Saturday, 28 July 2012

Living the Life on Lake Como

Heading north out of Milan by rail was much like leaving (or entering for that matter) any other big European city, plenty of grime and plenty of graffiti. There was certainly no indication of the breathtaking beauty that we were about to experience just one hour away at Lake Como. However, upon reaching the end of the line in the town of Como, we knew that we were in for something special when we walked out of the station to see the great lake stretched out before us like an endless blue runway.

Jules had been planning our visit here for months in advance, scouring the internet for the perfect holiday rental that would provide the unique combination of a truly authentic Italian experience combined with all of the necessary holiday comforts and conveniences. She thought that she had found such a place in Argegno, a slightly lesser known tourist town than Bellagio, Menaggio or Varenna, but with the important common feature of being right on the waters edge. It also had one other added attraction for Jules and that was being the neighboring town of Laglio, which any celebrity watcher knows is where George Clooney chooses to spend his summer vacations (Jules would continue to live in hope of a chance meeting throughout our stay). While George was nowhere in sight as we passed through on the bus, what did become apparent as we weaved around the coastline was the increasingly stunning lakeside views. As we headed closer to our destination, an American girl lent over to ask whether the next stop was in fact Argegno. She went on to explain that her and her two friends had traveled up from Milan for the day just for a swim in the pristine waters and with much of the lake having limited public access, they had read that this was one of the few spots they might be able to wade in. We all hopped off the bus heading in different directions; for them it was the water and for us, the hills. We actually saw the girls later in the afternoon and it seemed that they had indeed fulfilled their mission and with dripping hair they were about to begin their long trip back to Milan. We on the other hand, would be spending a much longer time here (two weeks in fact) in a house only a stones throw from the waters edge and with majestic views of the alpine peaks beyond. It would be from our balcony overlooking the lake that we would recite our regular mantra… ‘how good is this?’… several times a day!

It wasn’t too long before we were exploring the numerous lakeside towns using the regular ferries that ply these waters. For those in a hurry, there was the ‘servizio rapido’ (hydrofoil) service, but for the rest of us, with time on our hands, the regular ‘slow ferry’ would move at a pace that allowed us to do some sunbathing between taking regular photographs of the ever-changing scenery. This surely was the best way to take in the scale and beauty of Lake Como and its surrounding towns; each with it’s classic window-shuttered buildings, painted in umpteen shades of terracotta. Clinging onto the steep mountain slopes, these closely stacked buildings were generally simple and rustic, separated by narrow laneways, providing a romanticism that is unique to Italy. Jules and I would spend many an hour analyzing and dissecting the qualities of each town while sitting in the local cafes and restaurants. I must admit that gazing at unbelievable views and eating Italian dishes with a glass of vino or cold beer was a pretty nice way to spend an afternoon. Not surprisingly, it soon became our regular pastime as we tried to determine the most picturesque town. After much deliberation we eventually awarded that honor to Varenna, as much for its serenity (due to the lack of cars) as the quintessential charm of its old town.

Despite our regular journeys around the lake, at the end of the day we were always happy to return to Argegno. We had not seen a better view of Lake Como than from our very own balcony, unless of course you discounted the outlook from Pigra. This is a small town that sits on top of the mountains above Argegno and by boarding a tiny cable car, you can stand on a summit almost 1000 metres high. The aerial view from here was pretty special indeed and provided us with yet another reminder of the sheer scale of the lake and overlapping mountain ranges that continued endlessly through to Switzerland. Back in the village, Jules was increasingly making herself known to the locals. Most mornings she would head off to visit the lady in the grocery store, the baker and her friendly fruit and veg man, who were all very welcoming. They would encourage her to use Italian language, while providing just enough English to act as a safety net if she couldn’t quite find the words. She would return with bags of delicious goodies and fuelled with inspiration to cook. As she loaded her ingredients into the fridge, she would look at me and say with a smile … ‘I could get used to this!’

The view from our balcony!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

24 Hours in Milan

Following a two and half hour train journey from Venice, we arrive in Milan around midday on a warm Sunday afternoon. As we dragged our suitcases out of the train station, we find a somewhat different outlook than the picture perfect spot we had just left a few hours earlier. The city is very quiet and the buildings appear dull and grey from years exposure to car fumes. The shutters of the shops are rolled down exposing endless panels of ugly graffiti that appear to have been there for years. Our immediate introduction to Milan is seedy and uninviting and with a few shady looking characters wandering around, we are keen to keep moving toward our more centrally located hotel. Thankfully as we get closer the to the centre of the city, the scene slowly begins to improve, with more signs of life and the place looks distinctly cleaner and safer. By the time we reach the hotel, we can see some shops open, street cafes and a leafy park in the distance, while the occasional tram is now bustling down the main road. We had read mixed opinions about Milan and at this stage our opinion too was mixed; perhaps in 24 hours we would know better!

