France, Italy, Switzerland
France, Italy and Switzerland
This text is written for E-ling and Cairo, the yet to be conceived children of Casey Bowden and Emily Su. What follows are the details of Casey's trip to Paris in August of 2002 following Emily's graduation from Le Cordon Bleu and our subsequent mini tour of France, Italy and Switzerland. During the trip we took bullet style notes that I am now expounding upon but we did not take a single photograph. When we first toured Europe together, in the winter of 1998, we took many photos but took no notes. Maybe next time we will do a little bit of one and a little bit of two.
Currently it is early October 2002 and late at night on the San Francisco Bay. I am inspecting dredging of the Port of Oakland from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am, working three days followed by three days off and so on. As an inspector I do very, very, very little work. Most of my time is spent in a on the crane barge, down below the water line, at a desk in a dirty and dusty room, where the story unfolds...
Truth be told, I was not totally honest, for I was not the only one to visit your mother on this trip. On Sunday, the 11th of August her parents and grandmother arrived and the following day her Uncle Donald and Aunt Jenny showed up. They all are staying in a rented apartment, about a 10-minute walk from Emily's place at 77 Rue St. Martin. In addition to Donald and Jenny arriving on the 12th, your mother also took her cuisine final. After talking on the phone she was very excited and said that everything went perfectly. The next day Emily took her pastry final and attended a boat party thrown by the school.
On Wednesday, the 14th of August, the graduation ceremony took place and your mother received her 'Grand Diplome', which means that she had completed the beginner, intermediate and superior courses in both cuisine and pastry. But that is not all, off all of the students in her class, your mother ranked 2nd and of the three plates mentioned, two were done by your mother! It comes down to this, each of the ~ thirty students prepared three identical plates, each with three different components. This means the judges tried ninety unique entrees, selected three as superior and two were your mom's! Two out of ninety, wow! To top if all off, your mom wore a fantastic black Chinese dress with a fan prop; even the local prostitutes told her that she looked sexy and cute.
Of course during the graduation I was hard at work in San Francisco; I had been taking so much time off to visit your mother that my vacation and comp time were running low. We decided that I would not fly over until after the graduation so I left on Thursday, August 15th from San Francisco at 6:00 pm. The same day your mother took everyone on a picnic lunch at the Jardin des Tulleries and Donald and Jenny visited the Museé d'Orsay. My parents were so relaxed on this trip you wouldn't believe. Since they had already visited the touristy spots, all my mom wanted to do was sit under the trees in the garden and sip her cafe. She kept saying, "Oh, this is so COMFORTABLE! What a nice breeze!" I also think that the waiter was really impressed that I spoke French, which in turn impressed my parents that I actually spoke French and a good time was had by all, augmented by the fact that my dad tipped the waiter really well upon leaving.
Friday I arrived, feeling very fresh and excited after the ten-hour flight due to having been bumped up to business class, wow! By the way, the tickets were very expensive, about $1200, so I asked Emily's parents to use their frequent flier miles to get me a ticket, thanks again! While Emily met me at the airport her family was at Monet's gardens. That night, after we all had dinner together, Emily and I were apprehensive about the sleeping arrangements. Would her parents suggest that I stay with them in the rented apartment, leaving Emily alone in hers? We came to the junction, one way to her parents place, the other way to hers, and... nothing. Just good night and see you tomorrow. We were relieved but it turned out to be far too hot to sleep anyway. We spent most of night lying on top of the bed with a fan blowing on us, trying to fall asleep. What your father doesn't know is that up until then, there was no summer. It had been a rather chilly spring and summer thus far and when the hot weather hit, it hit with a vengeance.
Saturday came and found Merle shopping with the rest of us tagging along. A bit later your mother and I took Donald and Jenny to Le Cordon Bleu so they could buy some gifts to bring back home. We also snuck into a demo by Chef Xavier. Your mother's classes had two components, demonstrations or demos and practicals. Demos last three hours and take place in a classroom setting were you watch the chef cook; of course at the end you get to taste the food. In practicals you are in a kitchen for three hours and cook. At the end you can take the food home or throw it away; your mother quite often gave her pasty creations to local restaurants (bars and the like... Made a lot of friends that way! Salut mes amis des Guiness Tavern et aussi Le Lizard Lounge!!!) and gave food the local Scottish homeless man.
During my three previous visits I sat in on many demos so this time was nothing new for me, but the rapport your mother had with the chefs still amazes me. I remember one time when the chef told a joke and Emily, sitting the very back as usual, laughed. The chef saw Emily laughing, stared right at her and started to laugh him self. This prompted Emily to laugh some more, at which point the whole class had turned around to see what the chef was laughing at. It went back and forth a few more times before things settled down and the chef returned to his dishes.
