Friday, July 26, 2013

Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne

Gardens with Melbourne skyline in the distance

Having recently mentioned Tilden Park Botanic garden, I thought I'd revisit another spectacular garden that I toured on my Australian trip last February—Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, in the heart of the city. We had allotted one morning to the vast and fascinating garden, but we enjoyed our visit so much that we cancelled our plans to tour the Great Ocean Road the next day, in order to spend more time in that bucolic spot and enjoy a picnic lunch on the grounds.

Before setting out on our botanic adventure, we walked around the corner from our hotel to Pellegrinis Bar, a classic Melbourne institution recommended by our friend  Leo, who grew up near there. Every morning we would order a flat white, Australia's version of cappuccino, fruit salad and an Italian pastry.

Italian pastries at Pellegrini's

Then we  hopped on a city bus, and headed South  across the Yarrow River to our destination. As often happened in Australia, we sat next to a super friendly gent, a native Melbournian, who filled us in on the complete history of the gardens. He told us that they range over thirty-eight hectares of landscaped gardens consisting of  a mix of native and non-native vegetation including over ten thousand species. The site was selected by Charles Latrobe from marshland and swamps in 1846. Now it is regarded as the finest botanical gardens in Australia. By the time we descended from the bus, we were fully educated.
It was a hazy day, but we both started snapping photos of everything in sight, including each other snapping photos. We were in our element.

I took a picture of Dean taking pictures

Since Australia is in the southern hemisphere, many of the plants and trees were exotic and new to us, but there were also some familiar favorites.

A mystery berry

We saw lawns

And red- billed swans

We had to rush off to St Kilda—a seaside neighborhood—to have lunch at Cafe Di Stasio, but we had not gotten our fill of the gardens. We vowed to return the following day and picnic on the lawns. After wandering around  picturesque St. Kilda, we caught a bus and were again treated to another city tour by a friendly American expat who called Melbourne home. She pointed out the sights and filled us in on many aspects of Melbourne life. When we reached the CBD (central business district)  I asked about the city arcades that I had read about but  had been unable to find. She actually got off the bus with us and guided us to one of the best—The Royal Arcade.

Royal Arcade

We wandered through the arcade shops, bought some gifts and then walked back through  Melbourne's mini China Town to our delightful and centrally located Crossley Hotel.

Queen Victoria Market's produce stalls at the entrance

 The next morning we took the free circle tram to the imposing Queen Victoria Market to stock up for our picnic in the Gardens. It is a huge rambling market, taking up at least one whole city block. Produce is sold outside in a covered pavilion, and inside stalls and shops fill another huge building.  If you want to get the  real feeling of the market and it's bustling immensity, watch the video below. We bought bread, cheese, sausage and other goodies and hustled out to visit the gardens for the second time.

Queen Victoria Market Video

We passed on the Kangaroo meat.

Picnic spot

After wandering a bit, we were hungry. We found an idyllic spot near a duck pond where we decided to have our picnic. A few other tourists had the same idea, but there was room for everyone.

After lunch, we wandered through the King's Domain, the park that encloses the gardens, past the huge war memorial called the Chapel of Remembrance and onward toward the Southbank district of Melbourne. We passed the National Gallery of Victoria (the province in which Melbourne resides) and  decided to take a look.

Pool in front of National Gallery of Victoria

They were having an exhibit of ballet costumes. I photographed some of the stunning pieces!

I loved this outfit in a dance costume exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria

We found some fascinating paintings in the gallery, and they didn't object to our snapping photos.

David Hockney's Second Marriage (1963)

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Summer Solstice, 1943

Then we walked along the Yarrow river and had a drink with the Friday afternoon revelers at Riverland, a popular bar with a great buzz and lovely riverside tables.  But we couldn't linger because we were flying home the next day and we still hadn't seen the Immigrant Museum which our cab driver had recommended when he drove us in from the airport. So off we went to squeeze in one more museum before our dinner reservation at Ginger Boy, a favorite fusion spot across the street from our hotel.      So little time, so much to see!

Having a farewell drink at Riverland on the Yarrow River

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fichi d'India

In early June I went up the hill to Tilden Regional Park to visit my favorite botanical garden. At the entrance there is a magnificent salmon-flowered prickly-pear, which is a special favorite. Always before it sported oval orange-hued fruit perched on top of its thorny paddle- shaped leaves, but now it was loaded with exquisite salmon-colored flowers. I was entranced and started taking pictures, but tiny thorns stuck in my skin when I moved in too close. These hairy prickers, not to be confused with the bigger ones, are called glochids  and are extremely difficult to remove.

