Sunday, October 23, 2011

Italy, Lake Como

The train started slowly as it departed Milano Centrale station, rolling past the backsides of concrete apartment buildings and chain-linked storage yards.  Eventually the city detritus receded and the landscape opened up to wheat-colored fields and small-town clusters of homes. The tracks began sloping upward and the rocky tops of distant mountains grew closer.  The scenery blacked out periodically as we passed through tunnels carved into the mountains.  In a flash of sunlight between tunnels, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Como. 

It feels like forever since we packed our bags and left to explore another corner of the world, our last adventure was to the humid beaches of Tulum, Mexico to escape a long February.  We’re considering this Italian getaway to be our last hurrah before travel gets trickier, this is our “baby moon” before our son is born in March. 

We’re staying in Varenna, on the east shore of the lake, a pastel-colored sleepy town with a view north of the snow-tipped peaks of the Swiss Alps.  Our room is in an annex of the Hotel Oliveda, a bright yellow old mansion next door known as Villa Toretta.  The ground floor is furnished with a gilded table and chairs, glass-front curio cabinets, and a wall of stuffed animal heads over the fireplace.  The place is so quiet it feels like we’re there alone.  Our second-floor room has tall windows with panes of old glass that open onto a panoramic view of the lake.  The mattress is harder than the stone floor. 

Although there’s nothing but blue sky and warm sun during the day, the nights are chilly.  All the tourists seek warm refuge at cozy indoor tables.  After being turned away from four full restaurants by apologetic waiters, we settled on a casual café tucked into a stone niche just above the lake.  We sat down at a wrought iron table on chairs padded with faded blue sailboat cushions.  The white-tile countertop next to us was crowded with an assortment of glass domes covering pastries, tarts and pies.  The waitress pushed aside the tiny vase of flowers on our table to make room for a big salad plate of rocket, white beans, tomatoes and pistachios drizzled with olive oil, a dish of artichoke ravioli in cream sauce, and a bowl of spaghetti with a spicy red sauce.  We lingered after dinner over a dish of hazelnut and chocolate gelato while Mohit finished his beer.
In the morning, we rode the slow boat to take in the views and finally disembarked to explore glitzy Bellagio.  

We found a warm sunny spot to sit for a lunch of pizza and salad.  We wandered off the map to the outskirts of town and followed the voices of happy kids to peek over the top of a stone wall at a big family backyard feast.

In the softening afternoon light, we parked ourselves in café chairs beneath a colonnade and nursed a decaffeinato cappuccino and a pale biere for two hours.  An endless stream of well-dressed people parade by, vespa helmets in hand or dogs pulling tight at leashes.  I’m amazed that after weeks of being so busy, so overbooked and overworked, we are absolutely relaxed here within 24 hours.  At lunch Mohit declared how happy he was- he was only thinking of work 20% of the time, instead of 80%.  I’m hoping to get him down to zero percent.

The next day, we got off the battello navetta (ferry) at Tremezzo to walk along the waterfront road to Villa Carlotta, the Italian equivalent of a Newport mansion perched on a steep hillside over the lake.  We wandered through the eccentric gardens; a bamboo grove with a Japanese gate, a tunnel formed by arched branches of orange and lemon trees heavy with fruit, and a manmade waterfall of pumped-in lake water running down a ravine dotted with palms that reminded us of the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali. 

In the afternoon, back in Varenna, we hiked the cobble-paved trail up the steep hill above town (verrrry slowly, since my stamina at 5 ½ months pregnant isn’t what it usually is!) to the ruined Castello de Vezio.  We were greeted just beyond the entrance by a regal horned owl in a cage with intelligent, searching yellow eyes the size of silver dollars.  We interrupted an Indian film crew shooting a romantic scene in the castle courtyard.  We stayed to watch a falcon swoop over our heads and then land on the shoulder of his trainer to pluck meaty morsels from his gloved hands. 

On our last night in Varenna, we felt up for a culinary adventure.  Mohit convinced the grumpy proprietress of our hotel to call and make us a reservation at Ristorante il Caminetto, a traditional trattoria in a tiny village uphill.  The chef’s wife zipped down in her minivan to pick us up, wished us a quick but friendly “buona sera” as we buckled ourselves in, and then drove us fast up hairpin turn roads as the sun set.    She deposited us in front of a thick wooden door, which we pushed open to find a big empty room centered around a fireplace. 

The warm and welcoming Chef Morena ushered us to a corner table and apologized for the empty room, explaining that it was the end of the tourist season. We received his undivided attention and followed his recommendations, ordering an antipasto of “tinned vegetables”, which turned out to be a delicious assortment of homemade pickled treats.  We turned next to a primi course of tortelloni stuffed with artichokes and flavored with bright green slivers of leeks, then a creamy risotto with porcini mushrooms and currants (that turned the risotto the color of blueberry pudding).  Already full, we managed to finish most of our secondi course; a beef loin spread with foie gras, wrapped in prosciutto, and served with a creamy sauce and fried potato coins.  He tried to tempt us with his dolci offerings, but we begged mercy, left a big tip, and thanked his wife for a return trip back down to the lake.  