On this occasion, with Donald and Jenny, the Chef Xavier spotted Emily and used the occasion to train his new class. You see, when Chef Xavier asked the students questions, he liked the students to respond, almost shout really, "OH OUI CHEF!" This class was a bit timid so your mother had to show them, and she did. Actually, the chef had asked the class a question and there was just a murmur in response. Chef Xavier actually mouthed the "OH OUI CHEF" to me when he got the lukewarm response from his current class. I had been in the class that he had trained to give him an excellent response.
At the end of the demo we sampled sweet puff pastry creations and took home sacristans (puff pastry folded with granulated sugar and almonds and then twisted and baked). We actually took home all of the sacristans since Chef liked me so much. The next day, your Lau-lau asked me if I could get some more. Some people in the class left before even trying the food, what idiots! Chef was really pissed about that. He thought that it was inexcusable since half of the point of demo was to taste the finished product. If you didn't know how it was supposed to taste, how could you know if you had made it right?
Later that night I met Ivo, a friend of your mothers from Berkeley who lives in Utrecht, near Amsterdam and Stan, the latest love of Kim, a classmate of your mother. Stan stayed behind, but the rest of us met another Chef Chalopin, along with Christy, another classmate, and we ate at a Chinese restaurant.
Once again, it was too hot to sleep.
It was decided Saturday night that we would go to Versailles early the following day so Emily and I arrived at the apartment bright and early. We found everyone still half asleep but managed to get out without much delay only to be foiled that most evil nemesis, breakfast. Not only that, but we ate at La Brioche Dorée, the McDonald's of French bakeries.
We took the metro to, and ate at a café on the Champs, then finally got on a train to Versailles. Upon arriving the lines were insane and it was hot! We decided to take the tour of the King's chambers because we had done the other tours (main castle and Queens chambers) on previous visits. I delighted in taking off my synthetic shirt and wetting it in a fountain while we waited in line. Before putting it back on I would wring it out and cool down your mother; we did this several times before getting to the front of the line. We planned on taking the garden tour after the Kings chamber tour but we were pooped so went home. That night we ate at a sub par restaurant but were glad to be inside because the sky opened up and it poured! Later we all gathered in the rented apartment and discussed our wedding of all things. We also brought some falafel back, (from L'As du Falafel, highly recommended by Lenny Kravitz?!?) due to the unsatisfactory dinner. Due to the rain, we slept for the first time since I arrived.
Today everyone left, except me that is. Donald and Jenny left first to catch a flight home via San Francisco while Merle, Wilson and Julie left later to fly back via Chicago (or maybe Washington). Emily and I escorted them to the airport, which was uneventful except for a really heavy suitcase and a bothersome deaf guy on the train. The suitcase was tough to move, even using its wheels. The hardest part was getting it to the metro station, which was at least a 10-minute walk with no baggage. The deaf guy on the train turned out to just be a village idiot, but he made everyone uncomfortable caused Merle to move seats. During the train ride all kinds of scenarios of dealing with him were running through my head, such as punching him in the face, but nothing came of it. Jeez, I never knew your father had such a violent streak running through him! All along, I thought he was totally oblivious to the situation!
Later that evening we met another Cordon Bleu graduate, Sofia Conradie (La Fille Aux Gros Nichons), at a Canadian pub, the Moosehead. Sofia and I each had burgers while Emily had fish n' chips. We were all amused when, after Emily and Sofia were unable to determine the type of fish, neither was the kitchen staff able to. After dinner we went to Sofia's superior rooftop apartment. She pays less than your mother, yet she has a bigger apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower! At the apartment she gave us the keys to her parents studio in the south of France, where the adventure really begins...
On Tuesday, the 20th of August, the day after her family left, we got up very early and caught the super fast TGV train to Marseille. Right before we were to go into the alley of the prostitutes your mother kicked the curb and broke the strap on her Monoprix flip-flops. As she changed into her tennis shoes, we were accosted by a drunk, who fled after several stern words from Emily. On n'as rein pour vous. Lessez-nous tranquille! Our timing was perfect as we arrived at the station just as the ticket windows opened.
The Grand Route: Red dots show the TGV from Paris to Marseille followed by a slower train to Cassis. Yellow dots show the trains to the Cinque Terra, three in all. Green dots show the train to Lake Como followed by a bus ride to Bellagio. Blue dots show a boat ride over Lake Como, a bus ride into Lugano, followed by a train ride back to Paris via the Alps.
The train had very few people but arranged so that it was difficult to get cozy and sleep. The TGV, by the way, is an amazing train. We traveled essentially from the top of France to the bottom in three hours and 16 minutes for 68 euros each, a distance of over 650 kilometers or 380 miles. In Marseille we used our 1.5-hour layover to go explore and get some food, which turned out to be a whole pizza for 6.90 euros! The pizza was a 'Royale' and had boeuf hache, cheese, olives, mushrooms and peppers. The fellow who made it was yelled at because it was only supposed to have ham, mushrooms and cheese. Before we found the pizza place we ran into more Cordon Bleu graduates, these three were spotted through a window eating at McDonalds. We carried our pizza uphill towards a church but ended up eating in a park across the street in the shade. I didn't think we would, but we polished off the whole pizza hidden by baby-braided fichus while laughing at our good fortune and the other student's uninspired choice in hunting down a late breakfast/early lunch. I thought that was a great coup for us!
