Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas vacation

Christmas vacations are a big thing here in Italy.  Before the long holiday stretch, people get away for a few days to the city, a long weekend in a quieter beach town, an even longer trip to get that pre-Christmas tan going (some Italian stereotypes do hold true) and thanks to Ryanair, flood the Pisa airport to flee Italy at a plane ticket that costs less then the train (literally- round trip Pisa to Charleroi cost, for 2, 160 euro and was about a 2 hour flight where the train  from Monterosso to Venice cost us about 130 euro just ONE WAY and took us 6 hours).  

As you've probably already guessed, we joined them.  

I've been wanting to go to Belgium for a long time, and I'd be lying if I said beer did not play a part in it.  however, beyond their famous beers, I always found myself chuckling inwardly when thinking that one of the most famous statues in the country is of a little naked boy peeing.  I immediately assumed they were quirky people with a strange sense of humor, and I loved it.

I haven't actually travelled around Europe much since moving here, which is something I nag poor Manuel about frequently.  When we turn on a travel show, I look at him, ready to open my mouth in a suggestion that we put this destination "x" on our list (and really, I've probably put about 98% of the globe on my list, including the island nation of Kiribati), he covers his ears and starts singing.  I've gotten a little insufferable about it, and we agreed on a quick trip before the holidays.  After our great time in Venice, we decided to keep our canal theme going, and headed off to Bruges, the "Venice of the North" and Brussels for a gorgeous 6 days.

Now, Belgium has nothing to do with Liguria, or life in Liguria, or even life in Italy, which should be the theme of this blog, but let's just go with it, shall we?

Bruges was highly recommended to us over Brussels, and I honestly don't like picking sides in which city is better then the others (except in discussions about New York or Rome, because they just are actually better then the others), but Bruges was really quite magical.  It's not exactly like Venice, as they only have a few canals, and have cars, and streets, and so forth, but still a very special place.  Bruges is full of colorful facades with stepped gables, brick orange rooves falling in neat little lines, one after the other, leading up to the occasional heavily adorned cathedral looming over the little city, keeping an eye on the nearby windmills.  We loved the people, the lilting dutch, the amazing beers, the Christmas feel- here in Monterosso, it never really feels like Christmas is coming.  There is just something about looking at an oceanside palm tree that simply does not convince me we are in December. In Bruges, there are a few large markets adorned with lights, ice skating rinks, the smell of fresh pine and hot mulled wine, ringing bells and carolers...low lights illuminating intricately carved church fronts in a charmingly eerie just seems much more like a place that Santa would approve of.  Brussels has an even bigger market that stretches for almost 2 kilometers, leading you through the winding streets to the breathtaking Grand Place, which a photo cannot do justice to.  Full of French speakers, Brussels is a huge city, and the capital of Europe.  It feels like a different country the Bruges, but the city feel and diversity of such an important European capital made me feel right at home.

Six days seemed like a long time, but it really just cracked the surface.  I really like Beglian people maybe even more then their beer, and we ate very well.  Belgium is literally littered with Michelin stars and forks.  I'd go back in a heartbeat, especially considering how easy it is to get to.  But for now, a Leffe Christmas beer, some chocolates, and some abbey cheese (note: Belgian monks really have a great thing going) will bring me back as we get ready for Christmas, and maybe bring me a little Belgian Christmas here at my beachside home.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas kumquats

You know you live on the Mediterranean coast when your kumquat tree doubles up as a Christmas decoration...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Things to be thankful for

View looking down over the other parts of Liguria from trail 1
Thanksgiving table!

Thanksgiving in Italy is a tough one.

Most people I've talked to seem to be confused between the 4th of July and Thanksgiving.  It usually goes something like, "Oh, Thanksgiving, is that the day you barbeque a turkey?  On the first Monday in December?"  which means that I give them partial points for getting some of the holiday traditions right.  Regardless, it's an anomoly here, which means it's up to us American ex-pats and our patient male companions to whip up a Thanksgiving for any Americans around longing for a turkey bigger than our tiny European oven.

