Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Why I love Argentina

So here's what I love about Argentina... Forget for a moment that it's a country with some of the most beautiful scenery on earth - with immense blue, calving glaciers in the south to desert moonscapes in the north to beautiful forested waterfalls in the east. Ignore the sophisticated airs of Buenos Aires, with the great tradition of tango, perhaps the most sensual dance on earth. And ok, let's not talk about the food, which even for a vegetarian palate like mine offers an amazing array of delicious treats, from empanadas to Mendozan wine. As for sweets, once you've tried dulce de leche, or any of the variety of pastries and desserts made with it, there's no going back.

But what really keeps me coming back time and again is the people. I love the fact that I can leave for six whole years, and when I come back, people act as if I've never left. And if I meet someone new, they act as though they've known me forever. No matter where one goes in Argentina (with the usual exception of Buenos Aires, of course), one is immediately accepted as part of the family. Even with only a day or two of notice for my visit, I am always welcomed with open arms, the only complaint being "why are you leaving so soon?"

Argentines have a great communal custom of drinking "mate." You put herbs into a vessel with one straw that gets passed around to whoever is part of the conversation, with fresh hot water poured onto the herbs each time. And whether you've known someone for one minute or one century, you are immediately offered a drink of their mate, a swap of germs that for most western cultures you would need quite a bit of getting-to-know-you to accept.

My three weeks in Argentina took me from the spectacular Iguazu Falls through the desert province of Chaco in the north, followed by a visit to the Jesuit estancias in Cordoba, the "cradle" of the Argentine flag in Rosario, a rainy day in the beach resort of Mar del Plata, and a few days soaking up the atmosphere in Buenos Aires. It was my fourth visit over the last 12 years, and even though I always enjoy the sights and smells and tastes of the country, the most important reason for returning is that each time I leave Argentina feeling like my heart could burst with all the affection and generosity that come from so many wonderful people without my really having done anything at all to deserve it.

So I hope you all at some point get a chance to visit this wonderful country, and that in the meantime you are spending the holidays with the people you care about most, enjoying some of that same heart-bursting feeling that I am.

Happy 2008!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cultural exchange in Brazil

Three weeks in Brazil just went by in a blink of an eye. D. and I flew together to Sao Paolo for the wedding of a good friend of his outside the small town of Avare. Then we flew up to the northeast to Salvador de Bahia, a place I had always wanted to go for its famous music and dance culture. This is where most of the African slaves were brought to Brazil, and they remained in the region, resulting in a rich mix of African culture with the native and Portuguese ones. The people were the happiest and friendliest of anywhere I've seen in Brazil, and there was always music - drumming and dancing and capoeira (a form of martial arts developed by the slaves, which today is a kind of dance).

They also have a unique religion, Candomble, which is descended from the Voudun practiced by their African ancestors. We were able to attend a ceremony celebrating the god Ogum, in which several dancers dance in the middle of the room until they all achieve a trance (when the spirit of the orixa, or god, inhabits them), and then handlers take them out and dress them in the clothing of the orixa and bring them back in to continue dancing until the ceremony is over. The woman standing next to me actually went into a trance, in which she seemed to lose control of her body and could no longer
stand unaided, and she couldn't speak. She was removed by the handlers so they could send the spirit away. Each orixa has its own unique drum rhythms and dance, and each person belongs to one particular orixa. All in all, a very interesting experience, especially after seeing the origins of the culture and religion in Benin a few years ago.

In the midst of this, we took a detour to the interior to do some trekking in the Parque Nacional Chapada Diamantina, which was very lovely but had been built up so much as one of the highlights of Brazil that I think our expectations were a little high. The area looks a little like the desert scenery of southern California, but with big table mountains that provide for some stunning vistas over the valleys. We had a nice time sleeping in a cave and seeing the stars.

Then we flew to Foz do Iguacu, where we went to see the Iguazu Falls. It was my third visit there, and each time it's a lot more built up, but the falls are one of those beautiful natural wonders that are so amazing they are worth seeing even when you have to fight hordes of tourists. Surprisingly, we saw quite a few animals, including a toucan attacking the nests of some smaller birds, some small crocodile-like animals, and many big lizards, coati (badger-like animals), and small guinea pig relatives.