After finishing the pizza we headed back to the train station and caught an old and rickety but fast train to Cassis. The ride only took 21 minutes and cost... actually, the ticket from Paris to Cassis cost 68 euros so I am not sure of the breakdown. But it doesn't matter; for once we arrived we promptly caught a taxi for 10 euros into town choosing to forgo the 3-kilometer walk. Thanks to your mom's wonderful memory, we quickly found the delightful studio, which turned out to be right in the center of town, as promised.
A view of Cassis from above, probably from the Chateau that you are prohibited from visiting.
After settling in, we went exploring and had a quite a time locating the tourist office. For almost an hour we kept following signs in circles, all the while wondering what was wrong with us. Eventually your mom realized that the tourist office was out on the jetty and not in the area of town we kept looking in, hee hee. We literally went around the same two-block radius about six times...
It was in the tourist office that we first learned of the calenques. They are harbors of emerald green and turquoise blue water, carved from limestone with 1000-foot tall cliffs. We decided to hike to them the next day and instead went for a swim at the beach right downtown. The water was warm by California standards but still very refreshing, clear and salty (I hadn't realized that the Med was so salty); I'm glad they had a shower to rinse off at.
That night we had a superb four course meal at Chez Gilbert. Our initial plan was to eat at the establishment recommended by Sofia but it was totally reserved. The hostess suggest we go to Chez Gilbert were I think we had the best meal of the trip. The waiter blatantly flirted and played games with your mother and we left totally stuffed. If memory serves, I had nougat glace for the first time and we listened to the music of a father and stunning daughter musical team (the girl was absolutely stunning, and probably 13 or 14 years old, if that). As we strolled back towards the studio, along the water, between the boats and other diners in the warm night sky, we came upon cat show that we watched for several minutes before retiring for the night.
Boats at the Cassis harbor with people milling about the restaurants in the background. Each night we ate a different restaurant on this stretch.
We left at 8:30 am with water and lunch for the 2 1/2 hour walk to Calenque en Vau. The previous day we had gone to Casino, the local grocery store, bought supplies and made a fantastic pasta salad. It had tuna, lemon mayonnaise, olives, corn, ceci, artichoke hearts salt and pepper. Emily described the cashier as 'incredibly butch, typical Marseillaise". We also brought four liters of water, two of which was frozen. Despite getting lost, we arrived at 11:15 am to find the area full of people but not crowded.
One has three ways to get to this beach: hiking, taking a boat or kayaking. We swam in the incredible water that looked better than the pictures in the book we bought, ate lunch, sunned, watched people and had an altogether wonderful time. After a few hours we started back. This time we didn't lose our way but did run out of water. Just so you know, on the way to Calenque en Vau, if you hike, you pass by two other calenques, Port Miou and Port Pin. The former has boats permanently moored and the latter has a sandy beach that clouds the water, go all the way to en Vau! Yeah, but you should bring Tevas or flip-flops as walking on the large pebble beach is rather a bummer. It really hurts and the going is slow and hot. OK, small price to pay for paradise.
Calenque en Vau as viewed from the limestone cliffs. This area is fantastic!
A closer view of the famous Calenque en Vau. The water was more blue than green the day that we were there.
That night we ate at Chez Romano and had the Bouillabaisse, 68 euros for two people. After last night I found it to be good but not worth the price. During dinner we listened as two guitars played the Gypsy Kings. As we strolled back to the studio, along the water, between the boats and other diners in the warm night sky, we came upon the same cat show of the previous night, at the exact same spot in the routine. Once again we watched for a few minutes then retired for the night. At some point during this day we also found time to locate the Laundromat (one load for 5.50 euros), eat ice cream twice and also get a 'Brasilia Sunday' that had coffee, caramel, maple walnut and too much chantilly (cream).
After our big day, we slept in until 11:00 am on Thursday. We had a good lunch, consisting of a pizza and a salad, at the place were we normally get ice cream. As usual we ordered separate dishes but shared. I like this arrangement and tell your mother she should as well because she gets twice the variety. She agrees but notes that she only gets a quarter of the food! After lunch we went to the beach downtown, laid out and read. It was overcast and breezy so we didn't feel like swimming. Coming back from the beach we were shocked to see a whole gaggle of Asians. Actually, they all were Japanese, teenagers, boys and soccer players. After purchasing flip-flops for 4 euros we made more pasta salad for the trip we had planned for tomorrow and discovered 'Banania'. It is a powdered chocolate cereal mix with bananas that you add to milk, or put on yogurt, or toast, or anywhere! That night we dined at El Sol and had: small fried fish with baked mussels, rouget avec crème de cresson (red mullet with water cress cream), st. pierre with tomate pistou (John Dory with tomato pesto), le craquant de noisette (something crispy hazelnut) and nougat glacé. During dinner a lute and accordion player did opera and as we walked home we encountered the cat show, but in a different place.
