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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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Costa del Sud, Sardinia, 09019

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A Spanish watchtower in one of the bays of Sardinia’s Costa del Sud

Dear ——–,

I spent five days at Cagliari’s T Hotel for a science meeting and appreciated the modern amenities (wi-fi! a good restaurant! a bath tub! coffee breaks!). But at the end of the meeting, I was ready to get outside. Cagliari itself was unimpressive and we were on the fence about renting a car (60 Euros for a day). But thank God we did. We drove down to an archaeological site called Nora, which was first settled in the 8th century B.C., dominated variously by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Spanish. It was less than 200 kilometers from North Africa and remnants of North African marble and mosaic designs could be seen in the ruins of a wealthy citizen’s house. We also took a winding drive along the Costa del Sud, a rugged part of the Sardinian coastline that reminded us of California’s Pacific Coast Highway. It was a land of aquamarine bays, jagged, toothy rocks, and lonely, abandoned Spanish watchtowers. I don’t know if many of the other meeting goers were able to get out to the Costa del Sud, but it made me understand why tourists would come here and why Sardinians would be proud of their survivor of an island.

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The archaeological site of Nora, near Pula

 

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Corniglia, 19018

Flower festival in Corniglia

Dear ——–,

Corniglia was probably the hardest of the Cinque Terre towns to get to. Some of the trains didn’t stop there and you either have to walk up 400 steps or take a stuffy shuttle bus to get from the train station to the center of town. But once you get there, it’s a charming little town. Someone there even had a sense of humor — he or she wrote the word “aeroporto” in chalk with an arrow pointing toward a small look-out point. The narrow stone streets were festooned with flags and, on the day we visited, older women were scattering flowers on the ground. We had apparently stumbled across the flower festival of Corpus Christi. When we returned to Monterosso later, there were elaborate pictures made out of flowers and seeds on the walkways near the main church. It made me wonder whether this is where the idea for Pasadena’s Rose Parade came from.

Flower art on a stone street in Monterosso al Mare


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Monterosso al Mare, 19016

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View of old town part of Monterosso al Mare from our agriturismo

Dear ——–,

Monterosso had herds more American college students in mesh running shorts than I’d expected, so it was nice to have our own little slice of quiet at Agriturismo Buranco. The agriturismo was a short walk up a steep, slippery road from the old part of town, but we were soon surrounded by grapevines, olive trees and fuschia flowers. The foccacia they served at breakfast was a revelation — pillowy soft, infused with just the right amount of olive oil. It made the dry stuff we get in the U.S. seem stale and tasteless. We also ate as much pesto as we could since one of the Liguria’s other food contributions to world cuisine is basil pesto. We weren’t ever disappointed. Even though it was raining on our second day there, Meri, our host at Buranco, walked up a tray with snacks and two glasses of their tasty — almost chardonnay-like — white wine. We put Stella to bed and then savored the wine the farm’s covered porch.


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Manarola, 19017

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Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Dear ——–,

The towns of Cinque Terre looked like paintings. We started in Riomaggiore and walked the Via dell’Amore to Manarola, admiring the locks inscribed with the names of lovers fastened onto fences along the way. Manarola was our favorite town, where we could walk out on a little punta and look back to the perfectly framed cascade of pastel-colored houses on the side of the cliff. (Apparently, the colors of the houses in Cinque Terre have to be approved by some commission!) A group of young men with a death wish were swimming right next to a little jetty there. They were lifted and dropped about 10 feet every time a tide pounded in and pulled out. I was worried they’d be thrown against the rocks, but they somehow thought this was fun. I noticed that none of the women seemed eager to join in. We walked up about two-thirds the way up the town to have lunch at Trattoria dal Billy, where we had a commanding view of the poetic Ligurian Sea and fantastically fresh shrimp over homemade pasta. The waiter also entertained our daughter while we finished the meal with a fantastic hazelnut semifreddo and limoncino. We worked off lunch with a walk along the terraced vineyards before descending back down to town.

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Riomaggiore

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Lovers’ locks on the Via dell’Amore


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Montepulciano, 53045

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View from Montepulciano

Dear ——–,

We spent the morning in the elegant Renaissance town of Pienza, where the smell of local pecorino wafted out from shop after shop. For lunch, we went to an organic farm called Il Casale, where we had plates of prosciutto, salami, zucchini, cabbage, pasta in tomato sauce and a spelt salad. They make their own cheese — so there was ricotta, feta, chevre and several kinds of pecorino including a fresh variety and ones aged in hay and grape leaves. Stella got to meet her first pony on this farm (very interested) and her first goats (less interested). In the afternoon, we went to Montepulciano, where we took a look at the Contucci cellars and tasted their vino nobile di Montelpulciano. The reserva from 2007 was so velvety, we had to take one home. The host, Adamo, asked, “Am I famous in America?” and showed a picture of himself with Rick Steves. Well, that was how we got there.


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Montalcino, 53024

Three glasses of Brunello di Montalcino

Dear ——–,

We had thought we had made a wine-tasting appointment at Poggiarellino, a brunello di Montalcino producer recommended by Leah, but the owners Lodovico and Anna somehow seemed surprised that we showed up. Anna was apologetic — she couldn’t set up the wine tasting because the wine needed to breathe. How about she just gives us a bottle of brunello 2007 to take home and try on our own? We just had to promise to leave it open for three hours before drinking. Well, okay. But what kindness and hospitality! Still thirsty for an immediate wine tasting, we headed to the town of Montalcino, where we sat down at Enoteca Osticchio. A three-flight brunello tasting gave us a 2007 (like fog on the tongue), a 2004 (a fine, almost sugar-coated finish) and a reserve from 2006 (somehow less memorable than the first two). It was a nice way to end the day and Stella was even waiting patiently for us in her stroller. We finished the day at Why Not gelateria with a mix of creme caramel, extra dark chocolate and blood orange — easily one of the best cones I’ve ever had. A fitting end to an epicurean day!


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Siena, 53100

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View from the City Tower

Dear ——–,

We skipped the dirt roads today for the efficiency of the motorway and made our way to Siena. The color “burnt siena” is apparently named for the place and practically all the buildings have that same warm brick color because that’s the color of the earth here. We climbed the 400 steps up the city tower — Stella rode up on Bryan’s back in the Ergo carrier — where we could see the whole city and surrounding patchwork of green and yellow fields. On Cara’s recommendation, we checked out Osteria La Logge, just off Piazza del Campo. The burrata was so creamy it almost tasted like butter. The fresh egg tagliatelle with Tuscan ragu was gone in 5 minutes. The Duomo was our last stop in town — an impressively bold mix of patterns and colors, with figures etched into the marble on the floor. (Was there an Egyptian influence in the black and white striping?) It reminded us that Siena was once a very powerful city.

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Siena City Hall and Tower

 

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