Reid's Travels

The true confessions and real adventures of a professional travel writer—bizarre stories, amazing characters, and comic mishaps that never make it into the guidebooks

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Coming to Terms with the German Wine Thing (and the Viewless Rooms Thing)

I decided to skip the most famous town on the Romantic Road, Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Last time I was there, dragging the boy scouts through Europe, I ended up in a shouting match with a giant tour bus. Well, the bus mostly just shouted, "BEEP!" It was one of those double-high jobbers where the passengers sit way up, leaning against tinted windows, their feet dangling well above the heads of people trying to walk around the thing on the ground. I wasn't trying to walk around it. I had planted myself firmly in front of it, and was yelling at it.

While it kept repeating "BEEP!" I gave a long and, I thought, very cogent series of arguments regarding the definition of "pedestrians only," what this particular brand of mass tourism has wrought upon the beautiful places in the world, and how driving such a monstrosity right into the postcard-quaint cobbled town square lined with its half-timbered buildings spoils the very postcard view the people on board came to see.

The bus just kept shouting, "BEEP!"

Its driver was adding something of his own, and though I couldn't hear him through the soundproofed glass, his vast vocabulary of hand gestures got the point across. Some of the tourists on board apparently decided I must be part of the "local color" and took pictures of me. A few of my boy scouts thoughtfully dragged me away before I could get arrested, and to this day, every once in a while, one of them will say "Hey, remember that time Reid got in a fight with a German bus?"

So I skipped Rothenburg.

Instead, I pushed on west and north toward the Neckar Valley and my final castle, the Hirschhorn. The swift Neckar River winds through the southern reaches of the Odenwald Forest. It is lined with half-timbered villages and castles like a mini-Rhine, but suffers a mere fraction of the tourists, and along much of the river the trees still march right down to the water's edge. However, the forests blanketing the hills did look a bit odd. Generations of systematic logging have left it to grow back in overlapping, mismatched, rectilinear patches, not always aligned, so the greensward is covered in a network of subtle seams and slight color variations like a much-patched road.

Still, only modest swatches of the Odenwald had been permanently shaved away to make room for villages and small farms along the riverside. As I approached the Neckar and began twisting along its length toward the castle, I even saw grape vines strung up on one hillside. "Oh, no!" I said to myself. "Not again!" Sure enough, my guidebook described this as a "…small, but high-quality, wine-producing area."

And on my last night in Germany, too.

The thirteenth-century Schloss Hirschhorn overlooks a bend in the Neckar where a little waterfall dam provides a pleasant white noise background of rushing water to the chirping of sparrow hawks wheeling below the high walls of the castle and the tolling of bells in the little steepled and red-roofed hamlet by the riverside. I spent the afternoon on the castle's popular terrace, set like the prow of a ship at a panoramic point with sweeping views down the valley, and whiled away the time contentedly arranging my notes and working on my hotel reviews while nursing a few chilled beers.

As the afternoon light turned pale orange, I realized dinnertime had arrived and that the folks sitting around me were clinking forks to plates. I raised the dregs of my last beer, silently toasted the view, and drained the glass. I called for a menu and ordered the set-price feast. It opened with melon and ham, followed by beef strips, then a platter crowded with a tiny steak, a pork chop, and a medallion of, well, a different cut of pork. All of it drenched in sauce. Oh, and potatoes. Mustn't forget the potatoes. Ah, well. It's not like I came here for pizza. Suggested to accompany the menu was (yep) a local dry white wine. Well, when in Germany…

I ordered the full bottle.

Just before 9pm, the hotel manager came out and sat at the table nearest the back of the terrace but still against the cliff wall so she could see the panorama. I nodded to her in greeting and went back to reading my book. The waitress brought out a tall mug beer for her boss, and the manager just sit there, along with the middle-aged American couple and the middle-aged German couple, and me, enjoying the sunset, which was reflecting rather spectacularly off the clouds on the other side of the river.

After a while, she was joined by her husband, the chef, who stripped off his apron and poured himself a glass of red wine. She clinked it with her beer stein, staring him in the eyes with a smile in silent toast. They sat for a while, talking in low voices, drinking their beer and their wine, until the sunset faded from the clouds and the sky darkened to navy, then indigo.

