Monday, September 21, 2015

-- The Big (Fat) Calabrian Wedding, Part 2 --

The scorching sunshine penetrates through the blinds of the heavily air conditioned hotel room in preparation for yet another warm day in Southern Italy.

With no time to waste and after a rich breakfast, the morning is spent laying on the beach, indulging on fresh fruit and reading Italian newspapers, whilst a small amount of locals bathe in the fresh blue waters of the Mediterranean and a rather lethargic day passes by as soon as the fishermen return from their daily catch.

The next few hours go by like some sort of ideal representation of a 'Big Calabrian Wedding', in which all guests get ready and are soon picked up by friendly loud local friends, driving away from the coastal heat and up the winding roads of the fresh and green Calabrian hills, just to discover a small church embedded in a closed U-shaped valley.

Local and international guests assembly just outside the thicked-wall church and, in a matter of minutes, the stunning bride interrupts the silence of the small church to the awe of everyone in the room, (and to the sensibility of the groom), followed by the Catholic wedding formalities, this time performed in an almost lyrical Italian language.

The short wedding finished just as a layer of light mist transforms the mountains into a mesh of rounded and vague silhouettes.
Rice is thrown to the newlyweds as a ritual, who leave the small valley in a beautiful emerald-coloured Volkswagen Beatle, followed by a chanting convoy of cars through the winding mountain roads.

Hollywood has taught us one or two things about Italian customs, leading me to imagine how an Italian wedding (particularly in the noisy South) would look like.
I perhaps imagined the fresh breeze of the Mediterranean mountain evening caressing my sunburned skin, whilst walking around stone-built pathways in an old religious complex or Roman building.

I imagined this lit by a set of tiki lamps leading down the hill, guiding our way through fresh drinks and lavish tables of succulent sea food, pasta, bread, cheese and wine which would be the envy of any wedding in Northern Europe.

I imagined that this would only be part of the appetizers, and a delicious main dinner served in an ample main courtyard and peculiarly organised in tables named after different types of pasta would follow.

I imagined sipping on a delicious white wine, which only accentuates the flavour of perfectly cooked pasta mixed with the freshest sea food you could imagine.

And of course, I look around and it is all there: my dear friends have just married and we are all celebrating and taking part of this moment surrounded by everything described above, one beautiful and warm September evening at the Borgo del Convento in Petrizzi.

Drunk speeches are made when the alcohol is heavily running through my veins, followed by a rich assortment of desserts which are served as soon as 'Blue Da ba dee' seem to work as a perfect excuse to dance, as does the Tarantella.

The long day meant that all guests leave almost at the same time to the different villages along the Calabrian coast. For us, it is also a time to rest the body and the stomach.

The remaining two days of the holiday in Southern Italy are spent horizontally on the beach, absorbing as much vitamin D as possible, and a routine only broken by walks within the village, in which picking the best sea food restaurant or finishing the largest personal pizza are the main matters, always followed by espressos, gelattos and naps.

Returning to Dublin proves to be a rather extenuating journey starting with a transfer up the 'mafia tunnels' to the train station at Lamezia Terme, followed by a long yet scenic train journey up the Tyrrenian Coast, conquering the rugged Amalfi coast and finally arriving into Rome Termini station for some serious leg stretching, a last succulent meal and a transfer to Ciampino Airport.

And as the Ryanair flight departs the small airport overflying the historic monuments of Rome and turns right heading North towards Dublin, the thoughts of a relaxed 'beach holiday' seem to blend with the memories of a movie-like wedding in a way that somehow compliments the body and soul, and for the first time in months, I finally feel relaxed.

We land in rainy Dublin shortly before midnight and, just as I step into my apartment, I close this trip with some biscuits and a chilled sip of limoncello, to the newlyweds!

Friday, September 18, 2015

-- The Big (Fat) Calabrian Wedding, Part 1 --

Only a few days after my last adventure across the European continent, tense moments are relived as I leave the office rushing through the heavy traffic to Dublin Airport and facing the afternoon flights rush hour, only to finally breathe in relief when reaching my boarding gate.

