Wednesday, March 23, 2016

On the Attacks

Yesterday, waking to the news of the attacks on the Brussels airport and metro system, I felt outrage and despair at the indiscriminate killing of innocent people. So wrong and horrible and tragic. I thought of my childhood friend Vincent who is from Belgium, currently living in Nairobi, with a girlfriend who works in the UN system. My friends group from Mozambique came to mind, so many of whom live and work in the EU. I thought back to the Paris attacks, to San Bernardino, Boston, Madrid, London, 9/11.

When attacks feel close to home (or are in our backyards) we take notice. We are put on edge, we feel fear, we change our Facebook profiles to be flags in solidarity, we check in as 'safe' but often feel anything but. The message seems to be that the terrorists are always ready, always a step ahead, will always catch us by surprise.

I know there have been attacks just this past week in the Ivory Coast and in Turkey. Around the time of the Paris attacks there was also Lebanon and Iraq. And of course the countless other bombings that happen throughout the Middle East and Africa - suicide and otherwise - not to mention the drones and operations and refugee crisis and political chess game.

And yet those form a blur in my mind, even though as a global citizen deeply concerned about our world, I don't want them to. I see the news and lament about how terrible it is, and then go on about my day. It's easy to pretend it's not happening when it's far away. Easy to believe it's about "those people" and maintain the illusion that we are not connected, involved, responsible.

I think of my friend Dena who is Assyrian-Canadian and the only person in my midst who is consistently vocal about how hypocritical our Western position is. I'm not talking the obligatory re-post of some article that says "There's shit happening in these other places, too! Solidarity with ___________________ (fill in the blank to choose location we likely can't find on the map yet are financing weapons for and bombing on the regular)." No, my friend Dena actually goes there and criticizes from a human standpoint, showing mothers holding dead children and other un-ignorable losses of innocent life. She has opened my eyes to what happens in "those places" (and in Iraq in particular, because that's where her family is from). It feels real, personal, connected. So different from what you read in the news.

We need more of these connections and real conversations. How diverse are our circles? Do you know anybody from Iraq or Syria or Yemen or Palestine? Do you know any locals or expats living in the Middle East or Africa? Have you ever traveled to these places? Do you know anybody in the military who has served in these places? Do you know anybody who is Muslim? Do you know any refugees? Do you know anybody who is young and unemployed? Do you know anyone in politics? Do you know anybody who has been directly impacted by an attack?

Useful questions for home issues, too:

Do you know anybody who supports Trump? Do you know anybody in Flint, Michigan? Do you know anybody who depends on public assistance to survive? Do you know any billionaires?  Do you know anyone who is homeless? Do you know anyone who has been incarcerated? Do you know any recent immigrants?  Do you know anyone who loves their guns? Do you know anyone who has witnessed a mass shooting? Do you know anyone who has been impacted by police violence? Do you know any police officers? Are you friends with anyone of a different race than your own? Do you know anyone who has suffered racism?

The basic idea being: Do you know what it's like to walk in another's shoes? How do those realities shape our political sphere? Who has power and a voice, and who does not? Do we have any common ground at all in our differences or are we destined to fight it out tooth and nail, across an ever-widening chasm?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Day Trip to Slovenia: History, Nature and Wine

The region where my grandmother's family is from is right on the border of Italy and Slovenia, which makes for easy cross-cultural day tripping. Several of my childhood friends are Slovene and now work in the wine industry and/or as tour guides. My mom and I spent an afternoon in the able hands of Aleks and Marjana and enjoyed some spectacular nature, history, and local wines.

We started by climbing a spiral staircase belvedere tower in the tiny village of Gonjace. Not for those with fear of heights, but the reward is 360-degree views of the Collio hills, vineyards, terra-cotta roofs, and depending on which way you are looking either the Alps or the Adriatic.

view of collio hills slovenia

At the top of the belvedere is this compass that shows the direction of the nearby towns and cities. I have a thing for compasses, if you didn't know. :)

compass and distances in gonjace slovenia belvedere

Our next stop was Smartno, a historic fortified village that has been beautifully restored.

smartno slovenia

My friend Alex told us many stories about the culture of the place - like the wreath of dried wildflowers on the door that would have signified there is a single woman at the house who is eligible for marriage...or the importance of having greenery and a grapevine in front of the house.

green door and vine at smartno slovenia

I first met Aleks and his sister Marjana we were little kids. It's so cool to see where we all are now, and how many of our interests and occupations are aligned. Aleks is a history enthusiast, personal trainer, and regional tour guide who speaks multiple languages.

