Saturday, February 10, 2018

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 pasta all 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!

Friday, December 09, 2016

trailing the incans

we left our hotel after enjoying the hotel's extensive breakfast (complete with nutella and pillowy little croissants) before meeting the taxi driver the hotel had helped us arrange. we left cusco, traveling up over 12,000 ft (thank you, snapchat) on our way out of town. for miles we saw little besides rolling hills, the occasional goat, and a few people in traditional dress (women in braids and skirts with bright sweaters) walking along the road. there were a few llamas too, when we passed by villages. the houses we saw were mostly few and far between but a good portion of them were entirely painted with the names of presidential candidates. i wonder if they get paid to do that. it seems a little.. extreme.

they're much farther than they look
our first stop was the stepped terraces of moray. to get in we had to buy a pass for a number of archaeological sites within the sacred valley - which cost almost as much as our tickets to machu picchu! (gotta make money somehow, right?) we figured we wouldn't have time to see more than a couple but we did want to explore some of the sacred valley on our way. as i mentioned, we didn't have tons of time to linger - and my mom couldn't have hiked all the way to the bottom and back up - so we contended ourselves to walk around the edges. the terraces here were used for farming - specifically to test out certain crops that the incans may have then planted closer to home. we later learned that the incans would have eaten corn and quinoa but also lots of different beans.

panning out
our second stop was, i thought, far more visually impressive although arguably less archaeological significant. the salt pans of maras at first seem tiny because you're so far above them. in actuality each one is about 6-8 feet square and covered in tiny salt crystals. you can walk in between them, along the crystalline walls of the pans, which was rather surreal. it reminded me of a cross between mammoth hot springs and the leather tanneries of marrakech. i wish we'd had a little longer to explore but just being there (and, yes, sampling the salt) was a worthwhile experience in itself. on our way out i made sure to buy some salted chocolate for the office.

from there it was still a short drive to ollentaytambo, where we had barely enough time to scarf down our lunch before being dropped at the train station. the lunch was tasty - sopa criolla with noodles, egg, and tasty broth and my first chicha morada, a lemonade-type drink made from blue corn - and the town itself looked rather nice, if a bit touristy. it's too bad we didn't have longer to explore. we were told to be there early for the train so of course we didn't want to take any chances. we seemed to be about the first tourists there but before long the waiting area was full of fellow travelers looking in vain for a place to charge their phones (it pays to get there early!)

by the time the train was in the station the clouds had rolled in and it looked like it might rain. we took our seats in the vistadome train which i think ended up being a bit overblown. (again, you gotta make money somehow) it was basically a normal train with transom windows which didn't afford you a view of much except the clouds. and the lights were on inside the train which means the view is obscured by the reflection. they did give you a drink and a little quinoa pizza, which was a nice touch. the view was fairly stunning, with mountains rising impossibly high all around us and the river beside us. we followed the river the whole way to aguas calientes, the little town in the valley closest to machu picchu.

we left the tiny train station and immediately found ourselves in the middle of a labyrinthian market that seemed like something out of morocco or india. we were disoriented but eventually found our way out with some direction. the little town of aguas calientes exists solely to accommodate tourists visiting machu picchu so as you can imagine it's full of hotels, restaurants, and little shops with snacks and souvenirs. from the train station, most of the buildings are uphill. the whole town is built up around the river - presumably the agua of aguas calientes, although i can't imagine it's terribly warm. the incline, particularly with luggage, was tough for my mom with the altitude and her asthma, but we took it slow and she made it. after settling in we made arrangements for the next day - including a search for a rather elusive ATM (for all the tourists you'd think there would be more. i guess they're hoping you'll use a currency exchange place) with an exorbitant fee ($13!), buying our MP tickets, getting our bus tickets, and booking a tour guide. we were planning on an early night as we had (yet another) early morning ahead of us but we did venture out for a small dinner.

we were up the next morning at 4 after about six hours of sleep. the hotel was rather noisy - according to my mother; i never wake up - which is annoying. it's definitely not the nicest of hotels we've stayed in but it was fine for one night. at the advice of guide books we elected to catch the very first bus, or groups of buses, in hopes of getting views of early morning light and missing the rain. we had worried that it would be totally overcast or, worse, rain while we were up there but as we waited in line we noticed a little peek of sunshine coming through the clouds so we were hopeful. we later learned that the weather changes so quickly up there in the mountains - it's so high it has its own micro-climate. by the time we reached the top - only about 10 minutes after we boarded the bus - the skies had started to clear and i was thinking we might get some views with rays of sunshine peeking through. i rushed ahead, at my mom's suggestion, while she took her time climbing the many steps to the lookout spot. i made it up fairly quickly - actually perhaps a little too quickly. i never really felt winded from the altitude (we were at about 8000 ft there) but i did notice my heart beating faster than it usually would have.

