Sunday, March 31, 2019

Posada Mawimbi, Isla Holbox


Before I return to the rest of my Liguria report, here is a short post about Isla Holbox, off the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula where I just spent five nights.  Admittedly, until a few years ago I'd never heard of Holbox; it wasn't until friends Al and Risi went and raved about it that it was on my radar, and then a short while later it was featured as one of the '52 Places to Go' in 2016 in The New York Times and an article appeared in Travel + Leisure.  Holbox is not undiscovered, but there are still plenty of people who've never heard of it.  


Like many wonderful places in the world, getting to Holbox takes a little extra effort. After a flight to Cancun (my husband and I flew on Jet Blue, which left New York's JFK Airport exactly on time and overall was as efficient as an airline experience can be), you have a choice of taking a small plane to the island (a few companies are Aerosaab, AX Transporter, and Flights Holbox; flying time is about 35 minutes) or driving two hours to the coastal town of Chiquila, from where a Transporte Maritimo 9 Hermanos or Holbox Express ferry takes you to Holbox (the only difference between these seems to be the schedule, with one departing on the hour and the other departing on the half hour; the ferry ride is about 20 minutes, and the current schedule may be found at The Holboxeno, which is also a good site for finding out about goings on). Chiquila is the largest town along the route from Cancun to the coast and it's a fairly bustling, colorful place not without some charm (it is also spelled sometimes with the accent on the a -- Chiquilá -- and sometimes not). The only other town of any size is Kantunilkín, which I mention because if you want to stop along the way , this is your best bet. The staff at many Holbox hotels will arrange round-trip transportation for guests (including the van and the ferry) as well as the golf cart pick-up at the Holbox ferry (the only cars and trucks on the island are for services; everyone gets around by bike or golf cart, or walking). Posada Mawimbi, where my husband and I stayed, arranged all this transportation for us and it was very smooth. An online search will turn up a number of companies providing affordable transportation to Chiquila, and I believe that even if you haven't reserved in advance, it's possible to arrange for the ride on the spot at the airport. 

So far I haven't been able to find much background information about Holbox other than that the name translates as "Black Hole" in Yucatec Mayan; the island was originally settled by a handful of Maya families and in the 18th century it was a refuge for Spanish and Italian pirates who were in the area (some of the pirates stayed on and adopted a different lifestyle, and their descendants developed the town on the island); and that most of Holbox, 26 miles long, is part of the Flora and Fauna Nature Reserve, established in 1994, called Yum Balam ("Lord Jaguar"). The reserve encompasses 154,052 acres of shore and off-shore territory, and from May to September Yum Balam is the sanctuary for the world's largest concentration of whale sharks. Additionally, the reserve is home to 420 bird species (35% are migratory species) and endangered species including jaguars, tapirs, crocodiles, monkeys, and Hawksbill turtles plus over 70 different species of reptiles and amphibians. Only 16% of the island is populated, and about 5,000 people live on Holbox. As an aside, I also learned that though there is still some inconsistency, the word Maya tends to be used as a noun and an adjective describing the people and their culture and the word Mayan refers to the language.

One of the most common phrases used to describe Holbox is that "it's not for everyone," which is true and worth repeating. If you are someone who cannot separate yourself from your phone you may be disappointed (WiFi is spotty, often slow, and sometimes doesn't work at all). If you want to wear fine resort clothing and shoes, there aren't many if any places where they're appropriate (there are no paved roads, just sand, so flip flops and very casual sandals are the only shoes necessary). Generally, as the island is somewhat fragile, toilet paper is not put in toilets but rather in garbage cans provided. And if you're looking for a raging night club scene, you won't find it on Holbox. I found Holbox refreshingly unique, but it may be helpful to know that I am not a desert island person, meaning that I am not looking for a totally remote place. I like islands that have just enough places to eat good, local food and that have distinctive places to stay and that are fairly lively, with enough going on that I can choose to do or not to do.

I really enjoyed staying at Posada Mawimbi (which translates as something like "waves of the sea"), opened 16 years ago on the Northern beach coast, directly next door to Casa Las Tortugas, which is also a lovely inn with a small pool in its center that receives much more publicity.  Mawimbi has a cozy, family vibe, and the welcome brochure in each room introduces each staff member with a photo and his or her name (the three resident dogs, Sammy, Zoe, and Goliath, are included).  I liked that on my first day, I saw a guest holding his young son in his arms embrace with one of the staff.  It seemed genuine, and I had the feeling that this gesture was not unusual.  During my stay there was another guest who'd brought her dog, Alfie, and it seemed that she lived there because she was so familiar with everyone; later I learned that she comes every year.  Guest rooms are not large but are big enough (though there is not a lot of open counter space) and are bohemian-charming, with nice cotton bed spreads, colorful curtains, ceiling fans, air conditioning, and ceramic tiles.  Like most of the lodgings on the island, Mawimbi is in the palapa style, and the staircase to the second floor is made of pretty cedar wood.   



