Friday, October 31, 2014

Adventures in Southeast Sicily

Genoa flooded again and poor Liguria was under a severe flood warning for several days, and we were actually forced to close being underground in La Cantina.  It rained so hard one day that we ran down in galoshes in total panic, flashes of the flood that destroyed the village 3 years ago running through my head.  Praying and crying, we rushed into the Cantina, soaking wet and scared to find that only a few inches of water entered.  We cleaned it all up, boarded up and secured our sandbags, and promptly closed for the season the next day, basically disassembling the entire restaurant and bringing it up to the storage garage up the hill and safe from floods.  Nothing serious happened, thank goodness, but it was enough to scare us, and as we were planning on closing for the season ANYWAY the following week, we figured for everyone's peace of mind it was better just to call it a season.

Overlooking Ragusa Ibla
So, the bright side of closing for the season at the ridiculously early date of October 13th is that we got to catch the last rays of warm Italian sun by heading south to the beautiful island of Sicily.  My first trip to Italy 15 years ago was with my high school in an organized tour of the south, where we spent several days exploring Sicily, and I remember vividly thinking, winding the streets of Taormina in the shadow of a snowcapped volcano with the blue sea stretching out before me, that it was the most beautiful place in the world.  It was my first time outside of the United States, and that memory remained burned into my mind, and I've wanted to return for some time now and see if my older, more well-travelled and Italian resident self was still as in love.

The answer is easy.  A big, giant si.

We flew an easy ryanair flight from Pisa to Comiso Airport, about an hour and a half, where we rented a car and got going.  We had no plans at all, besides a return ticket home from Catania Airport, so we woke up each day and decided as we went along where we would wind up.

Tomato fields in Pacheri
Our first night was spent in Ragusa Ibla, the historic section of the town of Ragusa, which is included in the UNESCO heritage site of the villages in the Val Di Noto.  It's a town divided into two parts - Ragusa, the sort of "new" city center, or Ragusa Ibla, which actually lies across a valley of sorts, it's winding streets and ancient buildings hanging off the top of the hill.  It was an easy decision where to stay for the night, as we wound our way around the mountain to Ibla.

The next morning we traced the coast through the famous tomato fields of Pacheri, down to the most southeasterly point in Sicilia, the town of Portopalo di Capo Passero and it's Isola Delle Correnti, which shares the same longitude as Tunisia (which explains a little bit the beautiful 32 degree C temperatures we had!).  Pacheri was full of tomato fields and greenhouses stretching as far as the eye could see for some time, to the point where after about 10 minutes of driving through tomatoes, Manu started chucking with disbelief that we were actually still driving through them.  Portopalo was cute, but we weren't prepared for deserted beaches, and didn't even have a bottle of water, so we went on to find a market and continue along the coast.

From here, we continued on our coastal road up to the famous beach of Calamosche and the Valicari nature reserve, which has been voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.  We thought it was certainly very pretty, with it's crystal blue water nestled between two cliffs covered in so much varied vegetation  - a praying mantis crossed our path - but I was honestly a little underwhelmed.
Calamosche beach
From here, we drove another 30 minutes and arrived in the baroque treasure of Noto, another UNESCO town that glows in that beautiful ochre sicilian light that bathes the ivory churches and buildings.  It's a perfectly preserved jewel of baroque buildings, with ornately carved balconies peeking off of these golden marble buildings.

Then, our adventure continued, as we decided to explore the unmarked national marine park of Plemmirio.  Getting to this nature reserve was a bit of an adventure, but when we did our hunt was rewarded as we discovered one of the most beautiful little beaches I've ever seen.  This marine park allows swimming only in certain areas to preserve the sea, and these different spots in the peninsula are called varchi.  Each varco (there are over 35) has a different character - varco 3 was a longer, open beach, whereas varco 26 was rocky with no beach to speak of.  Varco 34, however, was our favorite, and we shared this little piece of paradise with only 2 other people...and lots of little fish!  You need a car, patience, a GPS, and definitely a snack, as again - when I say that these towns close for the winter and off season, I mean that in a worse sense than Monterosso.  At least we have a bar or restaurant open (just one, but still better than nothing), whereas here, we needed to drive quite a bit to find an open market.  We wised up after the first day, and brought little provisions everywhere we went.
Varco 34 in Plemmirio
Varco 34 in Plemmirio
We then made our way to the city of Siracusa, where we decided to base ourselves in the old part on the little island of Ortigia.  We spent the night roaming the alleyways of this beautiful city, and the next morning departed for some more coastal adventures.
Siracusa, Ortigia