first view
that first view was as magnificent as i had imagined. there were a few other people who had made their way up there but it was still enough space to peacefully take in the view. it's one of those places that's surreal to be in because you've seen the image so many times. but also you feel as though you're completely isolated - surrounded by enormous mountains for miles on every side. it's amazing to think that anyone would have built anything somewhere so remote. just getting all those huge stones to that spot was dangerous and time consuming - it took them 100 years to build the site. my mom and i enjoyed the view for a good while before moving on.

llama llama
we walked down along the many terraces (of course used for farming), through the main gate and in towards some of the temple areas. the prevailing theories were that this was either a university or a site for astrological purposes. they know the men's and women's living quarters were separated and that the king would have visited twice a year, on the solstices. there's a sundial in one of the temples that indicates the solstices. their lives were dominated by two seasons - summer, the rainy season when they'd plant the crops and winter, when they could build. there were some nice examples of that typical incan masonry - the huge blocks smoothed out to fit with no mortar - but there were other structures that were used with smaller stones also. we had some close encounters with some of the many llamas who roam the grounds - partly for the gratification of tourists i'm sure but they also serve the useful purpose of trimming the grass in an area that would otherwise be nearly impossible to maintain. they don't seem to mind being touched but they don't care much about posing for photos.

clouds rolling in
our guide did a nice job of explaining structures as we passed them along with telling us a bit about how the incans lived and the kinds of things they would have eaten, including the central role of coca that remains important in peru even today. down on the lower portion of the site we saw some of the residential areas and another temple - the temple of the condor this time. there's a large rock formation which is supposed to resemble the bird with a pit below. based on the skeletons they found at the bottom they assumed this space was used for ritual animal sacrifices (no humans). nearby were also two shallow pools carved out of rock. eventually they determined these were used for looking up at the stars without having to actually look up. not long after we arrived the clouds that were still in the sky rolled away and it was sunny and even warm for the majority of the time we were there. it was hard to guess at what they weather was going to be like so we were glad we hadn't brought our heavier sweaters and even more glad that it didn't rain. our guide left us after he had guided us through the ruins and let us explore on our own. i walked along the terraces a bit more and back up to the initial spot where you get that quintessential view of huyana picchu (the mountain beyond the site that some crazy people climb up). i wanted to take a few more minutes to drink in the view, not knowing when i'd be back here again. this time there were quite a few more people around and it was a little less tranquil.

terrace tea
by the time we made our way back down to town it was only midday since we'd gotten such an early start. we still had a few hours to kill before our train back to cusco so we decided to relax in a little french cafe with some pastries and coffee. we lingered quite a while and eventually realized that it had started to rain. we were thankful we weren't up at machu picchu then - although we couldn't be sure it was actually raining up there. eventually we made our way back to the hotel and had some tea on the terraces as we passed the time watching the rain. we gave ourselves plenty of time for a late lunch before we had to make it to the train. the walk back to the station was much easier - downhill this time. i was anxious to sleep on the train but the staff seemed bent on making sure that didn't happen. one thing after another - music, then a fashion show of traditional peruvian clothes, and when they weren't doing anything they seemed to blow the horn every fifteen minutes. we arrived back in poroy - for some reason the train doesn't quite go all the way to cusco - and we were glad to see our earlier taxi driver we had arranged to meet. finally about 20 minutes later we were back in our lovely hotel and i went down to take advantage of the spa.