After our lazy day we rented a kayak for 65 euros for the whole day and were in the water by 9:45. Although we didn't plan on it, we paddled until noon and stopped at an area halfway to Marseille. It was a good thing we had Banania and thick yogurt for breakfast. Where we pulled the kayak ashore, the rocks out of the surf were razor sharp, but soft and padded under the water. About ten feet from the water, the rocks became smooth.
Exploring the area, we encountered a tan, naked Frenchman of 44 years named Michel. He showed us the best place to go in the water. From the sharp rock you climb down to a six foot square ledge that is either about three or nine inches underwater, depending on the waves. Being constantly underwater, it is softer than a 1970's shag carpet. He only spoke French and was trying to show me that it was OK to jump off the end of the ledge. I understood but was unable to make that clear to him, so instead walked towards him and in one motion wrapped my arm around his torso and fell in the water with him. From that point on he wouldn't leave us alone.
Undeveloped coast between Cassis and Marseille that we kayaked to and met a naked Frenchman. It was great to find this area that was totally devoid of tourists.
Of all of the areas we visited on the trip, this spot was one of best, but unfortunately we don't have any pictorial documentation. Imagine the tide pools beyond Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz with 1000-foot cliffs, super clear blue/green water, abundant fish and no signs of civilization. It was all of that and more. I especially like watching your mother swim à la Kate Winslet in the movie "Iris".
Later in the day Michel asked to borrow the kayak, offering his backpack and literally everything off his back as collateral. We let him use it and he set off, stark naked. After about 45 minutes we started to get a little bit worried but since when renting the kayak we didn't give a deposit or ID or sign a waiver the only difficulty would have been getting home. Then lo and behold, Michel shows up with a topless woman, Valerie. For some reason I ended up paddling Valerie back to Calenque Sugiton were Michel had picked her up. I was pleased to do this, as I wanted to see this new calenque. While paddling back with her, I found out that they had capsized twice on the way over and she had somehow hit her head. When she got out of the kayak at Calenque Sugiton, Valerie was shaking like a leaf but I held the vessel steady and she had no more head trauma.
We finally decided that it was time to bid Michel goodbye and start the long paddle back which we were both dreading. The seas were much more choppy, mainly due to boats, but we eventually made it back, only to capsize at the dock. The last km was such a pain since my right arm was tired and when it was my turn to paddle, I could only go in circles.
That night, at La Voute, a snack turned into a full meal, I drank too much and got loopy and we met Jamie and Hanna, two other English speakers, quite rare in this area. He is from, oh drat, don't remember (I think it was Australia), but she is from Sweden. Although he doesn't anymore, Jamie used to be in the restaurant business and gave us two email addresses so your mom could contact him (Jamie.email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org). I almost pooed in my pants when he started telling the tricks they used to play in the kitchen on the new guys. My favorite was having them wash the salt but mayonnaise on the earpiece of the phone and not letting the lobsters turn red were also pretty good.
Your mom had a serious case of the 'sleeps' after our big day kayaking and we were in bed until noon on Saturday, the 24th of August. Eventually we ended up walking up the hill behind the château that overlooks all of Cassis. We saw a vineyard we especially liked; it had views of Cassis and the sea in addition to the vineyard and wonderful house. At one point we shared a fig from a tree and despite your mothers objections, I sampled a raw green olive, baaaah! A bit later we took the bus for 1.20 euros each up to the train station to try to arrange the next leg of our trip. The bus had an incredible turning radius; I was sure we were going to hit walls and other cars at every bend in the road. While Emily was in the train station I was busy outside out side arranging a ride home. Actually, a couple of older French women saw me standing there and offered me a ride. It took some gesturing before I realized what they meant but a few minutes later we were in the back of a Fiat Panda heading back down to Cassis.
Red Cliffs that tower over Cassis and provide a great backdrop for sipping a Pastis while watching the sunset.
We had our cheapest dinner so far consisting of: tomato with mozzarella salad, pesto mussels with fries but without sand and seafood pizza with hot oil. Of course we started out with the drink of Cassis, pastis. While dining, the group watching European football across the street would occasionally roar and our old friends, the accordion player and his striking daughter played 'Oh Suzanna'.
And on Sunday he rested, or maybe that was the 7th day, or maybe... Well, that is just a fabrication but on Sunday, the 25th of August, we got up at 9:30 am and did laundry and to our dismay spent 10 euros on one load. And the items were not even completely dry. Being the silly person that I am, I bought a large synthetic laundry/grocery bag for 2 euros. Maybe your mom can tell you why simple little things like bags make me so excited. We also cleaned the studio and went to an artisan fair were I bought a wallet and Emily bought a corkscrew, a 'Merle' birdcall, assorted cookies and leather bracelets. For lunch we bought a roast chicken and ate most of it, using a fresh baguette to sop up most of the sauce. And their was a lot of sauce to mop up, after putting the chicken in a bag, the friendly lady at the store put at least five large ladles of the wonderful juice in the bag. Yum!