A friend of mine joins me on this three-hour flight away to attend my friends' wedding, leaving behind the cold lands of autumnal Ireland, as we fly over France and the Italian Alps and the descent is announced whilst the sun sets in the heavy fog.
The lights of large capital city suddenly flood our window views as the flaps fully deploy and the plane glades over tall structures, busy train stations and a network of streets exploding with heavy traffic, seconds before touchdown in one of my favorite cities on Earth.
We have landed at Ciampino Airport in the city of Rome, capital of Italy.

Once the heavy doors are opened by the crew, the warm air strikes my face like a delightful wall, evoking memories from my last time in this city, almost six years ago, and at the same time, working as a clear reminder that holidays have just begun.

Once a few queues are beaten whilst a mozarella panini is enjoyed, the air-conditioned bus takes us through a sea of heavy traffic and Vespas right into Termini, an enormous train station surrounded by countless convenience shops and small pasta restaurants.

Sweat runs through our foreheads whilst our bodies slightly get used to the warm and humid weather and whilst we try to check into what seems to be an old house which had a few rooms converted into dorms, hosted by a Chinese woman who would not speak English, or Italian, or anything other than Chinese!.
Body language, smiles and a translator software later, we are given the keys to our rooms to have some rest and refresh.

We are joined by two friends who had flown to Rome the day before and are also attending the wedding for an evening spent al fresco , indulging on some margherita pizzas, white house wine, cold beers and a conversation flow that helps the body in reducing the pace and stress of a long and busy summer season.
As the warm night continues and the flow of alcohol and pizzas prolongs, we decide to stay awake and continue chatting whilst we wait for the sun to rise over the Roman houses, time in which we take the first express train to Fiumicino Airport for another morning flight heading South to the city of Lamezia Terme, only a 55-minute flight away.

The plane sharply turns left over the blue waters of the Tyrrenian Sea, flying over empty beaches and vineyards and once it touches down, the following announcement is made:
'Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Lamezia Terme Airport, where the local time is 10:00 in the morning and the temperature is 27 degrees Celsius' ,prompting smiles which are almost automatically drawn on everyone's faces.

We wait around the 1970s-style terminal building. A time to change into flip-flops and enjoy the precious sunshine just before our local friend introduces to more people attending the wedding and drive us through a series of motorways surrounded by round hills, splattered with small villages.

The difference in the landscape between our journey into the depths of Catanzaro and those journeys around the busy cities of Northern Italy is small yet noticeable.

It somehow looks matters in Southern Italy run at a slower pace. The villages around us look slightly dormant and some buildings look a bit outdated, yet, it looks like the perfect place for a small beach break. An idea that had lingered in the minds of the Italians for decades and only broken by the flood of low-cost airlines who made travelling 'abroad' more appealing afterwards.
A series of (mafia-built) tunnels mark the end of the hills and the start of a stunning windy road which circumvents a rosary beads-like series of small coastal towns and leads us to our last stop of today, the small village of Soverato.

The body aches for a taste of the beach and sea water which lays only a few meters away from our hotel rooms.
Only minutes later, we rush to the empty beach to relax in the comfortable sunbeds and bathe in the pristine warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea as our watches seems to slow down in time and the scorching sun gently burns our pale skins whilst breaking through clear blue skies.

We pick a small restaurant ran by a friendly Italian woman for our first lunch in the village, which only awakens our fascination for the famously known friendliness and gastronomic culture of this place as we enjoy fresh bruschettas, antipastis, seafood salads, biscuits, white wine, and limoncello, followed by a pleasant nap on the beach and a good espresso afterwards, summing up what a beach holiday should be about.

In the evening, as the group grows larger, eight of us venture up the streets of Soverato and guided by a local friend and a Tripadvisor review, we find a place to eat, concealed in a neighborhood of local houses and away of any possible tourist.

A table has been carefully dressed with yellow linen in the main courtyard of an old Mediterranean house, engulfed by the dimmed lights of lamps and the smell of food, sea breeze and wet ceramic tiles.
The 'chef' explains the menu in Italian with an enthusiasm that transcend language barriers for the amusement of all parties, and once a 'taste of Calabria' has been agreed, copious amounts of white wine and an overwhelming number of typical food dishes are brought to the table to the delight of everyone's palate.
A dinner experience to remember, whilst stuffing our faces with pasta, freshly caught anchovies, perfectly cooked aubergines and probably about another ten or twelve dishes carefully served throughout the night and topped up by a combination of fresh fruit for dessert and different tastes of liquor to help with digestion.

