Monthly Archives: July 2011

Cinque Terre

Vernazza at sunset

Any day that ends with a sunset highlighting a colorful cliff-side town overlooking the sea is hard to beat. However, one way to improve said scenario is if that same day’s ending results from the sun sneaking beneath a layer of dark gray clouds to make the occasion seem supernatural. This sunset photo of Vernazza is only as seen by the lens of the camera despite its many high-dynamic range characteristics. That’s how the day ends, and that will probably remain one of the greatest memories of my Cinque Terre experience; however, the day is full of other highlights from beginning to end.

Cinque Terre

There is wind from the minute we arrive in Levanto, the town just north of the famous Cinque Terre. We (I) drive to Levanto and we immediately train down to the southern most town, Riomaggiore. We each grab a snack and a cafe dopio in Riomaggiore before taking the famous Via dell’Amore into the next town, Manarola. The Via dell’Amore is a beautiful path from one town to the next that maps along the sea. Although crowded with people, the path is almost perfect as the wind keeps the temperature very comfortable.

A hike's view

Manarola, like most of the five towns, is small and takes only a short time to explore its roads and passages. I run around the vineyards that occupy the top-most part of the hill before we all continue on to town number three, Corniglia. A lunch later, we take our longest hike of the day from Corniglia to Vernazza. The views along the trail make the climbs more than worthwhile. We end the day in Vernazza with our daily gelato, a delicious seafood dinner, and as I already mentioned, an unreal sunset. The blues of the sea, the pastels of the buildings, and the stark cliffs shooting up from the water all make this site unique.

First Day in Lucca

Our first day in Lucca is spent within the limits of the city walls. In addition to appreciating the beautiful churches and piazzas, we are also lucky to be there on the third Sunday of a summer month, the day that Lucca has a large antique market. This market, centered around Piazza San Guisto and Piazza Antelminelli, is full of elaborate wood furniture, old radios, paintings of all different subjects, antique jewelry, and of course a bunch of old stuff that I can could never imagine purchasing. We punctuate the day with two delicious meals, the most delicious at Ristorante Giglio.

Lucca Market 1

Lucca Market 2

In the evening, we attend a performance of Hamlet in a city church. The idea of the event sounds romantic, entertaining, and cultured; but, the execution wasn’t exactly that. The actors and actresses have strong Italian accents, and they speak Shakespearean old English as their voices echo off the the many walls in a church with a temperature warm enough to require the programs to be converted into fans. We tried.

Onwards to Lucca

Our last morning in Oriveto is spent underground. Orvieto hides caves and tunnels in the volcanic rock on which the city is build. In these underground passages that were originally mainly accessible by private homes above, we find wells, stairs, quarries, cellars, pigeon farms, and more. After a tour of the underground and a quick haircut, we are ready to make the drive north to Lucca.

For our lunch stop on the road, we pause our drive in Montevarchi, a very quiet town where everyone has seemed to disappear during lunch hours. Although the options are limited, with the help of TripAdvisor’s seven reviewed restaurants, we find Daniele e Riccardo, a hidden restaurant near the center of town. We grab a table and the waitress’ first question is if we speak English. Initially, I only realize that she has a strong accent, which I reasonably assume to be Italian. We answer yes, we do speak English, and that is when I realize her accent is not Italian, but instead Northern European. Our waitress, who is from Denmark, speaks much better English than Italian, and has found her way to this small town for two weeks because she won a contest back home. We enjoy several great appetizers along with a lot of bread, olive oil and vinegar before continuing on our way.

mom, dad, and me in lucca

It is at this juncture that the primary driving responsibilities shift from my Dad to me. He is still a bit jet-lagged and the aggressive Italian driving style isn’t ideal in his tired state of mind. The first time I have driven since driving down to Southern California from the Bay Area before leaving the States was last night when we drove back from Perugia. The car is an automatic and easy to drive, and I enjoy getting back behind the wheel. We get to Lucca in the mid-afternoon, find our apartment, and before doing anything else, we go to the tourist office to start planning our week. We come up with many activities, especially evening activities, we grab a couple maps so that Dad can maintain his map folding prowess, and we set off to bravely explore the town of Lucca. We grab some gelato followed by dinner followed by a formal ballroom dancing display in a public piazza before heading back to the apartment to crash.