Aleks took us to a hidden gem in the Brda region of the Slovenian countryside. We drove along a dirt road through grape fields and into the winter forest, and eventually came upon this clear pool with a waterfall. The water spills over a wall that apparently was built by the French during Napoleon's occupation in the late 1700's or early 1800's.

waterfall in slovenia

Walking down a small path from the main waterfall, you reach the truly impressive sight: another small waterfall and a natural stone bridge with dark emerald water running underneath. The water color in this part of the world is unreal - either intense deep green or milky turquoise blue - thanks to the karst limestone that makes up most of the river beds. What a gem!

natural stone bridge and waterfall in Brda, Slovenia

After our nature walk, we headed to the wine cellar (cantina) where Marjana works. It is a large facility but still feels very personal and authentic, especially when you have an inside connection. :)

klet brda wine cellar slovenia

We got to tour the special reserve cellar that houses something crazy like 80,000 bottles of vintage wine, some dating back to the 1960's. Imagine being able to pick one bottle at random and taste what is inside!

klet brda special reserve wine cellar

Here I am with Marjana amid oak barrels. She and I are brainstorming some wine tourism ideas: stay tuned, especially if you are interested in visiting this region of the world.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Venice: Day 3

My third day in Venice started at the crack of dawn for a little running tourism with Venice by Run. Following the instructions I'd been given via email, I made my way to Campo San Bartolomeo at 6:50am. The city was completely deserted and it was a special thrill to be out at that hour, like I was on a secret mission of some sort. Arriving at the meeting point, I immediately spotted my guide Giulia (not hard because she was the only other person around and we were wearing nearly identical neon pink jackets). I couldn't believe it!

Venice by Run

If you enjoy running and are in Venice, I can't recommend this enough. You get to experience the major tourist points of the city with nobody else around, plus a wealth of information about the history and culture, and all the insider tips you could hope for about where to eat and drink and hang out like a local...not to mention a good workout!

After the run, I had breakfast and then went out for my daily wander. This piece of street art caught my eye on the way to Accademia. What a complicated relationship tourism destinations have with tourists. Can't stand them, can't manage to live without them.

Venice Tourist street art

It started raining again, and I eventually made my way to the Peggy Guggenheim museum to take refuge from the dreary weather. I found much inspiration in the collection (which I will share in another post) but one of the things that I most loved seeing was this group of children touring the museum. So important to expose young people to art! 

Children at Peggy Guggenheim Collection

I had a Table for One lunch at the museum cafe (an easy solo lunch, especially since I sat at a bar with a window seat). I enjoyed a salad with red radicchio from Treviso, pecorino cheese, and walnuts plus the ubiquitous bread basket that accompanies all meals in Italy. The courtyard view and people watching made it a truly enjoyable meal.

Radicchio salad

After the museum visit, I went wandering again. As I learned in my morning run with Giulia, there are a few campos in Venice that still remain true to the roots of that word: small fields/patches of vegetation in a courtyard square. 

Campo in Venice Italy

I continued my walk along the Zattere, the old timber delivery area of the city that is now a spacious promenade with breathtaking views. This decorated crane caught my eye - I wonder what it is used for, and whether it is common practice to decorate industrial machinery in Venice.

Crane on dock in Venice

Around the corner from the Zattere is a gondola building workshop housed in a very old building, even for Venice standards. I love the collection of hats on the wall.

Gondola workshop Venice Italy

One of the things I really wanted to do while in Venice was eat cichetti (local version of tapas) and have a spritz (local preferred happy hour drink). The famous Cantine del Vino già Schiavi was nearby the gondola workshop and absolutely packed with people, so I ducked in and made my way to the counter.

Cantine del Vino Gia Schiavi Venice

The small bar and bottle shop didn't disappoint with its ambience or selection of cichetti. I tried two bruschetta-style toasts: one with creamed cod and the other with egg salad topped with edible flowers. And of course an aperol spritz. I enjoyed eavesdropping on multiple conversations while having my happy hour treats.

