Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cooking in Como

If you need a reason to go to Lake Como, here's one. Even on a rainy day, it looks like this:

You'd think that after Cinque Terre I'd be desensitized to picturesque towns perched on hills above water, but no. Lake Como is another world entirely.

I took the train to Varenna and the ferry boat across the lake to my destination of Menaggio. My hostel was perched up on a hill overlooking the lake. As seen from the ferry, my hostel is the yellow building in the center.

I walked the town in search of wifi, and ended up trapped under a cafe umbrella during a downpour. Something about it felt quite cozy.

The town was empty due to the rain and chilly weather, but I found dinner, a cheap liter of delicious red wine, and all the company I needed back at the hostel. It's hard to overstate the stunning view.

The next day, I took the ferry back to Vernazza and waited in the main square to be picked up for a cooking course at a local restaurant. Rosella, the chef's wife, picked us up and drove us up and over the hill on a series of winding one-lane (but two-way) roads. The restaurant is tucked away on a small street in a building which the family has owned for eight or so generations (they've lost count).

Moreno, the chef, showed us how to make Tagliatelle Putanesca and Gnocchi Gorgonzola, every bit of it from scratch. Perhaps the most impressive moment is when a thin sheet of pasta dough, folded over itself, magically becomes tagliatelle.

YouTube Video

I got to try my hand at making gnocchi. It isn't particularly hard, but I could have done without the fifteen person audience. The most fun part is dusting the flour, which must be done from up high for both evenness and showmanship. Oh, and I liked making the ridges by rolling it off my fork.

We savored every bite of our meal. Food tastes much better when you've salivated over every step of the cooking process.

No time to linger. I said goodbye to Moreno and ran outside where Rosella was waiting to drive me to the train station. I'm a busy guy, you know, and I wouldn't want to keep Zurich waiting!

Location:Menaggio, Lake Como, Italy

Cinque Terre: Noah Goes Inside His Desktop Background

For a full month at work, this photograph was my desktop background. It was also the first photo I ever posted to this blog, with the caption, "I want to go to there."

Yesterday, I was there.

The Cinque Terre are five quaint coastal towns connected by a hiking trail. These towns have vibrant colors, steep inclines, and typically one main road connecting the vineyards on the mountain slopes to the beaches below.

I dropped my bag at Cinque Terre Holidays, a hostel in Riomaggiore. The hostel looks nice in this picture, but I assure you it was not. Amenities included a two-foot-square hole in the ceiling (through which it poured rain), a door that does not lock, and a dirty shower with the shower head rubber-banded to a window. This is the first hostel I have stayed in which I would not recommend to another traveler. I can't wait to write my Hostelworld review...

Riomaggiore is the first of the five towns. It looks like this.

My friend from the train and I set off on our 9km hike. The first stretch was more of a stroll, and before we knew it we were in town #2, Manerola. Easy, right?

Not so fast. The next stretch to town #3, Corniglia, was slightly more challenging. The trail slopes gently up and down until... oh, Corniglia is on the top of a mountain. We took the stairs... about 300 of them. At the top was a pesto lunch. Pesto started here, or so I'm told.

Perhaps I am out of shape. Perhaps the trail was hard. Perhaps I shouldn't have eaten a giant bowl of pasta. Whatever the reason, the trail to town #4, Vernazza, was tough. But the view of Corniglia was worth it.

Around a few more corners, we found Vernazza. This is where I walked into my desktop background. It's hard to describe what I felt. This was the moment I imagined from my desk chair at McDonald's. And here I was, in a tiny harbor tucked away in the coastal cliffs of Italy. It was a culmination like I cannot describe, and certainly couldn't articulate to my hiking buddy. We rested at the furthest point on the harbor, looking back at Vernazza.

But the hike wasn't over. In fact, the hardest part remained. The trek to town #5, Monterosso, was a grueling uphill climb followed by a treacherously narrow trail. When we finally saw the town, and the beaches we knew were waiting for us, we were ecstatic.

In town, we swam in the ocean, drank beer and, of all things, played bocce ball. I have never been so relaxed.

We took the train back to Riomaggiore, showered, and ate a nice dinner with friends we met in the ocean.

We spent the rest of the night at Bar Centrale. It was the only thing open, and the dozen people there were the only people awake in town.

It was a perfect day.

Location:Riomaggiore, Italy

Tuscany by Public Transit

Try getting from Florence to a Tuscan medieval walled hill town by public transit. I dare you.