Fontane Bianche
The nearby beach town of Aranella was beautiful and deserted, but another 30 minutes brought us to Fontante Bianche, the busiest of the beaches we saw.  Fully set up with different beach bars that rent lounge chairs and umbrellas, it seemed the most commercial this far off season (most beach bars and such are closed by the end of October), but it was a nice change to not have to bring lunch with us, and certainly nicer to be able to buy a cold beer.

Isola Bella

We then headed up to the "pearl of Sicily", Taormina.  We unfortunately arrived in the rain, dressed still for the 30 degree weather of the province of Siracusa, but even just an hour further north, the temperature dropped to about 20.  Not cold by any means, but we certainly would not be doing any swimming.  It cleared up the next day, and we hiked down to Isola Bella where we rented a boat and sailed along the coast, entering a grotto unimaginably blue, gazing up the whole time at this volcano that dominates everything.

On the way to Catania airport, we stopped first to eat some cannoli and take home sweets to Liguria (as our carry on bag...2 kg of them!), and then moved south to Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, where we took a quick swim next to the fabled rocks that Cyclops threw at Odysseus many, many centuries ago.  It was an easy 30 minute drive to the airport after lunch on the beach, where we dropped off our car and boarded the plane back north.
In the boat!
Blue grotto off the coast by Giardini Naxos
Taormina from our hotel, El Jebel
Cannolo from Roberto!

The best part about these 5 days is that Sicily is so close and accessible, and Sicilians are just wonderful.  Sometimes I feel terrible when I hear the old stereotype that Ligurians are rude and unwelcoming, but even Manu - a Ligurian himself - admitted freely that after all of these happy, sunny Sicilians, there is certainly a backbone to the stereotype.  We ate incredibly well, spent very little (being used to prices on the Riviera), and explored a small part of a big island exactly as we wanted to.  We can't wait to go back, having missed so many things in the west, north, and further southwest...and as it's so close and so much warmer than here during the winter, who knows?

Ancient theater in Taormina, with Etna in the background

Aci Trezza, the rocks of Cyclops

Aci Castello

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A day in the canoe

Panorama at sunset
Third fish!  The first ones I was too busy screaming and launching fish at Manu to take a picture.

It may have happened that last year, someone's very fortunate soon-to-be-nephew was gifted a lovely, inflatable canoe by a very skeptical soon-to-be-Aunt for his First Communion.  This patient and wise not-yet-Aunt and her more fanciful fiancĂ© expressed some doubts about the usefulness of such a large gift, but bought it anyway.  Said canoe arrived, was opened with great enthusiasm, inflated and brought out a grand total of one time, then may have gone to live in it's new home, "the land of unused toys for 10 year old boys who love video games" i.e. the garage up the hill.  This soon-to-be-nephew never mentioned it again and we all lived happily ever after.

So, we reclaimed the long forgotten canoe.

We dusted it off (and much to our amusement, no one even noticed) and brought down our giant inflatable canoe last Wednesday, loaded it up with focaccia, beer and fishing line, and sailed off to Punta Mesco.  Manuel spent most of his childhood hand line fishing, which is one of his absolute favorite things to do, and he was really eager to teach me.  We rowed off to the end of the mountain that borders the village, and tied ourselves to a buoy there and threw our weighted fishing line down.  It's really easy - you have a long piece of fishing line with a few hooks on it and a weight on the end.  You put some calamari or shrimp as bait, drop the line down and unravel until it hits the bottom, then keep the line tense until you feel something nibble.  You jerk it up and start pulling in the line as fast as possible and then realize that the fish is smarter than you are, and swam right away.