More sun and sea from trail 1
From trail 1 we reconnected with the paved street
with sweeping views above the other villages

The snow covered mountains of the Ligurian Alps in the distance
Winter in the Cinque Terre can be long.  I mean, loooooong.  Stores close, restaurants shut down, and the village empties back out to it's booming population of around 600 in the winter.  And that's just Monterosso.  We're the biggest, so just imagine how it is in the other 4 villages that make up the National Park.  Thanksgiving was just what we needed to break up the monotony of November.

We actually did a great job, if I do say so myself.  A trip to the "American" supermarket in Pisa meant that canned pumpkin, pecans, a Butterball turkey and sweet potatoes made their required appearences on the table.  We ate pumpkin pie, pecan pie, mom's cheesecake (thanks again, mom, it was amazing), cornbread stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce still comfortingly shaped like the metal can it came in, and all the other dishes that mean home.  Even some that don't - I've never had a green bean casserole with fried onions before (and I do not think I will again, but that's just a personal preference).

And, fortunately, the winter quiet in the region means that the hiking trails were totally empty to burn off all of the calories.

Flat, wide, paved - now we are speaking my language.  And Monterosso peeking out from below...

Santa Croce on trail 1

Through the woods, up the mountain

We hiked trail 1 up to Santa Croce, a little (mostly deserted) one room chapel on a mountain overlooking the whole coast of the Italian Riviera.  Liguria's long and skinny boomerang shape means that from the far east, on a clear day, you can see the west coast which connects to France, lined with sloping hills and mountains over the still sea, and in the distance behind you, the snowy peaks of the Apennine mountains looming over the other border where Liguria meets it's neighbor, Tuscany (and, coincidentally, another national park).

Corbezzoli, or strawberry tree fruit
Trail 1 is the perfect example of why it is frustrating when people complain that they came all this way to hike, and the trails were all closed.  It's easy to do in parts, like we did, picking up the trail then following the paved road back down.  It's wide, it's well marked, and it offers incredible views.  Trail 2, the coastal trail from Monterosso-Riomaggiore, with stops in each village, has had parts of it closed on and off for some years now (right now, the Via Dell'Amore between Riomaggiore and Manarola is closed, as is the portion from Manarola to Corniglia), but there are almost 30 other trails you can take to hike and explore the region on foot.  Walking through the woods, with the remainders of chestnut season underfoot, crunching through dried leaves and evergreens, you are again reminded how Liguria is a combination of the mountains as well as the sea - the forest as well as the beach.  We discovered little corbezzolo berries (in english, the shrub is called the "strawberry tree", though I thought they tasted more like raspberries) and munched on their red, wild fruits while hiking the wide trail up to the chapel on a beautiful, crisp winter day with not another soul in sight.
Scary part on trail 2 from Monterosso-Vernazza.  There were more narrow ones,
but I was too scared to let go of the wall and take a picture.

Even trail 2, from Monterosso to Vernazza, usually the most crowded of the trails during tourist season, was totally empty.  We encountered only 4 other people on our 1.5 hour hike, which was fine by me.  Parts of the trail are very, very narrow with room really for only one person to pass, and hanging on the side of a mountain trying to maneuver this with groups of people coming from both sides would not be my idea of a good time.

The most famous shot from trail 2 arriving in our neighbor, Vernazza.  Worth the anxiety!
When it seems like the winter days can be too long, it's easy for me to start grumbling that there is never anything to do - but these are actually the best days.  When you catch that first crisp, perfect day of the winter in the sun, looking down over the villages scattered below, squinting in the light that flickers off a sea that goes on forever, it's a great reminder to take a deep breath, smile, and give thanks.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Tonight's sunset in levanto

No instagram, no retouching...just the not-so-far-off coast of France in the distance...