A walk down the hill is much needed to digest the food and of course, our first experience involving a 'taste of Calabria'.
Big day to follow, it's the Big (Fat) Calabrian Wedding!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

-- The Geneva Stopover --

The fertile valleys of Switzerland break through the white clouds as the little Airbus banks to the left, performing a sharp U-turn and lining up with the runway at Geneva Airport.

It is a pleasant warm evening in the Swiss Alps and as soon as we leave the aircraft, I grab a free 90-minute public transport ticket, which is provided by a yellow machine at the baggage claim area and sponsored by the municipality of Geneva.
The modern train station is conveniently located beside the airport terminal, starting point of a train journey to the main train station at Geneva, which takes merely over 10 minutes.

Heavily influenced by French neoclassical architecture, the quiet streets of Geneva lead downwards to its main attraction, the Geneva Lake.
A product of alpine glaciers melting at higher altitudes, it provides the largest city in French Switzerland with a fresh and rather turbulent water stream, which has also been crowned with a jet stream of water which rises up to 140 meters tall at a point where the lake empties on the Rhone River.

As I walk down the main promenade, watching elaborate boats cruising around the blue waters and proudly waving large Swiss flags, I realise that despite being a truly beautiful setting nestled in the iconic Swiss Alps, the city is heavily focused in two things: banking and jewellery.

Nonetheless, it would be unfair to say that these two items define the city of Geneva, specially when the smell of succulent food and fondues being served at one of the many top end restaurants seems to invade the air at dinner time, or stores selling chocolates create rather fascinating presentations and window displays in order to attract customers.
Still, Geneva draws me as a city best enjoyed when one has interests in the region, whereas that could be a bank account with numerous ciphers, or a  fancy private jet, this is a place that exhales wealth as its explored, just like the families of Qatari and Saudi citizens enjoying alfresco dinners, whilst I munch on my dry 15 Euros sandwich.

But since life is about the little things in life, I sit on the grass of Quay du Montblanc as the night sets in and a fresh breeze blows from the mountains.
The strong free wi-fi also helps in killing a few hours before I walk up to the train station and catch the last available train to Geneva Airport, just to realise that I don't seem to be the only person who has ran away from the extortive prices of basically everything in Geneva.
I join the hundreds of travellers sharing the cold and hard floor of the airport just before the lights are turned off and a rather pleasant darkness sends everyone to sleep for a few hours.

A couple of hours later, the lights are turned on and the airport seems to slowly gain some life. Check in desks are open, immigration officers walk around taking their positions and the restaurants start selling the most expensive cups of coffee I have seen in my life.
Still sleepy, I walk through the security and immigration checks through a long and dark tunnel covered in 'wealth management' advertisements in order to finally make it to my gate.

My last flight of this eventful journey across Europe departs with obvious Swiss punctuality and we are again served a cup of granola and yogurt minutes before crossing over Southern England and landing in a rainy Dublin.

Since days-off are to be saved for future journeys,  I rush into the city centre to grab my car and head straight into the office.
Whilst catching up on a rather large email backlog, the thoughts and memories of this trip make me wonder about the contradictions and the fascinating culture experienced when finally visiting the largest country in the world.
A place where political propaganda still controls the daily life, a place that has surrendered to Capitalism, yet still tries hard to prove their superiority with ideas that are wholeheartedly believed by its population.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

-- In Soviet Russia: The Moscow Interlude --

A whistle is heard and almost immediately, the heavy silver train moves off the busy platform slowly and just on schedule.

As I settle into my small cabin, a small old lady smiles back at me and asks me to help her with er suitcase. whilst a robust man enters the cabin heavily breathing and carrying a white plastic bag full of food.
A man from Azerbaijan is occupying the top right bunk. No talk and no smiles, just a book in front of him and an Azeri passport used as a bookmarker.

Two young Russian men stare at the scene from the cabin next to mine and the youngest gasps some air and greets me with a quiet 'Hi', which immediately turns into a conversation joined by his travel mate as the train crosses the Volga River bridge, heading West.
Originally from Moscow, they are both returning home after a short holiday in Kazan, explaining that they have learned the English language as a result of the media influence on the TV and the internet, skill that becomes handy as they decide to join me as my interpreters on this 12-hour overnight journey.

