Saturday, 28 December 2013

San Francisco with Miles Davis in the cans

I have to say that this was my very first time in the U.S. Yes, at 40 years old I was still "U.S. virgin". And more appropriately "San Francisco virgin". Also this time I was travelling alone (partially for business) after about 17 years. I almost forgot that travelling alone is a very intimate and introspective experience. Thoughts are constantly crossing your mind but there's no one next to you to share them with. You almost talk to yourself like a lunatic and you stare in the face on the people, looking for a sign, a friendly smile.
San Francisco was definitely an unexpected and unique surprise.

I didn't have much time and I wanted to live the city directly as much as possible. So I decided to take a small rucksack and walk all around with no plans, no guides and without using public transport. I just had a small map that I had found in a tourist office. I saw nearly all San Francisco in 2 days. At the end my shoes were smoking and shouting "Enough mate!!!".

San Francisco for me represents perfectly the unquestionable dichotomy of the US. On one side of the same street you have multimillionaire houses, very well educated people, huge skyscrapers and on the other you have the thousands of homeless people, lost in their concrete forest, pushing a trolley full of rubbish, occasionally swearing at the sky with their lives burnt to the bone. It's heaven and hell. A bittersweet symphony of colours and sounds that at the end left me with a lot of thoughts in the middle of very thin air.

I know this will sound very trivial but the Golden Gate really struck me. Superimposing San Francisco Bay, it's a jewel of modern architecture and has a special sense of place.

I didn't want to see Alcatraz as I'm not a big fan of prisons.

The Castro is the gay and hippies quarter. I loved it! I saw a man about 55 years old completely naked enjoying the sun, a guy of about 150 Kg dressed like a ballet dancer and happy people kissing each other and holding their hands. Fantastic!

The Mission district is also very interesting. With its late 19th century houses and the Latin quarter is a very cool and particular remark in the history of the town.

I've had great fun walking up and down the numerous hills of the city under a mild sun! With the music of Miles Davis and Ali Farka Toure' in my headphones all this scenery became almost magic and I was losing myself in this corner of heaven. The climate really struck me. It was the end of November and it was like June in Italy!

Then I went to visit all the Marina district and the North Bay area. The only down side of the Marina district is Fisherman's Wharf. My god, what a pile of crap! The whole area is like a big Luna Park. Packed with tacky souvenir shops (next to many homeless people) and tourist's trap restaurants and bars. Said that, on Pier 39 I saw many seals enjoying the sun, I walked all around Fort Mason to end up at the Presidio.

A huge park where I had an amazing stroll on the beautiful beach of the Golden Gate Promenade, where many people played with their dogs and relaxed in the sunshine. I admired the Golden Gate, the 19th century colonial houses, the intriguing San Francisco cemetery and the gigantic Palace of Fine Arts (an imitation of our neoclassical European buildings).

 The last night of my visit I slept in a very rough and cheap motel (earplugs and eye bandage it's a must). And I went to eat a lovely pizza (Italian style) and huge gelato at Delarosa. A noisy and hectic restaurant, where the food is delicious but also very expensive.

Remember, San Francisco is a very pricey city that offers a lot of attractions, but I believe that the best way to absorb it is through walking around timeless and with a camera always in your hand.
You never know, you might see things that you will not see ever again....

I will be back soon San Francisco. And next time I want to analyze the wine region!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Sensory analysis of Puglia

Puglia is the Italian region occupying the heel of the peninsula: an amazing area extraordinarily rich in culture and traditions.

My personal experience was extremely `physical` and that’s the reason why I decided to describe it via the 5 senses.

Sight: there is no better way of depicting Puglia than using its own peculiar features: the long dry stone walls bordering the roads and the surrounding large green fields, olive groves or vineyards....

...the Masserias, ancient farmhouses now often renovated and transformed in beautiful restaurants or hotels.....

 ...and the trulli, very distinctive buildings characterised by a conical roof and typical of the Valle dell'Istria.

Hearing: Puglia (or Apulia for English speakers) has tout cour the sound of pizzica, the traditional popular dance characterized by a pressing rhythm and lots of tambourines. It can be described with words. You need to listen to it....

Smell: this region is rich in perfumes and certainly that of olive oil is one of the most representative. Puglia produces approximately 49% of the total Italian olive oil. Olive trees are an important feature of the landscape and the resulting extra-virgin oil is rich, with plenty of aromas of tomatoes, almonds and olives and with a spicy character. A lot of the production unfortunately gets lost in the blend of various oils from various unspecified parts of  Italy but luckily there are also some very expressive examples. 


Taste:  Apulian cuisine is an explosion of flavours. Food here is almost religion. This fertile land produces natural products that are the tasty ingredients of the local cuisine: the tomatoes, the olive oil, the chilli, the mushrooms, the wild chicory, but also the bread (a different type almost in every town), the homemade pastas, the mozzarella and burrata and the wine, the best company for your meals. 

Touch: This is a very important sense in this land. People here is proud of their origins, they are expressive and friendly. They don't just shake your hand they hug you vigorously. They invite you to their places. They are approachable and convivial. They are warm people.

