Thursday, November 25, 2010

A quiet village on the coast

Village of Vernazza- population 500 (+ tourists)

View from our hotel room balcony!

From Venice on the northeast coast, we drove to Vernazza on the northwest coast, near Genoa. We had no idea how mountainous and wild it would be. We felt like we were a long ways from everything. The road into town was steep, narrow and winding. Heavy rain had caused landslides so we had to detour on even tinier and more spine-tingling roads. There are no cars allowed into town so we parked and walked nearly half a mile (tough to find a flat spot for a parking lot) to the seaside fishing village. It was quaint and picturesque, just as you would imagine it to be.
In summer, Vernazza and the other towns that make up the Cinque Terre- Five Lands- are packed with tourists who flock there for the sun, sea and atmosphere. As we strolled into town on a rainy Tuesday in November, we wondered if we had made a mistake. The three ice cream shops were all closed and we came to find out that only a handful of businesses had regular hours.
But we slowed down and just enjoyed climbing up to the cliff tops for great views, lingering over a morning espresso, exploring all the narrow alleys tucked back in neighborhoods and watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean each afternoon. We pondered how they could possibly plant vineyards on seemingly impossible inclines and how they planned to harvest olives from trees barely clinging to the mountainside. We saw old fishermen repairing nets on the docks and watched women talking animatedly outside the market. Dinner was our evening entertainment. The restaurant owners took such pride in their food and wine. It was a delight to try the local specialties: just-caught seafood, homemade pasta, fresh pesto, and the best tiramisu I've ever tasted. The quiet simplicity of this town in the off-season seemed like it could cast a spell on you and make you never want to leave!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Venice- the floating (or sinking?) city

The main square- flooded by rain and tide!
It really looks like this!

View from our hotel room
We're home, plugged back into the real world, already reiminiscing about the wonderful places we saw in Italy and trying to work off a few pounds of pasta and pizza! Our first stop was Venice. It's the craziest city I have ever been in! We took a water bus (i.e., boat) from the airport to the city, which exists completely on an island intersected by countless canals. There are absolutely no cars- imagine every road in your town turned into a winding river, every vehicle turned into a boat and every crosswalk turned into a bridge. The city is a labryinth and it is impossible not to get lost. Many times we turned a corner only to find that our path was a dead-end at the water. So-called streets are as wide as sidewalks; in some we had to turn sideways to allow another person to pass. We often had to collapse our umbrella to avoid scraping buildings on each side. Everything seems mysterious and hidden away.
Apparently, Venice really is sinking. The city floods an average of 100 times each year, mostly in winter. We were lucky enough to witness the city on a "flood alarm" day. Boats full of sandbags roared past our hotel window early. Over the course of the morning, the water literally just rose up over the seawalls into the city. All over town there were wooden platforms at the ready, to be unfolded and stretched along the sidewalks when the water came up. Most first floor buildings had little flood gates across the lower half of their doors. The main square-normally a hub of tourist activity with cafes, cathedral and palace- became a vast wading pool, deep enough in some places to make even rubber boots useless. So all the tourists shuffled along on the narrow walkways, bumping into each others' umbrellas and trying to avoid falling off the side into the knee-deep water. It was a fascinating spectacle and fortunately it did not affect our sight-seeing plans too much. The following morning the flood alarm sounded again but we were already packed up and getting on a water bus to the train station. One day in a flooded city was enough!

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Today Aaron and I are leaving for a two-week holiday. Though it seems we are always on the go, this is the first time that Aaron has ever taken two consecutive weeks off strictly for the fun of it. He's quite excited and I am delighted to have him to myself. We'll be taking a road trip through Italy so I will have lots to report when I return.

In total defiance of this 21st century world, we are not taking our laptop and we do not even own cell phones so we will be totally disconnected from the greater world. It's an uneasy feeling in this day and age but I think that it is important to slow down. It was not long ago that we never expected everyone and everything to be accessible 24 hours a day. Our vacation will be a good exercise in "being present in the moment," something I need to learn again and again. We'll see what la dolce vita is really like!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Where have I been?

I don't have much of an excuse for missing an entire month. I'm not sure exactly where the time went.

We did travel to the United States for the first time this year, spending a few days in Dallas (skyline behind me) and in Nevada (Aaron standing on red rocks at Red Rocks Canyon). It was strictly business, as I had a 4-day genetics conference in Texas and then Aaron had a 2-day conference in Las Vegas. We delighted in the Southern hospitality that met us in the Lone Star State. The welcome was big, the trucks were big and the meal portions were big! But we ate as much BBQ and Mexican food as we could and it tasted as delicious as we had been imagining all these months! Yum! There are lots of great things in Europe but there are just some things you miss from home.

Though I have been in Las Vegas before, this time it completely overwhelmed me. It is the epicenter of excess and I just couldn't reconcile myself to needing a map to navigate our hotel, paying over $40 for breakfast and seeing flashing lights 24 hours a day, both inside and outside. But strangely, the LV Strip is a relatively quiet and peaceful place to run at about 7 o'clock in the morning and I enjoyed the cool sunny mornings. We also enjoyed our last day, when we drove just 20 minutes out of the city into breathtaking desert and mountain wilderness. What a contrast from the lights and sounds of the city!

We had a very smooth and uneventful trip until we arrived back in Hamburg at 9:15 PM and our driver from Aaron's company was nowhere to be found. After traveling for nearly 24 hours and spending the night sitthing on a plane, this was a little more than frustrating. We waited for an hour, alternating between worry that he'd had an accident, being annoyed that someone at the company messed up the schedule and debating on who we could call and what they could do for us. Finally, at nearly 11:00 PM we rented a car and left the airport terminal. We ended up with a Smart car and barely fit our two small suitcases and ourselves into it! I could still see the humor in our situation despite the late hour and frustration so I snapped a picture of Aaron loading up our tiny auto. He was not amused but after a night's rest he could laugh about it. And it turned out that the driver had arrived to pick us up at 9:15 in the morning and no one at the company could sort out the mistake in the twelve hours in between. Hmm?
Oh well! If that's the worst that happened, we are lucky!