Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Italy 2008 - Day 4 Palladian Villas - Asolo, Italy

Italy Day 4 was one of my favorites - the tour of two beautiful Andrea Palladio villas north of Venice, the famous Carlo Scarpa Brion Cemetery in San Vito d'Altivol, and finally a relaxing afternoon in Asolo, Italy.

We started at the Villa Emo. Villa Emo, located in the village of Fanzolo di Vedelago, was built in the period 1559-65. The central residential space features four columns (two of them engaged) in the manner of a Greek temple front. barchesse (farm buildings) The building extends symmetrically from the left and right of the central structure, with the ends of the barchesse surmounted by dovecotes. The result is the famous 5-part profile familiar in later Palladio-inspired architecture, including the U. S. Capitol building (with the Houses of Congress replacing the dovecotes!). This is a beautiful villa and like all of the Palladian villas I have seen they are picturesquely set and provide order and symmetry to the landscape. The frescos by Giovanni Battista Zelotti inside the central space are spectacular and are in excellent condition. We had a private guide, which in Italy is the best way to see any site or town, and she gave us a very detailed explanation of all the rooms, gardens and frescos. It is simply fascinating the time and attention to detail these architects and artisans put into these projects.

The next Palladian villa we toured was the Villa Barbaro located in the village of Maser adjacent to the famous hilltown of Asolo. The villa was built for Daniele Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia, and his brother Marc'antonio Barbaro, an ambassador of the Venetian Republic. Construction began in (prob.) 1549 and was substantially completed by 1558. The central residential space is erected on the remains of a medieval castle or manor house. Its facade features four engaged Ionic columns adapted from the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. As at nearby Villa Emo, barchesse (farm buildings) extend symmetrically from the left and right of the central structure. The ends of the barchesse are surmounted by dovecotes, each with a large sundial on the facade. The interior of the central residence is highlighted by magnificent frescos executed between 1560 and 1562 principally by Paolo Veronese. Set in the hillside at the rear of the central residence is a spectacular spring-fed statuary grotto known as a nymphaeum.

The villa first descended through female lines in the same family until 1838. In 1934 the villa was acquired by Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, who began the restoration that has returned to villa to its present condition. Today his granddaughter resides at the villa with her family. As in most things in Italy the family lineage and passion for maintaining their history, architecture and culture are first and foremost. These homes are part of their soul not investments. They become great investments later only because of the love and passion for these works of art.

We then took a break and headed to our best lunch on the trip in the hill town of Asolo, Italy - Ristorante de Gerry. This is a wonderful place up on a second floor with great views of the surrounding countryside from both the restaurant and the adjoining roof garden. We started with some fried mozzarella balls and sausage balls followed by a roast chicken salad and stuffed and fried zucchini flowers then roast pork and rosemary roasted potatoes all capped off with a fabulous apple tart with a zabaglione sauce. Of course a few glasses of prosecco and some red wine with the roast pork all capped by a cappuccino make for a wonderful lunch.

We then ventured to the famous Carlos Scarpa Brion - Vega Cemetery in San Vito d'Altivole, Italy. With the Brion Cemetery, Scarpa made his impact with an unreserved commitment ot the modern movement and a new sureness of language. He re-created here the splendor of nineteenth-century Middle Europe, where beauty had the power to redeem man from his limitations. He avoided the narrow dictates of rationalism, choosing rather to stress inner depth, dreams, and nostalgia. Carlos Scarpa said about the Tomb, "The place for the dead is a garden....I wanted to show some ways in which you could approach death in a social and civic way; and further what meaning there was in death, in the ephemerality of life—other than these shoe-boxes." Even if you do not appreciate or enjoy contemporary architecture this is a very unique and definitely spiritual space.

We next boarded the bus back for the village of Asolo in the foothills of the Alps. Known as the "Town of a Hundred Horizons" because of its panoramic views, this nub of a medieval hill town (though it was founded during the twilight of Imperial Rome) has become the secret hideaway for true Veneto aficionados. After walking through town we ventured to one of Heather and my favorite spots the famous Hotel Villa Cipriani in Asolo. Immersed in a private garden of pomegranate trees and fragrant seasonal flowers, Hotel Villa Cipriani is surrounded by the views that inspired Titian and Giorgione. Once the home of the famous poet Robert Browning, the hotel offers guests 31 rooms splendidly fitted with lovely antiques and exposed ornated beams. Recent guest have included Kim Bassinger and Rolling Stones rocker, Keith Richards. There is nothing nicer than sitting on the terrace with a peach bellini and chatting with friends while watching the sun set over the hills. It is magical and most memorable.

