Walking around – 1 – Aosta

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This post is the first of a monthly series: half a reportage on a week-end travel, half my usual rummaging about what I am doing now 🙂
Yes, something that I did also in the past, e.g. in 2007 when I returned a visit in Rome by coming back to Riga for few days (and “few” of my contacts may remember the Brivibas Iela monument picture).

This time the tour was in Aosta, a town deep into the French-speaking side of Italy.

Why Aosta? Because it is just a couple of hours away by train, so a visit could be squeezed between my Saturday morning activity in Turin and my Sunday afternoon work.

It is a small town but with interesting bits of cultural heritage- for the time being, I focused on Ancient Rome.

And on something else: tasting local food and wine.

As I wrote yesterday on FB, I also used the opportunity to do few tests- on the technological side, by activating what I call the “stalking features” (official names: location and GPS tracking) of my mobile phone; on a personal side, to check my tolerance of alcohol using my traditional “limit” (also with a British drinking pal in London, the point was being able to walk back home few kms).

A first warning: if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you are going to miss a lot of the local food culture.

A second warning: many of the coffee, drinking, food places that I visited are relaxing but worth visiting with a friend (or your boy/girl-friend), so that you can sit down, relax, and talk.

As my pub friends in Brussels knew: I had dinner or went around only with those that I had met before, or introduced by others that I had already met.

I was used to travel often, and therefore I had also the opportunity to meet interesting people all around Europe- but, anyway, unless I met them again, it all ended where and when we met- yes, I am that boring, but I think that our personal time is the scarcest resource, and I rather spend with those I care about than by trying to be superficially popular.

In my case, I wanted some silence, and therefore my “scary” look (sometimes I can look at people as if they were a radio station and I was trying to “tune” on them), book reading in English on my tablet, and sipping a glass of wine were what I needed to stay alone.

Albeit there were few “cameos” (meetings by chance or design) were I couldn’t really keep the acting on (more about it later).

This is the itinerary that my scary mobile tagged me on-superimpose it on a map of central Aosta (between Piazza della Repubblica on the left and the Roman bridge on the right), and you get a close match of the map that you can get at the Tourist Office more or less in the middle between the main square (town hall) and the Roman bridge.
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I walked 13km yesterday (again, my mobile) and half that today- so, I did the itinerary few times.

Let’s start from the end: this morning I went out quite early, to have pictures without people, and, beside police forces, shopkeepers and few retirees… I was basically the only non-Japanese taking pictures (they too looked for pictures without a crowd).

But before that, I did get pictures yesterday evening and yesterday afternoon- interesting how some details changed.
Incidentally: this week-end there was also a kind of “treasure hunt” in Aosta, with guided tour groups running through monuments- a nice idea that could be recycled in many towns around Italy.

As I wrote today on whatsapp to a long-term Italian friend of mine who happened to be a couple of decades ago my partner in mischief across the cultural heritage of Northern Italy, Aosta reminded me a little bit of Bolzano, the main town in the German side of Italy.

Why partner in mischief? Because we often went around to visit exhibitions, towns, etc- up to the big jump, a few weeks travel in Germany to visit Ludwig castles- it was funny to use my negotiating and planning skills to keep restructuring our travel: if we liked a town, we stayed more, and notified accordingly via fax all the hotels in our plan.

As at the time (early 1990s) few tourists did so, I was surprised that basically no hotel complained, and actually we routinely received a welcome.

Aosta is in the French side of Northern Italy, and I found old and young people generally extremely kind (a paradox: except in a restaurant and an hotel, in both cases a local who resented that Aosta is in Italy, with curious results when they discovered that I speak French, also because I used my passport issued in Brussels and ATM card from Belgium).

Actually, so kind that… I wrote to my friend that they seemed Canadians, paraphrasing a joke from my American friends 😀

How kind? Well, let’s move onto food&drinks.

The first stop was in the afternoon, around 17, were I looked at cafés and then went for Caffé Nazionale, in the main square.
I had obviously a tea with biscuits, and the environment was what I like when sipping teas in a tea room: mildly decadent, quiet, as I found e.g. in Venice or Trieste and in similar places in Brussels, London, Paris, Zurich (yes, alphabetically!), to name a few.

The surprise? The price- I had to ask for confirmation of what I was asked twice, as it was as low as a cup of tea in some ordinary places in Turin- but without biscuits and that environment; if you go for that kind of ambiance, in Turin you get prices on a par with the Florian in Venice (less the music price supplement, of course).

But that was the first of many similar surprises in the evening.