Manuel sails back out while I read on the beach
This time, however, on my first try I felt a big pull and started pulling in the line as fast as I could.  Looking down through the crystal clear water always makes objects appear bigger than they are, and I was quite convinced I had caught a tuna or something disturbingly large.  Instead, on my first try I got 2 little fish, about 5 or so inches long!  I was ecstatic, but wasn't ready to start reaching my hand into their wiggling body to remove the hook, so much to Manuel's annoyance, I simply threw them at him.  After a few more hours and 14 fish between the two of us, we turned back to the little beach behind the Giant statue for our picnic.

Some of our fishy prizes
It's really incredible seeing this area from the sea.  I always recommend that tourists take the ferry, even though it costs more, because looking back at these tiny villages from the water always leaves that impression of awe in just how isolated and special these towns are.  I'm surprised, however, that more people do not rent kayaks and go exploring like this.  It's not the easiest, especially going against the current, and your muscles certainly let you know that they are displeased the next few days, but it's magical moving through the blue water with all of the terraced mountains in the distance.

And if you're lucky, you can even get something to eat out of it all!  We had already made dinner plans before the whole day took off (sailed off?) in the canoe, so our prized fish made a lovely base for a fish broth for the restaurant that night.  You can't get fresher than that.

This is a real fisherman.  I imagined he was laughing at us.

Looking back towards Monterosso.  Our house is the pink building on the left!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tiny Tellaro

Hello there, blog.  It's been a while.
Tellaro with Tino and Tinetto in the distance

I've been very busy this summer, and haven't had too much time for myself.  I let the blog go for a little bit so I could maybe iron a shirt or two or sit down for 15 minutes in those precious, short 15 minutes of free time.  Plus, after now 4 years living here, the little things don't seem so interesting anymore.  The market is the market, spring comes with it's green and summer ends with it's peaches and figs.  The sea is still blue, the village is still packed and full, and another August has happily ended.

This summer we actually didn't even leave the village very much on our sacred Wednesdays off.  We didn't go hiking, we didn't go out on the boat, we didn't do anything - we just sat on the beach and swam and relaxed (and answered emails and typed, but fortunately all of these things can be done on the beach).  But now that wonderful September is here, we have a little bit more desire and energy to go exploring, and we actually, finally, really truly did as we got in the car and headed off to Lerici and it's tiny frazione of Tellaro on the sea.
One of our beaches found today

I have to go to Lerici every now and again for work, so I've become a little bit familiar with it, but Tellaro has still alluded me.  It's beyond Lerici on a windy seaside road, and has been voted one of Italy's "borghi piu belli", or "most beautiful towns".  I'd always wanted to go, but as Lerici and the surrounding area across the Golfo Dei Poeti isn't connected by the train, it means I'm dependent on my exhausted fiancĂ© to drive us there (we got engaged in June!).

The carrugi of Tellaro
It takes about an hour from Monterosso, winding up through Pignone to La Spezia, then getting to Lerici and more climbing and winding as you park along the narrow road and begin your exploration.    You can park for free on the street before arriving in Tellaro, which is car-free and in that, all too familiar to us here in the Cinque Terre.  From here, you walk down the narrow road and have the option to take the stairs down to the little slivers of beach that lie below.  Here, the road is further above the beach - you need to climb about 150 stairs down to reach it.  There are 2 different stairs you can take down to the seaside, where you have the options of getting a sunbed or the free beach to lay out your towel.  There are also a few little bars and such for a snack and a beer, and some nicer restaurants attached to hotels that perch above the bluest of blue seas.

A blue sea with Portovenere and Palmaria in the distance
After spending the afternoon avoiding jellyfish (the little clear ones that don't sting, but scare me nonetheless), eating focaccia and basking in the sun, we headed down into Tellaro for an aperitivo.  It's a 15 minute walk with tons of scenic pictures to be taken along the way, and as you arrive at the top of Tellaro, the pictures are incredible, overlooking the whole Gulf of Poets, with Palmaria and Portovenere in the distance.  Tellaro (population 1,200 - more or less like Monterosso) is an old village much like our other Ligurian villages on the sea.  Muted reds, pinks, yellow buildings gently leaning on each other, worn from the sea air and sun, hanging over the water and wet, dark rocks that reach up to meet them.  An old church and it's bell tower are closest to the sea, recalling the ancient legend of Tellaro's famous octopus, who allegedly rose from the sea centuries ago to ring the bells to alert the sleeping citizens of an incoming pirate attack.  Signore octopus is celebrated every year in a festa the second week of August, and (ungratefully so) found on the menu of every restaurant in the village.

