April 11, 2012
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano’s recent visit to Vernazza—one of five villages along Liguria’s fabled Cinque Terre coast—signaled a comeback for a region devastated by flooding and mudslides last fall. On October 25, 2011, the delicate and precious little Cinque Terre, strung along approximately ten miles of heavenly Italian littoral between the towns of La Spezia and Levanto, received a pounding 20 inches of rain that turned streets into raging rivers, filled homes and businesses with debris, swept away mudslide barriers and obliterated sections of the beloved coastal path that connects the hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In Vernazza, three people died and the village was temporarily evacuated. After the disaster it seemed unlikely that spring and the visitors it brings would ever return to the Cinque Terre.
But spring has come, along with crimson poppies on the shoulders of the Via dell’Amore path. Vineyards that cling to steep cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea are greening, promising a fine fall harvest of the grapes used in the region‘s sweet, golden Sciacchetrà wine. Olive trees are unfolding, ready for their annual pruning. Work to rebuild the damaged villages and erect protective mudslide barriers continues, but many townspeople have moved back into their homes and businesses have rushed to reopen for the spring tourist season.
One of the happiest chapters in the story of Cinque Terre’s renewal is the effort made by three American women—Ruth Manfred, Michele Lilley and Michele Sherman—longtime Vernazza residents, to get the news out about the disaster and raise funds for relief. Shortly after the floods, they launched Save Vernazza ONLUS, a not-for-profit organization that has received almost $200,000 in donations to be used for rebuilding Vernazza’s historic center, restoring the scenic trail system and replacing the dry stone walls that are an integral feature of the landscape. Beyond rebuilding, the hope is to promote sustainable tourism in the heavily visited Cinque Terre. “We are making Vernazza more beautiful than before,” Mayor Vincenzo Resasco said, though I don’t know how that could ever be so.
Starting from Montorosso, I walked the via dell’Amore 20 years ago, before the Cinque Terre became an Italian national park and Unesco World Heritage site. It was early spring and I had the whole coast to myself, it seemed. Near Vernazza I climbed onto a boulder just above the sea to work on my tan, then lunched in Corniglia, filling my canteen with leftover wine to take me on to Riomaggiore. That day exists in my memory like one of those old colorized photos that give the places they depict an air of fragile permanence. Let’s hope that, come wind and rain, that air persists in the Cinque Terre.
April 4, 2012
You are cordially invited to participate in this imperfect, subjective, thirst-provoking, sure-to-enrage (my editor, for instance, is highly doubtful about the King Cole Bar’s Manhattans) discussion of the best places to enjoy classic libations.
While the history of the cocktail remains obscure, one thing is certain: It has traveled around the world, reappearing in exotic new blends wherever man has found a novel poison. Indeed, the connection between cocktails and geography can hardly be denied. Singapore gave us the Sling, New York City the Manhattan, Havana the Cuba Libre.
The British developed many mixed drinks in their colonial conquest of the world—a taxing pursuit that must have required frequent libation.
Travel, like empire-building, often demands a well-mixed cocktail, which is surely why some of the best drinks are served in bars at grand hotels. Others occupy sightseeing aeries atop skyscrapers or historic old familiars around the corner. The key is to suit the beverage to the locale, or vice versa, an effort to which I am devoted. Wherever I go I try something different. What can I say? Here’s looking at you, kid.
Gin and Tonic
Those thirsty English developed the G&T, laced with malaria-fighting quinine, during the Raj in India, so it’s only correct to order one at the Patiala Peg Bar in New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, which opened in 1931 and was the scene of partition discussions among Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten.
The origin of the Manhattan remains contested; some credit it to Dr. Iain Marshall who supposedly mixed the first one up for a banquet at a stylish New York club around 1870, others to the bartender at a downtown drinking hole on Broadway near Houston. In any event, the quintessential New York cocktail, made of bitters, sweet vermouth and bourbon, is most at home at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue, though the house drink is actually the Bloody Mary (formerly known as the Red Snapper). Never mind that, there’s nothing swisher than sipping a Manhattan under the bar mural by Maxfield Parrish.
