Festival of San Rocco

Tables under the trees

Feasting at the Sagra

Food, religion and community are inextricably linked in Italy. Local festivals that celebrate cuisine and saints are so common here that they even have their own name (sagra).

There isn’t really an equivalent in the UK. I suppose you could say that Mary Berry’s power in recent years, thanks to the Great British Bake Off, has achieved God-like proportions…but it’s not really the same.

I’d heard about these festivals and had visited the famous Palio in Siena (a much bigger event focused around a medieval style horse race). However the larger festivals are filled with lots of camera-toting tourists (like me) and can sometimes lack an authentic feel.

Last weekend Sandy and I spent some time up near Lake Como. Since moving to Milan eight months ago we’ve visited a number of places in this region. Our favourite so far is a little town called Colico that is well off the tourist path.

One of the advantages of finally starting to be able to (sort of) speak Italian is being able to recognise signs and ask locals about them. In this way I discovered a sagra being held in a nearby village whilst we were there.

The Sagra of San Rocco (Saint Roch) is held every year on 16 August at a church dedicated to the saint, perched on the side of the mountain overlooking the lake. He stopped in this jaw-droppingly beautiful spot for a quick rest in between curing the masses of the Bubonic plague, apparently.

View from San Rocco

View from San Rocco over Lake Como

We arrived on a dusty bumpy road to discover a beautiful church with a grass clearing surrounded by trees with long dining tables are laid out underneath. The festival was small, perhaps a couple of hundred people. It seemed like the whole village was out for the party. We stuck out like a sore thumb as the only ‘stranieri’ (foreigners) there but nonetheless were welcomed with broad smiles and plenty of food.

We were served hearty mountain fare that is typical of this region: polenta with locally made cheese and sausage meat and skewers. It looked simple and rustic, but tasted lovely, especially with a pint of beer.

Meat and polenta

Meat and polenta

Local beer

Local beer

Looking around, the scene resembled a snapshot from the past, of the magical ‘good old days’ that I had heard so much about from my parents and grandparents.

Little boys scampered around playing football and causing mischief. A little while later they were rounded up by their mothers and dressed in choir-boy gowns then marched around the green in the religious parade (whilst they tried unsuccessfully to look angelic).

Some men rode in to the scene, bareback on horses (as you do). After tethering them up in the woods they loudly embraced their friends and sat down to join the feast.

Meanwhile the old men sat watching the world go by, cigarettes-in-hand whilst their wives gossiped with each other.

And best of all, there wasn’t a mobile in sight. No one seemed to feel the need to check emails, messages or social networks. I suppose that most of the people they knew were already at the festival.

In hipster-land (London, NYC…etc)  it’s the height of fashion to attempt to live life more simply, like our grandparents did. Here in this village that is exactly what they are doing, but that’s because it’s just the way it has always been done….nothing has changed.

San Rocco Festival by the Church

San Rocco Festival by the Church

For a glimpse of a past era and to see the best side of Italian country life I would highly recommend a visit to a village sagra. These take place all over Italy for most of the year. There are some websites that list these festivals like Sagre nei Borghi (Sagras in Villages) on which you can search by month and region. It’s only in Italian, but don’t let that stop you, it’s amazing how much you can work out using Google Translate.

As autumn approaches I am really looking forward to visiting more festivals. One that has particularly caught my eye is the Sagra dell’uva (Festival of grapes/wine) at San Colombano in Lombardy. The description starts with a fantastic question…

“Volete la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca?” = “Do you want a full barrel and a drunk wife?”

…how can I resist?!

Old men, up to no good

Old men, up to no good

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So this is us…in Italy

Us in Italy

Us in Italy

I started this blog three years ago after leaving Australia. At that time my boyfriend (Sandy) and I had made the difficult decision to leave Sydney, the city of beaches that I had called home for seven years to follow a dream of living in continental Europe.

Like the pursuit of most dreams this required determination and dedication. Facing a finance crisis and record unemployment levels after our travels in South America we decided to find jobs in London and explore opportunities to move abroad from there.