Tellaro is as incredibly charming as it's legend.  It's tiny little alleyways (called carrugi here) and staircases all wind up at the same place - down in the harbor, lined with colorful fishing boats in repose and cats soaking up the sun.  Kids play-fight with sticks, a diver gears up to go out, the tan Italian women snuff out a cigarette while laughing with their friends.  It's a little raggedy, but that is what makes these Ligurian villages so charming.  They're fishing villages that don't need a fresh coat of paint to ooze charm.

Though it's the last village in the Gulf of Poets that clings to the coast here in Liguria before arriving in beautiful Tuscany and the bigger cities of Massa and Carrara, it's more than worth the drive to get here, and an easy day trip in the weekdays of the offseason to get another slice of what makes where we live so special.

Say cheese!

The beach from above - the settlement in the left corner is Portovenere, and next to it Palmaria.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Wednesday hiking - Corniglia, Volastra, Manarola via trail 6

On the most savored and sacred day of the week, Wednesday, we decided to do something different.  This year has given us both new, different and welcome responsibilities that mean that Wednesday has so far been a day we spend usually with our couch.  Watching the Sopranos.  Eating pizza.  Oddly, Italy and New Jersey are strikingly similar in some ways.
Instead, when we got up and saw a big giant sun outside the window and we decided to get hiking.  As I've mentioned before, I am a big chicken, shockingly clumsy, and more or less a danger to myself.  Needless to say, hiking on narrow, rocky trails that lace mountainsides is not necessarily my idea of fun.  But I recently read a silly internet meme or something of the like that said "What would you do if you knew you would never be afraid and you could never fail?", and for some reason it struck a chord in me.  I was ready to go hiking.

Not great with knee problems

Originally, I wanted to hike from the nearby village of Manarola up to it's frazione (or little side town that is still technically part of the town, though farther up the hill) to Volastra via trail 6.  I somehow figured that this was not too petrifying or too far to really scare me, though some advice from more sporty friends turned us towards the longer trail starting at Corniglia, on to Volastra, then picking up the trail back down into Manarola.  
It was one of the best things I've ever done in my life.
Sheer dropoff on the side, but worth it for this view!
I didn't know quite what to expect, which for me can be a huge anxiety trigger, as I didn't have time to previously google image the Corniglia-Volastra trail (if you are laughing, this means that you know I am not kidding at all).  I was petrified of sheer drops, sharp turns and giant death bees.  I have decided that 3 happy hiking hours later I am still petrified of death bees, but can deal with the aforementioned two things provided they have a view this breathtaking.

From Corniglia, my secret favorite of the Cinque Terre, you loop up (and up, and up...) on the mountainside through the lush green and woods until it levels out a bit about halfway to the next stop, Volastra.  The nicest part is that though you are inland for many parts, you always have the great blue sea in the distance, and different viewpoints of the most picturesque town of the Cinque Terre.  Corniglia pops up on the right, on the left, through the trees and vines, a reassuring and colorful speck amidst all the green and blue.
Hi Manarola!
The trail leveled off after about 45 minutes, though certain portions are quite narrow with very steep steps and some sharp and sheer drop-offs underneath.  The more level part is also quite narrow, but breathtaking.  You walk through the green vines, through the wildflowers, squinting at the glare of the sun off of the turquoise Ligurian sea, and just cannot help but stop and smile and say, "wow".  A lot.

