Friday, September 7, 2012

Haute Route. Check!

As our time in Italy winds down, we still have a long list of things we want to do and see before we leave. In August, we checked off one of those things: the Haute Route, a high-alpine traverse between the iconic mountain towns of Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland.
Dent D'Herens, one of the peaks we bagged 20 years ago.
The Haute Route, which was established in the 1880s by the British Alpine Club, captured our imagination when we spent the summer of 1993 climbing in the Alps. But that summer we were busy bagging peaks and the Haute Route was not the challenge we were craving. Twenty years later, and nearly past our peak bagging days, we were ready for the Haute Route.

Only 45 miles long, the route took us 7 days to ascend and descend nearly 18,000 feet. There was nothing technical about the hike, but we did travel over half a dozen glaciers, so axes, crampons, and a rope were required. We carried little else in our packs, because we were staying in mountain huts up high and simple hotels down in the valleys.
Our route, including a long dotted section which entailed hiring a taxi!

Europe’s hut system comes as a surprise to North American hikers and climbers who are used to schlepping tent, stove, fuel, food, sleeping bag, and pad. Euro mountain huts offer dormitory-style accommodations and simple, but hearty food. They cater to hikers, climbers, and skiers of all ages. They aren’t fancy but they are often quaint, full of camaraderie, and in spectacular locations, like the Bertol hut, perched atop a rock outcrop and only reached by climbing a series of permanent ladders. The huts aren’t cheap—an average hut price for two of us with meals (and wine!) was $150—but given where you are, the price is fair.
The final set of ladders to reach the Bertol Hut.
In addition to taking advantage of the hut system, we also took advantage of the ski lifts that stay open in summer to get hikers and mountain bikers up into the hills. Two chair lifts up and one chair lift down to save our feet and knees. And our feet and knees needed saving, particularly Jim’s heels, which were worn raw from the steep uphill sections.

The advantage of the hut system is that people of all ages and fitness levels can enjoy nature and be inspired by some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world. The disadvantage is that it can be crowded. Our first hut had about 200 people spending the night. Nearly everyone woke up at 5, had breakfast, and then hit the glacier. This is not a wilderness experience where you commune with nature, and if you are on a popular route, you can find
yourself being slowed down by groups ahead of you and pressured by groups behind you. So when climbing or hiking in the Alps, we have learned to embrace the infrastructure, and lower our expectations for solitude and wildlife encounters. We’ll save those experiences for North America.

Here is a link to some photos from the trip. Sadly, Jim forgot his battery charger for his camera, so we relied on my little camera for these photos. There are also a few pictures of our trip from before and after the Haute Route. We spent two days getting to the Haute Route and three coming home. Almost more than anything, we will miss riding our motos here. One blissful curve after another and we realize that despite the intensity, or maybe because of it, we are always smiling.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Infidels in Morocco

Some days were like this.
Before I could say “oh shit,” I went over the front handlebars of the motorcycle, rolled a few times downhill and landed  opposite a Berber woman who sat on the stoop of her mud-brick home. With my full-face helmet and protective gear, I must have looked like an alien. She stood up and disappeared into her home. Maybe she wanted to save me the embarrassment. Maybe she wanted to pretend I wasn't there. Or maybe I was the third infidel this week to catch my wheel in a rut on this steep, gravelly turn and land at her doorstep.

A quick assessment of my body and bike: no major injuries, which was good because despite being in a village, we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Jim helped me lift the bike, for the third time that day, and sadly not the last. I was getting tired of dropping my bike, but these steep descents with hairpin turns on loose gravel were hard to manage. I tried to remember techniques from our off-road riding course at BMW in Germany. Don’t grip the bike with your knees, slow down to a crawl on steep descents to avoid losing control, and of course the most popular advice for motorcycle riding: The bike follows your eyes.

Typical Moroccan road hazard
Had I really been looking at that rut? Probably. Not looking at potential obstacles when riding is like being told to not to think about pink elephants. And there are lots of potential obstacles in Morocco: sheep grazing along the verge of the road, tiny children running to give you a high-five as you ride through their village, skittish donkeys carrying huge loads on mountain roads, and even hashish peddlers in taxis dangling their products out the window as they drive by. We managed to avoid the obvious obstacles and enjoy the rich culture, beautiful scenery, and friendly people of Morocco.

