Skiing in Madonna di Campiglio – Part 1

(Madonna di Campiglio, Italy)

After 5 days of spring in Orvieto and Padova, it was finally time to jump back into winter with a week’s skiing in Madonna di Campiglio!  Within Italy, Madonna di Campiglio is known as being a rather posh resort…perhaps second only to Cortina d’Ampezzo in terms of prestige.  Outside of Italy, however, it seems to be attracting mainly skiers from eastern Europe.

Madonna di Campiglio, as seen from the slopes

We took a train from Padova to Verona, where we caught a shuttle bus that would take us directly to Madonna di Campiglio in just over three hours.  Well, it should have been just over three hours.  In reality, a massive snowstorm struck as we neared the village and the road to the resort was closed at Pinzolo.  We patiently waited on a bathroom-less bus for nearly 3 hours until the road had been cleared (and I use that term lightly) and we were able to proceed.

Preparing for the first run of the day, at the top of the Pradalago lift

Yes, a three-hour delay was an inconvenience.  We never really knew when the road would eventually reopen and, even once we got going, the steep and winding road was pretty scary in the snowy darkness.  However, this sort of thing needs to be viewed from the perspective of a skier:  we were getting 41cm of fresh snow on the eve of our first day of skiing!  This is awesome!

Just above the Orti Rifugio, near Marilleva

Our arrival in the resort was wondrous:  with all of that fresh snow still fluttering down and the narrow streets lined with wooden “alpine” architecture, Madonna di Campiglio looked like a old-fashioned Swiss mountain village on Christmas Eve.  Our hotel was strategically located just above the Piazza Brenta Alta and just a short walk from two ski lifts.  When you consider that our hotel last year in Sestriere was next to what smelled like a sewage plant, we felt incredibly lucky to be in Madonna di Campiglio.

Lunch at Orti Rifugio

We awoke to mostly sunny skies and a vast new ski area to discover.  We spent the first day mostly in the Marilleva area, adjusting back to life on two skis after nearly a year away from the slopes.  By lunch, the weather was warm enough for us to have lunch on an outdoor terrace overlooking the slopes at the Orti Rifugio.   With disco-schlager music (Anton aus Tirol never seems to go away) providing the pumping soundtrack, it seemed like just yesterday that we were last skiing in Italy.

The paparazzi are everywhere, even at the top of the Cinque Laghi lift!

Our first impressions:  the mountains here are beautiful and there is a huge amount of snow.  The pistes were not too challenging…but we suspect that some worthy challenges are just around the corner.  And the dinners at our hotel have been fabulous so far, with an antipasto-laden open salad bar in addition to the three-course meals.

A reflective pause from one of my posse members, high above Madonna di Campiglio and near the summit of Monte Pancugolo

Stay tuned for more skiing!

The first Modern Art…and a very old tongue

(Padova, Italy)

There is more to Padova than laundry, pizza and gelato.  Our visit included two exceptional sights that attract people from all over the world.

South end of the Scrovegni Chapel

The first was the Scrovegni Chapel.  Having already seen the Sistine Chapel in Rome and “The Last Supper” in Milan (as well as Orvieto’s Duomo just a few days ago), I was somewhat skeptical of another church full of art.  In this case, however, there was something special about the time when the art was created.

Close-up of one of the “panels” in the Scrovegni Chapel

The artist Giotto was born in 1267 and created the frescoes inside the Scrovegni Chapel from 1303 to 1305.  Like Michelangelo, Giotto had many talents:  the crucifix shown in this post was also created by him.

Giotto was a talented guy: he also made this crucifix

The art is more than seven centuries old and is still in the place it was originally created. It predates “The Last Supper” by almost 200 years and the Sistine Chapel by more than 200 years.  Besides its great age, it is also remarkable because it is really the first example of modern art:  the realism of the art, the depiction of real people, the depiction of three dimensions and even the simulation of marble through paint had no real precedent.  In a way, the Scrovegni Chapel marks the beginning of the Renaissance.

Side view of the Scrovegni Chapel

The creation of the chapel itself also had an interesting story.  It seems that Mr. Scrovegni was a money lender charging high interest rates.  His son was concerned about how his father would be treated in the afterlife: with good reason, apparently, as Dante’s Inferno included the senior Scrovegni in one of the levels of hell.  In an attempt to buy forgiveness for his father’s sins, the junior Scrovegni financed the construction of the chapel and contracted Giotto to paint the frescoes.