I decided to retire early—I had a flight out of Frankfurt in the morning, and still needed to finish packing. I worked a crick out of my neck, marked my spot in the book, and headed back to my room. Before I set about packing, I took a minute to gaze out the window, because, for the first time this trip, my room had a view.

I saw a grassy lawn spilling steeply below the stone of the high castle walls. Sparrow hawks wheeled on the thermals beneath my window and keened to one another as they hunted in the dusk. The grassy slope was bordered by crumbling castle walls that stretched right down to mingle with the red-roofed village below. Beyond, past the vineyards, the Neckar curved silver into the forests of the night-dark hills.

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Saturday, July 09, 2005

Braumeisters and Bullseyes

They call the Pegnitz a "river," but on my drive downstream I didn't see it get any wider than about 35 feet, if that. Most of the time is remained a little brown brook meandering through the wildflowers and half-timbered hamlets. It moved so slowly that stretches of the surface were flecked with lilypads topped by tiny white blossoms. Parting the pads were dozens of paddlers, for this was a Saturday morning and folks were out in force to enjoy nature (Germans adore the outdoors), by canoe and kayak, or walking their dogs down streamside footpaths, or strapping on harnesses and belay ropes to tackle the numerous little rock pinnacles that had calved off the walls of the narrow valley.

I could tell I had entered Bavaria because suddenly, the Guten Tags became Gruß Gotts (in traditionally Catholic Bavaria, the Protestant "Good Day" never really replaced the old "God is Great" greeting), and the first station the radio's auto-search feature hit upon as I crossed the border was called "Bavaria 1"—and it was playing oompah band music. That and ordering a beer didn't elicit contemptuous looks. What's more, no longer was anyone trying to force wine "from one of Germany's best grape-growing regions" down my throat.

I worked my way across back roads through the gentle farmland of upper Bavaria, avoiding the official Romantic Road route with its giant buses and ready-made tourist traps and churches charging $5 to see their Renaissance altar carved by Riemenschneider. My goal was the secondary capital of the Romantisches Straße region, the aptly-named Dinkelsbühl, a dinky walled medieval town that is a little too perfectly preserved and polished, the result of dedicating itself to servicing the needs of mass tourism. Still, it suffers a mere fraction of the international hordes that overrun nearby Rothenburg ob der Tauber (a veritable Bavarian Disneyland of gift shops schneeballen pastry makers).

In fact, the only horde in evidence this day in Dinkelsbühl was a troupe of American teenagers hailing from up and down Middle Atlantic. They spent the afternoon alternately wandering the streets (the girls in giggling clumps, the boys in strutting trios) and hanging out in the local pool hall/Internet café, where I had to wait until one of their harried-looking minders arrived to shoo them back to their hotels—to don the red vests, grab their instruments, and pack into the church to give their concert—before I was finally able to get a terminal to myself.

I was staying in Dinkelsbühl, in a huge $40 room under the beamed attic ceilings of a microbrewery called Weib's Brauhaus, because the castle I had picked in the area was fully booked. (Not bad: it was the only one of the ten on my list that had no rooms available.) I dropped my bags, told the young waitress who checked me in that I'd see them for dinner, and hit the road again to drive to Colmberg and check out its castle. Damn shame I couldn't stay there, as it was handily one of the best of the lot, but at least, after a little bullying and a little pleading, I finally convinced them to give me a pretty extensive tour (more to get rid of me before the dinner rush than anything else, I think).

Heading out of town, I decided to try a different road—never go the same way twice—and nearly ran over two medieval peasant girls, an archer with a full quiver and a six-foot bow, and a monk in a brown frock leading a goat on a rope, all of them crossing the road towards a sunken field with some tents. I pulled over and followed the motley crew into a medieval market and full-blown archery competition.

Little kids dressed in their medieval finery were nervously petting a pair of docile ponies and the monk's goat, which attempted to eat the kids' medieval finery. Two women were selling chunks of homemade soap scented with local wildflowers. An old man sat methodically weaving baskets out of straw. A wood carver hawked his hand-carved bowls while older boys tried their hands (and feet) at working a foot-pedaled lathe to turn out decorative posts. A seamstress was selling Renaissance dresses, doublets, and vests. And a man in the booth next to the massive pigs roasting in spits sold me a giant bottle of beer for €1.50.