Imperial Cities and Smooth Talking Berbers

"But I'm not interested in buying a carpet."
Our arrival in Morocco coincided with a cold front that dumped snow in the mountains and brought wet, windy weather to the lowlands. We hunkered down in Meknes for three days and waited out the bad weather. Meknes, and nearby Fes, weren’t on our list of places to visit, but we ended up liking these Imperial Cities much more than Marrakesh, which we found to be less authentic and a bit overrun. Moulay Ismael, who claimed to be a descendent of Mohammed, ruled Morocco from 1672 – 1727 and made Meknes his capital. He left some beautiful cultural sites, including his mausoleum. But we’ll remember Meknes mostly for its friendly people. On our first night, we asked a traffic cop where a particular restaurant was. He left his post, walked us to the restaurant, and when we found it closed, he walked us to another restaurant and made sure the owner knew we needed to be taken care of. We also bought a carpet in Meknes. We weren't planning on buying a carpet, and we are sure that we paid too much, but the Berbers are skillful and friendly, and we enjoyed being outwitted by them in every transaction we made.

Getting lost in the medina quarter.
With the rainy weather keeping us from riding, we took a train to Fes for a day. We are still wondering whether we were picked up by faux guides or befriended by a nice Berber family. At the train station in Meknes, we met a father and son returning to their home in Fes. When the son, who was in his 20s and spoke perfect English, found out that we were living in Italy, he was on the phone to his uncle, Larbi, who had lived in Milan for 13 years and would meet us at the train station. At the train station we were whisked into the uncles van and driven to an overlook of Fes where he espoused on his view that all religions have the same goal: to provide a manual  (Koran, Bible, Talmud), or a set of instructions, for leading a good life. We found the Berbers to be fairly open-minded except when they talked about “the Arabs,” who are still considered to be the new kids on the block, only arriving in Morocco 1300 years ago.

Larbi then took us on an all-day tour of the city.We didn't seem to have a choice, and it didn’t dawn on us that this was possibly a con until we were taken to a carpet shop in a riad, under the auspices of looking at the beautiful, traditional Moroccan home. But if this was a con, we were happy to fall for it. In addition to the standard tourist sites and shops, we visited a weaving works with 500-year-old, 2-person looms slowly cranking out gorgeous silk brocade, and we visited one of the city’s public ovens where people bring their leavened dough to be baked as they've done for centuries. We visited an herbal shop where Larbi bought cigarette-sized sticks and then proceeded to use them to scrape his pearly white teeth.

Larbi never rushed or pressured us, provided us with an umbrella for the rain, and seemed to know everyone in town. He took us to a mosque where another tour group of infidels was taking turns peeping through a small hole in the grand entrance. He knocked on the door and the two guards inside the mosque, recognizing him, opened the gates widely for everyone to see inside. At the end of the day, not knowing if we had been on a tour and not wanting to insult our new friend, Jim asked him if 150 dirham ($17) was a “sufficient amount for renting the umbrella for the day?” Larbi said “yes” and then drove us back to the train station, the three of us in the front seat of his van, chatting and scraping our teeth with sticks.

Motorcycle Paradise

The Atlas mountain scenery was dramatic.
Although we enjoyed our time seeing the cultural sights of Morocco, the highlight of our trip was the off-road riding. The tortured, multi-hued rock formations reminded us of the American Southwest. The colorfully dressed locals walking or riding donkeys along the roads reminded us of Mexico. The kids gathering around us at nearly every stop, well, they reminded us of every developing country we've ever visited. But when we dropped out of the arid mountains into the verdant oases filled with graceful date palms, barley fields studded with red poppies, and houses made of mud-brick, we felt like we were uniquely in Moroccan.

Our riad in Nekob.
Jim and I criss-crossed the Atlas Mountains four times, riding about 2,500 miles in three weeks. We had planned to spend more time in the desert, but my fear of riding in sand and the beauty of the mountains kept drawing us back to the Atlas. We camped in campgrounds, camped in the wild, stayed in crappy little hotels, and stayed in a beautifully restored riad. We ate great food (mostly at local establishments) and so-so food (mostly at tourist restaurants). We searched high and low for places to buy a drink (the downside of traveling in a Muslim country), and we wrestled with how to handle the inevitable begging.

