Friday, September 22, 2017

two to tunis

our next and final destination in the country was tunis so we woke up early hoping to make our way back to the capital. we'd hoped that going to a bigger city might make catching a louage a bit easier. it wasn't quite so straightforward, unfortunately. we made our way to the station only to be met by big crowds and a tiny ticket office. i left JR to stay with our bags near the louage marked 'tunis' while i went to buy our tickets. (why we couldn't buy them on the louage itself here was unclear.) i jostled for a spot in line outside the station near a ticket window only to learn, several minutes in, that i'd have to order a ticket for tunis inside. of course the inside was packed with people jammed up in lines. the line was interminably slow but i did only see a few arguments break out and a couple of people jump to the front of the line for whatever reason. fiiiinally i got our tickets and went to join JR at our louage. we had a bit of time to get some last minute snacks at a kiosk before our van was full and ready to go.

asla (meaning honey), our temporary pup
the trip itself was largely uneventful and in a few hours we were back in tunis. now it was a matter of finding our airbnb. while it wasn't in the labyrinthian streets of the medina it was just out the city walls in a small alley which turned out to be perhaps even harder to find. after a number of (probably expensive) confused phone calls to our host and plenty of frustration we finally made it. happy to drop our bags - and the wrapped up carpet that poor JR had lugged all over - we said hi to the friendly dog and tried to relax a bit. our host left before we got the wifi password from him (oops) but we tried to make a plan for the day with the maps and info we did have at our disposal.

we had once again managed to miss the typical lunch hour so finding food was proving difficult. in the bustling streets outside the medina we managed to find a little stall where someone was making what looked to be savory crepes, but the meat was some kind of nondescript flat, red circles and the cheese came in a little foil wedge. whatever, it would do and it at least had harissa on it. with some food in us we were a little less hangry and ready to take on the rest of the afternoon. we hopped on a local train to take us out to carthage, just a quick ride across the water.

overlooking carthage, or what's left
from the station it was a bit of a walk to the historical site (which you'd think would be better marked, right?) but we managed to find it. once there, we tramped around the ruins of carthage (such as they were) in the late afternoon sun, enjoying identifying what was left of the various buildings and store rooms. it really was pretty well decimated. the museum on site had some great mosaics and quite a few interesting artifacts but we only had about 45 minutes to enjoy it. JR was eager to find more ruins (and, indeed, there were random roman columns and sprinkled all over the place without sign or ceremony) and so we tramped around in search of old things.we managed to stumble across some aqueducts, a possible temple (well, columns) and an old amphitheatre. most had no signs whatsoever and were littered with garbage.

sunset views from cafe essaude
we found another train station and hopped on the train a few more stops to make it to sidi bu said, which we'd wanted to hit before the sun went down. it was just starting its descent so our timing was fairly good. the town was full of tourists but we made our way through the busy street to a cafe advertising a rooftop terrace (i, of course, wanting to catch the sunset from a nice vantage point). this one fit the bill - it had mint tea and cocktail shisha. we lingered a little longer and JR tried his first turkish coffee - served with a syrupy 'flower water' that was delightful. leisurely sipping out drinks and chatting into the night was definitely a highlight of the day for me.

by around 8pm we figured we should probably try to head back to tunis before it got too late. we made the short walk down from the town's main drag and caught the next local train. there were some young guys inside goofing around, trying to jump in and out while the train was still moving. we watched but didn't pay them much mind. then all of a sudden as we were approaching a station one of them grabbed for my camera bag and started to run. luckily i had it and my purse secured under my arm (as i nearly always do when traveling) and of course i held on tight. he pulled me up off my seat but i kept my grip tightly and eventually he fell backwards onto the platform. JR immediately jumped up ready to put up a fight but it all happened so fast and almost as quickly as he had lunged for me he was on his back in the station. no harm done really but we were a little shaken up. just a good reminder to always secure your stuff and be aware of your surroundings!

the next metro ride was short but we sat in the station forever just waiting for the train to move so we didn't end up getting back until almost 9. the streets of the medina were dark and nearly deserted - it was a little eerie, to be honest. at some point we were walking through a dark passage with little light to see the dirty ground.. and i managed to slip in whatever was covering the ground (likely at least some percentage of that was poop). fortunately i fell forward onto my knee and not onto my back, but still - ew. nothing seemed to be open so clearly we missed mealtime once again. eventually we passed a few open cafes but JR was nervous and anxious to get back (probably a good idea to follow your instincts in such scenarios) so we stopped at a little kiosk near our place to grab some chips, sodas and a snack that was 'oriole' flavored (we think they meant oreo..). back at the airbnb we realized we still didn't have the wifi password so our attempts to watch a movie were thwarted. all in all not our best day but still an adventure.

classic view of tunis' rooftops
the next day we slept in all the way until 9.20 - what luxury! our host, hamza, offered to take us to breakfast in the medina. anxious to get a meal at the appropriate time we acquiesced. he took us to a fabulous little cafe filled with antique chairs, rugs, and various textiles and lanterns covering every surface. most people around us were start in on the shisha but we decided to stick to coffee and tea accompanied by some little almond cakes he snagged at a kiosk around the corner. we had a nice conversation about his work and travels - all in french. funny, while he said he's learned spanish, italian, and russian he said he'd never managed to learn english. i translated as best i could for JR. of course we weren't getting away without being taken to a few carpet shops, many of which feature rooftop views of the city and the signature minaret of the great mosque. having secured our major rug purchase already we listened politely to their spiel but demurred when they urged us to buy another. hamza was very gracious and made it clear we weren't being pressured to buy anything. back in the medina he took us past his friend's perfumerie. here i got suckered into buying some argan oil (which i'm positive was incredibly overpriced, but we wanted to be nice). in fact it was apparently so overpriced that they threw in some perfume oils, which i appreciated.

cafe mrabet still life
here hamza left us and we explored the souqs on our own for a bit before it was about lunchtime. we were in the middle of the medina and - miracle of miracles - actually found a restaurant open and had a proper meal. our host had recommended el ali cafe and it was indeed very nice - clearly where folks have business lunches or rich housewives come for a break. we had a 'brik au thon' (flaky fried pastry with egg and tuna) along with 'briwettes' with shrimp, almost like an eggroll but perfectly fried in flaky dough. for our entree we shared a plate of what was essentially tunisian bolognese. it was huge and quite tasty, with a bit more red pepper than the italian version. from lunch we wanted to pop into the mosque but (once we eventually found the door on the giant structure) were told it was closed for prayers. logical, since it was still around lunchtime. we were told to come back at 2.15. to pass the time we stopped in some more souqs and took a little break at the historic cafe mrabet, with its landmark red-and-green painted columns. people were stretched out, lounging over shishas and lemon drinks. we got lemonade with mint and shisha although eventaully all the smoke (from cigarettes as well) started to give me a headache.