Our plan is to meet with our son Dave and his fiancé Cara in Milan then travel one-hour north by train to Lake Como to enjoy some time together in a lakeside house that Jules had managed to organize months before our arrival in Italy. As we are all leaving the next morning, we plan to spend the afternoon and evening catching up while exploring what downtown Milan has to offer. We immediately head toward Piazza Del Duomo, which is the most significant of the cities tourist spots and is dominated by the enormous and highly elaborate Milan Cathedral. Unlike the buildings near the railway station, everything in the square appears to have been recently cleaned, with only the spires of the cathedral and the equestrian statue of King Victor Immanuel II undergoing the final touches of renovation. You really have to pay credit to the Italians, they really know how to build a public square and this is certainly one of their most impressive, both in its scale and overwhelming attention to architectural detail. It has been over a year since seeing Dave and Cara so this is the perfect spot to sit in one of the many cafes that surround the piazza to enjoy a cool drink and exchange news while marveling at the sheer grandeur of our surroundings.

Before too long, we can’t resist the opportunity to explore the nearby Museo Del Novecento (The Museum of Contemporary Art), not just for its fine collection of modern art, but also for the spectacular elevated views it provides overlooking the Duomo. From here you can clearly see the Galleria Victor Emanuele II Arcade (clearly he was very popular in Milan) and we are particularly keen to venture through the formidable entrance into what must be one of the most beautiful under cover shopping malls in the world. Built in the mid 1800’s, the Italians again demonstrated their sense of design, style and ingenuity by building an enormous arched glass and wrought iron roof that is both functional and elegant. The Galleria is filled with all of the major designer brands, confirming Milan’s reputation of one of the great design and fashion capitals of the world. Towards the centre of the arcade, the floor mosaic reveals the Turin coat of arms and following Jules’ suggestion, we spin on it three times for good luck, as is the popular

If Venice was all about tourism, Milan  appeared to be more about business (even on a Sunday afternoon), but as we headed back toward the hotel, there seemed to be some quite obvious divides between the various strata within its society. While designer shops spread out far and wide from the central galleria, with plenty of ‘beautiful’ people frequenting them, there also appears to be an equal number of those battling to buy into this glamorous world. I guess it isn't unlike many of the big cities of the world that we have visited over the years, but having just arrived from idyllic, egalitarian Venice, it seemed all the more obvious.

In the evening Milan’s apparent indifference to tourism certainly worked in our favor as we enjoyed our best meal in Italy so far, at a small alfresco restaurant in a laneway not far from our hotel. We had so often been under whelmed with the meals we had eaten in the more obvious tourist spots (as if just being there was enough without expecting the good authentic food too), so we were pleased to finally enjoy a truly Italian meal with a contemporary twist. Around the corner there was an authentic wood oven pizza restaurant with people queuing out the door, but that would have to wait for another time. Tomorrow we would leave the big city streets of Milan and head for the solitude of the Lakes, only to return in two weeks time when we can explore here further. Within the space of 24 hours we had arrived and departed, only just beginning to scratch the surface of this ‘gritty’ and somewhat contrasting city…there was still much to see and we would be back!

Friday, 13 July 2012

In Search of Venetian Art

While the city of Venice has traditionally provided wonderful subject matter for artists throughout the centuries, it also shares the distinction (with Florence) as being a major centre for Italian renaissance. In those days, it’s buoyant trading economy provided much needed support for artists that enabled painters, sculptors, glassmakers, ceramicists, woodworkers and lace makers to make a comfortable living. Today there are several major galleries and museums, while there still remains hundreds of smaller studios/galleries to be viewed. To this end, Jules and I tended to spend most of the daylight hours wandering the canals and laneways searching them out.

If you are into renaissance art and architecture, there is plenty to see with the Academia Gallery (that includes Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing of ‘Vitruvian Man‘), Scoula Grande di San Rocco, Doges Palace and more. However, our tastes tend to lean to the more modern so we begun our tour with Ca’ Pesaro - International gallery of Modern Art, which features many notable works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The birth of modernism is certainly not lost in this beautiful city and with the Museo Correr hosting a major touring exhibition of the works of Gustav Klimt, that just had to be viewed. The exhibition would also provide a nice introduction to Viennese Secessionist art that we were set to fully experience in a few weeks time.

