Cinque Terre

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When I close my eyes and think of Italy, it’s usually memories of Cinque Terre that come to mind.  Cinque Terre with it’s colorful towns clinging to cliff-sides and the blue green Mediterranean crashing on the rocks below.


Pictures of Cinque Terre were what had originally spurred me to ask for a honeymoon in Italy and we quickly agreed to spend the third and splurgiest week of our travels there.  We arrived by train, and the property manager led us up through the twisting streets of Manarola (the second of the five small, car-free towns) to the little apartment we’d rented.  The doors and windows of the apartment were shuttered tight, and I remember with clarity the look of glee on the manager’s face as he led us into the dark bedroom, and dramatically threw open the doors to the terrace.  It must have been his favorite part of the job, seeing the look on people’s faces as they took in that view for the first time and ours were surely no disappointment.  The apartment had a large terrace overgrown with grape vines and looked out on the rest of Manarola, the terraced hills, and the sea.


That week in Cinque Terre was like a dream.  Visiting all the little towns, we tried the local seafood specialty (a combination of clams, shrimp, fish, squid and langostino) cooked a half dozen different ways—as a cioppino; breaded and fried; sauteed in a wine sauce over pasta; as a sort of paella; grilled with vegetables—each variation better than the next and oh-so-fresh.  We’d collect pesto, bread, and local wine while we were out for the day, and bring it back to enjoy at our apartment while spending lazy hours taking in the unreal view from our terrace.  Often we’d hike in the hillsides from town to town or walk amongst the gardens growing on the terraced hillsides.  We meandered through olive groves and saw lemon trees heavy with fruit.  Sometimes we ate gelato and most afternoons we’d make our way over to Monterosso al Mare to rent an umbrella and a couple of beach chairs.  Hours were spent napping and reading in the sun, taking turns fetching more gelato, and most wonderfully, swimming in those clear blue-green waters.  One lazy afternoon we found a dozen tiny orange kumquats floating in the water, lost from someone’s lunch or fallen off a tree, and we spent hours playing toss with them in the sea, taking turns hurling the little orange fruit into the air, while the other made a spectacular dive to catch it, the warm Mediterranean waters catching us as we fell.

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Pisa

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Sometimes the best travel experiences are the ones that take you by surprise.  Pisa was a convenient stopover for us, and, expecting to just pay a cursory visit to the Tower and try to get as much sleep as possible, we hadn’t done much research or bothered to muster up any excitement.  Dropping our bags at the hotel, we immediately ventured out for food, espresso, and a glimpse at Pisa’s most famous landmark.  Often being more of the food and culture type of tourist than the famous landmark kind of tourist, we joked about the tower and pretended we were excited to see it, and eventually those jokes morphed into genuine, almost giddy excitement which suddenly burst out of both of us when we finally turned a corner and it came into view.   We had excellent fun taking photos of the Mister posing with the tower, marveling at how it really looks like it ought to topple over, and watched hundreds of other tourists do the same, before making our way over to the maze of souvenir stalls and energetically combing through them to find the perfect kitschy bottle openers to give as gifts.


Most of our trip we’d worked hard to research good food and eat like the locals did, but in Pisa we’d lost steam and, in search of sustenance, walked down one of the quaint old streets that were lined with the sort of over-priced restaurants that are geared towards foreigners.  We’d managed to avoid those sorts of places during most of our travels, but now that we were seeking one out, we were turned away again and again as it turned out they were all booked up for the night.  Frustrated and starving, we wandered further and further into the residential neighborhoods and eventually happened upon a little restaurant on a quiet street corner that had a table open on its tiny patio.  We’d had so many amazing meals in Italy, but this one stands apart in my memory like no other.  There was so many moments when I closed my eyes and relished the way the osso buco melted in my mouth, the creaminess of the polenta, and the utter perfection of the risotto, flavors and textures that are all still so clear in my memory.  We remarked to our server that it was without a doubt the best meal we’d had in Italy, and she’d smiled and said, “Of course, this is food for Italians.”


Later, stuffed, exhausted, and happy we meandered along the Arno river, basking in the golden glow of the setting sun and blissful in the unexpected loveliness that was Pisa.

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Florence

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Near the end of our stay in Tuscany, we hopped on a train to spend a day in nearby Florence, or Firenze, as they say locally.  It was such a whirlwind of a day, but the beautiful Duomo looms heavily in my memory, with its towering dome peeking out at us from around every corner as we explored the city.  Florence was a day of indulgence for us, beginning with a delicious lunch of truffled pasta and multiple stops at the colorful gelaterias that pepper the city, but my favorite memory was our discovery of the bright and airy espresso bars, where, for a single euro, you are almost instantly served an expertly made espresso with sugar and a tiny biscotti.  A far cry from the cafe culture in Paris, in Italy there were hardly any tables to linger and people watch; rather one stands at the bar, downs the espresso in one or two sips, and then heads off on their merry way.  To this day, as I’ve stood in many a long cafe line, desperate for caffeine, while those ahead of me placed their very specific drink orders, and I’ve longed for just such an espresso bar to open within walking distance of my office.

