Slumming it in the Italian Riviera: Portofino

Road trips can be fun but sometimes the way home can be a downer, knowing you are returning from doing something really fun.    So, one of our new pastimes when taking a road trip is to find unexpected gems.    So, on our way home from a weekend, if we have time, we pull out the maps and books and see what might be on the way.

Returning from the Cinque Terre, we saw that Portofino was nearby on the map.   I’ll be honest – the most I knew about Portofino prior to this trip was that there was an Italian restaurant named after it in Charlotte, NC, where we lived prior.

Portofino’s Charlotte.   Image courtesy of hellocharlotte.com.

On the way, I read aloud to Gabe some details about the Italian city of Portofino, not be confused with the aforementioned suburban restaurant.   Italian history dates the settlement of Portofino back to the 10th century, where it was coveted for its protected harbor.   It changed hands many times but the harbor was a major asset for the likes of military giants such as Napolean and Hitler.

Post WW2, expatriates began to flock to the town and it soon built a glamorous name due to its holiday clientele.    By the 1950’s era, it was a major vacation spot of the rich and famous.  Things got so rowdy that Rex Harrison dropped his Oscar in the harbor.   Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, and Ava Gardner also frequented the Italian port town.  Elizabeth Taylor took all of her husbands there.

As we started the drive in, we got the feeling we were in for something special.   Rounding the cliffs overrun with pristine mansions and elegant hotels, we felt like we were in Monaco, yet with a rustic Italian feel.

Driving through the Portofino Peninsula, the town of Santa Margherita Ligure

When we arrived in the pedestrian-only Portofino, we parked our car and traveled on the cobblestone path towards the port.   We passed storefronts such as Dior and Louis Vitton, mixed in with small family-owned Italian groceries and pizza shops.

And when we reached the harbor, I was instantly enamored.  Beautiful colored buildings hugged a pristine turqouise-blue bay.

The harbor of Portofino

Cafés were starting to set up outdoor dining, even with the threat of a rain storm.  We grabbed a prime spot at la Stella under a canopy and happily enjoyed a glass of the house white wine while deciding what pasta we’d order.

This sure beats having lunch at a rest stop

I ordered the pasta del giorgno: a shrimp & zucchini spaghetti.    Although we’d each had two servings of pesto pasta while in the Cinque Terre, Gabe had wanted to try the pesto lasagna.

Pesto lasagna – homemade Ligurian pesto smothering thin lasagne noodles

After lunch, we took a stroll on the Promenade di Portofino letting our legs stretch before the remaining four hour journey home.

Colors of Portofino

Panorama of Portofino

Elizabeth Taylor, I’ll never be, but I sure did like playing the part one afternoon in the Italian Riviera.

The Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, Italy is one of my favorite places in the world.  I first discovered it with friend R in the summer of 2007 during our girls trip to Italy.   Cinque Terre means 5 Lands in Italian and the area is comprised by five small towns perched on cliffs above the Ligurian Sea.

The area is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the early civilizations’ ability to build, live, and thrive on landscape that has the odds of being inhabitable.

I wanted to share it with Gabe, so we had selected it for one of our Honeyfund trips for our wedding.  We planned to go after my feet had fully recovered, which ended up being this Fall.    While we had some stormy skies our entire trip, I found the lack of tourists and cooler weather to be an refreshing change.

MONTEROSSO AL MARE, #5 was the town we stayed in.  It is the biggest, and I picked it due to our late arrival as it had more hotels that accomodated late check-in as well as actual parking lots for our car.   We arrived around 9pm and found that we couldn’t drive through town to the side we were staying in.   Note to future travelers: the Old Town and New Town are not connected for the average driver, only with special permit can you open the chain / gates.   It is a 20 – 30 minute deviation to drive back up the mountain to come back the other side.  So make sure to note that in your driving plans!

We checked into Hotel Baia.  It was a basic Italian room, but in a suberb location on the water and near the Monterosso train station.

Beach town of Monterosso

Early the next morning, we  put on our rain gear and set out to hike the seven mile Trail 2 from our hotel to Riomaggiore.  We were greeted with a locked gate.  The trails were closed due to the mudslides last October and continuing bad weather.   Oops.  While I researched the affects of the mudslides on the towns, I had not specifically looked into the trails.

Luckily there is a fantastic transportation solution – a regional train connects the five towns with an hourly train.   While they aren’t quite always on time, it was a very nice back-up to get to see the area with the trail closings.