i like any place that gives tiles their due
we left and went by the mosque again - closed for prayers, we were told. (really??) we swung by the airbnb to drop off our purchases and use the wifi (we had the password, finally!) only to discover that the internet wasn't working. still, we tried to find our way to the sidi qasim zelliji zawiya - a mausoleum for a famous tilemaker. anyone who knows me knows this is right up my alley. we had vague directions and between that and the map on my phone we were eventually able to find the place, but not without getting turned around several times. there was actually a little workshop going on so we were able to see some artisans at work and the small place itself was indeed covered with tiles as promised. from here we figured we'd have enough time to get to the bardo museum before it closed at 4.30. the cab ride took about 15 minutes so we got there at around 3.45... only to discover the museum actually closed at 4. argh! definitely a disappointment missing that. we got out of the cab here, figuring we could hop on the metro instead. well this turned out to be a mistake. the metro came to a halt before we had even made it one stop. it finally did move again but at a snail's pace. instead of taking it all the way to the main transfer point we got off and grabbed a taxi to the station where we could get on the local train for carthage. all of this took nearly an hour.

one of the crowded punic cemeteries we explored
eventually we did make it to carthage. JR had found a few more sites he wanted to try to see. one was something called a trophet, which as far as we can tell is a place used for child sacrifice, a practice done in the punic religion. it was walled off with a little guard station but we were able to walk right in and see the little chambers and stones, whose purpose we could only guess at (there was no signage, naturally). we walked on, the sea just to our left, and passed a number of other ruins that we admired through the iron bars that walled them off. JR still really wanted to see the american cemetery though, realizing that not much or any of it may be visible. after a lot of walking we did find it, discovering that it was closed (although it was unclear if we would have been able to enter even if it hadn't been). unfortunately the big wall around it made it virtually impossible to see any of it. from here we tramped through a large field (full of snail shells, we noticed) in search of the nearest train station. figuring we'd rather get a meal rather than head back to tunis and be disappointed, we set off again for the touristy town of sidi bu said. we went up the now familiar main drag and settled on the place we'd been to the night before because at least we knew they had food and a view. here we had a a panini and a waffle with nutella (basically your universal tourist fare) and of course enjoyed our last shisha of tunisia. we lingered over our drinks as the night grew darker and just enjoyed each other's company. before leaving the town we popped in a few of the souvenir shops to get some gifts and spend some of our last tunisian dinars.

so, all in all, we learned that things tend to take longer than expected in tunisia. we certainly made some mistakes and if we'd had it to do over again we definitely would have done some things differently. but overall we enjoyed a beautiful new country together and i'm so glad JR got to see a different part of the world.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

almost halfway to hajj

corsica in the distance
our 24-hour ferry ride was largely uneventful. we spent most of it in our room as the ship had little to offer in terms of entertainment. the pool stood drained and empty and the tiny casino didn't seem enticing. we spent some time in one of their cafes, enjoying an aperol spritz and campari soda as i wrote some postcards and JR read. we were very grateful to have brought some snacks along with us as the food on board, as anticipated, looked both underwhelming and overpriced. we made picnics in our room of italian focaccia, french cheese, dried meats and wine. (pro tip: bring an insulated lunch bag that will fold flat in your luggage) we were even able to watch 'dial M for murder' on my iPad that i had downloaded from the library before we left. there wasn't much of a view on our journey but we did get a glimpse of corsica off the starboard side just as the sun was going down.

getting off the boat was almost as confusing as getting on. luckily we had earlier discovered we needed to visit a kiosk to get a form to disembark earlier in the trip. in spite of having messages about various cafe and shops opening in four languages, there was never any indication we needed to go here. it was only our curiosity about why people were suddenly lining up at the photo kiosk that led us to figure it out. most people on board were clearly seasoned ferry-goers so we gathered in one of the cafes with everyone else, waiting to be told we could get off. eventually we did and made our way onto african soil! another continent for JR. just outside the little building we happened upon an ATM so we could get some of the local currency. after a few moments (and thanks to my smartphone) we got our bearings and walked towards the train station that would take us to the main part of town. on our walk we bought a much-needed liter of water and noticed the various dogs and people roaming through the mostly empty streets. finally we found the train station and after determining that it was not in fact abandoned we discovered the tiny ticket window and bought our passage onto the little train (a whopping 18 cents apiece). i was very thankful to be able to speak french again, even though we'd only been in italy for less than 48 hours. after a few minutes it arrived and we made our way across the water and into the main part of tunis. from the stop it was another 15 minute or so walk to the louage station, our bags enduring the uneven cobblestone and dusty streets. we could tell we were close to the louage station as the shops around it seemed much more active. fortunately, being in a big city, we were able to get onto a shared taxi to kairouan right away. we took the last two spots, squeezing into the back seat of the van with our backpacks on our laps.

kairouan streets
the ride took several hours with one brief stop at a gas station (where we picked up some local snacks). we spent most of the ride quietly watching the scenery go by, although towards the end the gentleman we were sharing a seat with struck up a conversation. he asked where we were planning to go and suggested a number of far-off towns with roman ruins (none of which seemed very accessible) before giving us his opinions on the 'modern tunisian'. he was nice but our interest was flagging and it was a little tiring to keep up the conversation. not too long after, though, we arrived in kairouan and were let out on the side of the road.