There were also professional bow makers and fletchers, demonstrating their craft to the curious, hitting on the peasant girls, and then turning serious to sell their best works to some of the archers, who were killing time as they waited for their time slots in the competition. Seventy-five archers had come to test their skills against targets set in a mowed-out section of the field—and this wasn't just some medieval fair fancy. These guys were pros. Only a handful of them were dressed in period costume and using simple long bows. Most were clad in jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps, wielded impossibly complicated-looking compound bows, and peered through a monoscope mounted on a tripod next to them after each shot. I dunno; I was kind of rooting for the guys with enough sense of fun to show up in tight jerkins, leather pants, and blowsy shirts.

Back in Dinkelsbühl and the Brauhaus, I kept my eye out for the evil Brewmeister (I was on a quest for one, see) whilst I chewed my salty but tender steak-on-toast, but no one looking like Max Von Sydow made an appearance. I finally asked my waitress, and she said the owners were out, but that they'd be around tomorrow for breakfast. Ah, I thought, tomorrow morning then. That's when I shall finally meet the Brewmeister and have the chance to foil his evil plan.

Problem is, the Brewmeister turned out to be the most relentlessly cheery German I think I've ever met. Not only that, she was a woman, Melanie Gehring, and though she did indeed have a diploma in Braumeistering, she didn't seem all that evil. In fact, with the apple cheeks of late middle age and a mass of dyed-blonde curls piled atop her head in a kind of hammerhead bouffant, Frau Gehring was downright motherly.

When I politely asked if she could replenish the empty milk pitcher at the breakfast buffet, she exclaimed "Naturlich!" in her sing-songy voice, and bustled away, When she returned, she insisted on pouring the milk over my bowl of meusli herself. I think it was all she could do to stop herself from tucking my napkin at my waist.

With an attitude like that, she's never going to conquer the world.

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Friday, July 08, 2005

The Hunt for the Evil Brewmeister

After many oddly wine-centered meals in Germany, I am sure I'll be for a beer in my future tonight. That's because I am staying at Burg Veldenstein, the castle on the hill above Neuhaus am Pegnitz, a village of smart little red-rooved houses each painted a different pastel shade—robin's egg, peach, canary, mint, pink. The lynchpin of the local economy is obvious at a glance down into the valley from the castle ramparts (not from my room; from my room I get to watch the driveway).

Neuhaus serves to staff the giant Kaiser Braü brewery, which takes up about one-quarter of the town below. Oh, sure, I saw a few tractors parked up against some of the houses during my stroll around town, but I'll bet they're used to grow barley and/or hops. In fact, as I discovered, the brewery even owns Veldenstein castle itself, and the place is so focused on beer that they don't even have business cards—just coasters printed with their address and phone.

Sure enough, at dinner the hotel's gregarious manager even scolded the two elderly German gentlemen seated at my table (in Germany, large tables for six or eight become common seating on crowded nights) for ordering wine with their meal. He gestured at my giant, foam-headed mug and entreated them to try "just a little glass." They demurred, and the owner eventually relented and left to get their wines. I lifted my massive glass and, with a giant smile and a tone suggesting they were truly missing out, assured them, "Schmecht sehr gut!" ("It tastes great!")

But something was bothering me. An almighty brewery down in the valley... it owns the castle up on the hill... Hmmm. Now, why does that ring a bell? I wandered out onto the castle ramparts, ducking under joists and beams laced with dusty cobwebs, and found a little stone bench built into one of the arrow-slit windows for footsore sentries. I sat for a while, watching a luckless fisherman standing in the high grass and working a bend of the slow-flowing Pegnitz at the base of the cliff atop which perched the castle. He gave it up after a while and stomped off toward the massive brewery, past which flowed the stream and the railroad tracks. What is it about that brewery…?