Wine shop in Venice Italy

I had time for one more stop in the afternoon, so I headed to the Cà Rezzonico, an absolutely impressive palazzo that houses the museum of 18th century Venice. My jaw dropped at the luxury of the architecture and interior furnishings, starting with the internal courtyard in the entryway.

Ca Rezzonico Venice Italy

At Cà Rezzonico I saw perhaps the most lavish and intricate chandelier I've ever set eyes on. That glasswork and colors and flowers!! Surreal.

Murano glass floral chandelier

There are three floors of priceless art at the palazzo, but the piece that stood out the most for me was this marble bust of a veiled woman by Antonio Corradini (1725). How on earth can somebody create such perfection from stone? That drapery is so perfect and gauze-like and yet you can still see her expression underneath. Unreal.

Bust of a Veiled Woman - Antonio Corrandini

After viewing all the old masters at the palazzo, I had to rush back across the city to the Teatro la Fenice for a concert I'd purchased a ticket for prior to leaving the US (seemed like a guaranteed good activity for a solo traveler). I shared a box seat with a German lady and and a very funny older Italian woman whose daughter was playing trumpet in the orchestra. Definitely a worthwhile experience, and a stellar way to end my third day in Venice.

teatro la fenice venice

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Venice: Island Hopping on Afternoon of Day 2

Taking advantage of the clear, dry weather I decided to visit the islands of Burano and Murano on the afternoon of my second day in Venice. I bought a multi-stop vaporetto ticket and boarded line 12 at Fondamenta Nove, just a short walk from the Gesuiti church. If you look all the way in the distance you can see the snow-covered Alps.

Vaporetto and Venice Lagoon

Riding the vaporetto is an ideal sightseeing method. We passed in front of the cemetery island (Isola di San Michele),  several small uninhabited islands with abandoned buildings in ruin, and made stops at Murano and Mazzorbo islands (at the latter there is a restaurant and boutique hotel called Venissa that I'd really like to try in the future, a proponent of "zero-kilometer sourcing"...sadly it was closed for the season).

Laguna di Venezia

After about 45 minutes on the boat we arrived at Burano, the island famous for its lace making tradition and brightly colored houses. I didn't focus much on the lace (I already have bags and bags of antique handmade lace from my family that I struggle to put to use) rather I spent my visit looking at the colors and taking photos.

Burano Island Colorful Houses and Canal

Yes, Burano is touristy but it is possible to find some space to yourself, especially in the off season. All you need to do is take a few turns away from the main strip and start exploring. The palette and composition of this archway caught my eye, and from there I found a quiet series of back streets.

Arched Doorway in Burano Venice Italy

The repetition of rectangles, crumbling plaster, and marble crest on this façade hit all the right notes. I wished the business had been open, I was very curious about who and what went on inside.

Old Colorful Houses in Burano Venice

I'd been to Burano once before, as a child, and I remember being bowled over by all the colors. Apparently there is an architectural preservation code in place and people have to maintain the hue of their house or building in a way that is faithful to history.

Church Bell Tower in Burano Venice Italy

After a solid hour of exploring and photography, it was time for a late lunch. I found an outdoor cafe near the base of the church bell tower and ordered a grilled calamari salad and a glass of pinot grigio. Perfection!

Calamari Salad in Burano Venice

The next stop on my island itinerary was Murano, the heart of Venice's centuries-old glass making tradition. I wasn't able to tour any of the factories due to the late hour, but I hope to do a fornace visit on a future trip.

Murano glass factory blue door with brick

There is a major connection between my jewelry work and Murano glass: this is the origin of many of the trade beads that were taken to Africa by the Portuguese. It blows my mind to realize that it was right here, 200-400 years ago, that artisans were making beads that would cross the world, be lost to sea because of shipwrecks, wash up on the beaches of Mozambique Island, be collected by local boys, and end up in my jewelry here in California...their destiny to be continued by the eventual wearer of the piece. The essence of Origins & Routes.

Blue Glass Sculpture in Murano Venice Italy

I enjoyed seeing this massive blue glass sculpture near the factories, a dose of contemporary art to contrast with all the history and remind us that this tradition is not dead. Although it is increasingly difficult to sustain, as is the case all around the world with artisanal production. Venice is full of cheap Chinese imports, and one must be careful not to buy knockoffs thinking they are original Murano glass.

I walked around the island for about an hour, and as the sun dipped down the photography became golden. The light on these boats was simply perfect.

