EUROPEAN SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1B)

Venice, along with many other Italian cities, are rethinking their tourist program and how they often inundate and devastate their environments. It’s a very tough call-between economic vitality and sustainability for its residents. Italy’s attempt to address these major issues was evident in our trip to Matera (last week’s post), where the local authority is trying to convert an overlooked, crumbling historic area to zero impact tourism.

Puccini’s Lucca

Lucca is one of those uniquely protected walled cities, that tells you to go away. Unless you’re inside, of course. It took a bit of battling to get in, with a car (restricted) to an albergo with private parking privileges. You are acutely aware of harming the environment when you drive a car in this remarkable city. We were thrilled at how we were able to drive through one-lane paths and found out later…with a whopping huge parking ticket. (I am learning to read Italian now).

Everyone moves at a slower pace, tourists and residents alike. Bikes have their place, although scooters are allowed. You wish life could be this way in your part of the world. Everything seems magical–the ice cream shops, the antiquaries, the magnificently preserved churches. Maybe it wasn’t Disney who spread gold dust here, but he must have visited and discovered the qualities that gave him ideas for his magic kingdom.

Elba Island, Napoleon’s Island Exile

We were on Elba Island for a wedding, the purpose of our trip to Italy. After connecting flights in Paris from Yerevan, Armenia, we spent a couple of days in a luxurious villa as our base. Getting to and from the island was another story, but we made it to the wedding in plenty of time.

We treated ourselves to dinner at the hotel’s well appointed facilities, including the original villa’s main house. Needless to say, food here as in everywhere in Italy is a major undertaking and form of entertainment. Here are just a few dishes that refreshingly attacked our palettes:

As mentioned earlier, this European Series is an extension of the Silk Road Adventures. As we ply through Central Asia via Uzbekistan, Iran, the Caucasus, and Turkey from China, I decided to include European as part of the string of countries beyond the Silk Road. I did not travel them in this order, but they have been reordered so you can get a sense of the huge breadth of cultures along the route. These countries made use of and benefitted enormously from the ancient route of the Silk Road.

We are heading over the Alps toward Switzerland and Austria next, as if we were traveling overland. I hope you follow and enjoy this route as we head deep into the German-speaking countries and my favorites.

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1A)

Marco Polo’s father and brother set off from Italy in 1260 on their first adventure through the massive conjoined continents of Europe and Asia most likely along the Silk Road, then a common highway overland. They traveled through Bokhara, one of my Silk Road stops described earlier. Later, on return to Italy, they organized a second trip with Nicolo’s son, Marco.

The second trip took a different course through Persia to join Kublai Khan’s court in Beijing. Marco Polo was gone from Italy for 26 years, and when he returned, he was barely recognizable or believed to be Marco Polo himself. His clothes were worn and tattered, and he barely could speak his native language.

Before March 17 this year, we were able to go to Italy much easier without having to devote half a lifetime to getting there. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as Marco did! While the COVID-19 Pandemic still rests heavily on our minds, these reposts hopefully inspire us to look to future travels and savor the past.

In early 2019, we took advantage of Pastry Chef/daughter Melissa’s winter work break and hit the food scene in Italy. We stayed in the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome as our base and traveled to Matera and Naples from there. Here are two posts in case you missed it last year, condensed into one.

Sassi di Matera Hill Town

An inexpensive flight to Bari at the heel of Italy enabled us to visit Matera in a dawn-to-dusk trip. After a one-hour drive from Bari, we reached Sassi, two ancient hill towns straddling a deep valley. This UNESCO area was designated a major destination in 2019, to showcase sustainable tourism and environmental protection of treasured and not-to-be forgotten settlements.

A World UNESCO site dedicated to restoring hill towns with little or no environmental impact

Elena Ferrante’s Napoli

Famous Pizza and the Opera House drove us to Naples, but we couldn’t help but think about the stories written by Elena Ferrante in her four book series about scrappy Neapolitan life. (She has a new book out!)

