Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vernazza and the Italian Riviera

Settled between the vastness of the Mediterranean Sea and sharply rising hills, Vernazza, with its small harbor, old fortification and army of staircases, evokes the very essence of small-town Italy. Lazing about at a restaurant, knocking back a few chiantis and nibbling on thin-crusted pizzas as the sun sets over the water is the perfect way to relax on a European vacation.Emerging from the darkness of the train tunnel, it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the harsh light from the afternoon sun over the Mediterranean. To my left was a steep hillside, slipping by as the train crawled along. To my right was the sparkling water of the sea. I grinned, knowing I was about to be taking in the sun and exploring one of Italy's most scenic areas - the Cinque Terre.

I'd never heard of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre before planning for the trip in 2004. It was to be my first exposure to Italy, and it didn't disappoint.

I stepped off the train, hoping to inhale the aromas of pesto and baking focaccia bread, but it turned out that it would have to wait until I was out of the train station.

Finding a hotel took just a few minutes, and then my family and I were headed down a cobblestone street to the main square by the harbor to meet the owner,
who would show us to our rooms.

Suitcases clacking over the uneven stones, we made our way to the town, walking past multistory buildings with their shutters open, laundry hanging in the breeze to dry, and the din of conversation as locals and tourists alike sat at outside tables, eating lunch and passing the time.

Under a roof of brightly colored umbrellas at a corner restaurant on the square, we met the hotel owner. She smiled, then led us up a series of narrow alleys, with stairs just about every step, to our hotel. Lugging our suitcases up four floors made us all happy we'd packed light, and we got settled in our rooms, which had views overlooking the greater part of the tiny town and the sea.

The woman didn't bother taking our money, checking our passports or holding a credit card.

"You can pay when you
leave," she said. "If I'm not downstairs, I will be at the restaurant I met you at."

I guess we didn't look like a pack of thieves.

Down we went to the beach, to take advantage of the last hours of sunlight. Unlike the beaches of Nice, where we had just spent a few days, the beach at Vernazza was sandy, not rocky. It was crowded with a mix of locals and tourists, who either swam out into the harbor or sprawled out on the sand. A few local kids started a game of soccer nearby.

Wanting to get a better view of the town before it got too dark, we set out for the trails that link all five towns of the Cinque Terre.

Winding through terraced farms along the hills, the trails are a perfect place to hike and see some breathtaking views. Unfortunately, with only one night in the area, hiking for several hours wasn't really an option. A train that runs inland of the towns is, however, a good alternative to the hiking if time or physical abilities don't allow for the walk.

We ate dinner at a restaurant on one of the harbor terraces, enjoying our first sampling of real Italian food. Unlike the fare served in places like The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, true Italian food is not loa
ded up with heavy sauces and meatballs. It's typically simpler, but made with fresh ingredients and no less savory.

At night, I spent the time wandering the town's streets with my sister, before rejoining my parents and hitting the sack.

The following day, we bought fresh focaccia bread infused with olives, cheese and garlic, as well as pesto and paninis. The pesto made there is, in a word, delicious. I haven't really found a comparable pesto in the States, but that might have something to do with the fact that eating it over there just makes it taste better.

It was with mixed emotions that I got on the train a short while later. 2004 was the first time I visited Italy, and Vernazza was the first town I came to. I enjoyed the slow pace of life there, the relaxed attitude of the hotel owner and the charm of the picturesque buildings and boats bobbing in the harbor. I really wanted to spend a week hiking between the towns, roaming the vineyards on the hills and eating everything I could lay my hands on. The flip side of that was that I really, really wanted to get to Rome.

Rome turned out to be a fantastic place, as I wrote about here. No trip to Italy would be complete without visiting the Eternal City, but it would likewise be incomplete without taking the time to savor life in one of the small towns, be it a Tuscan hill town or one of the five towns of the Cinque Terre.

