Archive for the ‘Italia!’ Category

Here we go!

Our last week in Sunny Italia was an all-hands-on-deck series of concerts, lessons, classes and eating!

So much to sample, so little time!

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This little one had a couple of amazing opportunities with some top teaching talents. She and her brother had prepared, over the course of the past year, a challenging duet which they’d hoped to have ready for public performance.

Prior to the public performance, however, there was a ‘check in’ (aka an audition) for all the performers. Well, turned out the piece wasn’t up to the festival’s public playing standards and while the two were allowed to play other pieces, this one was out for various but very understandable reasons.

While the violinist was relieved, the cellist had some tears.

“But we worked so hard!”

There were some motherly and relatively unheard words of consolation and we all carried on. A couple of days later, my princess bravely approached a serious cello talent and asked if she might have a lesson.

Following the lesson, in which she’d made some mighty progress and conquered a couple of stumbling blocks, I asked her why she didn’t play like that all the time.

She smiled. “I didn’t know I could.”

She also said she was wondering if she could regularly travel to London for more lessons with this professor.

Very funny.

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A couple of nights before the end of our time in Casalmaggiore, our lovely B&B proprietress Barbara prepared a dinner for all her guests based entirely on the traditional dishes of her hometown, Modena.

She’d wanted to take us there for a little day trip to her parents’ place in the country and where her father makes his own legendary batches of balsamic vinegar (two wee bottles in my luggage; the stuff is 34 years old and tastes like everything good).

Here she’s showing packages of pasta produced and available only in Modena and which we — of course! — sampled later.

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Cooking pasta and, for reasons not clear to me, transferring pasta from one pot of hot water to a second.

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These other tasty babies (I was told the name but have forgotten) were rolled and rerolled to perfection on this electric pasta maker. Nice gadget.

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Cut and then left to rest beneath a tea towel while the rest of dinner was prepared.

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The perfectly cooked tri-colour Modena pasta with a bologne sauce (tomato and meat).

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For the non-meat eaters, quattro formaggio. His life will never be the same.

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And these tasty bits are the piece of dough seen above, dropped into hot oil until puffed up.

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And then opened, stuffed with a very creamy (although with a different texture than you’d call ‘creamy.’ The proper word escapes me and I will seek out this cheese — I promise! — on our return. After stuffing with cheese and arugula, one could also add some parchment-thin transparent slices of home-cure prosciutto ham or salami.

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Happy happy kidlets. They ate and ate and would have eaten more had the Princess not been part of a so-lovely ensemble, playing music in the town cathedral for a mass in remembrance of all the dead children known to the parishoners.

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This pic is before the Mass began and you may just be able to see a couple of heads above the railing to the left.

The list of children’s names went on for such a long time. So much heartache, even if now old pain.

But the music was exquisite, enhanced by the indescribable acoustics.

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The feeling on the walk home was like sunshine.


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Ooooooh, big day in the tiny town.

Or at least, big day for my little chickens.

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All squeaky clean and garbed in concert black, walking two long blocks from the B&B where we’re staying, then across the piazza, then two more long blocks up to Santa Chiara.

Nervous and joyful energy. They knew they were well prepared and that the performances would be strong and so were able to relax.

All the students here at the festival have an opportunity to perform at public events and we’ve attended concerts most afternoons and evenings, some here in Casalmaggiore, others in neighbouring towns and villages.

Some of these attendees, I’ve learned, are of such a level of excellence they already have managers back in their home country.

Others have mothers.

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An early arrival in the Aula Magna, the big hall, to tune instruments and get into ‘the zone.’

You’ll please indulge my iPhone photos. I dutifully videocam’d with one hand and attempted to snap with the other. A day for memories, not photographic excellence.

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The first movement of a piano trio by Haydn. Blurred in the background is the page turner, a critical job, one I nervously held two nights ago.

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Oh, a mother’s dream to see her two little chicks up on stage. No arguing, no bickering, just lovely tuneful music.

