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Posts from May, 2008

A Lake I LOVE

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I’m an eternal beach girl. Give me a list of vacation choices, and I’ll always opt for sun, sand and turquoise blue over the mountain cabin or the big city jaunt.

And lakes? Who needs ‘em. They’re always murky, always still—lakes are perfect hiding places for sneaky snakes and nasty crocodiles, as far as I’m concerned. And the ones that are clean/clear are usually freezing 11.5 months a year.

What can you even do in a lake? Ok, watersports, fine. Again, there is the lurking creature issue. Sunbathe? Sometimes, if you find a nice muddy patch or a big, hard rock to sit on.

Soft, fine sand + warm sunshine + gentle, crashing waves = my idea of relaxation.This had always been my rationale until just over 3 years ago, when my friends convinced me to take a weekend trip to Lake Como on the northern border of Italy. I wasn’t really into it—I wanted to go to Amalfi. “But Carrie, George Clooney has a house by Lake Como!” Oh, well why didn’t you say something sooner? Sadly, I was sold.

I was in love upon arrival, and not just with George. The Lake Como region is, by far, one of the most beautiful patches of natural scenery in Italy. My experience there remains one of the most serene and invigorating that I have ever had.

Lake Como and flowers

I was traveling with 5 girls—that’s usually a recipe for disaster! But, I don’t know, maybe it was something in the mountain air; we had one amazing adventure.

Not only is the shimmering lake simply stunning, but it is surrounded by quaint, romantic, colorful little villages—we visited Varenna, Menaggio and Bellagio—which are set off by magnificent views of the Swiss Alps.We spent our time hiking:

Hiking in Lake Como

Exploring:

Hiking in Lake Como

Rock gathering (there were some amazing pieces of worn, smooth and colorful glass nestled in the pebbly beaches):

Managgio, Lake Como, Italy

Discovering the charming little towns (here is Varenna):

 

Varenna, Italy on coast of Lake Como

And we even went kayaking:

Kayaking at dusk on Lake Como

No lake monsters, but the water was, indeed, freezing.So we obviously had to warm ourselves up on a lakeside village bar crawl (I’ll withhold the photographic evidence…)

So maybe the entire trip wasn’t exactly “serene,” per se. But overall, it was an active, relaxing, and, importantly, affordable weekend. (If you do decide to travel with a group, I recommend the Ostello Menaggio. Great rates and cheap kayak rentals.)

In conclusion, Il Lago di Como é piú bello di George Clooney.

Ciao, grazie! :)

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Nice, France – Born Again: November 24th, 2007

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The sunny city of Nice, on the southern coast of France, inaugurated its new urban transport channel – a flashy 8.7 km electric tramway line, on Nov 24th, 2007. You can see an evocative video of the opening ceremony (10 MB) on the Nice city hall website.

But there is much more behind this event that justifies such a Hollywood-esque excitement and celebration: Nice has changed its skin; the dark years are over.

A two minute history of Nice and the French Riviera

The preferred sea resort of wealthy British and Russian aristocrats in the 19th century, Nice and the Cote d’Azur region, also known internationally as the French Riviera, opened up to mass tourism in the 50′s and 60′s, thanks to French and international movie stars flocking to its picturesque villages, including St. Tropez, Cannes, Antibes and Villefranche, while famous artists such as Pablo Picasso found their hideouts up in the hills of Vallauris, St Paul de Vence or Mougins.

The microstate of Monaco and princess Grace Kelly also contributed to the glamorous image of the area – in ’70s and ’80s, the masses invaded. Overcrowded beaches, large cement hotels, huge night clubs, casinos and France’s second largest airport after Paris saw the light, and a high-volume tourism economy made many small and big riches.

The 90′s, however, brought on signs of a flattening fame. Celebrities kept finding new hidden and fashionable destinations and only showed up for special events such as the Cannes Film Festival or the Monaco Grand Prix. Cultural tourists escaped the greasy summer beaches; young, hip travelers preferred the stylish Ibiza. Foodies looked for authentic French gastronomic experiences and thus discovered the southwestern regions of Perigord or Gironde, and ventured to various countryside regions in Italy (ok, not so French, but great food is great food after all).

Nevertheless, the fantastic weather (340+ sunny days per year) and scenic landscapes kept attracting an international and wealthy expat community, thanks also to the tech park of Sophia Antipolis, where leading multinationals such as IBM, Texas, Accenture, and Amadeus set up R&D or European headquarters.

But nothing stopped the decline of the city of Nice. Overpriced hotels and restaurants – not restyled since the 60′s – along with crime, prostitution, corruption, a clogged traffic infrastructure…the population saw it all. The new century saw a dark, old, dirty and boring summer destination on the decline. The number of hotel rooms sold fell by 15-20% between 2000 and 2004.

A destination reborn

Following the global travel recession of 2001, the local politicians came to the conclusion that something different had to be done. They managed to agree and invest in a cross-city development plan targeted at improving infrastructure and mobility in the area.

The plan included:

- A new super modern airport terminal and favorable conditions to attract low-cost carriers from all European cities

- The redesign of Nice’s inner city highway enabling easier morning/evening commuting.

