Sunday, March 11, 2018

Mendatica, Italy

Sunrise over the rooftops of Mendatica, population approximately 160, in the Ligurian Alps, Italy

In September of 2016, I went to a rural corner of Liguria and had one of the most meaningful trips of my life, which I wrote about for Dream of Italy.  As I was limited by space, I couldn't include everything I wanted in the piece; and as the full content of Dream of Italy newsletters is only available to Italy enthusiasts who select either a digital or print membership, this post is devoted to the details that were left out (and to those worth repeating!).  Many people ask me if there is any corner of Italy that isn't widely visited or written about; there are a few places that are blessedly free of the trappings of modern tourism, and this inland area of Liguria, only 40 minutes from the coast, is one of them. 

The reason for my trip was the Festa della Transumanza, a weekend-long festival in the village of Mendatica dedicated to the ancient tradition of transhumance, "crossing the land" in Italian.  Distinguished French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) referred to transhumance in his as "one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Mediterranean world."  Generally speaking, transhumance is the seasonal migration of shepherds and their flocks.  In the late spring, shepherds, their sheep, a few sheepdogs, and sometimes goats or cows, leave fields at lower elevation and climb to higher elevation, where in the warmer months there is more for the sheep to eat.  In the late fall, they make the trek back.  (This is in contrast to the nomadic tradition, where entire communities, their animals, and even dwellings move long distances periodically.)  Braudel relates that in the Navarra region of Spain, shepherds would come down from the highlands when there was a market being held.  In the winter months, the flocks and men hurried down the mountain to escape the cold and "flooded into lower Navarre like an invading army.  All doors were padlocked against these unwelcome visitors, and every year saw a renewal of the eternal war between shepherd and peasant."  Transhumance has existed in varying degrees on every continent, yet in most places today the livestock are transported by vehicle or the tradition has died out completely; but it is still practiced in Mediterranean countries today, notably in Arles in southern France and in the Abruzzo, Molise, and Puglia regions of southern Italy (transumanza trails in these regions, known as tratturi, along with the archeological site of Sepinum, have been submitted to UNESCO for consideration on its World Heritage List, and Mendatica is also being considered for this protected status).  Even in Carlo Levi's Fleeting Rome: In Search of la Dolce Vita, written in the 1960s, Levi observed that "Just ten years ago, during the seasonal transhumance, shepherds drove flocks of sheep through the centre of Rome, as they moved down from the high mountain pastures to the lowland plains where they would winter their flocks.  I remember watching them move by night through the Piazza del Pantheon, I remember hearing them from a distance as they passed in the shadows, like a muted murmur.  And even then in the meadows of the Villa Doria Pamphili shepherds would spend the winter in their huts of straw and leafy branches.  Nowadays, the much more numerous flocks of cars have occupied all the streets, making it impossible for animals to pass."   

It was after reading about the tradition, and seeing photographs of sheep completely taking over towns and mountain roads (including one of the tunnels in the Alps between Italy and Austria!), that I became somewhat obsessed with witnessing it in person (and okay, I've long had a fondness for sheep).  I wanted to experience the transumanza in the north of Italy if only because there had been a few pieces already written about it in the south, and the Mendatica festa turned out to be perfetto as the village's very existence is inseparable from the transumanza.   

Mendatica, founded by fugitives fleeing the destruction of coastal Albenga in 644 AD by the Lombards, was later a refuge for coastal inhabitants during Saracen raids and by 1385 it was under the dominion of Genoa.  Its Festa della Transumanza celebrates the joys and hardships of this pastoral heritage as well as its cucina bianca (white cuisine), which refers to the ingredients typical of this alpine area: potatoes, turnips, garlic, leeks, cabbage, several pasta shapes, and various cheeses.  It's held at the end of September and begins on Friday morning, when tourists and 500 school kids make the rounds at booths where villagers demonstrate typical activities related to the transumanza.  These include making cheese, especially the local Brusso, a creamy, fermented ricotta.  

Photo: making Brusso

The highlight of the day is the late afternoon arrival of the shepherds and the sheep, about 1,000 of them, but a few hours before I had the opportunity to meet some of the shepherds thanks to the kind assistance of the young and dynamic staff at Brigi Cooperativa, especially Maria, Chiara, and Paola (Brigi -- named for the Brigasca sheep that produce three cheeses endorsed by Slow Food -- organizes the festa with a few other regional groups).   The photos below were taken at one of the six seasonal communities (known collectively as the Malghe) above Mendatica on Monte Saccarello, the highest peak in Liguria.  These bungalow colonies (Il Lago, Monesi, Piolarocca, Le Salse, Valcona Soprana, and Valcona Sottana) were home to the shepherds and their families during the warmer months of the year.  Today very few shepherds are married with children, and most of the Malghe are now uninhabited (though they were all thriving as recently as the 1960s).  Some of the photos were also taken as we walked along the trail descending to Mendatica.  


(Yes, in the second photo the shepherd is speaking on his mobile phone, so the shepherds have adapted to the modern world.)