Close-up of one of the sins portrayed by Giotto (and fake painted marble!)

Later in the day, we visited St. Anthony’s Basilica.  Once again, there was something special about this place that distinguishes it from the many other basilicas to be found across Italy and Europe.  This is the final resting place of St. Anthony, who lived from 1195 to 1231.  He was a gifted orator and apparently a prolific miracle worker. Pilgrims come from all over the world to pray here or to give thanks for prayers answered.  We saw a number of pilgrims while we were there…as well as a number of souvenir stands immediately outside!

The Basilica of St. Anthony

What is unusual about St. Anthony’s Basilica is that St. Anthony’s tongue, lower jaw and vocal cords are still intact and on display in the basilica’s reliquary.  His body was first exhumed in 1263:  he had mostly decayed to dust but his tongue was still unspoiled and red.  When his remains were examined again in 1981, the above parts were still intact and have remained on display ever since.

The tomb of St. Anthony, in St. Anthony’s Basilica

A final point of interest is that the Basilica is actually considered part of Vatican City!  As with the main Vatican location in Rome, however, there are no border formalities.  After leaving the basilica, we wandered through the Prato della Valle (see photo at the top of this post) before having our customary late dinner.  We have gotten into this habit in Italy, as most restaurants do not open until 7:00 or 7:30 p.m.

The tomb of St. Anthony, in St. Anthony’s Basilica

Coming up next:  our cultural adventure winds down and the skiing begins!

You say Padua, I say Padova

(Padova, Italy)

To break up the journey from Orvieto to Madonna di Campiglio, we decided to spend a couple of nights in Padova (often referred to as “Padua” in English). This is a small university-oriented city just west of Venice that sees only a fraction of Venice’s tourist traffic. It was also the setting for Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”.

A profoundly horrible photo from the main train station in Florence, Italy

We were able to stay on the same train all the way from Orvieto to Padova. I quickly hopped off the train in Firenze (Florence) to take the worst travel photo ever – see above. Alas, upon arrival in Padova, our first impression was not great. As with many European cities, the train station is not located in the best part of town.  There seemed to be an awful lot of people just hanging around the train station.  It took a 15-minute walk to the true city centre for the city’s charms to become apparent. We really warmed up to the place after that.

Part of Piazza Signori at night (the day view is at the top of this post)

Padova has three grand piazzas within a one-block radius. Although I am sure that these are even more vibrant in the summer, there was still lots of gelato and other similar treats on offer. While I took photos during both the day and the evening, I prefer the later pictures. It’s all quite medieval, but still very much alive. Just a few blocks away, all the high-end shops you can imagine (Prada, Gucci, etc.) are there…but we preferred the more unique shops that are supported by a large university population. I bought some music here as  well as a pyjama in the rare “extra tall” size.  More importantly for the short term, we also found a promising local pizzeria for dinner.

My dinner at Pizzeria al Duomo

At Pizzeria al Duomo, I selected the Rucola e Grano pizza. The description promised rucola (rocket) and other toppings….as well as shredded Grana Padano cheese and a vinaigrette! I thought this was unusual, but it all made sense when the pizza arrived and I saw just how much rucola had been piled on top. No side salad was necessary!

Via Solferino in Padova

The next day was a busy one and some of the details will  have to wait until my next post.  However, amid all of the food and culture, we also had chosen this as our laundry day.   Limiting our luggage was essential because I was bringing my ski boots from Canada, not wanting to risk blisters (or worse) with unfamiliar rental boots in Europe.

Inside our self-serve laundromat in Padova

This laundromat was entirely self-service and we had an initial challenge (as always) when getting started.  Some other patrons took pity on us and gave us a hand with the vague posted instructions.  Once our laundry was in motion, my wife stood guard at the laundromat while I returned to a nearby take-out place we had spotted the night before: it was lunch time!   The place is called Capatoast and they specialize in…toast!  This was toast with a gourmet flair.  Mine had cooked local ham and cheese, porcini mushrooms and truffle sauce.   The sauce was strong – I could still taste it hours later.