At some point in the day we went swimming, and once again later in the day when it began to rain. Now when I say rain I should really say DOWNPOUR. I don't know if I have ever experienced harder rain, but it was warm, so we put on our swim gear and paraded around town, taking the long way towards the beach. Of course we were the only people outside, it was great fun to watch everyone watching us from windows and doorways.
It was still raining quite hard after swimming and while we were walking to dinner. As this was going to be our last night we decided to go back to our favorite restaurant, Chez Gilbert. While crossing the street we almost lost our footing as the water was about six inches deep and flowing very rapidly. We made it to Chez Gilbert without getting to wet and had a fine dinner on the second floor, with a window overlooking the storm that cleared while we ate. Although we did not have a playful waiter again, we did drink a whole bottle of wine.
On Monday we woke up at 6:10 am, closed up the studio, caught a cab that we prearranged the day before at 6:30 am and were at the train station 10 minutes later. During the ride we asked the driver about the rain of the previous night and he said that rain like that happens only during three months of the year and usually not during this month.
To our surprise there was a ticket agent on hand so we didn't have to struggle with the 'billeteria automatique'. We bought tickets from Cassis to Toulon to Nice to Genova for only 39.60 euros for both of us. Hooray for French and Italian trains. While waiting we had Banania. The train from Cassis to Toulon was very nice, clean and empty except for commuters. Going from Toulon to Nice rode in an older train but had a compartment all to our selves so we closed the window, napped and ate soft boiled eggs, thick yogurt and sandwiches with chicken that we had bought yesterday. As expected, once we hit Nice the train was super crowded. Your mom got a seat almost right away but I had to spend the next half hour sitting on her armrest, blocking the aisle. Only in Monte Carlo did I finally get a seat.
During our trip in 1998 we also rode the train through this part of the Riviera en route to Bologna were we stayed with Genevieve, a friend from Cloyne. During that time we desperately wanted to get off but couldn't because we had to meet Big G and we were already going to be late. This time, after six glorious days in Cassis, we just wanted to get through the region and away from the crowds. Back then, we traveled in the first class compartments because we had Eurorail Passes but this time we were stuck in second class, with the windows all closed, and the train not moving. It was stuffy and your mom claims to have nearly died until the conductors came around and opened the windows with special keys.
Once in Genova we bought tickets to Monterosso, the first (or fifth) of the towns making up an area in Italy called Cinque Terra or Five Lands. Ever since our first trip I had wanted to go here and indeed, this was the only fixed stop on our itinerary for this trip. The distance to go was only 74 kilometers and they cost only 4 euros each so we were very excited. But it turns out that traveling that short distance took forever as the train stopped at all stations. We later discovered that it would have been much more efficient to take the train from Genova to La Spezia and then back to Monterosso.
I'm not sure what time we arrived in Monterosso but we were both tired and felt a bit grungy, after all, we had been up since 6:10 am and riding trains all day. To wake up we went in the ocean via a cobbled beach. Your mom held her sarong for me so I didn't flash everyone changing. We felt much refreshed after just a quick dip and quickly changed back into our other clothes and began exploring the town. Actually, I was very anxious to get to the next town so after about five minutes of meandering we bought a spinach torte and hit the trail.
Along the Cinque Terra trails we encountered these rails and were not sure what they were used for until we saw this picture.
And the trail was the reason I wanted to come here in the first place. You see, the five towns are very old fishing villages (We call them villages, THEY used to call them kingdoms) built into the cliffs and connected by walking trails. (OK, these villages have been around since the Romans! There were wine vessels recovered from some anthropological site that came from this area.) Due to the rugged nature of the area, it was never developed like most of the Riviera and as such, has maintained most of its charm. At least that is what I read back in 1998 and I am happy to report that it is true today. Indeed, the area is now part of an official National Park.
This first trail, between Monterosso and Vernazza, exceeded my expectations and then some. It was very well marked but at the same time very rugged. At times we were walking right next to a locals front door and at other times the trail left you with only spectacular ocean views. Your mom might want me to say something about the trail only being 14 inches wide in areas, consisting only of steep uphill and downhill segments and the sticky heat but I won't do it, I won't. Hey I just did. How does she get away with that? Yeah, besides the fact that some of them are really only about 12 inches wide...
Our first and only night in Cinque Terra was spent here, in Vernazza.
