Thursday, October 25, 2007

Longest. Post. Ever.

Well, the blog hasn't been updated much (or at all, since we left the country), but I'm about to make up for it with 6,000+ words and a lot of pictures. That's Liz on the boardwalk in Varazze, the next town over from Celle.

This post will cover the last few weeks... from the day we left Baltimore through last Friday or so. I have several days of really interesting stuff still to write up... this is just the first time I've been able to access the internets with my laptop in Italy.

Also a quick note about the writing: It's pretty workmanlike at the beginning and there is an unnecessarily long description of a football game; I was at least a week behind and I only wanted to get certain details down so that I would remember them later. Hopefully it gets more interesting.


Having just woken up from the longest night of sleep I’ve had in the past decade…. at least.... I finally have the energy to recap our trip so far.

We left off in Baltimore, having spent the day in DC at the zoo before settling in at Mary and Andy’s after a dinner of pasta salad and pork chops. The next day, we didn’t do a whole lot… we mostly relaxed and helped with a thing or two in preparation for Rowan’s birthday party. I put up a tent in the backyard; Liz helped in the kitchen. That night, we had fresh homemade bread, pesto torte and excellent fish tacos with avocado, onion and lime. I wish I had taken a picture… they were awesome. After dinner, Bobo (Rowan) smeared his birthday cake all over the place and we packed up our stuff in preparation for our next stop, Rochester.

Originally we considered flying from BWI to ROC, or perhaps renting a car one-way, but Liz thought it would be more relaxing to take the train. This turned out to be somewhat true, but it also took about twice as long as driving. We departed at 9:50am and arrived in Rochester around 9pm after making one connection in NYC’s Penn Station.

Liz’s aunt and uncle Eleanor and Phil picked us up, and we spent probably 30 minutes socializing with the whole family back at her grandparents’ house before falling asleep. Grandparents pictured below.

The next day we had a big Sunday dinner at about 1:30pm with both sets of aunts and uncles, Liz’s cousin (I can’t remember his name at the moment) and his wife, and their two little kids (one boy, one girl). They served roast beef, potatoes, salad, corn on the cob and green beans. Very similar to a meal we might have with my grandparents. The roast beef in particular was prepared exactly how my relatives prepare it… very well done and salty. That’s not a knock… I love it that way when it’s done right. Somehow they keep the beef moist and tender even though it’s cooked all the way through. Jerry and Marianne pictured below.

Even though we had dinner so early, it was enough to last us the rest of the day. And of course everyone fell asleep for a few hours afterward as is custom among Italians.

That night we took our rental car out in search of wireless internet, which proved somewhat difficult to find. At Starbucks, they now charge something ridiculous like $10 dollars for 24 hours of connectivity, so we were forced to move to a local café chain called Panera for free wi-fi.

The next day we had dinner at Phil and Eleanor’s, which is about 20 minutes from Liz’s grandparents. We had grilled chicken, corn (not on the cob this time), pasta salad, and a few other things I can’t remember right now. That night, I watched Monday Night Football back at Liz’s grandparents with her grandparents and uncle Jerry. Appropriately, the Cowboys were playing the Bills at Buffalo (most people in Rochester are Bills fans). It was the first time Monday Night Football had been held in Buffalo for 13 years, and it turned out to be one of the craziest football games I’ve ever seen.

The Cowboys were undefeated and huge favorites, but Tony Romo threw FOUR interceptions in the first half and the Bills were up by 10 or so, despite the fact that their offense could only manage a single field goal.

In the second half, Romo threw another pick (and also lost a fumble), but somehow the Cowboys were still in striking distance down 8 points with a minute or two left in the game. They scored a touchdown with 20 seconds left, but were denied on the two point conversion when the defender ripped the ball away from Terrell Owens.

Just when it seemed like the upset was in the books, the Cowboys recovered an onside kick and completed two quick passes to set up a career best field goal for their kicker, 53 yards. He launched the first kick straight through the uprights, but the Bills had called timeout just before the ball was snapped, a trick we’ve been seeing a lot this year that I suspect will be made illegal before the next season begins.

Not fazed, the kicker booted a second field goal nearly identical to the first, and the Cowboys stole the game.

