Sunday, June 27, 2010

Barcelona: Miscreants and the Metro

Dear old gent passing by
Something nice takes his eye
Everything’s clear, attack the rear
Get in and pick-a-pocket or two.
- Oliver

It was perfectly executed. The victim was a well-dressed man in his late fifties, 6’ tall, with pressed linen shirt, dress trousers and the look of an American car dealer on vacation in Europe (new cars, not used.) He and his small group were smiling and cheery, having the time of their lives in Spain – until it happened that is.

It was 11:20 p.m. and they were likely returning to their Barcelona hotel from an elegant Spanish guitar concert or a saucy Flamenco show. They had just stepped onto the Metro (Barcelona’s fast, quiet, efficient subway train) when the culprit put his plan into action. The miscreant and his accomplice were in the last car, closest to the exit stairs when the train pulled into the station. He waited until the moment Car Dealer stepped through the door to attempt to exit the train, bumping head-on into the soon-to-be victim. Immediately Bad Guy started hysterically chastising the innocent tourist. My Spanish isn’t strong enough to mentally translate more than a few words at that speed but I suspect what he was saying was along the lines of “You crazy idiot. Pay attention to the signs. You’re supposed to let passengers off the train before you enter.” It didn’t matter that Car Dealer had done nothing wrong. It was just intended as a distraction, and it sure caught my attention from my vantage point 5 feet away.

You read about incidents like this in virtually every guidebook in most every country. Though I never expect it to happen to me (knock on wood), there is a reason that virtually all the pants I brought on my Odyssey are of the Tilley variety with hidden pockets and Velcro closures (many newly re-sewn – thanks Mom!) Until you observe it with your own eyes though, it is hard to grasp just how it happens and how quickly. The entire incident must have taken less than 20 seconds from the initial moment of altercation. The commotion was over in just a few of those seconds and Bad Guy exited around completely bewildered Car Dealer and was on the escalator on the way out of the station. Immediately, one of the man’s female companions asked “did he get your wallet”? Almost at the same time that the man responded instinctively “no, it’s fine,” he patted his empty back pocket where his nice fat wallet had once been. Chaos ensued and instantly he was out the door and in hot pursuit, with his entire group of travelling companions just clearing the door and back onto the platform as it closed.

Too bad they didn’t see what I did. I’m almost certain that Bad Guy Number Two, who had also exited the train at the time of the incident, casually walked ten feet forward to the next door and stepped back onto the train. Soon after, we were in motion. If Car Dealer and his Pickpocket Posse ever caught up to their assailant, they would find him with nothing. Meanwhile, cash, and credit were headed down the tracks and gone for good, leaving nothing behind but a nightmare vacation experience.

I prefer to learn from others’ mistakes.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Elevation 10,170': The Video


Here's a quick video of my Paragliding adventure. 

Zermatt: Glacier Trains & Lost Souls

Zermatt, Switzerland is an idyllic alpine village, tucked away in a deep valley, protected on all sides by a crown of peaks, many of which stretch 4,000 meters or more into the sky. It is quite literally the end of the track. This is as far as the main train line travels, and it’s past the end of the road for gas powered vehicles, which must park at Täsch, the village before Zermatt. Only electric vehicles, a handful of touristy horse drawn carriages, and shoe leather ply the streets of this town. It is an athletic village, located at the base of the Matterhorn, which draws climbers, adventurers, and skiers from around the world. The seniors in Zermatt are as likely to be sporting hiking staffs as they are walking canes. No matter where you are, you’re usually only a few metres from an enormous group of (usually) Japanese tourists snaking their way through town with bewildered expressions on their faces and looking from high above like single-file rows of ants going about their chores.

I departed Zermatt much more quickly than I arrived. Perhaps the legendary Swiss efficiency had made me lighter and easier to transport. The merchants, more so than any others I’ve encountered so far, swiftly hoist each tourist that enters the village by their ankles and with a single precision movement, shake free all of the hard earned coins that may have once resided in their pockets. That’s a metaphor, of course. In fact, they do this with $13.50 Big Mac combos at the local McDonalds, and by charging $35 including tax and tip for a simple plate of spaghetti and a coke that might have cost $15 in Florence or Rome. More likely though, the speed of my departure had to do with my choice of transportation.