Yesterday evening I had planned to have dinner early, so that I could visit cocktail bars, pubs, etc. before the crowd joined and then relax reading, but eventually… I was back in my room around Midnight (yes, like Cinderella), as it was quite enjoyable (and a “liquid night”).

Nearby the Roman bridge there is a wine shop that sells also local products and acts as a champagne&wine bar.

I went inside around 19, and it was fully packed, so the only table available was a slightly larger one, and I asked if it would be fine- and was cheerfully greeted (in many other Italian towns, if you are alone they offer you a corner on the counter, to avoid losing the opportunity to occupy also the other seats).

I had a glass of local wine on Fumin grapes (I think), whose taste reminded me eerily of an Australian wine from Victoria that I liked to buy and share with friends in a shop nearby Spitalfields while I lived in London.

I do not know you, but I cannot really drink alcohol without some food, and, of course, I went for local food, and received from Fontina cheese, local bread, chestnuts with honey, and Lard d’Arnad (see pictures at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lardo), which melts in your mouth.

In a crowded place, where there are more or less 30cm between people, but with an air circulation well catered for, what do you do to avoid eye contact or meaningless small talk? Read a book, possibly in a language that is not local (by chance, I was finishing to read a volume from the Harvard classics).

Anyway, it might be the combination of the long walk, the fresh mountain air, the wine, the food, and the cheerful crowd, but my friends (and also old and new colleagues) would have been surprised to see that it took longer to sip that glass of wine and eat the few bits and pieces than I routinely spend in the canteen to have a full meal- but it was so relaxing…

Next, I went for what I expected to be a tourist trap, a restaurant within the Porta Pretoria (just opposite from the Tourist Office), but I was curious to see how it was inside.

Let’s say that the internal structure made me think of what an American visiting professor told us at LSE in 1994- whoever graduates here gets a degree in whatever major s/he selected, plus one in topography, as the shortest path between two rooms was a kind of Gordian Knot 😀

Well, the layout of that restaurant is somewhat unusual, but once in, you can easily find the way out.

As for the food: ordinary, with a twist: the restaurant owner is so scroogy that he uses the same wine used to cook as wine that he offers when you ask for red, but explains that only to French-speaking customers, giving then another better wine, and except the “crespelle” (filled pasta served piping hot) that were nice and the starter with Lard (less rich than the one I received at the wine bar), the carbonade was ordinary and tiny, while the dessert was simply terrible.

Moreover, despite the reassurances that just the name of the dishes within the set menu was the difference from the individual dishes, without asking anything (e.g. I did not see any vegetables), when I paid with a Belgian card I saw then that he made a small discount, as he understood that “probably” I understood what he said to the French group that ordered just one dish 😀

Then, I went for a walk and evening pictures, and moved onto a place that I had seen in the morning, a cocktail bar called Rolling Stone.

When I entered, it was empty- I was the first customer (which was fine for my purposes), and ordered a Mojito- which was better than many, and served in a large vase- refreshing enough that I had two, while moving to read my next book (the Apology of Socrates) on my tablet.

I know- Mojito and music supposedly do not mix with philosophy- but the irony within that long speech is certainly closer in spirit 😉 to a Mojito than to a cup of tea… also if, again, in this case the Mojito was not only better than others, but also much cheaper: nice service, nice products, lower prices… I can understand why I met so many tourists.

I remember my Latvian friends telling of the “invasions” of cars from Scandinavia that they mistook for the Russians having second thoughts about independence, while instead… it was just a case of Swedish week-end migration to drink Latvian beer that was good but cheaper.

As people started arriving, I hurried up with my second Mojito, and moved on- I was in Aosta to relax and the experience, not to socialize.

I was supposed to go back and relax reading… but I decided to walk some more, and have a look at a pub, seeking something that I haven’t sipped for a while- a pint (or more) of Guinness.

So, I went in a pub- but they had only an Italian beer on draft, and I made the mistake of downing a pint without any food.

Then, I asked around, and finally a group of kids that was going that direction told me to go with them- to avoid getting lost on the way to the only true pub in Aosta, an English pub.

Good Guinness, but in this case at the “standard” price (6 EUR) that you can find in Northern Italy, albeit I tasted one of the hot sandwiches and… I regretted my dinner, as I would have gladly had another one of those sandwiches (yes, I put a couple of kg this week-end).

Then there was a cameo few minutes before I left the pub, on the way out- but this one I will tell only face-to-face to some friends 😀

As for the hotel… this morning I heard my “room neighbours” (had the room on the other side of the aisle from my room- I would call them “the nightmare customers from State bureaucracy”, from how they talked and behaved- including singing loudly under the shower :D).