They played the third movement of the same trio. For some reason the organizers swapped out the cello parts, likely as the Princess is again playing in a large cello ensemble in a couple of nights, and they needed to share the fun!

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And here, a Beethoven trio, with a cellist from Shanghai. In the small world department, this girl is taught by the mother of the Princess’s teacher. Got that? Jeuwen, also 12, is very sweet and arrived with her father. She and Liliana have gotten on very well, despite the language barrier. It’s very sweet to see them giggling and gesticulating together.

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Well, whew! Wasn’t that fun!

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And now, off to the ‘watermelon party’ in the cortile, the courtyard downstairs.

These are precious moments indeed. The other day I remarked as we ambled along the Po River, “Sometimes I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world.”

Homeboy replied, “Oh, Mummy. You always say that.”

I guess I do.

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Pity the poor violinist.

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Up at the crack of mid-morning, having been out late the night before, concertizing and gelato-sampling with his amicis in the piazza. The latest in gelato fascination, I am told, is three flavours of gelato in the middle of a croissant-textured flaky circular bun. More gelato, more food, and nothing to waste at the end of it all.

I’ve not yet seen or tasted this concoction, but they seem to fuel well the Ever-Growing one.

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Upon arrival at Santa Chiara, the building where the lessons and some evening concerts are held, the students work by themselves for a while, reviewing music, preparing for lessons with the professors (as they’re referred to here), or preparing for some chamber pieces, ie group work with other players.

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Homeboy here is working on a Beethoven Trio — which includes a piano and a cellist — in this case, not his beloved sister but a girl from Shanghai. They’re all about the same age and fiercely intense in their desire to make this little number ‘work.’ It’s been a good growing experience.

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After their independent morning practice the students occasionally have private lessons with various professional musicians.

While here my boy has had the tremendous experience to work with some remarkable violinists, particularly Patricia Shih. In the small world department she hails from Canada (Vancouver, in fact) and is the lead violinist of a popular quartet.

Patricia played Carnegie Hall when she was 15. Even if you’re not into this stuff, that’s pretty impressive.

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Of course a brilliant musician does not necessarily a great teacher make. However, my boy positively lights up when she’s in the room. She stops him every couple of notes, “That’s good, Nicholas, but what about playing it like this, Nicholas?” And she takes his violin, dances with it a bit, evokes a beautiful sound and then hands it back.

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He takes it back, models precisely what she says and then — whoosh! He’s done it. If he were a puppy he’d be sitting quivering on the floor, tail wagging furiously, absolutely focussed, waiting for the next command.

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Cultural assimilation is one of the great hallmarks of the clever traveller.

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Take, for example, the evening we spent in the tiny but culturally mighty town of Cremona.

Cremona is the birthplace of the stringed instrument as perfected by Antonio Stradivari in the 17th century. The Latinized form of his name, Stradivarius, as well as the shortened Strad, refer to his violins, cellos, viol de gambas, and others.

Many luthiers, makers of stringed instruments, still call Cremona home and the town still produces fine violins.

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We were fortunate to attend a concert in Cremona this week as it’s just a half-hour’s drive from where we’re staying in Casalmaggiore. Arriving about thirty minutes before the concert gave us a bit of time to wander and to get a bite to eat.

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All these little towns have duomos or cathedrals and they’re really quite spectacular works of architecture. In Casalmaggiore there are at least four churches in addition to two duomos and they’re all within walking distance of one another.


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And with piazzas everywhere you turn, the mind can’t help but turn to the stomach for help.

Hello, Stomach. Brain here. I see a bit of cobblestone with tables and chairs. What do you say?

Stomach: Mangiamo!


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Some fresh bread, my delicate one?

This ristorante looked fairly inviting and as it was filled primarily with locals out for an evening stroll we thought we’d get a taste of the city.

A massive bowl of  calamari fritti, some gnocchi Siciliana (with tomatoes and cheese), pizza quattro formaggio, insalata mista, ample bread and olive oil and some bruschetta.