I arrived on the Glacier Express. Immediately, this conjures visuals of a speedy locomotive hurtling through frozen tundra, stopping for no one. Not so fast. The brochure advertising the Glacier Express comes complete with the tagline “The slowest express train in the world.” With only a few days to see this country, I chose to take in the beauty of Switzerland’s mountains aboard a panorama car of this scenic train. It travels at an average speed of 24 mph between the ski resorts of St. Moritz and Zermatt, crossing 291 bridges, steaming though 91 alpine tunnels and using its cog wheeled engine to climb the 2033 metre high Oberalp Pass. Along the 7 ½ hour route, it passes rolling alpine meadows, rushing glacier-fed waterfalls and streams, stunning snow-capped peaks, and quaint mountain villages, each with chalets adorned by the white cross and red background of the Swiss flag, to remind visitors where they are, as if that were needed. With the World Cup soccer tournament dominating the attention of Europeans, I suspect there were a few more flags flying than usual. Moments before I stepped off the train upon my arrival to Switzerland, the Swiss team had shockingly upset tournament favourite Spain, setting off a display of national pride that may have even rivaled my own nation’s exuberance during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. We could have arrived in Zermatt twenty minutes earlier, but our train was halted at a level crossing in the small town of Andermatt to allow Lance Armstrong and his fellow Tour de Suisse competitors and their support vehicles to pass.

Tour de Suisse Passes Through Andermatt

My first day in Zermatt was dominated by an epic paragliding adventure which has left me with a memory that I’m sure will last a lifetime. I’ve covered this in another post. The second day, when not being relieved of my rapidly depleting funds by greedy Swiss merchants, I amused myself by watching a bunch of Marmots (which look suspiciously like the Caddyshack gopher) busily scurry about on the hillside, and wandered through the village waiting for the rain, fog and clouds to subside. I had hoped to head up the Gornergrat to do some hiking at the higher altitudes. Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve enough to justify the $90 or so that it would cost for a single return trip to the top so I spent the balance of the day in town, watching World Cup matches and trying to catch up on this blog.

As I passed along the misty streets that morning, with the melodic ringing of church bells echoing further down the valley, I came upon this place quite incidentally. I’m not in the habit of visiting cemeteries, and likely would not have even stopped, but the untimely passing of a former friend a few days earlier had been troubling me and I found myself drawn to the place. This one was different. At first glance, I suppose it looked a lot like any small town cemetery might, with flowers, and crosses and well tended plots, juxtaposed against a smaller area that wasn’t so well looked after, with no impressive monuments. I imagine the families of the people buried there just couldn’t afford such things or worse, didn’t care. What struck me after a moment or two were the dates on so many of the memorial stones: 1989 – 2007; 1964 – 1991; 1972 – 2004. So many men and women here were buried at too young an age. Then I noticed that quite a number of the grave stones were just that – stones, roughly hewn and with familiar jagged shapes, four flat ‘faces’ and a sharp peak leaning off to one side. The Matterhorn. Other plots were identified with crosses adorned with ropes and ice axes. This was the Zermatt Climbers’ Cemetery and many of those who rest here were adventurers who had tested themselves against the mighty peaks of the region, and experienced the ultimate misfortune during their climb.

The Matterhorn alone has claimed well over 500 souls since it was first summited in 1865 and currently averages 12 fatalities each year. On the descent from that first successful summit, four of the seven men who had just made history plunged to their death off the cruel north face. All but one, whose body was never found, are buried here. The twenty minutes or so I spent in the cool morning air, thinking about the lives taken by these mountains and the families that were left behind, was quite surreal. I wondered about the stories behind each of these tragic monuments. In these days of high tech equipment and gear, and mini-Matterhorns at Disneyland I think many of us feel invincible when facing great challenges, until it is too late. This place is a somber reminder of nature’s power and a sober warning to take such ventures seriously.

Lost at Just 17.

