Cinque Terre, Liguria region, Italy

As a part of our June 2017 trip to Italy, Brian and I stayed for a few days in Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of a string of five seaside fishing villages (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore) on the coast of the Italian Riviera. The beautiful, protected area includes colorful houses, vineyards and olive trees meandering on steep cliffs, harbors of fishing and tourist boats, a few beaches, many historical churches, trattorias with seafood specialties – especially grilled octopus, gelato, and the special cuisine of the region – trofie pasta with fresh pesto sauce.

Hiking trails and train tracks link the villages so you can traverse between them. Parts of the trails are currently closed due to a spring 2016 landslide. We arrived anticipating hiking for two days, but because of these closures we changed plans and decided to hike the first day from Vernazza, where we were staying, to Monterosso – and spend the second day visiting the remaining 5 towns by train. (More on that below. In the end, the hike was so desperately hot and harder than I anticipated, so I probably would have asked Brian to not hike on the 2nd day anyway.)

A green door up three similar flights of stairs from the street led to our room.

We took a train from Rome to La Spezia and then into the small town of Vernazza, one of the Cinque Terre. We had booked a room online that I thought was in a B&B, but it was simply a room, similar to a hotel room with a bed, bathroom, closet and balcony – only it wasn’t a part of a larger complex. We had a front door key and walked right in off the street. The only difference between this place and a studio apartment is that there was no kitchen.

One of the people corresponding to us over email said we would be met at the train station, but we were not. Out came my cell phone map, on went our hiking backpacks (aka our luggage for 16 days), and off we went exploring to find the apartment ourselves.

As soon as we descended the train station stairs, we were on the main street of town, lined with bars, boutiques, souvenir stores, focaccia bakeries and gelato shops. We found the room very quickly – it was a 3-minute walk from the train station, and the owner was sitting right outside on the stoop with her family. (So, yah, they could have easily met us at the train station and assuaged a little of our anxiety, but since it was only three minutes and my phone had service, I look back on it as part of the adventure.)

bidet bathroom vernazza

Get used to seeing bidets everywhere in Italy!

The owner showed us the well furnished space complete with mini fridge and upgraded, modern bathroom. The balcony had a small table to eat on, and overlooked a beach that was off the beaten path and she told us it was the better beach to go to, rather than the main beach. (We didn’t know what she meant yet, but she was totally right. The main beach is very muddy and this one was rocky, thus cleaner and allowed for rock jumping.)

Because the home was built into the side of the cliff, looking out from the balcony over the rocks also gave us a funny view of all the laundry people had hung out to dry that had blown away and was now stuck on the hillside.

Included on the desk in our room was also a list of the owner’s favorite restaurants, a wifi password, and how to contact them for information on things like a car service. The cleaning lady was just leaving from the last visitors, and everything was very tidy.

We spent our first afternoon just looking at the main strip of shops in Vernazza, and headed for an aperitivo before dinner. Aperitivo is the ritual of going out for a pre-dinner drink in Italy. Brian had the drink we saw everywhere while on vacation in Italy, a Spritz, which is said to have originated in Venice under the Austrian Empire. It is a bitter mixed drink using Aperol or Campari, sparkling white wine and soda; often served with a slice of orange. The color is deceiving, it is not as refreshing as lemonade. I had a passionfruit frozen daiquiri – so fresh it had bits of black seeds blended right in!

There were a few scattered, sit-down restaurants where the main street dead-ended at the shoreline. It seems they took turns closing one night each week. Everyone working there spoke great English. Many of the servers take the train in from nearby cities and don’t live in the small towns anymore.

We chose a restaurant at random, and sat at an outdoor table looking out at the water. Granted, most of the evening restaurant seating is outdoors with a view of the water in Vernazza! I tried the local trofie pasta with pesto sauce. It had a few green beans and chunks of white potato here and there, but mainly it was fresh, homemade pasta with a pretty good sauce. (I thought it was great compared to what I get in a jar from the grocery store, but the next day for lunch I had pesto that was MUCH better.) We also tried a local wine.

