Category Archives: Travel

Good Tidings & Nature’s Peace in California

DSCF1980“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir

These words caught my eye as I flipped through the map and information packet for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park last week. I’d been in San Jose for a work event. When I booked everything just a week prior, it had been snowing in Chicago – again – so I’d tacked on a couple of extra days to go exploring and exhale after a rough few weeks.

After posing the question on Facebook about the best way to “get some nature” while in the area, a friend had replied, ” Do you want mountains and trees or coast?” I love that California offers an “all of the above” option and picked Pacific Grove on Monterey Bay as my home base.

I found a charming, tiny hotel just a long block from the beach and the historic Point Pinos Lighthouse (the oldest continuously functioning lighthouse on the West Coast).2013-04-04 15.47.12

The weather was perfect – hoodie weather, in the upper 50s/low 60s. Warm enough to sleep with the windows open, listening to the roar of the ocean and wakening to the screech of seagulls.

My hotel was 2.5 miles west of Cannery Row, so I decided to walk the beach to get there, stopping to marvel at the shore, the rocks, the pink and pervasive iceplant. At one point, a small crowd was peering through binoculars into a fenced off section at 20-25 seals, with their pups. “Just born last week,” a volunteer said with a touch of maternal pride, showing me where to look to see a baby riding its mother’s back in the surf.

Seals!

Seals!

I ate fish tacos and drank local beer, people watching and decompressing. I wrote a lot. I read even more. And Friday morning, after a foggy walk along the beach and lighthouse, I headed down California 1 to Big Sur.

I’d always assumed Big Sur was a singular place, not realizing it’s a chain of 9 state parks stretching along 90 miles of coastline. So I picked John Pfeiffer State Park as my focus. The hour drive south was fascinating, as the scenery quickly changed from seaside plain to rolling, cow-populated verdant hills to fog-shrouded rocky cliffs – and back again. I watched my car’s temperature gauge fluctuate – and felt my ears pop – as I wound up and down. At one point, the road was closed to a single lane for construction, and I waited patiently at the very top of a mountain, thoroughly enmeshed in a gray cloud, as vultures circled just a few feet away. I chatted with the construction worker holding a STOP sign. He said he had never realized how large the scavengers are until he started working on the mountain. They easily had a wingspan of 6+ feet. As I drove throughout the area, you could often see them circling overhead, gliding effortlessly as they scan for dinner.

Redwood at Big Sur

Redwood at Big Sur

At Pfeiffer, I spent several hours wandering steeper trails than my norm, but they were very doable in sneakers. Trails were well-marked, but quiet. While I passed other hikers every few minutes, I was mostly alone with my thoughts and woodpeckers, rustling squirrels and the gobble of wild turkeys. After awhile, I slowed my pace, inhaling the aroma of fresh leaves and moss and the salty moistness that comes with ocean proximity. I passed several varieties of unfamiliar wildflowers, each with their own heady scent and splash of color against the green. And I tried to wrap my arms around redwoods, tourist-style, stunned at their sheer size and scale. From the forest floor, you couldn’t see the tree tops. It was only after hiking up and around for several minutes that you cleared the trees and were thrust into brilliant sunlight and marvelous vistas.

View from Nepenthe

View from Nepenthe

When I returned to the car, hungry but thoroughly satiated, I drove a few miles south to the recommended Nepenthe for lunch. I had a front-row view of the mountains and coast, and time stood still as I lazily sipped a beer and devoured a burger and salad. I didn’t want to leave, and lingered on the patio a while, breathing the sea air and taking photos.

But I headed north again, experiencing a completely different drive now that the fog had lifted and the sun was out. I stopped in Carmel to see the Mission, tiptoeing around a wedding party to snap a few pictures. Then I drove back across the peninsula to Monterey and the wharf, with barking sea lions and overpriced fudge. A bit down the beach, a small crowd watched a sick sea lion sprawled on the rocks. The Marine Mammal Center had dispatched a team that assessed and rescued the sea lion, taking her to their veterinary hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

Black tailed coastal deer by the Pinos Point Lighthouse

Black tailed coastal deer by the Pinos Point Lighthouse

Too quickly, the day came to a close, and I headed to the beach by my hotel, the western-most point on the peninsula, and settled onto the rocks to watch the sun drop into the Pacific. The waves crashed against the rocks as day yielded to night, with a very brief pink interlude.

Saturday morning, I rose to the squawking of seagulls and jetlag. I pulled a hoodie over my pajamas, slipped on my shoes, and walked back to the beach. Overnight, the waves had grown taller and more intense, and I sat on the rocks and wrote a while, pausing to scan the horizon. Eventually I closed my notebook and returned to reality, grabbing a scone on my way.