Humbled and broke, the next morning I was run out of town on a faster rail, heading for Milan and a flight to Barcelona. The Spanish leg of the Great Odyssey is about to begin.

Swiss Alps: Soaring Past the Matterhorn

“My soul is in the sky”
- W. S., A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Matterhorn

“Do you go want to go right now?” he asked me on the phone. It was Daniel from Paragliding Zermatt. I’m sure I could have chosen a more polite phrase: my response was an enthusiastic “Hell YES!” There was no time for second thoughts or to assess the gravity of what I was about to experience. By the time I had slipped into the long underwear, sweatshirt and windbreaker that had been buried at the bottom of my pack since I left Canada seven weeks ago, he was at the front door of my quaint Swiss hotel. Our transportation was strapped in a pack on his back. Half an hour, a funicular, a gondola, an elevator, and a cable car ride later and we reached the top of Rothorn (pronounced ‘wrote horn’, meaning ‘red peak’.)

Rothorn Launch Zone

Already that morning, I had been on at least half a dozen different websites checking weather conditions at three different altitudes above Zermatt, trying desperately to locate one with the news I was hoping to find. Rain, low hanging clouds, wind and fog had been rolling through the region for over two weeks and few flights had taken off. It looked like we had lucked upon a small window of good conditions and there was no time to waste if we were going to take advantage of them. It was going to happen – my first paragliding experience!

Preparing the Glider

When Daniel asked me which base I wanted to take off from, I responded without second thought “the highest one possible.” This likely comes as a surprise to those of you who’ve read about my reaction to peering over the cliffs of Amalfi. "As long as the snow isn’t too deep," he told me, then we’d fly from the top of Rothorn. The only higher option required a bit of a cliff jump from Klein Matterhorn and demanded perfect conditions, so it wasn’t an option today. As I passed around the top of the final cable car station, stepped onto the snow pack, and instantly sunk to mid thigh, it seemed like we’d be heading lower down the mountain. This would also have meant a shorter flight. Fortunately, the snow firmed up as we descended, so we hiked 20 or 30 metres toward a steep drop off, clear of the ski lift cables, and started unpacking the glider. As I pulled out my Nikon to snap a few shots of the launch zone, it finally hit me what I was about to do. Perhaps I’d subconsciously blocked out the little details, like the fact I’d be launching myself off the edge of a cliff, 10,170’ above sea level! At this altitude, if a plane loses pressurization, the oxygen masks automatically drop. The tiny specks way below us were actually multi-storey hotels and condos in the town of Zermatt. I could feel my heart starting to pound as thoughts of “oh shit, what have I gotten myself into?” started to scream through my mind. I turned and looked back up the hill toward the lift station. It was too high and too far for me to change my mind. My anxiety continued to rise as I realized there was no good way to back out now.

Floating on Air

In the thin, cold Rothorn air, I choked back what I briefly thought might have been among my last breaths, and my pilot helped me into the harness. It was at this point that I realized I hadn’t been asked to sign any liability waivers whatsoever, which is entirely unlike any other activity I’ve experienced on this odyssey. That was fine until it occurred to me that the reason for this might be that the only person around who could be sued by my family in the event that something went tragically wrong was currently strapped to my back. After a few last second instructions we started briskly towards the precipice. I may have closed my eyes as we stepped through a wispy cloud that clung to the mountainside – I can’t recall. Two or three steps and I could feel the wind start to fill the sail behind us. Another couple more steps, my feet felt light and we were almost at the edge of the cliff. Then, with a gentle tug, I felt my feet clear the ground and my soul began to rise.

As quickly as my anxiety had arrived, it was gone. Both eyes were wide open at this point and I could feel the intensity of the adrenalin that had rushed through my body. We were floating gracefully through the sky, clear of the mountain, and suspended high over the valley by nothing other than a few fine cords and a large piece of nylon. It was the most exhilarating feeling I had every experienced.