Known for its well-maintained city walls, Lucca started as an Etruscan city then a Roman colony in the second century BC. Beginning in the 12th century, the city was an independent republic for about five hundred years. A couple fun facts are that the famous Italian poet Dante spent some of his exile within the wall of this city, and composer Giacomo Puccini was born here.

Puccini statue

Spoleto, Assisi, Perugia, and Jazz

On our first full day together, the parents and I venture out of Orvieto and into central Italy. Before the day is done we will hit Spoleto, Assisi and finally Perugia. Although the main reason for going to Spoleto is that it is en route to Assisi, we also wanted to visit because it is another ancient city built on a hill that dates back to Roman times and is now famous for its annual music festival (which we miss by a couple weeks). We park the car at the bottom of the city, find a way to the top stopping along the way for espresso and snacks, and eventually complete our circle back to the car among its narrow streets and cute buildings. I wish all long car rides could have stretch breaks as pleasant as Spoleto.

Spoleto

Assisi of the famous Saint Francis of Assisi is our second destination of the day. Logically, because it was the birthplace of St. Francis, founder of the Franciscan religious order, it is now home to the Franciscan monastery and an upper and lower church of St. Francis. Both churches are beautiful with their frescos depicting the lives of St. Francis and of Jesus. Between exploring some of the tourist hotspots, we enjoy a great meal at Trattoria Pallotta thanks to a little 3G plus TripAdvisor. The restaurant is a bit tricky to find despite my phone indicating our moving blue dot is directly over the restaurant’s pin. We look around for a bit and then notice that there is the sound of dishes coming from a window upstairs. We walk to the side of the building, notice some steps leading upwards, and eventually stumble upon our restaurant.

Assisi

Our last and most lively stop of the day is in Perugia. Every year, Perugia holds a summer Jazz Festival, and out of luck, we have timed it so that we are there in the middle of this year’s festival. Along with big crowds of people, we find small bands set up on the side of the street, a keyboardist and a guitarist improvising together near a cafe, someone painting on the sidewalk using chalk, a marching band dancing its way down the cobblestone, and stages set up in every plaza. The energy of the city is exciting, and although we do not sit down to watch an entire performance, we stop for a short time at each performer we pass and enjoy their tunes. The energy of Perugia is the perfect way to cap off our full day around central Italy.

Perugia 1

Perugia 2

Perugia 3

Perugia 4

The Car Might Be a Bit Big

We find our car in the Sixt Rental parking lot, and I immediately indicate to my dad that the car might a little on the big side. I know that we will be going to small, old towns with narrow cobblestone streets and I fear that this car might want to make wider turns than the space provided. Once we arrive in Orvieto, some of these concerns become realized, and they continue to be reinforced as we drive around central Italy.

a big car for italy

That said, it is this same small town, cobblestone feel of the old Italian cities that gives them their charm. Imagine an old hill-top Roman city with paved two-lane roads, stop lights and sidewalks, and part of the magic of stepping back in time is lost. In the end, we consider maneuvering the car on roads meant for people, horses, and maybe the occasional carriage as just part of our Italian adventure, and getting out of the car to minimize 10-point turns down to 5-point turns only adds extra excitement.  Other than in a couple of the smaller, older towns, having a car (and a spacious car) is very convenient as almost all of central Italy becomes accessible to us.

Mia Mamma e Mio Papà

Almost five months after being dropped off at Los Angeles International Airport, I see my parents again. We try to time it so that we both arrive into Rome’s FCO airport at the same time, and if I hadn’t been flying on the generally delayed EasyJet, our timing would have been very close. After collecting my backpack from baggage claim, I meet my parents in front of the rental car counters. With their family’s worth of luggage and their Italy maps already unfolded, my parents and I embrace and simply enjoy the reunion.

