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Mendoza (Argentina)

Mendoza turned out to be quite different than what the Lion and I had expected it to be like…

We left Valparaiso around 8a (Sept 8) for a 7h bus ride with Cata Internaccional. Armed with snacks, fully charged electronics, and the expectation of first class seats that cost $4USD more than coach, we set off for what we were told would be a gorgeous ride through the Andes and into Mendoza. The ride was indeed nice, with clear skies and huge snow-capped mountains flanking both sides and; We actually passed some skiers who were trying to get their last run in before the snow melted. As we drove through, I reminisced about our Inca Trail hike the whole time we drove through the mountains. It was interesting to see such different “sides” of the Andes.

About three quarters of the way to Mendoza, we had to stop at the border for inspection and such. We stopped at this huge building, though it was more of a former military outpost with a round roof and windowless than a rectangular storied building. We waited around for probably 30 minutes, at least, before we actually lined up for something. Then after everyone on the bus were filed into a single file, we waited for another 30 minutes because the border patrol was dealing with a potential runaway (18yo boy was allowed to leave Chile but may or may not have had his parents’ permission, so border patrol was unsure of whether to let him go or not, despite the fact that he was of age). Finally, it was our group’s turn to move up to the booth to have our documents stamped. But we weren’t done just yet. After stamping our documents, they had to unload all of our bags from the bus and run them through an xray scanner that was in a car (portable metal detector?!). Finally, the process was over, and after some more paperwork with the driver, we were on the road again. As other travelers have warned, the border crossing took us about 2h. What a process.

After about two more hours on the road, we arrived at the omnibus station in Mendoza! Initially, we thought we had to take a cab to our lodging, so we searched for a currency chance center and waited in line at a Western Union (which doesn’t even change money), but it turned out we were already on the street our Mendoza apartment is on, so we headed off on foot towards what we hoped was the right direction. We started off at 500 Alem St and walked all the way to 41 Alem St… The worst part was, we were tired, semi-lost, and hot, which makes for a cranky and unpleasant 20-30 minute walk. And that’s not even the worst part. When we got to the apartment, I realized that I had left my cell phone on the bus…! I was in and out of sleep the whole ride over, and my phone must’ve just fallen out of my jacket pocket onto the seat, so that when I put my jacket in my backpack to leave the bus, I assumed my phone was there too. Of course, this was also the one time I didn’t turn around to scan my seat before stepping into the aisle. I haven’t stopped kicking myself for that yet… Fortunately, many of my photos from this trip are on my point-and-shoot camera, and I have backed up photos of my phone pictures from before this trip, but it still frustrates me that I was so careless. Smh.

Anyway, after arriving in Mendoza, we walked around the city a bit and realized that there’s way more to Mendoza than we thought!! The city actually has a really nice central park with fountains, and there are plenty of nice restaurants and cafes (not [yet] pictured). The city is also relatively clean, in comparison to some of the other countries we visited. There were definitely less stray dogs in the city too. I wish we had spent more time in this city than in Santiago, I think it would have been worth it to spend a relaxing day here enjoying the cafes and people-watching. The nightlife looked interesting as well, though we were still pretty tired from the hike for that.

On our full day in Mendoza, we had decided to do a winery bike tour. We had heard that Mr Hugo’s winery bike tour was the best, so we took a bus and headed out to Maipu, the city right next to Mendoza. As we left the city, I noticed that the area was becoming more dilapidated and dirty… The buildings were older in style, one-storied, and they were mostly housing small businesses (eg, supermarkets, auto repair, vs insurance agency, bank, etc.). There were also more open spaces that were like dumps, full of trash or broken building materials, and there was an increase in stray dogs… In other words, it didn’t look like we were approaching the idyllic, peaceful, wine country that I was expecting…