piles for miles
the next day we got to sleep in until all of 7 and got a cab to take us to pisac. on the way we stopped at a few incan ruins to try to make use of our expensive passes but maybe we were a bit blasé after all the impressive sites we'd already seen. after a short drive we made it to pisac, a nearby town in another valley. we happened to be there on market day, and we'd heard it was one of the best so we were eager to explore. the market took up all of the large main square, with produce at the front and textiles and other goods in the back section. we made our way towards the back, poring over brightly colored alpaca blankets and scarves and trying to decide what we should get. we strolled up and down the stalls, slowly crossing off items on our list of christmas presents. i settled on a couple of pillowcases and a wall hanging for me, both in a lovely reddish orange.
perfect little meal
we walked through a bit of the produce section, noticing again how many women wear the traditional braids and tall brimmed hats. after we'd finished in the market square we popped into a nearby place that's known for serving guinea pig, or cuy. they have a giant stone oven also where they serve empanadas, which seem to be the food of choice in pisac. short on time before we were set to meet our driver again, we elected to go to a less populated cafe. we found a perfect one just off the main square that had fresh empanadas straight from the colonial clay oven, washed down with another chicha morada. pisac did seem like a cool little town, and i'm sure it would've been worth exploring more if we'd had some time.

we wanted to make it back to cusco in time to do the last of our shopping. by the time we got back it was raining so we took a break in our room to wait it out. once it stopped we ventured back out and got some alpaca sweaters, patterned shoes, and a few more gifts. once we got back down to the main square we figured we should finally go into the cathedral. it was huge and each of the three sections seemed completely different and very separated from the others. it wasn't remarkable, but again maybe we had seen so much at that point that we were mentally exhausted. there were some interesting paintings that explained the major earthquake. that night mom figured it was probably her last chance to try guinea pig so we were on a mission to find it. we found a little restaurant that had the meat in taqueño form, which seemed more manageable (usually they're served whole, roasted on a stick). the meat itself was gamey and greasy - not our favorite.

i'm sure there was lots more to explore but for the three days we spent in the sacred valley i think we did pretty well!

Monday, December 05, 2016


our next stop after arequipa was cusco and the sacred valley. another fairly early morning but the hotel was kind enough to pack us a little bag breakfast - yogurt, an apple, and a sad little sandwich. okay, maybe it was more of a bagged lunch. the flight itself was fairly uneventful except that oh yeah, i saw a volcano erupting. i just happened to look out the window, luckily it was in time to catch a glimpse of it.

when we made our way over the andes and landed we were at our highest elevation yet. arequipa had been about 8,000 ft above sea level but cusco was something like 11,000. it was probably in our best interest to do it all gradually. i didn't notice many problems although i did get a little short of breath at times when normally i wouldn't have. we got a taxi and within about 15 minutes we were in the center of town. the outskirts reminded me a bit of nepal at first, a mountainside city with shoe box style houses stacked on top of one another. the historic district was a bit more spread out. our hotel was just about a block and a half from the main square. my mom had booked a different hotel but then decided to splurge for the marriott, worried that she'd have trouble with the altitude. (the marriott is one of those upscale hotels that has oxygen piped in to the rooms). it was pretty fancy, too - the hotel itself was built inside a converted convent, complete with a massive central courtyard (once cloisters). there was an entire spa in the basement - with a sauna, hot tub, and heated pool - and the breakfast tables seemed never-ending.

why is it called the plaza de armas, anyway? what arms?
after quickly getting settled we made our way to the plaza de armas. the weather was beautiful - nice and warm with bright blue skies - but the forecast for the next few days didn't look so good so we thought we'd try to make the most of it. we first went in the templo de la compañia de jesus, a fairly massive structure with a cavernous interior and bright gold altar screen. we couldn't take photos except when we went upt he tower steps and looked out the window on to the square. from here i was trying to find a certain convent but instead we ended up at a convent/museum that explained the lives of the nuns who once lived there. it was nicely down, exploring each facet of their lives with lots of artifacts, including their elaborate embroidery. my mom really enjoyed it - she's always liked learning about life in the cloisters. no photos once again, though.

clouds roll in
incan walls
from here we stopped for a quick lunch of sandwiches, empanadas and truly massive juices (we were each given a carafe that was meant to be a glass). no turkey on the menu (oh did i mention it was thanksgiving?) so we settled for chicken instead. then on to the convento santa domingo, primarily significant because it was built on the remains of qorikancha, the heard of this central incan city and the most sacred shrine, dedicated to the worship of the sun. there was still evidence of the incan civilization - many of the trademark incan stone masonry could be seen in walls and even rooms that were left intact. the genius of incan masonry is that there's no mortar joining the rocks yet nevertheless the walls are quite solid. rather than using some material in between the stones, masons painstakingly wore down the sides of each rock with a smaller stone so that the grooves would fit together perfectly. to the point that you can't fit so much as a pieces of paper between them. the later church was built on top of and around these stone walls. much like the churches built around mosques in moorish spain. the expansive courtyard was filled with tons of groups. our timing wasn't great since in addition to tons of groups the clouds rolled in just as we arrived.