I'm still waiting for the day when I can return to Cinque Terre. For such a small area, there is so much to do. Sometimes I find myself wondering if I have a romanticised image of the town in my mind because it was my first foray into Italy, but it just takes a glance at the picture hanging in my hallway to remind me that places like that do exist.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Photo of the Week: Chinaman's Hat

The aptly named Chinaman's Hat is an island off Oahu's windward coast. It's a great spot for pictures and relaxing (on those days that aren't windy). The island's real name is Mokolii, which in Hawaiian means "Little Lizard," but the locals all know it as Chinaman's Hat.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

An Exotic Wallet

Walking through Goa, India, my friend Deon decided he needed one of the leather wallets at a small store on the main street near Siquerim Beach. Little did either of us know that we were about to encounter one of the world's truly unique items.

While Deon perused the selection, I wandered over to look at the knock-off items on a back shelf. Ookley sunglasses, Doir purses and Calvin Kleen colognes were all remarkably cheap. I was laughing at the spelling when Deon called me over.

He had a wallet in his hand, and I asked him if he was going to buy it.

"I need you to put it in your pocket and sit on it."

I stared at him, trying to figure out if this was an oddball negotiating tactic he needed my help in.

"I need to know if it's comfortable to sit on," he persisted. "I'm wearing a swimsuit, and I don't have rear pockets. You've gotta sit on it and tell me how it feels."

I laughed and did as I was asked, then pondered whether I was level before finally deciding I was and told him it was "probably OK."

That wasn't good enough for Deon, who wondered why I'd said "probably."

I rolled my eyes, took the wallet out of my pocket, set it on the chair and told him to sit on it and pretend it was in his pocket. He did, decided it was OK, then offered the seller half of the asking price.

This was when we found out just how desirable the wallet was.

"No sir," the vendor said. "You must pay full price. This is special wallet."

"What's special about it?" Deon asked.

"It is real Italian camel leather," the vendor offered.

I looked up and frowned. "Real Italian camel leather?" I asked.

"Yes, yes. Finest quality," he answered.

"Where, if I may ask, does one find camels in Italy?" I really wanted to know.

"You must not have been to Italy," he said.

"But I have. Twice. And my sister lived there for three months," I said. "And I never saw a camel."

The seller, unfazed, told me very seriously that I had simply not visited the right places, and had I gone to the spot where there are camels, I would have come across Italian camel leather.

Deon made the seller promise him that the wallet was really made from Italian camel leather, then negotiated a price and bought it. I think he paid something like $5. I'm really not sure if the seller was blatantly lying, or if he truly believed that his wallet was made from leather harvested from slain Italian camels.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Photo of the Week: Job Security

I took this photo near the Pompidou Center in Paris a month ago. I didn't take it because of the funny broom with it's fake green plastic rushes, or as an example of a Parisian maintenance worker.

I took it because it made me laugh. He is smoking while sweeping up a pile of cigarette butts. I suppose that's one way to maintain your job security.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lodgings: Gastehaus Uhl

If you’re looking for a medieval city, Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Rothenburg o/T) in Germany is one of the best. Being such a charming historic city, many of the hotels are expensive, but it is possible to stay inside the walls at a very affordable price without sacrificing comfort or services.

My hotel of choice is the Gastehaus Uhl. Located just a five-minute walk from the market square, it is very close to the town’s major attractions, and the view from some of the upper floors is a beautiful scene over the top of the wall through the valley beyond.

Far from being just a place to stay, the Uhl family has run the historic building as a café and bakery for 30 years. At the top of the list for me are schneeballen (snowballs) – basically deep-fried balls of pie crust coated in sugar, chocolate or flavored icings (on the lower-left shelf below).

Aside from the great geographic location and the fact that the building dates to the 1600s, the things that make Gastehaus Uhl the perfect place to stay are the rates and the friendliness of the owners.

In a city where comparable rooms cost 80 euros and above, I stayed at the Gastehaus Uhl in December of 2008 for 55 euros per room.

When I went to Rothenburg in 2006, I had not reserved the room for the first night, thinking I might stay somewhere between Frankfurt and Rothenburg. When I arrived in Rothenburg, I found Gastehaus Uhl full until the following night. Robert Uhl, who somehow manages to work six or seven days per week and remain cheerful, managed to get me a room in a neighboring guesthouse for the same rate, and let me use his parking spot for my car.

The rooms are comfortable, but small – like most in Europe. I’ve always stayed on the fifth floor, and there aren’t any elevators. The whole building is spotlessly clean, which is something of the norm in German lodgings. Both of the top-floor rooms have showers, and one has a view of the street while the other has a view of the countryside and wall. The room with the street view has a tropical mural on the wall, which always makes me laugh.