However, the most impressive collection of modernist works to be found in Venice were certainly on display in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which is situated in the former home of this art collector, bohemian and socialite. While I knew a little bit about Solomon Guggenheim (her uncle) and had visited the Guggenheim museum in New York, I did not know too much about this extraordinary lady and the amazing collection of modern art she amassed in Europe during her lifetime. While many private collections often include minor work by significant artists, we were amazed at the quality of her collection that included many major works from the who’s who of twentieth century art. Jules and I realty enjoyed wandering around the rooms in which she had lived, which was brought to life even more vividly by photos taken of her in these very spaces back in the day. As we sat on her patio facing the Grand Canal, we thought what a life she must have led in the company of some of the greatest artists of the time in one of the most beautiful cities of the world.

For the really contemporary stuff we just had to visit Palazzo Grassi and Punta Della Dogana. These galleries were situated in different parts of Venice, but they appeared intrinsically linked by their representation of the very latest in conceptual art. We viewed a very thought provoking show by Urs Fischer at the Palazzo Grazzi and a variety of other challenging pieces (although less to our taste) in the Punta Della Dogana (which has a Japanese connection with the building being recently redesigned by noted architect Tadeo Ando). With the Venice Biennale established in 1895, this city has built a strong reputation over the years as arguably the most significant forum for innovative art held in the world. Today, with representatives from over 30 countries establishing their own ‘art pavilions’, it continues to attract the worlds leading contemporary artists and of course, thousands of art lovers every second year in celebration of the visual arts. For your work to be represented here is to know that you have truly made it in the art world!

While the big galleries were outstanding, many of the smaller ones also impressed us and we could sense that a real art community existed here which would be the envy of most other cities. As we wandered around the picturesque laneways and canals, Jules and I could quite easily imagine ourselves eking out an existence in a tiny studio in Dorsoduro (the arty part of town); living on pasta and wine and being inspired daily by these wonderful surroundings, as artists have done here for centuries.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Magic of Venice

After two previous trips to Italy, which we had thoroughly enjoyed, Jules and I finally made it to Venice. We had interestingly heard so many mixed reactions to this tourist hot spot over the years with previous visitors criticising such things as it’s commercialism, packed streets, the rip off prices, the graffiti, smelly canals and even the run down conditions of its buildings. So with some degree of apprehension, we arrived by boat into this unique and historic city, only to be immediately ‘blown away’ by so many wonderfully clichĂ©d sights! As we would discover, all of the things they had spoken about seemed to be absolutely true, but this was Venice after all and in the height of summer it was just a stunning place to be and all could be forgiven!

Wisely, Jules had organized accommodation in a small hotel in the Dorsoduro district, which is noted for its university and large student population, but more importantly it was a nice distance from the tourist trappings of the St. Marco area. From here we could easily walk over to the wooden Academie Bridge for one of the most picturesque city walks that you could ever hope to experience. As we strolled to the central square, we were frequently tempted to stop at the numerous Murano glass shops, galleries or gelati vendors that lined the route. However, the thing which stopped us in our tracks the most was simply the scenery … Bellisimo!! As we passed over quaint canal bridges, there always seemed to be a scene worthy of the best glossy coffee table book that just had to be photographed. Craning our necks in all directions, it was hard not to look like a tourist, but thankfully with thousands of others doing exactly the same thing we didn’t appear entirely out of place.

Of course the magnet that draws the people from throughout the world is St. Mark’s Square and at any given time there appears to be thousands of tourists milling around admiring what is arguably the most picturesque piazza in Italy. The sight of the Basilica, Bell Tower and Doges Palace are familiar images that have provided the subject matter for literally thousands of memorable paintings. It seems that at some stage, just about every artist of note has visited Venice over the centuries and found inspiration from this truly unique place.

One of the most unexpected features of Venice that we had not anticipated was its quietness. In a place that relies entirely on its countless waterways for transportation, there is a peacefulness that has long been forgotten in our car dominated cities. No noisy engines, beeping horns or screeching tires, no smog, no traffic lights, just walking or boating … simply wonderful! There was something so intrinsically appealing in sitting at the waters edge, watching the boats (of all shapes and sizes) move leisurely up and down the Grand Canal. Of course, the famed Gondolas still provided the most romantic way to slowly navigate the narrow canals and remain as popular as ever.

