Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017

© Dr Brent Schecter

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I prescribe a trip to... Italy

An endocrinologist and oncologist alternate eating and walking in Europe's most luscious landscapes

Last year, as summer in Winnipeg was ending, my husband and I decided that we needed a last-minute break to recover from a much busier and work-filled summer than we had anticipated. So, hoping to recharge our energy stores to face the inevitable Prairie winter, we set off for Italy.

“Set off” doesn't quite capture the experience. It took us 24 hours, three flights, one train and two taxis to reach our destination. Finally we arrived at the edge of Lake Como. We awoke to a beautiful scene with the water sparkling in the early morning sun. The town of Como is at the base of a long two-legged lake dotted with small towns and elaborate summer villas.

When I thought about writing this diary; I was inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, Eat. Pray, Love, which I read the previous year. I particularly enjoyed the first section about Italy because of all the emphasis on food. How can one think of Italy without thinking about food? So, as an homage to Ms Gilbert, I thought I would subtitle this diary Eat, Eat, Eat. Please bear in mind that I come from a tradition where one meal, while being savoured is spent planning the next.

I’m currently writing this while swaying in the middle seat of the train to La Spezia, en route to Cinque Terre. Our compartment companions include an elderly Italian woman talking non-stop to her middle-aged male companion in the most musical Italian, which I wish I understood.

What strikes me is how beautifully dressed she is, with a matching blue and white skirt and jacket with a smart white and tan bag. Her male companion wears fine summer trousers, carefully pressed, with a coordinating blazer, shirt and cravat. On the other side are a young Australian couple, like us in jeans and t-shirts, looking very shabby by comparison.

Lake lustre

We had started our trip in Lake Como. On our first day, when we finally succumbed to the August heat, we were served clever snacks to accompany our lemon Schweppes. Tiny dark olives and lightly-pickled vegetables provided that much-needed touch of salt to help with the heat.

Later that evening, still jetlagged, we found ourselves sitting outside a little wine bar enjoying a small portion of pasta with plump sweet shrimp and zucchini slices that almost melted in our mouths, all lightly dressed with tomato sauce and olive oil. It was so perfect, yet the owner apologized that they were closing and could only serve us this “small bite.”

The most pleasant way to enjoy this region is by boat. There is a choice of the slow, sightseeing-commuter boat that stops at almost every town or the faster hydrofoil, when time is of the essence. But this is Italy. Is time really ever of the essence?

We took the slow boat to the town of Bellagio. It was only half-way up the coast, but this still took us two hours. The boat hugged the shore allowing us a close view of how the residents live.

Old expansive villas were painted white, yellow, pink and melon — all the colours of summer — surrounded by gardens, grand terraces and, boat houses that looked like little villas themselves. Most of their large windows were shuttered; no one home. Sadly, even George Clooney’s graceful white and grey villa was closed up. How did we know it was his? Because a very confident woman pointed it out; so it must be true. Suffice it to say, we took pictures for our daughters.

Lunch in Bellagio was in a small arbour-covered garden overlooking the lake. Cool breezes, small birds and large bumble bees were our company. Whenever I can have Caprese salad with real buffalo mozzarella, I do. The mozzarella came in small balls, firm and almost salty on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside. The tomatoes were firm yet sweet, the fresh basil was aromatic and all was drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. It tasted of summer and Lake Como in every bite.

That meal was only bested by the fish we had that evening. Wanting to try some regional specialties, we ordered the Lake Como fish appetizer. We received a small, salt-cured whole fish on top of grilled polenta. The maître d’ explained that these small fish, in season in early June, are caught, hung to dry then packed in salt to be served late in summer. They were small bites of salty goodness.

The fish of the day was a whole sea bass gently roasted with thinly sliced potatoes, tomatoes and olives, lightly dressed with extra-virgin olive oil at the table. Wonderful flavour; simple, sweet and firm in its freshness. That probably described my overall impression of Como: fresh, simple and sweet.

Tuscan grandeur

As we only had 36 hours in Florence, I was left with a series of impressions. In Florence, the lingering memories I have are of the power of the long-gone Medicis' imposing palazzos, with loggias housing the marble statuary that guarded their city. And of course their grand Duomo, one of the largest, and most beautiful churches in Europe.

And the art that the Medici collected… In the Uffizi Gallery, we traced the history of painting from the two-dimensional medieval religious art, through all the subtle changes of style and technique of the Renaissance, arriving at beautifully rendered portraits. There were startling scenes of violence, grand processions and tender exchanges between lovers or parents with their children. How to describe the delicacy of Botticelli and the feeling of awe of viewing Michaelangelo’s David in the Academia Gallery? I can’t. So I'll stick to food.

In Florence, we were never more than a few steps away from utterly delicious fruit-filled pastry. What simple yet sublime pleasure it was to eat a still-warm, apricot pastry and wash it down with a frothy caffè latte while travelling the early morning train to Florence.