The café is reasonably priced, and the menu features a wide selection of German favorites. I really, really liked the wiener schnitzel with potatoes. The cookies, pastries and other desserts are excellent, and if you are up early enough, you can probably get them fresh out of the oven (or fryer, in the case of schneeballen). The schneeballen are softball-sized, and the Uhls sell about 25,000 each year.

The Gastehaus Uhl sits on the Plonelien, a street that keeps popping up in postcard shots. The half-timbered buildings with the nearby tower that spans the street make for a good photo, as I tried to capture below. (The building with the light on top that shines at the tower is Gastehaus Uhl).

In my stays at Gastehaus Uhl, I have yet to find any reason to stay anywhere else. With the location, prices and friendliness of the staff, it would really be hard to beat.

The Café and Gasthaus Uhl is located at Am Plonlein 6-8, Rothenburg ob der Tauber 91541, Germany.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Photo of the Week: Kepler was Published Here

This is an original printing house from the early modern era in Nuremberg, Germany. As the city was 97 percent destroyed by allied bombing in World War Two, most of the "Old Town" is actually reconstructed (ironically using the Nazis' documentation as a reference). Walking through the town, however, it's possible to spot some of the older buildings.

They don't look new. Though they are repainted and well-kept, the original buildings have a certain rustic quality that is unmistakable when they are viewed next to the postwar ones.

While I was on a bus and walking tour, I saw this building as we passed it and asked my guide about it. She told me that, yes, it is an original building from the 1500s, and was actually a printing house. It was where the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler first published his theory of a heliocentricity, meaning that the sun was the center of the solar system.

Popular belief at the time, backed by the Catholic church, said Earth was the center of the universe, and Kepler's challenge of that was one of the great advances in astronomy.

As we walked away, it occurred to me that the house was not even a side note to the regular tour, and made me appreciate just how much has happened in some of these cities.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Napoleon's Tomb

Rising high in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, of humble Corsican birth, would rise to lead France's armies to triumphant victories and staggering defeats. He also revolutionized French law and schools. He has long been a hero of France, and his elaborate tomb in Paris is one of the sights that every visitor should really see.

Built at Les Invalides (pronounced "lays on-vah-leed"), the former hospital and retirement home for wounded soldiers, Napoleon's tomb occupies the place of honor in a symbol of the glory of the French military.

Unlike popular belief in some countries (notably mine), the French were historically an extremely warlike people. From the ancient times to the Crusades and the wars they started naming based on how many years they took to fight (The Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War) to the Napoleonic Wars and through World War One, the French have always managed to field an army and mix it up. World War One sapped much of their will to fight for a time, but that does nothing to diminish the rich history of the French military, and Les Invalides is one of the best places to explore that history.

I won't focus on the excellent museums for this post, but will say that they include ancient artifacts, room after room of arms and armor, artillery pieces, tanks, machine guns and hundreds of uniforms. Even if you're not at all into military history, it's worth a quick breeze-through. If you get a museum pass (you really should), it won't even cost you any extra.

Topped with an ornate gilded dome, Napoleon's Tomb was built to resemble the Pantheon, and when it is lit up at night, it would satisfy even the ego of the legendary Napoleon.

Even though he abandoned his armies in Egypt and Russia, the notoriously short Emperor of France was revered by his troops. On his return from his exile on Elba, French soldiers were sent by the restored Bourbon monarchy to stop him. Napoleon addressed them, asking if they would really fire on their beloved leader. One of the soldiers supposedly dropped the ramrod of his musket down the barrel, where it clanged, showing the firearm was unloaded.

Even after Waterloo, the French military adored Napoleon. His mark can be seen throughout the city, in part of the design of the Louvre, the Arc d'Triomphe and, of course, his tomb.

As I walked through the door the first time I visited Les Invalides, I wasn't sure what to expect. The inside of the building was reminiscent of a church, but adorned with military displays and the tombs of other great French military leaders, most notably Marshall Foch, leader of the French armies in World War One.

