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!