Caroline surveying our descent.
We met up with our friends from Italy, John and Caroline, for four days. They flew into Marrakesh and rented two off-road bikes. With John and Caroline, we did some of the most scenic and toughest riding on our trip, including getting caught in a thunderstorm that pelted us with hail and sent a bolt of lightning close enough to our group that Jim and I saw it hit the ground and send up a small plume of smoke, and John felt the electricity course through his arm. It was fun to spend a few days riding and enjoying the scenery together. 

Our route
We had heard many warnings about Morocco: Don’t drink the water, don’t drive at night, don’t camp in the wild, don’t pass through the Rif Mountains (Europe’s biggest source of marijuana). We, of course, did all those things and found Morocco to be surprisingly safe, relatively clean, and super friendly. The current king, Mohammed VI, who has been in power since 1999 is making a big effort to modernize this country of 35 million people with new transportation services, schools, and industries. Most of Morocco’s economy has been based on agriculture, phosphates, and tourism. The king hopes to diversify so that Morocco continues to grow and prosper. We hope they can do this without losing too much of the charm, friendliness, and great off-road riding that we found on our trip.

To get a feel for the riding, here is a 5-minute video of off-road and on-road clips

Morocco is a very photogenic place. Here are more pictures from the trip.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Milk Art: Don't Be Afraid

My Giotto

With the arrival of my new espresso machine at Christmas (the Rocket Giotto Evoluzione), I realized that I was crossing a line from casual coffee drinker to serious coffee snob. To fan the flames of my new passion, I recently enrolled in an all-day class at the Espresso Academy in Florence.

Mokaflor (a Florentine coffee roaster since 1950) offers a range of courses, from a half-day appreciation course for newbies to an all-day course for professionals. I chose the milk art class, the one that lets you paint pretty pictures using milk on  top of the espresso. Why milk art? Because I want to impress my friends when I serve them a cappuccino with a heart or a leaf on top. But like most attempts at showing off, this one has not been successful.

Gabriele shows us how it is done.
Italy isn’t the birthplace of coffee, but it has done a great deal to promote the commodity and more importantly the culture that has flourished around this humble seed for the past 500 years. Thought to originate in Ethiopia, coffee—along with other exotic commodities from the Middle East and Africa—made its way to the trading hub of Venice around 1500. Despite appeals to ban the “Muslim drink,” Pope Clement VIII gave coffee drinking a big thumbs up in 1600, and the first coffee bar opened in Italy in 1645. The modern high-pressure espresso machine was invented in 1945 in Milan. Cappuccinos became fashionable around the same time. One-third espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third milk foam,
Can you find the cappuccino
in this picture?
cappuccinos are named after the Capuchin monks, some say because of their tonsure haircut, others say  the monks brown robes represent the espresso and their small hoods represent the foam. The cappuccino has become the ultimate test of a barista’s skill and milk art is the coup de grace. YouTube is full of videos of expert baristas who make milk art look as easy as finger painting. It’s not.

Lots of latte
Because creating milk art requires repetition, and using milk and coffee at the beginning would be wasteful, the course instructor, Gabriele, had us start by using liquid soap in water to get the foaming technique down. Since the class was composed of eight seasoned Italian baristas and me, it didn’t take long to get through this portion of the class. These people know how to foam milk and pull a shot of espresso.

The pressure was on with everyone watching.
Next, we poured water from a pitcher into a cup to practice the motion of creating a heart, the easiest design to master. After Gabriele watched us practice with the water, he pointed to me and said “you are ready.” Me? Out of a room full of baristas? Gabriele said that the quickest learners of milk art are novices, because they haven’t accumulated any bad habits. He was right. I made a near perfect heart the first time I tried. “Brava!” Everyone cheered. We each took turns with different levels of success, Gabriele always trying to find the design in even the poorest attempts and then sending us back to our water to practice the motions over and over again.

These guys are professionals.
After lunch (and what else? an espresso!), our group started working on the leaf design. More nuanced than the heart, the leaf requires a lighter touch. Most people couldn’t get the limp-wristed technique that Gabriele demonstrated. For me, the motion wasn’t a problem, but I couldn’t get the tip of the pitcher close enough to the espresso. “You are afraid! You must be brave and bold!” Gabriele said as though he were coaching me on life, not milk art.