I suppose it isn't actually that difficult, depending on where you're going. Siena has eight trains from Florence daily. Buses go direct to San Gimignano and a few other hot spots. But I'd been to these with my family on a prior trip, and I wanted to see something new.

I chose Montepulciano because my favorite Trader Joes wine is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Which doesn't come from Montepulciano, it turns out, but stole their name to fool people like me. Montepulciano's actual local wine, Nobile di Montepulciano, was even more delicious than what I normally buy in the bargain aisle for $4. Astonishing, I know.

It took four hours by train and bus to get there. Although it was grueling at times and not always clear where or how to transfer, it was as picturesque a commute as one could ask for. The scenery on the way was perfectly Tuscan.

And then, at the end of the line, with just me and a German couple left on the bus, we spotted our destination perched on a hill.

As is the rule with medieval hill towns, to find the main square just keep going up. Which I did until my legs hurt. And from the square, up to the top of the tallest building. This was the view:

For lunch, I enjoyed a glass of Nobile di Montepulciano (what else) and piadina crudo. This piadina looked a bit more like a quesadilla than what I ate in Ravenna, but I wasn't complaining.

I walked up and down side streets, poked into a few shops, and quickly realized that there was little else to do. I don't know precisely what I expected, but apparently when you go off the beaten path you have to entertain yourself!

I found a cafe with a balcony and enjoyed the view while reading my book. This is the view from that balcony:

Eventually, leisurely, I made my way back to the bus which took me back to the train which took me back to Florence. I ate a late dinner at Za Za and collapsed in my hostel one last night.

Tomorrow, the long-awaited Cinque Terre.

Location:Montepulciano, Italy

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Big Announcement

It is finally time.

I was waiting to see if it would last before I said anything. I didn't want to announce it prematurely and then let everyone down. But it has been a month, so I may as well make it public.

I have not had a Diet Coke since I left the US.

This detox was long overdue. I was drinking Diet Coke to excess through college and since, but the ease of access at McDonald's (where it was free, on-tap, ten feet from my desk) brought it from excessive to ridiculous.

I chose this trip to try breaking the habit because I am already breaking so many others: my habit of falling asleep to DVR, of shaving regularly, of finding myself in climate controlled environments. What's one more little change amongst all the others?

Besides, there are no free refills here, and ice is apparently a commodity more precious than gold.

So instead I drink aqua frizzante (bubbly water). Constantly. I probably drink eight bottles of it a day. Sometimes I deviate and get beer or wine, but never so much as a sip of Diet Coke... or for that matter, any soda.

Mind you, I haven't sworn off caffeine entirely. I drink a cappuccino every third or fourth day, when I'm at a cafe and pretending to be European. But it was never just the caffeine to which I was addicted. It was the caffeine, and sweetener, and flavor, and thirst-quenchingness, and bubbles, and--

Sorry, had to take a swig of aqua frizzante.

I do still crave it. Mostly during salty meals or after a long hike. Eventually I will learn to drink it in moderation, but I don't trust myself to do that yet. For now, I'm staying 100% clean and healthy.

Now where is the beverage cart on this train? I need a beer.

Playing with Firenze

If you plan to travel abroad, and you have a little sister, I recommend sending her in advance to scout out the place.

Erica, having "studied" in Florence for a semester, provided me with an ample list of restaurant recommendations for a weeklong stay. I was only there for two days. So you see my dilemma.

But for two days I ate like a king! My first night began with wine and appertivos at Riviore:

...followed by more wine at the hostel and a delicious meal at Za Za. I started with the soup sampler, and hardly needed the pasta that came afterwards.

When I get back home, I will be learning to make Ribolita. (That's the green one.)

The next night I was lucky to have Chelsea, a culinarily-cognizant traveller from the hostel, join me at Il Latini. We sat with a couple from Boston and ordered... well, we didn't order, they just brought plate after plate.

The plate Brian is holding contains beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and of course rabbit. Also, for good measure, the chandeliers were made of prosciutto.

I know what you're thinking, and yes, I did a bit of sightseeing in Florence as well. Since I'd already hit most of the museums, I spent my couple days wandering the streets and just trying to get a feel for the city. The daytime highlight was my walk in the Boboli Gardens with some fellow hostelers.

And at night, after our big meal at Il Latini, we took a nice walk up to Piazza Michaelangelo for a spectacular city view. It was one of those moments that made me stop and remember how lucky I am to be where I am.

Location:Florence, Italy