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tulum, Mexico

Boston’s winter was brutal this year.  I love snow, but January was relentlessly snowy.  February was bitterly cold and grey. By March Mohit agreed it was time to escape.  We used’s mapped fare deals to find out where we could fly for about $300 round trip.  Bingo!  Direct, cheap flights to Cancun.

Our plan was to skip the gated mega-resorts lining the highway out of Cancun.  Instead, we followed the advice and rave reviews of our friends, who’d recently returned from Tulum, a lazy cluster of eco-resorts lining a perfect beach about two hours south of Cancun. 

We arrived at Nueva Vida de Ramiro on a steamy Saturday afternoon.  The staff at the reception desk were warm, welcoming, and laid back.  We slipped off our shoes to follow them along sandy paths overgrown with dense foliage to our beach bungalow on stilts.  As soon as we dropped our bags, a woman returned with welcome drinks: tall mojitos with chunks of diced lime and sugar cane juice.  Cold and shockingly tart, the first sip made me inhale quickly.  Mmmm.  Mexico. 

We stayed in an “ocean view” bungalow hidden in the jungle with glimpses of turquoise water from our balcony.  The room was perfect; simple and spacious.  A pretty Mexican tiled bathroom, a hammock outside the wide double doors, and a breezy second-floor loft open on one side with a sloped thatched roof and two chairs, perfect for reading in the shade.   Looking out over palm fronds from our window, I heard a flitting sound and spied a red-breasted hummingbird hovering over brilliant orange flowers.

The eco-resorts along Tulum’s beach are off the grid; all power is provided by the wind and the sun.   The first night, the power ran out in the middle of the night; we both woke up sweaty when our fan shut off.  We threw open the windows and big double door to our room to let in the ocean air.  The mosquito net over our bed brushed against my face with each gust of salty wind blowing through the open windows. 

Most mornings, after a breakfast of thick dark coffee, a plate of fresh fruit, and a basket of wheat toast and banana bread in Nueva Vida’s outdoor café, we headed to the beach.  Neuva Vida’s staff sets up a private “living room” for each bungalow consisting of two beach chairs, a broad umbrella, a table, and the best ever beach mattress with pillows.  We spent our days reading in the shade of the umbrella, occasionally breaking for a swim.  When we got hungry, we’d either order from a waiter strolling along the beach, or we’d take a walk and poke into the first ocean-front restaurant that called to us. 

The restaurants lining the beach are simple: thatched roofs, homemade wood furniture, barefoot patrons welcome.  The food is perfect; lime squeezed over tender fish tacos topped with crunchy lettuce and creamy avocado.  Salty paella with peas, heaps of whole prawns, clams, mussels, tender rings of calamari and flaky bits of white fish. Plump chunks of pink shrimp ceviche.  Margaritas sweetened with fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. 

The wind was constant.  I’ve never been anywhere so windy in my life.  During the day, if I stood facing the ocean, in moments the wind coated my face in salty spray.  Everything glistens with a coating of surf and salt.  The air is thick, moist, luxurious.  Like when you drape a towel over your head and push your face above a steamy bowl.  I hung my wet bikini to dry on the porch rail: pulling it down to pack two days later, it was still damp.

At dinner one night at Posada Margherita, the restaurant owner plunked down in the empty seat at our table.  He had a shaved head, a black T-shirt with a skull on it, and arms painted with tattoos.   He waxed poetically about the finer points of his special for the night- red snapper braised in butter and lemon.  Just like everything else in Tulum- it was simple but perfect.

After dinner we walked back along the beach, our toes sinking into sand as fine as powdered sugar.  The clouds parted briefly, revealing a black sky dense with stars.  Salsa music beckoned at La Zebra, a glowing strip of beach a few hundred yards beyond our bungalow.  A circular wood deck built around two thick palm trees was packed with couples swishing hips to a live salsa band.  

We ordered a pair of mojitos and plopped down on a sandy cushion on the beach to watch the crowd.  One Mexican couple in particular was mesmerizing.  Such rhythm.  She in a red tank bra and black yoga pants, hips shashaying erotically to the beat.  He in baggy cargo shorts and a preppy polo shirt- and odd pair but perfectly matched dance partners.  As we left, a three-legged dog lying in the sand lifted his head and thumped his tail at me.  I grinned at him and he hopped over for a scratch between the ears. 

During the day, we rented bikes for the few-mile ride to Tulum’s Mayan ruins.  The remains of ancient limestone pyramids edged by the turquoise coast are now home to herds of iguanas. 

At lunch on our last day in Tulum, a woman and her ten year old son sat at the table next to us.  She wore a flowing Indian-printed cotton dress woven with threads of glittery gold.  I asked if she knew whether any places to stay along the beach have fresh-water showers (the running water in our bungalow was salt water only- and she confirmed most places are the same).  I loved her reply.  She said “Every time I come down here, the first night I swear I’m never coming back again.  But then the whole hippie beach-camping vibe sinks in and I just don’t want to leave“.  She’s been back four years in a row.  We’re already talking about coming back next year.