Our first stop in Italy is Orvieto, so we immediately bypass Rome as we will be returning in about a week, and head north to Orvieto. Located in Italy’s Umbria region, Orvieto’s history dates back to the Etruscan era from when there is proof of an ancient city. Later, the city was annexed by Rome and eventually held under Papal rule until the unification of Italy in 1860. Today, this walled city has much to offer to tourists such as me and my parents. Between the walls surrounding Orvieto the striped Duomo (or Main Cathedral), and the underground city, Orvieto is full of sites to see and history to learn.

The three of us enjoy a fun and delicious first meal in Orvieto celebrating all being together, and we begin to develop a plan of what the next week will look like before meeting up with the rest of the family.

Mom and Dad

Last EasyJet Flight

I take my last EasyJet flight for a while, and I cannot say that I am too disappointed about my break from this European budget airline. That said, because many months back I had waited for a sale, I purchased my European flights each for somewhere between $15 and $40, and EasyJet is easily a more enjoyable experience than RyanAir. The check-in line is still slow, the chaos to board the plane first because there is no assigned seating is intense, and the strictness for carry-ons and luggage weight is frustrating, but in each of the above three categories, EasyJet still seems superior than RyanAir. Also, EasyJet usually believes in flying into the more common and better placed airports. I get into FCO in Italy, say goodbye to Gabe and Becky, and go find my parents near the rental car counter.

easyjet

Pace del Mela

We leave Sciacca, but before heading to northeastern Sicily, we drive through the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. Gabe and I really appreciate having Becky here because as she explains what we are seeing, we better understand the importance of the seven monumental Greek temples all constructed in the Doric style during the 6th and 5th centuries. These temples are considered the best preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece.

Valley of the Temples

Our second two nights in Sicily are spent in Pace del Mela (Peace of the Apple), and although that city’s name would be p’unny when translated into English, there is unfortunately no pun present in Italian. Calling Pace del Mela a small town is an understatement. With its population of slightly more than 5,000 and its one central piazza, this town felt like home. Gabe’s father grew up here until the age of twenty-two when he left for Venezuela, and Gabe has lots of aunts, uncles and cousins still here. From his annual summer visits while growing up, everyone in town still seems to recognize him. Their reactions as they greet Gabe and tell us of times past is what small town Sicily is all about. Although there are not many people of our age, there were still lots of kids full of energy, always ready for a delicious meal, and never refusing to go the beach. After meeting Gabe’s aunt and settling in with a large full smile-shaped slice of watermelon, we venture to the town piazza for some gelato. Unique to Sicily, we enjoy our gelati in a brioche. The brioche absorbed the cream and the sugar and was a perfect end to the snack. In talking with Gabe’s family, ordering the gelati, and just generally getting by, English is not a very popular language in Pace, so Becky and I are forced to use and improve our Italian.

Gelati in Pace del Mela

We eat a both very delicious and very filling dinner at Gabe’s aunt house. His aunt does not believe when we say that we are full, so by the time we stand from the table, we are probably full two times over. After dinner, I spend some time with Gabe’s aunt’s 3-yr old granddaughter, Katerina. We both sit on the couch, and Becky and I do a dramatic reading of Cappuccetto Rosso (Little Red Riding Hood) while she listens. Conveniently, when I say a word or phrase that I don’t understand, I get Katerina to point to the referring image or object on the page and learn a little Italian. After dinner, we venture to the slightly larger nearby town, taste a little more gelato, and walk along the coast before retiring for the night knowing that the next day would be busy.