I went down to poke around town. The only thing of interest was a little baroque, onion-domed church dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. Inside, the ends of the last six pews on either side bristled with a dozen 10-foot-tall staffs, each topped by a foot-high statue of a saint. This gaggle of martyrs had clearly been chosen for their patronage of local traditional crafts and callings, represented by the painted shields below each saint's flowing robes—St. Michael for the masons, St. Crispin for the cobblers, etc. Even the church's two apostolic namesakes seemed picked less for their fame than for their patronage, of blacksmiths (Peter) and merchants/businessmen (Paul—though I had always heard the was patron of upholstery or something similarly inappropriate; perhaps his vigorous "selling" of Jesus all over the Mediterranean won him a kind of traveling salesman cred, the way St. Francis's deathbed ability to see a mass taking place miles away later got him tapped as the patron saint of television).

As I snapped a few pictures of Neuhaus's venerated statuettes, I wondered idly why the bells were tolling at 6:50pm, but when folks started filing in I realized it was calling them to mass, so I left quietly. A tiny, wizened old woman in a red cardigan, wielding an aluminum cane and long white hair that was trying desperately to defy gravity despite the berets she had clamped on it, came rushing out after me. I turned to face her as a tidal wave of high-pitched German washed over me. I caught the words "...patron of [something]" a few times, and she kept gesturing towards somewhere up and away on the hillside, then pointing back to the church.

Her face looked calm, so I figured I wasn't being chewed out for using my camera in the church. I fell to smiling vaguely, nodding, and saying "Ah, so," whenever seemed appropriate whilst trying to figure out how to politely extricate myself from the one-sided conversation before she realized I didn't understand her in the slightest. Suddenly, I realized the flood of German had stopped. I snapped out my reverie and saw that she was leaning on her cane and looking at me intently with piercing blue eyes.

"I'm sorry," I said in my best German accent, trying to keep up the charade and avoid embarrassment. "I didn't catch that." She pointed to my camera and finally said something I understood. "You were taking photographs in the church?"

Oh, crap. I am in trouble after all.

"Oh, it was just so beautiful!" I stammered. "And the saints…"

"Ah!" She cried, and asked which saint I was taking pictures of. My mind fell upon the last one I photographed, St. Bartholomew holding his skinning knife, and said "Barthamüs" as my brain started working overtime to phrase, in German, an explanation that my great grandfather had been a butcher (which is true) and hoping that would be enough to excuse my actions.

But before I had to drag my ancestors into it, the old woman gave a little cry and, with a delighted gleam in her eye, said, "Our patron!" She raised her fist in the air triumphantly. "Bartholomew, with his knife in his hand." She waved her fist around happily. "My family, we are butchers!"

I grinned. "My great-grandfather, too." She gave a glad little cry, said goodbye, and toddled back toward the church door, chuckling. I started walking away, toward the brewery, thinking that she turned out to be quite nice, if a little nutty…

Insanity! That's it! An insane asylum connected to a brewery connected to a castle up on the hill. It's Strangebrew! That's the set-up in the movie, history's silliest riff ever of the basic plot of Hamlet.

The next morning, excited, I drove down to Kaiser Braü itself and peered through the glass doors at the ranks of stainless steel tanks and computerized monitoring equipment supervising the brewing process. It was a Saturday, and no one was around. Damn. I had hoped to finagle a tour and perhaps even meet the Brewmeister, so I could ask him about his plot for world domination. There wasn't even a murderous hockey team made up of mental patients hanging around.

Foiled in my plans to foil the Brewmeister, I quit the brewery and turned my wheels south to follow the Pegnitz River towards the Romantic Road and another night of ensured beeriness. And this time, I would actually be staying in a brewery itself. No way THIS Brewmeister was getting away from me.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

A Tall Frosty Mug of Real German…Wine?

The Rhine is one of Germany's wine-producing regions. So was the Mosel, two nights ago. So will be Franconia, two days hence. Sometimes it seems every Teutonic nook and cranny has been declared "one of Germany's best wine-producing regions." That is all fine and well as far as it goes, but it means waiters are always trying to foist off a Riesling or Gewürtztraminer on me.

Now, one nice thing about Rieslings in Germany is that, unlike the bulk of that gets imported in the States, many are actually troken (dry), not "sweet as syrup," which is unfortunately what "Riesling" usually means in the USA (the same way a decades of spurious 'oaking' tactics by second-rate California wineries have come to make "Chardonnay" translate as "tastes like hamster bedding").

