Tales from the road: Sorrento where the sky grieves with us


We arrive at Hotel Regina, a jewel box by the sea in Sorrento, where a two day day storm of infinite beauty and fury commences. Andy’s cold also begins its furious, dripping journey.

We are holed up in our glass encased room, only leaving for meals during merciful breaks in the torrential rains, lightning and thunder. Three of five meals are at Taverna Abruzzo in the harbor, both the best and closest restaurant to us as we are now well past tourist season and many places are closed. By our last supper, the owner is plying us with gifts of prosecco , fortified wine and limoncello. We stuff ourselves with pasta and clam sauce and fresh grilled sea bass.

What do we do all day in our room with a sea view? We take photos of the changing sky over Mount Vesuvius: The clouds, the rainbows, the sudden darkening skies before the clouds split open.

Watching the variable sky is vastly more interesting than surfing the few English language channels in Europe that only offer a steady diet of news; BBC America, CNN, Bloomberg,  Euronews. Not one hotel offers any English language entertainment and we cannot take any more mewling and puking news media. We are so done with pundits and polls and politics. The skies of Sorrento echo our tears and frustration.

We do, however, discover that our slow  internet supports  playing Ted Talks, podcasts and later we  expand to webisodes of “comedians in cars getting coffee” with Jerry Seinfeld., particularly enjoying the one with President Obama. I also read the extraordinary book “Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver and write this blog post. A. strums his portable guitar.  The days and the storm pass slowly.

Despite our plans, there would be no visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum on this leg of our journey. No drive to Positano or along the Amalfi Coast. No ferry to the Isle of Capri. There will just be rain outside our Sorrento windows and sniffles inside.

Yesterday, our last day, was a hard traveling one of trains and connections toward Rome where we end up stranded at a hotel near their airport. There is nothing else nearby.

A. is still sick so we eat at the hotel and retire early for our 4 am wake up call to begin the long flight home.

Before we turn out the light, we catch a youtube segment of Saturday Night Live. It is the opening with Kate McKinnon in her Hilary white suit singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelulah” in a moving elegy to all of our shared grief over an election lost.

It’s been a long, strange ride this trip and we are ready to come home.

Tales from the road: Lake Como and Bellagio


Now I get what the big deal is!

Our last day in Milan before the long slog home, we decided to take the one hour train ride to Varenna to see Lake Como and see what all the fuss was about.

The weather in Milan was finally turning cooler and the day was overcast. We took the train and sat, as directed, on the left side so we wouldn’t miss the first views of the famous Alpine lake.

Once off the train, we hustled down the hill to catch the ferry to Bellagio, allegedly the prettiest lakeside town.

The lighting was spectacular with the mountains shrouded in blue and black and capped with white clouds as you gazed across the endless vistas with cozy towns tucked along the lapping shores.

And then we saw Bellagio just as the shroud of overcast lifted and late day sun danced across the water and tinted the town yellow. Debarking, we walked the promenade past stately hotels, cafes and the inevitable tourist trinkets.

And then I spotted it. THE Money Shot! The elegant Bar Florence had a trellised cafe at water’s edge. The views were brilliantly lit and it was the perfect moment for us to imbibe the perfect drinks: a negroni for him and a prosecco for me! The late day sun, the gentle warmth and breezes and ohhhh the Lake Como views that launched a thousand digital clicks. That’s how we spent our hour.

It was the perfect, peaceful end to our glorious, galloping journey across the northern cities of Italy.

We took the ferry back to Varenna, retracing our steps all the way to the same restaurant in Milan, Prime, we ate at our first night for our last feast before travels toward home.

 

 Bellagio comes into view



Tales from the road: Milan style, shopping and EXPO


   Above: Sacred and profane side by side in Milano

Milan is the perfect place to imprint all the experiences of our journey through northern Italy. We arrive by train to a bustling, stylish metropolis full of contradictions.

After settling in our b&b, Room Inn, tucked behind gates in a hip area of downtown jammed with bars and cafes, we walk to the Duomo to see the number one Milan attraction, the white church with its dozens of gorgeous Gothic spires. But first we passed through another kind of church– the unbelievably glitzy church of wholly consumption– a gallery of high end shops under arcaded roofs and packed with global shoppers. I stood at the corner of Louis Vuitton and Prada dumbstruck that there could be such a paean to shopping right next to the holy see. It was surreal.