a little disoriented, we saw a walled structure that we first believed to be part of the city walls. when we walked inside, though, we realized it was a courtyard of what was probably a mosque. we then saw a group of people processing in what we guessed might have been a circumcision. we quickly decided this was probably not where we wanted to be. after a quick look at the smartphone we realized the direction we needed to be going and started off. as it turned out we weren't all that close to the city walls but at least now we knew where to go. we were a bit tired, getting dusty, and probably a little cranky. which is probably why what happened next struck us as so funny. as we were walking we started to notice little piles of wool or bits of sheep hooves. we realized there was probably a festival going on (and later confirmed it was eid al-adha). the streets were fairly empty but at one point we found ourselves behind two young guys on their scooters, one with a plastic bag dangling from the handlebars. the first guy stopped short, causing the guy behind him to swerve suddenly. the bag fell off the handlbars and.. a goat head rolled out. the guy was clearly upset but we couldn't help but find the whole thing faintly hilarious. we were probably a little loopy but it just tickled us. even hours later thinking about it brought us to tears laughing.

at this point you may be wondering why we chose tunisia for our honeymoon. well, we knew we wanted to go a few different places and we decided on the mediterranean as a general location. i'd been wanting to go back to france since i hadn't returned since living there. but we wanted to mix it up too - and i wanted J.R. to experience a non-western country (we're working our way up to india). plus tunisia has the advantage of having beautiful buildings both to admire and to stay in (as you can see below). and while the little arabic i once knew is all but gone i knew we could easily get by with french. the ruins of carthage and the roman empire were icing on the cake.

our gorgeous room
so anyway we eventually made it to the beautiful streets of the old city, with its painted trim and elaborate doors. after that it wasn't long before we made it to our guesthouse, the dar hassine allani. it seemed there was only one other place to stay in town - surely a nice hotel but one that seemed a bit too much. the place itself looked like a citadel. all in all i'm so happy we chose to stay where we did. the building was once a family residence, with several stories of rooms built around a central courtyard. our room was gorgeously appointed, with a carved wooden canopy bed and of course beautiful carpets. the woman running the guesthouse offered us some tea as she made copies of our passports and told us a bit about the house.

who wouldn't want to get lost in these streets
it was still early afternoon so we ventured out to explore. the streets were relatively deserted - we figured the holiday had something to do with that, although kairouan is not exactly a super touristy city anyway. we wandered through winding streets and i tried not to take a photo of every single door. (so... every other door) most of the shops were closed but we did happen upon a little family home turned museum (which of course is really a rug shop). the rooms were beautifully decorated - as we explored further we admired the carved and painted wooden ceilings, and textiles covering every available surface. then when you get to the back room the sales pitch begins. we managed to get out with just a small rug but it's not like we didn't like it.
dusk over domes and minarets

by this time we thought we'd go back to the room and rest for a bit. we relaxed in our room until the sun started to go down and it was a bit cooler. then we thought we'd go up to the roof and enjoy the view. the whole rooftop area is beautiful - covered in small tiles, little potted plants, and wrought-iron birdcages. the lady of the house somehow intuited that we were up there and brought up some citronade, a lemony drink that's a bit sour at first but then finishes very sweet. from here we could see over the rooftops as the sun started to go down. just as it was getting a bit dark the call to prayers began. the principle mosque was first, and after that other calls started to begin across the city. the voices of the various muezzins floating across the breeze was really wonderful.

kairouan streets by night
by the time the calls to prayer ended it was getting to be dark and we figured we should probably venture out in search of dinner. as we wandered through some of the same streets we did note that there were a few more shops open than before - convenience stores and little cafes with lots of men drinking coffee and smoking shisha - but no restaurants. finally just outside of the city walls we happened upon a little restaurant filled with locals. thrilled to find any kind of food we ordered what seemed to be all they were serving - roasted chicken served with a spicy egg dish, vegetables, french fries, and the ubiquitous round bread. it was all quite tasty and we were fairly hungry so it didn't take us long to polish off most of the food. the place was fairly small and very crowded with both people and stray cats but we still had a nice conversation over our simple meal. the only thing that marred our dining experience was when we went to pay. the guy at the counter told us our meal would be 20 dinar - as much as the fare for both of us all the way from tunis. i asked the guy again, skeptically if that was the price and raised my eyebrows but short of causing a scene i wasn't sure what else to do. but at least he knew i knew he was ripping me off... right?

towards mecca
minaret from the arcade
the next day we woke up to an amazing breakfast complete with both french croissants and tunisian round bread, accompanied by strong coffee and mango (we think) juice. we were a bit nervous that everything would be as shuttered as it had been the day before but fortunately as we walked out into the streets we began to see some shops open. our first stop, though, was the mosque. the principle mosque, that is, and one of the oldest in all of islam with construction beginning as early as 670. i'd been to kairouan once before but had managed to miss the open hours to visit the mosque so this time i was determined. fortunately it was open and we were able to visit (once i had used my scarf to cover my head). we saw very few tourists during our entire stay in kairouan but here we happened upon a family or two, although they did seem to be tunisian. it was so interesting to see the different ways the roman capitals were repurposed to create the arches inside the mosque. and we noticed there were even a few stones with carved latin - one that was put in upside down. the courtyard was vast - bigger than the interior of the mosque (as was typical of most early mosque architecture) and allowed us to see the stocky minaret from a variety of angles. the existence of this very old mosque is part of what makes kairouan the 4th holiest city of islam - and a UNESCO world heritage city to boot. at some point during our trip we learned that if you visit kairouan 7 times it's equivalent to performing the hajj. so i'm making progress!

rug shop views
at this point i remembered that there was a rug shop just across the road that offered beautiful views down into the mosque's courtyard so we ventured over. naturally we weren't about to enjoy that view without getting a sales pitch on carpets. we were in the market so of course we listened and looked at a number of them as the salespeople spun them around and demonstrated the number of knots but pulling up the corners. they had many varieties but since kairouan itself is known to be a hub for carpet-making we wanted one that was local. eventually we saw one we liked - red with chevrons in blue, black, and tan - and i haggled for what seemed like a fair price (who knows) of 325 dinar, or about $125. although JR agreed that he liked the carpet he didn't follow any of the rest of the conversation since it was all in french. but he played along when i looked disinterested and chuckled good-naturedly when they threw in a few phrases in english. ('wedding present') when i went downstairs to pay they made a show of plugging in an ancient credit card machine and showing me that it was not working. i'm certain this is done deliberately since cash is king (always) but i knew pulling out that much cash from an ATM would mean another hefty fee on my end. after berating them a little for trying to play me i told them if i had to use cash i'd be paying 300 - they acquiesced. we were content with our purchase - certainly the biggest of our honeymoon souvenirs - but this also meant we had to carry the carpet around until we could get back into the guest house to stash it. JR, wanted to be the gentleman, insisted on carrying it even as the twine they used to hold the paper together and create a makeshift handle was digging into his palms. we did stop by the guest house but we found that our hostess was out and were forced to continue on and try back later.
typical tunisian door
JR had been wanting to see the aghlabid basins, old cisterns that used to house water that was carried there from miles away. they were a bit of a hike, outside the city walls. we made our way there and were impressed by the size of them. the cisterns themselves held only a bit of green water littered with trash at the bottom. (our host later told us they used to be filled with clear water and the areas around them were often filled with families strolling and vendors selling toys and snacks.) still, JR was glad to have seen them, although surely would have been happier had he not had to carry the hefty carpet there. fortunately when we made our way back our host was there and we were able to drop the package off before setting out again. having wandered around the early part of the afternoon we managed to miss mealtime again. we finally found a little restaurant that seemed to be open in a small alley near the bazaar (fairly close, we think, to where parts of indiana jones was filmed). we had a 'brik' of tuna in flaky crust topped with eggs (which seems to be a popular tunisian dish) and coucous merguez with carrots and sausages. along with tea, tomato soup and nice bathrooms it made for a very pleasant lunch.