PS: This post is based on the personal experiences of the feminine part of the couple.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Something for everyone (aka the stunning beaches of Northern Corsica)

The only way to fight the incoming apathy and sense of depression due to a November rainy afternoon, was to look back at our pictures and notes from our week in Corsica and write about some of its beautiful beaches! Since last time we were in this gorgeous Mediterranean island 2 months ago, memories are still fresh.

One of the things we love more about Corsica (other that good food and wine and an extraordinary mix of French and Italian cultures) is the fact that it has something for everyone.
Mountain? Ticked!
Amazing sea? Ticked!
Sandy beaches? Ticked!
Rocky bays? Ticked!
Beautiful ancient towns? Ticked!
(And we don't want to repeat ourselves about food & wine!)

But let's go back to beaches...and let's start with an easy one: Plage Aregno. Easy in terms of access because is just by the town of Algajola and there is a quite spacious parking. No facilities there other than a kayak rental. But the beautiful landscape on one side, the view of the now privately owned ancient Genoese fort on the other and crystalline waters just in front of you will do the job.

Only walking distance but inside the town there are also other spots both with sand or rocks where to stop.

Very close to Lumio, is Plage Arinella. Here there is a sandy part and also some flat and smooth rocks where lying down to sunbath. The beach is quite large: the first part is not perfectly clean plus walking a bit further it is quieter. What is really impressive is the splendid colorful maquis behind the beach and the amazing fishes in the water. It was full of sea breams and sea basses...and seabirds looking for their dinner!

Getting closer to Ile Rousse, there are a couple of other beaches worth visiting. Just before entering the town (coming from Lumio) there is a blue totem saying `Plage` . Follow the road and in a few minutes you will find a large parking. During high season you will have to pay but in September it was free. Once left the car, a 5-10 minutes walk (crossing an apparently abandoned railroad track) will take you to the first of the 2 beaches, Plage de Bodre.

Bodre is a very nice long stretch of sand with a bar on its Eastern side, but it was a bit too busy for our standards, so we decided to follow a path indicating Plage de Ghjunchetu. After a 5-10 minutes' walk through the maquis, we arrived to this charming and much less crowded beach of fine and light sand with some rocky corners.


The seabed is sandy with plenty of little soles.There is also a bar, but at the time of our visit it was closed.
The place was very quiet and relaxing.

And just looking at pictures we can still feel the warmth of that September afternoon.....

Monday, 11 November 2013

Cap Corse, the wild finger of Corsica

Cap Corse is a thin strip of land in Northern Corsica stretching towards the Italian region of Liguria and called 'the finger'.
It is possibly the wildest and less spoilt part of the island and offers plenty of untouched beaches, beautiful hiking paths, ancient Genoese towers, fresh seafood and a worldwide acclaimed muscat!

Starting your way up from Bastia, on the eastern side, the road is one lane per direction making the trip a bit slow at times, but still extremely enjoyable thanks to the amazing views of the sea on your right. Once you arrive in Centuri, at the top of the finger on the western side, things get a bit more complicated as the road's conditions are extremely poor and nothing has changed at all since we visited 3 years ago; it still looks like a work in progress without having made any progress!

This time we spent most of our time on the eastern part of the finger making base in Macinaggio, a port village on the outskirts of the Site Naturel de la Capandula. 
Before getting there, though, we stopped on the various beaches along the road; Marine de Pietracorbara, Marine de Sisco and Marine de Santa Severa for a few refreshing baths. Even being the last days of September the water temperature was still warm plus this is probably the perfect time of the year to enjoy these places completely as the high season is finished and the atmosphere is much more relaxed! We also stopped to taste a bit of Muscat at the Domaine Pieretti which was delicious as we were expecting!

Macinaggio in itself is not that exciting: a few hotels and restaurants and a couple of ticky-tacky souvenir shops, but it's the perfect base to discover the area around and the other little villages: Rogliano, Barcaggio, Centuri, Pino and Luri.

Rogliano is divided in various hamlets on the hills inland. Lovely stone houses, green rich vegetation all around and the silent view of the sea are going to welcome you there.

Barcaggio is at the real northernmost finger tip, a mid stop on the spectacular Sentier du Douanier and just in front of Ile de la Giraglia. The village is very quiet (at least in September) and being at the border with the Site Naturel de la Capandula, it is not unusual to see wild cows resting and bathing. Getting there requires a bit of patience as the road from Ersa is narrow and windy, but you will rewarded by the splendid sight of unspoilt nature. 

Once on the western side of the Cap, the first town you will encounter is Centuri. Its port is a tiny fishing village that every summer turns in a bustling spot with plenty of crowded fish restaurants offering great seafood.
If you keep going on the main road heading south towards Pino make sure you don't stop by the bar/fuel station unless you like extremely rude and slow service!

From Pino, getting inland towards Luri, it's full of beautiful vineyards (at the time of our visit they were just ready to be harvested). The town is not that much different from the others in the Cap Corse; characterised by a quiet and relaxing atmosphere. Just outside the town it is worth visiting the Tour of Seneca, where the ancient Roman philosopher was confined with a charge of adultery. The short climb to get there is worth the great view of the sea on both sides.