Bloom on June 11th with large thorns glistening in the sun. The glochids are not visible.

This one turned out to be a yellow-flowered variety (July)
Prickly pears in my neighborhood (December)

I noticed a beautiful specimen full of peach-colored pears in my neighborhood last December. Today I drove by and to my surprise, it was full of bright yellow flowers. I ran home to get my camera to record the plant in all its colorful glory.  On Napa Valley's Silverado Trail, by Pina winery, there is another lovely example of a prickly pear cactus. Last winter, the fruit was peachy-orange, but I haven't been back to observe the color of the flowers.. Maybe I'll call the winery, or drive up there.

       Pina winery has a huge prickly pear on Napa's Silverado trail
Orange fruit growing last winter

I see prickly pears everywhere these days; they're even selling the de-thorned leaves (nopales) at the farmer's market. But they haven't always been on my radar— it all started on a trip to Sicily in September 2009.

 Street scene in Palermo (featuring vegetables)

When we arrived in Palermo and began exploring the city, we saw patrons intently eating vividly-colored sweetmeats with knife, fork and spoon in trattorias and outdoor cafes everywhere

Typical outdoor cafe in Sicily

We had no idea what they were eating, but we were curious and vowed to find out.

Here's Dean waiting for his pizza and Birra Moretti, watching the guy at the nearby table eating the mystery dish

Artistically peeled, ready to eat fico (singular of fichi)

These colors are not enhanced—this is typical of what we saw in Palermo 

 We passed stalls of grilled peppers stuffed with olives, roast chickens and more Sicilian veggies

Then we saw some young men selling the mysterious colorful items on the street. I decided to ask them what they were. Fichi D'India they told us. Figs of India, and they handed out pieces for us to sample. They peeled the figs and assured us that they were delicious. The flavor was subtle, astringent and there were large, seemingly inedible seeds throughout the fruit, which made them difficult to eat and unpleasant to my taste. Perhaps they just don't appeal to Americans. However, judging from the excitement in Palermo, Sicilians couldn't get enough of them.

From Palermo we took a train (not the way to travel in Sicily we learned, since a bus or car could get you there in a quarter of the time) to nearby Taormina. Though they're slow and  make stops every ten minutes, the  Sicilian trains are a lovely way to meet people. On the three-hour ride, we befriended Kiki, a friendly Norwegian, who was deathly afraid of the lightening which was flashing ominously as we approached our destination. Luckily, after a torrential downpour at the station, the sun reappeared so we could enjoy our pool and the spectacular view from our hotel room high above the Ionian Sea.

Early morning view from our room at the Hotel Villa Belvedere in Taormina

In Taormina we visited the Greek amphitheatre, the first of many spectacular Sicilian ruins we saw, but Fichi d'India were in short supply, probably because of the abundance of foreign tourists who don't appreciate them.
The amphitheatre in Taormina

Leaving Taormina, we rented a car so we could see the sights on the little-traveled highways and byways. The good news was that Europcar had upgraded us to a comfy larger vehicle; the bad news was that we had difficulty navigating the narrow streets in tiny villages and on mountainous roads. We actually got stuck on a hairpin turn in Piazza Armerina, and the friendly shopkeepers had to help us struggle out of the tight corner. The crowd that had gathered to watch applauded when we finally succeeded. To celebrate we stopped for gelato. We tried to have at least two every day!

Though it's not pictured here, my favorite was always the Sicilian Pistachio gelato

We then headed South to less-touristy destinations like Ragusa, Noto, Modica and Trapani (a stronghold of the Mafia; full of shiny black cars with darkened windows.) And, of course, more photographic ruins along the way.

My favorite temple—Segesta

I'm resting against a giant column between showers
Dean testing ancient walls at the Greek temple of Selanunte

We'd shout out fichi d'India when we passed one in Sicily. We still do.

 Now that we had identified the mystery fruit we spotted them all over Sicily. In Cefalu, one of our last stops on the way back to Palermo, I discovered another beautiful fruit stand in the middle of the street. Featured in the front were crates of Fichi, ready to be peeled and enjoyed by some lucky Sicilians. I much preferred the muscat grapes, classic figs and melons, ripe and succulent in this Mediterranean mid- September.

Cefalu fruit stand with crates of fichi d'India in the foreground

We also saw a wedding party at the cathedral on the main Piazza

Piazza Duomo in Cefalu,  filled with cafes

We returned to Palermo before flying home to California, where fichi d'India are called prickly pears.
Here's a YouTube demonstration on how to prepare one. Notice how many goodies there are for  Green Bin:

How to eat a prickly pear