gladiators' view
having finally eaten we made our way towards the louage station in hopes of reaching el jem (sometimes spelled 'djem'), the site of a colosseum-like roman ruin. although it's a fairly straight shot we had to go through sousse which is more of a hub. we were able to get onto a van fairly quickly on both legs which was lucky, because it was already getting to be fairly late in the afternoon and we weren't even sure how late the site would be open. i hoped JR might sleep during some of the ride but he always seemed to be looking out the window. when we made it to the little town of el jem it was fairly obvious where to go, as the amphitheater rises up in the midst of an otherwise flat city filled with one and two story buildings. the town was what you might call bustling, at least for being as small as it was. we made sure to note where the louage station was and made mental notes of a few landmarks along the way. when we arrived it was nearly 5 and the sun was beginning to sink in the sky. fortunately the site was still open and we found a few bored attendants in the ticket offices and only one or two other families inside. the roman ruins don't seem to be marketed terribly well in tunisia which i suppose is both a blessing and a curse in that the lessened traffic probably helps to preserve them. still, there were some sites we heard or read about that seemed incredible but would have been all but impossible to get to.

that golden glow
in any case my historian was thrilled that we'd made it here and i have to say it was pretty incredible. the building itself was remarkably well preserved - like a mini colosseum but made of sandstone and much more accessible. by that i mean we could go virtually everywhere - up into the stands, down onto the floor and even down below where the people and animals would have been kept. for my part i was delighted we got there when we did because the golden light made the building and carved details that much more beautiful. JR had a ball, even going up into the stands and playing emperor. i was so glad we'd ended up going. we knew we'd better get back to the louage station sooner than later but on our way we couldn't help stopping at an intriguing little antique shop. it had all sorts of treasures including architectural elements, carved wooden objects and metal tea sets. we ended up finding a little wrought iron window grille painted light blue (although peeling and rusted in some spots, naturally) that we knew would make a great souvenir. and it had the added advantage of being somewhat flat and easy to pack. once we'd gotten that, and a red stone necklace for me, we made our way somewhat hurriedly back to the louage station. at some point we picked up a local who pretended to be guiding us somewhere (presumably the station) and motioning for us to hurry (which of course we knew was nonsense as louages don't leave at prescribed times). we ignored him as best we could - we knew perfectly well where we were going - but it didn't deter him. when we got to the station he acted as though he had guided us there and of course motioned for some payment for his 'services'. i told him plainly in french that he didn't do anything and we knew where the station was. he didn't make a fuss and left fairly quickly.

kairouan from the guesthouse window
unlike earlier we did have to wait a bit for a louage this time. finally we managed to cobble together enough passengers to head to sousse and we left just as the sun was going down in earnest. in sousse we had a bit of a wait as well and we were beginning to realize this would be our best opportunity to have some sort of food. there was a little sandwich shop open in the station so i dashed over there to get us some food. there were a number of guys milling around and we weren't at all sure who our driver was so i made sure to teach JR how to say 'wait for my wife' just in case it looked like they were starting to leave. i got us some chicken schwarma on baguettes with harissa (spicy sauce) and french fries from a nice guy who - like many people - seemed very surprised that i was american. americans don't much come to tunisia, i imagine. we tried a different flavor of boga cola this time - purple. we guessed either plum or tamarind. as it turned we still had a bit of a wait even after we finished our sandwiches. eventually we did get going though and good lord i don't think i've ever been on such a harrowing drive. that's really the only word for it. it was clear the guy - a young guy who seemed to be trying to impress the other cool dudes back at the louage station - was going WAY too fast by the speed at which the headlights were zooming by. and listening to incredibly loud music or talking on his phone the whole time! i couldn't look (i just clenched JR's arm) but JR said he's never seen anyone come that close to hitting other cars when passing them. as soon as we got close enough to the city in an area we recognized (near our dinner spot from the night before) we jumped out, glad to have made it back in one piece. i've been on some scary drives before but nothing like that!

we were glad to get back to the sleepy town of kairouan although somewhat sad to pack up our things. we'd missed the one mausoleum i'd wanted to see (we did find it but it was closed) - still we made it to the mosque and bought our much-anticipated carpet which were definitely the top two items on my list.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ferry tale

as with any trip, our honeymoon did have a hiccup or two. the principle one was the ordeal that was getting to the ferry which would take us to tunisia. we got up at an ungodly hour so that we could check in by 6am, as our ticket indicated that the absolute latest we could check in was FOUR HOURS before departure. we were fairly certain this would prove to be untrue but we didn't want to take any chances. so we woke up in the wee hours of the morning and made our way down the steps of the hotel. our cab ride to the port took all of 5 minutes and cost us 15 euros in a textbook example of highway robbery. of course we were too tired and out of our element to even attempt arguing so we paid and tried to move on.

we went into the building near the port which looked something like an empty shopping mall. most everything was closed (naturally) so we wandered around for some time, trying to figure out if there was even anyone we could talk to. eventually we saw someone who seemed to be a security agent and he gestured upstairs. we eventually made our way to the ticket window, which, naturally, didn't open until 6am. so much for that four-hour window. after waiting for the window to open and checking in we were told the ship wouldn't start boarding until 8am. great. when we asked where to board the ship the woman gestured vaguely towards the water and said 'number one'.