And so, six people randomly start sharing thoughts and stories in a small compartment, which allows me to immerse myself into the real Russia, with real Russians!

The old lady is a retired teacher who kindly (and repeatedly) offers apples and peaches picked straight from the garden in her house in Kazan. The wrinkles on her face become deeper as she constantly smiles and tell stories about life in both Kazan and Moscow.
The robust man, which happens to be a Tatar police man, opens the white plastic bag unleashing a strong smell of warm pastries and roasted chicken, while offering small shots of crystal-clear vodka to each one of us.

One of the young men hands me a box of tinned Swiss chocolates, which I am immediately told is a gesture of extreme goodwill in the Russian Federation, a way of showing that, despite Russia portrayed as the villain in the worldwide landscape, the people within its borders are friendly to the foreigners.
I take the present with a broad smile as a lifetime souvenir which is also good for keeping my passport safe and dry.

I soon learn that train trips in such a vast territory have become a Russian tradition in which people meet, talk and share their food in order to pass time, which indeed seems to fly by as food is eaten, vodka is drank and questions about the insights of a country which has kept its secrets within its borders are answered, because in the end, there is a reason why the Ruble has collapsed, the conflicts with Ukraine are ongoing or Vladimir Putin is still so popular.
Insights that this time are heard through the voices of Russia, from an elderly retired teacher to a soon-to-be young logistics manager, all of them who believe from the bottom of their heart that they live in the best nation in the world.

Few hours of sleep are caught overnight, with the morning sunrise bringing a new life to the train as we cruise through wheat and barley fields dotted with wooden colorful houses and breakfast is served by a stewardess wearing a red uniform.
The surroundings become busier as we get approach the arrival time, transforming into an endless horizon of apartment blocks mixing with the tall cooling towers of distant nuclear plants, linked by busy motorways.

Only one minute behind schedule, the train finally pulls into Moscow Kazanskaya Train Station which, situated in the East side of the city in the middle of a square that combines three train stations together, becomes one of Moscow's gateways to the rest of the country.

Waves of people make their way through the platforms carrying heavy bags and rushing towards the metro station, where I say good-bye to my train journey companions under the chandeliers of an architecturally unique underground feat of art, which is the main characteristic of the subway system in the Russian capital, a tourist attraction on its own.

Time to look at the map carefully and exercise my photographic memory at its hardest, since every signage and messaging in the Muscovite metro system is in Cyrillic and Russian, which renders any knowledge of English (or any other language) completely useless.
Nonetheless, the metro lines, which reach most parts of the city with its extensive network, are organised in some sort of a cobweb structure, with radial lines extending to all areas of the capital from the city centre and are linked by a circular line. Soviet efficiency perhaps?

A change later, I finally reach my hotel in the outskirts of the city at Partizanskaya, which seems to be a place that has seen better days.
Around the old metro station, apartment blocks cover a landscape in which 24-hour food shops are plentiful, as well as a little version of the Kremlin and a dodgy shopping centre.
My hotel is embedded right in the middle of the action, in what seems to be a block of buildings named after Greek characters, mine being Vega.

The scale of a mega city like Moscow can be better appreciated from the hotel room window suspended six floors over the ground, before finally grabbing a shower, a cup of tea with some Swiss chocolate and a little nap, as I wait for my friend to arrive on a flight from Kazan.

Once we are both set in the capital , it is time to pay the 50 Rubles of a metro ride and head straight into 'Ploshchad' Revolyutsii' station, the Revolution Square and epitome of Russian power.
Just as the wind blows a light rain outside the station, the sight of over sized buildings aim to expose the grandeur of the Russian Federation, because in Soviet Russia:

  • The Bolshok theatre will have the best ballet and operas ever conceived.
  • The Russian oil tycoons would sip on vodka and snack on caviar at the Four Seasons Hotel overlooking the manicured Alexander Gardens and the mighty Kremlin.
  • The police corps vigilantly watch your every move as you set foot in the iconic Red Square.
  • There is a crowded McDonald's just in front of it all.

A walk through the Red Square provokes goosebumps on anyone, just as much as walking on Tiananmen Square in Beijing or the Colosseum in Rome.
It is a place where the world has converged both in history and beauty, and where many stories which are now part of our legacy as humans have brewed.