I would love to have a shop like this in my home town!

After the laundry was finished, it was only fair that our labours were rewarded by gelato on the Piazza Signori.   We enjoyed it in situ on some strategically placed steps along with a bunch of students.  Stay tuned for more on Padova!

Orvieto’s Cathedral (and our Hotel)

(Orvieto, Italy)

While Orvieto may not be well-known in North America, it is definitely not undiscovered.  A significant number of tourists (often as part of tour groups) stop in for a morning or afternoon to visit this ancient town on a hill.  When they do, the first (and often only) stop is the Duomo (Cathedral).

Orvieto’s massive Duomo

The Duomo is huge, considering the small size of the town, but this  used to be quite an important place. Popes would often take refuge here.  However, the Duomo is now best known for its striking facade and its artwork.

Part of the facade of Orvieto’s Duomo, as seen from the museum across the street

The facade is imposing, especially as there is very little space  between the front of the cathedral and the buildings opposite.  Most notable for me were the colours:  it really does shimmer in the daylight.

Art from the Duomo

Inside the Duomo, the Chapel of San Brizio is festooned with frescoes that are simply too extensive to capture in a single photograph.  Above is a small sample of the art:  this panel depicts the “Sermon of the Antichrist”.  The imposter has forgotten his sermon but the Devil is clearly whispering to him about what to say next.  The frescoes were completed by Luca Signorelli between 1499 and 1504.

Orvieto’s main shopping street, with the Torre del Moro in the background

The Duomo is such a landmark that it is located on the Piazza Duomo…and we are staying at the Hotel Duomo, located about half a block from the Piazza Duomo.  The hotel is family-owned and they appreciated our attempts to communicate in Italian.  As many restaurants do not open until 7:30 p.m., the medieval streets are extremely quiet and atmospheric when we return to the hotel each evening after dinner.

Hotel Duomo, in the shadow of the Duomo itself

While we were reluctant to leave such a special location, we did have to move closer to our ski destination of Madonna di Campiglio in the spectacular Italian Dolomites.  We stocked up on baked goods from the local bakery and, after taking the funicular down from the old town, enjoyed a leisurely 4 hour train trip through Umbria, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna to our next stop in the Veneto region.

View from one of our hotel windows in Orvieto

Stay tuned for the big reveal on our next destination, just west of Venice!

Cliff Hiking (and more good food) around Orvieto

(Orvieto, Italy)

For our second full day in Orvieto, the intention was to visit Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well).  This famous underground water tower is more than 50 meters deep and is notable for the double helix of circular paths leading all the way down to the bottom.  This way, donkeys could travel down one path and up the other.   It was constructed in 1527 at the request of a pope, who was concerned about access to water while he was in Orvieto (and possibly under siege).

Near the ruins of the Orvieto fortress – a well-groomed part of “La Rupe” trail is visible below the wall

We knew that the well was closed for renovations in February.  However, the contractors were still working on the structure on March 1, so we were unable to visit.  As a last-minute back-up activity, we decided to hike on la Rupe, a path that runs at the base of the steepest cliffs all the way around the old town.  After one lengthy false start (Italy is an amazing place but signage is not a particular strength), we got back on the right track and enjoyed a quiet, shady walk with great views.

A more remote part of “La Rupe”, below the cliffs of Orvieto

We passed right by an Etruscan necropolis. I will talk more about the Etruscans in a later post…but once again we found ourselves well past the turnoff before realizing it.  Hunger was setting in, however, so we decided to keep going.  We eventually found ourselves at a massive parking lot and took a series of about 10 escalators back to the heart of the elevated old town.

Etruscan Necropolis, as seen from La Rupe

As we had a good breakfast at the hotel and planned to have a substantial dinner, we decided to forego a sit-down lunch.  We took the edge off our hunger with gelato at the Gelateria Pasqualetti.  This is reputed to be one of the best gelato makers in Italy:  I have no reason to disagree.  I chose scoops of dark chocolate and crème brûlée (complete with caramelized sugar!) and they were incredibly smooth and decadent.