Specifically: I heard them complaining about the heating while I was having breakfast (there was only a French-speaking foreigner and myself having breakfast- as it was at extra cost), as they said that it was cold.

Unbelievably, the woman/owner (I had been lucky to be greeted by somebody else who was really polite) started her reply by shouting “non facciamo gli italiani” (don’t be like the typical morose Italians)- quite unusual concept of service; but that was just the beginning.

Then, the French-speaking customer had the misfortune of ending his breakfast, and passing close to the counter, and was subject to a long tirade in something that supposedly was French but sounded more Italian here and there, in which the owner stated gracious things such as “they should be grateful” about in-room toilets and other amenities that they had installed decades ago… forgetting that, in Italy, there are some “amenities” associated with stars, and some minimal requirements have to be met.

But the cherry on the cake was when the owner asked to the French-speaking customer to please post a positive review on her hotel, as she said that Italians routinely post negative ones.

With that attitude, I am not surprised 😀

Now, if you are interested in something more about shops, monuments, etc. in Aosta, let me know: I took a map and plenty of pictures, and had a look also at other shops (beside buying biscuits called “tegole”, i.e. tiles).

As for the picture… I liked the contrast between the remains and the building site.

Moving onto what I am doing now… I had to procrastinate some of my learning and writing activities (including the news review), as unfortunately there were few business issues that spilled over my spare time, and will keep doing so for few weeks more.

Anyway, this doesn’t imply that for the next couple of years my old writings and research experiment will cease: I have no intention to “freeze”, also because the more I go around, the more I feel like in a foreign land.

The attitude of the restaurant owner and the hotel owner in Aosta, despite what they believe, is really a symbol of the decay of the service concept in Italy- and in my travel to and from Aosta I heard public employees (State and other entities) talking between themselves with such an attitude about those that are actually paying their salaries, that I understand what I heard few days ago, from somebody who could generate business, and prefers to retire to avoid feeding arrogant bureaucrats who have an overbearing sense of entitlement.

As I wrote before, I heard way too often “civil servants” (the concept is almost unknown in Italy) uttering phrases such as “WE are the State”, as if citizens were to exist only to support them, as they know better, instead of being the other way around: no surprise that historically the Italian Parliament has a large quota of elected representatives from bureaucracy or the various “guilds” (“Albi”) that represent the interests of few groups.

Admittedly, preparing to return in Italy in 2003 instead of staying in UK a little bit more and take local citizenship wasn’t a smart choice.

But I am still of the idea that a republic is better than a monarchy, and cannot see myself as formally a “subject” (also if, as I wrote above, since 2003 I saw that the Italian Republic is a figment of imagination- not the “rule of the law” but the “rulers of the law”).

Frankly, I do not regret the concept of trying to use my experience in my birthplace, both to help create companies and work on State projects that could improve the way it works (for one of the systems, I even had contacts in France at my own expenses to see if they could be interested in adopting the same system): I think that you have to regret only for not trying, not for trying and failing, and if there is an element that I always disliked in my country, is how many talk talk talk- but never chip in when it is time to put their time and wallet.

In Rome, do the Romans way- and if you do not like it, move elsewhere. As a Russian friend said: we are people, not trees- therefore, we can move (albeit self-financing a relocation is something that I already did twice, and this time at least I know what to avoid :D)

As for moving… this time I did the test in the French part of Italy, down the road will do the test in the German part, but today I did another step useful for my research and publications (and future activity, if I will have to create a new activity.
I sent my application for the registration with e-stonia, and maybe will see in the future to either keep it as just e-residency, or maybe create something there (a “virtual company”).

No, I do not have any Estonian girlfriend in mind, as some Italians would suggest: the beauty of the “virtual” concept is that I can have e-residency (and maybe eventually also a company) in Estonia while being a member of Mensa International which is based in UK, maybe working in a third country, and living in a fourth country.

Pretty much as improving my German and expanding my Chinese will not necessarily result in a relocation in either Germany/Austria/Switzerland or China.

It will spawn a series of experiments: since my time in Rome in 2004 on Government projects, I have been on the receiving end of various comments, often not that positive, but following the old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as I said recently to a new friend, I received so many (virtual) back-stabbings over the last few years, that now my back is like that of a turtle, a carapace 🙂

Sometimes (often) in Italy I heard over the last few years discussions about “retirement benefits”- well, I paid contributions in few countries, and anyway I do not plan to retire- just to change the way I work.

So, stay tuned- there is plenty worth writing about, in Italy and Europe- that could be useful also elsewhere.

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