Lake Como

Mark and Colleen were able to join us for a second weekend, this time exploring the beautiful and storied Italian Lakes region. The Italian Lakes are in northern Italy, near the foot of the alps, but well above the Mediterranean. It used to be considered one of the places everyone needed to go at some point in their life (although I think that’s stretching it a little). Regardless, it’s a pretty cool area, as you have large lakes that run up to the foot of the mountains, snow-tipped peaks in the background, cliffs, and some of the most stunning villas you’ll find anywhere in the world. In fact, I think this area invented the concept of the villa, and if they didn’t, they should have.

I was a little concerned going into this trip, as the weather is right at that point where it could either be nice or absolutely terrible. Luckily, it was about as perfect as you could have asked for, and coupled with the fact that it’s pre-tourist season, the conditions couldn’t have been better.

Outside of the lake and mountain views, the villas are the main attractions in Como. Located on mountain sides, sporting well-manicured gardens, the villas were spectacular, to say the least. One of the villas has been used as a movie set on a handful of films, most recently in the latest James Bond movie (it was also used as the backdrop to a terrible love scene in Star Wars - Attack of the Clones, but I think the James Bond thing makes up for it.) Not that we’re into going to places where movies were filmed or anything…although I guess this is the second time we’ve been somewhere from a James Bond movie in the past year. Doh.

We stayed at Bellagio, which was a good central location from where we could explore the other cities. None of the towns here are particularly large, but they all have winding streets, narrow alleys, great sea views, and multiple gelato shops. Bellagio was probably the best of them, and when you add in the fact that our hotel had a ridiculously great roofdeck, and nobody else really went up on it, then you have a recipe for awesomeness. Yes, that is a word – I believe it’s derived from a Latin word meaning "total sweetness". Anyway - we spent pretty much every day walking around doing stuff, coming back and resting, having some Prosecco on the roofdeck, going out to dinner, then coming back and having more Prosecco on the roofdeck. Not sure there’s a better way to spend a day, really.

Once again, we want to thank Colleen and Mark for visiting; we really had a lot of fun traveling with them, and it’s great to see familiar faces in an environment so far removed from where you’re used to seeing them. The only downside was that Colleen couldn’t back up her gelato trash-talking. She was all like "I can eat gelato 4 times a day", but in reality, it was only 3 times a day. Weak!

Next weekend: Stuttgart, Germany!

Burgundy Deux

First off, we want to say thank you to Mark and Colleen for taking their hard-earned vacation to come and visit! As Mark stated, he did this solely "to make the blog", and as such I will give him the honor of being mentioned. "Mark Nester". There you go, Mark – you can now rest as a happy man!

All joking aside, it’s great to have friends along in your travels, as it makes the experiences that much better. This weekend, we went to Burgundy, France, for another shot at tasting some of the greatest wines the world has to offer. We started Friday with the whites of Chassagne-Montrachet and moved north through Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault. In Burgundy, the wine tastings are hit or miss – it’s not like California where you have a big tasting room, tons of people crowded in, etc. Burgundy is still a land of farmers, and regarding the wines, they have no problems whatsoever selling everything they produce. As such, the consumer is not particularly needed, which as a consumer can be annoying, but when you break it down into simple economics, you can’t worry too much about it.

Anyway, so our first tasting was pretty good, and we bought a couple bottles. The next tasting was disastrous, as the lady basically wanted us to just leave, which we quickly did. The final tasting, after enjoying one of the best lunches I’ve ever had, was conducted entirely in French (which I understood about three-quarters of) with one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We bought a bunch of bottles there, which just goes to show you the importance of a good salesperson. Her name was Chantel, and she has now made the blog also. On another note, we ran into Chantel the next day in the market, and she came up and said hi to us and talked for a minute or two (in French). Kind of funny, and it’s one of those little, nice experiences that makes traveling fun.

That night, we stayed in Beaune, a walled medieval city that is fun to walk around, although I wouldn’t recommend driving 3+ hours just to see it. It’s pretty cool though. Anyway – we hit a wine tasting there before dinner that boasted 15 Burgundian wines, which after a day of constant tasting, turned out to be quite a bit; in all, we tasted 32 wines that day, which will probably go down as my all-time record. Also of note is that fact that every single one of the 32 would be a $20+ bottle in the states (and some of them would push triple digits), so if that isn’t a crash-course in fine wine knowledge, then nothing is.