What I never knew about sheep is that lots and lots of flies follow them everywhere and that they never stop looking for something to eat.  All they do is roam and eat.  And with a few goats, they can pick a small plant clean in about ten minutes.  

The life of a shepherd today hasn't changed drastically from what it was many years ago, and it's not a life for everyone.  Many shepherds have followed in the footsteps of fathers and grandfathers.  One young shepherd who was pointed out to me later in the weekend didn't look older than 15 -- he'd decided to drop out of school to take up this unorthodox life.

By late afternoon on Friday, everyone in Mendatica finds a spot to sit or stand along the caruggi (the Ligurian word for narrow streets) to watch the shepherds and their sheep walk down through the village, past the Baroque SS Nazario e Celso Church, and into a field.  The caruggi are packed chock-a-block with sheep, similar to the streets of Pamplona, Spain during the running of the bulls; but while the sheep here could knock down a small child if he or she was blocking their route (or was in the way of something to eat) their passage through the village to the field is fairly quick and causes no harm to anyone.  It is utterly amazing actually, and I cannot wait for the next time I can attend -- I would come every year if I could.

There are community dinners on Friday and Saturday nights that are great fun, with a variety of cucina bianca dishes served, and on Saturday afternoon the Palio delle Capre (goat race) is held.  This is hilarious as goats from the Malghe compete in an obstacle course and as they have no interest in completing the course, handlers do whatever they can -- such as literally pulling them along by the horns -- to force the goats to make it to the finish line. 

The Fiera di San Matteo -- a street fair held in the same spot as a former market where shepherds met to sell products and animals -- is set up in the morning before the palio begins, and there are some local wines (such as the Pigato white wine, made from grapes originally from a Genoan colony in Greece, and the Ormeasco red wine) and foods to taste as well as nice craft items.  Among the culinary specialties is garlic from nearby Vessalico, recognized by Slow Food -- this particular garlic has been celebrated for the past two centuries at a festival held every year in July, and it grows in miniscule plots that cling to mountain slopes; the garlic heads aren't cut or trimmed of its roots but are woven into long braids called reste.  Mendatica is happily free of souvenir shops and retail stores in general (though the Alimentari Ascheri, on piazza Roma, carries some local wines and Ligurian specialties to enjoy while visiting or to bring home), and the Fiera provides one of the few opportunities to purchase handmade crafts and culinary items that are not exported outside of the region.   
A number of the 21 dishes that represent the cucina bianca are served at the community meals during the transumanza festival, and the Ristorante La Campagnola (just outside the village center at a bend in the road, on via San Bernardo at number 28) serves a number of cucina bianca dishes year round as does the restaurant at the Il Castagno agriturismo (via San Bernardo, 39; telephone 018.332.8718, no dedicated website); but even more are available at the official cucina bianca festival that Mendatica hosts every August, and among these are:    

Aglie: similar to Provenҫal aioli, a garlic mayonnaise.
Bastardui: handmade pasta with Swiss chard or leek sauce.
Brodu d’erbe amare: soup with bitter herbs.
Brussusa: potato pie with white cheese.
Friscioi de mei: fried apple fritter; may also be made with vegetables.
Minietti: pasta made with flour and water or milk, shaped into very small dots.
Pan fritu: fried dough.
Panissa: chickpea flatbread similar to socca, a specialty of Nice, and farinata, a specialty of  Genoa.
Patate in ta’ foglia: potatoes with leeks or cabbage baked in the oven;
Patate e brussau: potatoes with white cheese.
Rajore de Cuxe: pasta shape with a hole in the middle from the neighboring village of Cosio di Arroscia
 (Cuxe in Ligurian dialect).
Raviore de Montegrosso: large ravioli shaped like a boat filled with 21 herbs, ricotta, eggs, pecorino or
               Parmigiana.  The exact recipe, from the neighboring village of Montegrosso Pian Latte, is a secret!
Streppa e caccia là: torn pasta tossed with a strong flavored cheese, or ricotta, or pesto. 
Sugeli: pasta tossed with leeks and white cheese. 
Turle: small, fried ravioli filled with some or all of the following: potatoes, cabbage, leeks, cheese, milk, and
 fresh mint -- every family has its own recipe. 
Turta de patate: potato pie.
When I visited, I had the pleasure of meeting a local area celebrity, Giulia Gorlero (pictured at left) who was the goalkeeper on the Italian women's water polo team in the Rio Olympic Games.  Though Giulia entered the final match against the U.S. with the highest save percentage of any goalkeeper in Rio, and though the Italian team had been averaging just over 10 goals a game, the U.S. did win the gold with a 12-5 victory.  The silver went to the Italian team, and Giulia is a warm and personable young woman who is a great ambassador for Liguria.   

Staying at Ca' da Cardella (via Giardino), a rifugio escursionistico in the heart of Mendatica, is an immersive experience -- the beautiful, stone building has been recently renovated to accommodate guests in four bedrooms (some with bunk beds), each with its own bathroom. The bedrooms are all downstairs while upstairs is a large, open space that is a combination kitchen and living room.  It's rustic but comfortable, and there is an outdoor picnic area with a grill that's connected to the kitchen by a bridge over cobblestoned via Giadino -- this is the street that the sheep walk down during the festa, so the vantage point from here is unique.  There are lovely views out over the valley and the rate per person is 15 euros per night. 