The transition to living back in England after seven years abroad wasn’t easy. Feeling homesick at ‘home’ is one of the most isolating and difficult feelings I have experienced and incredibly hard to explain to others. Sarah Lyall does a pretty good job of summing it up  (albeit as an American returning from London to New York).

But with the unerring support of my boyfriend (now fiancé) I got through it and started to fall in love with London all over again. We lived in a teeny flat in the cool part of town (Shoreditch) and pretended (unsuccessfully) to be hipsters.

After a couple of years in the ‘Big Smoke’ Sandy was offered a position at a law firm in Milan. The opportunity was too good to miss, so I decided to leave my job in London and we moved here in December last year.

Sandy spoke Italian already and I am now learning the language. Together we are discovering the delights, frustrations or peculiarities of this mad, crazy and beautiful country we now call ‘casa nostra’ (our home).

On this blog I hope to capture some of these highlights, whether they are festivals in mountainside villages overlooking the lakes, tips on how to make the perfect aperitivo, or the perils of attempting to say grapefruit in Italian…

Taking the plunge in the Pantanal

I have always loved animals. At school Biology was my favourite topic and I nearly chose to study it at University. However as I realised in my late teens, I only like ‘nice’ animals, mainly the ones with fur, and definitely only the ones that can’t kill you. So our trip to the Pantanal region of south west Brazil was interesting to say the least.

Our three day trip began with a five hour buttock-bruising bus ride to our camp in the middle of the Pantanal, a wetlands area that covers some 89,000 square miles. The camp consisted of a few huts and huts with hammocks in where slept.

After arrival we were told to amuse ourselves before dinner by wandering around the camp. My boyfriend and I went for a short walk to a nearby river. By the bank we watched as some local kids stood barefoot by the water fishing. To my horror I noticed an alligator in the water and I shrieked out loud whilst simultaneously scrambling up a nearby hillock. The kids stayed exactly where they were and started laughing at me. As I quivered and tried not to wet my pants my boyfriend (who was equally as nervous) spoke to the kids in Portuguese. Apparently these alligators are actually called caimans, and they are totally harmless. I wasn’t convinced, there was no way I was going in the river.

The next couple of days were spent exploring the Pantanal on truck and on foot. I was channelling my inner David Attenborough at times as red macaws and toucans flitted past our heads, monkeys screamed in the nearby branches and caimans meandered past us in the shallows , the caimans still gave me the creeps though.

The high point of the trip was when our driver spotted a giant anaconda in the bushes. We were driving along a dusty road in an open top 4WD and suddenly the driver screeched to a halt and pointed. Of course we coudn’t see anything. He jumped out and grabbed a stick and started poking at the bushes by the road. Out came a monster. The 3.7 metre long beast slithered slowly out into the road in front of us. The guide happily went up to it and poked the monster with a stick. Apparently they are harmless on land, however an anaconda this size could kill a fully grown man in the water. Another great reason not to go swimming.

The next morning we were taken out on by boat on the river to fish for piranhas. We were given bags containing lumps of liver and told to use them as bait. Sure enough, seconds after hurling the baited hook in the water the fish would bite. The river was teeming with the things. Did I say I wasn’t swimming?The tour ended with a boat trip up the river. Half way through the guide killed the engine and told us we could get out and have a swim. To my surprise everyone else in the boat happily threw themselves into the water and splashed around with big smiles on their faces. ‘Are they mad?’

I sat in the boat resolutely ignoring the calls from the others for me to jump in. After about 20 minutes I realised that noone had died, and I was starting to feel like a lemon. Our guide reassured me, apparently anacondas don’t attack if you keep moving your limbs and the piranhas don’t eat humans (that myth was invented by Hollywood). So bowing to peer pressure I took the plunge.

If someone had told me that I was going to pay good money to swim in piranha, anaconda and alligator-infested water I would have laughed in their face. But I did it, and it was great.