Granita

We start the next day in the same bar that we had purchased our gelato the day before in the main piazza (there aren’t too many choices of restaurants). There’s a dish that gives kids an excuse to have gelato for breakfast, so I decide that I can use the same excuse. For breakfast, the three of us enjoy granita, ice cream, and brioche. While we are still on our sugar high, we continue on to Taormina. Other than having an in-use Greek theater overlooking Mount Etna and much of Sicily, Taormina is a charming town with a couple too many steps. It would be a surreal experience to watch a live performance in this Greek theater with its well-designed acoustics and fabulous vista. I realize that if my Sicily visit ends here, I would be more than satisfied, but there is still a packed 24 hours to go.

Greek theater in Taormina

We drive back to Pace del Mela for lunch with the cousins. Again, I play around with my Italian replacing the words I don’t know with their Italian-ized Spanish equivalent, which means making sure to end works in vowels and pronouncing certain letters slightly differently. While waiting for the finishing touches of lunch, Gabe gives me a tour of his cousin’s house, which is the same house that his father grew up in. He also tells me a story of when his grandfather was sent out to purchase some cement for house work but ends up returning with a brand new television, the first television in the town. As it was a rough time for the whole town, his grandfather set up the television outside of the house, which is located near the central piazza, and at least 100 people would come to watch together. In my short time in Pace, I already started feeling the history and the community among all its residents.

Lunch in Mela del Pace

After spending the hottest part of this 40 degree Celsius day at the beach, we return to Gabe’s aunt’s for dinner, and later join the entire town in front of the church for some sort of celebration. There is music, food, a little karaoke, and a lot of dancing. The diversity of ages all congregated on the dance floor can only happen in a small town like this one. As expected, everyone knows each other and we all have a great time.

Gabe and Katerina

Our last morning comes much too quickly as I feel so welcome and am not ready to leave all of Gabe’s cousins and family. They all wake up early to say goodbye and we enjoy a last granita and brioche together at the central piazza bar.

Sicily’s Sect

“In Palermo dialect the adjective ‘mafioso’ once meant ‘beautiful, ‘bold’, ‘self-confident’. Anyone who was worthy of being described as mafioso therefore had a certain something, an attribute called ‘mafia’. ‘Cool’ is about the closest modern English equivalent: a mafioso was something who fancied himself.” (Quote form Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia by John Dickie)

The start to Godfather IV should occur on Meridiana’s direct flight from Palermo to New York. While in Sicily, I read Dickie’s book detailing the history of the mafia called “Cosa Nostra.” Along with providing a history of the mafia and how it came to be, the book also does a nice job of outlining recent Sicilian history. Interestingly, much about the mafia was not understood until about two decades ago in 1992 when Giovanni Falcone, an anti-mafia investigator and prosecuting attorney, headed the famous Maxi Trial. Of 474 Mafia members charged in this trial, 360 were convicted of serious crimes. In addition, Falcone was able to convince Tommaso Bruscetta to be the first ever Sicilian Mafia informant. It is through the words of Bruscetta that so much is reliably known about the Mafia today. Sadly, to retaliate, the Mafia kills Falcone and his family soon after the trial on a highway outside of Palermo.

For the most part, the three of us were hidden from the corruption of Sicily; however, there were several small examples that we experienced along the way. One such example occurred on our first afternoon in Palermo after parking our car in a public lot. We were approached upon getting out of the car and told that someone would watch our car while we were away for 3 euros. Our car, however, would not need watching if that same someone would not mess with the car when we don’t pay him the money. Although the sum of money wasn’t huge and the whole situation benign, small occurrences like these confirm some of the shadiness that exists on Italy’s southern island.

Scala dei Turchi

We enjoy our Sicily’s day one
At the famous Scala dei Turchi
Where there’s much fun in the sun
And the water’s anything but murky.

Scala dei Turchi 1

With the town of Agrigento so close
These weather-formed white stairs
Makes the sun with temperature most
Much much easier to bear.

Scala dei Turchi 2

And while we sunbathe and read
Finding chalk everywhere rock touched
Slow is the only day’s speed
For this beach came through in the clutch.

Scala dei Turchi 3