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Two days solo was perfect. I was reluctant to leave the waves and the fresh air, and I could have easily spent a couple more days exploring. But it was time to go home. Plus, I know that spring will bring greenery to Elgin soon enough. Even if snow is forecast for Friday.

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Day 4: Lost in the Woods on the Amalfi Coast

“Half the fun of the travel is the aesthetic of lostness.” – Ray Bradbury

Part of my rationale for using Sorrento as my home was its easy access to the wonders of the Amalfi Coast. Tiny seaside towns – Amalfi, Ravello, Positano and others  – cling to the sides of mountains and get rave reviews for their picturesque beauty. I’d also read of the “Walk of the Gods” in the hills above the Coast and was definitely intrigued.

Of course, being a Sunday, everyone else was headed for the Coast, too, and the queue for the hourly bus was long. I was glad I’d brought a book as I waited 90 minutes before I could finally squeeze onto a bus. The views from the drive along the winding, steep coastal road – replete with frightening hairpin turns and excited honking as buses negotiate who gets to pass where two won’t fit – were inspiring, and I wish my camera did a better job through the glass. Every turn brought a better view than the previous one.

I got off in Positano and looked for the bus to Nocelle that would take me up the mountain to begin my walk. I heard Australian accents and found a lovely family headed exactly where I was. We waited together, and they told me Nocelle was cute and tiny, with one very good restaurant. They had been years before, but were headed back, this time with their young children (ages 4ish and 7ish). We ended up having lunch together at Santa Croce, with an incredible view of the coast. Lunch was delicious and leisurely. I had ravioli stuffed with eggplant and smoked provolone, and we shared some antipasti. By the time we parted ways – me for my walk down the mountain, them for some lower-key exploring – it was nearly 2:30.

Il Buca

My book gave a couple of options for hiking down to Positano. One involved about 1700 stairs and was rated as beautiful but relatively simple. The other, also rated “easy,” went through the small town of Monte Pertuso, past “il buca” in the side of the mountain, and said it was a bit more rustic but would only take about 1:45. I decided to do the latter and set off. I’d still have plenty of time to have a celebratory glass of wine in Positano and explore a bit.

Nocelle

The first part of the trip, from Nocelle to Monte Pertuso, was fantastically lovely and scenic, along a relatively well-marked path and road. Everything was so green, contrasting with the bright aqua waters far below. I passed vineyards bursting with deep purple grapes and plenty of small terraces with various crops. It was so very quiet, and the only sounds were crowing roosters and some strange bells. I eventually realized the bells were tied around the necks of mountain goats off in the distance.

Monte Pertuso

Monte Pertuso was indeed tiny, and once I looked at the church and the main square, I was eager to continue on towards Positano.

Then things got interesting.

My book said to go about 800 yards to a small stream. I have a terrible sense of distance when there are no man-made constructs (intersections, etc) to guide me. But I walked a long time, on a “path” that seemed less and less so. There were no signs, just gently worn ground that seemed to indicate use as a trail of sorts. Recent heavy rains had created some mud with a couple of footprints, which were reassuring.

Finally I reached the “stream.” It was really more of a small waterfall. I couldn’t figure out how to cross it without plummeting to something bad. I tried to grab onto rocks wedged in the side of the hill, but the recent rains had loosened them. Each time I tried to get my footing, the rocks would shift beneath my feet. I considered turning around, but that would have meant 45 minutes back to Monte Pertuso. I was this far – surely once I got through the waterfall, Positano wouldn’t be that far. Right?

I sat down for a few minutes, sipped some water, collected my thoughts, and assessed the situation. No, I wasn’t turning back. Instead, I stretched my leg farther than I thought I could until my foot was able to plant on a large, sturdy tree branch, then swung my other leg down, while using my day bag and water bottle sling as counterweights. (Did I mention I was in a dress?) Vindicated, with minimal splashing, I forded the stream/waterfall and continued on.

Kind of a path. Just don’t look down.

The book had warned that things got “quite rocky” after the stream, and indeed, there were some nearly vertical climbs of broken, uneven rocks. But I just kept going, even when the path was barely 12″ wide, with no rails or things to protect me from plummeting to my demise. It was so very isolated, with no real signs of civilization except the road far, far below. And the rains made things slippery and uneven in parts, especially around some very tight, mountain-hugging curves.

More path

(I kept thinking that this may be one of the stupidest things I have done. TS Elliot’s “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” kept echoing in my head – “And in short, I was afraid.” But every time I’d turn a corner, I’d be greeted by an even more incredible view of the coast increasingly far below.)

Triumph!

Finally, I hit the high point of my walk – literally – and marveled at the valley below me. I took a few pictures, with a death grip on the camera, including this one of me as I hoped I wouldn’t step back and fall off the little ledge. It was very exhilarating. Notice how teeny-tiny the cars are. The white dots in the water are boats. Off in the far distance, you can see the Isle of Capri. I stood for several minutes, in awe (and relief).

