Up on the farm

Agriturismo L’Oasi del Rossese

Way, way up:  A precarious auto journey slowly, cautiously climbing a skinny, twisty road.  We passed a few houses clinging to the hillsides, others hiding below the road down treacherously steep lanes.  Lots of overgrown vegetation all around.  More curves, hairpin turns, and more of each  

This was rough, remote terrain in Italy’s Liguria region above the Mediterranean.  I was driving, and hoping we would not meet a car coming in the opposite direction. I am not skilled at driving in reverse, and this road was barely wide enough for two vehicles.   How much farther?  I was nervous.  Did we miss it?

Alas, a small sign.  “ L’Oasi del Rossese,” our destination, an agriturismo above the town of Dolceacqua.  Agriturismo is a combination of the word for “agriculture” and “tourism” in Italian.  Agriturismi (plural) offer farm stay vacations and are very popular in Italy.  In addition to lodging, most offer meals featuring local specialties, often made with products from the farm.

Bob, Steve and Yoshie.

Farm hostess Marinella greeted us and showed  us to our rooms.  My brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie from Colorado were with us. First order of business was a welcome  coffee and cookies on the terrace overlooking deep green valleys, mountains and the Mediterranean in the distance.  Sadly, we had no sun to enhance the views.  Even with overcast clouds, it was splendid.

We heard English at a long table under a wall of balloons.  A group was celebrating a birthday.  I got up to take a photo and one of the gentlemen stopped me.  “I think I know you.  Are you a member of BA (British Association of Menton)”?   Yes.  We sat with Wayne and his wife Veronique, who was celebrating her 60th birthday, at a BA luncheon not long ago.   It was Veronique who told me about this agriturismo.  They have a farm nearby.

Marinella, husband Nino and son Stefano harvest grapes and olives on their 7,000 square meters of terrain.  The main farm product is wine, Rossese, hence the name, Oasis of Rossese, the noted red wine of Dolceacqua which we enjoyed with dinner.

Nino, Jordan (named after Michael Jordan), Stefano and Marinella.

We were hoping to see farm animals.  Their livestock consists of chickens and rabbits.  I did venture down to the chicken coop and rabbit hutch. The bunnies were big and beautiful.  I hated to think of their future.

Rabbit, Coniglio alla Liguria, is a local special and often served here.  Steve announced he would not eat it if it was to be our dinner. Luckily it was not, although I would have indulged.  The French are also fond of rabbit, and I prepare it occasionally. 

Yoshie and Steve hiked to the village of Perinaldo.

Food is a big attraction at agriturismi.  Our dinner was a never-ending, multi course feast.  Italian meals begin with antipasti. One after another, Marinella served us five different antipasti dishes:  Tomatoes with fresh sheep cheese, a slice of bruschetta, a frittata of zucchini and peas, stuffed zucchini flowers, and a tasty a slice of torte made with tiny fish from the Med.  This was followed by the pasta course, ravioli burro e salvia (ravioli stuffed with sage) – all homemade.  Instead of rabbit, for the main course we had both roast pork and goat with fagioli (white beans). The latter was our favorite. Dessert:  a strawberry tarte.  Plus, a bottle of Rossese.

Rossese (red wine) display in Dolceacqua

Marinella cooks, all from scratch. Nino lends a hand, stuffing the ravioli. They have a large vegetable garden, in addition to the chickens and rabbits, to supply the products for her cooking.  Stefano and Nino care for the grapevines and olive trees.  Stefano also makes the wine. Their production of both olive oil and wine is limited.  They only sell to guests and a few local clients.  

“People are happy here,” said Marinella.  She did admit that the first time is difficult due to the seemingly endless, challenging trek up the mountain. It is only seven kilometers, but they are long and very slow.  Many French come for the day from Nice just to eat, she said.   In August they have guests from Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

Dolceacqua, photo by Yoshie.