Ensenada, Tijuana, Juarez and Galveston all claim to be the home of the margarita. I like them best overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the rooftop bar at the Hotel Los Cuatro Vientos in the old town of Puerta Vallarta, once favored by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But a connoisseur friend of mine says there’s no surpassing the icy green cocktail at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville bar in Key West, Florida.
I could write a book about this deceptively-simple crown prince of cocktails, made with gin or vodka and a whisper of dry vermouth, then decorated with an olive, pearl onion or lemon twist. Recent tinkering with the recipe has produced fancifully-named martinis in outlandish flavors. But the plain, dry classic is still the best and hardest to mix. I connect them with the mid-century modern America of Mad Men and the Brat Pack which is why I love to sip a dry one in a poolside cabana the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Synonymous with Greek Revival plantation houses, the Kentucky Derby and everything else southern, the mint julep was imported to Washington, D.C., by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay who tippled in the Hotel Willard. The historic Round Robin Bar is still there, dispensing its signature mint juleps to politicos and pundits.
These days everyone’s drinking mojitos, a mash of rum, lime juice, sugar cane, sparkling water and mint, thought to have been invented in Cuba. All too often they’re ruinously watered-down, but not at the elegant lobby bar of the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo which serves mojitos in gigantic glass tulips at the Grand Prix price of about $25 a goblet.
Licorice-flavored Pastis is the summer drink of the French working man, served at bar-tabacs in the Midi; try any no-name dive at the harbor in Nice or Marseille. It comes with a carafe of tap water; watch with wonder during dilutions as the liqueur turns milky-green and eminently-drinkable.
A bartender at the legendary Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel invented the sling, but you only have to go as far as New Orleans to get a primo version at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone.
Spritz con Aperol
Together with Campari and soda, the spritz con Aperol—a bitter-tasting, neon orange aperitivo distilled from plants like gentian and rhubarb—is the cocktail of choice for steamy Italian summers, mixed with white wine and served on ice with a green olive and a slice of orange. It makes a colorful, thirst-slaking concoction at Bar Zanzibar on the Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello district of Venice.
Does anyone really drink Tequila Sunrises in the morning? Of course not. Sunset is the right time for them, preferably at the Beach House on the south side of Kauai, Hawaii‘s garden island. But you’ve got to get there at just the right moment to see the fabled “green flash” that lingers briefly after the sun sinks below the western horizon.
January 6, 2012
There are few things as good on the green earth as first-press, extra-virgin olive oil from a little farm in the Italian countryside. It can‘t be found in American supermarkets and specialty stores where fancy-looking carafes of Italian extra-virgin abound, all too often mixed with chemically-rendered oil from someplace else.
The best Italian olive oil comes in hand-lettered, recycled bottles. It is way too perishable for export, produced in minuscule quantities chiefly for the grower’s family and friends. To get it you have to roam back roads in the Italian sticks.
That’s because, like wine, superior, extra virgin Italian oil tastes of the place it comes from—of the sunny hillside in Tuscany or Campania where the olives were grown, of the mill where they were pressed, maybe even of the sweat on the harvesters’ brows. But unlike most fine wines, which benefit from aging, olive oil is most flavorful when freshly pressed. How do I know?
Because a few years ago while I was living in Rome, my niece Sarah and her friend Phil came to Italy to pick olives. They‘d both just finished four years at New York University and wanted to take a break before joining what is known as the “real world.” Of course, they didn’t have much money, but it didn’t matter because an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms helped them find places to bring in the olive harvest in exchange for bed and board. Which is what I call clever.
They stayed at my apartment in Rome before taking the train to a farm west of Florence. Once they got there I phoned Sarah every other day to find out how two city kids who know more about iPods than olives were faring in the in the deep Italian countryside.
Just fine, it seemed. Sarah was climbing gnarled old trees like a monkey, shaking the fruit into nets spread around the trunks and taking the harvest to the local mill where she and Phil observed its miraculous conversion into the nectar of the gods.
After spending a week there, the kids came back to Rome with a sample of the farm’s first press in an old vinegar bottle with tape securing the top, a gift I‘ll never forget. Homemade olive oil such as this is like no other I’ve ever tasted—ripe, viscous, fruity and way too precious for cooking. I parsed it out on salads, knowing that my life would be emptier when the bottle was drained.