The next morning, we caught a quick Jet Blue flight down to NYC. We had one night planned in Manhattan before our first international flight from JFK to Milan. Our heavy bags in tow, we made it to our hostel… just a few blocks from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

Now, I expected our hostel room to be small, but it truly exceeded my expectations.

The picture really doesn’t do it justice… two people can barely walk past each other in this space. And the bathroom is basically a closet. But at least it had an air conditioner.

That night we walked about 249834634 miles in search of food, despite the fact that there are about 3943489 restaurants on each block. And the place we ultimately picked was nothing special, a nondescript noodle place not far from where we originally started walking. I had sesame chicken that was approximately the same temperature as the surface of the sun, while Liz ordered “Japanese-style” noodle soup that came with all kinds of mystery meats.

We decided to try and get tickets for Rent through the nightly lottery. Basically, you show up at the theater 2 hours before showtime and write your name on a card. Then they draw names until 34 tickets are sold (you can buy one or two tickets if your name is called) for $20 each. I think the cheapest seats are normally $50, and more average seats go for $100+. The $20 tickets are all in the first two rows, so it’s really a great deal.

And sure enough, Liz was one of the lucky winners. We bought our tickets (2nd row, dead center for $40, ship it holla!) and then headed out to a Cuban place near Times Square for a drink.

Although I’m not usually into musicals, I was excited for the show. I mean, it’s a Broadway show, and we had killer seats. Actually, I think I was mostly excited about the deal we had gotten. Anyway, the show started and… uh oh…. there is no dialogue. It’s all singing. Even the most basic expository sections of the play are sung…. in a tuneless, near-rhyming manner. It’s kind of like when the priests sing during a Catholic mass… tons of words crammed together and note changes on a whim.

This was extremely annoying, but I’m still glad we saw the play. It was a great spectacle, and the actors were so close that they would have landed in our laps had they fallen off the stage.

After the show, we were hoping to have a little dinner, but it was pouring rain. If we did our usual routine of checking out eleventy billion restaurants before settling on a place to eat, we’d get soaked. So we just went back to the Cuban place. We got soaked anyway… and we ordered far too much food. Tostones (huge and crisp, but they needed salt), shredded pork, black beans and rice, and arroz con pollo.

The food was excellent, but I only managed to eat about half of my dish; Liz barely took a few bites of hers. Oh well, this was sort of designated as the last night we could throw money around like internet millionaires.

The next day it was finally time to board our flight to Italy. It already felt like we had been on our trip for a month, and we hadn’t even left the country yet. The first half of the flight was eminently bearable. I watched Ocean’s 13 (for the second time) and relaxed. The second half kind of sucked. I took two benadryl in hopes of sleeping, but that didn’t happen. I just got really groggy and uncomfortable.

Once we landed, we had a two hour drive from Milan to Celle Ligure with my father’s cousin Enrico. I’ve met him several times before, but he doesn’t speak any English and my Italian isn’t very good either. So we made conversation the best that we could, but Liz and I both started falling in and out of sleep after an hour or so.

Enrico dropped us off at Zia Antonietta’s, where we had our first meal in Italy: Spaghetti con pesto, bread and frichure. I’m only guessing how that dish is spelled, but it is pronounced free-SHURE. It’s a type of focacetta… essentially fried dough… but with special flour and sometimes zucchini or other vegetables fried in.

Ok, I just have to take a break from the recap to talk about what I’m doing at the moment. Today is the 14th. Today I got up and walked down to the town and had a panino with prosciutto and brie. Then I walked along the beach and met up with Liz. We laid out for half an hour, and then I walked back home, where the owner of our apartment offered me a glass of homemade wine.

Then he gave me an entire bottle of Dolcetto made by his friend. Now Liz is making pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil that Michele just picked from his garden.

Back to the timeline.

Actually, hold it. It’s now the 19th and we’ve been here over a week. I haven’t had much of a chance to catch up, so before I forget everything, let me run through each day briefly.

Back to the first day we arrived in Italy.

After eating lunch with Antonietta (and Enrico, who dropped us off and then showed up again later) we had to wait while Enrico rested for a while, and then he gave us a ride to our apartment at Michele’s (pronounced Mickel-eh). We immediately took a nap for about 4 hours, and then walked into town to explore a bit. Here's where we were staying.