The next stop, VERNAZZA, #4,  was my favorite of the five towns during the 2007 trip.  It has a natural harbor and I adore the bell tower from the church and how it looks over the coast.   We saw a large poster detailing the devastation the mudslides caused in this particular town.   It showcased homeowners and shopkeepers standing in the mud which once was their home/shop.   The beach was still a little damaged, but otherwise, there were scarce signs of the horrors they experienced last October.  They’ve done a remarkable job cleaning up.

In the harbor of Vernazza

Still too early for lunch, we climbed to the highest point of the town – the castle.  We loved seeing the ominous skies surround the colorful buildings.

Above Vernazza at the castle

Birds-eye view of Vernazza’s port

We enjoyed a lovely lunch at Gambero Rosso, the same restaurant where R and I had enjoyed a meal five years prior.  We both ordered the fresh pasta with pesto, a Ligurian specialty with a glass of local white wine.   Deliciouso!

After lunch, we scurried to catch our train.   Due to some technical difficulties which I’ll chalk up to not reading the board properly Italian chaos and mis-direction, we missed the hourly train to the next town of Corniglia.   We opted to catch the next train which bypassed the other two towns in order not to lose another full hour.

RIOMAGGIORE, #1, is the first town on the trail and supposedly the least touristic.   We watch a fisherman for awhile and reflected on the colorful boats and buildings which trailed upwards.

A lone fisherman

The vertical town of Riomaggiore

We explored the height of the town, certainly the “most vertical” of the five, and sat for a quick glass of vino, another Cinque Terre white varietal.  After, we caught the train backwards to town #4.

MANAROLA, #4, was Gabe’s favorite of the Cinque Terre.    Back when we were single girls on our Italian vacation, R and I had headed straight for Manarola’s beach to catch all the summer action.  Now, it was a ghost-town, but it left us more time for exploration.  We wound around the vineyards surrounding the village, getting every vantage point.  I’d have to say that this trip, Manarola was  my favorite.

Foamy waters surrounding Manarola

Gabe, checking out the village

Ominous clouds covering Manarola

Because we liked it so much, we opted for a longer stay in Manarola versus hitting the fifth town of Corniglia.   My husband prefers to enjoy fewer activities for longer…..quality not quantity.  And for me, it’s a good lesson for me to remember as I never want to miss anything.    Gabe joked it would have to be Quattro Terre for him.

We were able to see Corniglia from a distance.

View of Corniglia #3, from Monterrosso #5.

View of Corniglia #3, from #4 Manarola. We saw the evidence of mudslides taking out the trails between these two on the hills to the right of the photo.

Good thing we opted to leave.  The skies let loose after we got to Manarola’s station.   In order to reach Corniglia, there are 400 steps.  So, I am thankful we weren’t caught in that exploring the last remaining town.

We returned to Monterosso for a wonderful dinner at Ciak and drinks at Enoteca da Eliseo.  We ended up seeing the couple who’d taken our photo in Vernazza.  They were photographers from Indianapolis who were celebrating their 5th wedding anniversary.  We had a few drinks with them comparing travel notes.

It was an awesome weekend.  A big thanks to our Honeyfund contributors from our wedding.  You really made our 18 month anniversary (Nov 7) very special.   We appreciate it!

Gratitude Friday: Fitness

This Friday, I just want to reflect on my gratitude for fitness.

Not everyone has the chance to exercise.  Physical ailments, injuries and accidents have taken this ability away from some people.   So, I feel lucky to be able to exercise the way that I do and to reap the health and emotional benefits that come from it.    Sometimes nothing feels better than completing a grueling workout.   It can clear you mind as well as the toxins out of your body.

In fact, during workouts, if I am having a hard time with motivation, I think of that fact : how fortunate I am to be able to get to this point of discomfort or physical exertion.  There are many who would gladly trade places with me.  So, it pushes me to keep going.

Secondly, eight months after my bi-lateral foot surgery, I am happy to report that my feet are about 95% fully back to normal.   This weekend, we hiked quite a bit in the Cinque Terre, a trip that we were saving until I had recovered more.

Very happy to be able to climb to greater heights these days

In addition to the spinning and weight lifting I had done while recovering, I can now run, hike and do fitness activities with more impact.

Resting our feet after a big day

That’s something to be grateful for, for sure!

Bon weekend, everyone!

Headlines from Geneva

I always glance at the headlines of  Le Matin and Tribune de Genève while walking down rue de Rhône each day to the gym.  I am used to translating the day’s feature from French to English in my head for practice.