Upper portion of the Torre del Moro: my “aerial” photos of Orvieto from a couple of posts back were taken from the top of this tower

For dinner, we decided to try a restaurant that specialized in local cuisine and catered to a local crowd. My research uncovered Hosteria Posterula, located some distance east of the main tourist sights but still only about 10 minutes from our hotel. The menu was in Italian only…a good sign.

Hosteria Posterula, on Corso Cavour in Orvieto

We split an appetizer of baked pecorino cheese, prosciutto and shaved black truffles. This was a real treat: all are local specialties, but truffles are particularly rare (and expensive) and neither one of us had ever tried them before. It was like the best fondue or raclette you’ve ever had: even though the truffles were finely shaved, we could still pick up on the strong woody mushroom flavour.

Our appetizer (with shaved black truffles) at Hosteria Posterula

We both chose the same pasta for our main course (see photo at the top of this post): large meat-filled pouches of pasta with a sauce of roasted tomatoes and a very sharp grated reggiano parmigiano cheese. Again: very simple local ingredients, but the taste was divine. I did my best to make the meal last as long as possible. Together with a glass of very warming Orvieto Classico white wine (which seemed almost as “fortified” as vin santo, and thus able to stand up to the flavours of the appetizer and the main course), this was unquestionably the best meal we’ve had in Italy so far.

Stay tuned – there’s more to come on Orvieto!

Orvieto – Caves and Pizza

(Orvieto, Italy)

Our first full day in Orvieto was dominated by caves and pizza.  We started our “Underground Orvieto” tour by learning that there were more than a thousand caves under the old hill town of Orvieto. However, there is a geological reason for both the hill and the caves: due to the combination of ancient volcanic activity and high water levels, Orvieto’s hill consists of a soft volcanic rock called tufo (“tuff”, in English).

Deep in the caves under the town of Orvieto

People settled on top of the hill for defensive reasons, but they eventually ran out of room. However,the soft tuff gave them a way out: they could move their businesses underground and convert more of the above-ground space to housing. With this information, the reasons for Orvieto’s extensive system of caves became much more clear.

Very old subterranean olive oil press in the caves below Orvieto

As the underground temperature is constant year-round, it was ideal for the production and storage of wine and olive oil.  Caves near the edge of the hill were used to house dovecotes (dove or pigeon houses):  as a result, pigeon is a fairly common delicacy in the region.  Other underground activities included quarrying, well digging and pottery making.

Former pigeon housing in the caves below Orvieto

We saw all of this on our tour.  It was surprisingly comfortable and spacious underground, although there are only a few parts where the caves are actually connected.  People would dig down under their houses but there wasn’t much need to connect the caves.

Former monastery (now a hotel), as seen from one of the entrances to the Orvieto caves

Later in the day, we visited a privately-run series of caves called the Pozzo della Cava (Well of the Caves).  While these caves were nowhere near as large as the municipally-owned caves we saw earlier, it was interesting to see how a commercial twist (in the form of a well-placed gift shop) could be added.   Also:  a 38-meter deep well looks very scary when you look down into it.

Another portion of the Orvieto caves

We didn’t need much of a lunch, so we just grabbed a couple of paninis from a butcher shop.  For dinner, however, we decided to seek out pizza.  True Neapolitan (from Naples, or Napoli in Italian) pizza is considered the purest form.  As there appeared to be only one source in Orvieto, we soon found ourselves at Antica Arte Napoletana.

Old wine cellar in the Pozzo della Cava

I wanted a pizza based on tomato sauce (“rossa”), so I ended up selecting a pizza capricciosa (see photo at the top of this post).  However, a full half of the pizzas on offer were “bianche” and had either no sauce or a sauce based on something other than tomatoes.  My wife was daring and elected to have the pizza positano…the toppings were not too unusual, but the sauce was cream of pumpkin!  As a relatively mild sauce, the cream of pumpkin put a greater focus on the taste of the toppings.

Pizza with a cream of pumpkin sauce!

We both enjoyed having real mozzarella cheese on our pizzas: rather than slices or shreds of ersatz mozzarella, we saw the pizza makers toss large chunks of fresh mozzarella on our pizzas.    We could also see how quickly the pizzas were ready:  the dough was quickly stretched and shaped, with the topped pizza in the oven for only a few minutes.

There is more to Orvieto than caves and pizza – stay tuned!