The day ended at a local pizzeria - a crusty coal fired capricciosa pizza. It's usually the richest pizza offered, and every pizzaiolo makes it differently. This is based on the Pizzaria Giancarlo, outside Florence's Porta San Frediano and includes ham, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, and of course tomato sauce - then you add whatever else you have taking up space in the refrigerator. Add a cold Birra Moretti and you just had a great day in Italy.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Italy 2008 - Day 3 Panto Factory/Treviso

Italy 2008 - Day 3 was the whole point of this trip - the tour of the Panto Window factory. I was on this factory tour four years ago and I have to say the second tour was as informative and inspiring as the first. What pride - what craftsmanship - what passion about a product. Panto has it all - not to mention a factory the floor you could eat pasta off of!!!

From the glass to the teak wood frames to the custom finishing it all is a painstaking process that is constantly being refined and perfected. From spraying the varnish on in an argon gas chamber because the argon molecules are smaller than oxygen molecules and it allows the varnish to penetrate to wood easier and deeper. Their windows come with a 30 year warranty, and trust me - you can see why.

We were given the tour by Walter who runs the operations - and later in the week is our fish griller. The tour lasted about two and a half hours and where we concluded at the factory showroom. Their multislide units and their tilt and turn windows and doors are simply works of art - but extremely functional. We have two houses now in Arizona with Panto windows and they have held up beautifully in the harsh, Arizona climate.

Of course after a strenuous factory tour you need a hearty lunch. We ventured to a wonderful country restaurant where we had the best gnocchi on the trip. It was chewy and with a little pepperoncini it hit the spot. Add a cold beer and a couple additional courses which will remain nameless and you have a great lunch.

Then it was off to a quick tour of Treviso - the town just north of Venice. This town is very charming as it too has a series of streams and canals through the town only they are running with fresh mountain water and loaded with some of the largest trouts I've ever seen. My associate, Craig Stoffel, who loves to fly fish would be in heaven. The town was badly destroyed in WWII but has been nicely restored. It is amazing to think that just 55 years ago this place was like Iraq.

We closed the night off with more gnocchi with a duck ragu, and roast beef that was fantastic, and the best tiramisu of the trip - it was amazing. Another 2-1/2 hour meal and it was back to the hotel to get rested for the next day.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Italy 2008 - Day 2 Venice

Italy Day 2 started with a 6am jog through the vineyard. What a great way to start the first full day in Italy - plus not a bad way to burn off the two plates of risotto from the night before! I have to thank Heather for getting me going as she is training for her second tri-athalon sprint. I am just trying to get some exercise into my life!

After the jog we stopped for a quick bite and some coffee and then get ready for the 30 minute bus ride to the Venice airport where we would meet tour boat to Venice and Murano.

The boat ride is beautiful as you see Venice off in the distance through the thick, moist air. It is such an unimaginable place and just doesn't seem real. This is my third time to Venice and it always awes me. You see the towers all tilting and listing from vertical and you realize this place is simply a mirage in time yet it is virtually the same it was centuries ago. What is so nice about Venice is the lack of cars, trucks, vespas and police sirens. It is quiet other than the constant sound of human chatter, a mixture of many languages, and occasional clanking dishes from the back kitchens of numerous restaurants. There is never a lack of detail and architecture. It is truly architecture Disneyland.

Before we made it to Venice though we had a quick side trip and tour of a the Nason Moretti glass factory in Murano, Italy. Murano is a small island just east of Venice and is famous for their fabulous glassworks. This was my second trip to the island and is also an amazing journey each time. We were greeted by Piero Nason - 4th generation master glass blower and now runs this family business started at the turn of the last century. The business is a family business and many cousins, uncles and aunts all have their craft and role in the company as so many companies in Italy are operated. With this comes so much pride and passion. Everyone has a stake in the manufacturing, sale and success or failure of the product. Their work is stunning and always changing. Formulas for colors and mixtures are kept in a simple three ring binder in a little back room with shelves of different metal compounds that all make unique colors. It is amazing that simple sand, soda, and minerals can make something so translucent and colorful, not to mention beautiful yet extremely functional. From stemware to Murano chandeliers it is astounding the different items these craftsmen can do with a blob of molten glass - and how quickly. It is definitely worth seeing when you come to this part of Italy. Once you see the skill and style that goes into making one champagne flute you can appreciate the price for these wonderful works of art.