However, today’s news caught me by surprise with a topic familiar to all of our US readers, mainly because it was a day late.  But it does make sense that as the election was confirmed in the USA, it was 5 or 6am here in Geneva, well past the print deadlines for that day.  So, today was the big day for European media to cover the US election.

Text reads: Obama re-elected. Their hopes. Their challenges. The photos.

 

 

 

Over the river and through the Alps, to Italy we go….

We used our last Honeyfund this weekend to go to Cinque Terre in Italy.  Every time we take a road trip, we are in awe of the beauty of Central Europe.   I wanted to share a pictorial recap of the drive.

Immediately after leaving Geneva, we drove through the French Alps.  Here, there were a few signs of Fall but we don’t see it as strongly as we do in The States.

Starting our drive out of Geneva

A bit more Fall foliage here

Mt Blanc was being shy that day, hiding behind cloud cover

The glaciers near Mt. Blanc. I joked that if we were playing the car alphabet game, this would be a good one for “Letter G…I spy a Glacier!”

We entered the Mt. Blanc tunnel and emerged in Italy, surrounded by Italian Alps in the Aosta Valley.

The Italian Alps.

We drove through tunnels in 3 countries: Switzerland, France and Italy.   Italy had the most tunnels, as we traveled on the Ligurian coast which is covered in mountainous terrain.   In total, we completed 119 tunnels during the course of the 6 hour drive.

French tunnel ahead….

Many of the Italian tunnels (114 of them in total) had homes teetering above the entrances

 

The exit our GPS instructed us to get off on was closed, so we had to take the next one.   We ended up on curvy Ligurian roads in the Cinque Terre forest.   The location was so remote, we had to do a little road clean up to get there.

The hubby moving a tree out of the road, in his dress shirt.

 

While a six hour road trip can be a little tiring, we are really happy to have had such a neat journey.

 

Being An American From Afar

This Election Day, I wanted to share a few of our experiences as “being Americans from afar”.    We are US citizens and hold US passports, but for the last 1.5 years, we have been residents of Switzerland.

The Swiss flag in Old Town Geneva

What’s that mean for your life in Switzerland?   We have the right to work here, as B-permit holders.   We do not have the right to vote in Switzerland.   Speaking of rights, we also do not have the right to do our laundry, dishes, or make any type of noise outside of the hours of 8am-8pm, including taking out our trash or recycling.  All of these rules are also applicable all day on Sundays and holidays.   But, we feel lucky.  Some apartments in Zurich outline that you can’t flush toilet outside of these times.

What’s that mean for being an American from afar ?   We do have the right to vote in the US even though we are not current residents.  We have the right to pay taxes.  Which Switzerland requires we do to them too.  Funny how everyone is clear on equality on that one.    As non-residents, we cannot bring as many goods duty-free into the States as a US resident can.  Learned that the hard way when importing a suitcase full of Swiss chocolate and stuffed cows.   Also, we don’t get our mail forwarded further than a year which means it lives in no-man’s land.   I wonder how many collectors are after us.

How was voting?  Actually, awesome.  Big kuddos to Mecklenburg County, NC.   I thought that voting abroad would require lots of mail, follow-up, calls, more mail.    But, we successfully registered from afar this Spring, requested ballots this Summer, they arrived in September, and we returned them in October.   An individual called me at home to get clarification on Gabe because we had to register him in Mecklenburg Country prior to the election and his voter card got returned  in the mail [see mail problem above].  After we submitted this form, she confirmed that our ballots were received and counted.   The only downside is that we had to send our ballots in so early that we missed the commentary in the Charlotte Observer, detailing each candidate’s position on the county ballot, that comes out so close to the election.  So, we had to do a lot of our research online.

How was doing your taxes?   Good question….they haven’t been submitted yet.  I’m not sure what takes so long as we submitted them March 1st to the consultants, but they had to request extensions in both the US and Switzerland because they are so complicated.  In fact, after 6 months of them working on it, we got our ‘draft’ for Switzerland last week, which has to be completed before the US ones are started.  It was in French.  We had to have the consultants translate it verbally on a conference call yesterday so we knew that there were errors which they are now fixing.  We knew to expect this….one Swiss ex-pat warned us that he still hadn’t cleared everything up 3 years after his assignment.  Joy.