Boats in Murano Venice Italy

In the absence of direct light, you get an even greater appreciation for all the colors on the buildings. I could have spent an eternity sitting on that red bench and taking in the atmosphere, but alas I had a ferry to catch.

Piazza in Murano Venice Italy

The timing of my vaporetto ride back to Venice was impeccable. I watched the sky and water slowly shift from blue to gray, silhouetting the city in the distance. Seagulls dipped and dived all around the boat, fellow riders chatted in a dozen different languages, and I pulled my hood up tight around my face, a cocoon of warmth against the wind and sea spray.  

Sunset on the Water in Venice Lagoon

Friday, March 11, 2016

Venice: Morning of Day 2

My second day in Venice was blessed with sunshine, blue skies, and still somehow a relatively empty city. While wandering near Campo Manin, I followed some signs through a series of tight streets and came upon the Scala Contarini del Bovolo. I turned a corner and there it was, the most incredible spiral tower rising from a quiet garden courtyard, bathed in morning light, with nobody else around. It truly felt like discovering hidden treasure.

Scala Contarini del Bovolo in Venice

The Scala del Bovolo (which means spiral staircase in local dialect) was built at the end of the 1400's and there is some uncertainty as to who the architect was. One of my favorite aspects of the tower is that its arches get progressively smaller, with the top arches being half the height of the ones at the base. This creates the visual illusion that the tower is even taller than it actually is.

Spiral Staircase Venice Italy

I slowly climbed the spiral stairs, stopping to admire and photograph at each turn. What a treat to have this all to myself.

Panoramic View of Venice from Scala Contarini del Bovolo

At the very top of the tower, there is a 360-degree view of Venice. I loved this angle with St. Mark's framed in one of the arches. As it was a clear day, I could even see all the way to the snow-covered Alps in the distance. This experience was such a gift.

After leaving the Palazzo Contarini, I made my way across the city to the Cannareggio district. Several months before my trip to Italy, I'd come across an image of a church on Instagram that left me drop-jawed: the Chiesa dei Gesuiti (aka Santa Maria Assunta). I am a big fan of rococo and all things overly ornamented, but this church really impressed me because of its exquisite patterned marble interior (which inspired Fortuny's most famous fabric design, among others).

I Gesuiti church in Venice Italy

The interior of the Gesuiti church didn't disappoint. How incredible were these craftsmen in the 1700's?? All of that marble patterning is inlay, done by hand. I've never seen anything like it in my life. What a breathtaking effect.

Patterned Marble Interior of I Gesuiti Church in Venice Italy

Before leaving, I lit a candle for the ladies in my life. This is a ritual that brings me peace and hope, despite not being Catholic. The first time I ever lit a candle in a church was in Athens, at age 17, with the mother of my friend Lambros. Ever since it's been something I enjoy, especially while traveling.

Madonna and Prayer Candles at Church in Venice Italy

After all of that patterning and art and divinity, I needed a break. I found a small courtyard cafe in an adjacent building and took a moment for a macchiato and an apricot cookie. Again, I had the place to myself. The scene was so lovely that I decided to do a quick sketch. This was my favorite "Table for One" moment of the trip. Quiet, calm, challenging, and refreshing.

Sketch of Arches in Venice Italy by Ali Amaro

Next up? Island adventures in the afternoon of Day 2.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Venice: Day 1

Back in 2005 I was visiting my grandmother's house in rural northern Italy with friend from college. It was the dead of winter, all of the local shops and attractions were closed for the low season, and we had nothing to do other than sit around and help my grandmother sort through accumulated old mail and paperwork.

After several days of boredom, my friend suggested we go to Venice, about a 2 hour train ride away. Although it seemed like exactly the kind of adventure we needed, I convinced him we shouldn't go. Why? Because I was afraid to venture out of my comfort zone and fail as a traveler. The unknown was too overwhelming: not knowing where to park the car at the train station or how to validate our tickets, fear of getting lost upon arrival, of being vulnerable to scams, of having a crappy touristy experience and not the authentic locals-only adventure I so craved (but was unable to seek out for myself, much less be the leader for the two of us). So we stayed put, and I felt a mix of defeat and guilt and sadness which I tried to hide from my friend.

Now, just over a decade later, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to slay the dragon. This trip to Italy, I'd scheduled in a week alone after spending two weeks at the family house with my mom. I started planning a solo trip to Venice, ready to deal with all those fears and see if I could enjoy my own company even if I stuck out as a tourist and made all the mistakes.

