Showtime in Toronto

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

We recently made a quick visit to Toronto for a concert. Los Lobos have been on my musical bucket list for a while and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to see them.  Before showtime, however, we had a couple of stops to make.

Toronto has a great transit pass offer on weekends: 2 adults (and up to 4 children) can ride all day for a total of $12.00.  With single rides costing $3.25 cash, the pass pays for itself if 2 adults take one return trip.   We did that…and much more.

The Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto
The Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto

Our first stop was a neighbourhood that used to be known as “Little India”.  Somehow, I had never visited this part of Gerrard Avenue East (between Greenwood and Coxwell) despite living in Toronto for 3 years.  It’s now known as the “Gerrard India Bazaar” but it still has several blocks of restaurants and shops featuring food and clothing from the Indian subcontinent.

We were hungry and slightly overwhelmed by the number of restaurants, so we went to the first one that looked a little different from Kingston’s Indian restaurants.  Karma’s Kitchen featured Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan cuisine; I settled on a sizzling plate called Chicken Tangra.

Chicken Tangra at Karma's Kitchen in Toronto
Chicken Tangra at Karma’s Kitchen in Toronto

After picking up some unusual food items (including a delicious Punjabi peanut brittle!) for home and dropping them off at our hotel, we did some music shopping in the Queen West/Spadina neighbourhood and then headed to The Annex.

I lived on the edge of The Annex many years ago and often visited this part of town for dinner and/or entertainment….and so it was on this night, as we visited the venerable Country Style Hungarian Restaurant on Bloor Street West.   As you can see from the photo, the size of the schnitzel did not disappoint!  There was lots of spätzle underneath and a cucumber salad besides.   It’s not fancy but you cannot possibly leave hungry.

Chicken Schnitzel at Country Style Hungarian Restaurant
Chicken Schnitzel at Country Style Hungarian Restaurant

We sauntered slowly from the restaurant to the concert venue.  It was all quite promising:  an acclaimed band, an acoustically renowned concert hall, a supposedly “unplugged” concert theme, and seats in the first row of the side balcony, right by the stage.  We looked forward to seeing and hearing with astonishing clarity.

Well, we did *see* Los Lobos up close.  Unfortunately, the concert was marred by unbalanced and muddy sound.  It was strange to be only a short distance from the saxophone player and yet not hear any of the notes he was obviously playing.  Same with the vocals; in fact, even the announcements (without music) at the start of the concert were unintelligible.  However, we did hear plenty of the wall of guitars.   Our ears rang for quite some time afterwards; this was certainly not an unplugged or acoustic performance.

Los Lobos at Koerner Hall in Toronto: this band has been together for more than 40 years!
Los Lobos in Toronto: this band has been together for more than 40 years!

I walked the length of the balcony, to see if we were in a sonic “dead zone”, but things didn’t seem to be any better.  Los Lobos finished their concert with a seamless medley of “La Bamba” and the Rascals’ “Good Lovin'”.  They clearly are accomplished and adventurous musicians – other songs wandered into portions of “Not Fade Away” and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” before returning to the original Los Lobos song.

Despite the disappointing sound at the concert, our trip was still a success…particularly with some great finds the next morning at the antique market and spectacular gelato (as always) at “G is for Gelato” on Jarvis Street.   And we can listen to brilliant albums like “Kiko” at home anytime!

Arrivederci, Italia!

(Torino, Italy)

My last two days in Italy were blessed by brilliant sunshine. The first, in Sestriere, was a rather unplanned day off the slopes…but I did enjoy exploring the town and indulging in some local pastries.

Sestriere is a “purpose-built” resort with an unusually high number of cylindrical buildings. Not much character, then, but looking up into the surrounding gleaming mountains does compensate somewhat for the lack of history.  There was an unexpected fireworks display on the last night:  although it is difficult to capture it on camera, it really was impressive to see the fireworks reflecting off the white snow.

One of Sestriere's cylindrical hotels. Note the spiraling windows!
One of Sestriere’s cylindrical hotels. Note the spiraling windows!