My tall one has been sampling pizza quattro formaggio every other time we eat in a restaurant, in a search for the perfect combination and layout of formaggio. Sometimes the cheeses are in four triangular quadrants, sometimes they’re laid out in a perfect spiral evocative of a spotted flower and other times, it’s sprinkled on à la Kraft-style Four Cheese Family Pack.

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Eet ees, ‘ow you say….


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Mamma mia, eet ees soo goood!


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Eet ees, ‘ow you say…



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Italia, ti amo molto!







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Ode to the hazelnut

At our house, along with garlic, seaweed and a few other oddities, Nutella is a food group.

Of course, I know about the sugar, the sugar, the polyunsaturated fats and the sugar, but as just about everything else stocking the cupboard shelves in our place is about as wholesome as kale — including kale — a little chocolatey nutty indulgence is allowed. And we would never ever eat it straight out of the jar.

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Now where did that come from?

Anyway, imagine our great tail-wagging delight when, wandering down the aisles of the local grocery store what should we find but  the mecca of all things Nutella.

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First of all, emergency packs. Perfect for the car, the knapsack, the first aid kit — anywhere you need a quick supply of Nutella when you’re far from home.

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Secondly, small jars, perhaps for the light eater who doesn’t wish to overindulge. I don’t know if these jars would make it safely back to the cupboard from the table. Might be a case of, “Well, there’s such a tiny bit left and I wouldn’t want it to go to waste… Why don’t I just finish it off?”

No, these jars would not fare well in our house.

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So here’s a better option for the undecided. Top row — for the delicate eaters. Second row, for those less shy.

Third row — well, this is 630 grams of goodness, my friends. More than an ample supply for your family, don’t you think?

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But what’s this? Stacked up at the back of the store, over by the summer section of plastic sand pails and instant iced tea? Another size up? Eight hundred and twenty five grams?

This is some serious Nutella happiness. Jars by the caseload, and neatly stacked next to the crackers. A heavenly match. Could anything be better?

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A kilo would be better. That’s what.

One kilogram.

Two-point-two pounds.

Oh my.

And the best? Only €6,25. That’s about $9.

If you’re not a Nutella shopper, let me please share with you that this is a very. good. price.

And I’ll share something else:


As I said: It’s a food group.

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Walking tour

Now that we’ve gotten the city’s fabled romantic duo out of the way, I thought I’d share with you some highlights of our very full day spent wandering the streets of Verona.

The trip to Verona was organized by some of the staff here at Santa Chiara, intent as they are that life should include some playing as well as, well, playing. :o)

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Check out the gladiators on the lower right

Verona’s history starts in Roman times, with this ancient amphitheatre as reminder.

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Imagine sitting here with 25,000 of your closest friends, cheering gladiator battles or medieval executions. The human condition sure knows how to have fun!

The original pink marble is still in excellent condition as proved by a hike to the top. And in the interests of transparency, the arena is not quite as big as it looks, due to the widening effect of the camera’s lens.

Still, the place was plenty large to host Sting last summer (be still my heart; sorry kids, but I would leave my family for this man!) and because of its excellent acoustics, some big voices in Verdi’s Il Trovatore this August.

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These magnificent pieces from the set of Il Trovatore are outside the arena waiting placement.

If I weren’t already an opera lover these pieces might make it worth changing my mind!


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Preparing for his Italian modelling career

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A view of Verona from the top of the arena

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Liliana and Jeuwen, a fellow cello player from Shanghai.

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The stadium was built well outside the town walls, much like modern stadia are located outside downtown districts. I’m told the fact that it’s still in such good shape makes Verona a better destination than Rome as it’s quieter but with similar historic artefacts.

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As for the gladiators, apparently (and don’t quote me) they’re mostly from Albania and  part of a local gang. Evidently the police let them pose with tourists (for a charge) and leave them alone as it’s preferable to having them explore other means of earning an income.

As I snapped this shot with neither payment nor permission, please alert the authorities if you never hear from me again.

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Shakespeare brought Verona to the attention of the English-speaking world almost a half-millennium ago, even if he never actually visited the place and even if (***spoiler alert***) the story of Romeo and Juliet is pure fiction.

