28 November 2011

CRF: Vatican City (Part 1)

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're home for a visit. (Back in Europe December 28th).
Vatican City was our first true microstate. (Sorry, Luxembourg, but you were big-ish.) Unlike everywhere else, we couldn't actually stay in the country. So, our experience in Vatican City had two distinctive sides - our "official time," which was spent within the perimeter of the microstate and our "Rome time." Our photos also fall into those two categories and since we could never really showcase our time spent outside the City walls, hundreds of shots from our Rome time wound up on the cutting room floor.
Our rental apartment was just a few blocks away from the southeast border of Vatican City. Remaining in our little corner of Rome, hugging the border of Vatican City as much as we could allowed us to really notice the little things, the details of a city that would otherwise seem epic.Barring the Vatican, all of the real tourist attractions in Rome are east of the Tiber River - which leaves the area around Saint Peter's Square mostly left alone. We got to experience a real slice of Roman life, going to "our cafe" every morning, "our gelato place" every afternoon and "our wine shop" every evening.On a particularly beautiful day, we took a walk up to Aurelio Park. Atop Gianicolo, the second tallest hill in Rome, the park gave us sweeping views over the city. People walked their dogs and bought their children balloons and popsicles. A group of older tourists walked around identifying trees.
Downtown Trastevere, our neighborhood, was a pretty hip and happening place. John Cabot University kept the after-dark streets filled with fashionable college students. The businesses catered to the young and tasteful, lovely little restaurants, gallery-like clothing boutiques and bars galore. The cobbled streets and 16th century buildings were the epitome of boho chic.
Our grocery shopping was done in Prati, a residential neighborhood just north of the Vatican. There was an international food shop, a gourmet Italian goods store that was spectacular and the wonderful Trionfale Market. It's one of the largest food markets in Italy and inspired a number of dinners that turned out so well, we decided to post about them. (Roman artichokes, linguine and clams, shrimp and asparagus risotto and asquash blossom dessert and our most ambitious, most delicious, braised octopus).
A travel article from the New York Times, published in 1987, says that the vendors at the Porta Portese Sunday flea market are "a show in themselves." It's absolutely true that the market itself is your usual street fair fare, but the sellers make it memorable. They call out to you congenially and fraternize animatedly. They're regulars, locals, most of whom have been manning their station for years.They called your attention with signs, smiles, compliments, and - in this case - an enormous red arrow. People walked through with entire bags filled with purchases. Tourists clutched their purses and rifled through tchotchkes. It was crowded and stretched so long without an outlet that we wound up, basically, hopping a fence to get home.
Our final night, we ventured over the river for dinner. Looking back over it, we could see the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica and new that if we headed straight for it, we would find our way home.