Walking to the railing surrounding the circular hole in the ground floor, I gazed down on the red marble tomb that holds the remains of one of the most intriguing men in history. The tomb itself sits on a pedestal, which is surrounded by statues of angels. At the base of the tomb is an inlaid wreath of laurel leaves, resembling the emperor's crown. Outside that are the names of his most famous battles, including Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland. They were battles in which he revolutionized warfare, and gave the relatively new French Republic something to rally around.

Rotating displays on the ground floor contain artifacts from the man. The first time I was there, orders he issued to his elite Imperial Guard were under display cases, and diagrams of their uniforms sat nearby. The next time, Napoleon's own gray cloak stood in a case with one of his swords and hats. Most recently, a portrait of the general and some of his personal notes were on display.

I walked down the stairs to the subterranean level where his tomb stands, and I read the names of the battles, recognizing most of them from history books or movies. I looked again at the tomb, and suddenly really wished I could somehow talk to the man inside, who had accomplished so much, be it the Napoleonic Code of laws, revolutionizing the French school system or perfecting the divide-and-conquer strategy, in such a short time.

As I headed out, I stopped to look at Marshall Foch's tomb, with an effigy of him held aloft by poilus (literally "hairy ones," poilus was the nickname for French soldiers in World War One). It struck me as ironic that Napoleon had been such a problem for Europe that an elaborate alliance system had been formed to prevent a repeat. That alliance system had, in turn, been directly responsible for the escalation of World War One, which left one-third of French fighting-age men dead.

Napoleon plays such an important part in French history that his tomb should be at least in the top-15 things to see when you go to Paris. I happen to like it best at night, when the lights reflect off the golden parts of the dome. It is visible from most of the high places in the city, including Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Photo of the Week: Pacific Coast

This is the view from a typical roadside pull-out on the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. 1) just a few miles south of Crescent City. Being so close to Oregon, this stretch of California's coast has many of the same characteristics - steep drops and imposing, weather-beaten rocks.

It's a far cry from the beaches of Hawaii, Miami or even Southern California, but the rugged North Coast has its own beauty and charm. The intermittent beaches are frequented by surfers in full-body wetsuits, beachcombers and families out to let the kids play in the sand. Some of the braver (or more cold-blooded) jump into the green-hued waves to body surf, but I'm usually content to throw the ball for my dog and watch the sea.

The towns along the North coast are numerous, and many of them are great places to spend a day or two. Bodega Bay was the setting for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, has a supposedly haunted schoolhouse, and even boasts a restaurant that straddles the San Andreas Fault, called the Sandpiper. A fishing village, Bodega Bay is a great place to get fresh seafood, and watch the humpback whale migrations during the season. Camping at the Bodega Dunes Campground will put you close to the beach and a few minutes by car from the town.

Mendocino is another of the towns that tourists should see. Full of quaint shops, a day will probably be enough, but it's always popular and similar to its southerly cousin, Carmel.

Fort Bragg is another fishing village, and the same whale migrations that can be viewed from Bodega Bay can be seen from the bluffs around this small town. Staying at the Harbor Lite Lodge in one of the rooms facing the harbor will give you a good view of the fishing boats as they set out in the mornings and return with the day's catch.

Finally, Crescent City. It feels bigger than the other three, but I'm not convinced it actually is. Another good place to see fishing vessels and the occasional whale, Crescent City's charm centers around its lighthouse, which is built on an island accessible during low tide, when the island becomes a peninsula. At one point, I ran into the painter Thomas Kincaid as he sat painting the lighthouse. Inland from Crescent City are California's famous redwoods, which stretch for several miles down the coast.

A visit to any of those four towns, as well as others I didn't list, will give you a good sample of California's northern coastal living. I've always had luck traveling there in January, as it might rain, but is usually not very foggy.

As much as I like to travel abroad, it's nice to be surrounded by so much beauty in my own state. I spent many fun weekends camping with my family along the coast as a kid, and even now, and I'm happy that I don't have to drive very far to find myself in such a great place.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Taste of Travel: Bratwurst Roslein

Though Nuremberg is famous for its small sausages (of which I ate many), there are times when you need to sit down and have something more substantial. The city has its share of restaurants, but eating at the Bratwurst Roslein, near the main square in the old town, gives you the chance to eat in a typical German fashion.

From the outside, it didn't look like much. Stepping through the door, however, I stopped and looked at row upon row of long tables heavily laden with beer, meat and potatoes. Unlike most European restaurants I've been to, the place was huge and packed with people.