Soon afterwards, I finally hit the long-promised “steps,” and, for the first time in hours, a sign of human civilization. Of course, this sign was not comforting.

I scurried down the broken, uneven steps as fast as I could muster, aware that the Sunday evening buses out of Positano are few and far between, and will not stop if overcrowded. I reached the Bar Internazionale bus stop nearly 3.5 hours after I left Nocelle. I was just a few minutes from the next bus. As much as I wanted to continue down into Positano proper, I was more concerned about making it back to Sorrento. And indeed, the first dangerously-crowded bus flew past without stopping. I consulted the timetable and found another one 30 minutes later, then just one more after that. I talked to some Italian girls headed back to Naples, and they started negotiating with a cab driver. If the next bus wouldn’t take us, we would split a 70 Euro cab ride back to Sorrento. (My day pass for the bus had been 7 Euro.)

Positano

The next bus was still awfully crowded, but the Italian girls pleaded with the driver, and he let us squeeze on as standees, which was interesting after hours of hiking hills. The hills and curves of the road were not easy for standing passengers.

Back in Sorrento, I grabbed some life-affirming gelato before finding dinner. And wine. Wine was definitely called for and went very well with the delicious and varied seafood risotto. Despite my aching legs, I strolled a bit longer after dinner, enjoying the passeggiata crowds, sampling limoncello and people watching. Then I went back to my hotel and read on the balcony, stopping to think about the day. I’ll never forget it.

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Day 3: Wild Beauty on Capri

In my head, the Isle of Capri was drowning in tourists shopping for overpriced luxury goods and waiting in long lines of boats to get into the famous Blue Grotto.

Still, I’d heard it was fantastically beautiful and worth the trip. And since it was only a 20 minute jet boat ride from Sorrento, it was an easy (if expensive) excursion.

I’m so very glad I went. Capri may have been my favorite day of the entire trip. But I strayed far from the beaten path.

After taking an early jet boat chock-full of tourists in tour groups, I shuddered at the thought of herding into Blue Grotto lines with such crowds. Instead, I remembered a side-hike one of my books recommended: the Villa Jovis. Tiberius lived there in the first century AD, high above the sea, hiding from assassins in Rome. The hike sounded long but relatively simple, and it was. I took the funicular lift up from the marina to the town of Capri proper, then followed some narrow lanes until I got away from the city. The little roads don’t allow cars (or even Italy’s ubiquitous scooters), and I could nearly touch both walls if I stretched out my arms. I saw a couple of small, officially sanctioned electric trolleys picking up trash and making deliveries to the numerous villas dotting my path. Each had its own name, gate, and gardens, with everything from grapes and tomatoes to squash and lemons, growing nearly within arm’s reach.

So tempted to hop the fence and grab some tomatoes.

Halfway up the steep (but easy) hike, I stopped at a little cafe for a cappuccino, rested a bit, and watched the world go by. I saw a fair mix of locals headed up or down the mountain to do their shopping or errands, and other tourists likely  headed the same place I was.

The last half of the walk up was even more scenic as I climbed higher up the mountain and the sea spread out below me. The space between villas grew larger, and everything was more quiet. Suddenly, I arrived at a relatively nondescript little hut offering the best admission fee I saw all trip – a mere €2, or about $2.60.

Villa Jovis, with a view

You followed a series of arrows to guide you around the ruins. The signage was minimal, but it was still fascinating, with relatively few other tourists exploring. And the views were incredible. I kept thinking about how long it must have taken Tiberius’ fleet of slaves to drag each and every stone up the mountain to build the sprawling villa. And as I gazed at the sea far below, I shuddered at the thought of the emperor flinging his enemies from these very cliffs. Goats grazed on the next mountain over.

I could live here.

After I left the villa, I headed back down the mountain, stopping for a quick (well, as quick as eating in Italy gets) panini and water as I watched the view. According to my hiking book, Arco Naturale was well worth the relatively easy hike from the town of Capri, and I had seen signs for the turnoff as I had headed up to Villa Jovis.

Two paths diverged… and I took both.

The hike was indeed relatively simple, if far more rustic than the paved roads that took me to Jovis. Before I knew it, I had reached the Arco, a nifty natural rock formation with a view of the aqua water below. The path to view it was relatively narrow and carved into rock, so the few people there all struggled to lean back far enough to get a decent photo. But the image is burned into my memory, the contrast of the tan and the blue, framed by verdant life.

Arco Naturale

Next, I headed on down the mountain, up and down ancient, crumbling brick steps, around the perimeter of the island. I stopped several times to marvel at the natural, wild beauty of Capri.  I passed a small cave filled with ruins, where Roman soldiers had helped guard the emperor from intruders. But eventually, I meandered my way back into Capri proper and the hordes of tourists and shoppers. (It was a Saturday, meaning that there were lots of local tourists, too, over from Naples or Rome for the day.) I bought some granita and sat on a bench, flipping through my book and deciding what to do next.