20 November 2011

CRF: Italy

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're home for a visit. (Back in Europe December 28th).
We spent a month and a half on the Italian Peninsula, moving from Italy to Vatican City to San Marino. Not too shabby of a place to linger for a while. At the tale end of our Italian time, we spent two nights in Rome. This is the view out our window. We have about a hundred photos of this view - at dawn, midday, dusk and night. It was always just so stunning. If we stuck our heads out and turned to the right, we could make out a bit of the Coliseum.
Trevi fountain at night. Tourists crowded around, flashes bounced off the water, coins plopped in steadily. Legend has it that throwing a coin into Trevi fountain ensures a return to Rome. This young woman, who was shivering during a photo shoot, would probably choose a warmer month next time. The fountain is gorgeous at night and the sound of rushing water adds calm and a bit of magic to the crowded scene.
Some clever street art. We saw a few 'do not enter' signs altered like this. Further down the street, a two person team scrubbed away at less artistic graffiti.
We often reminisce about Trani. Our favorite meal in Italy was here, and it's easy to see why. Every morning brought a spectacular fish market and a few tables stayed open until dark. Bright pink rock shrimp, mussels that shone a midnight blue, silver sardines. The crates and buckets were like treasure chests, filled with glistening jewels. Man, we wished we could buy some of it and cook it up. But, we just had to settle for eating out. Shucks.
This is a view out over Lake Trasimeno from a dock tower in Castiglione del Lago. The boardwalk below was bare, an ice cream shop and tiki bar were shuttered. The blue sky turned the off-season beachfront scene from sullen to wistful.
This car sat on a street in Calcata, a totally picturesque artist commune. About one hundred people live in the village, which is perched up on a mound of volcanic rock. Since the houses are made of the same stone it looks like the cliff has sprouted buildings. For years, the town was deemed unlivable because of the threat of erosion. Artists began to squat there in the 60s and the structural quarantine, so to speak, was lifted a little while later.
So, so many tramezzini were consumed in Italy. The crustless white bread sandwiches (cut diagonally) were the perfect snack or go-to lunch. At bars, they were simple but inspired. Tuna with olive, prosciutto, egg with tomato, etc - always saran wrapped. In cafes and at gourmet shops, they were filled with anything from smoked salmon to mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes. This every day staple is quintessentially Italian to us. We didn't care as much for their Sammarinese double-decker cousins.
We did a lot of driving in Italy. It's always a difficult thing to grapple with, needing to get someplace quickly but not wanting to spend a whole day on the autostrada. Taking the scenic route was an easier decision in Tuscany, because a google search of "prettiest drives" is possible and the options are plentiful. The SS222 (which connect Florence and Siena) gets crowded in the high season. Narrow European roads don't work well with too many cars stopped for photos. But it was March, and we could move along at our own speed.
This picture was taken during our post-four hour lunch stroll in Vasto on the Adriatic Coast. It was just a short stay, but we can still remember the orange trees and the grandparents playing with their grandchildren on the sand. The paddle boats were turned over and covered with a sandy film. Knotted up fishing nets sat in clumps.
Trani at sunset. It's hard not to fall in love with a place when this happens daily.

CRF: Moldova

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." Below are some of our favorite pics that never made the blog. We figured we'd reminisce a little while we're home for a visit. (Back in Europe December 28th).
Some countries are notable for their food, or for their culture, or for their landscapes. Moldova isn't. But it is memorable. When people ask about the strangest places we've been on the trip, we always mention Moldova among the most bizarre.
Moldova is the poorest nation in Europe, by a long shot. It's GDP per capita is less than half that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is the second poorest ($2,500 compared to $6,000).
This is an apartment building in Bălți, which is pronounced "belts."
A roadside cross.
The remote, ancient cave monastery at Orheiul Vechi was among the most memorable places we visited in the region. This picture was taken on the "balcony," which is a tiny ledge high up the side of a sheer cliff.
A huge stork-shaped well that we spotted on the roadway. It wasn't immediately clear how it was supposed to work, but the bucket was lowered by a chain attached to the stork's mouth.
Because there isn't much indoor plumbing in Moldova - especially outside the cities - there are lots of public wells.
Almost a quarter of the population lives and works outside of the country - usually illegally. Working age people leave in the greatest numbers. In some regions, it felt like a ghost country, with only the very elderly and the very young left behind.
Late evening on the Chișinău outskirts.
Piles of cornstalks outside a little hamlet.
Coffee and a snack taken outside a store near Milestii-Mici (the largest wine cave in the world). It seems strange that we've never mentioned this coffee, actually. Through most of the more impoverished corners of the former Soviet Union, tea is the preferred drink and coffee is relatively uncommon. But most places had a sweet, instant-coffee drink called 3v1 (actually, there are brackets in the real logo, so it appears "3[v]1"), which is a shorthand name that means "three in one," meaning coffee, milk and sugar. It's not very good, but we had scores of tiny plastic cups of the stuff over several weeks.
The name of this pastry has been completely forgotten.
Apartment building in Chișinău, the capital.
Something that's still difficult for us to believe: we actually went into the Transdniestr frozen conflict zone, which is also called Transnistria. We didn't stay for more than an afternoon, but it still ranks as one of the strangest places visited on the trip. Also, one of the most frightening.