St. Basil's Cathedral with its colorful domes, symbolizing a lit bonfire rising to the skies, is too tempting to miss, and inside, we discover the secrets and intricate designs underneath this eclectic exterior.
Built in 1555 by orders of Ivan the Terrible, it also commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan regions, also providing a privileged perspective of the Red Square, overlooking the tall red walls of the Kremlin, the Lenin mausoleum and the flashy GUM department store.

The evening hours transform the square into a shiny set of colorful lights, defined by the luxurious GUM department store, and the cleverly lit St. Basil's Cathedral, adding a unique end to a day of constant sightseeing in a city that is in constant movement.

The next morning, after a energy-recharging breakfast, we take a set of three metro lines and its combinations to the North of the city, to a place embedded in the suburbs of this megalopolis and in the hearts of every person living in it: VDNK park.
VDNK stands for the 'Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy' in Russian and it's the epitome of the concept of Russian supremacy.

Here, the Russian cosmonauts have gained their immortality with statues honoring the Soviet space program around a museum topped by a tall sculpture of a space ship rising towards the sky.
A few meters down the road, a tall arch marks the entrance to the park of 'All things Russian'.

The area was created as an agricultural trade fair in 1935, and further developed into many pavilions featuring different regions, linked by manicured gardens and grand water fountains. An area which turns into an excellent way of passing a few hours looking at the architectural pieces around us, looking at daredevil locals tackle the dodgy roller coasters and mechanical rides of the little amusement park or just sheltering under a replica of a Soyuz space ship.

In the evening, after a hefty lunch at a local Pizza Hut, we rush back to the city centre for a glimpse of one of the best views of Moscow from the bridge linking the trendy Balchug Isle to the golden onion-shaped domes of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and an late afternoon walk along the murky Moskva River to the Gorky Central Park.

Shortly after returning to the hotel, my friend's visit to the Russian capital comes to an end and, just as any local would (sic), I help him carry his luggage through the set of metro stations and tunnels to the point in which he transfers to the train bound for the secluded Sheremetyevo Airport.
I return to the hotels as the metro lines close for the day, the cleaners use old brooms to clean the now desolated stations and elderly staff wearing light blue uniforms hold clipboards in which the day's last trains operations are recorded.

My last day in Moscow is defined by the grey skies and light rain of the early morning, time in which I check out of my hotel and take the metro across the city to a place in which many Nobel laureates have originated: the Moscow State University, also known as Lomonosov.

Since it is just the end of summer, the vast university grounds are now empty, with the functionally squared buildings only echoing the sound of old cars in the distant busy avenues and dwarfed by the imposing sight of the main tower, rising up to 240 meters tall and built in a mixture of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles by orders of Joseph Stalin, a building also replicated along the city in six other locations, rendering them the title of 'Seven Sisters', buildings also similar to the cherished 'Stalin's Cake' in Riga, Latvia.

The walk through the grounds is refreshed by the sight of some sunshine, first time since I left Kazan, followed by the 'coffee + panini combo' and a series of metro lines transfers to the Paveletskiy Station, my gateway out of the noise of the capital and starting point of my one-hour journey to Domodedovo International Airport.

I fall asleep for a few minutes, whilst the modern train leaves the grounds of the station and enters the now green suburbs of the city and the pine tree forest surrounding the town of Domodedovo and Moscow's largest airport.

Check in formalities are done, security check is cleared and no eye contact is once made again when my passport is adorned with the departure stamp.
The sunshine takes over the glass-built international terminal and, after a twenty-minute delay, my flight is finally called for departure.
Swiss 1337 is rapidly cleared for take off and soon, the sight of Russia is left behind just as dinner is served over the border with Belarus.

I glimpse through my passport pages and stare at the my Russian Visa for minutes, inevitably thinking of the experiences of this short trip, from the reliving of excitement and failed expectations of participating in an international swimming competition, to the goosebumps of standing free in the iconic Red Square, to one of the best and most authentic train rides I've had in my life and surprisingly, to finally be able to decipher many of the things written in Cyrillic on my passport by the Russian immigration officers.

Three hours and a half later, the captain announces our descent into my next stop: Geneva.