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Tuscany

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After an amazing week in Rome, we hopped a train for the Tuscan countryside, where we spent the second week of our honeymoon relaxing in an old farmhouse.  Opting to spend our time enjoying the surrounding fields and vineyards instead of renting a car and driving from town to town, we stocked up on groceries and made the most of our farm house kitchen.  Every day we cooked our own meals and ate them in the shade of a row of cypress trees, occassionaly ducking over to the stone store house on the property where we had access to wine made from local grapes.  Occasionally we took a bus or train to visit ancient nearby towns, but mostly we wandered around the property through meadows and fields, admiring the wildflowers, devouring book after book in the shade, and drowsily watching the afternoon sun set the surrounding pond and vineyards aglow with golden light.

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Rome

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Every year, around our anniversary, I find myself daydreaming about the three dreamy, sun-filled weeks we spent in Italy for our honeymoon, and this year I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favorite photos from those days.


Four years ago, in early May, we spent seven days in Rome.  The city was warm and breezy, and we found a darling little apartment in Trastevere using AirBnB.  Charming and full of narrow, cobble-stoned streets, Trastevere was the perfect home-base for our stay, full of wonderful little restaurants and an easy walk into the city center.  Every morning we’d make an espresso in our tiny apartment and then head out to take in the historic sites, admire all the Roman window gardens, and settle into one of the dozens of piazzas to people-watch for hours.  A friend had recommended the fantastic terroir guide, Food Wine Rome, and though we hardly spoke any Italian, we quickly figured out how to order a full Italian meal much to the delight of the owners the tiny, local gems that we’d have never found without the book.  At the insistence of other friends who’d lived in Rome, we picnicked on an island in the Tiber and just as we were about to eat more gelato than is probably sensible for just two people, we hopped a train to spend the next week in Tuscany.

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Rome, Italy. May 2011

Wanderings: California

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Growing up in Texas, I never thought much about California.  I knew it had heat and deserts, oceans and hippies, traffic and urban sprawl, and I had all of those things already, while the things we didn’t have, like mountains and movie stars and earthquakes, didn’t interest me much.  The east coast was what gripped my childhood imagination.  I longed for dense cities, noise, snow, apple cider, seasons, and sweaters, and for the last seven years they’ve been mine all mine.


And yet, 18-months ago, we got the opportunity to spend a lot of time in California, and being the people we are, leapt at the chance to explore a new place in depth.  We visited deserts and mountains, oceans and orange groves, vineyards and ancient forests.  We biked across the foggy coast, visited old missions, kayaked with sea lions, ate ridiculous amounts of fish tacos and roasted artichokes, and listened to the waves crash against the coast again and again.  I’m not sure when California crept into my heart, but slowly I fell for her, hard and unexpectedly.


Now our travels there have finally come to an end, and I’m sad and mournful for California in a way I’ve never been for a place.  I miss the slower speed of life, the dry heat of the desert, and the cool damp of the coast.  I long to drive through eucalyptus groves with the windows down and to smell the strawberries in the air as we pass through the Salinas Valley.  I want to buy giant bags of oranges at roadside stands and I want half the radio stations to be in Spanish.  I miss the mountains and the colors and the Pacific ocean and the palm trees.  Mostly I just want to go back, not for short vacations, but for long stretches of time, maybe forever, and I can’t figure out how to do it.  Someday, maybe I will, but for now, here’s a travelogue of our time on the west coast, my love letter to you, California.

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Monterey

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Carmel-by-the-sea

Santa Cruz

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Drives and Hikes

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Los Angeles

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Sonoma Valley

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Big Sur

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Joshua Tree National Park

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Yosemite National Park

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Sequoia National Park

Orange groves

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I would gladly spend every weekend wandering around my own orange grove, the smell of blossoms thick in the air, intoxicating both me and the thousands of bees buzzing from blossom to blossom.

California.  March 2015.

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California wildflowers

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There are days we live as if death were nowhere
in the background;
from joy to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
-Li-Young Lee
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Farewell, Carmel

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Over the last eighteen months, we’ve spent a lot of time in Carmel-by-the-Sea, eating at great restaurants, admiring all the tiny charming houses, but most of all, loving the beach, with its twisted cypress trees, white sands, and blue-green waters.  At this point, I don’t know when we’ll be able to come back again.  Not too terribly long, I hope. To say goodbye, we gathered a few of our dear ones and enjoyed one last bottle of wine, watching the sun set and listening to the crash of the waves.

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Moro Rock

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A last minute and unexpectedly delightful stop, the climb up Moro Rock was heart-pounding, and the sheer drops over the side of the rock made my knees wobbly if I looked down too long.  At 6,700 ft, the views were stunning, shifting and opening-up again and again as you zigzagged your way up the rock.  It was lovely to look out over the expanse of forest and valley, and to have a last glimpse at the Sierra Nevadas in the distance.

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The giant forest

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One of the more magical afternoons we’ve had in California was spent hiking in a quiet forest of glowing giants.  The air was crisp and the light was golden, and every time we came upon another giant copse of sequoia, it was all I could do not to lie down on the springy pads of pine needles at their feet, and, surrounded by my fortress of giants, stare up at the treetops until I drifted off to sleep

Sequoia National Park, California.  March 2015.

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Girl in the grove

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Sequoia National Park, California.  March 2015.

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