A lot of places were closed down, but we found one pizzeria open and sat down to dinner. I had Quattro formaggio and Liz had a pizza margherita. The four cheeses on mine weren’t what you would normally get on a four cheese pizza in the states… they were like mozzarella, gorgonzola, fontina and something else I couldn’t identify.

That night we fell asleep at about 8:30….. and I woke up again around midnight. I tossed and turned until about 5am, then got up and made coffee and did some stretching. Liz got up too, and we both did a little yoga.

Finally when it started to get light out, we both got tired again and fell back asleep.

When we finally got up, we walked down to the beach and laid out for a bit. I kept looking for a place to get a brioche, but most of the cafes were closed for their mid-day break. They usually close around 12:30 or 1pm and re-open between 3 and 4pm. We went back home and nearly fell asleep again when Enrico stopped by. He had been trying to reach us on behalf of Erika and Simone. A little background. Simone’s grandmother is cousins with my grandfather. I think. The first time I was in Italy (1991), Simone and I met over a Street Fighter II console in Albisola. Later we had dinner at his family’s house and apparently I played the theme to Beverly Hills Cop on his family’s organ. I don’t exactly remember that, but I do remember the Street Fighter II (obv). Anyway, Simone is about my age, and a cousin a couple times removed, and Erika is his girlfriend.

Simone picked us up in the parking lot near our apartment. It’s about 100-200 meters along a back alley to get from our place to the parking lot, and in parts it’s covered with kiwi trees and other foliage. Really dark at night. Anyway, we got reacquainted as we drove to Savona to meet up with Erika. The first place we went was an old fortress, but it was closing and we only had 10 minutes to look around. After that we went to kind of a pier near the dock to sit and wait for Erika to finish work. Simone and Erika both work for the Savona Port Authority, but in different departments. They have to keep their romance a secret from some coworkers (enemies), but a select few know that they’re together. They both speak English very well… much better than I speak Italian, and probably better than Liz speaks Spanish. Erika also speaks French and German, and considers English her weak language. Impressive.

The plan for the evening was to get some dinner and then check out a show where Simone’s brother would be playing drums. We had farinata… a kind of pizza made with a special flour. Two pies. The first had arugula and brie and was incredible, if a little burned around the edges. The second had a type of sausage on top (not sliced; whole little sausages) and was made with a different flour. Liz and I both preferred the first one, although the second wasn’t bad. It just looked funny, especially after Liz had been reading about some travelers that recently visited Italy and discovered that many places try to cater to Americans by serving hot dogs on top of pizza. Ma donna.

After dinner, we walked to the show, which was outdoors near the marina. Simone’s brother played drums, as promised, quite well. Apparently the whole show was meant to coincide with an election that was coming up on Sunday, so some of the bands (there were several) had a political bent.

At this point we were getting pretty tired, so we got a ride back to Celle and went to sleep. Actually, “tired” is a bit of an understatement. I think we went to bed around 10pm, and I didn’t get up until 1pm the next day. And I could have slept longer.

Saturday. After that ridiculous 13-hour slumber we got back in touch with Simone and Erika. They wanted to take us to Varazze (the next town over) for a quick tour with their friend, also named Simone. The other Simone turned out to be employed as a tour guide for the city of Varazze, and was quite knowledgeable about the city and especially its main church. He didn’t speak English very well, but that didn’t really deter him from attempting to give the entire tour in the language. I tried to stop him a few times to get him to use Italian (so we could practice our comprehension), and he eventually did. He reminded us of our friend Brian, a friend of Tony’s, in both looks and manner.

After that, we headed to Simone’s grandmother’s house for another helping of focacetta and frichure. We gorged ourselves on the fried dough, served with salame, crudo (prosciutto), cotto (ham) and Coke. They only had a little bit of wine due to a miscommunication, and I felt bad about drinking any of it (I had a small glass) once I learned that Simone’s late father (he passed away about a year ago) had made it himself.

After dinner we had homemade limoncello (by Simone and Erika) that I didn’t feel bad about drinking at all.

Sunday the 14th. Simone was going to be busy all day with the election (apparently he was in the running for something… but it was extremely confusing exactly what he was in the running for), so we met up with him and Erika briefly and then spent the day by ourselves. As I mentioned earlier, Liz made spaghetti with fresh basil and tomatoes that turned out really good. I’m not usually a big fan of plain old spaghetti and red sauce, but this meal really stood out. Later, we met up with Erika again to borrow the scooter, use the internet, and get dinner with Simone. Our plans changed slightly. We got the scooter and used the internet, but Simone’s mother invited us to dinner and we accepted. Also, Simone couldn’t make it. He was too busy with the election.