Aside from its two festivals, Mendatica's parish church of Santi Nazario e Celso is of interest -- it's Romanesque in origin but was reconstructed in the 18th century as Baroque; only the bell tower is original, and there is a lovely Madonna carved by Anton Maria Maragliano (1664-1739), a sculptor of some renown for his wooden carvings, inside -- as well as the old mill and La Casa del Pastore, an ethnographic museum depicting a shepherd's house.  Visitors may also walk ten minutes outside the village to La Chiesa di Santa Margherita, a 16th century church with a very fragile fresco cycle by noted Ligurian painter Pietro Guido da Ranzo.  The chiesa is in a very serene spot, which may be one reason why it appealed to Thor Heyerdahl, who wrote Kon-Tiki here (Heyerdahl lived until 2002 in Colla Micheri, just above the Ligurian coastal town of Laigueglia, designated uno dei borghi più belli d'Italia, one of the most beautiful villages of Italy).  In addition to a grand cascante (waterfall -- Mendatica's name means "bring water"), all of this makes Mendatica a good base for exploring the rest of the Arroscia Valley, where there are other small villages worth visiting as well as lots of outdoor activities to pursue: biking is especially popular (on the pretty winding roads and mountain biking in the hills), and there are hiking trails, donkey treks, skiing, and snowshoeing.  In Vendone, there is an open-air installation with more than 35 stone sculptures by German sculptor Rainer Kriester (1935-2002), who was made an honorary citizen in 1999.   The blocks of stone -- I megaliti del terzo millennio (the megaliths of the third millennium) -- are from the nearby coastal town of Finale (halfway between Albenga and Savona) and are about 12 feet high  From many spots throughout the Arroscia valley there are panoramic views of the surrounding forest trees seemingly stretching all the way to the sea. 
As Mendatica is not far from the coast, it's also a great day trip destination.  An absolutely wonderful (and not-well-known-among-Americans) place to stay is the Villa della Pergola in Alassio, but as there is so much to say about it I will save its description for an upcoming post.  I will close this one by saying that travelers who want to find an authentic corner of Italy need look no further than the Strada Statale 28 that leads from Imperia up into the Ligurian hills.  

Mendatica Tourist Office
piazza Roma, 1 
Brigi Cooperativa di Comunita

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now

It seems serendipitous to me now that I began reading this new book, edited by Ohio Poet Laureate Amit Majmudar and published by Alfred A. Knopf, late last week, before the horrific happened in Charlottesville, where I lived for a few years after graduating from college.  Reading it has actually helped calm me down (as has listening to various opera scores) and the diverse poems, some short and others a little longer (almost all of them are one or two pages long) are written by an equally diverse group of poets including Alex Dimitrov, Juan Felipe Herrera, Richie Hofmann, Sharon Olds, Robert Pinsky, Solmaz Sharif, and Cody Walker.  The paperback is small (approximately 5" x  6"), slender, and $12.95 and I highly recommend well as another book that took a long while to reach in the towering pile in my bedroom:

I read it only a month ago and it, too, seems to be extremely relevant though as you can see from the cover it refers to the terrorist attacks in Paris in November of 2015 (the book was published by Penguin in the fall of 2016).  Antoine Leriris's wife, Hélène, also mother of their seventeen-month-old son, was killed at the Bataclan Theater and three days later he posted an open letter on Facebook addressed to the killers.  The letter found a wide audience and helped many people who were desperate for a way to process what happened.  The book details Leiris's life as it unfolded over the days and weeks after the attacks, and is heartbreaking but ultimately wonderful and empowering, and worth quoting from here:

I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you.  That is what you want,
but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same
ignorance that made you what you are.  You want me to be scared, to see my 
fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security.  
You have failed.  I will not change...There are only two of us -- my son and
myself -- but we are stronger than all the armies of the world.     

Calvin Trillin has long been among my most favorite writers, and Jackson, 1964 (Random House, 2016) is eerily a contemporary read.  As a reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune observed, the book is "modern and urgent...Essay after essay reminds us that the history of this struggle consists of events that easily could happen today."  Trillin's pieces, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, cover events not only in Jackson, Mississippi but Delaware, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, Utah, Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York.  Every single one is eye-opening.

Lastly, it seems apropos to read again, for the second time or the fiftieth time, the remarks of New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu in May of this year.

Travel can be another way to bear witness, so perhaps a visit to Charlottesville should be in your future?  As Heather Heyer posted on Facebook, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."  

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My Barcelona and Catalunya E-book

Parador de Cardona, about 55 miles from Barcelona 
[all photos kindly provided by Paradores de Turismo de España]

My Barcelona ebook, a VintageShort, has been published!   It's officially entitled 'Barcelona From A to Z' but there are some letters of the alphabet included that are devoted to Catalunya.  It's only 99 cents so take the plunge and buy it if you're thinking of going (or even if you just want to read about it).