we made our way past the many closed shops and out the building. we walked down the steps following arrows indicating the numbers of the ports. number one of course was conspicuously absent. on the way down the metal stairs we passed a woman who seemed to be carrying everything she owned, including at least one small dog. we followed the arrows on the ground until they ended abruptly and we were left in a parking lot bounded by a chain link fence. we noticed someone else walking around the curve of the road and so we blindly followed him.. until he got into one of the big rig trucks parked there. cool.

we continued on until we saw some folks milling around with luggage, a good sign, we figured. we sat around with them for a moment, unsure of what to do. eventually some employee (again maybe a security official?) looked at our tickets and pointed for us to go inside the fence toward a building. finally we could see the ship! we entered the building next to it and were again not sure of what to do as nothing was labeled, except for the vending machines that were very clearly marked 'SNACK AREA'. we saw people in line at windows so we went to one where our tickets were examined and we were told to go to the customs line when it opened. as soon as it did everyone who had been waiting rushed to get in line so we jostled in too. after 10 minutes or so in line we reached the front and were told we needed a customs form (makes sense) which the man at the first window had failed to give us. so back to get the form (JR prevented me from yelling at the guy but i was quite cranky and definitely wanted to) and then back in the customs line again.

we thought from here surely it would be smooth sailing (pun intended) but in fact despite being right next to the ship it was not at all clear where to go. we watched a few people but most got into cars that were waiting to board. finally we saw someone walk in on the far side of the ship so we followed suit. we were told to walk to our room and waved off when we said we didn't have a key. we walked and walked down to the opposite end of the ship only to find, as expected, the room was locked. i left JR with the bags and walked all the way back. upon returning i was told there would be someone down the hall. i explained that there wasn't and then i was told to go up to the 8th floor which i did. here i was told our room had been changed and i was given a new key. so back down two flights to retrieve JR and then back up to the 8th floor and down the hall. finally we reached our room. i was incredibly glad we had decided to splurge for a room with a bed. people do fend for themselves, snatching sleep in the many chairs and couches that line the various parts of the ship. although in the case of the woman we saw earlier she decided to park herself and her many belongings in the middle of a stairwell..

once in the room we collapsed on the beds, pulled closed the blackout curtains, and got some much-needed sleep.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

quattro terre

from nice we hopped on the train to genoa, a short but pleasant trip that skirted the coast. just a few minutes after we crossed into italy we heard some animated shouting in italian between a guy and the ticket checker. the only words we could make out were 'passaporto' and 'f*** you' (okay, that one was in english). there was a lot of raised voices and gesticulating - how italian can you get? other than that our train ride was uneventful and at about 8.30 we arrived in genoa. we stayed at a little hotel about a five minute walk from the station (not the main station but the one closer to the port). almost as soon as we got there we headed out in search of dinner. we only had about 24 hours in italy and we were intent on making the most of it (read: eating all the pasta).

perfect panna cotta
i had worried that that part of town would be a little dead by 9pm but there were still people milling about and restaurants open. we wandered down a few alleys and found a little italian (obviously) place with a seafood theme. it was a cozy little spot and we were tucked into a little spot near the door, surrounded by other people lingering over their meals (so italian). we got pasta with some pesto alla genovese (when in genoa..!) and some sort of wheat pasta with shrimp. both were very tasty. even though these were primi (not secondi) with our soft italian bread and white wine it was just enough. of course when we saw panna cotta on the dessert menu i decided we definitely had room. it was served in a little jar, infused with basil and served with blueberry sauce. perfetto!

the mare and monterosso
the next morning we headed out fairly early to catch a train to levanto. we made time to stop at the corner bar for an espresso and some lemony pastries. lemons are grown in the region and infused into just about everything - limoncello, pastries, gelato. the whole ride to levanto, and then from levanto to monterosso (our first of the cinque terre cities) i was watching the skies. it looked gray and overcast and it wasn't promising to be a great day weather-wise. when we made it to monterosso al mare, after about two hours, the sun was just barely started to peek through and we were a bit more hopeful. we got off the train and out of the tiny station and were right at the waterfront. first things first, we made sure JR got to touch the water. his first time in the mediterranean! at first we were a bit disoriented and couldn't figure out where we were on our map. after hiking up one direction to no avail we got our bearings. we walked up the correct hill this time to see the small church at the top which for some reason has a van eyck altarpiece. inside the quiet church there was choir music playing softly and we lingered, enjoying the coolness and admiring the painting. by the time we got to the top the sun was fully out - which we were grateful for. but also it was starting to get a little toasty. the view from the top looking down onto the turquoise water was definitely worth it though.

seaside snack
we wandered back down the hill and up the street that ran through the town. there was a little outdoor market happening and we stopped so JR could buy some cheap sunglasses (he forgot his, but we were glad that we actually needed them). we also picked up a little carved olive wood wine stopper, which we thought was a nice souvenir. farther up the street there were all kinds of souvenir shops and little cafes. we stopped in here and there and ended up with a bottle of limoncino and a jar of freshly made organic pesto. monterosso was supposed to be one of the better spots for shopping so we figured why not. at this point we were already fairly hungry so we set our sights on focaccia, another local delicacy. we found some right along the waterfront and we opted for one drizzled with (what else) local pesto. we enjoyed it right by the sea and i've honestly never had focaccia that good. it was warm, soft, and tasted so fresh.

sea & spritz
we wanted to head on to vernazza, so we walked up to the train station. there are walking trails between each of the cities but some are more arduous than others and we had limited time. the trains come fairly regularly but it's still italy so.. we waited for a little while on the hot platform before the next train arrived. vernazza we were let out in the middle of town, not down by the water. we made our way downhill along the main street and then back uphill again to explore a small church. at this point it was downright hot and we were ready for a little respite. we climbed uphill towards the castle and stopped at the ristorante de castello. we got a little table along the outside of the cafe, right along the water. JR got a local beer and i got an aperol spritz. we'd been seeing aperol on menus but weren't sure what it was. seems a bit like campari. it was light and refreshing and perfectly accompanied by a view of the boats on the water below.