Agriturismo began in Italy in the 1960s when small farmers were struggling to make a profit.  Some abandoned their farms and went off to work in cities.  However, agricultural traditions are sacred in Italy.  In 1973 an official agriturismo farmhouse designation was created to help prevent farmers from abandoning their farms, and to offer tourists a farm stay so they could learn about rural life.

In some regions, but not all, farmers need a license to take part in agriturismo. We have visited nearby Dolceacqua many times.  Every time it seems there are more “agriturismo” signs on houses in the village.   What do they have to do with farms and agriculture?

Steve explores the Dolceacqua old town.

According to a spokesperson at the Dolceacqua tourist office, to be considered agriturismo they must show documents to prove they have land and crops.  Of course, many may have such up in the hills. But all of them?

Marinella tells me that today many agriturismo are just Bed and Breakfast accommodations and have nothing to do with agriculture.  I asked Arabella, my Italian friend with whom I study Italian. 

“E una giungla,” (It’s a jungle), she explained.  In Italian the expression refers to situations when laws are not respected, everyone does whatever he/she wishes  … a bit like Italian drivers.

Agriturismo breakfast — Bob, me and Yoshie. No one looks very happy, but we were very happy. The farm and surroundings are a treat.

AZ Agrituristica, L’Oasi del Rossese de Zullo Stefano, Loc Morghe, 18035 Dolceacqua, Italy, Tel. xx 39 347 8821298.

http://www.agriturismo.farm/en/farm-holidays/liguria/loasi-del-rossese-dolceacqua/33419 Double rooms with breakfast, 60 euro per night. Multi course meal with wine, 30 euro per person.

Siesta in Dolceacqua

More on Hungary coming: FOOD.

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Bellissimo Lago di Como

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” That is exactly the way I felt during a September visit to Lago di Como (Lake Como) in northern Italy. It is sublime. Glittering waters at the feet of Alpine mountain ranges. Photo-opp villages with cobbled alleys and flowered promenades. Baroque villas and impeccably manicured gardens.

Like me, lots of famous people have been seduced by the lake’s beauty and charm. Artists, writers, opera singers and aristocrats have homes on the lake shores. Not to mention Hollywood stars: George Clooney, Madonna, Richard Branson, Sylvester Stallone…

Varenna

My friend Karen, who knows the lake well, suggested we stop at Lake Como en route to her apartment in Croatia. I had fond memories of previous lake visits and was all in. She chose Varenna, considered one of the prettiest lakeside towns, as our destination for two nights. We enjoyed soaking up the vistas and the captivating ambiance of the lake and town.

The most heavenly time was high above the lakeside town of Tremezzo at the restaurant Al Veluu. Karen has friends who know the restaurant owner. She made a reservation mentioning her friends. We never did meet the owner. The waiter who greeted us was neither impressed nor happy to see us. It was close to 2 p.m.. The restaurant terrace was empty. He, no doubt, wanted to call it a day.

We had the spacious terrace and garden all to ourselves. The divine surroundings and spectacular views made up for the disappointing food. It was calm, peaceful, relaxing. We did not want to leave, but the warm sun was no longer so warm, and we needed to start the trek (taxi then 2 ferry rides) back to Varenna.

Karen chills out at Al Veluu.

Boats are the primary means of transportation for visiting Lake Como. Ferries of all sizes shuttle from town to town. The previous day we took a ferry to Bellagio, the “pearl” of the lake. Years ago husband Bob and I visited this treasure of a town. We visited the park and gardens of the grandiose Villa Serbelloni, hiked in the hills, took boat rides. It was all delightful.

Bellagio

Years later we returned with my mother who was overwhelmed. In addition to the gorgeous views and surroundings, she loved the shops. Bellagio, like most of the towns, has a plethora of boutiques and souvenir shops. On one visit, I purchased a large olive wood basket which I still treasure.

Varenna at night

In Varenna, we stayed at an Airbnb which promised a “bella vista” of the lake. What a joke. From a small bedroom window in a corner, if you twisted your neck you could spot the lake. Never mind. We had plenty of bella vistas as we climbed up and down the steep stairways in Varenna that lead to the lake, and strolled the path, Passegiata degli Innamorati (walk of lovers), along the shore.