Always encouraging and lighthearted, Gabriele’s face lit up when I told him I was from Seattle. “We have Seattle and Starbucks to thank for increasing our export of coffee around the world.” He was quick to point out that Starbucks is more about the experience—large, puffy
Closer, closer, closer...Don't be afraid!
couches with a fireplace and free wifi—than about the time-honored Italian tradition of knocking one back at the bar on your way to work, at the mid-morning coffee break, and after lunch. He also poo-pooed the quality of Starbucks, but did say that there were a number of great roasting companies in Seattle, such as CaffĂ© Vita.

It’s telling that Starbucks, with nearly 20,000 stores around the world, has exactly zero in Italy. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, has written that Milan was the site of his coffee store epiphany. But his reluctance to bring Starbucks to Italy, makes it clear he is uncertain about its acceptance in a country that has an estimated 140,000 establishments serving espresso.

This is how Italians like their coffee...
but only in the morning.
Italian bars are like Irish pubs. They are community gathering places. People rarely sit down and linger, but they also don’t buy coffee to go in paper cups. They enjoy their beverage in the company of the barista and the other locals that frequent the bar, talking about families, soccer, politics, and weather. Italians are fairly regimented with their consumption: cappuccino with breakfast and caffĂ© normale (an espresso) during the rest of the day. (According to my Italian friends, too much milk and coffee together is hard on the liver.) Italians put a high value on the quality of the coffee, and they prefer a lighter roast and cooler temperature than the coffee that Starbucks serves.

According to a recent article in Business Week, Schultz isn’t ruling out Starbucks in Italy, but he is being careful. Frankly, I think the traveling and expat community alone could support Starbucks in Rome, Florence, and Milan, but sadly they would be missing out on one of the great cultural experiences of Italy, the coffee bar.

My best attempts in class.
Although I was able to make a heart and a diseased-looking leaf by the end of the course, my attempts on my own machine have been less successful. Monday morning after the course, I made the worst cappuccino in the two months that I’ve owned the machine. I sat despondent at breakfast with Jim. Tuesday things improved, but I decided to order a pitcher with a better tip. At this point, I am not giving up. I’m just blaming my tools. Wednesday I made an itsy-bitsy heart and what looked like the tongue and lips logo from the Rolling Stones. Progress is incremental and might be measured in my ability to creatively interpret accidental designs.

A rhino?
I might be disappointed in my abilities as a milk artist, but I am not disappointed in the class. I learned a lot from Gabriele about coffee history, culture, chemistry, and process. And I still hope to impress my friends some day with a perfectly shaped heart or leaf on top of a delicious cappuccino.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Greenland: The Healing Power of Nature

Although this blog is about our time in Italy, we occasionally venture farther afield, for example, our kayaking trip in Greenland last August.

Post-chemo sucked.
We needed this trip. It had been a tough year for us with my two surgeries, chemotherapy, and then a case of shingles in my facial nerve. Getting through all of this was a struggle that took a toll on us as individuals and as a couple. Yet, I was recovering (gaining strength, putting on weight, growing hair), and life was slowly getting back to normal. I was healthy enough to take a wilderness trip, and we both desperately needed to get away. Only in the beauty and solitude of nature did I feel like we could regain perspective on life and reconnect with one another. It was also the perfect way to celebrate our anniversary. The day we arrived in Greenland marked 25 years of marriage. 

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Rachel Carlson

Our planned route was too ice-clogged to paddle.
Greenland, which is slightly larger than Mexico, has a population of about 50,000 people. Obviously, there are vast areas of wilderness, but the area we visited has a scattering of small villages. We flew into Kulusuk, a village of a few hundred people, on a daily commercial flight from Reykjavik, Iceland. During our 2 weeks in Greenland, we also visited the smaller village of Kuummiit. Occasionally we’d see a small outboard boat running between the villages or the weekly cargo ship that transports supplies, but otherwise we were alone to enjoy the beautiful jagged granite peaks and iceberg-studded fjords. We had planned a 12-day paddling itinerary, but that quickly fell apart when we saw the unusual amount of sea ice in the area. We scaled back our paddling goals and filled in our extra time with long hikes, more time in the villages, and more R&R. We spent 9 days paddling to the end of the fjord north of Kuummiit and back to Kulusuk, a satisfying first trip to Greenland.
Planned route (green), actual route (red)

The area around Kulusuk is a cold water kayaker’s paradise: Easy to get to, yet isolated; well-protected with plenty of opportunities to go out into more exposed conditions; typically sunny and relatively warm in the summer thanks to a high-pressure system that builds over the island each year; and miles of fantastic shoreline with good access to camps.