And then I discovered Mt Solare. My book said to take a bus to the island’s only other town, Anacapri, and from there, take an alpine ski lift up to the top of Capri’s highest mountain. So I did.  On the ride up, I realized too late I should have had my camera handy, so I very, very carefully tried to use my cell phone camera to take a few pictures without dropping it into the fields below.

At the top, I found perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The Sorrentine peninsula stretched out before me, as did the white rocks of Capri, all surrounded by startling blue water, as far as the eye could see. I took dozens of pictures, and the mood on the mountain was one of excited awe as strangers remarked to each other. I just stared off into the distance, pleased and happy and content with the world, grateful I made the trip.

But alas, the day was waning, and the chair lift was preparing to close for the evening, so I headed back down, this time prepared with my camera strapped around my wrist. No one else was coming up for the day, so it was remarkably quiet and scenic as I glided over orchards, vineyards and lemon groves, passing the ruins of a 12th century monastery and a few homes.

Gliding down from Mt Solare

When I arrived back in Anacapri, it was very quiet, as many tourists had already left for the day. But I wasn’t ready to go quite yet, so I consulted my book and found a hiking path that would take me on a more scenic route to the marina rather than just riding the bus. It felt like a forever walk to my aching legs – down hundreds of stairs is hard on the knees – but it was beautiful and so very quiet. And the timing worked out perfectly, as I reached the marina, bought a ticket on the second-to-last ferry out of Capri, and ate some gelato while I waited to board. Better still, as the ferry sailed east towards Sorrento, the sun set behind Capri, making it very worth braving the wind-whipped mist at the back of the boat, even if pictures didn’t really come out.

We docked at Sorrento just as the sun finally fell below the horizon, and there was a hush on the back of the ferry as tired day trippers held each other close. No one really wanted the day to end. I reluctantly disembarked and had dinner at a small pizzeria right by the marina – the very restaurant I ate at with my family during our Sorrento day five years ago. I mentioned it to the owner – who I remembered – and he brought me limoncello and dessert and told me to come back again. After dinner, I had to walk back up into town to head down to my hotel at the other marina, and I stopped and bought some lovely cameos – a ring and a pendant – from a small shop where the owner carved them from seashells, following the ancient tradition.

I didn’t see the Blue Grotto, but the day was full of such beauty and peace that I know I’ll carry it with me for much longer than a postcard.

Day 2: Ancient Herculaneum

On the second day of my adventure, I set off for Herculaneum, riding the Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano. The train was full of commuters and tourists bound for Ercolano or Pompeii. Both are on the same line, just other sides of Mt. Vesuvius. A small trio also boarded, playing “La Bamba” on the accordion and bongos. 

Five years ago, I had visited Pompeii and found it fascinating, if overwhelming and huge. I read that Herculaneum was a richer suburb, almost a resort town, back in the day. Much smaller than Pompeii, it was also much better preserved. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, Pompeii was instantly melted by pyroclastic (lava) flow, which rushed into the city at 100+ MPH and 900+ degrees Farenheit. Pompeii was destroyed in an instant, fossilizing its citizens in horrific positions. You could see terror in their body language. An entire city had been both melted and frozen in a moment.

Herculaneum, on the other hand, was buried in mud up to 75 feet deep, a much slower demise. This meant that the city was remarkably well preserved – including amazing frescoes, mosaics and more. Where the heat in Pompeii melted and burned everything, archaeologists in Herculaneum have found wooden furniture and containers, beams of buildings and more.

2000+ years old and beautifully preserved

It was incredible, and something I’ll never forget. Per my guidebook’s suggestion, I did the audio tour, listening to letters from Pliny the Younger about the devastation as I stared at a city stopped in time. When archeologists originally excavated the ruins, they found  virtually no bodies, which puzzled them. But then they began excavating the original marina (several hundred feet inland from the current shoreline, another effect of the Vesuvius mud). Huddled together along the boats, they found hundreds of skeletons of people who had tried to flee the city by boat and not escaped in time.

The ancient marina is on the right (the arches held boats). You can see just how deep the mud that buried the town was by comparing the right with left. In some places, the mud was up to 60-75 ft deep.

Similarly, I was surprised at how far down Herculaneum was, a testament to the mountain of mud that had buried the city. You could stand at the edge of the excavation and look down into the city. And yet, at the present day ground line, modern apartment buildings reach right to the edge of the site – likely sitting on top of still-buried ruins.

It rained on and off all morning, which fit the somber feel of the ancient city. I followed the map and my guide, marveling at how the town was laid out – from numerous snack shops and bars (the ancients didn’t cook at home) to bakeries and public baths. I also noticed how short the ancients were, as I stood up alongside bars and doorways.