Lake Como was the perfect start to my much-needed R&R break.

Thanks again to Karen, adventure in Croatia followed. Read all about it in an upcoming post. Don’t miss out.

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Bellagio

For more on Bellagio, read my report on a previous visit- click here.

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Taking the waters – and the mud

Volcanic mud is the attraction at Abano.

Hot! It was sweltering. The pool waters were warm. Taking a walk left me drained, clothes and hair glued to my body. Even lounging in the shade was unpleasant.

I blew it. Yes, I needed a week of R and R. Life as an Alzheimer’s caregiver is stressful. But a thermal spa is not the place to go in July when temperatures soar.

Unfortunately I had no choice on the timing. I wanted to take advantage of the July visit from Bob’s son and two grandsons who could take over care of grandpa. I should have opted for a cool mountain resort. Instead, I chose to spend a week at Abano Terme, a spa town in northeastern Italy recommended by friends. I have never been that enamored of spas, but I figured it would be good for my decaying body and uplifting for the spirit.

Not all was negative. Just being in Italy, where joie de vivre is in the air, is therapeutic for me. I enjoyed speaking my broken Italian, chatting with the super friendly spa staff, and learning what a terme is all about.

Soaking in thermal waters supposedly does wonders for the body.

The entire town and numerous hotels are all geared to take advantage of thermal waters and volcanic mud from the surrounding Euganean hills. Hotels offer packages which include room and board and treatments. 

Fango, or pure mineral-rich volcanic ash, forms the basis of the mud which is said to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended for  strained joints and muscles, arthritis, rheumatism, as well as the stress of everyday life.

First step: Visit to the hotel/spa doctor. Before undergoing the mud treatments, a doctor must give the OK. He was a jolly chap who spoke four languages. After examining me and studying my MRI and X-rays, he asked questions. “Do you do Yoga?” No. “Are you a vegetarian?” No. “Thank God.” 

He said I was fit for mud, and advised I eat more protein, take vitamin D, drink more water and build muscle mass. He failed to provide details on the latter. Weight lifting?

He wrote a prescription for the type of treatments that would help my arthritic body. Next came a visit to Zoia, the charming and effervescent spa manager. She checked my package plan and the doctor’s rec’s, then devised a schedule for me which included gentle massages, mud, a fruit peeling facial.

Mud relaxation

I was a bit leery of the mud. I feared it would be more intense heat. Fortunately it was pleasantly warm, but I found the odor anything but pleasant. Carmela slathered a huge slab of mud on a bed which I then lain on. She smeared mud on my arms and legs, then wrapped me in plastic and covered me with a sheet. I was a mummy for 15 long minutes. The first time was annoying. I had an itch on my nose which was driving me crazy. My arms and hands were cemented to my body. For future sessions, I requested my hands be kept free to scratch if needed. 

About half way through the treatment, Carmela returned, delicately wiped my face with a cool scented cloth. After the allotted time, she returned again to unwrap me. I stepped into a shower and she hosed me down, washing away all the stinky mud. This was followed by a 10-minute soak in a tub of warm bubbling thermal water scented with therapeutic oil. I liked it all.

Aqua gym was intense

Water – thermal water – is also an essential part of the Abano experience. My hotel had five different outdoor pools, plus a large indoor pool. The most popular pool had all sorts of water jets and bubbling fountains. Since this is thermal water, it was warm – too warm for me. I preferred the lap pool, cooler water, not thermal, thus no healing benefit. 

Few swimmers in the lap pool.

Again I blew it. To get full advantage of the mud I should have spent leisurely days soaking in the waters. Not me. I spent a day trekking, wilting, through nearby Venice, another day slogging through Padua, and a half day hiking to and shopping at the market in Abano. None were relaxing. All were exhausting. But, I did see the sights and added some bargain Italian fashion to my wardrobe. More about those escapades in an upcoming post.