Hiking and camping were fantastic.
Probably the only thing this area doesn’t have is an abundance of wildlife. We saw seals in the distance (too gun shy to get close to humans), Arctic fox (had to chase the young ones out of our camp), a few sea birds, and a pair of ptarmigan. We heard whales, but never saw them, and we also learned that a couple of polar bear had been spotted. Thankfully we never saw them either. Perhaps the unusual ice was having an effect on the wildlife: keeping the whales away and the bears nearby. During the summer, the polar bears typically follow the pack ice so that they can hunt seal. With plenty of ice and seals around, we decided it was prudent to rent a shotgun. It gave us some peace of mind that we could at least try to fight off a polar bear attack if one occurred.

Even though the wildlife was not nearly as plentiful as in Alaska or on the Antarctic Peninsula, the weather was a whole lot nicer than on our trips in Alaska, and getting to Greenland is a whole lot easier than getting to Antarctica. In fact, it's possible to leave Milan in the morning and arrive in Kulusuk for dinner.

Plenty of open water here
What Greenland lacked in wildlife, it made up for in stunning terrain and great hiking. Typically we would spend a half day paddling and then a half day hiking above our camps across granite and Arctic tundra to high points with spectacular views. The vistas provoked gentle contemplation, not the rushed, mind-churning thinking our modern world can induce. To paraphrase John Muir, going out into wilderness gives us an opportunity to go inside ourselves. While gazing over such natural beauty, it’s hard to have negative introspections and remarkably easy to find the beauty of nature reflected within.

Here’s a 10-minute video that tries to capture some of Greenland’s beauty.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Getting to Know Barbera

Considering how much wine I drink, I know little about it. But here we are living in Italy—one of the richest centers of viniculture—and I aspire to learn more. Last Saturday was a great opportunity to do so, thanks to a co-worker of Jim’s and friend of ours. John, who does know about wine, had made arrangements to take a busload of folks up to the Piedmont area and visit the Alfiero Boffa winery near Asti.

Alfiero Boffa, the man and the winery, specializes in wines made from the barbera grape in the region of Asti. These wines, like certain wines from other regions in Italy, have been given a special quality designation called DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). In other words, "we know where this wine comes from and it's good." We had bought some of Alfiero Boffa's wines last year, so we knew they were good. I just didn’t know why.

After a 2-hour bus ride, our group of 13 arrived at the winery and was greeted by Signore Boffa. His first task was to show the six of us women where the bathroom was! Next, he gave us a detailed tour of his operation, showing us the equipment and describing the process in this boutique winery, producing only 100,000 bottles a year, of which 70 percent are exported. High in malic acid and low in tannins, barbera grapes are the third most planted grape in Italy. The grapes, which originated in this area, produce a wine that is fresh and enjoyed at a young age (the wine, not the drinker), but as we were to learn first-hand, older vines can produce more complex wines worthy of aging. Alfiero's vineyards have vines that date back to when his grandfather started the business.

Our first sample of Alfiero’s wines was drawn from an oak barrel in the underground cellar. It was a blend that had been in the barrel for a year and had another year to go. I was told that it was a bit green, but my palette isn’t refined enough to know these things. Sure it tastes a bit green, if you say so. And therein lies my problem with winetasting. If someone tells me what I’m tasting, I understand. Left to my own devices, it usually boils down to “this is really good,” “I don’t care for that so much,” and “not bad.” If you gave me a blind taste of wines, I worry that I will chose the 5 euro bottle over the 50 euro one. Some people have said, "that's o.k., all that matters is that you like it." But I want to know what makes a good wine by consensus.

