Italy find authentic Italian food too simple and light in terms of flavor. I think you have to re-set your palate and expectations to savor the freshness and simplicity of the cuisine. This was my second dinner in Italy and I was slightly disappointed because I wasn't used to the lack of meat even in meat dishes. Remember this was my first time to Italy. When I returned to Italy a month later, I loved the lightness and simplicity of the dishes made with fresh ingredients and without much condiments.

This restaurant was highly recommended by Rick Steves in his book, Best Of Europe. I think it was Osteria da Lucia in Trastevere, the old district of Rome. Osteria is a trattoria, family-run restaurant. We ordered the Roman dishes that Rick had recommended. The portions were rather stingy.

This was one of the best bread we ate in Italy and for me, it was a welcome change from baguettes.

I can't remember the name but it was a beef dish.

Trippa alla romano is a Roman dish of braised beef tripe. Tangy and good, full of tripe flavor.

Another famous Roman dish, alla amatriciana, which hardly had any guanciale or pig cheeks bacon.

Again, memory fails me but I do remember that this was a tasty pasta. The strong al dente-ness of the pasta surprised me. Back home, the pasta would've been considered too hard. It was a revelation to me what al dente should be.

We wanted to try another recommended restaurant just a few steps up from Osteria so we went there for dessert. They weren't happy that we weren't ordering dinner and said we had to order at least one main dish. We thought that was quite bossy and it was unnecessary to eat more than what we wanted so we left. There were plenty of places to eat and we didn't need to bow to any stupid rules.

Yihu Restaurant, Shanghai, Part 2

These were the 11 delicious hot dishes we ate at Yihu, after the 10 cold ones:

Steamed fish fillets--very tender and delicate fish but sauce was bland.

Crystal prawns, loved for their tenderness and el dente bite.

The photo says it all. Delicious beyond words.

Baby eels in a rich soy sauce.

Fish maw hot pot, very yum.

Squid in a bean sauce.

Sprouts with 3 kinds of eggs (fresh egg, salted egg and century egg) in superior stock.

Crunchy dish of stir-fried chicken giblets, bamboo shoots and peppers.

Soft and silky fried tofu balls with assorted veg.

Steamed razor clams in a hot chili sauce.

Beancurd strips and Chinese ham, a Shanghainese favorite.

Four types of desserts:

Mini egg tarts. I didn't eat these because I can tell by the color that the custard's not worth eating.

Deep fried flaky radish puffs.

Jiu niang (newly fermented rice) with tang yuen (glutinous balls) and peaches soup.

An excellent dish of baked flaky soft buns with a meat and spring onions filling. One of those things to crave for if you're on death row.

That was a meal of 25 dishes!
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