...and a fisherman with a priceless view.

Happy December!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Be a good tourist and get drinking!

The past week I've been attending an advanced course on sustainable tourism in the Cinque Terre, which is being held on top of the hill in Vernazza, run through Vivilitalia and the Alta Scuola Turismo Ambience.  It's an intense, heavy course full of information with some more information scattered on top for good measure, so my brain is normally throbbing in Italian by about 3 pm.  Despite the headache of intense Italian, it's been incredibly interesting.
Rainbow over the hills of Vernazza

We live in a national park and a UNESCO world heritage site, and an incredibly fragile one at that.  As one of our guest speakers noted, the Cinque Terre is one of the few national parks that relies on man to keep it alive.  Whereas other parks are simply nature, untouched, at its pure finest, the Cinque Terre relies on the terracing systems of the vineyards that stretch on the hills between the villages.  Manmakes these terraces, so it's a very delicate, very beautiful, and very important balance between man working with nature rather than against it.
View over Vernazza from the vineyards of Cheo

One of the main points we've discussed is the importance of sourcing products at "kilometer 0", or, in other words, eating local.  As local as you can get.  All of this eating local is integral to creating and promoting sustainable and responsible tourism, but you need to wash it down with something.  
One cannot come here and avoid wine.  Even if it's not in a glass in front of you, it's neatly covering the hills sloping down into the villages, in even little rows held up by ancient stone walls.  These wine terraces, they say, if put back to back, are as long as the Great Wall of China.  That's pretty long.  And they don't make wine on the Great Wall, so I'd say we win.
Mr. Cheo himself giving us a talk on their wines

Without going into too much wine detail, as I'm not a sommelier and don't pretend to be, the wine here is mostly white, and has to be a blend of grapes including Bosco, Vermentino and Albarola.  It's on the drier side, and was never, in all honesty, to my taste until this year.  Manuel's mom explained once that you can certainly find more prestigious white wines in Italy, more award winners, but you will never find a wine that is made with these centuries of hard, back breaking work carrying the grapes up and down these terraces mountains that loom over us.  There is a great story and a great determination in these wines and the Ligurians who have been making them for centuries.  
Looking over the dry stone wall terraces that lace the region

After pondering this, the next glass I drank took on a new meaning.  Even more so when I realized that the land depends on these terraces to keep it stable.  The great majority of villagers are no longer relying on farming and fishing to make a living, the many small, usually family run wine producers in the region are doing more then providing us with something to drink- they are helping keep that delicate, crucial balance between man and nature.
One of the many walls up close

Today we hiked up small, slippery stone steps to the vineyards of Cheo, a small producer in Vernazza that was all but destroyed in the flood.  The husband and wife team were able to rebuild, with help from other wine producers in the region who came right over and helped them the laborious work of reconstructing the dry stone walls that create the terraces that compose the vineyards on the mountains.  They are incredibly lovely people, which is even nicer to know, as their wine is one of my favorites in the Cinque Terre.  The grapes that grow in the summer sun over the Ligurian sea, with the colorful little village of Vernazza spread out before them, make a beautiful picture.  Descending the narrow steps back to the village, however, you are again reminded that what makes a surreal postcard is also an incredibly labor intensive work.
The vines

Tourists visiting the region can do their part quite easily.  Drink up!  The majority of the wines here are small producers, and it's critical to the sustainability of the region that their production continues (here in Monterosso, Vetua and Begasti are my favorites, outside, Cheo from Vernazza, La Polenza and Forlini Cappellini are other great ones...).  Little did you know that drinking some local wines, watching the colors of orange and pink, as the sun kisses the still blue sea, you were perfectly doing your 
part to help ensure the future of our amazing National Park.

Not a bad view from the "office" of Cheo

Saturday, November 2, 2013

I am mad at Venice.

It's so touristy.

It's a dying city built on dirty water.  It's full of people trying to rip you off.  It's too crowded.  It's like a theme park.