The hundreds of oak barrels in Alfiero’s cellar are from France. Storage in oak barrels helps balance the acidity of the barbera by leaching tannins into the wine and is a relatively new advancement in wine making in this region.
As part of the barrel-making process, the inside of the barrel is heated. This “toasting” of the barrel imparts a particular flavor to the wine, so new barrels are used to store Alfiero's blends, giving him another tool in creating a certain taste. Alfiero uses a new barrel for four years and then it is dismantled, cleaned, and re-assembled. These cleaned barrels are used for his specialty cru wines so that the “toasting” doesn’t interfere with the true flavors of the grape.

Next stop, was the wine tasting room where our group proceeded to get “toasted.” Alfiero set out specially printed placemats showing the vintages of the wine that we would try, and we all gathered around a table in anticipation. Alfiero’s wife assisted, and she and Alfiero began to serve us, newest wines first. We started with a 2008 blend and worked our way down to a 1998 blend. In between we had five crus and another blend, all of different vintages. The wine was served with great care including rinsing each glass with the wine to be served before pouring, as you can see in the video.

A “cru” is a wine made of grapes from a single vineyard. No blending. I found it fascinating that the same grape variety, the same vintner, and the same process produced such different tasting wines. When you are comparing similar wines side-by-side like this, you really get to taste the influence of the land
(the soil and the aspect of the slope) and you get to taste the influence of aging. With the benefit of having the vintner on hand, you learn a great deal more. Alfiero, who proudly stands at the head of our table, tells us that "this wine comes from grapes where the soil has lots of clay, so you'll notice a dark cherry flavor. This wine comes from grapes where the soil has lots of lime, which imparts an almond flavor. This is a 2004 cuve and you are now starting to smell more floral aromas. This wine was made in honor of my father."

After sampling eight of Alfiero's wines, we were shuttled off to Belbo Bardon, a regionally famous restaurant serving traditional food of the Asti area. I have to admit that the lunch was a bit of a blur, but I can tell you that there was a lot of meat dishes I have never tried before and probably never will again. Raw ground meat and boiled tongue, brain, and all tasted great, the service was excellent, and of course it was accompanied by more of Alfiero's wine.

After lunch, we were driven back to the winery to place our order. Alfiero served us his Moscato d'Asti, a sweet dessert wine. Needless to say, it was challenging to tally up everyone's orders and accurately communicate that to Alfiero. We loaded up about 60 boxes of wine into the back of the bus, and then the Merry Pranksters headed home. Two hours later, wine distribution in a dark parking lot was a test of our sobriety. The wine was successfully delivered and in the end we were only off by three cases. Not bad, all things considered.

So, I now feel a bit educated on barbera wine, and we have a few cases of wine in our cantina for some follow-up studies. With the barbera grape under my belt, we only have 47 or so DOCG wines to go. Cin cin!

Here are more pictures from our outing.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sicily with Cleo and Caesar

The autostrada from our home to Genoa can be summed up like this: tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge, .... It’s an intimidating 2-hour ride for me on my motorcycle. In addition to the discontinuity of the alternating tunnels and bridges, there is often heavy traffic around Genoa, or worse yet, there can be extremely high winds that funnel up off the Mediterranean into the narrow valleys spanned by the bridges. I had to exit this stretch of road one time because it was so windy that I was being blown all over the bridges. Nothing that anyone told me about Sicily (bad crime, dangerous drivers, floods of immigrants from northern Africa) had me as worried as this short stretch of highway from our house to the ferry. I fretted for days about whether I would be able to handle the bike if the winds were strong. But when we left Friday evening there was no wind and we had a calm, quiet ride in the twilight of a clear April evening. Two hours after leaving our home, we, along with our motorcycles Cleopatra and Caesar, were at the ferry terminal waiting to board for our week-long Sicilian vacation.

It’s a 20-hour ferry ride from Genoa to Palermo. Italian ferries are generally big and comfortable, making the long Mediterranean passage easier. Not much to do but relax and plan our trip, which we’d done very little of. Armed with maps and guidebooks, we drank our espressos and decided we would focus on the ancient Greek and Carthaginian ruins that are in the western half of the island: Segesta, Selinunte, and Agrigento. We also wanted to throw in a little Norman splendor at the Monreale Cathedral (the Norman’s controlled Sicily for most of the 12th Century), sample marzipan sweets in the medieval hilltown of Erice, tour the Phoenician ruins at Mozia (8th to 4th C. BC), spend a day poking around Syracuse, and climb Mt. Etna.