Worth mentioning as well that Luri is the place where the biggest wine festival in Corsica takes place, though, unfortunately, we got there just a couple of months late, as the fair is in July! 

We ended our circular tour by heading back to Santa Severa, Luri's marina, on the eastern shores of the Cap, just on time for the last bath of this summer.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Italy off the beaten track: Farnese!

Italy is our home and it's as well the country we both decided to leave because, even being such an amazing place, extraordinarily rich in art, history and natural beauty, it is, unfortunately, in a very dark phase in terms of economy, culture and most important politics.
Anyway, this is not the place to talk about this so let's move on.

The thing is that, every time we come back to visit our families, we rediscover the many little gems, lots of them off the beaten track, that make this country so unique.

One of this is the medieval village of Farnese in Lazio, and more specifically in the area called Tuscia that was once the place where Etruscans settled. This tiny village, counting not even 1700 inhabitants, is beautifully perched on a tuffaceous cliff.

Its name derives from the Farnia tree known around Europe as peduncolate oak and depicted on the city logo.

Apparently the name Farnese has then consequently been acquired by the famous homonymous noble family that had in the area its oldest feudal possessions and that became so influential during the Renaissance.

Nowadays not that much is left of that prestigious historic presence, if you exclude the main palace (that has though been divided in several private apartments throughout the centuries) and the old bridge that was used by the family to reach the gardens (and it's now an exhibition centre).

But even if the village has lost part of its historic and artistic features it still remains a lovely little hamlet where to stop a few days to relax, being in a very strategic position between the volcanic lake of Bolsena  and the sea and close to many interesting old Etruscan necropolis.

Nature lovers won't be disappointed as the village is surrounded by the Selva del Lamone, a natural reserve perfect for walks. The main trail is the Sentiero dei Briganti, a path crossing the Selva, that follows the traces of the late XIX century brigand Tiburzi (that had some connection with one of my ancestors, but this is another story!)

Well, this is where my family is coming from and where I have spent most of my summer holidays when I was a kid, so probably this is the reason why I love the place so much. But I am sure that if you have the chance to visit it, you won't resist the charm of its silent cobbled street and its peaceful atmosphere, .

So if you found the place interesting and are thinking about visiting, here are a few information:
There a few options in town  where to stay overnight such as the Residenza Farnese, the Agriturismo Borgo Il Ducato, the Ostello Ortensi.

In the old part of the town you will find 2 very good and very different restaurants: La Taverna dei Briganti serving rustic and genuine local cuisine and La Piazzetta del Sole a little gourmet gem that has its strengths in the surprising match of the freshest local products and the chef's creativity (A must try!)

Oh and don't forget to check out the best local produce: great quality olive oil!
And finally, if the local wine is not top-notch, you will easily find nice wines from Montefiascone or Pitigliano.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Balagne: beauty and fertility of Northern Corsica

Corsica is one of our favorite spots in the Mediterranean.
For its sun, its clear waters, its breathtaking views....

....and because, to us, it is the perfect blend of Italian and French culture.
It is extremely touristy but it still retains a very wild character along with a strong traditional identity.
And while August tends to be overcrowded, September is quieter and surely a better time to visit. This is why we decided to head there for an early autumn escape. We had already been there a few times traveling all around the island so this time we decided to concentrate on the northern part and more specifically in the Balagne and Cap Corse.

The Balagne is an area of the Haute-Corse, bordered by the Ostriconi river on the east side and extending  up to the Genoese town of Calvi on the west side.
We used Santa Reparata di Balagna, just 5 minutes inland from the popular holiday resort of Ile Rousse, as a base for our wanderings in this fertile areas scattered with old charming villages.

Midway between Ile Rousse and Calvi, we encountered the little coast town of Algajola, characterized by a beautifully maintained (and privately owned) Genovese fort and a series of small places ideal for al fresco dining.

The road from the beach leading inland will bring you to the quiet Aregno with the stunning XII century Romanesque church of the Trinity and the coloured stonework of its facade.

Following the Route des Artisans, we headed inland towards Pigna.
This is a charming and peaceful village that cannot be accessed by car. Walking through its narrow cobbled street you will find lots of art shops, some lazy cats laying under the sun and prickly pear plants.

It feels a bit too perfect and touristy but it is definitely worth a visit.

Sant'Antonino, a bit further inland, is even more touristy than Pigna as you will easily realise it by the big buses parked at the bottom of the town. Once again you will have to leave you car (and pay for the parking) and walk up the paved medieval streets.
The town is mainly inhabited by retired people and flourishing rosemary plants.....

If you are looking for some more genuinely traditional places then get back to your car and drive to Speloncato. You will only find silence and beautiful old buildings on this tiny town perched on a protruded rock in the middle of the valley.

We met a funny and knowledgeable old man who took us a bit around telling us a bit of the town history, the beautiful church and the amazingly decorated pipe organ.

We spent some time strolling around and taking pictures....

and making new friends...