We then re-boarded the boat and cruised through the main channel through Murano and then around the southern tip of Venice to the main docks just south of St. Mark's Square. As our group departed the boat at approximately 12 noon it was decided we would all meet here later in the day at 8pm - so we had the full afternoon to ourselves. Most headed right for St. Mark's Square while Heather and I took off down the narrowest alleyway and away from the crowds. We were on a venture for a fantastic lunch off the beaten path - which we found at the Traverna SanLio which is a small tavern and bed and breakfast away from St. Mark's Square but not out of reach. We started with a delicious carpaccio and a glass of Pinot Grigio. This was followed by our main dish whereby I had a local specialty Venetian liver and onions on a bed of polenta and Heather had the Sea Bass cannelloni. Both were absolutely perfect. We capped this lunch with a wonderful cheese plate. A cappuccino closed out the meal and we were off exploring the city. Of course this was quickly interrupted by a gelato which we enjoyed as we strolled the streets.

After an hour of walking we found a nice street with a park bench and we sat down and dozed off for a quick catnap. We obviously felt very safe or we were simply ignorant to our potential danger but we woke up with everything still in tact and we ventured off again. Now it was time to get to St. Mark's Square. The large cruise ship was loading up so the streets were emptying and now St. Mark's Square was ours.

We arrived and enjoyed the Doge Palace facade, St. Mark's Basilica, and the Campanile Tower and of course the Piazza San Marco. St. Mark's Basilica was constructed in approximately 1050 and is an amazing representation of the collision of the cultures of the east and west. It is an amazing structure and it is unimaginable the amount of time and detail that is present in this structure - all done without power tools and building codes!

After a few photos (ok probably 100+) we sat down in the Piazza for a glass or two of prosecco and a Cuban cigar and a couple hours of just soaking in the atmosphere. The theme from the Godfather or Volare' playing the the background and the sun slowly setting over the square with the lights of the evening slowly taking hold and you have a magical moment.

Soon it was time to go and make our way back to the rendezvous point and join up with our group. We grabbed a little pizza and a beer and it was time to take the boat back to the bus and back to the hotel. A great day for sure.

Italy Trip 2008 - Day 1 Arrival and the Veneto Foothills

Well I have kept my Italy trip each year streak alive with an impromptu but wonderful trip to Venice and Treviso to see the Panto Window Factory compliments of my good friends at Panto Windows.

We left early Monday morning and arrived Tuesday morning at the Marco Polo Airport in Venice. We were greeted by the California sales representative, Simon and his lovely wife Marcia, at the airport. We stopped for a quick cappuccino and an introduction of our fellow travelers on the tour. I was happy to see my old friend Tony Garcia on the trip. Tony and I worked together in the early 90's at CCBG Architects and he now has his own firm in San Diego, California.

We loaded on the bus to the Hotel Relais Monaco near Treviso, Italy. The hotel is an old Villa Veneta, Villa Guarnieri, distinctively converted by the famous architects Afra and Tobia Scarpa, located in Ponzano Veneto, close to Treviso, in the heart of the "Marca Trevigiana" and only 35 kms away from Venice. It is set in a beautiful vineyard.

We checked in and after flying for what seemed like 24 hours we grabbed a quick bite on the terrace of the hotel. Great way to start with a plate of spaghetti and insalata mista - the freshest greens, tomato and mozzarella. Perfect!

We quickly reloaded the bus for a quick jaunt to the foothills of the Alps and the Mionetto Winery. Founded in 1887 from the love and passion for work and for the land of Francesco Mionetta, the head of the family and the master winemaker. In 1982 the winery completely converted to the production of Prosecco - a semi-sparkling white wine - Italian champagne made popular in the Bellini cocktail. We were given a wonderful tour of the winery by the grandson of the founder. Of course the tour ended in the tasting room and after trying ALL of their lines of prosecco it was time to move on to our next destination.

After a short drive through the hills of the Valdobbiadene wine -growing region north of Treviso we arrived at the Castel Brando. After a short tram ride up the hill you are taken with the beautiful view and the over 2000 year history of the castle. The castle has been converted to a 260 room hotel and convention center but it still feels like an old castle. It is spectacular. After a quick walk around the grounds and a tasty cappuccino it was back down the tram and back on the bus and off to dinner - something you do a lot in Italy - eat!

We arrived at a wonderful country restaurant - which I cannot recall the name but will track it down - and enjoyed a fantastic dinner. We all sat upstairs and since we are a group of 29 we were served country style - but it was fabulous. Great first dinner. The restaurant had a marvelous indoor grille and rotisserie and we had roast rabbit, chicken, and pork along with several pasta dishes, mushroom risotto, salad, vegetables and of course a delicious fruit tart with a panna cotta sauce - topped off with a perfect cappuccino. By now we were exhausted. Back to the hotel and some needed sleep! Off to Venice tomorrow. Ciao.