And then D. had to go home to go back to work, and I continued on to Argentina, where I am now, visiting friends from my exchange program in high school. It's quite interesting to see how things have changed, and a bit of a shock to see the babies that have been born and relationships that have been made and broken in the six years since my last visit.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Germany in Small Bites

(As always, you can click on each photo to enlarge it. )

It's been interesting getting to see Germany again as an adult and on my own. It's also been interesting to be there without the primary goal of being a tourist, which led me to see all sorts of places that I wouldn't have gone otherwise. Also interesting is the discussion that inevitably comes up about Germany's past - some people are uncomfortable even visiting the country, others ask what would happen if the opportunity arose for me to live there. So as I walked around, those questions were rattling around in my head, and I feel confident saying that Germany now is not Germany then -- it's a lovely country with a lot of charm, and perhaps most importantly, they seem to be doing their best not to let anything be forgotten or swept under the rug.

I don't think I've ever visited a country that tried so hard to acknowledge its shameful history. Everywhere you look there is a monument, a museum, a memorial... they are putting their past on the table, reminding Germans of what happened so that history wont repeat itself, and trying to do some good by the memories of those that died. I was moved by the effort that they are making, and although every once in a while an eerie wave of heavy history would wash over me as I walked down a street where something terrible happened, I can safely say I wouldn't hesitate to visit or even live in Germany today.

I spent a whole week in Berlin, but because I was there "on business" I didn't actually see as much as you may have come to expect from me. I saw the famous sights - the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden, the KaDeWe department store. I went (how could I not) to the zoo, where baby polar bear Knut is still attracting large crowds, even though he's not quite a baby anymore and even has been labeled "overweight". I was moved by the exhibit that has been set up on the former site of the SS headquarters, which served as a prison and torture center for sensitive political prisoners during the Second World War. They did a great job of exposing what happened there and who was responsible, and they had a fairly thorough memorial to many of the victims and the people who worked in the resistance.

From Berlin I flew to Dusseldorf, which I learned is known for some quite avant garde architecture. Other than that, it's a charming little German town, but a bit cold and rainy while I was there.

The next trip took me to Munich, which is one of my favorite cities in Europe. I was sick, so I had to skip my audition, but as a result I ended up at Oktoberfest. I never thought I would be caught dead there, but it turned out to be a fun experience. First of all, everyone in Munich is dressed in dirndls and lederhosen, which is adorable on the older folks and kind of funny on the younger ones, as the girls do their best to make their dirndls as hot and sexy as possible, much as young women are doing with Halloween costumes in the US these days. There is lots of public drunkenness and lots of pretzels and sausages, and actually the Oktoberfest itself is a gigantic fairground, which during the day has cute rides for kids, haunted houses, and your usual state fair stuff. I hear if you stay after dark, it gets a little crazy, but I didn't stick around to find out.

From Munich I went to Cologne, which is home to the biggest cathedral in Germany, where you find the remains of the three magi (the ones who visited Jesus when he was born). On another visit a week later, I was able to climb up the stairs to the top of the bell tower, where you get a great view of the city and also get to see the largest working bell in the world. Cologne is also the home of the original Eau de Cologne, and they have a very happening shopping street.

For me the most interesting was the El-De House, a museum made from a former detention center for WWII prisoners who came from all over Europe. You can walk around and see the cells downstairs, and despite all odds, the incredible amounts of graffiti written by prisoners over the years is well preserved on the walls of the cells. Some of the more poignant notes, including letters to children and parents never to be seen again, have been translated for viewers to read. Upstairs is a very thorough exhibit about the rise of the Nazis (and the rise of the resistance) in Cologne, which was very nicely done.

After that I had just an afternoon in Hamburg, which is nice enough, but I had seen all the major sights last Christmas, so I took a tour of the rather exaggerated interior of the Rathaus (town hall) and then called it a day.

All in all, it's been fun getting to see more bits and pieces of Germany, and I plan to try to get back there some more. In the meantime, I had better go pack, because we are leaving for Brazil in the morning!

Hope you all are well. Keep in touch!


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Roughing it in Sardinia

Oops, I'm a couple months behind in getting out an update, but I've only just now finally taken a look at my pictures. It was great to see many of you in New York - as for the rest of you, I hope you'll come to Brussels sometime.

I wrote you last from Rome, where I promised you a picture of the blue tongues of the water buffaloes...

* * *

After I signed off, I met up with Laura in the Roma Termini station, and we almost missed our train, and then almost missed our ferry, and after much running and sweating, made it to Sardinia (which, as I mentioned before, is that big island off the west coast of Italy). Our ferry took us to Olbia, in the northeast portion of the island, which we quickly found out was deserving of its terrible reputation.