Florence was filled with narrow walkways where the cobblestones challenged my sturdy track shoes. But it was also home to Vivoli gelato sampled late in the afternoon. It was, hands down, the best gelato ever! The arborio rice flavour was an acquired taste, though. I rolled it around in my mouth for awhile and suddenly felt that I was eating risotto. But we didn't need to acquire a taste for the plum, coffee and chocolate-orange flavours; they were nothing but pure enjoyment.

The city is also home to numerous tiny trattorias, typically hidden behind doors, rather than sprawled out on terraces. But there are always white tablecloths and large windows open to the street to catch the breeze. And there is always antipasti, like gorgeous white beans on crostini toasted on an open flame and dressed with luscious olive oil; or paper-thin salami and grilled eggplant that melted in my mouth. Robust meats usually followed but honestly, I was satisfied with the antipasti.

Serene scene

Venice is luminous. Everything is a soft silvery blue even when the sky is clear and this silver softness gives Venice a pensive and mysterious feel. The canals are such a dominant feature that they are the landscape. We kept getting lost, but in the most delightful way. Alleyways never went straight for more than six houses, they'd take sharp turns, usually into a canal. In fact, getting to our destination felt like sailing: we would set our course by the map, and then tack back and forth over canals, eventually finding our way.

We quickly learned to stop and look because the journey was often better than the destination. There were enchanting bridges to cross, hidden piazzas, even smaller campos that housed beautiful marble churches or grand houses.

And of course, gondolas and small boats were everywhere, moored to tall poles, some painted in the characteristic stripes, most just weathered wood. And people: one instant, they were swarming everywhere through the tiny alleys; then the next instant, as we turned a corner, they were gone and we mysteriously were alone.

We were surrounded by an atmosphere of elegant decay. Most of the palazzos lining the Grand Canal are in genteel decline, needing cleaning, sandblasting and restoration. Despite this, they remain vibrant. At night, we spied through the upper windows at glittering parties which spilling out onto the balconies.

Food in Venice mirrors the water; fish and seafood. Sardines that were smothered in sauteed onions dotted with currants and pine nuts; pungent squid-ink pasta; whole sole or John Dory simply grilled in small neighbourhood trattorias. But what I remember best were the smalldolci (sweets) that we found necessary to buy as we lost and found and then lost our way again.

Steep expectations

When we reached Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre, we headed for our B&B. After an incredibly steep walk which seemed to ascend straight up, we reached our haven, high in the town with spectacular views over the sea one way and perhaps even more interesting town views the other. We learned much about the characteristics of small town life. First, because of the steep valley effect of a hillside town, all the sound reverberates. So, from our balcony, we could hear what seemed to be the cacophony of everyone’s life: children playing in the small cement playground a few levels below us; mothers calling children and friends calling each other. Older folk visited from window to window, calling out news.

The other fascinating characteristic of hillside living is the unintended ability to see everyone going about their business. We saw mothers putting out their laundry to dry on lines hung below their windowsills; people tending their postage stamp gardens, small but bursting with tomatoes. And then there was the man who very slowly and carefully washed his shutters. Every shutter was lifted off the window, washed on a trestle and laid to dry in the sun. Before removing the next shutter, it was time for a smoke break. Such is the relaxed pace of life here that we looked forward to measuring his progress over our stay.

Walk this way

But all would not be relaxation in Cinque Terre (the Five Lands). We had come to fulfill a quest. There is a famous hike leading through all five towns. Everyone talks of it as a badge of honour. It became one for us after our younger daughter warned us repeatedly not to attempt the entire hike out of concern for our “advanced age.” But I wasn’t going to let all those years of cardio aerobics, Pilates and yoga go to waste. Her admonishments just spurred us on. So, as good academics, we studied the course and developed a strategy. We would start early, at the most strenuous end of the trail and slowly make our way through the progressively easier portions.

But after we started, we discovered the best strategy of all: food! The hikes are divided into segments among the five towns. As we started from Montero, early in the morning after a light breakfast, it made sense to plan a stop for cafe latte and a bun in Vernazza. That’s when the light bulb came on: foods stops in every town. What success!

The first two segments were challenging, taking 90 to 120 minutes of continuous hiking up and down mossy embankments, crumbling steps, cliff-side paths overlooking the Mediterranean and the thankful flat stretches along old vineyards and olive groves. But it was the wonderful food that kept us going, fresh flaky chocolate pastry in the morning, a tomato-based seafood risotto cooked and served in an old terracotta pot at lunch in Corniglia and fruit-filled gelato in Manarolo in the afternoon. And the prize at the end was delicious fresh figs with local wine on our balcony in Riomaggiore.

Here we sank into our chairs, uncorked the wine, toasted ourselves for finishing the day-long hike without incident and texted our worried daughter back home. Then we settled in for a well-deserved rest and tuned into the activities of the town from our balcony observatory. Our downhill neighbour had also made progress that day; he had finished washing two more shutters.

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