manarola views
we made our way back to the train station at a leisurely pace, stopping to admire the view or pop into a little shop. we got a few more focaccia, this time planning to save them for our following day on the ferry. on the train (only two minutes late this time!) we decided to skip corniglia, at least for the time being, which is the only city that's inland, and head to manarola. it may be the most picturesque of the towns, with colorful buildings piled on top of each other on the hillside overlooking the water. we went down to the water and climbed in the rocks to try to get a better view of the town. tourists were out there sunning themselves and swimming in the water. i have to admit it did look tempting, being as hot as it was, but walking around in wet clothes would have been somewhat miserable. instead we walked on, around the bend which eventually gave us a very nice view of the town. our destination was nessun dorma, a restaurant perched on the hill that cocktails to match its lovely view. we made it there only to be greeted with a small line of like-minded tourists waiting for tables. i'm sure if this had been high season the place would have been even more slammed. there was a long wait for tables on the cliff-side but we figured one on the interior would suffice. we were seated in front of their small garden area, surrounded by rosemary, eggplant, squash and (of course) lemons. we each got cocktails, both with lemon. one featured a number of fruits while the other was a simple limoncino spritz. both were perfectly refreshing. we capped off our little afternoon stop with a plate of meats and cheeses, spending some of our very last euros in the process, eek (by the way, what is it with tourist towns not accepting credit cards? annoying.)

we all scream for gelato
at this point we wanted to walk along the via del'amore for a little bit, not necessarily all the way to the next town but at least to get a glimpse of some of the views. we walked back down to manarola and up out of town the other direction. we walked for about 10 minutes, passing a little cafe. it was only after the cafe that the path was blocked off and we saw a sign indicating that the path was closed due to rockslides. a bit disappointed, we made our way back down into the town and walked up along the path toward nessun dorma again. we followed the curve of the cliff and about 100 yards ahead once again found ourselves at the end of the road, literally. again rockslides were listed as the culprit. (we later looked it up online and JR discovered that these paths have been closed for several years! one wonders if they're actually working on them.) a bit disappointed at missing out on the two trails we had wanted to try, we decided to console ourselves with some gelato. lemon and nutella, how very italian.

our pricey drinks
our next stop was the last of the five towns, riomaggiore. after getting off the train we wandered through some alleys (right along people's verandahs and front doors, in some cases) and eventually made our way down to the main drag. our goal was to find some sciacchetrà (pronounced ska-che-TRA), the dessert wine we had read about. we hadn't seen it on any menus so far. we thought maybe it was just local to the cinque terre. or perhaps just touristy. we eventually found a bar with a table outside on the very sloping hill. we got a sciacchetrà and limoncello, spending our very last euros in the process (that always makes me nervous). we people-watched as we sipped our drinks. the wine was more like a sherry or madeira - different than we'd been expecting but not bad.
not a practical place for boats, i'd say
as we went to pay the waiter? bartender? owner? tried to insist that the wine was 10 euro rather than the 7 that was listed on the menu. i think he was trying to argue that the wrong menus had been put out or something but we literally did not have any more money so in the end he relented (although obviously he was in the wrong anyway!). we meandered down the sloping street to the water. the actual waterfront in riomaggiore is quite small, but it doesn't stop the fishermen from dragging their little boats out of the water and up the hill back to their houses. it seems ludicrous - there have to be easier places to fish! one assumes their families have been there for generations or else why would they stay in these crazy place that must be overrun with tourists most of the year.

end of the day
we were tired and sweaty at this point but before heading back we thought we'd stop one last time in vernazza, hoping to catch some views of the golden rays on the water. we walked out on the breakers where the sun was starting to go down and we watched as the boats bobbed in the water, fishermen waiting for their turn to haul their boats in on the ramp going up into the town. behind us the sun was starting to go down and the sky was glowing orange. we waited a bit longer but knew that at some point we'd have to start the journey back. so we made our way back to monterosso where we got the train to levanto. the next train wasn't for a little while so we waited in the little station, trying to cobble together some change to get a drink from the vending machine. it's an uncomfortable feeling not having any cash. eventually the train came, although we had to get out again midway for the last leg of our trip back to genoa. the little layover took quite a while so we amused ourselves by trying to translate the tabloid covers that were posted on ads around the station.
traditional trufie
finally the train came and we made it back to genoa around 9. again we didn't have too much difficulty finding a place open (thank you, italy, for your late dinners) and we were determined to get pesto alla genovese with the traditional trufie pasta. we succeeded and had a lovely meal in a small restaurant, enjoying watching the little baby at the other table. we knew it would be an incredibly early morning the next day to catch the ferry so we didn't linger quite as long as we might have. but i think it's fair to say we made the most of our 30 hours in italy.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

provençal life

after all the busyness of wedding preparations we were thrilled to go on our long-awaited honeymoon (that i'd been planning for close to a year..). we flew from charleston through atlanta to paris where we spent some time at charles de gaulle waiting for our train, which left directly from the airport (quite convenient). while we waited we had our first croissants, albeit from a brioche dorée, but still better than most american versions. the train ride to avignon was lovely and on the way we enjoyed some overpriced oranginas while we watched the countryside go by. we stopped briefly in my beloved lyon, where we got a very quick glimpse of fourvière up on the hill. there also seemed to be some kind of altercation at the station - we saw some station police chasing someone, followed by several minutes of people in uniform standing around and smoking.

two of my favorite words
we arrived in avignon and walked about 50 yards (meters, rather) to the rental car place. couldn't have been more convenient. we got out car and J.R. did a great job driving to our hotel, despite sometimes confusing directions. the hotel was just outside the old city walls, which actually worked very well since we were driving out of town most of the time. our room was lovely and, with stone walls and a window overlooking the small garden. after unpacking a bit and freshening up we set out. we thought we'd pop into avignon to get a quick bite to eat before heading out of town. we had to go a bit farther into the city than we thought - about a 15 minute walk to the city center. looking for something quick, we eventually got a crêpe to go. (so began my pattern of taking pictures of JR eating typically french foods for the first time.) we ate the (surprisingly large) crêpes as we walked back towards the hotel. oh i forgot to mention - the south of france was experiencing a heat wave when we were there so temperatures were up around 95 degrees. of course we're used to that in south carolina (where ironically they were having unusual balmy weather) but we'd been anticipating temperatures about 20 degrees cooler. still, we didn't have the south carolina humidity to deal with.