Me, at a bar. The holes in the counter would have held pots of food.

My original plan had been to spend the afternoon on Mt Vesuvius, as I’d heard it offers incredible views of the entire area. But Vesuvius remained shrouded in rain clouds and fog all day, so I decided to grab lunch (pizza again) and head back to Sorrento.

I hopped a quiet Circumvesuviana train bound for Sorrento, well before the evening rush. I people-watched and wrote a bit. I heard announcements in Italian, but no one on board seemed to react, so I didn’t really pay heed. At one point, I glanced up and thought the scenery looked unfamiliar, but rationalized that my morning express train had been packed, standing-room-only, and skipping stops. After a few more stops, though, I decided to get up and look at the

The modern town of Ercolano is quite literally built on top of the Herculaneum ruins, which were buried under up to 75 feet of volcanic mud.

map. (The trains were woefully inconsistent with announcing stops, and many maps were missing, so you often sat far from one.) Suddenly I realized that at some point, my train had switched to another branch and was no longer bound for Sorrento but for another town. As I stood there and tried to count back how many stops I needed to go to transfer to the right line, a young local saw my perplexed look and confirmed what I needed to know. (My blonde hair tended to stand out a bit – people could instantly tell I wasn’t local.)  A Welsh couple had made the same error, so we waited together, chatting to pass the 30 minutes and then making the transfer together.

Of course, right as we arrived in Sorrento, the skies opened again, pouring down sheets of rain. I rushed into the nearest enoteca to grab a glass of wine and wait for the worst to pass before venturing out for dinner. As I sat down, I heard my name – and saw the same Welsh couple from the train, with the same idea. We shared a bottle of wine and chatted while the rain subsided.

After the rain let up, I wandered the town and enjoyed the passeggiata for awhile, window shopping and people watching before grabbing dinner and dessert and making my way home for the night. And as soon as my head hit the pillow, the rain started again.

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Mt. Vesuvius, lurking and looming behind Herculaneum, shrouded in clouds.

 

Day 1: Rainy, Medieval Sorrento

When I packed for my trip to Sorrento, I obsessively watched the forecast. Nary a drop of rain was predicted, and every day was supposed to be in the upper 70s and sunny. I stuck an umbrella in my suitcase, then removed it.

I arrived on Wednesday night, Sept 12th, reaching my hotel right as the sun set for a lovely, clear night. Exhausted, I checked into the hotel, freshened up a bit, and set off to find dinner. I ate fresh clams and pasta while sitting just 10 feet away from the shoreline of Marina Grande, chatting with a nice Welsh couple at the next table who urged me to “ring my mum” and let her know I’d arrived safely.

But the next morning dawned dark and ominous, and by the time I headed down to breakfast, it was raining. By the time I finished breakfast – served every morning in the cave-like grotto beneath the hotel, replete with fresh pastries and fantastic cappuccino – it was raining much harder.

Undeterred – this was vacation, damnit – I recalibrated my plans. I had planned to spend the first jetlaggy day in Sorrento anyway, but now I thought I’d take the bus into the center of town rather than make the 20 minute hike. That way I could stay a bit drier until I bought an umbrella.

Sorrento’s main street, nestled against the mountains

Of course, while waiting for the bus, it poured. Monsooned. A 30 minute, wring-out-your-underwear deluge while the late bus was stuck in traffic.

Never fear. I still made it into the center of the medieval town and went exploring, drying out while in the Museo Correale di TerraNova. After spending a pleasant hour looking at nifty old furniture and artifacts from pre-Roman times (Sorrento was Greek before it was Roman), I left the museum to wander.

The town used to be divided along this gorge. Pictures don’t do justice to the steepness of the drop.

It promptly began to pour. Again. So I ducked into a small pizzeria for lunch and had my first “real” pizza of the trip. Pizza was born in nearby Naples, made with the fresh mozzarella and tomatoes for which Sorrento is famous, fired in a wood-burning oven. With a glass of local wine, it was perfection, especially on a chilly, rainy day.

Arches everywhere – and so cool. I could touch both sides of this street/lane/alley if I stretched out my arms.

The rest of the day was much of the same. It would stop raining for an hour or two, and I would start to dry out and explore, and then another downpour would hit, driving me into a cafe for coffee or wine. My pictures from that day aren’t great – they’re gray, and some are rain-streaked, literally. But the medieval part of town was incredible, with some buildings dating to the 13th century. The lanes are so narrow that, in places, I could nearly touch both sides if I stretched out my arms. And once you get off the more touristy streets, the little side lanes were very charming.