We traveled to Turin (Torino) for the final full day in Italy.  I was expecting a city similar to Milan, but I found Turin to be a little more accessible.  There were more affordable indulgences and more elegant architecture:  many streets had arcades to shield you from the sun…something I didn’t see much in the more commercial and hectic Milan.  In a nutshell:  there were lots of appealing opportunities for gelato, pastries and focaccia!  It was only March 19, but for lunch we were able to eat our pizza outdoors.

Dining al fresco in Turin
Dining al fresco in Turin

Dinner was a special treat.  We found a “locals only” restaurant a few streets away from our hotel.  It was family run:  the parents were running the show and the (adult) children were handling the customers.  After 12 days in Italy, I was feeling bold enough to do all of the ordering in Italian.  This was partially out of necessity:  there was no English menu here.  We also lived on the edge, as we didn’t necessarily know what we were ordering. I knew enough Italian to avoid trippa (tripe) and our appetizer of insalata verde (green salad) was obvious enough…but we didn’t truly know what would show up for our main courses.   No worries – our pasta dishes were delicious and we had lots of the real parmigiano reggiano cheese to go with them.

My pizza capricciosa; I was so hungry (and it was so good) that I ate it in about 30 seconds after taking this picture
My pizza capricciosa in Turin; I was so hungry (and it was so good) that I ate it in about 30 seconds after taking this picture

For dessert, we took an even more daring approach.  Reasoning that the most expensive dessert would also be the best, we threw caution to the wind and ordered the mysteriously-named (so mysterious that I cannot remember it) house specialty.  Great call:  we enjoyed a phenomenal dessert with hazelnut liqueur and dark chocolate in various forms.  How much did we enjoy dinner? I completely forgot to take pictures of the food!

Downtown Turin
Downtown Turin

While we were only there for about a day, we left with a very positive impression of Turin…even if that was based mostly on the food.  The only negative was that people seemed to smoke a lot here:  no smoking was permitted inside but some of the more crowded areas downtown were a little unpleasant after being in the fresh air of the Cinque Terre and the Italian Alps for nearly two weeks.

I didn't expect to come across a tango festival in Turin!
I didn’t expect to come across a tango festival in Turin!

Thus endeth another Italian ski adventure.  On our last night in Sestriere, we had a meeting and decided on the venues for next year’s ski camp.  I’ll keep it a secret for now…however, given how much we enjoyed Cortina d’Ampezzo and Val Gardena, I am reasonably certain that next year’s choices (in two different countries) will be great as well.

Stay tuned for some Canadian content!

Skiing Italy’s Milky Way – Part 4 (The Final Chapter)

(Sestriere, Italy)

The stage was set:  after exploring the Milky Way ski region for 4 days and confirming the logistics involved, our 5th day would be spent on an epic round-trip journey on skis to Montgenevre, France.

But it wasn’t.  We awoke to yet another snowstorm and made the difficult decision to stay closer to Sestriere.  It just didn’t make sense to ski all the way to France without being able to see anything.

Pausing mid-morning before resuming an attack on the "Kandahar" Olympic downhill slope
Pausing mid-morning at a plateau before resuming an attack on the “Kandahar” Olympic downhill slope

Instead, we returned to the nearby Borgata area and set about exploring some of the pistes that we hadn’t seen back on Day 1.  Something cool happened:  while the top of the mountain was shrouded in snow and had essentially no visibility, the bottom half (which could only be reached by skiing all the way down from the top) was actually relatively clear even though it also had been blanketed with tons of fresh snow.  Thus, if you were willing to endure some blind skiing up top, you were rewarded with amazing conditions at the bottom.

The Club Med village at Pragelato
The Club Med village at Pragelato

We stumbled upon the “Kandahar” (Banchetta Nasi) piste early and took the plunge.  This was the 2006 Olympic men’s downhill course and the buckets of snow made it an exhilarating ride.  We returned to it often, thoroughly enjoying conditions that are rarely associated with on-piste skiing.

We decided to ski to the village of Pragelato for lunch.  The lone piste to the village was a winter wonderland; nowhere near the Kandahar in terms of difficulty but nonetheless incredibly scenic as it slowly wound through the snow-blanketed forest to the valley.  Alas, Pragelato turned out to be a Club Med village…with very formally dressed staff and steep lunch prices for non-guests.  We ate instead at a more humble place back on the Borgata slopes.