When you arrive in little, charming Volastra, you can take a little minibus down to Manarola if you like, but we continued on to some (about 500) unpleasant steps down into Manarola on the next part of trail 6.  The stone stairs are a bit of a pain in the ankle, so to speak, but after you arrive at a part that has less "steps" but more sort of steep parts down.  If you have some leg issues or vertigo this might not be for you.  I was ok with it, but twice when Manu encouraged me to look at the view, I happily declined and continued walking.  This part of the trail took us about 45 minutes, but we went quickly trying to avoid the singing French hikers just behind us.  The whole thing, with LOTS of stops for pictures and a sorbetto in Volastra, took us just under 3 hours.

Beautiful Corniglia

The most amazing thing about this trail is that you walk through the vines, through the terraces and over the little grape "monorails" for a good part of it.

I think that for someone to really appreciate and understand the wine culture here and to fully experience the territory, this is the trail you need to hike, not the always talked about and fawned over trail 2.  We stopped a few times and started chatting with other hikers, and once they found out that Manuel was actually from here, they all asked him, each time, if he ever got sick of this view, if living here he was still able to appreciate what he had around him.  He smiled each time, and answered perfectly, "You never get sick of it.  It's amazing".
From one side, Corniglia
From the other side, Manarola amidst the vines, the terraces, and the little grape train
Sitting on a stoop overlooking this hill laced with terraces filled with budding vines, Corniglia shyly peeking out in the distance on the right and Manarola grinning on the left, I found myself thinking that this viewpoint, this picture, perfectly sums up the backbreaking centuries of hard work the locals have put in to these terraces and the cultivation of the land.  This is truly a national park.  You cannot see this view without agreeing wholeheartedly that this area is certainly deserving as it's UNESCO World Heritage status.  It's magical.

Wildflowers and Manarola

Salad bar, Italian style in someone's garden outside Volastra

Corniglia from above

A rocky part of the trail

Friday, May 2, 2014

Oh Christine, where have you been?

I'm not forgetting this blog, pinky swear.  But I have a quite a bit on my plate right now, and for a great reason.  I got another job!
I'm working with another lovely American gal for her travel planning company here in Italy doing social media and excursions and so forth - it's a little company called Bella Vita Italia, and it's great to actually be using my degrees for something slightly more relevant (though with food studies, you can certainly argue that running the Cantina counts).
Beyond that, Rick Steves has been here the past week filming, the 25th is an Italian holiday (Liberation Day), the 1st was Labor Day here and needless to say, I haven't had much blogging time.
But here I am, safe and sound and happily busy :)
Happy May!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Survey says

It was a surprisingly busy Monday, but after greeting a table in Thai, explaining the insalata ricca in Spanish, exchanging numbers with a Russian gal living in Florence and laughing with some fantastic Australians in literally less then 20 minutes, I decided to make a list of every table I interacted with today...
Russia, Thailand, Australia, USA, Canada, France, Germany, Ticino (Switzerland), China, Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, Chile, Brazil, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia...and on our staff we have a Tunisian girl, a Croatian girl and a Romanian waiter.
The UN has nothing on us.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A New Season and Old Questions

I haven't been posting much because I've been running around like a crazy person getting the Cantina open for the season.  We opened Thursday, but it's always a bit hectic.  Since the flood a few years ago filled our cute little windowless stone restaurant with about 6 feet of water, we have taken to dismantling every single thing (even the oven in the kitchen) and putting them in a garage up the mountain in the event that, God forbid, it should happen again.  Though the streets and canals have been cleared, and grates built to help water flow in the case of heavy rain, our water came from the stairs behind the Cantina that lead up to apartments on the mountain above.  These stairs are exactly as they were the day of the flood - which means that if it rains that much again, our Cantina will be again full of floating furniture.  Better to leave it empty, no?

So, the night before we opened, we finished setting things up at about 10 pm, and in no mood to even think about cooking dinner, we grabbed a pizza to take home at the place down the hill from our house.  There was a table of sweet American girls who, as we were waiting for our pizza, started asking our friend (the owner who also waits tables) about the bill.  His face showed a bit of panic as he started explaining the mysterious coperto in his not-so-great English, and he threw me a "save me" sort of look, so for the 5 millionth time in my life here, I explained one of the most frequently asked questions about dining out in Italy.  I remembered with a flash this blog entry that has been buzzing around my head for a few years.