After walking for about 1-1/2 hours we reached Vernazza, the second town and promptly rented a room from a man on the street. We paid 60 euros and I'm sure we could have bargained but we were tired, hot and sticky. All we wanted to do was shower and change into our clean clothes. At this point I might say that on this trip we only brought two sets of clothes and generally washed out the dirty clothes at night. The system worked well because we never had to carry dirty clothes, and always had clean clothes to change into at the end of a hard day, such as today. It also worked because we brought our own stretchy non-clothespin needing clothesline. Oh, and there was a really good clothesline attached to the room, stretching over the alley.
After cleaning up we explored the town and ended up watching kids play soccer on the beach while I ate pre-dinner pistachio and chocolate gelato and your mom had blueberry juice. One of the kids was the spitting image of myself at that age! A bit later we climbed up many sets of stairs to a cliff top restaurant overlooking the bay were we had a dinner of excellent fritto misto (calamari and shrimp done to perfection) (and when I ordered it, I was asked, "WHY do you want to get that?!?) and too tasty risotto alla pescatore! It was followed by a knock out strawberry-cheese tart (dolci alla nona or grandma's sweets) and formaggio misto. Hey! I like cheese, OK?!? The pitcher of white wine (we are assuming it was a local vintage) was a great accompaniment to our outstanding dinner. Before leaving we stepped outside and took in the view of the lightning storm in the distance.
Vernazza at night, as viewed from the Cinque Terra trail.
Then we went to sleep.
Despite extreme protests from your mother, we were up at 7:00 am on Tuesday and on the trail to Corniglia, the 3rd Cinque Terra town by 7:30 am. Compared to yesterday, the trail was exceptional; wide, and well graded. It was also very remote compared to the first segment; I think we only passed a few homes and maybe four people. But best of all, it was cool. As we climbed it was in the cool morning shade, a blessing after yesterday.
Corniglia as viewed from the Cinque Terra trail to/from Vernazza.
Swimming spot north of Manarola. We went in, made a left around the rock and swam into a cave.
Before 9:00 am we found ourselves in town eating focaccia with ham and cheese for me and with salami and cheese for your mom. Your mom also ordered mint syrup with milk that I found very scary, in both taste and color but since she was now a professional chef I kept telling her, "You have to try it, it's your job." We also had cappuccino and hot chocolate as thick as yogurt.
After Corniglia the trails between the towns became flatter and shorter. Just north of Manarola we swam in deep blue water and even got to explore a sea cave. Upon getting dressed after the dip I thought I lost my belt but it turned out to be a false alarm. In Riomaggiore, the last town, we went over the hill instead of through the tunnel to explore the other side of the town and were rewarded with a castle overlooking the town and ocean. Actually, we had a role reversal in this town with your mother dragging me up the hill instead of the other way around.
After we finished exploring Riomaggiore we took the train to La Spezia and planned on going to Lake Como from there. Instead we ended up back tracking, taking the train back through Cinque Terra to Genova. But this time the train did not stop, so the trip was quite nice. We spent most of it in the air-conditioned dining compartment, nursing some awful train food and enjoying the views of the water in between the myriad tunnels.
Once back in Genova we caught a train to Milan and then another to Lake Como. The change from Milan to Lake Como was dramatic, going from a huge bustling city to a beautiful lake town in just minutes. From the train station in Lake Como we caught a bus to Bellagio and also picked up a traveling companion.
Map of the Lake Como area, we stayed in Bellagio but next time would probably choose Varenna.
Christy was about 45 years old and an English as a second language teacher from Seattle. She had just flown into Frankfurt from Shanghai, having spent two months taking Chinese classes. She was on her way to Rome for a romantic rendezvous but needed to spend the night somewhere. I suggested that she tag along with us and she accepted. The bus ride from Como to Bellagio took one hour to cover the 30 kilometers and was very senic, but at the same time a white-knuckle affair as the bus was big and fast with a loud horn and the roads were narrow and sinuous.
Upon arrival in Bellagio we first encountered a very snooty receptionist at the three-star 'Hotel Splendide'. She quoted us 114 euros for a double room and when Christy asked about less expensive options she said we could save a little bit at the 'Hotel Europa' but "it's only two stars". Not wanting to spend that kind of money, we headed uphill and away from the lake were a local barman directed us to the 'Albergo Giardinetto'. It was only a one star accommodation but the price was right, 52 euros for a double.
In reality, it was a great place with very clean, modern and quiet rooms with balcony views of the lake and mountains. In the courtyard grape vines with trunks almost one foot thick grew on a trellis and provided a wonderful place to sit and relax. The gentleman who showed us the rooms was very nice although most of the time his voice wavered between a pubescent boy and a hyena, which I found disconcerting.
That night we dined with Christy and all shared misto antipasto to start. Your mom had fabulous osso bucco and, not being very hungry, had raviolis with cheese and spinach in butter and sage sauce. Even with wine, this was one of our cheapest dinners yet coming in at 50 euros. But Christy pitched in 20 euros so it was even less. After all of the people in Cassis, I was very surprised at the lack of tourists. Sure it was Tuesday, but it was still August and we were in Bellagio.