The journey started on the autostrada, as our family friend Marino suggested that I drive instead of take the train. Immediately I had a fear-conquering opportunity as it was pissing down rain and the two lane highway was full of big trucks and on-your-ass drivers. Thankfully I had a good reggae soundtrack and just kept my knee aligned down the middle of the lane (my dad's number one best driving tip ever) and the windshield wipers on high.

After about an hour and forty minutes I arrived at Piazzale Roma, the place where the highway dead-ends after the long causeway over the lagoon (no cars in Venice, obviously). I chose a garage and handed over the keys (Garage San Marco, 30 Euro per night). Good thing I only had a small roller suitcase and a purse because it was freezing, super windy, and raining hard. I could barely manage my bags, hold my umbrella, and look at my map every five seconds. My hands went numb from the cold and I wished I had a lot warmer jacket and more layers. The cold in Northern Italy in the winter is NO JOKE. But I managed to get on the Vaporetto #2, bust out my emergency stock of hand warmers (essential item this trip!), and enjoy the ride down the Grand Canal to San Marco stop.

I'd booked a single room at Hotel Becher, near the historic Teatro La Fenice, and set out to find my way. I quickly learned that Venice is a labyrinth of narrow streets and canals, and you most definitely need a map in your hand at all times. Formal addresses are devoid of information, listing only the neighborhood (sestiere) and a number. Happily there are actual street names painted on the sides of buildings, plus handy directional arrows pointing you toward landmarks. 

I eventually found the hotel, checked in, and took refuge in my super warm room. What a relief to be inside, away from the horrific weather. The room was small but comfortable, and there was a canal view that made up for the few amenities that I actually missed (most notably an in-room coffee maker or tea kettle). Also, that canal means lots of noise - tourists and singing gondoliers at all hours, trash boats, water taxis. I'd say earplugs are a must-have on the list for travel to Venice, especially if you are a light sleeper or have any desire to open the window and let in fresh air. 

After getting settled in the room and warming up my extremities, I decided to venture out and get some lunch. My first experience with a "Table for one" at a nice restaurant. I wandered the maze of streets near the hotel and eventually decided on a cute place called Rosa Rossa on Calle Mandola. I had spaghetti al nero di sepia (spaghetti with squid ink and calamari pieces) and a glass of red wine, and enjoyed journaling while I waited for my food.

In the afternoon, I visited the museum at Palazzo Fortuny. It was a total sensory delight, with a dark interior and art displayed in front of floor-to-ceiling damask textiles. Also, the museum was pretty empty which added to the feeling of having stepped back into another era. 

One of my favorite spaces was Fortuny's atelier. Can you imagine having this as your go-to place to paint and sculpt? Divine, to say the least!

I also appreciated seeing all the block prints and samples for Fortuny's famous textile design. Endless inspiration for creating patterns. I highly recommend visiting this museum if you are at all into interior design, fashion, and fabric.

I spent the rest of my first day in Venice aimlessly wandering, which is one of my very favorite things to do in a new city. The rain made it a pretty miserable, but the light was magic for taking photos and there weren't hordes of people in the streets.

Around every corner was a perfect photo opportunity: crumbling walls, faded paint, narrow streets, architectural elements from multiple centuries, flower boxes, colorful storefronts, and seemingly endless carved details and embellishments and layers of art. 

The best part by far was the lack of crowds. And that rainy evening light! Totally worth enduring the suck weather.

After several hours of walking and photographing, I was ready for another meal. I chose a place called Le Chat Qui Rit that is a wine bar and restaurant on Calle Tron, in San Marco district. Another "Table for one, please!"

This was possibly my best meal in Venice: I ordered branzino with a mix of cooked and raw asparagus, caramelized onions, and a presentation that was pure art. I also enjoyed a glass of pro secco and some local sauvignon blanc by a maker called Attems. The service was friendly, the atmosphere was lively, and I felt welcome to hang out as long as I liked. In fact, if I had to make a recommendation of where to go as a solo eater for a nice meal in Venice, Le Chat Qui Rit would be my number one choice.

I ended the day feeling full, warm, and satisfied with the day's exploring and adventures. I tried to sleep despite lingering jet lag and the noisy canal. Next up: Day 2!