January 4, 2012
If I’d known that The Trip, released last summer and now available on DVD, was a buddy movie I probably never would have rented it. But, of course, the title snagged me and I’m glad it did because it‘s a classic road flick, with a couple of endearing twists.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and first released as a BBC2 television series, “The Trip” starts with British funny men Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (as themselves) taking off in a Range Rover for a culinary tour of the North Country. Coogan, who is writing up the excursion for The Times of London, planned to take his beautiful young girlfriend along, but when she cancels he asks his old friend Brydon. Both are actors and compulsive competitors whose dueling Michael Caine impressions and escalating battles for the best bon mot cannot disguise deep insecurities that make them immeasurably more likeable than the pair of losers who embark on a California wine-tasting tour in the 2004 movie Sideways.
As in any good road movie it’s about the journey, not the destination: recitations of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the English Lake District, en route sing-alongs (including a Coogan-Brydon rendition of Burt Bacharach’s vocals from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and strange encounters with small, tall portions of gourmet food. In one sequence especially beloved by fans the guys riff on a line from what could be Shakespeare: “Gentlemen to bed for we rise at daybreak“ becomes “Gentlemen to bed for we leave at 9:30.”
Their routines ensue amid glorious North Country settings. When I wasn’t laughing I was remembering my own trips there, once hiking from barn-to-barn in the Lake District National Park, another time waiting out a downpour on 1,167-foot Honister Pass above Lake Buttermere. But the scenery is secondary in the movie, a world-class backdrop for human chatter and obsession that forms a satirical arch over the proceedings and puts The Trip on my short list of memorable road movies. My all-time favorites?
- Frank Capra‘s 1934 comedy It Happened One Night, starring Claudette Colbert as a runaway heiress tailed by reporter Clark Gable. Who could ever forget her teaching him how to thumb a ride?
- Two for the Road, directed by Stanley Donen in 1967, with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn falling in love on a trip through the French countryside and then retracing their steps 10 years later to keep their marriage alive.
- Ridley Scott‘s Thelma and Louise, from 1991, which has Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis headed for oblivion in the Great American Southwest.
December 21, 2011
I used to think that shopping is an unworthy pursuit shunned by the serious traveler, who’s busy seeking out the deep meaning of a place instead of looking for souvenirs. But I used to think a lot of things and now I know better. Now I know that what’s on sale in the market—gold earrings in Dubai or red hot chili peppers in Oaxaca—is at the heart of the sense of place, not to mention a way of never forgetting where I’ve been in my travels.
To quell my consumer guilt, I started devoting my travel shopping to Christmas gift-giving, even when the holidays were months away. From Helsinki to Bali I took home presents, stashed them away and then wrapped them up for Christmas. It’s always fun to watch the puzzled faces of my nearest and dearest when they rip off the paper to uncover a Vietnamese water puppet or the ceramic face of a satyr from the Italian island of Lipari.
I love the teeming craft market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for silks and cunning carvings; the Marrakesh souk where I once bought a pair of antique Berber rugs; Malioboro Road in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta for batik and leather; Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, a center for printed cotton like the quilt on my bed; and Beijing’s Panjiayuan antiques market, full of Ming Dynasty knock-offs and genuine bric-a-brac from the Mao era.
Christmas markets generally disappoint me. I once took a Rhine River cruise calling at German Christmas markets in medieval town squares from Cologne to Nuremburg. All I could find was Third World junk that only looks good if you drink a lot of Gluhwein.
But then on a very jet-lagged weekend package trip to Brussels one December I found the Christmas market in the elegant Sablon near the Belgian Royal Palace where I bought a little ceramic figurine of three boy choristers, their mouths wide open sounding high notes in the French Christmas carol “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle.“ I bought it for about 5 bucks, intending it for my sister’s stocking. But the more I looked at the white-robed singers, the more I knew I couldn‘t part with them. They‘re caroling on my desk as I write this. I call them Henri, Hubert and Etienne. Merry Christmas, guys.