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Sunday, May 08, 2011

Pesto in Portovènere

Portovènere is pretty much the epitome of Ligurian resorts, meaning that there's nothing on the Med that can top it, only a few places that can even equal it. It's got a row of pastel houses facing its cove, the requisite handful of old churches, some ruined fortresses, a sign commemorating Lord Byron's visit, one small beach, two or three mussel farms, a few great seaside restos, a swank strip of shops, a regular ferry to Cinque Terre, and the world's best pesto.

I don't see anything missing. Do you?

Bridge to a secret garden across the street.

I forgot to include insouciant seagulls on my list above, but they were indeed present.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The last Tuscan republic

We arrived today in Livorno, Italy, which is generally known as the port of Florence. Instead of taking the 1.5-hour shuttle to Florence, however, we went to Lucca, which was the only city republic in Tuscany that was never conquered by Florence.  It's a charming walled city about 4 km in diameter, making it eminently walkable. Great shops, fantastic cafés, and fragrant restaurants compete for your attention in the streets, while every piazza has a polychrome church or palace facade that flirts with the photographer in you.

No one knows shop windows like the Italians.

Greetings, Mamma!

That's not paint. Really.

Preserved in part by its city walls, Lucca boasts nearly perfectly preserved Medieval streets that box you in, even from above.
The cornices snip the sky like a stencil.

And you never know what you might see when you turn a corner.
Count your blessings; this tower has has a bad hair century.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Calvi, Corsica

Another island caught between France and Italy, Corsica is a physically spectacular amalgam of white sand beaches, sun-sipping mountain peaks, olive tree orchards, terraced vineyards, and easy-going poverty.  There are least two ski-slopes where you can see white sand beaches as you ski.  It must feel like you can ski right into the ocean.

The port of Calvi, as seen from any village in the valley.

The low-walled roads wind through the mountains, careless and sure-footed.  Atop the spine of the mountain chain that divides the island into halves, the pure Mediterranean sky invents clouds spontaneously, suddenly veiling the villages that cling to every rocky outcropping.  There really does seem to be a village on every promontory, each with a humble church, a picturesque cafe, a vineyard or an olive grove, and a few sloping staircases that knit the city to the hill beneath it.

The village of San'Antonino, perched atop its crag.

It is an island of striking geographical contrasts and broad, but gentle poverty.  It may be that only the tourists have money here, but it may be that the natives have purchased something close to peace with their poverty, which is perhaps an exchange that needs further consideration in our have-it-all culture.
The clouds sweeping in suddenly to occlude the view.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Where Napolean bided his time

Today was supposed to be a "marina day": the ship has a floating marina that folds into a storage bay near the engine.  They anchor the ship, unfold the marina, and host a floating water-skiing and swimming party.  But it was cancelled since the winds were too stiff and the waters too rough.  Just as well, since the Med is still rather cold at this time of year.

And here I thought foldout couches were pretty cool.

Instead, the captain made arrangements to put in at Portoferraio on Elba Island--the infamous village to which Napolean was exiled when he first fell from the throne, and from which he led his inimitable march back to Paris (and to power).  Everything was closed, but it hardly matters: all sunny days are good days in Italy.
Is it hard to believe that people who live here feel like life is easy?

 The halfway point between Moscow and Waterloo.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Portofino, Italy

It may be true that the whole of the Italian riviera has only two looks: there are picturesque ex-farming villages perched atop bluffs overlooking the sea and there are quaint ex-fishing villages nestled in the tiny inlets between mountains.  And that's about it.  But that's enough, isn't it?

Not bad for a view from a seat at one of the cafés on the central square, eh?

Sunday, May 01, 2011

You say nice, I say niece

Nice, France: capital of the riviera:

OK, fine. I'll make the pun. It really is nice.

Naturally there's a gorgeous outdoor market, in which you can find the most amazing things.
Don't you know we're loco?

And of course there's the obligatory, over-touristy, but incredibly charming old quarter, which is what a late medieval city was like--minus the plague and plus a bunch of chi-chi restos.
Nothing like the Mediterranean sun to bring out everything's true colors.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Decline and Fall of Montréal's Caffé Art Java

Caffé Art Java on Mont-Royal in Montréal was, when it first opened, our favorite cafe in the whole world.  Great location; sleek, but inviting, ambiance; decent food; and mind-blowing lattés.  What wasn't to like?  We were steady-going regulars for years.

We were concerned when we learned the founders had sold the place, but we hoped the new owners would leave everything more or less untouched.  And they mostly did.  But things still started to slide.  The new owners started advertising their menu using grainy photos--appropriate for late-night Chinese take-out, but not an upscale cafe.  The kitchen and barista staff turned over almost immediately--to be replaced, we think, by the owners.  And so the food became barely adequate and the coffee, frankly, went to hell.

We eventually stopped being regulars, but we still went every now and then because the ambiance was still great. Tonight was the final visit, though.

One of the owners just forced me to pay for a tisane that I never received.  Several weeks ago, I ordered a tisane that never arrived at my table.  I got so engrossed in my work that I didn't really notice; in fact, I only noticed that it hadn't arrived when it was time for me to pack it up and go.  So I left, slightly miffed that I never got my tisane.  Annoying, but mostly harmless and certainly innocent.  It's the kind of brain fart that can happen to any server.

When I left this evening, however, the owner who was working the register presented me with two bills: one for this evening's tisane, and one for the tisane I never received.  I protested, saying that I had never received the tisane.  The owner insisted that she distinctly and specifically remembered preparing this tisane, which I never received.  This went back and forth several times until I thought it had been made clear that if she made me pay for something I never received, I would never come back.  The owner insisted, so I paid both tickets.

The owner's decision to push the issue over my strong protests (no matter what she does or doesn't remember) says everything that needs saying about the new management at Art Java.  Maybe she thought she was being tough or something, but did she really think I was trying to wriggle out from paying $3?  Does she not realize that she's basically calling me a liar and a thief?  In any case, $3 is apparently more than my good opinion (which, at bottom, equates to all of the business they might ever get from me) is worth to them.

So, do you think people willing to squeeze regular customers for three whole dollars might be willing to cut corners?  Think they really care whether everything is fresh, clean, and of the best quality?  Think they'll believe you if your drink or meal doesn't come out the way you ordered it?  At Art Java, every penny counts--but every customer, not so much.