honeymoon in a bottle
our first stop was the small town of châteaurenard, which is the current site of the frigolet distillery. monks first began brewing this liqueur several hundred years ago in their abbey, about 15 kilometers away. much like the monks who created chartreuse near grenoble. we walked into the distillery's little shop, where we were greeted by the very nice proprietor who gave us some samples of the greenish yellow liqueur. it's made with local herbs and i was a little worried it would be overly medicinal, like chartreuse. but it was very nice - slightly sweet and not overly herby. it's actually made with honey so we thought it was appropriate as our first honeymoon sourvenir.

sweet streets of saint rémy
our next stop was the town of saint rémy de provence. i had initially thought about staying here since it seemed very quaint in the pictures. i hadn't been able to find a hotel but i think staying in avignon worked out better as a hub. the town was pretty and there was a nice little church with a star-painted ceiling. there were some nice little shops with the usual wares - provençal linens, olive wood, soaps, lavender and clothes (indian block prints seem to be in vogue) but everything was pretty pricey. there wasn't much to actually do in the town so we moved on after a quick walk through the main streets.

just up the road from the center of town was the monastery of saint paul de mausole, where van gogh famously spent some time. we were able to see go to his onetime bedroom, with a window looking out on the gardens. if we had been there just a few weeks earlier the fields would have been filled with lavender in bloom but unfortunately the gardens were pretty sparse. still, it was pretty neat to see the area where van gogh painted several of his better known pieces, including one of his self portraits and 'starry night' (just one 'starry' - that's a pet peeve of mine).

fanciful frigolet
if we'd had more time we might have explored arles or nimes but as it was it was starting to get late in teha fternoon so we made our way back towards avignon, making one pit stop in frigolet where we saw the abbey of the liqueur-making monks. there seemed to still be some monks there so it must be a working monastery. there weren't many people around and we were worried the church would be closed. luckily the door was open so we were able to see the elaborately painted interior - everything from the columns to the walls were covered in colorful patterns and figures. once we'd had a look around we decided to head back.

golden glow on the roof
our goal was to make it to the palais des papes with enough time to see the whole complex. we spent the last two hours they were open there. the audio guide was fairly good and there was a lot of interpretive material. they also installed some contemporary art which was neat. the current exhibition focused on african art - the large golden el anatsui was particularly impressive. we explored every part of the building we could - from the pope's quarters (where i was most struck by the pretty tile floor) to the rooftop, which we caught just as the sun was starting to go down. JR (the historian) really enjoyed exploring all the rooms and wished we'd had a little more time.

see the palace in the corner?
we had a few hours before the light show at the palace so we walked around in search of a nice dinner. i'd seen a place advertising beef with roquefort sauce which sounded delicious. we spent a fair amount of time finding a place that had it, passing many touristy looking (read: menus in four languages) places along the way. JR was very patient and eventually we found the perfect spot. it was at the hotel palais des papes, just around the corner from the papal palace. we got a spot outside, where we enjoyed the darkening sky and the breezy weather now that the sun had gone down. JR got a glass of wine and i had my first (of many) kir, which is white wine with crème de cassis and we toasted to our first full day as husband and wife. my meal was delicious, i scraped up every speck of cheese sauce with my bread (when in france..) and JR enjoyed his eggplant dish too. we decided to cap off our meal with a cheese plate, probably one of the best french traditions. everything was delicious and even though we were stuffed we made some room for a little more bread so we could try every tasty morsel.

layers of history
we were able to linger over dinner and still had enough time to make the very short walk back to the papal palace. they have an illumination every evening in the summer and we wanted to catch the english version. the show was really impressive. the projections covered all four walls of the courtyard we were inside and were so elaborate. they told the story of avignon and the palace, although not in a very linear way. still, the visuals alone were really stunning. poor JR nodded off a few times (normally that's all me!) because he was so tired. he hadn't slept at all on the flight - he never does - and of course we'd been pretty go, go, go. after the show ended (about 45 minutes, longer than i'd expected!) we did the 20 minute walk back to the hotel. the town is really pretty quiet at night as far as we can tell, although we did pass one or two bars that must have had some people in them.

the next day we set out east. our first stop was a tiny town that we stopped in only because they were having their weekly market. we stopped into a little bakery where we got some pastries, followed by a little bar where we grabbed a table for some coffee. JR wanted to try an espresso and i got a latte. the waitress seemed rather surly at first but when she came back with our drinks she pointed out the little heart in the foam on top. when i told her it was our honeymoon she got such a kick out of it, even saying she had goosebumps. (incidentally, that's how i learned the french word for goosebumps). we stopped at the little market - all of about 12 little vendors set up in the square in front of the church. we got some tomatoes, pears, and a few cheeses for our picnic later on and put them in the little insulated bag i'd brought.

heart of the town
a little farther east we stopped in l'isle sur la sorgue, a charming little town with a canal running through the middle. it was at this point that i realized my camera battery was dead and my spare was back in the hotel room. luckily i had my phone so i made the best of it. the town was full of cute little shops, bakeries, bookstores, and antique shops. we stopped in a little artisanal shop where we got some saucisson (basically salami) with herbes de provence, a mixture of various regional herbs that they put on everything. at some bakeries we got a baguette to round out our picnic fare and some meringues for dessert.

le spread
our next stop was fontaine de vaucluse, a tiny little town established near the source of the sorgue river. we wanted to have our picnic before we got into town so we stopped just outside near the river where we found a little bench that we thought would be perfect. it was a very picturesque spot and would have been perfect if it weren't for the bees who terrorized us. they were very interested in our cheese and were not easily dissuaded. still, the creamy brie/bleu cheese was delicious and our saucisson made for the perfect addition. even our 2 euro convenience store rosé was very nice.

looking up
we ended up walking up to fontaine de vaucluse since parking in the town itself was so scarce. we paid the usual 4 euro (about what we paid everywhere) and walked uphill to the middle of town. in the center there was a roundabout and just next to it was a bridge over the remarkably clear water of the sorgue. you could see all the greenery below, just beautiful. there were waterwheels here and there. the town was bordered by hills on one side that loomed above us. (vaucluse means closed valley, which seems appropriate.) on one of the hills was a castle where apparently pertrach once lived. thomas jefferson visited this little burg and wrote home describing its charms.