19 November 2011

New Forest Ponies

The New Forest is a peculiar place. Blanketed by mist off the sea, its flat miles of gorse and woodland are broken up here and there by wide expanses of heath. There is water in the spongy soil; the air smells of mud and dead leaves.
The park is known for its “ponies,” which amble around freely and slowly. We stayed on New Forest’s edge for three nights as we prepared to ship our car home, taking a few trips into its interior. We weren’t really looking for anything in particular, and the horses captured our attention and imagination.
New Forest was formed in 1079 by William the Conqueror as a royal park in which the king and his court could hunt and raise game. Some number of households were displaced when this happened, and the resettled families were given a kind of grazing right for their animals. Although the land is now public, these rights have persisted until the present - anyone who owns one of the houses granted permission is allowed to pasture animals in the New Forest, even if they have just purchased the land.
The horses are really considered ponies, but they're generally quite large. Since 1930, they've been purebred, and are prized for their hardiness and gentle constitutions - the breed has been spread through much of the world, though it's often mislabeled or not recognized.
In a pub one night, we asked about the animals. The patrons there regarded them more as a nuisance - a traffic hazard - than an attraction, but recognized their uniqueness. “It’s hard to believe,” one man said, “but they tell them apart by the cut of their tails.”
As it turns out, he was partially correct. A peculiar British authority exists, called the "Verderers," to administer parkland that was once owned by the crown. In the New Forest, the Verderers are tasked with annually cutting the tails of the grazing horses in special layers, to make note of which areas they are supposed to graze in. Because the park's ecosystem is rather fragile, gates and fences have been set up to keep specific animals in separate sections. The owners of the horses brand or ear-tag their livestock to show ownership.
We were amazed, initially, to find these almost feral animals in the park. A sign by one gate proclaimed, in large letters, "Ponies don't dent - they die!" There was something very British about the forest and the animals, something medieval, quaint and foggy. We were left with an impression of dulled color and indistinct edges, like a watercolor that has run together.

15 November 2011

The Bilbao to Portsmouth Ferry

Air travel doesn't do justice to distances, or to journeys. Getting on a plane in one place, getting off in another, feeling nothing but blankness in between - it reorders geography into simple equations of hours-between and time-zones crossed. It's nice, every once in a while, to go more slowly and deliberately, and to have time to ruminate on the change.
We left the continent in grand fashion this time, setting sail for southern England with our car and a few days before our flight home. The trip took a little over 24 hours, beginning in darkness, traversing a full day and ending late the next night.
Above, morning breaks over the Bay of Biscay
The Brittany Ferries boat that plies the water between Bilbao and Portsmouth is much bigger than we expected. Because of some bad weather that we never saw but heard a lot about, the ferry was late in loading. During a few hours spent sitting in the vast holding lot, idling truck engines and the crackling radios of the customs men settled into a kind of dreamlike white noise. A few hundred other cars sat in the gloom with us. Truckers talked by their rigs, drinking beer until unsteadied and laughing over old stories.
When we finally were ushered on, it happened in a rush. We left the car with our overnight bags, found our cabin, settled in. Our cabin smelled faintly of seawater, the ship rolled heavily, we slept lightly, always aware that the ocean was beneath us.The morning brought brief sun, followed by spitting rain and strong wind as we entered the Celtic sea. We worked and sat, wandered from shop to restaurant to bar. There are events on board, of course, and movies playing, but we didn't take part in any of it. A certain pleasure can be found in being hemmed in for a finite amount of time, and in drifting into a soft-lit daze. The day passed very swiftly, in a cornerless line of rolling waves and quiet music.
There were two restaurants on board, and two real bars. Rumors of a third bar spread, and were confirmed by a vague mention in the directory, but we weren't able to find it. It sounded intriguing - the "chauffeur lounge," reserved for truck drivers and, one imagines, the more unsavory types.
The other bars were predictably bland, though they did a brisk business. People like to drink when they're on a boat, and to eat. We had sardines and bread for our chilly, on-deck lunch, followed in our cabin by some dates and oranges.
Night fell again, and with it came a certain edginess. The passengers were informed of another delay, minds were turned toward solid ground. In the last few, long hours, it was as if the boat had awakened. Passengers stretched and paced, standing restlessly in the hallways and congregating more anxiously around the televisions and bars.
The lights of England and Portsmouth brought people out onto the decks. The air was heavy with moisture, but the rain had cleared. Most of our fellow passengers were British, and the sight of their homeland seemed to calm them.
We slipped into our berth around nine-thirty at night. Driving away, speeding down a misty English motorway, the breadth of the water behind us felt immense.