I like to remind people visiting Barcelona how easy it is to make day trips (and overnight jaunts) from the city, even without a car, and in only a short distance away you can really feel like you're far from the city and you can see a fair amount of the region, which is quite diverse.  One really nice place in the foothills of the Pyrenees is Cardona -- the photos in this post are all of the Castell de Cardona, which is today one of the lodgings in Spain's paradores chain.  I'm a big fan of the paradores, and the Cardona castle is one of the best.  You can reach Cardona by bus but it's better to have a car if only so you can stop along the way -- the drive is pretty and there are some good opportunities for taking photos.  As the road climbs in elevation, the site of the 9th century castle perched high on a hill is magnificent.  Catalunya has a string of fortifications and monasteries within the region (the most popular one is Montserrat, which is even closer to Barcelona), but the castle in Cardona is a Spanish national monument and represents several eras of Catalan heritage.  Cardona’s name derives from quer, rock or steep mountain, and the town became wealthy from its Roman-era salt mines, the Montaña de Sal Gema (Rock Salt Mountain; parador guests receive a 10% discount off the admission price).  The town of Cardona is very pleasant, with some good restaurants and shops catering to locals, but the parador is really the highlight.  The castle was built to secure territory that was reconquered from the Moors (and it also protected the salt mines) and the town charter of around 986 dictated that the men of Cardona had to devote one day a week on the construction of the castle, and all law-abiding citizens were granted personal use of the salt every Thursday.  After making it through the War of the Spanish Succession and the Peninsular War, the castle was damaged during the Spanish Civil War, but was repaired and opened as a parador in 1976. 

Exploring the exterior of the castle buildings (which are Romanesque and Gothic) is fun as there are wooden walkways all around it, with great views of the town, the salt mine, and the forests along the Cardoner River.  The interior public rooms feature lots of stone walls (some painted a pretty shade of red), arches, tapestries, wrought iron torch holders, and dark wooden beams.  Guestrooms are quite nice, most larger than standard European rooms, and are filled with Catalan antiques; many have four-poster beds.  The main dining room (which serves Catalan dishes) is beautiful with stone arches running the length of the entire room and walls painted a great shade of yellow.  It’s a grand room in which to eat anything, and happily the food is equal to the setting.  Also within the castle is the second century Torre de la Minyona (where Adalés, daughter of Viscount and Viscountess Ramón Folch and Enguncia, was imprisoned by her brothers for falling in love with a Moorish jailer); the San Vicente Collegiate Church (whose crypt once held relics of Saints Sebastian, Ursula, and Inés); and the Chapel of San Ramón Nonato, a monk related to the Cardona family (the Cardonas were of the Catalan and Aragonese nobility and the prestigious name was second only to that of the royal family).  

Rates are moderately expensive and there are a number of special offers throughout the year.   In addition to Cardona, there are 7 other paradores in the region: Lleida, Vic-Sau, Aiguablava, La Seu d'Urgell, Arties, Tortosa, and Vielha, each representative of a particular corner of Catalunya.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Northern California

Mendocino Coast, August 2016

Some friends have asked me why it's taking so long for my post on Marseille, which was to follow on the heels of piece on Aix-en-Provence, and all I can say is that life gets in the way.  Also, I am not a post-every-day kind of person nor did I aim to be when my blog was created; I would rather write useful or interesting posts even if they take me a very long time to complete than short snippets that don't have much substance.  Still other friends have asked me about my trip to northern California in August, which I wasn't going to write about at all since the visit was primarily to see my sister, Jenniffer, who lives in Eureka; but here is a brief recap and some recommendations (and stay tuned for the Marseille post!): 

My husband and I lived in the Bay Area in the mid-to-late 1980s and a few years in the early 1990s, and this was our first time back to California in 23 years.  We didn't choose to visit in August, a time of year when San Francisco and the entire coastline can be enveloped in fog, but circumstances were such that it was the only time we could go.  The day we arrived it was sunny and warm, but our friends who live on Potrero Hill said it had been so cold the days prior that they had to turn the heat on.  For the next few days it was sunny and warm where we were staying in Castro Valley (typical) and intermittently sunny and foggy in San Francisco (also typical).  Layers are key in a San Francisco wardrobe at any time of year but in the summer you actually need a fleece jacket and possibly a hat and gloves.  With our friends Heather and Pat we enjoyed a terrific hike to the Rotary Peace Grove Lookout in Tilden Regional Park; walked around the UC Berkeley campus; visited our old neighborhood in North Berkeley a block from the outstanding Monterey Market; ate really great dinners at Comal on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley and at Bocanova on Jack London Square in Oakland; and caught a San Francisco Giants game at the (new to us) AT&T ballpark.  With our friend Barbara we had a really good lunch at The Italian Homemade Company at 1919 Union Street (very near a store at 1840 Union called Topdrawer: Tools for Nomads, a Japanese shop offering lots of useful and stylish items for travelers and 'modern life on the go'; the only other U.S. shop is in Boston); with our friend Jesse we sampled several specialties from the stalls at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market; and with Carolyn, Michael, Mitch, and SoYoung we had a lively dinner at the supper club Bix.