rambling san blas
as we were leaving the skies were starting to clear a bit so we thought we'd do some more of our outdoor activities in the city. we hailed a taxi for a ride uphill to san blas, the bohemian area of the city filled with little cafes and artisans' shops. by the time our very quick cab ride was over the skies were blue again and the weather was glorious. from the top of a small staircase we could see over the red rooftops of cusco, enjoying a light breeze. we walked around the main plaza, filled with lovely brightly blue doors and white and yellow walls. even the street signs were lovely, decorated with carved bells and painted flowers. also dotting the plaza were a few groups of women, dressed in traditional peruvian garb walking with llamas. their aim is to get tourists to take a photo of them (i have to admit, baby llamas are quite enticing) and then get a little money from them. occasionally the police chase them off so i imagine it's discouraged.

gorgeous doors
we continued walking around the plaza and up some steps to a little alleyway. definitely the hostel dwellers' destination of choice - streets lined with silver earrings on display, incense burning from within little shops and pleasant little cafes with coffee and wifi. we made use of the latter, relaxing for a bit in a lovely little courtyard as we sipped café con baileys (only to be found in touristy areas to be sure - but does anything say 'vacation' more than bailey's in your coffee?) and wrote some postcards.
elaborate signs
we popped in and out of shops along the street, where i was delighted to discover a shop filled with hand-painted ceramics, a craft i hadn't seen too much of in peru as yet. the pieces were all done by one artist, tater camilo vera vizcarra, recognized by unesco. if you know my predilection for tiles you'll know that i was already done for. i walked away with a lovely little circular tile painted with a hummingbird, which i thought was a nice reminder of my time in arequipa. exploring the area made for a perfectly pleasant afternoon and a very nice introduction to cusco.

downhill we go
we rambled through the area and slowly made our way down a sloping street lined with little souvenir shops and more upscale alpaca stores (which i've seen alternately called cuesta de san blas, hatunrumiyoc, and calle triunfo on the map). a narrow street with well-worn cobblestones, from the top we could see some rooftops and into the main square at the bottom. again the streets were dotted with lovely bright blue shutters and window grills and the occasional flower pot. we popped in and out of shops, looking for scarves, blankets, and little knick knacks, making note of items we might like to buy later and what the going rates seemed to be. when we made it down to the main square it was getting close to dusk. there were plenty of people milling around - families out for the evening, tourists taking photos and several women selling gladiolas (which seem to be a favorite for worshipers who use them as offerings in church altars).
lights on in the plaza
we made our way back to the hotel - with the sun starting to go down it was quickly getting cooler. i didn't stay too long, though, before venturing back out to take some photos of the square as the sun set and the lights came on. getting a good picture was hard since it was already quite dark but i managed to get a few less-blurry shots of the fountain, the cathedral, and the hills beyond. for some reason the church facades themselves are not lit. mom was a little tired of peruvian food so we settled on a restaurant that had some non-peruvian dishes. as for myself i tried an entree that had two dishes i'd been wanting to try - chicharrones (fried pork, quite good) with tacu tacu (little yellow balls of rice and lentils, sort of odd), all accompanied by what i will go on record saying has to be the best juice combo there is - pineapple/mango/passion fruit. mom had some pasta that was surprisingly good. that night i made full use of the spa's sauna, steam room (which had some kind of giant leaves) and hot tub and, in spite of the hotel's size, i was the only person there. (idiots!)

massive doorway
the next day we ventured off into the sacred valley and towards machu picchu, but we we returned a few days later we were able to do a bit of what we'd missed in cusco before. it was a bit rainy, as predicted so we were happy to finish up some shopping, splurging on alpaca sweaters and finding some patterned shoes for me and adorable little booties for my friend expecting a baby. we also went in the cathedral - much like many of the churches we'd been in before (including the ban on photos that i think is rather silly in the age of smart phones) it was cavernous and filled with lots of gold and embellished altar niches. there were a few murals that helped explain the history of the city, punctuated by several major earthquakes. all in all we found cusco to be a perfectly pleasant city with lovely shops, significant architectural and archaeological sites and of course gorgeous carved and colorful doors. a hallmark of many great cities, i'd say.

Friday, December 02, 2016

ambling in arequipa

when planning our trip to peru i stumbled upon arequipa and photos of its lovely monastery. after that, i knew it had to be on our itinerary. and i was not disappointed. the city charmed us, from the picturesque plaza de armas to the lovely monastery and the tasty food. it was also a refreshing change to explore a city that was so compact and easy to walk around in.