We kept to ourselves that night, sleepy from travel and wine, and went to bed fairly early knowing we wanted to hike the next day before it got too hot.

Our Hike

From Vernazza to Monterosso

The longest, most difficult hike in Trail #2, this section has lots of stairs and narrow passages. It’s another section of trail in which hikers often favor walking sticks and trekking poles. It’s also the most rewarding view-wise. Its panorama of all five Cinque Terre towns is one of the highlights of the trip. Hydration is essential. If you go in the summer it will almost certainly be blazingly hot. Sunburn and heatstroke are both common ailments of the Cinque Terre hiking trials. Finally you absolutely cannot forget your bathing suit (during the spring and summer) and your camera. A swim in the Ligurian sea is the perfect post-hike reward and the views you get from the trail are some of the best in Europe. Length: 1.8 miles (3km); 2 hours to walk.
[Excerpts from https://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/cinque-terre/hiking-trails]

After a quick bite to eat, Brian and I set out to hike the next morning. We went to the train station by our rented room to buy a hiking pass. I also noticed they had a book swap shelf in the station, but it only had two books and they were both in Italian. Then we left the train station and thought we had started the hiking trail, but we had actually found a pretty lookout point and had to double back to the main street to find the actual trailhead. We knew we were in the right place when a guy in a booth stamped our hiking trail pass.

along our hike

There was a lot more uphill than I anticipated, and Brian was patient with me as I stopped to take a breather now and then – which was fine because we were surrounded by beautiful photo opportunities. We could look down at Vernazza and its colorful houses built into the cliffs, the gorgeous water, some streams, vineyards, areas dedicated to the local cats, and stone arches. We passed a man selling awesome jewelry (I totally recommend doing this hike with 30 euros in your pocket for just that reason!) and another playing an accordion for change. We also passed other hikers along the trail in both directions speaking a variety of languages, and I tried to say hello to people as I passed in the language they were chatting in with their friends. A few of my phone photos from the beautiful, scenic hike are here.

When we came out of the green overgrowth of the hike into the next town, Monterosso, I saw ways that it was similar to and different from Vernazza. The main square here was much larger, with a playground, and a longer walk to the train. I popped into Wonderland Bakery for a “wine cookie,” which didn’t taste quite as good as it sounds. Brian bought a cold beer and we recovered from the heat of the hike for a few minutes. We felt like there was not much to see here that was different from Vernazza, so we hopped on the train to Riomaggiore – the land of the 5 we were furthest from. This provided some A/C on the train while we looked at photos from our hike.

In Riomaggiore Brian wanted a nice lunch and I wanted a bathroom desperately, so we found a place with indoor seating and large ceiling fans. In the restroom, I was happy to find I had remembered to bring a Shower Pill athletic body wipe in our hiking bag, and felt much more refreshed after a wipe down with that and scrubbing my hands. I also popped a nuun into my water glass when I got back to the table, to hydrate and restore some electrolytes.

My meal there was fantastic! I had chestnut pasta with clams, tomatoes and pesto sauce (bottom of photo). Brian had beef ravioli with a beef tomato sauce (top). He had wine, but I thought I needed to replenish from hiking before adding alcohol into my system.

Tip: If you leave the train station in Riomaggiore and your find yourself walking straight uphill, go back through the train station and through the pedestrian tunnel and it will be a flatter walk that takes you right to the center of town! Don’t go backwards like we did.

After lunch we took the train back to Vernazza and walked the main street of our town again, down to the water, and up a steep, tall flight of stairs to‎ Ristorante Belforte. We hoped to get a reservation for that night, but they were completely booked. I asked about the next night, and he said they had availability, so I reserved a table for our final night in Cinque Terre at what we had heard was the best restaurant in Vernazza.

That afternoon I shopped, and bought myself a bronze octopus necklace made by an Italian artist. He only has 4 tentacles, but he’s a lot of fun. I named him Popoli (polpo is Italian for octopus.)