For dinner, we had very tasty risotto with carrots, salad and bread. The carrots were unusual but mellow in the risotto. After dinner, Simone’s brother Nicole (pronounced “Nicole-uh”) brought out a selection of salamis for us to try, including one made with truffle. These were all incredible. I’m not even sure which one had the truffle, but one was much richer and flavorful than the others and I suspect that was the one.

From there, Liz and I rode the scooter back to our apartment.

Monday. Erika and Nicole (I’m sure I’m spelling it wrong) had given us some suggestions about where to take the scooter over the next couple days. We decided to head to Noli, which was probably 20km west of Celle Ligure. First, we had lunch with Antonietta and met Enrico’s kids, Luca and Sara. Actually, I met them before, in 2000, but they were very young at the time and didn’t remember me.

Antonietta made minestrone that was among the best I’ve ever had. Liz loved it too… she’s been raving about it ever since. This picture isn’t very good; I will try to get a better one tomorrow (we’re having it again).

After lunch, we took off on the scooter and stopped in Albisola and Savona briefly. After Savona, the road (Via Aurelia, the main coastal road, not the freeway) gets a little more industrial, hilly and curvy. The scooter we were driving was pretty wimpy (I’m used to a motorcycle with a decent amount of pick-up) with two people, and I was having a hard time in the hills. A freaking truck was trying to pass me, and I had the throttle all the way opened. Plus I wasn’t sure if we had already passed Noli, and I was getting worried that if we had dinner there (as we planned) we would have to make the hilly, curvy drive back in the dark. We got to Spotorno (a little town where I had a great meal in back in 1991) and decided to turn around in favor of dinner in Savona.

Of course we spent quite a while walking around in Savona before deciding on a place to eat. In fact, the police had to get involved. Let me explain. It was a little early for dinner by Italian standards. So a lot of the restaurants were closed. The few that were open didn’t look all that inviting. We stopped at one place that looked good, but it turned out to only be a bar. However, when I asked the bartender for a good recommendation, he came outside and directed me to a nearby restaurant. Just then, two carabinieri (local police) walked by, and the bartender sought their assistance in explaining the location of the restaurant. Rather than try to explain, they walked us there. One was shorter and smaller than the other, and was really outgoing. The other seemed a little thuggish and didn’t speak English. As they left, the police gave me a little salute and left us with, “best wishes for Al Gore!”

At first we were skeptical of the restaurant, because it specialized in “gigantic pizza!” and looked to be fairly touristy. But Liz had carbonara that was pretty damn excellent, and my “fritto misto” was decidedly not tourist-friendly, as you can see here.

I had whole fish with heads, fried anchovies and of course shrimp with heads and legs. It was pretty good, but I had a hard time getting all the legs, shell and heads off the shrimp.

Tuesday. We considered heading to the Cinque Terre today, but I thought it would be better to have one more day to relax in Celle before we started traveling again. Unfortunately we didn’t take much advantage of having a scooter at our disposal; instead we slept in really late and walked to Varazze. On the way we took the “romantic roman path” that several people had told us about. It’s just an elevated path that runs parallel to the beach path, but it does offer pretty neat views of the coast.

That evening we stayed in and made gnocchi con pesto and played cards… an early night in anticipation of our early start for Cinque Terre the next day. The gnocchi looks pretty good here, but it was too sweet. We’re not sure if the gnocchi themselves or the pesto were to blame.

Wednesday. Up at 7 (well, Liz was up at 7, I got up at 7:30) for a 9:17 train to Cinque Terre. We had a quick breakfast at the train station (a 5 minute walk from where we are staying) and I finally got the brioche and espresso I had been craving. Our tickets cost 13.5 Euro, for what it’s worth. While we were waiting, I went to exchange the last of my American money at the bank. The day before, on the way to Varazze, we had searched out a bank that would handle this transaction for us. There are 3 banks in Celle; we visited all 3. The final one was the only one that would do it. And they wouldn’t do it without a passport. Which I had forgotten. OBV.