Anaconda

The monster anaconda

At the Copa…Copacabana

For the last five years I have been lucky enough to call Bondi Beach my home, so I arrived into Rio de Janeiro with high standards. As soon as I had managed to sleep off some of my post flight exhaustion I got my bikini clad ass down to Copacabana and Ipanema to see how the other most famous beaches in the world rated against my beloved Bondi. I was not disappointed.

Copacabana is a beach with a buzz. The four and a half kilometres of golden sand is packed with sights and sounds. People of all different shapes, sizes, ages and skin colour strut their stuff, laze on loungers, sip caipirinhas, sunbake, flirt, play football, splash in the sea and generally hang out in the sun with the back drop of the towering Sugar Loaf mountain.

I was very pleased to see the large number of incredibly fit men with perfect bodies wearing tiny trunks jogging up and down the beach. The jogging was too slow to be for exercise, instead it is just an excuse to show of their biceps to the beach…it works!

My boyfriend was equally happy with the gorgeous Brazilian girls in their teeny-teeny-weeny bikinis. Bizarrely, toplessness on the beach is frowned upon by Brazilians, but its ok to wear a dental floss bikini that barely covers your bits.

I was not as pleased to encounter the larger women in bikinis. Women who weigh 18 stone should not be allowed to wear string bikinis, there should be a rule against it. It’s just not fair for everyone else.

Ipanema Beach, just around the corner from Copacabana is where the wealthy hang out. The beach is made up of mini communities, demarcated by the Postos (lifeguard posts). Posto 9 is frequented by beautiful gay men with buffed up bodies and the families hang out at Posto 11.

The beaches aren’t the most relaxing ones I have ever been to. Every couple of minutes a Cariocan hawker will shove something (drink/snack/beer etc) in your face and will not leave until you refuse at least three times. When we were there the ‘peace’ was also frequently interrupted by trucks with huge mounted sound systems driving past blaring out samba music. These trucks have pictures of the political candidates for the upcoming election plastered on them. Apparently this is the way that political parties in Brazil campaign. Given the total lack of success of political parties in the Australia recently this could be something that Labor and the Liberals consider in the future perhaps?

However, despite the noise and the chaos there is a permanent feeling of party-time on Rio’s beaches…almost like every day is Friday. I have to say it’s pretty addictive…

Ipanema

Partying with Gen Y in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro

Last night we went out to Lapa, known as the nightlife district in Rio. For the duration of the Brazilian Independence day long weekend celebrations this slightly scruffy but thriving samba club district opens its doors and spills out onto the street.

High-energy latino music blares from the clubs and bars whilst impromptu parties start on the pavement to bands set up under the dilapidated tramline archways. Rows upon rows of stalls sell beer, oversized caipirinhas, pina coladas, sausages on sticks, kebabs and other local streetfood to the crowd.

My boyfriend and I were there with a group of backpackers from our hostel. On arrival we quickly loaded ourselves up with ridiculously cheap yet insanely strong caipirinhas and began to wander aimlessly amongst the revellers. Within a very short space of time (say ten minutes) the caipirinha had gone to my head and I was jigging around to the music whilst talking in a animated fashion to a Brazilian guy who probably had no idea what I was saying.

After sinking a couple more caipirinhas I got chatting to a 20-year old English backpacker called Samuel. He was dressed in the Gen Y uniform of an oversized yet clingy white T-shirt (bearing the scowling face of Grace Jones), black skinny jeans and Morrissey-style hair swept forwards over his melancholic eyes. We chatted about Brazil and his university (he was heading back shortly for his final year) as well as the music he was into.

At that point I was informed by Samuel that the cool kids now listen to what is known as ‘Techno-House’ which he patiently explained to me is ‘a mix of Techno and House’. At this point I realised he was talking to me like I was his granny which I found highly irritating. So to change the subject and get my revenge I asked him that question that I used to despise at his age, “so…what do you want to do with your life?”

He looked away theatrically and sighed, then turned back to me and said “To be honest with you Becks, I think the best years of my life are behind me”

At which point I choked on my caipirinha then stared at him hoping to spot an ironic smile…nope, nothing….he was being serious.