What else is weird about being an “American from afar”?    I’d have to say that phone #s are weird.   I tend to visit old doctors and service providers when visiting the States.    You should hear the reaction when I cannot provide a current 704 number for their computer.   My phone number in Switzerland is like this:  0041 079 XXX XX XX.   It apparently can’t fit in the computer.  Nor can our address which only has a four-digit zip.   They would rather not see me that deal with the numbers.  It’s a battle.

What is awesome about living in two places?  Health insurance.  It rocks.  And, I love the fact that I can go to a doctor in whatever country I need to based on our situation…as long as they take me as a patient because of our complicated phone #.

Nevertheless, today, as Americans from afar, we are so proud that we are from an amazing country where we have the right to vote for our leaders and our country gives us so much in terms of safety and infrastructure.

From across the ocean, hope everyone has a Happy Election Day!

If it wasn’t for the pink color, would a Rosé smell as sweet?

Living in Geneva in the summer, most picnic blankets hold at least one bottle of rosé.

Being Americans, to us, pink generally = boxed wine.  So, this prevalence of pink wine was a surprise to us our first summer.   However, it didn’t take long to adapt to the European phenomenon of rosé.

Image courtesy of KitchenRap Blogspot

Far different from its cheap boxed distant cousin, the rosés of France are complex and a national treasure.  We got more of an education during our trips to Southern France, both in les Alpilles and the Tavel region.

R and Mom with some delicious rosé

In fact, Fabrice of Domaine de la Mordorée, in Tavel, told us when wine critic Bob Parker rated their rosé ‘the best in the world,’ he was insulted as it is in his opinion ‘the best in the Universe’.

Domaine de la Mordorée

Rosés are made with red grapes.   There are a few methods of making rosé:

  • Saignée, or bleeding, is achieved when the weight of the grapes do the pressing. The skins are left in only for a brief time.  Because the juices don’t have a lengthy contact with the skins, the result is a light and juicy flavored rosé.
  • Skin contact methods are used when the red skins are used to achieve ideal color, after which, they are removed and the rosé continues to ferment without the skins
  • Blending methods (or run-offs) is when the juice from the red is used, along with the white juice, making a more opaque rosé.  This shortcut technique is practically illegal in France.

The rosés are a French favorite.   Reading Of Wine And War, when I got to the chapter about the Americans and French taking back the French countryside, I couldn’t help but chuckle at this part:

“Their job was vital, said Monsabert of his American allies, “but the vinously minded historian will note that it did not take them near a single vineyard of quality. Now follow the advance of the French army. Swiftly they possessed themselves of Tavel, and after making sure all was well with one of the finest vin rosés in France, struck fiercly for Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

While rosé hasn’t become my favorite French wine, I certainly am glad for getting more exposure to it during our time in Europe.

Gratitude Friday: Safety

This Gratitude Friday, I am glad for the safety of those who were caught in Hurricane Sandy’s path.   In particular, my dear aunt who lives on the river, as well as my great-aunt and great-uncle who lived on Barnegat Bay, in the community of Mantoloking.

My great-aunt and great-uncle were evacuated and waited out the storm at their son’s house in Princeton, NJ.

My aunt remained in the home my grandfather built.   The house was flooding with the water and she luckily was woken up by her cat.  She noticed the floor was getting damp so got up to save some things off low shelves and grab supplies.  The water continued to rush in, building to a foot of depth in 30 minutes.  Having time to get necessities up to the second floor, it is there that they waited out the storm while Sandy’s waves pounded upon the side of the house and the yard/deck was washed away.

Photo of my aunt’s house (left) courtesy of a neighbor friend, taken Tuesday, after Monday nights’ deluge.

Usually when you see coverage such as this, the places are more foreign.   But, I watch the news anxiously from Switzerland, recognizing neighborhoods, bridges, and places that are very fond to me.

Mantoloking bridge / neighborhood where my great-uncle and great-aunt live. Image courtesy of Cousin M’s Facebook page.

The sun is now shining in New Jersey and the waters are receding.  However, the media reports that Sandy will forever change the face of the Jersey Shore.  I cannot fathom the impact on those who lost homes, possessions, and livelihoods.

I know that I am just grateful for the hurricane for sparing the most important things to many of us…the people.   And even still, not everyone is able to say that this week.   So thankful that you are safe and sound, Aunt J, Great-Aunt M and Great-Uncle G.  I wish for you strength and peace for the clean-up and moving forward.

Hanging out at the Jersey shore house as a child.  Hard to believe the water which provided such fun, could cause such sorrow.

Bon weekend, everyone.