Monday, November 30, 2009

A House on the Canal

There are two ways to live "on" an Amsterdam canal - you can buy one of the colorful narrow homes reflected in it or buy a houseboat to plop down in its waters.

Seems to me the houseboat option might actually be the simplest of the two. Consider the following slight inconveniences to owning a canal home...

1. Because the fronts and therefore the doors are so narrow, most large items have to be hoisted via pulley from the hooks sticking out from the roofs.

2. Houses, perhaps due to the water shifting underneath them, frequently begin leaning at surprising angles - pitching forwards, right or left over time.

3. There must be some kind of law about repainting every 14 months because never have I ever seen so many perfectly manicured brick fronts. We saw brown brick, red brick, tan brick, creamy brick, black brick... with black shutters, white shutters, red shutters... with round windows, rectangular windows, square windows, arched windows... with step gables, triangular gables, bell gables, neck gables. Remembering your gable's name might be almost as hard as keeping your house pretty enough, but at least there is this guide to help.

The simpler way...

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Amsterdam, city of museums, bikes, prostitutes and pancakes. But we didn't go to any, or ride any, or see any or eat any.

Instead, we wandered. Up one canal and down another, taking in a rainbow of brick houses to the tune of spinning bike wheels and gently lapping water. We drifted into the red light district, through the eclectic shopping zone known as the nine streets, across museum square, around the train station, and back again. And again.

We dodged bikes, mopeds, cars and raindrops. We ate the best appeltaart in Amsterdam on our friend Iva's recommendation. We shopped at an organic market for a picnic that included sushi, dried bananas, Italian herb olives and blueberries. We saw houses that appeared to be tipping off their hinges - only lacking Pisa's horde of flashing cameras. We poked into a game store with Japanese Go, Magic cards, and mini-bowling. We listened to street artists on accordions and saxaphones and watched bathing birds in the Vondelpaark. We happened upon towering lit church towers and intriguing bakeries.

Guides to Venice always say just get lost. The same goes for Amsterdam, which, by the way, has 15 more canals than Venice. Who knew?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Take a Local Bite

A Fig and Walnut Tart


Olive Grove

Our FAVORITE gelateria - definitely homemade

Our daily menu in Cinque Terre involved dimpled sheets of crusty focaccia, local pan dulce filled with candied fruits, clementine oranges, pine nutty pesto on homemade pasta, pistachio and cinnamon gelato, cream cake with strawberries, limoncino and white wine.

Our daily views in Cinque Terre included arcs of olive groves and grapevines hugging the cliffs and fisherman in small skiffs out in search of anchovies.

It's safe to say the Cinque Terre rates high on the Fresh & Local Fare scale.

The Off Season

We were lucky to be in Cinque Terre the last week many of the restaurants and gelaterias were open. On our five-hour hike between the towns, we literally saw no other tourists. A few older women hunting truffles with their dog (dogs are favored over pigs these days because you don't have to wrestle them for possession of the mushroom), older men repairing vineyard posts before the winter, olives awaiting collection in their groves, women singing while they pruned grape vines, and groups of locals clustering around the town bakeries. Maybe not off the beaten track, but at least off the beaten season.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Just for Laughs

Angles on Cinque Terre

Vernazza in the foreground, with Corneglia around the bend

Corneglia in the morning

Vernazza at night

Monterroso in the morning from the Via Serra

Vernazza from the Breakwater

Part of the fun of the towns of Cinque Terre is seeing them from different angles, brushed by different kinds of light.

These pastel balancing acts cast separate spells from cliff top vineyards, winding wood paths and harbors' edges, from narrow alleys and through archways.

They are new with the sun behind them and above them, when the sun is bouncing off the water or fading through smoke, new viewed through an orange tree or a cactus, across olive groves or between tree leaves.

The towns of the Cinque Terre - whether left, right, below or above me, sunny or shadowed or lit - never failed to draw my eye from the path ahead.

Riomaggiore from the Harbor Viewpoint

Corneglia from the Upper Sanctuary Path

Manarola from the beachfront path

Corneglia from within the town

Vernazza from the north

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Alleys of Cinque Terre

We spent a good deal of our time in Cinque Terre wandering down narrow alleys. The towns are actually off limits to cars, which means that they've preserved some of that old world feel. Ignore the modern restaurants, focus on the crumbling paint, and you're almost there. We made it our personal goal to explore every single foot of "street" in Vernazza, the town where we stayed, and I think we came pretty close. Below you'll see an assortment of alleys from the five towns.