That said, I did not come all the way to Germany to drink wine—and certainly not at eight bucks a glass. I came for beer, for crying out loud! I came for a country where every town has its own local brewery and its own proud tradition for mixing fermented hops and barley. I came for frosty mugs made of thick glass where ordering a "small" gets you half a liter, and "large" means ein Maß—a liter.

Every time I try to order ein bier in a restaurant, though, it gets me a condescending look—almost a sneer. Beer, it is implied, is for slobbering in a tavern with the working classes, not for accompanying such a fine dinner composed entirely of pork products. Everyone else in the restaurant is drinking wine, and having a beer is obviously trés declassé. I usually end up caving into peer pressure (and the waiter's impending disapproval), and whenever I open my mouth fully intending to order ein bier vom faß (whatever's on tap), I find myself instead asking for a wine recommendation. So I spend most dinners ruefully sipping at a half-filled, $8 glass of mediocre white wine, poking at my slab of pork in a pool of mustard sauce, and thinking wistfully of the lucky slobs in the taverns gulping down their $3 Maßes of beer.

That's why I've taken to grabbing my beer furtively, in places where it won't be frowned upon. I'll have lunch in a tavern—which I know means my choices will be wurstel and saurkraut, or this other kind of wurstel, also with sauerkraut (or perhaps with a virulently yellow, terribly sticky, grapefruit-sized ball of gelatinous starch). But at least I can hold my frosty mug up high and proud and say Prost! to the fellows at my table (when you toast in Germany, you have to hold eye contact all the way through to the sipping of the beer). And one day, as I sat at an Internet cafe in Coburg, I noticed that there was an incongruous bar wedged into the back room, so I ordered up a glass of the wonderfully named Frankenbrau, though it was only 12:30pm, and happily drained it whilst deleting spam from my Webmail inbox.

I can't, however, bring myself to break that old Puritan taboo of drinking alone in my room. That, as I know from after-school specials on alcoholism, is just one step away from sneaking in the kitchen at night and slurping vanilla extract to get a fix, like Tom Hanks did in that guest spot on Family Ties. (Of course, the first thing I did upon seeing that episode was go to my mom's spice cabinet and take a giant swig of the vanilla extract, because it had never occurred to me you could do anything with it other than put 1/4 teaspoon into recipes for baked goods. I don't know if you've ever tried to drink the stuff straight, but it tastes exactly the opposite of how good it smells. That one experience, more than any sit-com moralizing, has convinced me never to become an alcoholic. Yes, despite my parent's best efforts, 70s and 80s TV really did play an unhealthily large role in my upbringing.)

That is how I ended up with this can of miXergy, which I bought on a whim at a gas station, because I figure it doesn't count as "drinking" alone in my room, as it is merely a form of soda. In fact, the label heralds it as "bier + cola + X!" I popped it open as I sat down to write this part, took a sip and, once the involuntary gagging was over, glanced at the side of the can to see what, exactly, they meant by "X." The can was of little help, other than announcing the alcoholic content, so I can report only that it is composed of 3.1% alcohol and 96.9% oh-my-god-that's-nasty.

It’s enough to drive a man to Riesling.

As for me, it drove me down south, to Germany's bastion of beer: Bavaria.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Would You Like Some Pork with That?

Most menus in Germany are suspiciously similar: a half-dozen variations on the schnitzel theme swamped in a creamy mustard sauce, some veal (usually subjected to the same inundation of sauce), a steak or two, venison stew with wild mushrooms, and whatever the local wurstel is.

Each dish is accompanied by any of a number of preparations of potato or a dense dumpling made from a starch-based food so cooked-down it's impossible to tell what it started out as, plus some form of sauerkraut. It's hearty, it's filling, and it's fairly obvious, after a few days on this diet, why there are so many Italian restaurants in Germany. French, Chinese, and Greek ones, too. Yesterday I passed one called "Ristorantisches Zagreb," proudly offering Balkan cuisine. It was packed.

Don't get me wrong: a platter of wurstel, a side of roasted potatoes, a salty bretzlern, and a liter-sized stein of bier to wash it all down is great fun and terribly tasty. But a steady sausage diet can get real old real fast, and there are some varieties of wurstel...well, let's just say the sheath of pig intestines into which the filling is stuffed is by far the least offensive ingredient involved.