The next day, we hit red Burgundy country. We drove through a couple of the villages, stopped on the hillside holding some of the most expensive vineyards in the world (the grand crus of Corton), and ended the afternoon at one of the more authentic caves we could have imagined. Due to insider knowledge that Colleen was able to procure, we were welcomed into the "caveau" of one of Vosne-Romanee’s producers, where we tasted a handful of their best wines. Of course, we bought even more wine from here, which at this point was just getting silly.

After that, we dropped Colleen and Mark off at the train station in Dijon. No, we didn’t tour a mustard factory, although that would have been a great idea. While they headed to Paris for the rest of the weekend, Soph and I decided to explore the Burgundian countryside. And can I just say, as far as countrysides go, there can’t be many that are more beautiful than Burgundy? Rolling hills, green fields, medieval towns…really cool stuff. We hit a couple of old towns that were literally in the middle of nowhere, completely forgotten by time and off the beaten track. It boggles the mind that some of these places exist, and that hardly anybody goes to see them. Sure, they don’t have stores or tourist shops or the cutesy things that draw people in – rather, they are desolate, untouched, sometimes downtrodden, but completely authentic. The one town had a number of buildings you could tell had no inhabitants, but the stone houses and streets held up well, still in the same state they were hundreds of years ago. The only downside to these towns is that they are clearly inhabited by zombies. In one situation, I tried to make Soph crawl down a zombie hole so I could get a picture, but she smartly declined. Regardless, the towns did have an eerie-ness you could feel on the wind, which I thought was cool, but Soph thought was, well, eerie.

So we drove all over the place, finally staying outside a town called Avallon, at an old Mill on a creek. I’ve decided I really like creeks; this one, in particular, was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The hotel was pretty sweet, once we navigated our way to it – don’t get me started on French country roads, or the one-lane stone-lined 50 mph streets that qualify for roads there. Anyway, we had a great dinner, even considering they served some milk-like substance as an aperitif that neither Soph nor myself had any idea what we were supposed to do with (of course we ate it, but it was probably a sauce meant to go with the bread or something). In their defense, the escargot was amazing, so they can get away with serving all the random stuff they want outside of that.

Lastly, I think I’ve found my calling in life. No, I’m not going to be a circus clown – although their work/life balance is arguably better than mine. Rather, I’ve started my life of crime, specifically – smuggling! Yes, due to the fact that Mark and Colleen left their wine with us, and we also had quite a bit of wine ourselves, we were well over the limit of bottles of wine we were allowed to bring back into Switzerland. So, as we drove through the border, Soph put on her sunglasses and I put on my eyeglasses, as that was about the extent of a disguise we could come up with. And you know what? The border guards fell for it! So we got through without having to pay a huge fine, and now I’m thinking of making a career of this; armed with my glasses, I can’t be stopped! (I’m totally getting stopped next time for saying this, by the way…)

Here is the link to all the pictures:

Next weekend: Lake Como!

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre…if you’re into beautiful natural scenery, the sea, mountains, great food, hiking, cute towns, and basically just enjoying life, then it doesn’t get much better than this. Cinque Terre is a series of five cliffside villages in Italy – and when I say "cliffside", I mean "hanging on the edge of a cliff". Each village is essentially built into the side of a mountain, dangling precariously over the Mediterranean, making them almost inaccessible by land, and almost as hard to get to by water. Between the separate villages runs a series of hiking trails that have the sea on one side, and steep hillside vineyards on the other, making for amazing views the entire way. However, Cinque Terre has so much more…

"When life gives you a lemon grove, make limoncello." Can I just say how utterly amazing the lemons were? Easily, the best lemons ever. And I don’t just throw around the "best lemons ever" title. In the same vein, all the food was amazing. First, you’re in Italy, so the pasta is, by default, really good. Then, you’ve got the pesto, which Liguria is world-renowned for. (Note: due to the famous-ness of Ligurian pesto, I risked life and limb to eat it, as one of the key ingredients are pine nuts. After some scientifically-monitored taste-tests prior to the trip, I determined I am not, in fact, allergic to pine nuts, and can eat pesto without abandon...which I did…but that’s another story.) Lastly, the seafood is all freshly caught, a fact Sophia used as a reason to order it for every dish. The verdict? Unbelievable food, for 4 days.