Add caption
we arrived on our flight from lima and were greeted by a driver from the hotel. i had thought arequipa was a much smaller city but the drive from the airport took us through the outskirts, which seemed pretty sizable. no matter where we were we could see the mountains looming in the distance. when we arrived at the hotel, katari, it was still quite early (because of course we had another early morning) so i quickly went up on the roof to catch the last of the morning light. the view from the hotel was stunning - the plaza de armas and cathedral beyond and the volcanoes in the distance. we had a bit of breakfast as we enjoyed the view and waited for the sun to warm the city up.

corn, corn, and corn
even after breakfast it was still early and our room wasn't quite ready. so we wandered the streets a bit, making our way to the market we had read about. it was a covered market with foods organized by aisle - stacks of cheese in wheels as big as a 45, pyramidal piles of fruits, dead chickens with their claws in the air, burlap sacks filled with dried chilis, and of course many varieties of corn. we surreptitiously took some photos as the vendors started to set up and start their day. we could see several people having their breakfast at little stands peppered throughout the aisles.

outside the walls of the market we continued exploring the streets. we seemed to be in the workaday part of town, with little electrical shops and convenience stores. the streets themselves were colorful but dated, with peeling paint and old doors - just how i like them. we popped into a church along one of the streets. fairly typical, with ornate (bordering on gaudy, some might say) gold altars throughout the stone structure. before long we had walked around all the streets south of the main square and were back at the hotel. just next door was a little grocery store (which we always love to explore on trips) so we popped in to poke around and get some sodas.

sabor del peru
by this time our room was ready so we went there to relax a bit. nicely appointed with antique furniture and with a view out onto the main square (although through a little arcade). we took some time to enjoy the room, complete with robes and slippers, and put our feet up before venturing out again. relaxing turned into a catnap (which we probably needed) and when we woke up it was about lunchtime. we ventured out, passing up a few more touristy places (boasting french, italian, turkish food) we opted for a spot that looked authentic - with old painted walls and smooth wooden floors. we saw a few other tourists and a couple of locals who seemed to be on their lunch break. they had a modest prix fixe menu which started with salad and soup. for an entree mom tried an orange chicken while i had alpaca meat with quinoa (can you get much more peruvian?). the alpaca meat was quite tough but it was nice to try at least once. for dessert we got little cakes that tasted a bit like the arequipe coffee i'd had in lima.

our next stop was my most anticipated - the monastery de santa catalina. i'm not totally sure why it's consistently referred to as a monastery; only nuns seemed to have ever lived there. in fact, nuns do still live there. we were surprised that so many of the nuns had their own private rooms - some were almost apartments, really. but of course there were kitchens, gardens, and some other gathering places as well. the center was closed to the public for almost 400 years but, fortunately for us, opened again in 1970. the complex is enormous - so big that there are entire streets within it, most of which are named for cities in spain. cordoba streets, for instance, is lined with begonias in little flower pots. what was really arresting, though, were the bright colors that covered every wall. it was a feast for the eyes and even moreso for my camera lens. i think this place can better be conveyed by those photos rather than me so i'll let them take over:

bright colors just inside the entrance
cloisters are even more lovely in blue
simple steps
lantana outside a window
lovely built in cabinet within a nun's room
calle cordoba, naturally
the mountaintops beyond
gorgeous little flowers were peppered throughout the grounds
nuns still live in the apartments on this street
nun spotting!
not sure what those little white bits are
such a variety of tones
flowers in the sun
lines in the wood
in the rose garden
wouldn't you want to live here too?
reaching up towards the sun
sevilla street
painted doorway
little cactus near the small orange grove
view of the church near the end of our visit
so there it is - a gorgeous complex and a wonderful afternoon exploring - we hardly ever encountered more than a couple other people. i really didn't want to leave!

glowing light and a chill in the air
finally we pulled ourselves away and made our way back to the hotel, stopping once along the way to admire (and buy) some alpaca scarves. i was anxious to go up to the rooftop terrace to catch the golden hour on the cathedral. i got a coca tea, which is said to help with the adjustment to the altitude, and took photos intermittently as the sun started to set. the temperature was dropping quickly but the hotel attendant working the small bar kindly brought over a blanket that helped keep out the chill. he also took care of the trio of businessmen who were at various stages of incapacitation, one slumped over in his chair and another completely passed out on the table. maybe it was the altitude but i have a feeling it might have been the pisco sours on the table. in any case, the view really was stunning, with the sun glowing on the steeples, then slowly lifting from the tips of the mountains and finally the lights coming on in the plaza below.