Our friend Paula also mapped out a walking route on Valencia Street (mostly) in the Mission district for us, and it included stops at a number of places that were new to us, including Dandelion Small Batch Chocolate (excellent) Bi-Rite Creamery (absolutely delicious and the basil flavor was an eye-opener; no shipping but you can buy the cookbook, Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones published by 10 Speed Press); Tartine Bakery and Cafe (18th and Guerrero; three great cookbooks all published by Chronicle: Tartine, Tartine Bread, and Tartine Book No. 3) and you can't miss it because there is always a line; Mission Cheese; Craftsman and Wolves (a "crazy good bakery" as Paula says and she's right); Paxton Gate (an odd but interesting taxidermy store); Farina for good pizza (just across the street from the hipster barbershop); and the Pirate Supply Store, which is really a front for the 826 Valencia Writing Project, a non-profit dedicated to supporting under-resourced students aged 6 to 18 co-founded by author Dave Eggers.  Not new was Dolores Park, of course, though we did not see the guy who Paula says wanders in with a machete, coconuts, and a bottle of rum selling drinks...darn!  Also not new was La Taqueria ("The Best Tacos & Burritos in the Whole World") at 2889 Mission.  My friend Pat recently let me know that after 30 years in business, and its popularity at an all-time high, La Taqueria is now closed on Mondays to give its hard working crew a break.  It is most definitely vaut le détour to plan your visit accordingly!

We also paid homage to the Grateful Dead's former home, at 710 Ashbury, which is looking quite spiffy these days:
Our friends Jayne and Mitchell met us at Terrapin Crossroads, Phil Lesh's 'homegrown food and music' bar/restaurant in San Rafael, and we loved it.

But the highlight of San Francisco was Smuggler's Cove, a tiki bar at 650 Gough in Hayes Valley.  I'd recently read the book, Smuggler's Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum and the Cult of Tiki (Martin Cate and Rebecca Cate, 10 Speed Press), so I was really looking forward to going and it did not disappoint (a few of the drinks we ordered are pictured below; the photo I took of the flaming volcano was blurry, but the drink itself is exciting and fun and highly recommended!).  The book, too, is highly recommended.  How can you not love a book that is "dedicated to those merry souls who keep the spirit of Polynesian Pop alive in their hearts and homes, in their bars and basements, and in their cocktails and character?"  It's a fascinating read, and the recipes are anything but run-of-the-mill.  I am particularly fond of Three Dots and a Dash (Morse code for 'Victory'), which includes two ingredients I'd never heard of before: John D. Taylor's Velvet Falernum and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram.  Neither is available at every liquor store, but with a little perseverance you can find them, and you'll discover that they last a long time because you don't need very much in each recipe.    The book was honored with a 2017 James Beard Award in the Beverage category.    

In Mendocino we stayed two nights at the wonderful Jade's Tower, a truly unique lodging perfect for three or four people (one bedroom up the spiral staircase and a queen sized pull-out sofa in the living room).  The building is a wood and glass former water tower and it's set in the middle of a beautiful, peaceful garden.  We didn't see the sun the entire time we were in Mendocino but the views from the Tower's windows were still lovely.  I found it on the HomeAway site, but it's also a VRBO property, #414268.  We could walk everywhere we wanted to from the Tower, and enjoyed breakfasts at the Good Life Café & Bakery and a look around Honey & Ro, a nicely appointed (and expensive) shop for home goods and clothing.  We had dinner one night at Ravens Restaurant, the vegan restaurant at The Stanford Inn by the Sea eco-resort.  We are not vegan but a meal there seemed like the thing to do.  We liked it fine but a vegan might like it even better.  We also loved walking through Hendy Woods State Park in Philo which protects two magnificent ancient redwood forests: 80-acre Big Hendy and 20-acre Little Hendy.  One of the visitors' signs in the Park displays a John Steinbeck quote about redwood trees:  "From them comes silence and awe."  This is from a passage from Travels With Charley: In Search of America and is worth repeating in full:

"The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It's not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”

To the right: The pretty garden outside of Jade's Tower.  Below: the Tower, which is the bedroom, reachable by a spiral staircase.  There is a pull-out sofa downstairs in the living room, which also has a round dining table and four chairs. 

In all the years we lived in California and all the traveling we did around the state, we never went as far north as Eureka.  The route there takes drivers by Confusion Hill, a fantastically kitschy roadside attraction on Redwood Highway 101 that is impossible to pass without stopping (well, my husband might not have stopped, but then he didn't really get South of the Border so what does he know?).  The main thing to do at Confusion Hill is walk through the maze that has you feeling like you're always on an angle and will fall over.  It's crazy hilarious, and then you can buy stickers with a big question mark that say 'Seeing is Believing' and Big Foot tokens, for some reason I can't fathom.  There are all kinds of wild carvings and oddities to ponder, as you can see from the photos below.   

Eureka is in a great location for seeing coastal redwood trees, and it is in a nice geographic setting, and the downtown area is historic with old buildings from the 1800s, many of which are being restored.  But it is also odd in that there is a considerable homeless population, and the town's most famous and beautiful architectural gem, the Carson Mansion (photo below), is a private men's club and closed to the general public.  A missed opportunity, I say. 