You can't eat a good, authentic meal without paying as much as your monthly salary.  You can't find a decent place to stay that doesn't cost as much as your monthly rent.  It's hard to get around.  The locals are really mean and hate tourists.  It's just not worth all the hassle.

Gondola parking by San Marco
The little island of Burano, about 45 minutes in vaporetto from "main" Venice

A Venetian water bus view at rush hour.  Not a bad for for a commute.

But I'm mad at Venice because I never went sooner.

I'm absolutely in love.

Rialto Bridge at sunset
I heard all of the above reasons for avoiding Venice for most of my life.  Before moving to Italy, I came here on vacation seven or so times, and somehow managed to always keep Venice out of my travel plans.  Put off by accommodation prices and a little intimidated about people's lamentations of bad restaurants, it just did not sound like it was for me.  I live in one of the more touristy parts of this country, and have a high tolerance for that sort of mess, but was very apprehensive about throwing myself into that same mess along with them.

We booked a few days in Venice and as soon as we stepped out of the station, I cried a little (this is not weird, I am one of those people that cries at especially touching phone commercials and sunsets).  I was just floored to see a street made of water, a metro stop of boats not busses.

We got on our little vaporetto, and my ear to ear grin did not stop until we left this incredibly magical city.   La Serenissima (one of Venice's many nicknames, meaning "the most serene") is it's a city built not on the water, but actually IN it, on about 118 small islands.  You see locals hopping in a traghetto to cross the canal without holding onto anything for balance, and can't help thinking that these people are of the water, not of the land.  Like the city they live in, they balance on the water.  They live in it.

Vacations are different for everyone, and logically everyone has different experiences, but we had a perfect few days of 22 degree sunny weather (low 70's F), no cruise ships, no big tour groups, and a city slowing down off the summer season.  Of course there were other tourists, and getting a sunset picture at the Rialto Bridge was a bit of a nightmare, but it didn't dampen any of the wonder I felt wandering around such a strange, unique and beautiful city.

Typical cicchetti at a bar by Santa Marina
We took a boat to Burano, full of colorful houses and fishermen perched on little canals, and explored the glass making island of Murano.  We drank spritz cocktails at sunset sitting along the canal.  We inhaled plates of sarde in saor (a sweet and sour agrodolce dish of sardines cooked in sugar and onions and pine nuts served over polenta) and munched on lightly fried local soft shell crabs, called moeche.  My favorite part of the eating is going into a little osteria or bacaro (venetian for a sort of bar that serves cicchetti, or tapas snacks and small plates), grabbing a glass of local wine that costs a few euros, and asking for a few snacks - the cicchetti can cost a few euros each, but many places will make you a mixed plate for a fixed amount.  You can see the selection on chalkboards or in the glass cases by the bar.  The price only applies for standing up and eating at the bar, along with the Venetian men on their way home from work who stopped in to down a glass of wine and have a quick nibble or two.
Mixed cicchetti plate for 2 at Osteria Bancogiro - cost 15 euro for 20 pieces

The people we interacted with, with their heavily cadenced Italian and totally incomprehensible local dialect, were really fantastic.  I found everyone to be friendly and helpful, explaining water bus lines, recommending wines, and even explaining some of the local plates to us at the bar.  I saw a tiny old lady crossing one of Venices 456,567 little bridges with difficulty, but then stopping to let some little blonde swedish babies pass her, all the while gently chiding, "be careful you beautiful children, it can be a little slippery" with a big smile on their face.  Their blue eyes looked solemn as they seemed to absorb the message, understanding nothing of the older woman's Italian.  She stopped, saying to herself, "how beautiful those children are", and smiling, pausing at the start of the steps of the bridge.  I wanted to hug her.