Christy left early on Wednesday morning while Emily and I woke up at 8:30 am. We had cold cheese pizza and raisin twists for breakfast while walking around in search of a neon green cross, the sign of a pharmacy. Without much more than a glance, the pharmacist looked at your mom's red eye and gave her some drops. They did the trick and we spent the rest of the day exploring the greater Lake Como area.
First we went to the Villa Serbelloni, explored the gardens and picked a brochure and price list from the lobby for someone with much more money than we have. Truth be told, it would be nice to stay there but the 'Albergo' is more my style, even if money is not an issue. Next we bought half a chicken and hot sausage that we ate on a boat that eventually got to Menaggio after a few stops at other towns.
Villa Serbelloni sits at the tip of Bellagio. We took the self guided tour and didn’t get kicked out!
Villa Cipressi in Varenna where we had a fabulous lunch and then explored the gardens and waterfront.
In Mennagio we purchased tickets for a scenic bus ride that we would take the following day to Lugano, Switzerland and used a fancy pay toilet that sanitized its self with ultra-violet light. Your mom noted, and I agreed, that although Menaggio was larger than Bellagio, it had a central square that gave it a nice atmosphere. But we really only were there to buy the bus tickets so we caught the boat over to Varenna. If we come back to the Lake Como area we will probably stay in Varenna. It has direct train access from Milan and a less pretentious attitude than Bellagio but all off the charm and beauty you could ask for.
In Varenna we walked south along a lakeside path end eventually began climbing into the hills, our destination, the source of the shortest river in Italy Fiume di Latte. Sure enough, after a very nice walk we came to a point where the water came directly out of the hillside. Following the river downstream for a few minutes we came to the lake, a short river indeed. Heading back north to Varenna, we stuck to the road and marveled at the gardens of the villas along the lake. We had the unexpected pleasure of lunching at one such palace, the Villa Cipressi.
It was an offer your mom could not pass up, four courses with bottled water and bottled wine for only 20 euros each, after which, we explored the villa gardens then caught the boat back to Bellagio. The meal itself was not that memorable. It was nice that we had a self-serve veggie bar and then self-serve fruit. What really made it special was that we were sitting on a terrace, overlooking Como with Bellagio in the distance.
We spent the remainder of the day walking out to the point, eating more ice cream, buying supplies for the following day and surfing at an internet café to find Easyjet fares from Geneva to Orly and also to send mean emails to my Gerwick coworkers. Mainly just taunting them with "GREETINGS FROM BELLAGIO!!!"
Thursday came and found us up at 6:45 am and out of the hotel by 7:00 am. We caught the 7:23 am auto ferry to Menaggio via Varenna and had our breakfast en route, Banania with milk. In Menaggio we each had a cappuccino and then watched fisherman catch minnows with strange fishing poles that had no moving parts. One of the men had Parkinson's and on several occasions we saw him catch a minnow only to lose it back to the lake while trying to remove it from the hook.
At 8:23 am we boarded the bus to Lugano and began climbing the hills. The ride was very pretty and lasted one hour, including the stop at the border where we were the only people on the bus to have our passports checked. In Lugano, only having euros and not Swiss francs, we had to skip the funicular ride up the hill to the train station and instead used our feet. Once at the station we were shocked to find that a ticket to Paris was 145 per person. Of course we thought it was euros at first but even after the conversion it was still about 100 euros each for a seat on a second-class slow train (we were hoping for the TGV). We should have known better, but you remember this, trains in France and Italy are cheap. Trains in Switzerland are expensive. We should have gone back to Milan from Bellagio but I had my sights set on the silly senic bus ride from Menaggio to Lugano. Ask your mother, I can be a focused at times and not see the forest for the trees.
Not wanting to go all the way back to Milan, we bought the tickets for the slow second-class train and then had 1-1/2 hours to kill before we left. Being superior picnickers I think we are a bit more than just superior, how about amazingly excellent, we headed straight for the grocery store and bought about 10 pounds worth of food and other assorted items including: a Swiss army knife, a can of broad beans, a can of corn, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh mozzarella, three tomatoes, one onion, one lemon, two bananas, 200 grams of ham, 100 grams of salami, one small tube of mayonnaise, one small tube of mustard, two croissants, two hard rolls, one bunch of grapes and one small pack of candy in preparation for our nine-hour trip. With these supplies, we made (or I watched and helped your mother when I could) a salad of the broad beans, corn, cheese and tomatoes in the train station and used the lemon to flavor our water.
The bus ride earlier in the day was nice but the first three hours of the five-hour train ride from Lugano to Basil via Luzern was spectacular! We snuck into an almost empty first class car but got ejected back to second class by the conductor; I think we may have gotten away with it had he not seen me with my feet on the seat across from me. No problem though, back in second class, which was also empty, we all of our salad and had ham and cheese croissants.