After a night's sleep, we took the bus to Nuoro, capital of what we had heard was the least touristy, beachy province of Sardinia. We then found out that Sardinia is in many ways still a developing country, as we sat in the bus station for hours waiting for a promised bus that never seemed to show up. Finally we made it to Olgosoro, a tiny town famous for its political murals. The town is a gorgeous mountain town, and it's absolutely covered with murals, many with commentary about Italian and Sardinian politics and social movements, but several that commented on issues from other regions. Most people over 30 in this region are still dressed traditionally. The men mostly look like these guys, who were playing bocce ball in the square.

We stuck around till the next day for the Festival of the Assumption, in which there is a town-wide parade of women dressed in traditional regional costumes and men on totally out-of-control horses who do everything they can to avoid trampling the onlookers, but don't entirely succeed. It was possibly the scariest parade I have ever attended, including the one where oranges were thrown at us with baseball pitcher speed. Coincidentally, Laura was there for that one, too. This is followed by dancing and music and traditional song, sung by groups of three men in chorus with one soloist, which I have to admit sounded a bit like human didgeridoos.

Next we went to Oliena, which we used as a base to walk to Tiscali, the ruins of an ancient Nuragic settlement high up on a mountain, built inside a natural hollow in the rock. Supposedly the town was in use thousands of years ago, mainly as a refuge when nearby cities were under siege. The ruins themselves were unimpressive, although it was amazing to think whole families made it all the way up there, goats and all, and the hike itself was breathtaking.

After this it was time for a little R&R on the beach in Cala Gonone, as beautiful as had been promised. The water around Sardinia is still crystal clear and clean... let's hope it stays that way. We spent one day in Cala Gonone, and then did a one day boat tour along the coast to a number of grottoes that can be reached only on a boat or by foot.

After visiting from the boat, we went on foot. Although we were walking from beach to beach, there is a steep cliff above each beach, so you have to climb up that and walk along the top and then descend to the next one. The walk was gorgeous, through alternately sandy and rocky terrain. We camped along the way, and the first night we camped in a spot overlooking the beach, affording us with a beautiful view of the pink sunset sky over the water and then an amazing view of every star in the sky. When it's that clear, you see the Milky Way and lots of shooting stars, which made the anxiety from all the random rustlings in the forest totally worth it.

Three days into our hike, the sky clouded over and it started to pour, so we changed our plans and overnighted indoors, and then detoured to Santa Maria Navarrese, where we visited the beach and stayed in a campsite full of Germans riding bikes in bathrobes. Once the sun had returned, we did one more hike, to the gorge of Gola Su Gorroppu, which they claim is the deepest gorge in the world. We hiked down to the bottom, wandered around amongst the immense boulders, and then climbed back up to the top, where we made camp in the bushes. Little did we realize, however, that this was grazing ground for a herd of cattle, so we spent the first half of the night throwing rocks to scare the cows away so they wouldn't squash our heads in the night.

After this, sadly, our time in Sardinia had come to an end, so we found our way back to Olbia to take the ferry back to the mainland. On the whole, I had a very positive impression of Sardinia. Although it is a tourist resort at many places on the coast, we saw very few tourists in the inland regions where we traveled, or even really at the beaches we chose, and, perhaps as a result, the people were some of the friendliest I've met anywhere. We soon realized that public transportation was not a viable option, so we hitched the whole time, finding that people not only were super friendly, but sometimes drove miles out of their way to take us where we were going, even though we didn't ask them to. The language was fascinating - supposedly it's very close to Latin - and it changes by region. And the scenery was beautiful. Someday soon I hope to go back and see the rest of the island, since we only covered a tiny portion of it. And you should, too, because Sardinia is exceedinly charming and offers something for every kind of traveller.

Well, I think that's enough for now. I'll write again soon with an update on my trips to Germany, and then I'm off to South America for a while. Hope you all had a great summer!


Monday, August 13, 2007

Umbria, Rome, and Paestum - Another food tour of Italy

Greetings from Rome!

I am having a brief layover, and thought I'd check in with you all. I've been in Italy for three and a half weeks now, and I'm just about to begin the last leg of my trip. No pictures yet, since they haven't been uploaded yet, but I'll get some up as soon as I get back in September.