We stopped at the Archaeological Museum, one of the country’s top sites holding treasures from Ercolano and Pompeii. Porn was thriving in Pompeii, as witnessed in this museum, along with other artifacts that are no longer available at the sites. Between the museum and a Nutcracker at the historic Teatro di San Carlo, the local food won hands down. (See below)

Famous Pizzeria da Attilio, Napoli: Pure, straight, and to the Oven

High Renaissance Rome

The food and the architecture are self-explanatory, right?!?

St. Peter’s Baldacchino by Bernini and Michelangelo’s Dome,
in the most magnificent interior space in the world

Grand opera is closed during the Christmas season, but we were able to catch holiday favorites Swan Lake Ballet in Rome, and the Nutcracker in Naples at the local opera houses.

Delightful Swan Lake Ballet at the Opera Theater of Rome
First Night in Rome with Daughter Melissa at Trappazino, Rome

Next week we will continue this European Series, linking Europe to the transcontinental Silk Road from Asia. It’s a compilation of travels with myself and others from the last six years. I hope you will enjoy revisiting these treasured moments with me! There will be another post on Lucca and Elba in the next post, followed by trips to German-speaking countries. Don’t forget to send your thoughts and comments!

Two posts are consolidated here and were originally posted in January 2019.

Silk Road Adventure #7: Turkey

Turkey may seem like the end of the line for the Silk Road, but it certainly was a crossroads between the Near East and Europe. Traders probably traveled from city to city along the route, rather than along the entire length of the Silk Road. The Turkic people came from the steppes of Central Asia and settled in this part of the world after traveling westwards, so their links eastwards were often refreshed and renewed.

We came to Istanbul twice, and stayed in a great Air BNB near the Pedestrian shopping street, Istikal Caddesi, where we could find plenty of restaurants. One of our favorites was a simple schwerma fast food hangout. We knew something was afoot when we saw savvy Asians making their way to this establishment, toting the insider guide “Istanbul Eats”.

For the price of a Macdonald’s burger, you could get freshly grilled meet, chopped to fit each bite in your mouth perfectly, with sensations of cabbage and lettuce lightly sprinkled with spiced sauce and evenly distributed into a grilled pocket. Perfect taste and texture to delight the tongue and the palette!

The food is so delicious and inspiring that it overshadows tourist attractions like the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. Each meal is a discovery of familiar foods cooked with alot of creative flair. The Baklava may seem too sweet, but when it is made with fresh honey it does not have the dry intensive sugary taste as much as it is a saucy complement to the fresh flaky pastry and nuts.

One evening, we indulged in a performance of whirling dervishes that at first seemed a bit touristy but it was totally fascinating. The ancient Sufi religion promoted this form of spiritual cleansing and aspires those to reach the ultimate. You can read more about them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_whirling

Cappodocia

Cappodocia was so captivating that I came here twice. A UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the country and a couple hours’ flight from Istanbul, Cappodocia has some of the most unique and bizarre land formations anywhere in the world. The fairy tale cave dwellings have been occupied since early Christian times when believers fled the cities to be able to worship and escape persecution. They lived in the tufa cave dwellings and prayed in the mountain hideaways.

We discovered from our trip to Georgia that Nino was born in Cappodocia around 320, so the secret churches we first saw in Goreme suddenly became relevant and inspiring. You can read further about her here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nino. You can see the entire area in a hot air balloon, providing you are willing to get up at 5am in the morning and brave the traffic jam of baskets.

Goreme is the small town that is used as the base camp for travelers to this area. It includes an outdoor national park that houses many of the cave dwellings. Hotels are in the park so you can wander around the neighborhood easily yourself.

We stayed in the boutique cave hotels Kolubek, or Butterfly Hotel. The tufa rooms have pitched roofs and other buildings are built of stone organically around the sloping hillsides. You can’t help but wonder in the back of your mind whether the dust particles from the tufa might affect your lungs, but it was still worth the short-term risk.

The food in the hotel was delightful–a refreshing spread of fruit, nuts, cheese, bread and vegetables. We were inspired to take a cooking class in town. The hotel helped us to arrange a guide to take us shopping before joining a mature woman, who taught us how to prepare a Turkish meal in her own home. We then ate the food that we prepared with her for lunch and invited the guides to join us.