That morning, I had my passport, but the dude at the bank was slow. Scratch that. Not just slow. EURO-slow. I arrived at 8:40 and there was one person in front of me, already mid-transaction, deep in some foreign paperwork. Only one teller working, of course. Oh, there were more employees in the bank. But none of the others were helping customers. Finally it was my turn at about 8:55. But I had no idea the amount of paperwork involved in trying to turn $175 into 119 euro (after commission). At about 9:10 I ran as fast as I could back to the train station with pockets loaded down with currency, camera, change and copies of all the paperwork. We had about 5 minutes to spare.

The train ride took 3 hours and wasn’t all that scenic, because there are so many tunnels. Finally, we arrived in Vernazza, the second town in the cinque terre. Instant culture shock. Vernazza is a tourist trap! Well, a relative tourist trap. We were used to Celle, which had been really sleepy. We were probably the only Americans in town. In Vernazza, we were but one American couple among hundreds. We considered checking another town to see if it would be quieter, but instead found a hotel room that seemed decent and decided to stay put (for one evening at least). We grabbed lunch at a pizza place (next to an unusual couple… the guy was clearly Italian and the girl clearly Irish or Welsh… and they both had wedding rings on) before attempting the first of many walks, from Vernazza to Monterosso.

It’s a pretty treacherous walk, as we tried to capture in the pictures. Near the end we got stuck behind a group of like 50 Germans, which kind of sucked. Monterosso is much bigger than Vernazza and felt a little more relaxed.

We grabbed a drink at a very atmospheric bar that overlooked the water before taking the train back to Vernazza for the evening.

That night we met another American couple, from Tampa, at dinner. I had trophie (a kind of fresh pasta) with pesto and Liz had black noodles with lobster. The lobster were small and disappointing, but the noodles and sauce were good. My trophie were awesome. No pictures unfortunately.

Thurday. We walked all the rest of the towns. Since we’d already seen Monterosso, we headed in the other direction to Corniglia. A bit shorter walk, but lots of stairs, and today we both had packs on. We had a bit of lunch (focaccia with crudo and cheese) in Corniglia, then pressed on to Manarolo and Riomaggiore. Most of these pictures are from Riomaggiore. Cinque Terre is very, very beautiful and very, very touristy. Thanks, Rick Steves.

We caught the 5:09 train back and got to Celle around 7:45. We didn’t have much food in the apartment, but Liz tossed together some rigatone with leftover pesto, butter and garlic, and to our surprise, it absolutely killed.

And that brings us to today, Friday the 19th. We slept in until about 10am again, then mostly caught up on housekeeping. Laundry, sweeping, dishes. This morning was one of the first that I truly missed home. Probably because it felt like a weekend, and my waking thoughts were of a lazy day with Ash, playing cards, maybe catching a football game with some friends. And it kind of sunk in that I won’t get to do any of those things for a while.

After getting all the laundry washed and hung, we headed out for Varazze on foot again. We were determined to find some internet access in Liguria (besides at the house of a relative) and we succeeded. Sort of. We found a place in Varazze with reasonable rates, but the connectivity sucked. I couldn’t take care of any of the banking I needed to deal with, and my email was spotty at best. Needless to say, I didn’t have a chance to update the blog. So you’re eventually going to get this, this 6,000+ word monstrosity, instead of the frequent updates I promised before departing on this adventure. I hope to write fewer words on a more frequent basis, and post them online with some regularity, but I simply may not get the chance until we reach Argentina. I expect slightly better internet access in places like Genoa, Florence, Rome and Parma, but then the lights will probably go off again when we reach Sicily. And in Southeast Asia, I will probably leave my laptop with a friend so I don’t have to lug it around. Perhaps I’ll do some writing in the internet cafes there, which apparently are more common. Until later…. Ciao.


Forgot to mention a few details from Friday. One of the first days we were here, we asked Michele for a restaurant recommendation, and he gave us the name of a place called l’Euro that was just a few blocks away. He said to tell them that he sent us, so we assumed it would be really good, and maybe they’d even hook us up with something special.

Well, we finally went to l’Euro. It appears to be one of the more expensive places in town… most dishes are between 10 and 15 Euro, with only the gnocchi dishes checking in below 10, at 8.50. Also, once we actually got there and met the waiter, I had some reservations about mentioning Michele. He was like one of those pseudo-sincere waiters that is very polite and obsequious to your face, but seems as though he might be cursing you under his breath each time he returns to the kitchen.