So Damien came with me for the first 5 days, and we did a whirlwind tour. Two days in Rome: one at the Vatican and one spent walking around all the famous sights of Rome. I wont go on about these, as I'm sure you are all well aware of what the famous sights of Rome are! And this time, I probably don't even need to include a map, since I'm sure you all can find Italy. :)

After this we got the train down to Naples, which is pretty far in the south of Italy, rented a car and got the heck out of there. The air in Naples, in the short time we were in the area, was the closest I have seen to what I experienced in China. We couldn't see the sky. So we were happy to drive into the countryside to a small town called Paestum. We stayed in a beautiful farmhouse on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside, and it was very relaxing. Paestum is the site of three very famous and extremely well preserved Greek temples, which we dutifully visited. But the highlight (and the reason we were there in the first place) was the mozzarella di bufala.

You may not know that real mozzarella actually is made from the milk of water buffaloes, not cows. And this region is where it comes from, so there are water buffalo farms all over the place. We found one we immediately fell in love with - an organic farm, of course. They had the buffaloes out in the open where you could go feed them grass and pet them, and we spent a lot of time doing that. Did you know water buffaloes have blue tongues? We have some terrific pictures that I'll share with you all later.

Because it was a small, organic farm, we were able to watch the buffaloes being milked from about 1 foot away. We also watched the mozzarella making process from right in the middle of the action. And it's all still done by hand. They milk the buffaloes at 4:30 in the morning and then start stirring and mixing the cheese, ending with 1 guy grabbing a large hunk of unformed mozzarella and another one pulling off hand size pieces one by one and throwing them in a vat of salted water. The mozzarella must be eaten within 24 hours or it loses its flavor and texture, and it has to be kept in water at all times, so when you buy it, it's like getting fish at the pet store.

And oh, the cheese. The best mozzarella by far I have ever tasted in my entire life. In the morning it's still warm when you buy it. And the ricotta... we were in cheese heaven. They make all sorts of cheeses out of the buffalo milk - ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, gorgonzola - as well as yogurt and even gelato. Definitely worth the trip out of the way to experience this, since you really can't get the cheese at the height of its taste anywhere else in the world. We ate extremely well those couple of days.

On the way back we visited Pompeii, famous site of the volcanic eruption. The site was a lot bigger than I remembered from my 11 year old point of view, and extremely well preserved, but very touristy and seriously hot. After that, Damien went home and I stayed in Umbria, north of Rome, for the next two and a half weeks doing a singing program to wake up my vocal cords again after the year off. The program was in Spoleto, but I had a chance to visit several other medieval hill towns, including Spello, Todi, Orvieto, Assisi, and Perugia. Spello was my favorite - utterly silent, beautiful and preserved just as it was (I imagine) for centuries. This region is known for its black truffles, and I ate as many as I could while here.

So this afternoon Laura joins me and we continue on to Sardinia, which (you may be wondering) is that big island off the west coast of Italy (the top one is Corsica, which belongs to France, and the bottom one is Sardinia). We'll be there for two weeks, after which I'll be visiting New York and looking forward to seeing many of you if possible!

Hope you are all making the most of your summers. Much love, and keep in touch!


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Reflections on a Year in Belgium

As of August 20, I'll have been in Brussels for a year (that sure went fast!), and Belgium being a country most people will only pass through on a train going somewhere else, I feel I should take a moment to share my impressions of the country with all of you, and perhaps entice a few of you to give the country a chance.

First of all, can you find Belgium on a map? See it up at the top there between France, Germany and the Netherlands? I bet at least one of you just learned something new. :) Partly because of its location, Belgium has three official languages - French (spoken in the southern part, known as Wallonia), Flemish (a variant of Dutch, spoken in Flanders, the northern half), and German (spoken in tiny pockets in the south near Germany). The two halves of Belgium have a long-standing rivalry, so much so that they periodically talk of splitting up. Brussels, the capital, is its own special region and is officially bilingual (French/Flemish), but in reality most people speak French most of the time. Everyone here seems to speak a minimum of three languages, though, including English, which makes us dumb Americans look, well, really dumb.

Brussels itself is famous for being the capital of the European Union and home to the headquarters of NATO, but did you know that it's also the birthplace of the Art Nouveau architectural movement, surrealist painter Rene Magritte, and actress Audrey Hepburn? Belgium is also the home of many of the world's most beloved comics - did you know that Tintin and the Smurfs are both Belgian? These facts seem almost incongruous at first, when you find that Belgian people are a bit cold and closed off, but then you find out that they have a very strange and ultimately endearing sense of humor, and all of a sudden the weird artistic movements start to make sense.

I mean, the most famous icon of Brussels is a tiny 17th century statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain! And not only that, but when foreign dignitaries come visit, they commonly will bring as a gift a costume in which to dress up this Mannekin Piss. The boy has a rotating schedule of over 600 costumes that he wears, ranging from Santa Claus to soccer player.