24 Hours or Less

Sometimes, the towns you find yourself in when you just need a break on a long road trip wind up defining a country. You turn off the highway toward that hilltop church in the distance because you know there must be a place to get coffee nearby. You drive toward the water in hope of some seaside spot for lunch. Many of these towns remain nameless in our memory. There are so many times that we regret not bothering to bring our cameras out of the car. But in a way, that's what make these stopover towns special.
A long, tired drive after a night full of goodbyes and an early morning family drop-off at the airport, lead us to Olite. Halfway between Barcelona and San Sebastian, the land had flattened and a golden haze had overtaken the day's blue sky. Wind towers turned like pinwheels across the ridge line and each side of the road dropped down into fields of gold and yellow. Vineyards in autumn. We stopped in Olite because there was a castle icon next to its name on our road map. Sometimes, it's just as simple as that.
The next morning, we awoke bright and early, hoping for a bluer sky for castle hunting. Hoping, also, to get an early start on the rest of our drive. The sunrise was magnificent and we ran out of the cobbled old town, past the railroad tracks, over toward the apartment complexes on the outskirts of town to get a great shot of the castle. We snapped until the sun had fully risen and then had coffee with the other early risers. Most men in the bar had brought their own breakfast, wrapped in aluminum foil. A James Bond movie played on the television set.We did a lot of driving in Spain, traveling across its belt from Portugal to Barcelona, then from its Mediterranean coast to its Atlantic coast. The Spanish countryside is vast and beautiful - sometimes red soiled and mountainous like the American Southwest, sometimes lushly forested or dramatically peaked. The region of Castilla y Leon was our introduction to Spain. Eagles soared overhead as we drove through the positively ancient feeling terrain. There were stone ruins, whitewashed hamlets and impressive churches everywhere. People walked the lengths from one town to another, hugging the side of the road with sticks in hand and covered heads. We spent the night in Covarrubias, where we were immediately greeted by a trio of old women walking arm in arm down the street, arranged from tallest to shortest. Hola! they said in unison, without breaking stride. Our pension's dining room was lined with taxidermy and ham legs and didn't open for dinner until 9pm. Until then, we visited each of the four bars in town, where we stood on discarded peanut shells and ate too much morcilla. In the morning, we wandered around the squares hoping to find a mailbox and our bewildered looks prompted each and every person to ask us what we were looking for, how they could help. This would continue to be our experience in Spain - Covarrubias gave an excellent, accurate first impression.
Then, there are the daytrips. On the Costa Brava, from our home base of Palafrugell, we had all sorts of lofty plans. Swim here, hike there, if only the weather had cooperated. On one of the less stormy days, we made it out to Tamariu, a cove surrounded by clifftop pines. It is said to have the clearest water in the Spanish Mediterranean. But it was difficult to tell through the froth, as waves crashed up onto the beached fishing boats and against the rocky coast. The beginning of our hiking trail was impossible to reach, obscured by the whitecaps. The scene was absolute natural drama.
Northwest up the coast was Begur, where we stopped in one afternoon for lunch. Our meal at a restaurant named Rostei was delicious and the rain stopped just long enough afterward to allow for a quick walk around town. It's a wonderful thing when a casual stroll leads you up to a 10th century castle ruin with views like this. In most towns that we spent 24 hours or less, we could have spent days.
Our final night in Spain was spent in Errenteria - a town outside of San Sebastian. We'd made a reservation weeks earlier for an anniversary dinner at Mugaritz, which sat on a nameless road in this easily forgotten town. Most people that dine there simply sleep in San Sebastian, a half hour's drive away. We stayed in a guesthouse down the road, and walked to dinner in nice clothes and headlamps. The local bar seemed to always be open. Cider and eggs in the morning, cider and sandwiches at lunch, wine and beer at night and coffee through it all. A flyer on the wall advertised a hunting rifle for sale and a local raffle collection was set up by the gambling machine in the corner.
Rolling fields were filled with sheep and cows. Vegetable gardens stretched in grids of cabbage. Burning brush puffed another cloud into the already full sky as the sun set at a wintery early hour. We sat with our pre-dinner coffees and took it all in. Our last day of Spain, our last day of this leg of the trip. In just a week we'll be home and this will all seem so incredibly far away. We will most likely forget Errenteria's name, but that's okay. It's the essence of it, the feelings that night that will forever be infused into our memory of Spain. The same is true for Olite and Begur and Covarrubias and Tamariu and all the other short-lived, long-remembered locales.