- The redesign of the famous “Promenade des Anglais” seafront with less parking spaces and an enlarged pathway, ideal for beach front jogging or inline skating.

- The complete “pedestrianization” of the historical old city center and nearby areas.

- The cleaning up of all beaches with dedicated areas for volleyball, as well as sandboxes for babies (the rest of the beaches are pebbly), and reasonable alternance of free and paid-service beaches.

- And, of course, the grand opening of the high-tech electric tramway, crossing all key areas of the city of Nice, from the rail station to the shopping district, the old town, the bus station and the seafront.

All of these works didn’t come for free. Construction works made the life of the Nicois miserable, created endless traffic jams, opened the door to more political corruption, and took years longer than originally planned.

Paradoxically, this was exactly what was needed, in evolutionary terms, to get rid of the weakest individuals of the population.Many small business owners who made their money without much effort in the previous decades decided to give up and retire, scared by the further loss of business due to all the ongoing works. Small restaurants, shops, hotels and entire shopping centers have been progressively taken over, shut down and refurbished by young and global-savvy teams, importing design trends and ideas from the world’s leading capitals. In particular, a prominent gay community elected Nice as a favorite trendy and fashionable European hotspot.

The city unveiled its new look on Nov 24th, 2007, with a grand ceremony to welcome the new tramway.

This is the first of several post about things to do in Nice, France. I live there (here),as I write.You can easily subscribe to the feed alerts by clicking the big bad orange square button below (or on top of the page), and feel free to ask questions while I’m still a Nicois.

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Oops! We just stumbled across the best Mexican food in London.

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Earlier this week, I was feeling super homesick and so decided I would embark on a quest for the best American Café in London. I know, I know “they’re on every corner,” but I can only go to Starbucks twice a day, alright?

I am talking about authentic American cuisine: huge, diner-style breakfasts, layered club sandwiches, juicy burgers, and real salads, the kind that are loaded with jumbo shrimp (not tiny, frozen ‘prawns’), cheese and fresh veggies….mmm, yummy…

After some crafty Google searches, I was sure that I had found my place: the Chelsea Bun Café, between Fulham Broadway and Sloane Square in SW10. The description was perfect: independently owned, hip, happening, and, most importantly, serving all of my favorite dishes from home. They even had Breakfast for Dinner. Awesome.

I immediately phoned my friend Talina with the news: we had to go to find this little oasis of American glory after work. Certainly she could relate to my enthusiasm: after all, she is from Mexico and has spent much time in north of the border. She agreed. I was pumped.

I cheerfully printed a map and charted a route. Despite the rainy weather and the café’s slightly obscure location in relation to the underground system, we met at Sloane Square, and we were off.

Dearest employees of Chelsea Bun, I hope that you can tell me this: at what time, exactly, does dinner occur in your homes? Because last time I checked, most people in this country dine at 6pm, earliest. Make that as late as 10.30 pm if they’ve had a prolonged, post-work pub jaunt

You’ve advertised yourself as an American/British café that serves dinner. So why, oh why, were you closed at 6pm, after Talina and I trudged for 30 minutes through the rain to find you? And I thought you were American—what a scam.

FINE then, we said, we’ll find someplace EVEN BETTER.

That we can afford…in the poshest neighbourhood in London…right…

After perusing four of the most expensive Italian menus I have seen all year, we were both, officially, starving. “The next place we see, no matter what,” we agreed.

And so we stopped at a brightly lit venue with a yellow awning: Azteca, the window decal read. Talina was elated. Mexican food! But where’s the menu?

Damn, it’s a tequila bar. Tempting, but no way are we throwing back straight Cuervo on empty stomachs.

As we despondently turned away, the door swung open, and a smiling man with a little goatee and a long, shiny ponytail greeted us: “come on, have a drink!”

But we want food. Do you have food?

Talina, take it away…

¿Si? ¿Tienes buena comida? Si…si…pero…pero no hay mucho dinero!

Translation: Really? You do have food? Good food, you say? But listen up dude: we’re cheap.

¡Pero tenemos hambre! But we’re hungry!

And so we braved the menu-less tequila bar in posh Chelsea for dinner. And I satiated my hunger for home with the most American of non-American foods (next to pizza and Chinese takeout): tacos.

Tacos gobernador, to be exact.

Governor’s Tacos. Holy wow, they were awesome. Crispy, handmade flour shells filled with fresh, marinated shrimps, vegetables, salsa and melted cheese.

Talina deemed them exceptional, even in comparison to the tacos back home. She was glowing. At least one of us got to cure a bit of homesickness!

Talina at Azteca Latin Lounge in London

But I’m still a bit confused. Hey, goatee man, the food’s great, but why don’t you have a menu?

“Because we’ve only been serving food for two weeks,” he informed us,“it’s an experiment.”

Well, well…aren’t we privileged to be among the first to grade your taco test.

Azteca, we give you an “A.”

A for Amazing; A for Americans, forget cafés with crappy hours. Go to Azteca!

Don’t you worry, goatee man, we’ll be back for more gobernadores… and maybe even a bit of tequila, too.

Azteca Latin Lounge in Chelsea

¡Que maravilla!

 

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