Actually, Belgian fountains are the most imaginative I've seen anywhere. To go along with the famous Mannekin Piss, there's also a (much less tasteful) Jeanneke Piss, which is the female version, and also a dog, though sadly he doesn't actually piss. There are also spitting statues, and, our personal favorite, a statue of Neptune accompanied by several mermaids. It was not turned on when we passed by, but I'm sure you can imagine what it will look like in action.

And then there are the Belgian festivals. I already told you about the famous Mardi Gras festival in Binche, where men have for centuries dressed up as stereotyped Incas with giant ostrich-feather headdresses and paraded through town playing drums and lobbing blood oranges as hard as possible at the crowd. There's also a Cat Parade in the town of Ypres every three years where people dressed as cats and large floats are paraded through town, culminating in stuffed cats being thrown out of a tower. This originated centuries ago, when REAL cats were thrown out of the belfry tower by the town jester, though apparently the reason for this has been lost. Sadly, I'll have to wait till 2009 to see this spectacle.

We also recently attended Ommegang, a recreation of a 1549 celebration of Emperor Charles V's visit to Brussels, which (this time) culminated in a laser light show, pyrotechnics and battling stilt walkers. The list of weird festivals goes on and on (you can see a few here) - from throwing onions to cross dressing, the Belgians seem to use these occasions to let loose, which I suppose is necessary when you are so reserved all the time!

And then there's the food. While traditional Belgian food is not so vegetarian friendly (they are famous for moules frites - mussels and fries), they do have what many consider to be the best beer in the world. Everyone I have met here who came here not drinking beer is now drinking it, including D. and me. They have any kind of beer you could want - most popular are those flavored with cherries, raspberries or peach, but there are many other fruit flavors, honey beer, traditional beers made by monks, beers made by spontaneous fermentation (meaning yeast comes from the air naturally rather than being added), dark beers, light beers, beers with lots of alcohol... it's quite impressive.

And the waffles: Brussels waffles, what you know as Belgian waffles, and Liege waffles, which are smaller and have whole sugar cubes baked into the batter. The Liege ones are best with warm chocolate syrup on them. Speaking of chocolate, Belgians take that seriously. It's some of the best chocolate in the world, and much of it is still handmade in traditional ways. And lastly the fries. They are double fried - meaning fried once, removed, then fried again - and I promise they are the best fries you've ever tasted. And there is usually a choice of at least 15 different sauces to put on them. It's awfully easy to gain weight here!

Anyway, if what you want is New York City (as I do), this is not it. I definitely don't want to live here forever - it's a bit too quiet for me and the weather is awful most of the time - but it's a great place to visit for a while, and I'm sure would be a great place to raise a family. Beautiful architecture, great food, funny and strange culture and traditions - it's worth doing more than seeing it out the window of the train.

But soon enough I'll be escaping the rain (it's July and people are still wearing winter coats outside - it actually hailed yesterday!) in Italy for the rest of the summer. I'll let you know how that goes when I get back in the end of August. Hope you all make the most of your summer, too! And as always, please keep in touch!


Thursday, May 31, 2007

Long Weekend in Slovenia

Long time no see! I know I usually don't post so often, but May was an exciting travel month. About a week and a half ago we got back from a four-day weekend in Slovenia, a country you may need to look up on the map to locate exactly (I know I did). See it there, tucked between Croatia, Italy and Austria? It's one of Europe's smallest countries, but it's got a sweet position in the Alps (the Julian Alps, to be precise, because of Julius Caesar's visit there a while ago), so there's lots of nice hiking and even a tiny bit of Adriatic coastline. The best thing about Slovenia, though, is that it's still largely unspoiled by being a member of the European Union and even having the Euro. Most of the country is still pretty rural, and we saw lots of farmers out working the fields by hand, and even people traveling by horse cart. People were super-friendly, and many spoke English, which really made it too easy on us.

We spent the first day in the capital, Ljubljana, where we were flown on a hot-pink WizzAir plane by what seemed to be a student pilot (low-cost carriers... what can you do?). We stayed in a hotel that was converted from a former prison. The cells were each redecorated by different artists, and the place doubles as a museum during the day. Some say the city is like a more low-key version of Prague, which was a fairly accurate description. The local symbol is the dragon, and you see them everywhere, on lots of old, fairy-tale sorts of buildings, including a castle at the top of a hill, with a great view over the city and a silly 3-D movie about the history of the country (which if you were wondering, was part of the former Yugoslavia).