First we had to deal with Palermo. We were both nervous about our late-night arrival and navigating this notorious city with our loaded bikes. Many had cautioned us to watch out for crazy driving and nefarious types, but our biggest problem was finding our hotel. Jim was incredibly frustrated with his GPS, which sent us in circles around the city, a city bustling with Saturday night traffic and pedestrians. I struggled to keep up with Jim as he weaved his way through the city’s maze of one-way streets and alleys. At first, I was hesitant about the traffic, but as I cut off another car in order to keep up with Jim, I realized that what felt like chaotic, aggressive driving was really not that threatening. All bark, but no bite. I decided to employ the highly effective Italian driving strategy: If I don’t look at you, then you don’t exist.

After a lot of swearing from Jim who had the burden of navigating and a lot of unhelpful comments from me, like “Haven’t we been here before?”, we finally found our hotel. Jim went to check in and find out where we could safely park the bikes only to learn that a water pipe had broken, making our room uninhabitable. Not to worry though, because they’d booked us in another room...across town! Fortunately, we had better luck finding the Hotel Plaza Opera, and approximately two hours after our arrival in Palermo and precisely 1 km from the ferry terminal, we were checked into our room.

All of our frustration dissipated when we sat down for dinner at Capricci di Sicilia. We then realized that the traffic wasn’t as crazy as everyone had warned, the food was as good as we had heard, and the people were gregarious and welcoming. And in the seven days we spent riding around the island, nothing changed our minds about Sicily. The longer we stayed there,
the more we liked it. In addition to good food and friendly people, the archaeological sites are impressive, the terrain is beautiful, and the riding is fantastico! Downsides to the trip? A lot of unusually cool, wet weather and a sandstorm out of Africa on our last day of riding; no climb of Etna, whose upper reaches were off limits because of volcanic activity; not enough time to visit all of the places we had hoped to visit. We’d be happy to return.

And as for the trip home: tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge...

A slideshow of our trip:
Sicily Motorcycle

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Battle of the Oranges

We should have read more about the Ivrea festival before we went, but a mock battle that pits neighborhoods against each other sounded like fun. From the crowds of Italian's streaming into town, old and young alike, we would have never known the danger that lurked ahead. Why are they all wearing red caps and why is that banner promoting death?

Upon arrival in the old town, we watched a parade that featured knights on horseback, floats with candy throwing festival queens, bands, and groups of people in fine period costumes. We also got our first clue about the mock battle: horse drawn carts were carrying fully armed warriors, who were wearing American football pads under their coordinated jerseys and who had face masks that a Canadian hockey goalie would be proud to wear.

The parade ended, and we followed the crowd and the noise. We entered a piazza, which was packed full of people and the strong scent of orange. Our jaws dropped as we watched the horse-drawn carts slowly work their way around the piazza one at a time. The dozen or so people in the cart and the hundreds in the piazza were engaged in all out war. The weapons? Oranges, of course!

Jim moved closer to the action with his camera exposed (veteran photographers come with their camera gear wrapped in plastic), but I smartly stayed at the edge watching the battle from a distance and getting good views of pulp-encrusted soldiers leaving the field. Was that blood or blood oranges?

After an hour of observing this bizarre event, we decided to leave. I said to Jim, "I want to go closer to the center of the piazza to see the carnage while there aren't any carts here." Just as we got to the center another cart entered. It was exhilarating to be so close to the action, but I finally wimped out and started to seek safer ground.
As I turned back once more to see the action, I took an orange to the left eye. My glasses were flattened to my face and covered with pulp! I grabbed Jim and told him I was wounded. He took me to the red cross tent where I received ice for my injury and the condolences of the medical team. (The other patient was suffering from alcohol abuse and was being treated with an IV! As you might imagine, there is a lot of alcohol involved to bolster the courage of the troops.)

Had I done my research before going to the festival, I would have bought a red hat. Almost every spectator was wearing one because it protects you from getting hit by an orange. My hat was blue.

Here is a video clip that Jim took. The gasping noise followed by laughter is Jim getting an orange to the stomach!