Since the town – and entire peninsula – is built into the side of mountains, it’s very steep, and getting anywhere involves climbing up and down hills and stairs. I quickly realized that to get from my hotel at Marina Grande to the restaurants and ferries of Marina Piccola required climbing a couple of hundreds steps up a mountain to a main square, then taking a similar number of steps back down the other side. My map didn’t show such elevation changes, so the first couple of days were pretty strenuous until I started strategically planning my routes.

I ended up grabbing dinner in a little trattoria as rain came down again. The restaurants was cozy, especially sitting by the wood-burning stove, and I watched the waiters use a deli slicer to cut antipasti to order. As I watched people around me, I heard thick Texas drawls at the next table, trying to figure out how to get back to the marina. I offered my map and guidebook and chatted with the family, and older couple and their middle-aged daughter. We snapped pictures for each other and talked about travel and Italy in general. When I asked for my check, I learned that they had already paid the bill for me – a very nice surprise!

Pizza, wine and the pizza oven in the background. Perfect.

When the rain let up, I left for a bit of a stroll, walking down towards the marina myself. As I passed by a small cafe, I heard, “Chicago!” in a thick Texas accent – and there was the same family, waiting for their tender boat back to their cruise ship. I joined them for a glass of wine, thanked them profusely, then decided to call it a night.

By the time I got back to my hotel – relatively early, as I was in the worst throes of jetlag – my socks and shoes were still wet nearly 12 hours after the initial deluge. I took a hot shower and collapsed onto my rock-hard bed, listening to another rainstorm blow in.

Lovely, even in the rain.

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A Week In Italy

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

With that little snippet lurking at the back of my mind, I booked a week in Italy for mid-September. I had wanted to get away to celebrate graduation and to take  my first real vacation in a couple of years.

Capri

But where to go?

I’ve long had a fascination with Ireland, but the details wouldn’t come together in the timeframe I needed. So I daydreamed about some past trips and came up with Sorrento, in southern Italy. I had spent a single day there (less than that, actually) about five years ago when my family took a cruise that included a day in Naples. That morning, we had explored Pompeii – fascinating – before taking a bus on the scariest, most winding and steep drive I’d ever seen.

One of Sorrento’s marinas, from up high

Sorrento is small, with about 20,000 residents. Much of the town is built into the side of mountains that fall dramatically into the Gulf of Naples. Two small marinas are full of fishing boats and ferries bound for Capri and elsewhere. And the food? I’ve long said the lunch I had in Sorrento that day was one of the best meals I had ever eaten: fresh pizza (from the birthplace of pizza), seafood, and local wine.

I found the right airfare and a hotel that suited, near the marina but only a 20 minute walk from the medieval town center. I packed my bags, dropped the cat at my parents’ house, and set off for Italy.

I just kept buying – and eating – peaches

Traveling alone forces you to really pay attention to all around you – which opens your eyes to amazing things that are often relatively subtle. A natural introvert, it’s rare that I’ll strike up a conversation with strangers. But while traveling, there’s a certain camaraderie fostered among those who share a language in a strange land. I found myself talking to Brits (so many Brits), Aussies, Germans, Canadians, Malaysians… united by a common language (and in a place with very few Americans, since school has started again). Plus, I’d watch for people trying to take pictures of themselves and offer to snap one if they’d return the favor, which lead to several little chats about travels and destinations.

I unplugged from my daily life, where train rides are spent with Twitter and email, instead people-watching and scribbling notes and thoughts in a small notebook. I’d booked a room with a tiny balcony, so at night, I’d sit outside and sip wine, wrapped in a pashmina against the evening chill, watching people stroll to their homes and the restaurants along the marina.

From Mt. Solare on Capri

Ideas bubbled. And I exhaled, at long last.

A week is a long time to spend completely alone, but I’m so very glad I trusted myself enough to take the leap. I had no major catastrophes, though a few funny (in retrospect) stories and linguistic snafus.

I’ll share more in the next few days, roughly organized by day:

Day 1: Rainy, Medieval Sorrento
Day 2: Ancient Herculaneum
Day 3: Wild Beauty on Capri
Day 4: Lost in the Woods on the Amalfi Coast
Day 5: Mount Vesuvius

Inside the crater of Mt Vesuvius

Growth, at a Cost

Supposedly 40-50% of the world's construction cranes were in Shanghai to prepare for Expo 2010

While traveling through Asia, I marveled at the sheer amount of growth. I hadn’t really realized it, but in the US, the last couple of years haven’t seen much construction. Store fronts empty and aren’t replaced for months on end. There’s a lot of reusing existing resources rather than building from scratch. Heck, even Habitat for Humanity is rehabbing rather than building.

In all three cities we visited – Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei – the opposite was true. Rampant growth pervaded every city, with entire blocks being recast to serve the new economy. In Seoul, there were simply no vacant store fronts – occupancy had to be nearly 100%, with new buildings growing taller and taller around the mountain-ringed city.