My lunch: potatoes, bacon, cheese, egg...
My prototypical Alpine lunch: potatoes, bacon, cheese, egg…

While the Kandahar piste remained excellent for the rest of the day and we returned to it periodically,  the sun eventually emerged over the entire area and my posse found even more stunning deep powder conditions on pistes that had been marked as closed or had simply been overlooked by everybody else.   When looking at the next two pictures (as well as the photo at the very top of this post), remember that these pistes had been groomed overnight:  these photos were all taken in the afternoon!   As you can see, there was nobody else around.

Believe it or not: this is on-piste in the afternoon above Borgata
Believe it or not: this is on-piste in the afternoon above Borgata

Access to this kind of skiing is usually only by helicopter…and yet, we were able to have the same experience for the price of a simple lift ticket.  We were incredibly fortunate.

And then, on the last run of the day, shadows began to fall on the slopes.  I was within sight of Sestriere village when I planned a turn through what I thought was yet another stash of powder.  Alas, the low light was playing tricks on me and it was not powder at all.  I didn’t realize this until the last second and took an awkward stumble.  To make a long story short, I decided that I should not risk a more permanent injury by skiing the next day with a stiff shoulder and neck.

More on-piste (!) skiing in the sunny afternoon above Borgata...begging to be captured on film for posterity
More on-piste (!) skiing in the sunny afternoon above Borgata…begging to be captured on film for posterity

I was more than a little frustrated at the time.  However, as I type this, I realize that I did have a remarkable 5 days of skiing…and it was probably equivalent to 10 days of skiing in “normal” circumstances.  Taking it easy the next day also ensured that I could enjoy the last two days of my holiday.

Stay tuned for the final post from my trip to Italy!

Skiing Italy’s Milky Way – Part 3 (Another Blizzard!)

(Sestriere, Italy)

Day 4 on the Milky Way slopes was set aside for a journey by skis to the resort of Claviere on the French border.  It all made sense: we would speed through Sansicario (familiar to us from Day 3) and travel through Cesana Torinese on the way to Claviere, thus setting the stage for a trip to Montgenevre (in France) on our 5th day of skiing.  There was just one thing we did not count on:  another blizzard.

Old house near one of the lifts above Cesana Torinese
Old building near one of the lifts above Cesana Torinese

Everything looked good at first:  we roared down the familiar Olympica piste at Sansicario and at Cesana Torinese we enjoyed the novelty of taking a chair lift above both a major river and a highway.  However, by the time we got onto the 3rd (and final) chairlift above Cesana Torinese, we couldn’t even see the chair in front of us.   Amazingly, it got worse.

At the top of the Claviere area, several lifts (including the 3rd lift from Cesana Torinese) converge and several pistes branch off in various directions.  The problem:  we couldn’t see *any* of them.  We had to walk in a big circle to figure out where the pistes were located…and then figure out which one went down to the actual resort of Claviere.

This piste just above Cesana Torinese was easy enough that we could take pictures while skiing...but at least we could see!
This piste just above Cesana Torinese was so flat that we could take pictures while skiing…but at least we could see!

Skiing blind in whiteout conditions on slopes you’ve never seen is not ideal.  Presumably because my jacket’s colour is “creamsicle orange”, I was nominated to lead the way.   Well, skiing blind is a very good way to remember to bend your knees.  It is essential because you do not know if you are going to hit a mogul (or encounter any change in pitch) until after you’ve hit it.  If your knees are not bent for shock absorption, you will become involuntarily (and very ungracefully) airborne at the first unexpected bump.

This is about halfway up the mountain at Claviere...the visibility got worse at the top!
This was taken at lunchtime, about halfway up the mountain at Claviere.  Yes, this picture is in focus…and the visibility got worse at the top!

It wasn’t all bad.  As we descended the abandoned slopes toward the village, we naturally found lots of deep powder and even gained a tiny bit of visibility.  Despite skiing a number of pistes, however, we cannot truly say that we have *seen* the slopes of Claviere.  We only *felt* them.   We decided to take an early lunch, in the hopes that the blizzard might clear while we were eating.  No such luck…but we made an excellent choice for lunch!