The Eureka Inn, on the National Register of Historic Places, was fully booked for a wedding, so we rented the nice Uptown Flat from Redwood Coast Vacation Rentals and it was within walking distance to everything in the historic downtown.  (Redwood Coast also rents a pretty house directly across the street from the Carson Mansion, which would be nice to have as your view during a stay here.)  We had a lunch at Ramone's Cafe on E Street, a breakfast at Los Bagels, a dinner at Brick & Fire Bistro, and we bought several bottles at The Wine Spot (234 F Street).  As it was foggy most of the time we were there, we drove inland to sunny Ferndale, a cute village founded in 1852 by dairymen and ranchers from a number of different countries.  For a small place, it has a lively center with restaurants, antique shops, galleries, a playhouse, a museum, and colorful and well maintained Victorian buildings.  Most of another day was spent in Fern Canyon at Prairie Creek State Park - really nice!

We also went to Arcata for the Saturday farmer's market, where my sister knows several of the vendors.  Cafe Brio, on G Street just off the Arcata Plaza where the market is held, turns out quite delicious baked goods and good coffees.  It's open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and if I lived in Arcata I would come here every day.

It was our good fortune that our visit coincided with the annual Lantern Floating Ceremony, held at Klopp Lake in the Arcata Marsh.  The ceremony was founded 35 years ago by Arcata's Nuclear Free Zone Committee to commemorate the loss of life after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.  In Japan, the ceremony is many centuries old (though there has been a specific commemoration in Hiroshima since the war) and it honors friends and family members who have passed away.  Arcata's ceremony embraces this general meaning and it's also an occasion for the community to rededicate itself to the cause of peace.

Arts and crafts materials are provided at the farmer's market for anyone who wants to decorate a lantern, and the lanterns are brought to the lake for the ceremony that evening.  A battery operated candle is placed inside each paper lantern, and the lanterns are gently placed in the water all at once
at dusk.  It is a magical, wonderful, and moving spectacle.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Books = Hope

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,
and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. 
Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things
cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
-- Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

I have often referred to Twain's excellent quote in my books, as have many other writers, and I was reminded of its significance when I read this article, 'Travel is Love, Travel is Hope' in a Condé Nast Traveler update, which is among the best pieces I've read since the election.  
Another good passage I read appeared in a trade publication called Bookselling This Week, in which American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher wrote, "As this bitterly contested election comes to a close -- regardless of which candidate you supported -- it's clear that we live in a terribly divided country.  The role bookstores play in healing division has never been more important.  As citizens, attempting to comprehend what has occurred, all of us in the bookselling community have a special obligation -- and opportunity -- to foster communication and to help reconcile our communities.  President-elect Trump, Secretary Clinton, and President Obama have all indicated that the time to unite our country is now, and there is no better place than within the walls of a bookstore for that process to begin." 

And reading this made me think of something I wrote in the Introduction to En Route: A Journal and Touring Companion for Inspired Travelers, in which I mentioned a book that really did change my life to a degree: a little-known James Michener novel, The Fires of Spring.  Early on in the book, one of the characters, Daniel, says to the young boy, "Reading and travel are the two best things besides people.  Travel is best, but some books are very great.  You should read all the books you can get before you're twenty.  If you don't need glasses by the time you're thirty, you can consider your life wasted.  Maybe books are best, because you don't have to have money to read.  And there's this difference, too.  A man can travel all over the world and come back the same kind of fool he was when he started.  You can't do that with books."      

Books = hope 

Sunday, September 11, 2016


In the Old Town, Aix-en-Provence

As I relate in my Provence, Cote d'Azur, and Monaco book, the first time I went to Aix (which is pronounced like x in extra), I was a college student living in Paris.  I had bought a cheap bus ticket to Nice about a month before spring break, which was in April.  I couldn't wait to leave Paris, where it had been raining for what seemed like forty days and forty nights (never mind 'April in Paris' and all that; the weather can be nice in April but most of the time it isn't), and I arrived a little early at the appointed address on the night of departure.  The "bus" turned out to be a guy's car -- apparently not enough people bought tickets to warrant a bus -- and I ended up sitting in the front with the driver, who didn't speak any English and chain-smoked.  The rain continued through the night and by the time we reached Lyon I had a massive headache.  But not long after that, it was daylight, and the sun was shining, and the driver announced we would be stopping in the town of Aix for breakfast.  He took us to Les Deux Garҫons on the Cours Mirabeau.  Anyone who's walked along the Cours Mirabeau will understand when I say I thought I'd died and landed in le septième ciel (seventh heaven).  It is one of the world's most beautiful thoroughfares, described lovingly by M. F. K. Fisher in Two Towns in Provence: "It is probable that almost every traveler who has ever passed through Aix has been moved in some positive way by the view from one end of the Cours or the other, by the sounds of its fountains in the early hours, by the melodious play of the pure clear sunlight of Provence through its summer cave of leaves.  Some of them have tried to tell of their bemused rapture, on canvas and sketch pads and on scratch-pads and even postcards, but they have never been satisfied.  It is a man-made miracle, perhaps indescribable, compounded of stone and water and trees, and to the fortunate it is one of the world's chosen spots for their own sentient growth."  (Restored, warm, and happy, we drove on to Nice, and when I returned to Paris three weeks later it was still raining.)
 The "summer cave of leaves" that Fisher mentions refers to the two rows of plane trees that line the Cours.  In the summer months, the tree branches meet in the middle of the street and form a sort of canopy.  But even in the winter, the street is impressive.  In my book I feature an article by Gully Wells entitled 'The Boulevard: Live the Dream' (Condé Nast Traveler, February 1998), in which she relates that in Aix, the town planners of long ago took Leonardo da Vinci's remark, "Let the streets be as wide as the height of the houses" to heart, and they remembered that "perfect proportion, like great bone structure in a face, is the secret of lasting beauty."  The Cours is 440 meters long and 42 wide, and none of the houses are more than four stories high. Again to quote Wells, "not only did the architects do their math right, but they also knew that nature had to be included in the construct -- and they understood that there is something organically satisfying about the combination of stone, water, and trees." 