Then, we opened the Cantina on Thursday, and the very first table I waited on paid the check and asked, with a conspiratorial whisper, from "Canadian to American", to explain, really, what the deal was with tipping in Italy, and I was reminded again about the second most common question asked while dining out.

So, from one former American bartender and waitress who is now doing the same job in Italy, here's the deal.

The coperto is an old Italian charge you see on almost every bill dining out in Italy (expect at bars, which will usually charge different prices for sit-down service as opposed to standing up and eating and drinking at the bar).  Coperto is most usually translated as "cover charge", but I find it better to explain it as "overhead".  It's not just paying for the seat or table at the restaurant, it goes towards the napkins, table linens, ketchup packets, olive oil (Italians do not eat bread with olive oil and vinegar before their meal.  This is a totally foreigner thing to do, and olive oil costs quite a bit of money, if you think of how many bottles you go through a day because people like to sop it up in their bread), and so forth.  I know that in our restaurant, we have a 1 euro coperto that we use to cover all of these things, like dry goods, napkins, and so forth.  It might seem a little odd, but many small businesses in Italy are very much struggling to keep themselves afloat with sometimes 47% taxes, and even a euro added a head covers the cost of doing business.  The coperto also varies depending on where you go.  Places with nice table linens and fancy napkins might charge you as much as 3,50-4 euro a head for the coperto.  Less formal places usually charge less, from 1-2,50 euro.  Legally, you will find it written on the menu.

The coperto is also sometimes referred to as pane e coperto, which is that famous "charge for bread" you hear about.  This is where it gets tricky.  In the region of Lazio (Rome is located in Lazio, to give you an idea), the coperto is illegal.  You cannot put it on a check.  What they do instead is charge for bread in many cases, which is why you hear stories of travelers waving bread away to avoid an extra 2 euro or so a person on the check.  Here in Liguria, as well as in most of the rest of Italy, bread is included in the coperto.  So, when you wave away the bread basket here and wink at your friend because you just avoided paying a euro each, all you really did was miss out on yummy fresh bread baked by Manu's uncle down the street.  You pay the coperto anyway, whether you eat the bread or not.

The coperto is not a tip.  It does not go to the waiter.  It goes directly back to the restaurant.  Which is fine because (are you ready for this?)...
you do not need to tip in Italy.
Take a deep, American/Canadian/Australian deep breath with me, and let go of your tipping guilt.  You don't need to do it.  Really.

We make a monthly wage here in Italy, which is unheard of in the US service industry.  In my 11 years bartending and waiting tables in the US, I received a paycheck as a tax formality every week, made out to the sum of "0 dollars and 0 cents".  Seriously.
For those in the service industry in Italy, in most cases, your meals are included and depending on where you work, you can make a pretty darn good living waiting tables, especially since the economy here is the pits.  Some waiters in fancy places can make up to 2-2,500 euro a month.  Not a bad deal.

In many cities, though, you might see a service charge (servizio) or tip added on to the check, anywhere from 10-15%, which is legal as long as it is stated on the menu, and you have to pay it.  However, I have only had this happen when dining out with American friends visiting, where we are happily chatting away in English.  Going out with Italians, I have seen service charges written on the menu, but when the check is presented, that charge has always been waived.

I've also heard waiters tell tables "Service is not included" as they drop off the check, and had it happen as well when out with groups of non-Italian speaking people.  You do not have to leave anything if you do not want to.  This is, again, people getting used to tourists tipping and overtipping, and shame on those waiters I've seen standing there as a couple pays the check, scrambling for extra euro to leave the waiting man a tip.  You don't need to pay anything if it's not written on the menu (and then will be included in your check).  When going out to eat, we will usually leave a small tip if it was a nice meal - for example, if the service was good and we had a nice, long dinner, we would leave something like a 5 euro tip on a 150 euro meal.  Nothing even close to the 15-20 percent tip expected in the United States.

So, I hope this helps make a foreign thing a little less foreign for those of you gearing up to visit Italy this summer :)