A hostess led us to a table with four empty seats. We sat down as the local occupants scooted over to make way for us. The man to my right fortunately spoke English, and being in town on business, he wanted someone to talk to. Unlike the United States, where dining is typically a very private experience and speaking to anyone else eating in the restaurant is a rare occasion, the typical Hofbrau Haus-type atmosphere of many German restaurants encourages diners to sit next to complete strangers and get to know each other.

Not wanting another sausage, I asked the man next to me, Joachim, what he was having. He recommended sliced pork with potato dumplings, and it sounded good, so I ordered it. Ordering can sometimes be a problem if the menus aren't in English, but the Bratwurst Roslein has tourist menus with English and French translations as well as the German ones.

My food arrived with the half liter of hefeweizen I'd ordered. Tucher is the local brew, and it's as good as any. Being a German restaurant, the beer list included something for everyone, with lighter beers (in color, not calories. If you want an American-style light beer, you won't find it), ambers, wheat beers and others as dark as coffee.

I cut into the tender pork, which swam in a juicy sauce, and took a bite. It was very tender, and fell apart in my mouth. Joachim looked at me expectantly, hoping I liked his recommendation. I nodded approval, and he insisted I try some of the sauerkraut he had on the side.

The sauerkraut was a dark red color, and had a vinegary flavor that complemented the meat extremely well. I resisted the urge to eat all of his sauerkraut, as the meat was delicious by itself, but the next time I have the chance, I'll order the sauerkraut with it.

The potato dumpling wasn't what I'd expected. It looked good, but it was somewhat rubbery in texture, and even though it tasted fine, I left a little more than half of it on the plate. There were other potato options I could have had, and would try next time.

All in all, I had a great time at the Bratwurst Roslein. It was good to sit down at one of the communal tables and talk with the locals. A group of guys farther down the table laughed a bit when I took a picture of the food, and when I looked up, one of them smiled, spread his hands as if mimicking a label, and said, "German food." We talked with them a bit, and they were happy that we knew Nuremberg, technically in Bavaria, is really in Franconia (which ceased to exist after Napoleon had a hand in making it all Bavaria in 1806). The Nurembergers still consider themselves Franconian, and we all raised our glasses as they joked at Bavaria's expense - to the chagrin of their friend, who lives in Munich (the heart of Bavaria).

Getting the chance to talk with the locals and share a meal gives insight into a country that you don't get from visiting museums and reading brochures. Fortunately, most younger Germans and many older ones speak English, as it is the business language and taught in schools. Even if they don't, they're typically friendly and will sometimes chat with you for the entire meal, even though you don't know more than five words of each other's languages.

If you go to Nuremberg and want something of a traditional dining experience with excellent food, the Bratwurst Roslein is a great place. The prices aren't too steep (My meal was about 12 euro), and your tablemates can help make it a memorable experience. The restaurant is located by the town hall, on Rathausplatz 6, and is open every day from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Photo of the week: Notre Dame at Night

This is the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I took this photo two days before Christmas, and you can just see the Christmas tree in front of the cathedral. Notre Dame was started in 1163 as a result of the debacle that surrounded the blessing of the Second Crusade by Pope Eugenius III, when the previous church was inadequate and led to squabbling and fighting between the French and Italian priests. The squabbling turned into a brawl as each faction argued over who would keep the elegant carpet laid on the floor, and the French King Louis VII was even hit in the face when he tried to break it up.

Built on the Ile de la Cité, the largest of the islands in Paris, the site for Notre Dame was chosen not only for its centrality to the major trade route that was the river, but also for the metaphor comparing Christianity to a ship steering for harbor. The Ile de la Cité resembled the rear of a ship, and the ship eventually became the main symbol on Paris' coat of arms.

The site of the cathedral is not a new one, as a Roman temple was originally built on the same ground. The ruins of that temple, as well as other Roman ruins, can be seen by walking down the staircase located at the far side of the empty space in front of the cathedral.

One of my favorite things to do in Paris is just walk around the center of the city at night. It's perfectly safe, and the monuments, churches and governmental buildings are well-lit, providing for great photo opportunities and letting you know that you're in Paris, the City of Light.