Claviere's excellent La Coche restaurant
Claviere’s excellent Baita La Coche restaurant – nobody eating on the sun terrace today

We ate at Baita La Coche, a family-run restaurant approximately one-third of the way up the mountain from the base of Claviere.   I saw polenta e salsiccia on the menu, although I was skeptical that it would live up to my expectations.  Wrong!  It was even better than the one I had on the first day of skiing!  I had a cioccolato calda (hot chocolate) to go with it, as I had a bit of a chill from the blizzard.  It was deliciously dark chocolate and warmed me up very well, but it certainly couldn’t wash down my polenta:  it was more like hot pudding.  My spoon couldn’t reach the bottom because the chocolate was so thick!

Another delicious lunch of polenta e salsiccia...with some seriously thick cioccolato calda!
Another delicious lunch of polenta e salsiccia…with some seriously thick cioccolato calda!

Because the visibility at Claviere seemed to be getting even worse, we decided to be prudent and return to Sansicario (which kept us close to our base in Sestriere).  We didn’t want to miss the last lift home in conditions like these!

Back in Sansicario, the blizzard still raged but the visibility was a little better.  With the slopes here also being empty, we enjoyed some absolutely brilliant (and on-piste!) deep mid-afternoon powder.  This is unusual in itself, but almost unheard of in the latter half of March when ice and unwanted moguls can predominate.  Once again, we whooped and hollered like little kids as we sliced and bounded through the somewhat visible snow.  There’s nothing like fresh snow to keep you young!

My posse climbing over the pass from Sansicario to Sestriere at the end of the day
My posse climbing over the pass from Sansicario to Sestriere at the end of the day…it is still snowing heavily!

Stay tuned for more:  would the weather clear so that we could actually see Claviere and then finally make it to France on skis?

Skiing Italy’s Milky Way – Part 2 (Here Comes the Sun!)

(Sestriere, Italy)

After two days of snow, we awoke to a brilliantly sunny sky for our third day of skiing.  Today’s mission:  to thoroughly explore the Sansicario ski area, located to the northwest of Sestriere.

Isolated slopes above Sestriere
Isolated slopes above Sestriere

Looking at the piste map, the main attraction here was the Olympica – the women’s downhill course at the 2006 Olympics.  As we had hoped, this long piste was steep, straight and still covered with lots of fresh snow.   Even though it was the most direct route down to the actual resort of Sansicario, it was wide enough to accommodate substantial traffic and still retain abundant stashes of untracked powder.

Our lunch venue above the resort of Sansicario
Our lunch venue above the resort of Sansicario

While this was our favourite run today, the day was really devoted to enjoying the beauty of the snowy Alps under a brilliant March sun.  There were long pistes winding through the woods…where we would be the only skiers for 10 minutes or more.  It is hard to imagine this happening in North America:  we certainly did not expect sunny silence and isolation at a major resort that had recently hosted the Olympics.

Lunch al fresco under Monte Rotta, overlooking Sansicario
Lunch al fresco under Monte Rotta, overlooking Sansicario

Lunch was at a strategically situated restaurant about one-third of the way down from the top of the mountain.  We were able to get an outdoor table at the edge of the balcony, gleaming in the sun and overlooking the rest of the area.  The food was simple (“Milanese”, better known as Wienerschnitzel) but satisfying.  We ate at a very leisurely pace, thoroughly feeling as if we were living la dolce vita.

Taken before the last run of the day, just above Sestriere
Taken before the last run of the day, just above Sestriere

Despite the leisurely lunch, we must have skied on virtually every Sansicario piste by the end of the day.   While we cut loose a little bit when we skied on Olympica, we didn’t work too hard for the most part.  We did, however, manage to scope out the next day’s route:  in order to ski to France, we would have to ski beyond Sansicario through Cesane Torinese and then Claviere.  Given the distances involved (the French resort of Montgenevre lay beyond the Italian border town of Claviere), we would not be able to make any navigational mistakes if we were to ski to France and make it back to Sestriere before the lifts closed.

Stay tuned to see if we will achieve our goal!