The view from our room at Ca'Amadi.  Note the elderly woman hanging out her laundry.  You drop a sock here, you are done kids.  Canal sock must be a common happening for novices.
I can see how there is the potential for Venice to be too much, but that can be the case in most cities (and small villages on the Ligurian coast, for example) during high season for a day tripper or a cruise ship tourist. We were lucky to have the experience that we did, but that is part of the reason you need to come to Venice.  Regardless of all of the mixed opinions of it, it's something that you need to decide for yourself.  Love it or hate it, Venice is a place that the word beautiful does not do justice.  It's bewitching, magical and unique, getting lost in a small alleyway that empties out to a lagoon lapping at your feet.  And you have to decide for yourself which spell this enchanting city of bridges and canals casts.

Notes about our trip:
Branzino with pancetta and spinach at L'Osteria di Santa Marina
We stayed at Ca'Amadi, a great little b&b a few steps from the Rialto Bridge.  Once the house of Marco Polo, the suite we had was large and airy, and had two windows opening onto a small canal, which was surprisingly quiet at night.  We also got a fantastic rate last minute, mid-week in late October/early November.

I had the best meal I have had in a very long time at L'osteria di Santa Marina.  It is a refined place that serves incredibly well prepared plates and left us speechless.  I don't know how they do not have a Michelin star.

I also inhaled the best branzino (sea bass) of my life in Burano, at Rivarosa Ristorante.  Sitting along a little canal on this perfect little island with it's rainbow of houses, eating such a succulent piece of fish in the sun is a memory I will have for a long time.
Sarde in Saor at Vini da Gigio

Local branzino steamed with local roasted artichokes and a great chardonnay at Rivarosa, in the island of Burano
Vini di Gigio is a great place for a nice, simple meal of local plates (sarde in saor, moeche, and even the land dishes of the region, like a small hen stuffed with livers and salame then roasted) with a great wine list.

We loved the cicchetti at Cantina Do Mori, an ancient wine bar not far from the Mercato full of local old men knocking back wines and snacking alongside of us.

We also loved Osteria Sacro e Profano, Osteria Bancogiro, Osteria All'Alba and La Cantina...I didn't think it was possible to find a population of people that drink more then the Monterossini, but I did.  A spritz at 10:30 am is not at all strange in Veneto.

Definitely, 100% bring a smartphone or tablet with GPS.  You will get lost.  Many times.  After a few hours, I resigned myself to the fact that when I decided to go right, it would most certainly be wrong, and I would have to turn around at least 4 times.  Plan on an extra 15-20 minutes to arrive somewhere you haven't been before - at night it all looks the same, and you will literally wind up at a canal in the dark more then once.

Bring a charger or extra battery for your camera or phone.  You will take an amount of pictures of this incredible place that borders on obscene.  Then you too will start a blog solely to show them off to your friends and family.

Be patient, smile, and remember that you are walking in one of the most incredible cities that man has ever built.  Not something you do every day.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Just a few more reasons to love October...

Cabbage season is upon us...hello, kim chi

And romanian cabbage soup with dill dumplings...

The temperature has dropped just enough to turn the oven on and not roast myself along with my desserts...
Maple syrup, apple and bourbon bread pudding with sea salt caramel sauce

Butterscotch pudding
Espresso chocolate cupcakes with mocha buttercream

I have the following things all to my happy self...
My favorite reading rock by the Gigante

My favorite table at Pie' Du Ma in Riomaggiore

My sunset at my favorite table with no one jockeying for the best position to photograph it

My favorite rock.  And no one else around it.


Sharing the sea with a few pirates.

The long stretch of beach free of umbrellas...the private beaches have closed for the season

This view...

...and this one.

I suppose I should be touting the joys of being here in October - taking the risk of a few rainy days but having these amazing views and clear but chilly blue sea to yourself is worth it.
But in all honesty, I quite like having it all to myself for a few beautiful days a year.  So, stay home.
October is wonderful.  Aside from the fact that you do run the risk of hitting some rainy, miserable days, the clear ones really make you just walk out of your house, look at the sea, and smile.