In Basel we had a half hour layover in which we had to switch trains. In the process we walked by a Migros (grocery store) that your mother looked longingly at but I held firm. Hi, hello? The last time we were at a Migros, we walked out with no less than 10 chocolate bars. This IS, after all, SWITZERLAND, the land of milk chocolate!
Once at the correct platform we discovered the train was already there and as luck would have it, we once again had our own compartment for the 5-hour ride back to Paris. Once the train started moving we snacked a bit more, consuming hard roll sandwiches with salami, ham, cheese and tomato and later breaking out the Milka bar. During the long ride I finally finished The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher and used the privacy of the compartment to its full extent to get some much needed rest.
Friday found us back in Paris and doing laundry. When we left it was unbearably warm and now, just over one week later some cafes had outdoor heaters in force. Your mother and I decided that we really don't like Parisian weather. While waiting for the laundry I got a cappuccino that led to our only argument of the trip. We both agreed that it wasn't good but while I wanted to not pay your mother preferred to show her displeasure by not coming back. Of course I don't speak French and ended up putting your mother in a bad spot, asking her to complain for me, which made her feel uncomfortable. Next time I want to complain, I will do it myself! As of this writing I am still not sure what the correct action to take is. I know in the states we would have been given another at no charge.
After laundry we ate lunch at Ming Chau and then went to the esplanade at the Grand Arch de la Defense. On a previous trip we had gone up the arch but I wanted to go this time simply to walk up and down the esplanade. On this day, Nike had set up basketball courts and was promoting the French born and raised point guard of the San Antonio Spurs, Tony Parker. On the way home we stopped at an internet café and checked car rental rates and exchanged a few instant messages with my partner in crime at work, Lydia. Then we went to the video store and rented The Fellowship of the Rings through a totally automated process! Yeah, that kiosk totally rocked! After this trip, during my stage, once on my day off I actually rented 6 movies in one day.
Saturday was a big day for your mom as in the morning she met with the Chef of the restaurant were she would intern for the next three months. She made me wait outside. After the interview she was very excited and thought the chef was very nice. The chef was on vacation, I met with the Sous Chef Olivier. After working there for a few weeks she changed her mind! Yeah, he became a total a**hole, but then I changed my mind again because I realized he was just socially awkward.
After the meeting we went to look for a book on Normandy, as I wanted to rent a car and go see the D-day beaches. We didn't get a car because none of the agencies were open on Sunday and we didn't want to deal with parking the car in Paris overnight. I was upset but got over it. When we returned The Lord of the Rings we rented two porno videos from the automated machine, at only 1.50 euros each for six hours we figured we couldn't go wrong. We did, and ended up watching only a few minutes of each. I was surprised at how uninteresting and utterly cheesy the videos were. It was difficult to watch!
I found myself looking through a guidebook and discovered that we could go on a candle lit tour of Vaux Le Vicomte, the palace that inspired Versailles. The candle lit tours only occur Saturday nights in the summer so we jumped at the chance and enjoyed the experience. The only downside was that we had to take a cab from the train station to the castle and then back again which was pricey. Plus, the last train back to Paris left earlier than we would have liked.
A crooked Nicolas Fouquet, the man who designed Vaux Le Vicomte, which made Napolean jealous, causing him to have Versailles built.
Thousands of candles light up Vaux Le Vicomte during our nighttime tour. We had to leave prior to the start of the live music to catch the last train back to Paris.
A modern highlight of the visit the exhibit they had which explained the layout of the gardens and castle and showed how the work progressed. The exhibit worked by projecting images from the ceiling straight down onto a white table with contours representing the castle and grounds. Despite being in French, my attention kept the entire time. I thought the visit was totally worth it. Just the kitchen! MY GOD THE KITCHEN!!! (fall down in a mock-dead faint)
Kitchen at Vaux Le Vicomte.
Surgery followed when we got back to Paris when I made your mom cut off a skin tag/mole that was growing on the outside of my right armpit. She vows never to do it again even though she did a fantastic job. NEVER AGAIN!!!
Sunday was our last day together so we spent most of it in bed snuggling. We did venture out for brunch at the 'Lizard Lounge' and dinner at 'Au Gamin de Paris' where I had too much wine. In between brunch and dinner we rented My Fair Lady, one of your mom's favorites but a first for me, and now one of my favorites. Yay musicals! After dinner we watched an unsatisfactory movie, The Tailor of Panama. Boo hiss, one of the WORST out there!
Monday was the 2nd of September and Labor Day in the United States. It was also the day I had to fly back to San Francisco. This time we took a cab so we could get up later in the morning and spend more quality time together. After flying business class coming over economy seemed cramped but I did have a nice neighbor. She was going to UC Santa Cruz to get her doctoral in molecular biology but most importantly she was not large. We both were upset when we the flight attendants woke us up from somewhat sound slumber for a beverage neither of us wanted. After that we could not sleep. My pop met me at the airport and I was at work the next day.