The next day we went to the country's premiere tourist attraction, Lake Bled, a gorgeous, idyllic lake with a castle and a church, set in front of the Alps. We drove right past it and went on to a lesser-touristed lake, called Bohinj, where we set out to do a day hike, only to be thwarted by a newly-constructed gate cutting off the trail. Instead we got to see some nice waterfalls and the Vintgar Gorge, which had a really nice 1.6km walkway constructed so that you could walk through the gorge, a pretty impressive feat when it was built over 100 years ago.

We then visited the beekeeping museum, which had a very interesting display of the ornately painted lids to apiaries that used to be very popular. It became quite an art, and people had all sorts of very complex things painted on these lids. As well, there were whole apiaries constructed in the shapes of castles, lions and even people. Beekeeping is one of the oldest and most important industries in Slovenia. We also visited an old mansion that had been converted into a museum, where we saw the "black kitchen," which had no windows so that the smoke from the cooking fire could also be used to smoke meats. Good thing they had servants to get the lung diseases for them!

The next day we paid a visit to some baby swans on Lake Bled, and then we headed to the tiny, stunning town of Kropa, known for its blacksmiths. The town was built on the industry of nail-making, but sometime in the last few decades they turned to screws, and they are now Slovenia's largest producer of screws. Go figure. The gates, lampposts, and everything else in the town are made from exquisitely-sculpted wrought iron, and the absolutely silent town is set in an Alpine valley. We visited the museum, where we learned everything you could want to know about the history of nails, or would have if we spoke Slovenian, and saw the best player piano ever - it included two drums, a triangle, and a cymbal, all run automatically off the same music roll.

After that we headed down south to the country's second premiere tourist attraction, Postojna Cave, and what an attraction it was. One of the biggest natural caves I've ever seen, it's full of gorgeous multicolor cave formations and is the only home in the world to the "human-face" Proteus salamander. It also features a rather high bridge built generously by Russian prisoners of war during WWII. Anyway, because it's so popular, they've actually built a train to take you into the middle of the cave, and they have more gift shops than I saw in the rest of the country combined. No pictures were allowed, but you get the idea, or you can look at their website.

The next day we visited the country's other major caves, the Skocjan Caves, which are on the UNESCO list because they are the biggest, even though they are much less beautiful than the Postojna ones. Their big attraction was a 40m tall bridge built over a ravine, plus some very unusual cave formations that resulted from the river flowing through over the centuries. We followed this by a visit to Predjama Castle, which is built into a gigantic cave and famous for that. Inside it was a bit of a maze created by man-made walls joined to natural cave walls, complete with an escape route to the "land of cherries"... but sadly that was closed off after they assassinated the former owner when he was given away by a traitor while he visited the "place that even the sultan must go alone." Extra points for melodrama...

By then we had to return for our flight home, and we were both sad to leave this beautiful country. We found the people to be very friendly and the atmosphere very relaxed, the food was great (though very heavy and creamy), the scenery can't be beaten, and the strange museums (we almost went to a dormouse museum, but it was closed) were an extra bonus. We'll be back, tents and sleeping bags in hand, someday soon, I'm sure.

I'll be in New York next week - hope to see some of you very soon!


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Italy - Parma, Modena and the Cinque Terre

Hello again!

We've had two trips since I last wrote, and I didn't want to bombard you all with blog updates, so I was planning to squish them into one entry. However, I realized that would get really long, so I'll be sending out another update in a week or so with pictures from Slovenia.

Anyway, it seems Europeans really don't like working, so there is at least one day off (usually for some Christian holiday) every week in May. Combine with low-cost European airlines and you get nice 4 day weekends.

At the end of April we headed to Italy, the northern region around Parma, Modena and the Cinque Terre. We had heard nothing but glowing reviews of the Cinque Terre park, and I was excited about the food touring options. Our first night we stayed in a charming old converted farmhouse in the country. We started out by going to a small town near Parma, home of Parmigiano-reggiano cheese (also known as parmesan in the English-speaking world), to visit a Parmigiano dairy. They spoke only Italian, but we were able to get a tour of the facility, where they are still making the cheese the way they have for centuries - all by hand. We watched as the fresh cheese was turned in cheese cloth while dipped in giant vats of hot water, and then we saw the various stages of the cheese-making, all the way to the storage room where 12,000 large wheels of Parmigiano were aging for 24-30 months. The quality of this cheese is serious business. There's a consortium that controls all the authentic Parmigiano, and once a month (I think) they come to check all the cheeses. Any that don't meet the quality standards have their Parmigiano rinds scraped off them on the spot so no one gets any ideas about trying to sell them as "real" authentic Parmigiano.

After this we went to nearby Modena, which any of you cooking buffs out there will recognize as the home of "Aceto Balsamico di Modena", otherwise known as balsamic vinegar. We toured a farm where they have been making the vinegar for centuries, and we found out that it, too, is a very serious process with many rules and its own consortium that has to approve every single batch of balsamic vinegar that is sold. Even the barrels in which the vinegar ages have to be registered with the consortium, and if you want to change one or get a new one, it's a big hassle. The vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years, and the barrels can be centuries old. We also learned that the name "aceto balsamico di Modena" is not protected - so look on your kitchen shelf... your balsamic vinegar could be made anywhere and is probably mostly red wine vinegar mixed with caramel coloring. Only if it says "aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena" is it truly a protected name, and in this case a tiny bottle will run you $50 or so. Once you've tasted it, though, you'll see it's worth every cent.

What I didn't know about Modena, but which apparently every straight guy on the planet knows, is that it's also the home of luxury cars like Ferrari and Lamborghini. So of course we had to visit the Galleria Ferrari, which was quite a sight to see. It was a collection of Ferraris and engines from across the years, plus pictures of Ferraris in different places throughout the Americas. All in all, the most boastful, self-aggrandizing museum I've ever seen. But it was worth it to see the audience - 99% men plus a few very bored-looking women, and EVERYONE decked out in Ferrari clothing - shirts, caps, pants, even shoes. And those who didn't have actual Ferrari merchandise were at least wearing red, the official color of Ferraris. It was very amusing.

So anyway, the main attraction of the trip was the Cinque Terre, five towns perched on a seaside cliff in a national park. The towns were, as everyone had told me, gorgeous, and we had some great hiking opportunities between and outside of the towns. They were a bit overrun with tourists, though, so we tried to find hiking trails that were a little more challenging in order to avoid the crowds. In any case, we enjoyed the food (the region is the home of pesto) and the towns were really quite lovely, especially in the evening after all the day-trippers went home. We spent about 2.5 days there, walking between the towns and relaxing, before heading back to Milan to fly home.

Well, I suppose someday I'll learn to write a short trip summary, but so far I'm not doing so well. Look for an update on the Slovenia trip pretty soon, and I'll see you in a couple of weeks!

Happy Spring!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Greece - Why We Went North


It's been a pretty quiet couple of months, but now that we're rolling into Spring and the Belgian weather is actually beautiful finally (I can hardly believe it's possible!), I thought I'd check in with you all. Before I tell you about my adventures, allow me to get on my soapbox for just one moment...

You may or may not know that the issue of what we eat and where it comes from is something that has been on my mind for a long time, and it's an issue that recently has been much more in the public consciousness. I just read an amazing book, one that was named one of the NY Times' best books of 2006, and a book that I implore you all to read. It's Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan traces three very different meals back to their sources, in a disturbing look at the sacrifices we are making in order to eat comfortably and cheaply. Although he and I ultimately disagree about the eating of meat, we agree that the system needs to be changed, and it starts with each individual. Please read this book. And if you are interested in further reading, I'd encourage you to start with this study that was just released, showing that cattle raised for food emit more greenhouse gasses than all forms of transportation combined. And if you are on the fence about eating meat, check out The China Study to see what it can do to your health.

Ok, I'm done. Hope I haven't lost you already. So the highlight of February was a visit from my friend Laura. We toured Belgium a bit and attended the annual carnival at Binche, famous for its parade. Apparently a few centuries ago the Belgians brought back some captive Incas from their visits to South America, and they paraded them through the town. Well, eventually the Incas died, so the people of the town made ridiculous outfits meant to resemble Incas, and now, once a year on Fat Tuesday, they parade through the town wearing these costumes, including gigantic ostrich feather hats, and lob oranges really hard at the crowd. Definitely a spectacle worth witnessing once.

The next exciting adventure wasn't for another month or so, when D. and I headed to Greece. What a great country. I was expecting a very European, expensive tourist trap, and parts of it were definitely that, but we both fell in love with this wonderful country, which, despite the mass tourism, is still a bit rough around the edges. We loved the attitude, the friendly people, and the food, and the language was fascinating as we started to get to know it a little bit. We were amused by the stray dogs that were sleeping everywhere, usually in the middle of the road or wherever you wanted to walk. And we did our best to do a tzatziki tour of Greece, sampling our favorite new sauce in pretty much every place we stopped.

On the plane on the way there, a fellow tourist asked us where we were going after Athens and I said "we're planning to go north." "North??" he asked, "why would you want to do that?" Well...

We arrived after midnight in Athens, rented a car, and managed to drive in circles the wrong way down one-way, pedestrian-only streets. Somehow we didn't kill anyone, and we finally found the hotel's recommended "parking lot" where the attendant spoke no English and finally got his son to come translate and parked the car for us. When we came back two days later (in the daylight), there were no other cars in the parking lot, the attendant's hut was locked shut, and the ground was littered with used condoms. I think we stumbled on something that wasn't really just a parking lot... At least the car was still there...

We spent one day wandering the streets of Athens in a bit of rain, and we looked at lots of ruins. The next day we headed north to Delphi, which was what I had most been looking forward to. I was always into mythology, so I wanted to see the home of the famous oracle. There's not too much left, but you can still see several standing columns of the temple and the altar (outside the temple, actually) where they sacrificed the animals before approaching the oracle.

Continuing north from there we arrived at Meteora, a collection of monasteries built high onto the cliffs in the mountains. Quite a sight to see, they only carved steps to reach them in the 1920s, and before that they used to haul monks up to each monastery in rope nets. The monasteries were built as long ago as the 14th C, so the most amazing part is imagining those monks climbing the cliffs 600 years ago and building the monasteries with their bare hands. We visited 5 of the monasteries and climbed up many, many stairs that day.

After Meteora we headed west into the mountains to visit the Zagoria Villages, a collection of tiny white-stone villages built into the mountains surrounding the Vikos Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world (or so they claim). The villages are very un-touristed, at least by non-Greek folk, and they were extremely quiet and beautiful. We hiked around to see the gorge a little and ate fantastic food, including wild local mushrooms grilled with olive oil. We stayed in Megalo Papingo (twin town of Mikro Papingo), and there were at most 2 other tourists there. A great place we'd love to return to in summer time.

A long and winding road took us out of the mountains (and through a snowstorm!) to reach Vergina, in the northeast. Vergina is the site of the uncovered tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Amazingly, the tomb was not ransacked, so the solid gold burial boxes and crowns of golden leaves and everything that was buried with Philip is well-preserved and presented in a great museum there. Definitely worth the detour.

From there we passed through Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, with some very well-preserved mosaics, and continued on to the ruins of Ancient Dion, at the foot of Mt. Olympus. This is where Alexander the Great stopped to sacrifice to the gods before setting out on his conquest of the known world, and there are ruins of several temples and theatres to be explored, plus an entire city, including a sewer system and public baths with a quite technologically-advanced heating system. It's quite amazing how much the ancient Greeks knew how to do, and how much we had to learn all over again after their civilization was destroyed.

From here we headed south to the Peloponnese, with a brief stay in pretty (but uber-touristy) Nafplio. We stayed in the house of a very funny American-loving Greek guy who quizzed D. on the capitals of about half of the states of the US before we managed to get out of there. Mainly we were in the area to see the ruins of Mycenae, a fortress that was the ancient capital of a major city-state of the same name. Most impressive were some architectural innovations that can still be seen in the remains of the building. We took a bit of a detour up into the hills of the surrounding countryside near Nemea, some of the best wine country in Greece, and visited a winery, where we happened to get lucky and get a tour and a tasting only by happy coincidence. We stopped by the Corinth Canal on the way back, and ended our tour of Greece in Athens.

We ended up there on Easter Sunday, which meant everything was closed. So we took a trip down the coast to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, which was also closed. However, the sunset behind the temple was still gorgeous, a sight that apparently enthralled Byron when he came to visit many years ago. Our last day in Athens was spent seeing what else but the Acropolis and ancient Agora, a sight that really requires no explanation. Quite an amazing thing to see in person - it's even bigger and more impressive than I imagined it to be.

Well, I've gone on, as usual, so I doubt many people have made it this far. But anyway, the point is that we loved Greece and would love to go back and spend a lot more time there. The north, despite our fellow traveller's skepticism, turned out to be our favorite part of Greece. Getting off the beaten path really was as rewarding as we had hoped.

Next weekend we're heading to Italy for a four day break. Planning to visit Parma (parmigiano cheese), Modena (balsamic vinegar... and Ferraris for D.), and the Cinque Terre (hiking). I'm brushing up on my Italian, but it probably wont be too necessary. Gotta love those European low-cost airlines. There are definitely some perks to living over here!

Adventure map for 2009...