Breakfast is included in the room rate, and it was delicious and substantial -- one portion changed every day (it could be scrambled eggs, oatmeal, Nutella crepes, or bread and cheese -- but there was always sliced mango, papaya, kiwi, banana, and pineapple as well as delicious yogurt, coffee, tea, fresh orange juice, and a salad of spinach, tomatoes, and pecans.  
Lying on one of Mawimbi's lounge chairs in the sand and looking up at the palm trees and blue sky and listening to the exotic birds (notably the grackle) is among my favorite memories of the island.  Las Tortugas and Mawimbi mark the beginning of the hotel zone on the Northern coast, meaning that the town of Holbox, with its numerous restaurants, bars, cheap lodgings, shops, and places to rent golf carts (carritos de golf) is contained within a very small part of the island.  As you head east down the beach there are more hotels, the last one being Las Nubes, one of the more recent inns to open.  From its wooden outdoor terrace, there is a staircase that leads right down into the water, and from here you can wade across to a sandbar.   
In the opposite direction, towards town and the airstrip, the beach is not as wide (in some spots there is no beach at all), and the vibe is more lively.  To each his own: if you want quiet, head to the hotel zone; if you want what action there is on the island, head west.  At least one of the budget lodgings in town permits guests to use the facilities at one of the hotels in the hotel zone, a nice compromise.   


Some hotels I visited are Ser Casasandra, which is not directly on the beach but has its own designated beach area and also has a lovely pool and is quite distinctive (also, its outdoor boutique, Arte Sano, an outpost of the original in Tulum, is small but offers very nice selections such as quality cotton and linen items, jewelry, leather sandals, straw bags, etc.); Tierra Mia, also not on the beach; Villas HM Paraiso del Mar; and Punta Caliza.

Holbox has been described as a hippy-dippy kind of place, but this doesn't mean it's the equivalent of Goa or Kathmandu in the 1960s.  Visitors of all ages come to Holbox, including  a number of families, lots of Europeans, and lots of Spanish-speaking visitors (though I don't know if they were from other parts of Mexico or from Spain or the U.S.).   I was also surprised at both the number of restaurants there are on Holbox and how many really good meals we had.  Among the places we liked are Barba Negra for outstanding and memorable tacos (notably the fish Mayan style, cauliflower, and fish Baja style); Big Fish, a new place serving fish caught that day (delicious tuna tostadas, ceviche, and aguachile, a preparation with lime juice, jalapeno, and onions) and shots of artisanal mescal; Rosa Mexicano (no relation to the New York restaurants) for shrimp aguachile; La Isla del Colibri for fantastic smoothies served in large stemmed glasses (great decor, with nearly every inch of wall space covered with artwork, some original and others copies of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings); Viva Zapata for a huge and perfect seafood platter with a whole grilled fish, crabs, clams, shrimp, ceviche, and octopus; Et Voilà
 (despite the French name, it's a fully Mexican menu); and El Chapulim (the word translates as either a grasshopper or cricket) for fine dining -- there is no menu but the chef comes to the table to tell you about the night's dishes.  We had a local fish filet in a creamy sauce with very thin asparagus, baby potatoes, and a fruit salad and a rice dish with seafood in a chipotle sauce -- all delicious.  We also enjoyed watching the sunset from the rooftop bar at Casa Las Tortugas, where the sushi is excellent, and at Coquitos Beach Bar for micheladas, a beer and tomato juice drink with spicy salt around the rim of the glass.  Note: no matter where you eat, no one is in a hurry, so sit back and chill.    

We didn't anticipate that Mardi Gras would be celebrated on the island, though there is not a parade; rather, stages are set up on certain streets for the bands and then the costumed dancers perform in front of the stages.  The festivities do go on until about 4:00 a.m. and yes, if you are staying close to town you will hear the music.  

Seeing flamingos, fishing, visiting Isla Pajaros (Bird Island Sanctuary), kiteboarding, kayaking, and swimming with whale sharks (the largest fish in the world and very gentle) are among activities to do while visiting Holbox but my husband and I didn't do any of these (it wasn't the season for whale sharks in any case).  We felt confident that we were going to convince some friends and family members to join us next year, and that we would postpone these activities until that time.  However, we did wade out on a series of sandbars to the point where we couldn't go any further (there are signs indicating the beginning of the nature reserve).  Sometimes the water was sloshing around our ankles, other times we were knee-deep.  It was magnificent, and we can't wait to do it again.      

As there is no book I know of about Holbox to recommend, here are links to sites and articles that were each interesting or useful in one way or another:

(Ceil, who is a very good writer and my friend, also wrote the piece on Holbox for the '52 Places to Go 2016' noted above;  

Ultimately, even more than what I read, it was the photograph of the Holbox "sign" below that made me want to go.  It immediately caught my attention, and it was so whimsical, and seemed to capture a certain spirit I look for in a beach destination.  (There are two of these signs actually, both on the Northern beach coast as you walk east, and as you can see hammocks are often strung between two letters.)  So the photo made me buy a plane ticket, and maybe it will inspire you, too, as well.  As other writers have wisely noted, go soon.  

   

         


  


           

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 iat@mendatica.com 
Brigi Cooperativa di Comunita
www.brig

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 it...as 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.