golden glow over arequipa
lights coming on
chupe and pisco
by the time the sun was down and it was totally dark we were about ready for dinner. we went out in search of chupe de camarrones, a shrimp soup that we had heard was a specialty. the helpful hotel staff directed us to one of two places, the latter of which seemed less crowded. we had the place almost to ourselves, the old stone walls now housing a little bar and a few handcrafted items for decoration. we ordered the much-anticipated soup and were not disappointed. the broth was creamy but not too thick and the rice, egg, beans, and peruvian cheese made it quite hearty. that in addition to the bread and herb butter we were served made for a filling meal. (i should add that after several days of smaller appetites than usual we realized it was a side effect of the altitude medicine we'd been taken.) we washed it all down with pisco sours, the peruvian cocktail par excellence, complete with a few drops of aromatic bitters over the foamy egg whites. a perfectly pleasant meal.

church interior
the next morning we were pretty excited to be able to sleep past 3am, the first time in three days! we figured we had already been to our principal destination and there were only a few other stops on our list so we decided to make it a leisurely day. our first stop was the iglesia de la compañia, just next to the hotel. it didn't stand out much. next we made our way up the street and across the square to teh cathedral. we had to take a tour, which turned out to be quite good. we couldn't take pictures of anything but the interior of the church.
think the P tilted in an earthquake?
the other rooms we went in housed beautiful vestments (many made by nuns in local convents like the one we'd visited the day before) and other religious objects. according to the guide many of their more valuable pieces had been stolen over the years before the church had any kind of security. seems like a pretty big oversight... the church itself is much more modern than i anticipated, but to be expected because it had been rebuilt several times following earthquakes. it also had a huge organ at the back that we got a good view of from the second floor. we were also able to go up to the roof of the church, where we got up close with the giant bells within the steeples.

café con leche with lovely linens
from here we walked up the nearby street in search of the 'casa ricketts' which supposedly was an old home (now bank) that had elaborate decoration. we finally found it and were somewhat underwhelmed. there were a few carvings over doorways but nothing worth writing home about. we left and stopped in a nearby alleyway with some lovely cafes where we lingered over drinks. hot cocoa and café con leche seem even more appropriate in the land of coffee and chocolate. after our break we walked farther north in search of other places to explore. there was another church at the end of the road but it was closed in the middle of the day so we walked on in search of lunch instead. mom was in the mood for something different so we stopped for crêpes in the courtyard of the local alliance française. they were unremarkable (i don't think france would have approved) but decent enough.

francis' courtyard
from here we decided to part ways - my mom went to the museo santuario andinos the archaeological museum where the so-called 'mummy girl' is housed. i killed a little time popping into little markets before making my way back to the monastery we had passed before, the complejo san francisco. i got there just as it was starting to re-open and followed along on a tour with a very sweet girl who was working there. she started the tour in spanish then switching to english after she realized i might follow that better. the tour was quite good although the monastery itself was a little dark. the courtyard was simple, as i imagine most franciscan cloisters are. in the center was a statue of saint francis surrounded by trees with lots of birds, which i thought was fitting. i even spotted a little hummingbird among the branches. the church itself was simple too, especially compared to the ornate, gilded church altars we'd seen before.

ice (cream) cubes
i made my way back to the hotel where my mom recounted her visit to the museum. she really enjoyed learning about the incan rituals of human sacrifice so she was glad she went. as we i was dismayed to learn that there had been another convent just a few blocks from the monastery where i'd been that looked lovely but hadn't come up in any of our research - the monasterio santa teresa, for the record. otherwise i think we made the most of our two days in the city. we again spent the sunset up on the roof, taking in the changing views. afterwards, not terribly hungry, we asked for a nearby restaurant to get some soup. we were directed to la boveda, a very old little restaurant and evidently one of the only ones on the main square that isn't awful (according to the hotel staff anyway). we had some soup but decided to cap off our meal with arequipan ice cream - a very unusual substance that came out in cubes and was made from cheese. it was pretty good but even so we barely seemed to make a dent in the massive pile of it we were given. not a bad end to our brief exploration of this charming city. next it was on to the andes!