On a summer night Venice really comes into its own, with countless piazzas and laneways filled with outdoor bars and restaurants with just the sounds of good conversation, laughter and the clinking of glasses and cutlery. On one of the days we were there, the university graduation ceremony was held, so that evening was particularly celebratory. Yet on any given night we found the atmosphere equally as happy and relaxed. As we walked out of a local jazz club on our final night, Jules and I reflected back on the appeal of Venice. Sure, in the height of summer we had seen it in its best possible light, but despite its age and obvious trappings of tourism, it still provided a special piece of magic that for us as seasoned travelers was quite unexpected.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Buying a Japanese House

Living on the outskirts of Osaka, our residential area continues to expand with blocks of land being quickly snapped up and new buildings appearing just months later. Not surprisingly, a ‘housing display park’ has been established within walking distance of our apartment that shows popular styles from many of the leading builders. Not that we’re in the market for buying a new home, but Jules and I couldn’t resist the temptation to pop in and pretend as if we were.

Upon entering, we were initially struck by the sheer size of the gated complex, with some 55 fully furnished homes on display. Unlike display houses in Australia that might have consisted of possibly 6 homes, this was in fact a small neigbourhood that required a street map in order for us to make our way around. As we looked down the roads, we could see some of the typical features of Japanese selling…the use of strange inflated cartoon like characters, which in this case were emerging from several of the first floor balconies. We’re still not quite sure how this approach is supposed to encourage you to buy a house, but we can only assume that if the display is interesting enough to entice small children, perhaps the parents will quickly follow. With an average Japanese house costing anything between 9 -16 million Yen (approx. A$110,000 – 195,000) this is no small purchase and that is assuming that the customer has already invested into a block of land, which is generally more expensive than the actual house itself (despite often being only slightly larger than a postage stamp). So every little incentive is used (including even a lottery draw for small prizes at one house we viewed) to encourage you to take those first tentative steps toward house ownership by simply walking through the doors to view the sample home. Each of the sales staff are particularly attentive (even more so than usual), often standing at the front door with an inviting smile and encouraging you to enter. Leaving our shoes at the door (as is tradition) we were provided with slippers then the mandatory house plan, while the assistant politely followed at a discreet distance behind, eager to answer questions or generally sell the merit of the design (sadly much of the sales ‘patter’ was wasted on us).

The interesting thing that we have learnt about new build housing in Japan is that each home is only expected to last 25 – 30 years and that just like buying a new car, houses depreciate rather than appreciate in value as they get older. It is the land that holds its value, while houses will be eventually demolished to make way for the next generation of design. However for most people, buying a house remains a one off purchase and much effort is made to ensure that it will fulfill the families current and future needs. Despite their small building footprint, most houses pack quite a lot into the design and with many buildings standing three stories tall, there is a surprising amount of space. We found that the Japanese genkan (the entry way where shoes are removed) were now wide and inviting areas, while many homes still found space to incorporate the traditional ‘tatami room’, although often designed with a slightly modern twist. We were pleased that the ‘wet room’ approach to the shower/bathroom had been retained, as this is a concept that Jules and I have increasingly grown to appreciate. Thankfully, ‘futon’ style sleeping and squat toilets appear to have become relics of the past! There is now clear evidence that the Japanese are seeking modernity in their homes with greater emphasis upon kitchen (which Jules loved) and the entertainment areas (which I loved), while the emergence of a new space called the ‘communication centre’ reflected the growing amount of time spent on the computer. We were amazed at the amount of designs we viewed that were clearly influenced by the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright, with their use of woodwork, stone and cantilever style roofing. This is quite ironic as the great American designer cited traditional Japanese architecture as his only genuine influence upon his own style during the early 1900’s. Somehow this approach to design had now become totally reversed with one of the salesmen proudly pointing out the reproduction lighting and panel work, the originals of which we had seen only last year when visiting one of Wrights greatest homes, ‘Fallingwater’.

After spending several enjoyable hours at the ‘housing display park’, we left not only with a bag of brochures, but also with a new appreciation for modern Japanese housing. We weren’t buying into the Japanese dream just yet, but as always with this type of experience, it was fun imagining what living in these homes might actually be like. So it was back to the apartment for us, but the next time we walk by a new build home, at least we will have some understanding about the interior design behind the front door and what it takes to buy a Japanese house.