I was speechless.

I couldn’t think of anything cutting to say (I rarely can) so instead tell him that he is being bloody ridiculous. I mean, I am 32 and my boyfriend is 36 and we’re still having fun.

He then looked at me again with those melancholic eyes…he didn’t need to say anything…it’s all in the look.

I was again speechless, and now starting to get really angry…I needed another drink.

After sinking a few more super strength caipirinhas I found my way into a bar with a Latino band cranking out ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ style tunes. Thankfully the booze had blanked out Samuel’s words from my head and the music started to take control of my hips. I leapt up excitedly on to the dance floor to shimmy my stuff. My boyfriend looked on with a slightly amused grin (he was used to this) but the other young backpackers look concerned and slightly confused. I guess it’s not the done thing for a woman of ‘my age’.

I didn’t care that I looked like an idiot, I was having fun, and jiggle around on the dance floor with a 50 year old women, who I think, for her age is very light on her feet. As I am swirling away my eyes happen to lock with Samuel’s and I realise that he is probably thinking exactly the same about me.

Time for another caipirinha…

The rest of the night is a blur, somehow we make it back to the hostel in a taxi. This morning I feel horrendous, and very very old indeed.

Capirinhas

Oh the joy of sweet sweet capirinhas. Photo thanks to brockleyboyo

The rules of long haul economy travel

I am writing this whilst sat in the arrivals area of Rio airport. Everything is very hazy and world keeps floating around me as if I am not really here but instead watching from a higher place. For some reason the words on this screen look smaller on right than they do on the left….weird.

No I am not on drugs, in fact I have severe sleep deprivation caused by three back to back flights (Sydney – Buenos Aires – Sao Paulo – Rio de Janiero). I have been travelling non-stop for 27 hours and have had less than 2 hours sleep in that time. My body clock is also 13 hours ahead of where it should be. Today for me will last for 37 hours thanks to the pesky international date line.

As my boyfriend hasn’t yet turned up to meet me I thought it would a good time to write about long haul flights.

As a Brit who lived in Sydney for six years I have a lot of experience of long haul flights. I have flown around the world at least eight times and over the years during that time I observed some common themes:

1) The person sat next to you is annoying. They may not start off being annoying, in fact often a few friendly words are shared and perhaps some nervous murmurs when the plane hits some turbulence. However like any relationship, as time wears on innocent habits start to become really bloody irritating. On my first flight today (a 12.5 hour slog from Sydney to Buenos Aires) I was sat next to a mid thirties couple who seem friendly enough. I had got the aisle seat and after take-off was settling down for some sleep when the women beside me wanted to get up. I obligingly went to stand. The women insisted that instead she would climb over me, which seemed to work fine. However, after the fifth ‘climb-over-the-seat performance’ I was starting to get cranky, and then on the seventh I was somehow kicked in the head by her stray foot…grrr.

2) Plane meals are one of the best inventions in the world. The food itself maybe rubbish but unwrapping those little packages makes me feel like Christmas has come early. And you can’t beat a slice of rubber cheese on crackers whilst sipping cheap Chardonnay…(well you can, but as I say, several hours of intense boredom has strange effects).

3) Any form of TV or audio entertainment gets boring after 12 hours. And at this point the cheap airline headphones begin hurting, they were never designed to be worn for this long (I have no idea about this, obviously, but I doubt it).

4) There are never enough good movies on long haul flights. I knew I was in deep trouble when I seriously began considering ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ as a viable viewing option.

5) The hardest bit of the journey is waiting to collect your luggage at the carousel. After maintaining a stoic manner for hours upon end those last ten minutes of watching bags go round in circles reduces me to a miserable sobbing wreck.

It is in this state that I sign off. Hopefully my boyfriend will arrive soon and I will be able to get some sleep at long last. At the moment I could lie down and sleep right here on the floor on the airport. In fact I might just do that…

The first plane I got on…a stupid number of hours ago…