Following  a quiet dinner of local specialties near our place, we tucked in early. Thursday was to be a marathon of eating, learning and eating at Milan EXPO 2015— a world’s fair dedicated to food and water sustainability, biodiversity and feeding the world. If that sounds dry you can’t imagine the global spectacular we experienced.

From around the world, countries showcased their cuisine, culture and food/water technologies in architectural exhibitions by their most creative architects and artists.

The US and Israel showed innovative vertical farms as part of their exteriors, showing how water and space can be conserved. The mammoth Russian exhibit showed off the scale of their country in gorgeous exhibits but they totally wowed us with generous samples of black bread crowned with tender smoked white fish.

We had lunch in Morocco, sampled raw cheeses in the slow food/biodiversity exhibit and were wowed with creativity in the Spanish pavilion and a remarkable musical performance in the Argentina showcase. We ended the day in the UNESCO exhibit where everything we saw came together. There IS enough food to feed our planet if we conserve, improve farming methods, reduce waste and cherish our biodiversity of plant and animal species.

We walked 10 miles that day following wherever our eyes and ears led us. What an incredible visual and cultural feast with crowds from around the world sharing this special space. It seems just right that Italy should host an EXPO dedicated to food. After all, it is a place where eating local is their heritage and pride in every region. It is also the home of the Slow Food movement that has swept the world.
Vertical farm

 Moroccan exhibit hall

 Russian smoked fish

 Raw cheese tasting

Tales from the Road: Genoa- where pesto and seafood rule


Genoa: not your father’s salami

Sept 7 & 8

   Arriving in Genoa at night, our first impression of this maritime city was “what a dump.” Every cliche of seedy harbors sprung to mind with visions of whores, hustlers, homeless, heroin and hookahs. We loved our historic Hotel Continental Genoa with its  antique glass elevator but we weren’t sure we’d want to wander the city’s dark corridors.

Instead, we decided to grab a train to Cinque Terre in the morning and get the hell out of Dodge.

A two hour train ride the next day took us to the seaside village of Monterosso. It looked good to me but we were on a mission to hike the trail to the next town of Vernazza which was arguably (online) the prettiest postcard of the five towns.

So we climbed the trail and pretty much kept climbing for two blazing hours. I’m pretty fit but 20 minutes in and my heart was pounding. The trail is a narrow ridge along the cliffs facing the sea. It’s mostly natural stairs with just a few flat areas. Almost at my respiratory limits, we spied a leanto with an entrepreneurial fellow inside selling freshly made lemonade for just one Euro. It was not a mirage, it was a miracle! Best lemonade ever.

We resumed the climb. Two sweaty hours after we left Monterosso we climbed down into Vernazza. The photographic views as we descended were not lived up to when we actually hit the main– and only– drag. It was crammed with trinket and pizza shops. We rehydrated and refueled at one of them, took a few pix of the town and their minuscule beach and took the next train back to Monterosso.

We rested our tired feet in the warm Mediterranean waters and just chilled for a bit. Then, a seaside seafood pasta dinner at sunset and back onto the train for our two hour ride back.

Today, we figured we’d see what Genoa had to offer but we didn’t have great expectations.

We were in for a big surprise. Or surprises. The old harbor is lively by day with historic vessels and modern boats alike. The port is actually new as it was designed by architect Renzo Piano, a native son. There are also interesting museums and historic sites strewn like confetti throughout the city.

Our lunch at Eataly at the harbor was traditional Pesto Genovese with beans and potatoes. If we could have licked the plate we would have! Pesto Genovese is the local sauce of choice. Also fresh caught fish and seafood of every variety from tender baby octopus to clams, mussels, sea bass and more. This pescaterian is now revelling in her food Nirvana.

After lunch, we explored the old town which is a UNESCO cultural site. Impressive, historic churches, piazzas and cultural buildings everywhere you look. The church of San Lorenzo is the most spectacular I’ve seen this trip with its patterns of grey, black and white stonework.

And then we turned onto Via Garibaldi which is the street of palazzos–the palaces of the early city’s rich and connected. We wandered past one over-the-top Italianate, Renaissance and Baroque building after another. Our cameras were breathing hard from their work out!

And now, after five hours of exploration, we lie legs up against the bedpost in our room as I write this post and A. figures out which wonderful Ligurian seafood/pasta palace we will dine at tonight.