And indeed, at the stop where we got off for Mr Hugo’s, it was like we had traveled back in time to a simpler place. We went ahead with the rental anyway. This also differed from our expectations. I think the Lion and I both were expecting it to be something like Mr Hugo (or at least an employee of his) to take us in a group with other people around to different vineyards and explain to us the history/culture of the city and the wines, but instead a lady just gave us some old bikes, a paper map, and a cup of lemonade made with pineapple juice bc they were out of bottled water and let us on our way…

We first went to an olive farm that also made chocolates and alcohol mixes. We had a short guided tour and learned a little bit of how they make olive oil. Turns out you need quite a bit of olives, 10kg of olives, in order to make just 1L of evoo! And for the first few years of an olive tree’s life, it can only produce 4-5kg of olives. Then, around 7 years, the tree can produce significantly more as it has matured (please correct me if these numbers wrong, it’s been awhile since the tour…). The best part of course, was the tasting, where we sampled a couple of oils, acids, olive pastes, jams, and alcohols. The Lion got to try absinthe for the first time, but he didn’t hallucinate Tinkerbell, like the guide had warned.

After this tour, we went to lunch at Casa de Campo, a restaurant that was recommended by many Argentinians that we had talked to. I didn’t think the food was that excellent, so I won’t write much about it, but maybe the Lion thought it was excellent 😛 After lunch, we biked a long way out to another winery. Keep on mind, we were biking on our own and through a dirt city, not along rolling hills of vineyards here. We encountered gas exhaust from cars and trucks, dust and debris from construction projects in process and abandoned, and small rocks flying at us from the road as cars and trucks drove by! The Lion theorized that the vineyards were probably farther out into the country, and this was just the “storefront” of the wineries for easy access for tourists.

The winery we went to was a “modern winery,” so the style of the building and the design of their winery had a very different look to it than the more traditional winery you’d imagine. It reminded me more of a loft apartment in a big city than a winery! They had a self-guided tour, and we finished with a tasting upstairs.

We didn’t get to visit any more wineries after this one; we had started later in the day, and the bike-riding took more time and energy out off us than we had remaining, so we called it a day and went back to Mr Hugo’s to return the bikes. After another cup of pineapple “lemonade,” we hopped on the bus and left “wine country.” I was definitely ready to head over to “the Paris of South America,” Buenos Aires, the next day!

Taormina, Part II (Sicily)

On our second day in Taormina, we went to climb Mt Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world!…

Mt Etna was another one of those sights that I didn’t really care for until I got there. It’s difficult to marvel at nature when you’ve only seen it through the computer or TV screen! We learned from our tour guide from the day before, Marcello, that the Taormimians are actually waiting for Mt Eta to erupt and hoping that it’ll do so soon in order to boost the tourism economy of Taormina. The lava that flows from Etna tends to be very slow-moving, so tourists are actually able to get within a couple feet of the flow to observe it live. I also just learned from Wikipedia that footage of Etna’s 2003 eruption and flow was recorded and used in Revenge of the Sith! Cool 4-minute video of Etna eruption.

We decided to climb some of the craters around Mt Etna despite our poor choice of footwear of TOMS and Rainbow flip-flops. Our driver/tour guide of the day, Antonio, told us a story of an elderly English couple who he had taken to Etna and who climbed the craters, took a fall and tumbled down, and came back to the car badly bruised and battered and bloody… We took the longer but less steep route up.

I took a quick nap to avoid carsickness as we left Etna and drove over to a winery, Vini Gambino. They served us with delicious food: a multitude of cheeses, cured meats, olives, roasted red peppers, eggplant, and of course, bread and wine. I didn’t have any of the wine, but the Lion gave high accolades to their wines. The grapes that are grown here are unique because of the volcanic soil and the particular climate, where temperatures drop down to the mid-50s in the evening which allows for “aromatic ripening” of the grapes and wine.