I’m sorry to break this to you, my friends, but the story of the star-crossed lovers was, as they say in the best Disney tradition, “inspired by a true story.”

Two real families, the Montecchi and the Cappellos, were indeed feuding and were the models for the Bard’s Montagues and Capulets. And that’s where it stops, despite the fact that there is in fact a tiny courtyard, with a balcony where you too can enter for €6 and blow kisses to your loved one below.

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It’s a beautiful balcony, for sure, and credit goes to a clever tour guide who started it all in the early 1970s to attract visitors to Verona.

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The courtyard walls are now covered with amorous graffiti and there’s a Juliet Club that receives letters mailed from around the world and addressed to “Juliet, Verona, Italy.” Each year the club awards the author of the sweetest letter with a free trip to Verona.

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As well this wall of padlocks enables lovers to spend money prove their hearts are locked up forever. The shop that sells the locks also thoughtfully sells pens with which to write on the locks.


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Our guide Monica while most informative may have spent a bit too long talking about the fictional elements of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy.

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When last I checked, Lord and Lady Montague were not amused.

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One could, quite fairly, make the claim that entirely too much recent commentary has been in regard to food.

Cappuccino, insalata, pomodori (learned that in Italian class; doesn’t that just sound so much better than ‘tomato’?), verdura (vegetables), frutta, peperone, albicoca (apricot), arancia (orange), limone…  Even watermelon sounds exotic — cocomero. 

It all just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Come on, give it a try. Roll your ‘r’s and say it out loud…


Which, of course, brings us around to that loveliest of Italian sounds, gelato.


Limone gelato. Noccio gelato (hazelnut). Fragola (strawberry), pera, strachiatella (bits of chocolate folded into vanilla)…

So imagine yourself in a little town where there’s a gelateria across the street from where you are spending the next three weeks of your life.

Wouldn’t you just be so happy?

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The same picture as above but enlarged with my handy-dandy spy cam…

Why, who is that under the awning of the Gelateria Infiniti?


She wouldn’t have snuck away for a little afternoon treat, would she?



And it looks like someone couldn’t make up her mind and snaggled three flavours from the proprietress.

You see, children?

Good things happen when you practice your instruments!

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Now you know we’d love to have each and everyone of you here with us, sharing the morning cappuccinos, the fresh fruit and yogurt, the garlicky tomato sauce, the tender gnocchi, the late night gelato, the stunning music…

But as we can’t, how about a few pictures?

Better yet, boil up a pot of pasta, pour yourself a glass of wine and come on a walking tour for just a few minutes.

I promise not to talk about food.

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The former 17th century convent of Santa Chiara is home to all the classes and afternoon recitals. It’s mostly modernized although the thick stone walls prevent any access to wireless internet which, when one thinks of the cloistered life of the hundreds of nuns who would have silently wandered these halls, the imposed quiet is rather appropriate.

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Looking to the right, the convent ends at the large entrance beside the brown building. The upper shutters cover the windows of the nuns’ former bedrooms, now used as dormitories.

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Inside the building are all the little nooks and crannies one would hope to discover in a structure of its vintage and history. Through these doors, for example, is the tiny Cappella di Santa Chiara, the convent’s chapel.

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The room is quite small but the frescoes, while having experienced some damage are still impressive, with the colours holding up over the centuries.

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The upper halves of these frescoes have disappeared to both environmental damage and to the unfortunate locating of some shelving, I was told.

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But the frescoes tell more than just a story of misguided renovations.

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Here, for example is a story of a pretty bad day.

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Oh, that Salome.

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But I’ve got to wonder…

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… about the peacefulness of prayer when surrounded by this kind of imagery…

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… even after one had already committed one’s life to monasticism and spiritual betterment….

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Best perhaps to take in a peaceful evening break in the softening light, enjoy some of the benefits of modern technology, and listen to one’s friends and classmates send beautiful music toward the heavens.

And to decide which of the forty flavours of gelato will take centre stage tonight…

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