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.