In Shanghai, growth was most obvious. The city has been on a decade-long growth spurt, in part to prepare for last year’s Expo, in part driven by a voracious economy (and yet, the growth fuels the economy itself in a vicious whirligig).

On the surface, growth is groovy. It adds a veneer of flash and new sophistication to Shanghai, helping the city meet its boasts about joining – and leading – the world economy.

Meet George Jetson... Shanghai's Pudong section, all of which is brand new

But that veneer is easily scratched, and what’s below isn’t so pretty and shiny.

China’s growth is driven entirely by the government. The central state sets aggressive GDP targets, and since it controls the means of production, it will do anything it needs to do to meet those targets. Including building where the market doesn’t demand it.

In central Shanghai, it’s not as obvious, as the city teems with more than 23 million people. But in the outskirts – and out in the provinces – thousands of sparkling new buildings sit empty in China’s increasingly famous “ghost cities.” China has vowed to build 20 new cities a year for the next 20 years, many of which now sit completely empty. The Google Earth images are eerie: perfectly developed cities with schools, hospitals, malls, and housing developments – but no cars or people.

The Pudong section of Shanghai was boggy marshland a mere decade ago, and now it looks like something out of the Jetsons. New subway lines are opening nearly yearly, some stretching out to the middle of nowhere. Construction sites bustle with activity every day of the week, importing thousands of migrants every summer who live in small shacks on the building sites.

But what’s the cost of such uncontrolled, yet centrally planned, growth? It’s certainly not sustainable, and many fear a bubble is bordering on bursting.This growth displaces thousands, even millions, of families from their homes, all in the name of progress. The Three Gorges Dam project alone destroyed 1200 villages and displaced 1.3 million people. In Shanghai, some scoff that demolishing acres of traditional homes – and replacing them with highrises few Chinese can afford – is merely finishing what the Cultural Revolution started.

Big promises. Can China deliver?

And when the rush to build meets rampant corruption and bribery, corners are cut. Some call the results “blood-stained GDP.”

40 were killed and 200 injured when two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou in July. Just last month, two subway trains collided in Shanghai when signals failed, injuring 270.

We saw growth in all three cities, but in Shanghai, it felt the most feverish and, in a way, desperate. Desperate to prove to the world that China has arrived, eager to overcome the chip on the Chinese shoulder.

Growth is marvelous when there’s market demand for it. Construction companies stay busy and give businesses room to expand and hire additional employees to make more things that serve more people. But when the market demand wanes and you keep building, the bubble will eventually burst.

What happens then?

Street Eats

During my recent trip, the food was an integral part of the experience. And while we ate a lot of meals traditionally, at a table, we also did a lot of outdoor eating, carefully trying not to make too much of a mess.

In Seoul, we visited a couple of the big markets. In Namdaenum Market, we passed several stalls selling snacks. We avoided anything with meat – skewers of raw meat were sitting in the hot sun, unrefrigerated, waiting to be grilled to order. But the green onion crepes – thrown on the griddle to order – were tasty, and the brown sugar-filled pancakes (hoddeok) were definitely memorable and craveable.

For tourists only...

In Seoul, we also saw a very confused food cart at the N Tower, a major attraction: churros and Heineken. There was a Cold Stone directly across from this stand, too.

In China, we didn’t see nearly as much street food, other than people selling food to take home.

The markets sold everything else, though. Clothes – premade or tailored to order – of all varieties. There was an insane array of fake goods: sunglasses, purses, shoes, watches, pirated movies.

Chestnuts (or similar) and lotus roots

But food-wise, there were chickens and turtles and pig parts, fruits and vegetables and the like.

In front of the “luxury mall” on the main shopping street – where every single store, without exception, was a big name, Western brand (Prada, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, etc), people stood outside with baskets, peddling chestnuts and what I learned were lotus roots.

But Taiwan… oh, Taiwan knew how to do street food. After 5 PM, night markets spring up in several locations throughout Taipei, varying in size and specialties.

Rows of stalls served everything from bao and grilled kebabs to fish balls and waffles filled with everything from chocolate to red bean paste.

Snails.

Most things were snack-sized servings, often for less than US$1, so you could assemble a meal by trying several different things. Going with people also meant you could try more things.

Shaved ice with mango. OMG.

And of course, you have to end the experience with a shaved ice, topped with fruit or candy and condensed milk. This mango shaved ice was incredible and giant, so I shared it with several people.

Waffles. These were filled with either chocolate or custard.

Yes, those are corndogs.

Some stalls had helpful pictures so you knew what you were eating. Other times, not so much.

The incredible thing to me about Taipei was that they do this every single night. In the US, we’re finally starting to maybe allow some food trucks, but for the most part, “street food” is a rare occurrence, tied to festivals. (And Christkindlmarket. But even that is temporary.)