The Cours was established by Archbishop Michel Mazarin, who Louis XIV charged with enlarging Aix, and it was requested by wealthy homeowners who wanted a grand thoroughfare that could accommodate carriages and pedestrians. It links the chic Mazarin district with the old market town, and it's named after Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791), who was a politician with a bit of a scandalous personal life. In reading about him, it's unclear to me if he had any ties with Aix, though at the time of his death he was very popular and had a magnificent funeral -- it was for him that the new church of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was converted to the Panthéon for the burial of great men (but in 1792, papers were found proving his hostility to the Assembly, and in 1794 his remains were removed from the Pantheon).  But Good King René, whose statue is in the middle of the fountain at the top of the Cours, definitely had associations: he and his second wife, Jeanne de Laval, lived in the area for some years; he died in Aix; and he introduced Muscat grapes to Provence (the statue depicts him holding a bunch of these, along with a scepter; he's also donning the crown of the Counts of Provence, and the books at his feet are meant to indicate his strong patronage of the arts and of learning). 

Even off the Cours Mirabeau, Aix (derived from Aquae Sextiae, the Roman name for waters of Sextius, referring to the natural baths the Romans found there) is easy to love, even if you're a churl like my husband sometimes is (when I visited with him in the late '90s he initially cursed the town for not having sufficient parking, but once our car was safely ensconced and he'd had a properly flaky croissant and a café crème, he was able to see past the parking flaw; note that Aix addressed this parking issue a few years later, along with some other urban plans that better accommodate visitors).  Aix is known as the city of a thousand fountains, and while that number is probably off by about 900, there is seemingly a fountain every time you turn around, and some are used for very practical purposes like chilling rosé:    

Among my favorite sights  and belles choses in Aix are the Saint Sauveur Cathedral (don't miss the painting of St. Mistral holding his severed head); the outdoor markets (the website for the produce market held on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday is in French only, but no matter, all you need to know is that the market is picturesque and great for putting together a picnic; and there are also markets specializing in clothing, crafts and used books on particular days of the week); the Musee du Palais de l’Archevêché / Musée des Tapisseries; Musée Granetthe Pavillon de Vendome; the vertical garden at the bus station, which is claimed to be the largest public green wall in France; the shop Expressions [1 rue Cardinale] for a wonderful selection of fine artisanal ceramics (I bought my sister-in-law a beautiful ivory-colored bowl with a light brown ribbon woven through holes around the rim), essential oils, notecards and postcards, etc., all great for gifts and souvenirs; the previously mentioned Les Deux Garҫons  (and note that somewhat confusingly there is another café called Les 2G, also on the Cours, but it is positively not the same); the hotels Hotel Le Mozart; Hotel des Quatre Dauphins; and, for a splurge, the Villa Gallici; and the local culinary sweet, calissons d'Aix -  according to a piece in my book ('Provence's Almond Calissons') that originally appeared in The New York Times by Kathleen Beckett, calissons have "been compared, with typical French eloquence, to the paintings of Cezanne and the music of Mozart."  Though the confection may be found in some specialty stores in North America, calissons are never as good as when they're bought fresh in Aix, and one of the best places to find them is Patisserie Béchard, at #12 Cours Mirabeau.  In her article, Beckett explains that a calisson has three ingredients (almonds, sugar, and fruit confits, usually of Cavaillon melon) and also three layers: icing, paste, and rice paper.  Aix was founded in the year 123 by Caius Sextius Calvimus (three names) and originally called Aquae Sextiae Saluvium (also three names).  This was later changed to Aix-en-Provence (yep, three words again) which is typically referred to as simply Aix (three letters).  Calissons are served three times a year, on September 1st, Christmas Day, and Easter Sunday -- at Notre Dame de la Seds to commemorate the end of the great plague of 1630.  During this service, the priest offers calissons from his chalice, repeating three times, "venite ad calicem" (come to the chalice) and the congregation replies, three times, with the Provenҫal phrase, "venes toui i calissoun" (we are coming).  With such rich lore behind it, it's no wonder that calissons have a marc deposée
-- similar to an appellation controllée -- assuring that the sweetmeat can only be made in Aix.