In between my sightseeing, in addition to the mud treatments, I enjoyed “gentle” massages from Joanna, another delightful staff member. We chatted as she massaged. “Only speak Italian while your are here,”she advised.

Hotel provides bathrobes, white to wear to the pools and blue for the treatment area..

According to Zoia, Abano is especially popular with Germans and Austrians, many who come two to three times per year. Italians are among the clientele, however, they “don’t spend so much on the treatments. They come for relaxation, the pools.” The British? “It’s not in their culture,”she said. 

My hotel, the Metropole, was less than half full during my stay – not due to Covid, but the heat. This was not spa season, but “the cheapest time.” Fall and spring are the ideal times for the terme, she said. Russians love it during the holidays, staying at the five-star hotels. The Metropole rates four stars. There are Americans who patronize Abano, but, like the Russians, they go for five stars. 

Classy dining at the Metropole.

My friend, Angi, British, is an exception to Zoia’s take on the Brits. Angi swears by volcanic mud, but that on the island of Ischia, just off the coast from Naples, where she spends two weeks every fall. She claims it does wonders for her aches and pains. Abano did nothing for mine, but I have myself to blame. Maybe I should try Ischia sometime, take both the water and the mud – minus sightseeing and shopping.

Red berry smoothie for a healthy terme treat.
Desserts were not for those on a diet. Masks are required indoors in Italy – strictly enforced at the hotel.

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Coming soon: Venice and Padua.

Oman: Living High at the Beach

Apero hour under palm trees, their trunks wrapped in golden lights. Reflections dancing in adjacent pools. Guests lounging in comfy sofas and chairs on an elegant, marble-floored courtyard. Multi-lingual, attentive waiters serving drinks and tasty snacks. It was impressive, pure posh.

As we soaked in the classy ambience at the Shangri-La Al Husn Resort, conversation turned to past travels. “I liked those places we went to where the roads were not paved,” Bob said. We have had many exciting adventures to third world countries where, not only are the roads not paved, but sometimes the electricity fails, hot water is non existent. We reminisced about some of our favorites: Trekking through the sand with only a flashlight to guide us through the blackness, dodging ruts and driftwood branches, to a tiny, primitive beach shack in Myanmar where the fresh fish was fabulous and the family proprietors became our friends; Riding ancient, rickety bikes through back roads of Senegal, following Abou, our congenial bicycle guide, who invited us to his wedding, a colorful, spirited event deep in the boon docks; Ducking out of our lakeside tent in Kenya for a middle-of-the night trek to the toilet on the other side of a field when a guide’s spotlight shone on a bloat (group) of hippos heading in our direction.

We saw lots of goats in Oman, including artistic versions at Al Husn.

So, what were we doing in this 5* plus beach resort in Oman? It was our last hurrah, a final fling. We knew that with advancing age and medical issues, those adventures we cherish were no longer feasible. Bob was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago. Arthritis is taking its toll on my aging body. We decided to treat ourselves to a first class voyage. (We traveled in January. The trip was booked long before Covid 19 changed the world. )

Bob tests the waters. Al Husn hotel in the background.

Everything about our two-week trip was ultra – except airfare. That was, per usual, economy with extra leg room seats. 

The Shangri-La Al Husn Resort and Spa is about a half hour from the new, state-of-the-art airport of Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. The resort is part of a complex of three hotels. Our hotel, the priciest, was built atop a beachside cliff.

We booked half board at Al Husn. The all-inclusive price was expensive, but with all the over-the-top amenities, seemed reasonable.

Al Husn with the infinity pool and the Gulf of Oman
Our spacious room’s fruit basket was refilled daily. There was no extra charge for drinks, including beer and wine, and snacks from the mini bar. We rarely indulged as copious food and beverages were offered throughout the day.

 

Starting with breakfast: Mind boggling. Several rooms brimming with all manner of buffet selections to suit the tastes and customs of numerous nationalities, from Asian favorites, to smoked fish to sausage and eggs. The array of fresh fruit was gorgeous and intriguing – things I had never seen before.