Read on for more food stories.

Eating Local – Wherever “Local” May Be

Eating local is one of the best ways to understand a town, a city or a culture. In Elgin, we have lots of great local options, from In the Neighborhood Deli, where each sandwich is named for a local institution (schools, churches, etc) to the Walnut Speakeasy in my own neighborhood, which has become almost Cheers-like in its familiarity.

Lately, we’ve been reminded about how important it is to eat locally. Local restaurants don’t have the advertising dollars of their national chain competitors. Nick’s Pizza & Pub, which just announced their financial troubles stemming from a shaky economy and construction, competes against national chains who can run TV commercials or far-reaching campaigns. While social media helps build local community, it also provides an unrivaled platform for national brands to share their message nationwide. Whether your Facebook friends live in Dubuque, Albuquerque or Seattle, they know the same national brands you do.

While traveling in Asia, we talked a lot about food and its role in culture. I was bound and determined to eat as much fantastic local food as possible. And since you have to eat multiple times a day, it’s a natural way to easily experience local flavors and culture.

Good - and fun.

In Seoul, it was Korean BBQ. I went twice. The first time, my roommate, Inggrid, and I went to a place packed with locals on a Monday night,which we figured was a good sign. It was. The menu was entirely in Korean, with no pictures. Inggrid was able to use her smidgeon of Mandarin to order us a terrific meal. They bring raw beef, which you cook on the grill built into the table, using the heatlamp. Then you wrap it in lettuce leaves with a sauce, garlic, and veggies. Divine. And a lot of fun. The next night, we went to another place where the garlic- and spiced meat was even better.

Suckers!

Of course, Korea was also my first “surprise” meal of the trip. One day, between meetings with marketing executives, we were given an hour to find lunch nearby. Inggrid and I took off down one of the small alleys off the main street, finding a row of restaurants with alluring aromas. We went inside and ordered by pointing and smiling. When it was served – she got chicken ginseng soup and I ordered bim bam bop – everything smelled so good. But as I stirred my lunch, I discovered tentacles and suckers! I had somehow assumed I was getting pork or chicken in my bim bam bop – not octopus. But after the initial shock, and surrounded by office workers who inhaled their lunches, I tried it. And it was actually pretty good, though a bit rubbery. I wouldn’t order octopus, but it wasn’t terrible.

In Shanghai, we saw an incredible array of food that seemed impossibly far removed from the Americanized Chinese food most of us are familiar with. We saw lots of jellied seafoods and chicken feet, and in the markets, buckets of live turtles or fish made you wonder if they were selling pets or dinner. We ate very well, though sometimes I didn’t want to know what I was eating. And it was in China that we discovered the lazy susan style of eating: absolutely everything is served family style and spun around the table to share. While this is a great way to try a lot of things, by the eighth consecutive day, you just want to order your own thing. While all the stir-fried veggies were great, and I fell in love with xiao long bao dumplings, I was really craving a big salad by the time we left.

I had no preconceived notions of what Taiwanese food would be. Every guidebook promised it would be delicious, heavy on fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables. And it was. Again, many of our meals were banquet-style, with 8-10 people at a table and a giant lazy susan spinning 10 or more courses. The shrimp and fish were so good, and so fresh, especially to a Midwest girl. The mangoes were the juiciest I’ve ever had, and we tried a “milk pineapple,” a variety only available in Taiwan with incredibly sweet white flesh. Everywhere we went, there were stands selling fresh juice – mango, watermelon, pineapple, everything, squeezed to order.

On our free evenings in Taiwan, we usually went to the night markets for dinner. Such street food merits its very own blog post.

However, despite all the eating local, familiar American options abounded. KFC is extraordinarily popular in China, where they’re open 24-7 and have adapted to the local palette, serving things like congee with pork. (The day we visited Yum Brands’ headquarters, we had lunch at KFC. I felt worse that night than any other on the trip.) McDonald’s exists, but is less popular than KFC. There were a meal at Macaroni Grill our first night in Taiwan, when hunger, tiredness and frustration had us craving something familiar.

I tried to eat local, but I did often hit Starbucks in the morning, as finding a decent cup of coffee could be difficult. In fact, finding what we consider “breakfast” foods was often tough, as many Asian cultures don’t have a distinct difference between breakfast and lunch or dinner foods. So, Inggrid and I often went out for dumplings or soup. On time-pressed mornings when we had meetings with companies, I often did a quick trip to whatever coffee shop was closest to get some type of breakfast sandwich.

Overall, though, I loved my culinary adventures through Asia, suckers and all. And now that I’m home, I’m happy to get back to Domani and its fantastic coffee. Because eating local is the most familiar and comforting of all, regardless of where “local” is.

Read more about the Street Eats.