During our walk through the Public Gardens (Giardino Pubblico), Marcello told us that the etymology of “carat,” the unit for measuring gemstones, came from a Greek word meaning ‘carob seed.’ Marcello said that the reason for this was because every carob seed has exactly the same weight and was therefore a reliable unit of measurement. Wikipedia claims that there isn’t a definitive answer on whether there is high or low variability of carob seed weights, and the skeptical scientific researcher in me also believes this is more likely (zero variability is highly improbable). Regardless, I hadn’t known or considered the etymology of “carat” before, so this was a new and interesting fact!

I had noticed that a lot of the souvenir shops sold these ceramic pine cone-looking items. Additionally, a lot of apartment buildings and balconies had these displayed outside on their patio or their gates. I asked Marcello about this, and he told us that for the Sicilians, the pine cone represents family/hospitality, fertility/abundance/wealth, and immortality (basically, all the good stuffs). The Lion and I were really interested in getting one to keep in our home, but we put it off because we didn’t want to carry it around with us and ended up never getting one 😦

I also thought that Marcello had told us that the artichoke represents the mafia, but I have been unable to find that link elsewhere on the internet (or maybe I misunderstood Marcello). But I did find that there was indeed a mafia member, Ciro Terranova, who was nicknamed the “Artichoke King” because he purchased all the artichokes going from California to New York, started a produce company, and re-sold them making a 30-40% profit. Apparently, he terrorized distributors and merchants and attacked artichoke fields with machetes (why would he want to terrorize his own money-making field?). Naturally, the government stepped in, and the Mayor of NY declared an “artichoke war,” making artichokes illegal in New York…for a week. The mayor was too big a fan of those tasty arties and lifted the ban. Thank goodness rules are so flexible and can come and go!

Our last day in Taormina before heading over to Cefalu’ was spent lounging around the pool, playing video games, walking the main streets

Tuscany and Lucca (Italy)

We probably spent less than eight hours in Tuscany and Lucca combined…

After leaving Firenze, we stopped by a winery in Tuscany, called Varramista. It’s a gorgeous estate that was built in the 1400s as an outpost against the Pisans. The estate was gifted to the Capponi family to thank Gino de Neri for leading the Florentine troops to victory against the Pisans. Then, in the 1950s, the Piaggio family, the manufacturers of the Vespa scooter, made Varramista their permanent residence.

It wasn’t until the 90s that the Agnelli family, with the help of enologist, Federico Staderini, convert the land to vineyards. In its present form, the winery is fairly high-tech; the barrels are individually temperature-controlled and managed from a switchboard. The inside of the buildings where the barrels are kept are covered in mold. When we asked why they don’t clean it, our guide replied that they’re not allowed to because the vineyard is considered a historical landmark, and so cleaning off the mold would be illegal!

Then we drove over to Lucca, where we spent a couple hours walking around town to see the cathedrals, the garden atop the tower (no pix bc it cost money to go up/in), and the ex-amphitheater. The San Martino is the duomo of Lucca, built in the mid-/late- 1000s and renovated over many centuries. It is revered as gorgeous architecture, and it has many fine details in its structure that is almost impossible to capture in photos. For more info, go here.

We also visited the city walls of Lucca, which were built in the Renaissance era. I am unsure of their designer and purpose (some sources say flood prevention, others claim military purposes), but regardless, the top of the wall has become a park of sorts, where people lounge around and bike and walk and enjoy the sun. The wall is very wide, and they used to host car races on it!

We finished our time in Lucca with lunch in the square (Piazza Anfiteatro), which isn’t square-ish in the slightest. The elliptical-shaped piazza was initially built as an amphitheater by the Romans as a place for socialization and fights and other entertainments, but eventually became many things, including a fort during wars, a prison, and now, a piazza with restaurants, shops, and residences. Overall, I didn’t find Lucca to be too interesting, but perhaps that’s because we didn’t spend enough time there.

This post is as short as our stay in both places! We stayed in our next city, St. Margherita Ligure for a few days and visited a few terre of the Cinque Terre, so a longer post is forthcoming!