For dinner we simply went to the place that was behind us the night before. They had quite a few outdoor tables with a view of the water. The couple next to us were from England and we chatted about our travels through the evening. I enjoyed gnocchi with zucchini, tomatoes and shrimp and Brian had lobster ravioli with prawns. We both had to work for our food that night, breaking apart more crustaceans than I prefer in a meal. I would have rather there been bits of already chopped shrimp in my sauce instead.

Brian then tried the local after dinner drink, sciacchetrà (say: shi-ket-ra). Online we read, “A spirit lives within each bottle – the current winemaker and all those that came before him.”

Those were our first two days in Cique Terre. We also went swimming in a roped-off, precarious area with rock hopping and rock diving, had the best cinnamon gelato, met a woman who sells wine in Florida (who we later met in Venice, Italy!!!) and got stuck in the city because of a train strike and had to be driven to Florence by our landlords. But those are stories for another day…

 

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Embrace your Aha Moment

Have you had an “Aha” moment? Oprah talks about them all the time. A moment in time – or an experience – when insight or realization hits. It might be about a career or a relationship, but if you are really lucky it’s a moment of self-realization.

Learning something about yourself that changes your path may take strength of character. Often these moments of clarity lead to change – and people fear change. I have friends who have had aha moments about religion, sexual identity, gender identity, adoption – even keeping a vegan lifestyle. And a true AHA moment will give you the courage to maintain that sense of self even in the face of adversity.

I enjoy stories and shows with coming-of-age aha moments, when youngsters or tweenagers realize what they stand for and why. There’s a show at the “Straz Center” in Tampa, Florida, this week that I have been waiting to see called “Fun Home.” It the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist – Alison Bechdel.

fun home straz tampa florida

Alison Bechdel is a real person. She is a cartoonist who had popular graphic novels and comics in the mid-80s and early 90s. In 2006, she published a graphic memoir of her life called “Fun Home”, which was subsequently adapted as a musical and won a Tony Award for Best Musical (among others) in 2015.

I first learned of Alison Bechdel when some college friends were talking about the Bechdel-Wallace Test. This tongue-in-cheek “test” analyzes portrayal of females in film and other popular media. A movie passes the Bechdel test if it has at least two female characters in it who both have names and who carry on a conversation about something other than a man.

I have been following the musical about her life, “Fun Home,” since its inception and I am thrilled that since its Broadway run has ended it will now be right next door to me in Tampa. I know too much already about the show and music, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it deals with a lot of sensitive family situations – some of which will make me cry a lot from my seat in the audience – and which have also been a part of my family’s recent narrative.

I’m curious to see how the show will be readapted for the Straz Center’s gorgeous stage, because it was performed in the round in NYC. I’m also excited to see the 3 Alisons – three different actresses portray Alison Bechdel at different ages during the show.

If you want a bit of a spoiler, here is an Alison Aha Moment; Small Alison performing Ring of Keys at the 2015 Tony Awards.

For you teenage thespian geeks, check out the “Teens Take Broadway” feature on Thurs., Nov. 30 and receive a deeply discounted ticket plus a free pre-show event with live entertainment, games, raffles, refreshments and a free post-show talk-back with the cast.

Fun Home runs at the Straz Nov 28 – Dec 3, 2017Regular seats start at $31. I hope you go and your sense of self grows, or your sense of the world grows. I hope it helps you sift through your own clutter and find clarity. And I hope tomorrow night when I see it, I do the same.

I was asked to post about Fun Home in exchange for 2 free tickets due to my relationship with the Tampa Bay Bloggers.

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Rent at the Straz Center, Tampa

The most popular rock musical of the ’90s, Rent, is on its 2nd tour of its 20th anniversary, and is currently at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida. Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical is one of the longest running shows on Broadway. I received two tickets to the show through a connection with Tampa Bay Bloggers and in exchange for my honest review. And I will tell you honestly, I absolutely loved this show!!

I relate a bit to the story of Rent because it takes place in NYC in the mid-to-late 90s, which was when I lived in NYC. The characters are mainly artists living a bohemian lifestyle, and I certainly bordered on granola with dreams of being a writer while studying at NYU. I also have a father who listens to opera and classical music almost exclusively, and the story line of Rent follows Puccini’s opera La Boheme.