There was also a breakfast menu, which, in addition to standard selections (scrambled eggs, pancakes etc.) featured specials that changed daily. I tried a different one each day. During breakfast a waiter or waitress came to offer the smoothie of the day, not to mention coffee refills.

No need for lunch after that, especially since breakfast continued until 11 a.m. You could linger on the terrace and enjoy sea and cliff views.

The private beach for Al Husn is small, nestled between the walls of cliffs.

More pampering at the pool or beach. As you arrive, an attendant greets you and leads you to a lounge chair, presenting you with, not just towels, but a mini cooler filled with bottled water, fruit juice and a refreshing facial spray. The lounge cushions are extra thick. Some of the lounges are king bed size. In the afternoon about 3 p.m., an attendant strolls by offering sherbet, featuring the flavor of the day – strawberry, mango, banana…

Bob found a poolside hideaway.

Since our hotel was atop a cliff, its beach, a walk down a pathway, was small, however, its infinity pool was huge. And, we could use the wide sandy beach of the adjacent hotels along the shore

High tea treats.

Not long after the sherbet pause, it’s time for a British break, high tea. Oman was a British Protectorate from 1891 – 1951. Tea (you can opt for coffee) is served from 3:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. on the same restaurant terrace as breakfast with the photo-perfect views. This time a waiter arrives at the table with a glass case enclosing three savory and three sweet treats. They were different every day, and  we ate them all.

No time to work up an appetite for the aperitif snacks. Apero hour is from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fortunately the snacks are petite, but delicious. Music is normally featured during the apero hour, but in honor of the recent death of Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who ruled the country for almost 50 years, music was banned in the country for 40 days. Even with music, Al Husn would be quiet.  No children are permitted at this hotel.

Cliffs at sunset.

Among the three hotels, we had our choice of six restaurants. Our package included dinner and wine at a buffet restaurant with amazing selections. We dined there a few times, but also tried the others: Italian, seafood, international, Moroccan and Middle Eastern. At these, we had had a budget of 25 rial ($65) per person. We had to pay for exceeding the limit which we often did. We like wine – very costly in Oman. A glass was about $19.50. But, hey, this was our splurge trip, and we did limit ourselves to one glass each.

Arabia influences the interior of Al Husn.

Al Husn means castle. We indeed felt like royalty during the 10 days we spent in this luxurious ambience. At times it seemed too much.   Yet, we enjoyed the serenity, the beautiful surroundings—not to mention all those amenities.

The complex of three hotels has 640 rooms, 180 of which belong to Al Husn. The staff, from 800 to 1,000 employees depending on season, represent 44 different nationalities.

Yes, it was a major splurge, but every penny well spent. As my wonderful husband often says, “You can’t take it with you.”  Covid aside, this was our last big trip and a perfect finale.

Orchids in the lobby at Al Husn
For more on Oman, use the search option above right for Oman.  There are three posts:  Oman’s Mighty Mountains, Oman: Luxury in the Desert and Introducing Awesome Oman.  Still more to come — Muscat, the fascinating capital.  If you want to know more about Senegal or Myanmar, do a search on those countries. I wrote several posts on each.

Today’s Taste, upper right,  features a refreshing summer salad, Cucumbers in Sour Cream Dill Sauce.  Click on photo for recipe and scroll down for more recipes.

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My Take on Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano

I may be one of few who is not overwhelmed with Costa Rica. I did not dislike the beautiful country. The beaches are grand. The people are delightful. The food is good. But, I have been to too many other places that are more “me.” I had hopes of sighting interesting critters in the jungle on “safari” treks. I spotted few.

Beach near Manuel Antonio park

The critters are there. I suspect too many tourists have been tromping through the jungle, following guides with telescopes, sending the animals deep into the bush in search of peace and quiet.