How do you get to Cinque Terre? For us, we took the train. Yes, it was a 9+ hour trip, but we left at like six-something in the morning, so the first few hours don’t really count. Besides, train rides really aren’t that bad. Training through Switzerland is almost a vacation in and of itself, as you pass through great mountain views and some cute little podunk Swiss villages, not to mention the Italian part of the trip, which is basically a trip through beautiful lakes and insanely green fields. For some reason, the greens in Italy are simply more green than they are anywhere else – not sure how else to explain it. Anyway, we took some cheese, a bottle of wine, some dried meats and fresh bread, and not only had a pretty easy train ride, but an enjoyable lunch as well. You just can’t do that on an airplane…

As this was our first trip to Italy, we had to brush up on some Italian before arriving. Once again, I lament the fact we’re learning French, rather than a cool language like Italian or Spanish or even Slovenian. I think after spending four days in Italy, my Italian is already better than my French, of which I’ve been attempting for eight months now. Seriously – it’s so much easier! Anyway, it was actually fun butchering Italian, and I think we did okay with it.

If there is any downside to Cinque Terre, it’s the sickening amount of tourists that go there. Yes, we’re tourists, I get the point, but there’s a difference. When it’s us, it’s cool. When it’s other people, it sucks. I know it’s a double standard, and I fully embrace the fact that I am flaunting it so openly. However, the fact is, there are a lot of tourists that hit up the towns here, and they all suck. Except for us. That being said, the reason this is a problem is because the towns are insanely small to begin with. We’re talking one main street that goes for maybe two, three blocks, and that’s it. That’s part of the appeal – that you have this really small town, in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, when it’s crowded with hundreds of people, it loses that small town appeal. The bright side? Most tourists don’t come out in the mornings or at night, so if you’re up early, you see the locals, and if you’re up later, you see nobody.

Lastly, there’s the hiking. Hiking here is, simply, extraordinary. Of the four paths, two are extremely easy and very beautiful, and give everyone the chance to see some amazing sea views and vistas of the towns in the distance. The other two are winding and challenging, allowing you not only the amazing sea views and towns, but hills and valleys, creeks, old forgotten walled gardens, olive groves, hillside vineyards, a huge amount of varied vegetation, odd rock formations, and all sorts of cool stuff. The other great thing about the hikes is that you get to explore the towns in between, meaning you can rest and, in our case, get a gelato and / or lunch, before moving on to the next hike.

Which town was our favorite? Hard to say. We stayed in Vernazza, and therefore got to explore it the most, so in the end we probably liked it best. It was just the right size, meaning it had two gelato places, four or so restaurants, a plethora of winding alleyways, and you could explore it multiple times without getting bored. We also liked Corniglia, although its appeal is due to the fact that hardly anybody goes there (tourists shy away because of a 300+ step climb from the train station, and the only other way to reach it is by hike). Corniglia has that quiet air about it that makes you really feel like you’ve gotten away, which is nice. Monterosa is the main town, and while it has the best shops, it’s completely overrun by tourists at any time of day, which makes it feel like more of a spectacle than a vacation. Lastly, Riomaggiore and Mannarola are both small little towns that probably have a little too much tourism, and not quite enough room. However, they both have spectacular views, and once you get into the hills behind the town, there is good casual walking to be done, and some of the best gardens and terraces you’ll find anywhere.

One last thing about Cinque Terre; parsley grows wild here. That is, you know how if you look at the cracks in cement, or stairs, and sometimes there will be a weed growing out of it? Yeah, in Cinque Terre, that weed is parsley. No joke – it’s definitely parsley. How ridiculously awesome is life when, if you want to add a little flavoring to your latest meal, you just go out and pick the weeds, and put them on your food? It doesn’t get much better than that…

Next weekend: Burgundy + Visitors Deux