If you have never seen the show before, or if it has been a while, you may think it seems dated. The music, the clothes, and all the fear of people dying of AIDS. Aren’t we lucky that we live in a time and place now that – on average in the USA – being HIV+ is not an immediate, undignified death sentence?!!

The show certainly shows some evils of humanity, but it shows the upside too – finding solace in love, friendship, group therapy, and being true to yourself – and/or your art.

The songs contain powerful messages – ranging from sexy to angsty – and this cast does them justice with powerful voices that really wowed me! It’s rare that I find the male voices even stronger than the female ones in a show, and I did with Rent, particularly Kaleb Wells who plays Roger.

The set is sparse, as it should be to help develop the feel of the characters being penniless.

The program includes a cheat sheet. It might help explain the show to someone who has never seen the musical or movie before, but it seems highly unnecessary to me. It is expected that an audience learns about characters and plot as a show unfolds onstage. Plus they used the actor’s headshots instead of character photos, so it’s hard to relate it back to the stage anyway. I didn’t need a cheat sheet the first time I saw Rent, neither did my daughter the first time she popped in the DVD…

Regardless – the show is charged emotionally and you’d either have to be homophobic or hate art to not be moved by the performance and the script. And if you are like me, and you LIVE for this kind of stuff, you’ll laugh, cry, clap, moo and leave with a greater connection to the plight of strangers around you; squeezing your loved ones a little tighter.

If the show sounds awesome but your wallet feels light, check out their rush tickets! Visit the box office 2 hours before showtime for a chance to sit in the first 2 rows for only $25!! Cash only. First come first served. Or act quickly TODAY for Straz’s first Teens Take Broadway night. Show a student ID at the Ticket Sales Office window to get a discounted ticket to Rent On Tour on Thursday, Sept 21. Arrive at 6pm on the night of the show for free entertainment, refreshments, contests and more on the Jaeb patio. Teens only. If you have a group of 10 or more students, call the Group Sales team at (813) 222-1047. If you do want to share this with a class you teach, there is an education guide here.

For a little taste of RENT, watch the movie trailer here. You’ll see familiar faces like Idina Menzel, Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. MartinAnthony Rapp – and it was directed by Chris Columbus. Or if you are very familiar, check out this fun version of “Take me or Leave me” by a couple of Glee cast members.

While we were at opening night, the cast announced they would match any donations that evening to help Hurricane Irma victims in Tampa through Metropolitan Ministries.

Rent has won six Drama Desk Awards, five Obie Awards, four Tony Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. Go find out why this week at the Straz Center!

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Packing for Hurricane Irma

hurricane irma floridaWhen Hurricane Irma took a turn towards Tampa Bay on September 9, 2017, she was tracking right over my house. Eventually the area I live in was under a mandatory evacuation, meaning if we were in trouble emergency responders would not come help. Brian was worried about storm surge (high waters flooding into the house) and I was worried about wind damage, so we left. Here’s what I brought with me:

  • Food – A rolling cooler and 2 zip-up coolers filled with food and water from my fridge and freezer. I dumped ice in the cooler and turned off my ice maker. I also bought non-perishables that were not complete junk food (except for two dark chocolate bars), like canned chicken, boxed coconut milk, granola, nuts, raisins, peanut butter and cans of soup.
  • Clothes – I took a large, rolling duffle bag and dumped most of my socks and underwear into it. Then I added a bunch of casual clothes, one cuter outfit, warm PJs, barely there PJs, an old pair of sneakers in case I came home to a mess, a pair of flip flops, and a swim suit because I am a weirdo. I brought one long sleeve tech shirt in case it was steaming hot (it was) and bugs were biting (they weren’t.) Then I took a second suitcase and put a bunch of work clothes in it and put it up high in closet in case water went everywhere in my house. I also took my shoes off the floor of my closet and threw them in a shopping bag and put them up high in a closet.
  • Toiletries from my bathroom in full sizes in case we were gone a long time. Shampoo, hair product, face wash, deodorant, a razor, perfume, sunscreen, bug repellent, eyeliner and lipstick. Then stuff to do my nails because I knew we’d be sitting around bored at some point.
  • Eye care: Glasses, sunglasses, contacts, eye drops.
  • First aid kit + extra ibuprofen
  • A foam roller and yoga mat
  • Keys to everything around my house
  • Laptops, chargers, iPad, phone, little backup battery packs
  • Medical paperwork my kids need to have on hand, passports, birth certificates
  • Journal and pen
  • 2 books
  • Headlamps
  • Rubber gloves for post-storm cleanup
  • Alaska: along with cat food, litter, litter box, treats, toys, leash, cat carrier & id tag
  • Zip drive of family photos and DVDs of my kids when they were little and my wedding. I took 2 actual photos – one my kids when they were little and one from my honeymoon.I also put our photo albums in a large Rubbermaid tub but I left that in our safe room at home. (The guest room has no window.)
  • A special heart necklace Brian gave me years ago that I didn’t remove for days so I knew for sure it was not lost. I also packed some of my good jewelry and threw that in my suitcase
  • My alarm clock that has a sound machine on it
  • A battery powered radio
  • Our pillows to sleep better
  • Some sentimental stuff my kids asked me to grab, like baby blankies and favorite stuffed animals
  • Raincoat and umbrella
  • Homeowners insurance policy
  • Sports bottles full of cold water for the road
  • $500 cash

I put bikes in the shed, tarped a sofa by an old window that I was worried about, and sandbagged our outside doors. I took some favorite paintings off the wall and some breakable lamps and put them all in the safe room on the bed. I did not store anything in my washing machine or dishwasher. I left a cup of ice with a penny on top in both freezers (that way if I came home and the penny had sunk I would know at some point the freezer defrosted. That turned out to be fruitless because my power was off for a few days anyway.) I filled both car tanks with gas.

All of this, along with Brian’s gear didn’t fill my minivan, and we were safe with friends for about 48 hours. We came home to find our house and roof in one piece, our fence in three pieces (oops), and no electricity for about 60 hours. All in all, we were blessed and lucky! #Floridastrong

raffi in a headlamp

Wearing a headlamp to finish reading “The Nightingale”

friends during hurricane irma

Hiding in a closet under the stairs during a tornado that Irma brought

Disney joke

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Motown The Musical in Tampa

The record label umbrella company Motown Record Corporation was founded by Berry Gordy, who produced an iconic genre of soul and pop sound. Through Gordy’s hard work, drive, supportive team and talents, he defined a generation of stars. “Motown the Musical” is a Broadway touring jukebox musical recalling Gordy’s personal story and many of the megahits that were produced on the Motown record label. The songs also represented Detroit, Michigan’s culture and African-American culture of the ’60s and ’70s.

Motown the Musical” tells this story and shows Gordy’s ingenuity, personal and financial struggles and his desire for music to entertain a generation of people regardless of race.

The names and songs in this musical will be all too familiar:
Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Dancing in the Street,” You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” and many many more bits of hits.

I was particularly delighted by Raymond Davis Jr. as young Michael Jackson and would have loved to have seen more of ‘the Jackson’s’ performing. I also was fascinated by the period fashions recreated for the stage, particularly Diana Ross’ dresses.

The show at the Straz is long and fun, and even from the 4th to the last row of the whole theatre – way up high in the balcony, I was dancing in my seat! I think I could enjoy this show with my eyes closed, the songs and singing are amazing – but then I would have missed out on the matching suits and synchronized choreography that groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops were known for.

“Motown the Musical” depicts how music shaped an important period in our history and also recounts how major historical moments carved out a new place for music to be expressive. This takes the show from simply entertaining to a level up – thought provoking and meaningful.

To be a part of the musical magic of Motown, get to the Straz Center this week or have your tickets signed, sealed, delivered to Will Call at the Straz Center. The show is running now through Aug 13 in the beautiful Carol Morsani Hall. Tickets start at $28.50. Get all the details here: http://www.strazcenter.org/Events/Straz/Shows/1617_Broadway_Encores/Motown.

I received 2 free tickets to the show in exchange for my review due to my relationship with the Tampa Bay Bloggers.

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