While husband Bob spent two weeks with his daughter Kellie who has a holiday home in Costa Rica, I toured – on my own but with pre-arranged transportation between destinations. I joined guided tours through parks and to noteworthy sights during my visit last January

Too many tourists ?

The Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s most popular national park and where I joined my first guided hike. Groups like ours, all dutifully following a guide with a large telescope on a tripod, crowded the trails. Word spread quickly of a sighting. Instantly more guides, telescopes and tourists appeared.

Souvenir cell phone photo thanks to guide’s telescope.

Excitement was high at the sighting of a sloth hidden high in dense tree foliage. With the naked eye it was impossible to see anything but leaves. Those with gigantic zoom lenses (there were many) did manage to spot the creature. The rest of us relied on the guide’s telescope. Yet, even with high powered vision, all I could see was a tuft of fur.

This ritual was repeated time after time. The guide, with trained eyes and jungle experience, would spot a creature– various kinds of birds, lizards, sloths – camouflaged in the dense growth. Each of her followers then had a turn for a telescope view. And then, a keepsake photo with their cell phone camera which the guide placed, one by one, on the telescope.

Find the sloth.

It was steamy humid. I grew impatient and bored. I kept thinking of Africa where majestic creatures are often easy to spot. The tour ended on a beach where hundreds of monkeys frolicked. Monkeys may not be exotic, but they are fun and easy to see. I loved them.

More monkeys, iguanas, a rare lizard, all kind of birds, a deer – I saw them all on the grounds of the Posada Jungle Hotel adjacent to Manuel Antonio park where I spent four nights.  This was better than a guided safari, and at my doorstep.   The beach near the hotel was fabulous, for swimming and sunset viewing.  I spent several evenings aiming for the perfect sunset shot while sipping a mojito.  

Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is a stunning sight. I was lucky. It is often hidden in clouds, but I saw it in all its glory. There have been no regular volcano eruptions since 2010. The surrounding region is popular for hiking and all sorts of rugged,extreme adventure. I opted for gentle adventure, a hanging bridge hike and another hike near the volcano.

Hanging bridges are common in the Costa Rican jungle. I was intrigued. It is exciting, even a tinge scary,  to walk high above gorges  on these structures which gently sway as you cross.

After the near-the-volcano hike, we set off to the Tobacon Hot Springs, a jungle wonderland of hot springs, pools, waterfalls, streams – all a bit kitschy, but crazy fun.

 

Rio Frio near the Nicaraguan border

Birds were the star attraction during my relaxing boat tour of the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge near the Nicaraguan border. The guide entertained us with interesting facts about Costa Rica, as well as river wildlife, as we

drifted past lush rainforest and wetlands. In addition to the birds, we saw bats, a few crocodiles, a lizard… but nothing that thrilled me.  I am spoiled.  It’s  hard to beat being up close and personal with mountain gorillas. (See previous post, “Gorillas in our Mist” Dec. 2015)

I was underwhelmed – and freezing – on the Monteverde Cloud Forest guided hike. This time it was cold and rainy. We learned a lot about various kinds of trees and vines, but – even with the telescope – spotted no exciting wildlife.

The van rides from one destination on my itinerary to the next were often long. The scenery, sometimes spectacular, and chatting with other passengers made the trips interesting. I met folks from the US, Canada, Scotland, England and Israel, including several young female backpackers en route to yoga retreats. Costa Rica is big with the yoga set. There were serious hikers and surfers. Costa Rica is also popular with surfers.

However, I did not come to Costa Rica to surf, nor to soothe my soul during a yoga retreat. Unfortunately I am too old for zip lining and canyoning. Spotting an illusive creature through a telescope did not thrill me. Granted, the beaches are super, but I do not need to travel so far for a fabulous beach

So, Costa Rica does not rank among my favorites, yet I am glad I experienced the country. And, tasted Costa Rican ceviche – a memorable culinary delight. Kellie shared her recipe. Click on photo top right.

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Church at La Fortuna with cloud-covered Arenal.

This sloth was spotted in a roadside tree by a van driver. We stopped for photos.