Up, Up and Away!
Soaring Past the Matterhorn

For the next 20 minutes, we were completely at liberty, unobstructed by any earthly forces other than the breeze and the cruelty of gravity, which would mean this feeling would have to end sooner than I’d have liked. Past the Matterhorn we soared, back and forth across the valley, and along the cliff face on the west ridge of Zermatt. Here I could feel the warm thermals lift us up and extend our journey, if only for a few seconds. For fun, we buzzed a climber who was clinging to the rocks half way up the side. As we got closer to the village, Daniel adeptly maneuvered us through a series of simple acrobatic turns, where it felt like centrifugal forces had flung us nearly horizontal with our sail. Beyond the intense rush, each turn finished with that tightening in your stomach that you feel after cresting a rise on a country road at high speed. As we swung above and past the train station, I looked down, and in front of the shops that line the main street of Zermatt, dozens of tourists had stopped what they were doing to watch us and take photos.

Buzzing a Climber

Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. With the deft expertise that comes with years of experience and his personal passion for the sport, Daniel gently set us down in a meadow behind the train station. It was all I could do to contain myself from signing another credit card slip and asking to go up again.

Hours later I still couldn’t get the grin off my face.


Rialto at Night

Lights of The Grand Canal

Reflections  of St. Mark's Basilica

Piazza San Marco at Night

A Rainy Day in St. Mark's Square

Viewing Venice from the Tower

Venetian Gondoliers

Grand Canal Gondolas

Florence + Tuscany

Ponte Vecchio at Night

Ponte Vecchio

The Duomo in Florence


  Michelangelo's David

Chianti Grapevines
Touring Chianti, Tuscany, the Italian Way

Fabrizio's Tuscan Villa 

One of my Delicious Creations at Fabrizio's


The place where the world's greatest kind of food was invented.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Positano: Lemon Smiles and Midnight Ramblers


Did you hear about the midnight rambler?
Well, honey, it's no rock 'n' roll show.
Well, I'm talkin' about the midnight gambler,
Yeah, the one you never seen before.

It’s 1968. The world is in turmoil. The youth counterculture movement is in full swing. Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated, and this writer will soon take his first breath. In this sleepy, conservative fishing village clinging to the side of a cliff on the Italian Amalfi coast, I can imagine it must have been a bit of a strange sight. One of the men in the cafe, rail thin with wiry arms, shoulder length sandy brown hair and rather distinguishing facial features was playing the harmonica and working on the lyrics. The other surely looked like the 1960’s rocker that he was. In my mind’s eye he’s wearing a weathered velour jacket with a gauzy scarf or two around his neck and he’s working through the chords on a guitar. At just twenty-five, he looks much different than the grizzled musician we’ve been listening to for 45 years.

Why Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were in Positano when they wrote the song Midnight Rambler (about the Boston Strangler who murdered a dozen or so people earlier in that decade) I may never understand. There is nothing ‘rock n roll’ about Positano (which doesn’t mean it isn’t cool.) The only thing you’ll find in Positano that even remotely relates to the bacchanalian lifestyle the Rolling Stones were living at that time is the never ending supply of Amalfi Coast vino on every seaside table in the Comune.

I came to Positano for a vacation from my vacation. After nearly a month in Morocco and several more days on my feet touring museums, churches and ruins in Rome, my visit to the no-longer-sleepy seaside resort was intended as a relaxation break. It was also to be a base for learning about southern Italy’s Neapolitan cuisine. Pictures do a much better job than words describing how stunningly beautiful the entire region, and Positano in particular, is. The village itself is somewhat remote and takes some effort to get to. In the heart of the summer, ferry boats run from Napoli to the dock at the base of the village, but at this time of year, it took a regional train and a couple of bus trips to get to the place where I was staying.

The first thing you’ll notice on the bus from Sorrento are the brilliant yellow lemons brightening trees in every back yard. Their cheery disposition reminds me of those friendly yellow happy faces which used to smile at us from bumper stickers and tire covers decades ago. This plump, juicy citrus plays a prominent role in the local cuisine, and is the subject of post cards, portraits and hand-painted pottery that line the shelves of the Positano merchants. It is also the key ingredient in the ubiquitous local Limoncello liqueur that challenges the stability of many tourists after a few rounds. When Danny Devito showed up hammered for his interview on The View one morning a few years back, he blamed it on the “last seven limoncellos” he’d had when out with Clooney the night before.