Plus, it's all meat-and-starch, all the time. As a general rule, I care very, very little for sauerkraut. But here I find myself attacking the piles of slimy, pickled cabbage with a relish, egged on by a primal need for something resembling a fruit, a vegetable, or, really, just anything containing vitamins.

Schnitzel, too, gets pretty boring pretty quickly, especially when it's invariably protected under an armor of fried bread crumbs and hidden beneath a creamy sea of mustard sauce. I know it's just me, but every once in a while, even when it's well-prepared, in the midst of forking my way through yet another platter of schnitzel, the whole thing suddenly looks and tastes exactly like a Hungry Man TV dinner. That's when I know it's time to order another liter of beer.

Still, I grimly plow on through the many and varied regional preparations of cholesterol and polyunsaturated fats, my perverse sense of travel correctness keeping me from even glancing askance at the menus posted outside the dozens of pizzerie, "trattorien," and restaurants named after famous Italian cities and islands. I have to stick to the local specialties, even if it kills me (here my arteries would like to voice their opposition to this rule).

My vague rule of thumb is that you have to spend at least two weeks in a country before you're allowed to cheat and get a pizza. There are exceptions, of course. London, like NYC, is home to a globe's worth of interesting exotic options. In Prague, French cuisine ranks a close second to Czech in local popularity. The nineteen-course Indonesian feasts in the Netherlands are incredibly tasty and perfectly legit, given the country's colonial history in Southeast Asia.

Even Germany has an exception to the rule: they have now reached the critical mass of immigrant Turks necessary to make Turkish food a legitimate local option. Therefore, for the occasional lunch you are allowed a dönnerkebab, a split piece of flatbread stuffed with carved slices of spicy roast lamb with lettuce, tomatoes, and three kinds of sauce, one of which burns off your taste buds. Otherwise, though, it's wurstel and schnitzel all the way, baby.

Still, there are plenty of opportunities for the weak-willed to cheat, to take the coward's way out of arterial sclerosis. On most German menus, even in the most heuiriger (cozy) lilttle gestätte (tavern), if you look closely enough you'll find an escape clause, a dish such as "currywurst mit pommes frites," or "hen-flesh strips" prepared Orientischer art (Oriental style) with a pepper/cashew sauce, pan-fried veggies, and rice. But frankly, I have yet to meet any chef but an Indian who can apply curry to a dish in an appetizing manner. As for Orientichers art, if God had intended the Germans to stir-fry, he would have had them invent the wok. Instead, He apparently blessed them with a surfeit of pigs.

I've only been in Germany a few days—well shy of the two-week mark—and I already used up my lunchtime get-out-of-schnitzel-free dönnerkebab, so I'm finding other little ways to rebel. For instance, I am writing this bit in the Rhine village of Bachrach at a table in the Weinhaus Altes Haus—a half-timbered structure of red beams and white plaster that was apparently saved right in the midst of falling in on itself, so all the walls are at odd angles and from the outside it looks like a spritely illustration from a book of Grimm's fairy tales. I am awaiting the delivery of my carefully crafted light meal, to consist of a large mixed salad, a cheese sampler platter, and Apfelstrudel with cinnamon ice cream for dessert. I plan thusly to run an endgame around the "main courses" part of the menu—which promised schnitzel in a cheese-potato sauce with French fries, boiled beef in a berry sauce with potatoes, and something unfortunately translated as "Beef broth with stripes of noodle bags."

I am making amends for having ordered a modest bill of fare by padding my meal with not merely a glass of wine (which is the most that the largely abstemious Germans will drink with their meals—and which insanely always costs at minimum €2.50, usually €5 to €9), but rather a full bottle of the 2000 Toni Jost Reisling, grown on the slopes just outside of town.

What? Wine? In Germany? What happened to the massive mugs of beer? Tune in next post…

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Bane of the Solo Traveler

I just checked into a hotel installed in the medieval gatehouse of mighty Burg Reichenstein, overlooking the valley of the Rhine River from on high. I was handed a room key, lugged my luggage upstairs, and opened the door to my third parking-lot view in a row.