Ismir and Ephesus on the Western Coast

Our visit to the ancient city of Ephesus in January, 2020 required an overnight stay in Izmir. Although we had a chance to get acclimated, we immediately took to the streets in search of lunch. Thanks to Pastry Chef and Daughter Melissa, her intrepid search for the tastiest food in any country and her Googling skills, we traipsed through the town’s nearby grand bazaar and after numerous twists and turns, tracked down a renowned locanta populated by Turkish locals.

Izmir Locanta
Izmir Bazaar Favorite among locals

Locals dine regularly here on some of the heartiest meals made with the freshest ingredients. We savored the sardine soup recommended by the gentleman sitting across from us. It’s one of those diners where you point to the big vats of steaming concoctions or decorated casseroles in order to get your meal put in front of you quickly!


Stewed Eggplant
Ephesus

The short 40 minute drive from Izmir to Ephesus jolted us into realizing how ancient the land in which we were traveling is. From biblical figures like John the Baptist, Mother Mary, and their pilgrim followers, to the largest civilization outside of Rome at its peak, it was hard not to be impressed by the significance and grandeur of Ephesus.

Once inhabited by 250,000, Ephesus is a UNESCO world heritage site and was carefully restored and brought to life. It is a relatively late-bake on the list, as its discovery is fairly recent and only a fraction of it has been uncovered.

The library at Ephesus

Highlights include the odeon, a theatre; an amphitheater, an agora, terrace houses, and a library. You can download Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app for free and use it as you walk the site. All the details of what we saw were based on his excellent instructions. I highly recommend trying it out, and he certainly covers the major features. This fascinating site was once a thriving port city before the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Goths each had their go at destroying it!

We decided to hire a car for a day to get from Izmir to Ephesus and Ephesus to Bodrum, our final destination. The only catch was making certain that we could call the driver after he dropped us off at the carpark at the top of the entrance to Ephesus. He was to meet us at the bottom of the hill at the exit 90 minutes later. Minor details: he had our bags in the boot!!

We needed a backup just in case we could not find the driver. After a bit of cell phone finagling, conversations with hotel personnel, and a lot of good faith—we managed. Where we spent on the driver, we saved on time and the cost of a tour and guide. Just a reminder on how you can travel the way you want, with just a few creative tricks and determination to be a traveler and not a tourist.

Boviera

Known as “Boviera”, sparkling Aegean resort towns along the Western Turkish coast include Bodrum. It’s off-peak and chilly presently, but well worth the quiet solitude and even threats of rain to avoid the throngs of English-speaking tourists.

As close as you can get to the creatures being served at your table before they are caught!
Anchovies, artichokes with pineapple, cheese and walnuts, and squash in yogurt

Note: due to traveling light and leaving my Macbook at home for this brief trip, I am using my Iphone to compose and post photos. The capabilities are limited, but I hope you will still enjoy the material the same as regular posts!

More Turkish Food! Food! Glorious Food!

Delicate bits of chopped morsels are packed with texture, flavor, and color to delight the senses. You swear you could eat like this every day, convinced of the variety and healthy ingredients.

Dolmas, eggplant spread with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds, and artichoke with mustard sauce
Bodrum to Izmir

The four hour public bus from to Izmir to Bodrum followed the coast, was a safe and comfortable trip, and cost us each a hefty $6. In true Turkish hospitality, they even served tea and cookies! We gazed at the stark countryside, lit by the low winter sun behind turbulent clouds, as olive and tangerine groves slid past.

View of Mountains and farmland from bus
Bizim Lokanta

On arrival back in Izmir, we couldn‘t resist returning to the lokanta in the Bazaar where we had eaten earlier in the week.

Tongue soup, bulgar with fava beans, and cabbage rolls with thick, creamy yogurt
Kudos on two walls of this vest-pocket diner were self-explanatory
Bazaar Fun
It‘s a Wrap!
(Meatless) Kale and Cheese Wraps for a pittance

It‘s always bittersweet leaving a country, especially after such a short visit. But the food focus, imperial demands, abundance of land, and Mediterranean climate requires one to succumb to Turkey‘s finest features.

As this Silk Road Series draws to a close, look for the Fall Series, which will feature Italy, Germany, and the U.K. in the final paths of the Silk Road! Let me know your thoughts and comments about both series!