Amalfi Coast Wine and the View From My Balcony

The second thing you’ll notice as the bus winds its way along the side of the cliff on the way into Positano is your own knuckles. They’re white. The reason they are that way is that for the past twenty minutes, you’ve been clutching the back of the seat in front of you, holding on for dear life as you try desperately to avoid unavoidable glimpses out the side window of the bus. Straight down 1,000 feet, the Tyrrhenian Sea is glaring up at you, hoping for just one mistake, and licking its lips like a Roman lion awaiting a Christian. If you have the room in your seat, you are now curled up in the fetal position, wondering why you are there. Your head is spinning a little now so the bus driver, of course, sees this as the perfect opportunity to accelerate to even faster speeds while dodging oncoming vehicles on a road wide enough for one bus at best. As a typical Italian driver, he is adept at launching his massive steel vehicle into corkscrew corners at 100 kilometres per hour while leaning on his horn to frighten off oncoming drivers who might seek to challenge his spot on the road, all the while, arguing on his cell phone with his wife (or more likely, his mistress.) Once your hysteria abates, you realize that this road makes California’s Highway One between San Francisco and Big Sur look like a gentle drive in the country.

Day Trip to the Island of Capri

Today, Positano is a breezy resort town that seems to exist primarily to service visiting tourists and appear in Hollywood movies like Under the Tuscan Sun, and The Talented Mr Ripley. Artists line the shady bougainvillea-covered lane ways, cobblers custom-make sandals in their tiny shops while customers wait, and seemingly independent fashion designers hawk colourful linen and cotton summer ware throughout the village. The town is tailor-made for that special romantic getaway you've been saving for.

It wasn't always just a tourist town. The few remaining battlements along the shore recall the days when pirates were a constant threat to the busy port. I wonder how many tourists who trudge up and down to the beach, are aware that the original stairways were built here to provide an easy escape route for Positano's women and children, fleeing Saracen pirates looking to plunder? Back in the days of the Amalfi Republic, Positano was one of the most important sea ports on this stretch of coastline, even rivaling Venice in significance as a mercantile power. Then, when the steamship was invented, Positano could no longer compete and its riches fled the area. During the course of ten years in the late 1800s, 75% of its 8,000 residents emigrated to the US. Until tourism caught on in the past 40 years or so, the town languished.

In addition to the hike along Sentieri degli Dei, which has been written about separately, I took some time to connect with the local food culture. The Neapolitan cuisine of the Campania region is where many of the Italian dishes that we’re most familiar with in North America originated. Perhaps the most common, of course, is pizza, which was the primary reason for the next leg of my trip to Napoli, and the subject of my first cooking class in Positano. Believe me: making pizza dough by hand is a terrific way to build upper body strength and endurance.

Pasta is the other core Neapolitan food group. Unlike the northern Italian cuisine, meat has never been a big part of Neapolitan cooking. This is probably because historically this was a poor region and the menus reflected the available, affordable ingredients. Fish and seafood plays a big role (on their own and in pastas), as do locally available vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant), herbs (basil) and especially, cheeses. The region is famous for its delicious Provolone and Mozzarellas. Incredible, fresh ricotta is also used in countless dishes. During my stay, I visited a local cheese factory in the hills above Sorrento and tried my hand at finishing their specialty, Fior di Latte. This is similar to mozzarella except that it is made with cows’ milk instead of buffalo milk. Unlike some other cuisines, the food is quite simple without complex sauces or long cooking times. Its greatness derives from the incredible freshness of the ingredients and the masterful pairing of simple flavours (basil, tomato, and ricotta for instance.)

I had a great stay in Positano, met some wonderful people during my cooking experiences and on day trips to Capri, and Amalfi. I didn’t want to leave, but the pizza of Naples was calling. As John Steinbeck wrote after visiting Positano in the 50’s:

“Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”

That's exactly what I was going to say.

Spigola all’Acqua Pazza