No dossier of Aix is complete without the mention of painter Paul Cézanne, who was born there in 1839 and who reportedly wrote of Aix that 'When you are born there, it's hopeless, nothing else is good enough."  In the mid-1990s, some folks at the Aix Tourist Office created the 'Circuit Cézanne' or 'In the Steps of Cézanne,' a walking tour brochure indicating various sites that were a part of his life.  As there are very few works by Cézanne in Aix -- a curator at the Musée Granet, Auguste-Henri Pontier, supposedly swore that no Cézanne painting would hang on the walls of the museum in his lifetime, and even after Cézanne's death in 1906, decades passed before the first Cézanne painting entered the museum's collection; there are now a total of ten -- this may seem like nothing more than a marketing ploy; but I think there is nothing wrong with capitalizing on a local son in this way, and I am a big fan of good walking tours.  The circuit follows brass markers with the letter C that are embedded in the pavement, and while it's true that some of the markers are to references that are a bit of a stretch -- and on a few occasions there is no marker at a designated stop -- the route is still worthwhile.  And, like all good walks, the best part about it is that one is able to explore different neighborhoods around town, undoubtedly discovering places and details that might otherwise be missed, all while having some structure to keep one on track. It's also a big plus that Aix's city center is a gem of beautifully preserved 17th and 18th century architecture.  My friends Amy and Denise and I set out to follow the entire route, and we did, including the Cimetière Saint-Pierre, where Cézanne is buried (his tomb is near the Carré Israëlite, the Jewish section).  I regret that we did not take the time to find the spot where the ashes of art historian and Cézanne scholar John Rewald (1912-1994) are located as several of his books are among my favorites: The History of Impressionism (first published in 1946; published by MoMA in 1973); Post-Impressionism From Van Gogh to Gauguin (MoMA, 1978); and Cezanne: A Biography (Abrams, 1990).  In a review of Rewald's The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue  Raisonnée (published in two volumes by Abrams in 1996), art critic Michael Kimmelman noted that this work "is as much a monument to Rewald as it is to the artist he revered."  Of Rewald's two Impressionism books, Kimmelman said they "remain basic books on the subjects more or less half a century after they were published.  This is because he did the indispensable job: he got to know the people who knew the artists or were their closest relatives and wrote down everything he learned."  Kimmelman added that Rewald photographed sites around Aix that Cézanne painted "before time had changed them too much.  Thus Rewald himself became a crucial link to a vanished epoch."  So returning to the Cimetière Saint-Pierre 
will be at the top of my list on my next visit.

Rewald and the writer James Lord (whose works Giacometti: A Biography, Six Exceptional Women, and Some Remarkable Men are books I love) established the Cézanne Memorial Committee, and money raised in the U.S. enabled the Committee to purchase Cézanne's studio. The Atelier de Cézanne (also known as the Atelier des Lauves), located just outside the center of Aix,  presumably looks very similar as it did when Cézanne worked there.  It is very much worth visiting: tickets (6 euros) may be purchased at the Aix tourist office (300 avenue Giuseppe Verdi) and it's easy to take bus #5 to the studio (let the driver know you're getting off at the Cézanne stop).  The guided tour is about 30 minutes and does require a reservation as the studio only accommodates 18 people.  The Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne's family home and a national historical monument, is also worth visiting (again, visits are guided and require reservations; 6 euros, 25 people maximum).

Before my visit I discovered a writer with whom I was completely unfamiliar: M. L. Longworth, who is originally Canadian but who now lives in Aix via Santa Cruz, California.   When she, her husband, and daughter first moved to Provence almost twenty years ago they rented a guardian's house on the Route de Cézanne, just outside of Aix, but for some years now they've been happily ensconced in the center of Aix.  By browsing Longworth's website you can find her blog -- "on food, writing and life in the south of France" -- where she explains that she started out writing non-fiction but then she realized "that if I wrote fiction then my characters could live in, and experience Provence as I do...above all, I really want the reader to experience Aix-en-Provence the way I do, as if they were beside me."  Longworth's mysteries, which feature a judge, Antoine Verlaque, and his girlfriend, Marine Bonnet, are perfect companion reading for a southern France sojourn, and include The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne, Murder on the Île Sordou, Murder in the Rue DumasDeath in the Vines, and Death at the Château Bremont (all published by Penguin).  I encourage readers to subscribe to her blog as she often writes about Aix (and elsewhere) and her posts are well written and interesting.  I learned all about the newly renovated Hôtel Caumont, a former mansion which had previously been Aix's conservatoire de la musique, from one such post. Now, after over four years of work, the building has reopened as a large exhibition space under the direction of a French organization called Culturespaces.  The interior looks beautiful from the photos Longworth included, and there is an outdoor café on a terrace, a pretty garden,  two indoor dining rooms, and a 30-minute film about Cézanne that runs on a permanent loop in the auditorium.