I’m sure I was just being paranoid, but that was the vibe I got. Anyway, Liz kept pressuring me, and finally she mentioned the connection herself to the waiter. He seemed to acknowledge that he was friends with Michele, but there was no sudden change in manner or rush of special dishes to our table. Liz ordered the gnocchi with ragu and it was good, although we could have had the same with Antonietta for a hell of a lot less than 8.5 Euro. Meanwhile, I thought I’d spied a good deal among the 2nd piatti, Scallopine al limone o vino bianco for just 10 Euro!

I chose the lemon sauce, but what I didn’t realize is that scallopine aren’t scallops. They’re pork chops. Which was fine, but when the dish came out with two large, flat disks that looked like schnitzel, I was confused.

Saturday the 20th. We had called Antonietta the night before to arrange lunch today, and Liz had specifically requested her minestrone again. We were supposed to eat with Pierre Angelo as well, but when we arrived Antonietta informed us that he had gone to Milan for business instead.

Enrico stopped by briefly, but he was also in a rush, apparently for some kind of sporting event. I *think* Antonietta was telling me that he still plays volleyball in addition to his coaching, but it’s hard to know for sure.

In any case, we had the famous minestrone, which was just as good as the first time. She also made a schnitzel-like dish that was pretty similar to what I had at l’Euro, minus the lemon sauce. I think I liked hers better.

After lunch, we were vaguely waiting around for Enrico to return with his laptop or his satellite internet card (or so I had gathered), when some old men showed up to deliver homemade digestivi (liquors) and grappa to Antonietta. They were friends of Zio Andrea, and knew my grandfather as well. One of them was trying to talk to me about President Bush, but his pronunciation of the name “bush” was so ridiculous that it took me about 5 tries to even understand what we were talking about.

We sampled one of the digestivi, and I had a tiny, tiny sip of the grappa (tasted like gasoline with an eyedrop of grape juice mixed in). Eventually Tonino showed up. He lives upstairs with his wife Frazia, and they are both good friends of Antonietta and our entire family. In fact I met both him and Frazia the first time I came to Italy in 1991. He looked exactly the same, huge beer belly and all. I have pretty vivid memories of him preparing a dinner for everyone while eating raw snails off the ground.

Eventually it became clear that Enrico wasn’t going to be able to make it back to the apartment with sweet, sweet internet after all, so we headed back home. The weather had turned while we were inside and it was the coldest we’d felt in Italy thus far. Later in the afternoon the wind picked up and it seemed like it was about to storm pretty fiercely, but we only got a few drops of rain. I walked down to the alleyway to pick up some hot chocolate while Liz attempted to contact Gail, her mother’s friend in Parma that had offered to host us for a few days. We played cards and waited until 7 o’clock, when we were supposed to meet up with Simone and Erika for dinner at their place.

After a few rounds of gin rummy, and a nasty snack of brie, salame and saltines (the brie seemed a little off, even though it was brand new), we met up with Simone’s brother Nicole for a ride.

Simone and Erika live in his grandmother’s old house. It’s about a hundred years old (practically brand-new by Italian standards) and they are about to completely renovate it, taking everything down except for the exterior walls. It’s also in a somewhat ironic location… off the roads, accessible only by a footpath, with a spectacular view of the Mediterranean Sea and a large garden area… right next to the Autostrada.

Simone says that before the freeway was built (in the 80s, I think), the house was “paradise.” But now they have an ugly strip of asphalt bordering their magnificent view, and the low but persistent rush of traffic as an audio backdrop.

We didn’t mind the noise too much, but, then again, it wasn’t rush hour and we didn’t live there. You could barely hear it inside the house, though. For dinner, Erika made troffie with pesto and potatoes, and also served baked turkey with ricotta cheese that Simone’s mother had prepared. Again for desert we had her delicious bavarese, a kind of homemade panna cotta with oranges from their tree and chocolate sauce.

More soon!

1 comment:

chris said...

Great trip report! Read the entire thing since I have some time to kill. Also, the pictures are sweet. Looks like I have another place to add to my "wish list" as far as travel goes.