Brett Faces off with the Cliffs of Cinque Terre

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Walk Through the Vineyards

On our first full day in Cinque Terre, Betsy and I set out to hike the 15 or so kilometers connecting the four southern most towns. We were told that the shoreline path between Corniglia and Manarola was closed, so we elected to take the mountain trail instead. Though our calves ended up being a bit sorer, we were rewarded with a two hour walk through terraced hillsides covered in working vineyards. According to Rick Steves, there are equal miles of human-made wall in Cinque Terre as in China's Great Wall. While the Great Wall stretches for miles, the Cinque Terre stacks it on top of itself in equally marvelous fashion, seemingly defying gravity. Or, at the very least, years of erosion. These walls are labor intensive, and the people of Cinque Terre must restore and repair them yearly. Their work is worth it. On our last night in town (in a moment that even Rick Steves would have envied), the locals from whom we rented our apartment invited us into their home and offered us wine grown in their hometown, Manarola.
Our first look at the vineyards was of this hillside, which seems to have fallen into disrepair. Nonetheless, the sturdy terraces are still visible from across the valley.

Corniglia, from which we climbed, is in the background.

The functioning vineyards shone yellow in the autumn sun. Most of the grapes have already been picked.

Skies over Cinque Terre

Monday, November 16, 2009

Video Introduction to CT

Our Cinque Terre

Our Cinque Terre is November Cinque Terre – when you can count tourists on your hands and everyone you meet says they’ll be closing soon. The bars are out of limes, but the white-haired gelato man is still making cinnamon, pistachio and tiramisu.

Our Cinque Terre smells salty and sun-roasted. Cats compete with late season flowers to fill alley nooks, and dimpled flatbread winks from behind counters.

In our Cinque Terre, smoke drifts across the cliffs, carrying the smell of burning groves. Boats bob by occasionally, but mostly the fisherman occupy their social corner of the Vernazza plaza.

The pesto tastes as if the parmesan was wrapped in smashed basil and pine nuts by good elves, and the cook has time to bring out fresh floury potato pumpkin gnocchi and tell us how it’s made. The limoncino hits the back of the throat and the legs with equal zest, and the wine comes from across the cliff in Manarola.

In our Cinque Terre, the vineyards have turned yellow and no one is staffing the ticket booths on the Via Serra. As we walk the trail, a trio of older ladies darts into the woods in search of seasonal white truffles and two men creak by with a huge cask (pressed grapes? Olive oil?). A woman pruning vines sings softly as we follow the path beneath her patch of cliff.

Our Cinque Terre carries us – exhausted - through sleep on a wavy ride. It wakes us at 7 with a 37-bell salute from the church tower twenty yards away.

In our Cinque Terre, no one disturbs us when we pause to see it all: the tiny piles of pastel houses on the hills, the boat-filled harbors, the vines stretching around corners made of cliffs.

The only competition on the path is a preying mantis, and he doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry.

An Introduction to Cinque Terre

For our government-decreed flu holiday, Betsy and I headed to Cinque Terre for four lovely days. There will be many posts to follow (I think we took nearly 1000 photos -- I'm not exaggerating), but below you'll find an introduction to the five towns that we wandered between and amid for the better part of our holiday. I'm jealous of us.

Monterosso, the northern most town

Vernazza, on the small and quiet side, and also where we stayed. See that really thin yellow building on the harbor? That's where we listened to the waves crash as we fell asleep each night...

Corniglia, the only town on a cliff above the water


Rio Maggiore, climbing out of the water and straight up the hillside

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Escaping to: Cinque Terre

The decision is in. Granted a flu vacation by the Bulgarian government, we purchased tickets last night for northern Italy, where we will spend four days in the Cinque Terre.

"It's almost unfair how much intense beauty, great cuisine and amazing aromas are jampacked into such a compact space." -The New York Times

See more pictures like these at the Cinque Terre park site:

Corniglia (

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Swine Flu Vacation

Well, it's official. The Bulgarian ministry has declared an epidemic in the country, and all schools are required to take a vacation for the entire week. We are lucky not to have any symptoms, despite the plummeting attendance rates in our classes Thursday and Friday. My last section Friday had 7 students of the usual 17, so we just spent the time on our (wonderful) outside reading books. It was strangely silent in the room.

No one at ACS is too worried about the flu - from all we hear, it is just like any flu, except it spreads more quickly. The students were pretty much euphoric when the news came through on Friday that we had gone above 30% absence and would therefore qualify for the epidemic vacation.

Faculty on campus are dashing madly through the virtual world of travel opportunities, choosing between Montenegro, Zagreb, Bulgarian resorts, Greek Islands, etc. This is a travel chance to unexpected to pass by. Having considered Zagreb, Dubai, and even Tokyo, we are currently leaning towards Cinque Terre.

Maybe we'll get some of those masks to wear on the flight, I saw a happy-looking couple downtown today sporting them.

Image Source: Scrape TV Online.