We've had two trips since I last wrote, and I didn't want to bombard you all with blog updates, so I was planning to squish them into one entry. However, I realized that would get really long, so I'll be sending out another update in a week or so with pictures from Slovenia.
Anyway, it seems Europeans really don't like working, so there is at least one day off (usually for some Christian holiday) every week in May. Combine with low-cost European airlines and you get nice 4 day weekends.
At the end of April we headed to Italy, the northern region around Parma, Modena and the Cinque Terre. We had heard nothing but glowing reviews of the Cinque Terre park, and I was excited about the food touring options. Our first night we stayed in a charming old converted farmhouse in the country. We started out by going to a small town near Parma, home of Parmigiano-reggiano cheese (also known as parmesan in the English-speaking world), to visit a Parmigiano dairy. They spoke only Italian, but we were able to get a tour of the facility, where they are still making the cheese the way they have for centuries - all by hand. We watched as the fresh cheese was turned in cheese cloth while dipped in giant vats of hot water, and then we saw the various stages of the cheese-making, all the way to the storage room where 12,000 large wheels of Parmigiano were aging for 24-30 months. The quality of this cheese is serious business. There's a consortium that controls all the authentic Parmigiano, and once a month (I think) they come to check all the cheeses. Any that don't meet the quality standards have their Parmigiano rinds scraped off them on the spot so no one gets any ideas about trying to sell them as "real" authentic Parmigiano.
After this we went to nearby Modena, which any of you cooking buffs out there will recognize as the home of "Aceto Balsamico di Modena", otherwise known as balsamic vinegar. We toured a farm where they have been making the vinegar for centuries, and we found out that it, too, is a very serious process with many rules and its own consortium that has to approve every single batch of balsamic vinegar that is sold. Even the barrels in which the vinegar ages have to be registered with the consortium, and if you want to change one or get a new one, it's a big hassle. The vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years, and the barrels can be centuries old. We also learned that the name "aceto balsamico di Modena" is not protected - so look on your kitchen shelf... your balsamic vinegar could be made anywhere and is probably mostly red wine vinegar mixed with caramel coloring. Only if it says "aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena" is it truly a protected name, and in this case a tiny bottle will run you $50 or so. Once you've tasted it, though, you'll see it's worth every cent.
What I didn't know about Modena, but which apparently every straight guy on the planet knows, is that it's also the home of luxury cars like Ferrari and Lamborghini. So of course we had to visit the Galleria Ferrari, which was quite a sight to see. It was a collection of Ferraris and engines from across the years, plus pictures of Ferraris in different places throughout the Americas. All in all, the most boastful, self-aggrandizing museum I've ever seen. But it was worth it to see the audience - 99% men plus a few very bored-looking women, and EVERYONE decked out in Ferrari clothing - shirts, caps, pants, even shoes. And those who didn't have actual Ferrari merchandise were at least wearing red, the official color of Ferraris. It was very amusing.
So anyway, the main attraction of the trip was the Cinque Terre, five towns perched on a seaside cliff in a national park. The towns were, as everyone had told me, gorgeous, and we had some great hiking opportunities between and outside of the towns. They were a bit overrun with tourists, though, so we tried to find hiking trails that were a little more challenging in order to avoid the crowds. In any case, we enjoyed the food (the region is the home of pesto) and the towns were really quite lovely, especially in the evening after all the day-trippers went home. We spent about 2.5 days there, walking between the towns and relaxing, before heading back to Milan to fly home.
Well, I suppose someday I'll learn to write a short trip summary, but so far I'm not doing so well. Look for an update on the Slovenia trip pretty soon, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks!