Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cinque Terre, Italy: The Italian Riviera by Sea - October 2016

Nothing is more breath-taking than admiring the Italian Riviera by sea.

As we cruised down the Ligurian coast in our private taxi boat, we gazed at rolling green hillsides dotted with colorful villages and vineyards winding from the waters to the sky. Along the way the jagged shorelines with dramatic cliffs directed us as we passed by million-dollar yachts and humble fishing boats in the aquamarine colored waters.

Darting through caves and hugging the coastline, we made several stops along the Italian Riviera to explore the small villages. Seafood pasta tossed with oil and spices, crisp wine white, extra virgin olive oil and freshly-scented lemon soap were a few of the treasures we discovered along the way.

Santa Margherita Ligure: We began our adventure in the picturesque coastal town of Santa Margherita. A short train ride from Pisa and really anywhere in Italy, this charming spot showcases a sprawling marina, a castle perched on the main promenade and plenty of restaurants and shopping. It was also the only town to boast several five-star hotels with amenities perfect for an autumn holiday.

Portofino: A thirty-minute ferry ride from Santa Margarita Ligure took us to the small inlet village of Portofino. A not-to-miss spot, the collection of colorfully-painted buildings welcomed us into the harbor. On land, the streets are lined with gelato stands, cafes touting the freshest Italian fare and stiff drinks for a day of people watching.

For those eager to explore, there are hillside paths that wind upwards behind the village, past churches and through charming neighborhoods.

Cinque Terre: The holy grail of the northwestern Italian coastline, Cinque Terre is the name the locals have given to the five tiny villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Best known for their intricate web of hiking trails that link the villages, Cinque Terre is also accessible by water taxi, ferry and rail.
  • Monterosso al Mare: The northernmost village of Cinque Terre, it is also the largest of the villages and the only one with a lengthy beach area. This town in home to a convent, a partially-ruined castle and lemon orchards.
  • Vernazza: The birthplace of focaccia bread and referred to as the "truest fishing village" on the Italian Riviera, Vernazza has a church with octagonal bell tower, a castle and a sanctuary.
  • Corniglia: Not on the sea but perched 100 meters above on a hillside, the village has a population of only 150 people.
  • Manarola: Thought of as the oldest of the Cinque Terre villages, Manarola has a central church dating back to 1338 and is surrounded by hillside vineyards producing the local white wine referred to as Sciacchetra. Because of the narrow harbor, boats are lifted from the water and lined along the village streets for safe storage.
  • Riomaggiore: The most famous hiking trail links Manarola to Riomaggiore and is called Via dell'Amore or the Love's Trail. The paths get more challenging as you venture northward and many are currently closed due to landslides; make sure you purchase a permit before beginning your journey as there are only so many travelers allowed at one time.

Portovenere: This town south of Cinque Terre is the only one in the area without a train station, but is accessible by ferry boat. The entering waterway is guarded by an impressive fort and castle which tower over the town on top of rocky cliffs.

With numerous restaurants and cafes, it's also the perfect spot to sample some of the region's typical cuisine: seafood and pasta dressed with pesto made of the finest local basil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano.

La Spezia: All roads may lead to Rome, but it appears all ways out of the Italian Riviera pass through the city of La Spezia. The namesake of the province housing Cinque Terre, La Spezia is the largest city in the area and the main rail hub. Along with being an active industrial port, it is also the gateway into the southern Tuscan region.

Venice, Italy: Lost between Lasagna and Gondolas - October 2016

Venice is one of those idyllic cities where you feel like you have just stepped into a nineteenth century painting.
Men in black and white striped shirts effortlessly paddle gondolas through winding canals. Gold-domed buildings are separated by marble arched bridges. Bustling cafes and shops line narrow alleyways, and the aroma of piping hot lasagna lures you by the nose around the corner. Next time you find yourself in the floating city …

Drink: Stop by
Harry's Bar in Piazza San Marco, the birthplace of the Bellini, and sip a splendid aperitif of Prosecco and white peach puree, and perhaps sit at the table where Ernest Hemingway spent much of his time during the winter of 1949. Too early for a cocktail? Try instead a cake and the "Cioccolata Casanova," mint cream hot chocolate, in the longest continually open café in Europe, Cafe Florian.

Eat: Simple ingredients can create incredible feasts. Off the beaten tourist path in an artsy corner of Venice is the Paradiso Perduto restaurant and jazz club. For two, order the seafood platter and the most decedent homemade macaroni and cheese you've ever tasted. Not only will your hunger be curbed, but you’ll be delighted as the sous chef pushes a cart to your table and tosses freshly cooked macaroni into a cheese wheel as wide as a barrel and finishes the dish with a sprinkle of crushed black pepper.

Visit: While there is plenty to see and do in Venice itself, why not jump on ferry boat or water taxi to explore its famed archipelago. The small island of Murano is world renowned for its glassware. Whether you are in the market for a sculpture, a set of champagne flutes or a paperweight, you’ll find it here and you can also partake in a free glass-blowing demonstration at one of the many galleries on the island. A stone’s throw away, is the quaint fishing village on the island of Burano. One of the most-photographed spots in Italy, you’ll get lost in the rows of colorful buildings and be beckoned to the shops hawking handmade lace tablecloths and embroidered scarfs. Make it a day trip and purchase a 24-hour ferry ticket before you leave Venice.

Enjoy: Who says the opera has to be stuffy? Book a reservation at the
Musica a Palazzo and enjoy a traditional opera in a contemporary venue. Follow the actors through a 15th century palace on the Grand Canal as they perform in three unique halls and be brave enough to grab a seat in the middle of the show.

One visit to Venice is not enough. So the next time you go, take in the sights, smells and tastes of this majestic city, and truly get lost in its allure.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

St. Petersburg, Russia: First Fifteen Days of #Fails - November 2016

In my 36 years I have moved 19 times. While I've been fortunate to experience different places and make friends all over the world, the process of moving is stressful. Our most recent move to St. Petersburg, Russia has been no exception. More complicated and confusing navigating the language and cultural differences, my husband and I have managed to quite beautifully #fail our way through our first couple weeks.

Day 1: Today on the train from Finland to Russia, my husband and I are caught by customs smuggling chicken, sausage, booze and one lone tomato across the border. Fortunately, the inspector turns a frozen cheek and mutters “глупые американцы” or “stupid Americans” as she walks away.

Day 2: Our taxi driver asks in broken English if I believe Michael Jackson is still alive. I laugh. He glares at me through the rear view mirror and violently slams the brakes at the next red light.

Day 3: After being dropped off in the parking lot, it takes us twenty minutes to find the entrance to IKEA. We get lucky and find a discarded map. It's written only in Russian. We wander around for another ten minutes before entering into the store midway through the kid’s section.

Day 4: The first heavy snowfall blankets the city. Our coats, hats and gloves are in a moving truck somewhere. We get our first colds of the season instantaneously.

Day 5: We need to pay the Russian government to get our goods through customs. No credit cards or personal checks are accepted. The Russian bank rejects our attempt at a money transfer. We are instructed to pay in cash. We take out the equivalent of eight thousand dollars in rubles and return to pay the fee. The Russian customs official smirks and informs us that they do not accept cash from American citizens. We walk back to the hotel dejected and with a backpack full of loot.

Day 6: Numerous family members and colleagues comment about hearing a repetitive clicking sound on telephone calls with us. Some suspect the KGB may be listening. Conversations become shorter and less frequent.

Day 7: On our apartment walk-through we notice that all of the drains and toilets emit a smell similar to that of a rotten skunk carcass and the shower knob groans like an old man when twisted. The landlady explains this is standard for Russian plumbing.

Day 8: Our furniture and goods are delivered to the new apartment. Fortunately, all is accounted for and nothing is broken; unfortunately, I walk in on a man assembling my bed who is not wearing any pants.

Day 9: We become acquainted with the special features of our new living quarters: ridiculously slow dial-up internet, continually flickering lights due to power surges, the two minutes it takes for the television to come on, and the radiant heating system controlled by the government.

Day 10: Braving the elements with a purse full of change, I attempt to procure groceries. I learn the hard way that ruble coins don’t go as far as euros. The cashier shakes her head with hands on her hips as I slowly count out 560 in 5 and 10 ruble coins in exchange for O.J., milk, bread and eggs.

Day 11: After unpacking we carry the empty boxes and paper down the four flights of concrete steps from our apartment, out the door, around the corner and down the street to the dumpster. For some reason today the dumpster is missing.

Day 12: To unwind after a long day I set out to take a bath in our new claw foot bathtub. I start the water and go to find towels. Upon returning I find the tub filled with a disturbing liquid the color and opacity of chocolate milk. My husband instructs me to add some bubbles and it’ll be just fine.

Day 13: A pigeon flies into the apartment.

Day 14: My husband travels three and half hours back to Finland to go grocery shopping finding it easier and more fruitful than navigating the metro and underground shops here in the city. He comes back with four bags of Doritos and more contraband chicken.

Day 15: This morning following my shower, I walk to the window in a towel to see how hard it’s snowing. To my surprise what appears to be an entire middle school of children is standing across the street in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral peering back at me. I wave. A few wave back. Must be tourists, I think to myself. Way too friendly. 

Life in big city Russia is not for the faint of heart.