green (not really) water
from the middle of town we followed the path to the source. along the way we stopped at an old paper mill, powered of course by a water wheel, which was supposed to have a small museum inside. while there were displays of old techniques used to create paper, there wasn't much a museum per se, at least not that we could see. most of the space was devoted to a shop, filled with paper goods presumably all made with paper created on site. we passed shop after shop mostly filled with clothes and souvenirs. eventually we made it to the source of the river. the actual source is way down below in a small cave so we couldn't go down and touch it (the rocks surrounding it were quite steep). there were metal strips attached to certain parts of the rocks that were used to measure the water level so that area must have flooded at some point. despite the day being (once again) very hot, spots around the source were oddly cool with a refreshing breeze.

gorgeous gordes
our next stop was the hilltop village of gordes. picturesque really is the best way to describe it. the tiny town is plopped on the top of a hill, with the church steeple towering above it all. like a miniature mont st. michel almost. we stopped at a cafe with a small terrace on the side of the hill which looked out on the fields and stone buildings below. JR enjoyed a beer while i had my usual kir and wrote a bit in my journal. of course the best view is of the town, rather than seen from it, so we walked around the road to get a better look. from here we could see all the little houses built out of the side of the cliff, with trees dotted in between. as a reward for our walk we got some ice cream once we made it back to the town proper. lavender (because provence) and butter pecan (just because).

ochreS is right
since we had a bit more daylight left we figured we could squeeze in a quick visit to roussillon. this little village is known as the 'colorado of provence' for its odd preponderance of orange rock formations. this particular soil composition exists only a handful of places in the world and it was really rather surreal to see this bryce canyon-like scene in the middle of the luberon. we walked along the sentier des ochres, following the path down into a small valley as orange cliffs and trees rose up on either side of us. there were some really beautiful variations of orange and yellow in the color of the rocks and i was sad not to have my camera to capture the detail better. the loop we walked didn't take nearly as long as predicted but that was just as well since we figured we should be getting back fairly soon. the town of roussillon seemed rather colorful itself, although most places were starting to close up and we didn't really have time to explore in any case. the ride back was largely uneventful although we did stop once along the road to see some of the vineyards up close.. only to discover the vines were covered in little white snails! escargots plus (future) wine, how much more french can you get. we had hoped to eat at a little place called fou de fafa, which we were mostly delighted by because of the flight of the concords song. i read that it was actually really good but foolishly failed to make reservations as advised. sadly when we walked up a sign in the window read 'fully booked'. we ended up at another lovely spot, though, which featured fresh, local ingredients that changed often. i got a seafood platter which about six or seven different fruits de la mer, while JR had a sampling of mostly meats that he really enjoyed. we sat out on an otherwise empty street full of closed shops and had a very nice little meal. stupidly we had failed to buy any wine (apart from our picnic rosé that was long gone) to bring back and have in the hotel room. we looked in vain for an open grocery store but there were none to be found. too tired to stay at a bar, we went back to the hotel room slightly disappointed, mostly in ourselves.

ye olde horlage
the next day we packed up and headed out, trying to squeeze what we could into our last day in provence and still making it to nice in time to catch our train. we stopped at salon de provence, again primarily because they had a market that day. before we made it there we found the clock tower and its eponymous boulangerie below. we had some very tasty pastries before heading to a cheese shop nearby. i'd recently read that you can ask to have cheese vacuum sealed and (after looking up the french translation) thought i'd try it out. success! we picked out two good-looking cheeses and had them emballer-ed sous vide. we strolled through the market, admiring the sun-dried tomatoes and olives but didn't buy much more than some saucisson to take with us. i had a vague hope that some of these markets would include handmade ceramics or carved wood from the region but no such luck. it  could be that only the bigger, more touristy cities have such things. we did, however, clean up at the local casino (a grocery store, not a casino sadly) buying chocolate, wine (lesson learned!), cookies, and soda in anticipation of our ferry ride to come.

hello gorgeous
next up was a slightly longer jaunt, to aix-en-provence. it's a bigger city so getting into the city center was more of a hassle. rather than look around for parking (and already getting nervous about time) we settled for the first pay lot we came across. our plan was to have a nice lunch and see what else we had time for. we were closer to italy and we could definitely feel the influence, as we passed many a pizza/pasta restaurant. we picked a bustling restaurant with several rows of tables outside. we had a fantastic meal of pizza and caprese salad with the freshest mozzarella and tomatoes, marred only slightly by my spilling wine all over the table and myself. i think it may have gotten on the waitress' shoes a bit (not bad when you consider what could have happened!) and she was.. not thrilled. not what i'd call my finest moment. still, i managed to catch the glass before it spilled completely and the manager (definitely not our waitress) even gave us little glasses of lemoncello when he heard we were on our honeymoon. yup, definitely inching closer to italy. by the time we left the restaurant we had time for little besides stopping at a patisserie (always a priority) to get a caramel eclair with speculoos (those biscoff cookies delta gives you? yeah, those) bits on top. heavenly! we also popped into a souvenir shop to get the last of our provence souvenirs (lavender, herbes de provence, soaps).

wine country
since provence is the heart of rosé country we knew we wanted to stop at a winery on our way east. i had identified one weeks ago that looked promising and picturesque so we made our way there. we passed a number of other wineries along the way and part of me thought we should just stop at one of them but for whatever reason we pressed on to chateau gassier. there was a very nice girl working there who gave us a tasting. she didn't pressure us to buy anything but we ended up getting a bottle. we even got scratch-off cards for some reason and JR won us two wine glasses (great, more breakable things to pack..) which was neat. apparently they screen movies and have events at this particular winery. the setting, with the craggy gray mountains looming in the distance, was quite nice and it was definitely worth the small detour.

from here we had our longest leg of the day, although it didn't seem to take terribly long. as we approached the big city of nice JR was (understandably) nervous about finding our way and being on busy city streets. he did a great job though and we only had to backtrack once. we found the train station easily enough but it wasn't immediately clear how to get to the car rental return area. we (and the car) made it unscathed so all was well. i have to say that the french road signs, even at smaller roundabouts, were almost always very clear. JR did a great job driving and it was great having the freedom to go wherever we wanted. in retrospect we may have crammed a bit too much in sometimes but there's just so much to see and it's hard not to feel like you're missing out on seeing a great little town. the one big downside of driving was all the tolls.. they really added up by the end. in any case, we made it to nice with enough time to get a coffee and buy a few drinks before catching our train.

next stop: italia!