By the way Christopher Columbus is another native son of Genoa and his statue presides in the piazza right outside our window. Certainly a fitting image for a city built for exploration,
  Octopus   San Lorenzo  a palazzo Genoa by night

Tales from the Road: Listening to Klezmer in the Ghetto


Bologna
Sept 4 & 5

One of the motifs our of Bologna stay besides indulging in vast gluttony was discovering the Jewish ghetto area. We spent some our first day wandering the maze of  medieval alleys where we thought the ghetto was. But, alas, we found nothing. Why? Because Google really sucks at navigation in medieval cities.

That night we researched the ghetto more deeply seeking locational guidance and history from local sources.From Bologna Welcome: “The layout of Bologna’s 16th century ghetto can still be precisely traced amid the narrow streets in the medieval heart of the city: here, a maze of alleys, covered bridges and small windows tells the story of a whole community forced to live in a specific area of the town by order of the Papal State beginning from 1556.

In Bologna, Jews lived in the ghetto until 1569, when they were expelled for the first time.In 1586, they were allowed to come back to town and lived here again until 1593, year of their final expulsion: 900 people left Bologna and no Jewish community was allowed into town for more than two centuries. ”

The Jewish ghetto was, of course, located in the shadow of the church so they could keep an eye on the community. The trouble for us is that Bologna is littered with churches!

The better locational cue we discovered the next day came when we walked to the “fraternal twin towers” in the center of the city then headed under an arch on Via Zamboni. When we found a street named Purgatorio, it was no surprise to us that that was where the Jews were sequestered.

It also helped that walking from this direction,  signs for the Ghetto Ebraico were now clearly marked with the hamsa (hand) symbol and easily noted. It being Saturday, the Museo Ebraico in the heart of the ghetto was closed. However, we learned that this very  Saturday night was the first in a series of Jewish Jazz concerts at the Museo and we wanted to experience it. We were now fully equipped to navigate our way back.

After a fresh grilled fish dinner at the local’s fave Il Saraceno, we wandered back to the ghetto along its narrow, quiet streets. Arriving just a few minutes before start time we were amazed–and daunted– to discover a long line waiting at the gate. About 250 people had the same as idea as us.

At nine, the  gate opened to a stone courtyard and somehow we all fit. We stood near the back. And then we waited. And waited.

My claustrophobic thoughts during the wait flitted to what it might have like being corralled in this quarter as a medieval Jew. And then I reflected on all the tragic Jewish ghettoes of the twentieth century. Then, my thoughts meandered to more modern terrors. I wished the few police stationed nearby had inspected our bags and persons as we filed into this crowded gallery. There were no inspections.

Finally, my thoughts drifted to the amazing human migration occurring right now in neighboring countries. The refugees from war and privation in Syria and other conflicts were walking across Hungary to Austria and Germany by the thousands. And they were welcomed! Different times for sure.

Suddenly the music began. Lively uptempo klezmer interpretations of Kurt Weill filled the night air with joy, creativity and life. Couples cuddled in the tight quarters, enjoying a free concert and community. The musicianship of the Gabriele Coen Quintet was engaging with their modern touches of tapping, slapping and funk to Weill’s classic works.

Filled with music, we wended our way home passing piazzas filled with other night musicians playing under the stars. This city loves music.

Today, the Ghetto Ebraico is a place of art and culture for the city of Bologna. Yet, still, the echoes of history can be heard if you listen to ghetto walls ghetto concertthe walls.

-http://www.thejc.com/travel/holidays/107805/italy-ghetto-life

The ghetto of Bologna

For more details about this area:http://www.bolognawelcome.com/en/places-to-see/suggested-itineraries/params/Percorso_6/Luoghi_331/ref/The%20former%20Jewish%20ghetto

Biking Waterland. And “The Incident.”


Wherein we leave the velocity ( or Velo-City) of Amsterdam by biking in the countryside.

My first windmill
My first windmill

It took three countries and as many tries before I finally got my farmers market fix. First, enroute to Santiago de Compostela last weekend, we timed our arrival to be there for the last hour of their famed  market Mercado de Abastos, which on Saturdays closed at 2 pm and didn’t reopen till Monday. We also read that Saturday was the happeningest day at Spain’s oldest market and we were driving 120 Km and more the whole way because no one else drives on the fantastic toll roads of Portugal except tourists and truckers.  We would be there by 1 or 1:15 for sure.

