Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Cabbages and Kings

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

We passed a nice couple of days with Mum and Dad back in the UK, but spent most of the Christmas period in Venice. Indeed, we're still not quite back at work yet as Epiphany, the 6th January, is a bigger deal in Italy than it is in the UK. Indeed, some of my kids from Eastern Europe tell me that it's more important in the Orthodox calendar than Christmas.
   The importance derives from the three kings (and yes, it's more accurate to refer to them as "the wise men" or "the magi", but if I do that the title of this posting won't make any sense) recognising the infant Christ as the manifestation of God as man. Weighty stuff, to be sure. But if you're an Italian kid, there's also the not inconsiderable matter of La Befana to consider. La Befana has, I suppose, the trappings of a witch in that she arrives at your house on a broomstick, but she also seems to be a rather more benign figure...one tradition has it that she gave directions to the three kings (yes yes, the magi) on their journey. In any case, she arrives with presents for good children or a piece of coal or a stick for the bad ones. So Italian kids get a sort of secondary Christmas day in order to brace them for the return to school.

   On the subject of presents, our students looked after us well again this year. I got a bottle and a magnum of prosecco, and a splendid meal out. Caroline got a box of chocolates, a bottle of grappa (huzzah!), some flowers and a block of foie gras (for which we will assuredly go to hell). And I have to mention our neighbours at this point. We have nice people in our block. We may not be asking each other round to dinner every weekend but people look after each other here. And everyone tries to make a big thing about Christmas. We felt we were letting the side down a bit, as the only visible sign of the season that we displayed at first was a poster for a concert I was in, taped to the door. But when we saw the efforts that everyone else was going to, we realised we had to step it up a bit.

   We received this little biscuit for the festival of San Martino back in November :-

   Then some biscuits and a little calendar attached to a tree for Christmas :-

   And these, from La Befana herself, for Epiphany :-

Everyone in the block made a bit of an effort, without exception We just stuck a wreath over the door (and that's something I've never done before) but others pushed the boat out a bit more :-

It didn't stop there. The entire stairwell and entrance hall was decorated.

We didn't have any lights on our balcony either, which many people did. Maybe next year...

    So we're back to work tomorrow, after a long break. It will, I suppose, be nice to get back to slightly more normal eating : we bought a goose as a post-Christmas / pre-New Year treat. We got two roast dinners, a pasta bake, soup, lots of stock and a tub of goose fat off it. Now, nothing goes quite as well with a roast goose as some braised red cabbage. Only this year I got the measurements slightly off. I thought I'd made enough for the two roast dinners, but it turned out there was enough as a side dish for the following couple of nights. And way, way beyond. By the end of the week we were eating it with baked sea bream, not an obvious combination, just to get rid of it. And if we hadn't done that, it would probably have found its way into a sandwich. Oddly enough, it seemed to get better every night. Possibly because I kept feeding it with red wine. There's still half a head of cabbage left...I foresee a lot of borscht in our future.

   It seems like an intimidatingly long time until the next proper holiday. The Easter holidays are no more than a couple of days here, so it's pretty much straight through now until the end of June. Still, it's been a good break. The next thing, I suppose, will be decorating the front door for Carnevale...

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year's Eve

I didn't know this, but the Freccia rail service in Italy offers 2-for-1 deals on Saturdays, and also on a number of public holidays. So we spent New Year's Eve in Vicenza, just 40 minutes by train from Venice.

   Vicenza is linked indelibly with Andrea Palladio - there are no fewer than 23 monuments attributed to him in the centro storico. But the main reason for our visit was an exhibition at the Basilica Palladiana.

   The exhibition, Tutankhamon, Caravaggio, Van Gogh is one of curator Marco Goldin's "blockbuster" events. Goldin is an interesting character, the curator as celebrity. This has brought him into conflict with a number of critics in Italy, most notably the rebarbative (and thoroughly mad) Vittorio Sgarbi, who see him as something of a vulgar showman instead of a suitably reverent custodian of fine art. His exhibitions, the accusation runs, are not so much curated as much as they are a throwing together of Really Great Stuff.

   It has to be admitted, the linking theme of the exhibition - depictions, figuratively and literally, of the night and sunset - is paper thin; and Goldin's pompous, over-the-top narration on the audio guide doesn't help matters. The explanatory text - light grey against a slightly-less-light-grey background - is almost impossible to read, and is rarely worth the trouble of persevering with. But if the theme is weak, and the presentation irritating, it has to be admitted that Goldin has indeed managed to assemble an array of Really Great Stuff. Lots of it. Too much to mention really, but there are two-and-a-half works by Caravaggio I'd never seen before - Narcissus (which is possibly not by him at all), the Dream of St Francis and the stunning Martha and Mary Magdalene. Stunning in an entering-the-room-and-thinking "whoah, what did I just see there?" way. It's on loan from a gallery in Detroit. I am never going to go to Detroit, and so it may be that I will never see it again...

   The exhibition is on until the 2nd June. If you're in the area, you need to see it. Just ignore the presentation and concentrate on the Really Great Stuff. Oh, and get there early - we were there at 10am, but the crush was becoming unbearable by midday.

   We had a reasonably priced lunch at a nearby bar (which served something called a spritz macchiato which we couldn't really imagine and should have investigated further), and then spent the afternoon working our way through some of the main Palladio-related sights. The Teatro Olimpico is an extraordinary building. Completed after Palladio's death, the first performance - in 1585 - was of Oedipus Rex; the sets of which, miraculously, survive in situ to this day. It must be an amazing space in which to see a performance (with the caveat that, for conservation reasons, there is neither heating nor air-conditioning).

   On to the civic museum at the Palazzo Chiericati - interesting, although there's no particularly great art to be seen - and then to the Tempio di Santa Corona. Palladio designed the Valmarana Chapel here, and was himself buried in the church (although it seems he was uplifted and moved elsewhere over a hundred years ago). There's an Adoration of the Magi by Veronese here, and a magnificent Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Bellini which is reason in itself to make the trip.

   As for the rest of Vicenza...well, it was cold. Very cold. We scurried around trying to find the right stop for the bus back to the station (not so easy, as the one-way system is a bit confusing) and a bar where we could get a hot chocolate or mulled wine to get some heat back into our bones. I became aware that the soles of my boots had worn painfully thin, and that I might as well have been walking the icy streets in my socks.  I'd like to go back when the temperature creeps above zero. And in warmer shoes.

   We arrived home mid-evening, and I made dinner from the remains of our post-Christmas goose. We'd just about stopped shivering but the thought of walking down to San Marco to watch the fireworks was not a pleasant one. In fact, even taking the lift up to the altana seemed a step too far. It had been a long day, and we ended up sleeping through the whole thing. 2014 was a year to forget and remember in equal measure. 2015 will be better. Buon Anno everyone.