And we were….by Portugal time!  Apparently crossing the border to Spain also meant crossing a time zone to 2pm. So, no market for Mimi.

The second attempt was back in Portugal at our Cascais Beach idyll. Walking the town, we happened upon the famous Wednesday market. Unfortunately, we happened on it two hours after it closed!

Our farmer's market picnic fixings. Vermeer would approve.
Our farmer’s market picnic fixings. Vermeer would approve.

Finally, in Amsterdam after a false detour to a flea-bitten flea  market, we made it to the Saturday Noordermarkt.  It is a fantastic little organic farmers market with cheese stands, baked good and lots of fresh fruit and veggies. But first we had to try the Apple Cake at the cafe with the line out the door just outside the market. Best apple cake ever!  Sated and sugared up, we then got serious about buying provisions for Sunday’s bike ride to Broek en Waterland.

For the rest of our Saturday afternoon, there was an incident related to what we have come to call “vacation brain”.  We won’t go into the details but let’s just say we were fleeced in a photo shop and leave it at that. Hereinafter, we shall refer to this as “The Incident.”

It took a few hours of recovery and a comforting Italian dinner to move on. We ended up at an modern Italian bistro that wouldn’t be out of place in the funky, foodie Mission district in SF.  Except perhaps for  their name: Firma Peckelhaaring. And absolutely no pickled herring on the menu!

Sunday morning, we packed up our picnic provisions and headed to the teeming Centraal Station where we rented bikes. We then took the free, two minute ferry ride across to Waterworld, a quiet haven of bike paths along bucolic neighborhoods that were picture perfect in every way. We stopped midpoint at a charming cafe in the middle of nowhere but right on the canal.  For the price of a beer and coke, we got to have a fantastic picnic on a shady terrace by the water.

We then continued riding almost to the outskirts of Monnickendam but stopped because the hour, the distance of 13 km, and the condition of our knees required us to return. The ride back was uneventful and we stopped at the same cafe for water. Finally, 26 km later, we were back on the ferry. On debarking, we resignedly headed for one more encounter at the site of “The Incident” to deal with one more frickin detail that we won’t go into.

Pooped, we walk slowly back to our hotel to clean up, blog and get ready for dinner.

Tomorrow, we go to the Anne Frank House. And to the Van Gogh Museum.

I’m starting to feel the end of our journey nipping at our heels. But let’s not go there yet.

 

Happy cheese-making cows.
Happy cheese-making cows.
Water channels everywhere in WaterLand
Water channels everywhere in WaterLand

 

You say tapas. I say pinxtos. Our weekend in Santiago de Compostela


Galician sardines Pilgrim's Mass Titty Cheese PilgrimSaturday, June 14

After consuming every variety of bacalau (cod) and octopus in Portugal, we were ready for our weekend escape to the Galician foodie paradise and pilgrimage Mecca of Santiago de Compostela (SDC)

We had a plush hotel right in the heart of the old city, a UNESCO site that’s incredibly well preserved.  We parked our car outside the town limits and were blessedly car free for two days.

The food and wine we had were divine.  White anchovies, shrimps in garlic sauce, sardines, baby squid, Galician vegetable soup, clams and pork.  And ohhh the heavenly Albarino wines and crusty bread. Let’s just say we ate our way thru 48 hours and not go into the gluttonous details of where and when. Let’s just say it was a religious experience.

We also walked into the Pilgrim’s prayer service in the majestic romanesque cathedral and got some uplifting pix before the service started.  We even got into a conversation with one of the pilgrims who it turns out is from Darien, CT and is a marketer in outdoor equipment to REI. So, naturally, we got the contact for our son for his solar chargers!

SDC is the end of a 500 mile pilgrims trail that people take a month or more to walk, staying in hostels along the way. We learned that our pilgrim, who I suspect is a nice Jewish guy, got sucked into this spiritual and physical quest after watching a Rick Steve’s TV show!

And once the throngs of weary travellers reach SDC and collect their papal blessings, they are ready to party! The medieval streets are paved with cafes and pinxos bars and restaurants. Street musicians abound. And strangest of all, SDC turns out to be a bagpiper Mecca as well. Everywhere we went Saturday night, bagpipers were playing on the streets and people were bursting into song and dance.

All in all, SDC was a great place to spend my birthday and Fathers Day. Tomorrow, we get back in the car and return to eating bacalau and octopus while experiencing the beach towns of Portugal.