Chalk it up to the old "single rooms suck" law, which is aimed at punishing those who dare to travel without companionship. I may be here to write an article on sleeping in German castles, but what I'm really becoming an expert on is what medieval castle parking lots look like. To whit: gravely, littered with rental cars parked at odd angles, and amazingly, precisely, just a tad too small to turn around in properly. Most of the guest rooms in these German castles come with a panorama of the local river valley, vistas over unspoilt forestland, or at the very least a peek at the red roofs of the timeless village that grew up around the castle's feet. All of these fall under the category of views that my room invariably lacks.

The trend started with my very first castle of the trip. I had crossed the lower Rhine at Bonn, where the valley widens and pancakes into vast flatlands peppered by Germany's twin pinnacles of tradition and progress—church steeples and factory smokestacks—above which white gliders wheel on the thermals. Once across the plains, I turned south to join the parade of weekend motorcyclists slaloming down the turns of the Ahr River Valley, whizzing through evergreen forests that stand on tall stilt trunks.

The forestland soon gave way to the Eifel, Germany's largest volcanic region. Save for the giant, lazily spinning Mercedes symbols harvesting wind on ridges and hillsides, the bucolic scenery was straight out of a 19th century painting. A fertile land of green-gold fields unrolled in between the little Christmas tree farms planted in neat Teutonic rows, and the strings of eyelet lakes filling ancient volcanic craters. Hay was harvested into seven-foot-tall rolls placed just so around stubbly fields. The fields were being mown closer still by sleek muscular horses, round piebald cows, and roly-poly sheep freshly shorn for summer. Congregations of fat, contented-looking silky-maned blond ponies standing placidly in the dapple light of woods’ edge alternated with flocks of fat, contented-looking children with corn-silk hair romping in the pineshade of riverside campsites.

This fairy tale of forest and farmland was occasionally interrupted by half-timbered villages built around rocky promontories topped by craggy castles. Some of the ancient fortresses were roofless and shattered beyond repair, their stone walls yawning apart. Others looked comfortably lived-in, with steep slate roofs and tan stucco-cemented walls picked out with brightly painted shutters in heraldic red or blue stripes against white.

Luckily, my castle on that first night, the Kurfürstlishes Amtshaus, turned out to be of the latter type, a bastion of creamy yellow walls trimmed in dark red and topped by ranks of dormer windows clad in dark, mossy slate tiles, and its stood next to a white-steepled church above the bustling market town of Daun. Christa Probst, the owner, was genuinely surprised when, while I was completing the check-in form, I told her I was an American. "How did you find this place?" She marveled. "No Americans come to the Eifel!" She gave a nervous, disturbing little laugh. "This is an empty region. A poor region."

Frau Probst elaborated. "In 1850s, many people went away—to America, mostly. Sometimes their descendants come back to look for family, but it has been so long. Too long. Everyone is gone. This area is only good now for walking and for bike riding." And motorcycles, I pointed out. She gave her disturbing little laugh again. "Yes. We Germans, we love the motorbikes!"

I finished signing in and tried to express the idea that Americans might like to come precisely because the Eifel is not full of factories and other signs of modern commerce. It's simply farmland and forests—and very pretty ones at that—along with the odd reminder of the region's volcanic heritage, like mini Old Faithful-type geysers, giant smooth boulders plopped in strange spots, and those lovely little eyelet lakes. She stared at me bemused, as if there might be something a bit wrong with me, and handed me a set of keys.

My room had a lovely view of my rental sedan.

I got the same panorama from my lodgings at Castle Liebenstein the following night, another Romantically crumbling Rhineside fort, so I abandoned my digs and watched the sunset from the ramparts and chatted with a couple from Montana while their 13-year-old daughter and her cousin clambered around the castle ruins in little black chiffon capes and baseball caps, popping in and out of view as they discovered hidden passageways on their determined ghost-hunt.

And now, the vista from my new digs in Burg Reichenstein: gravel lot, lots of cars. Well, at least it's a proper room. A corollary of the "single rooms suck" law states that any space in the hotel that was once a broom closet, storage room on the airshaft, or substantially sized bathroom may, in a pinch, be converted into a single room. I've stayed in all of those, plus a few worse. Once I was put up in the little manager's office off the hotel lobby, sleeping on the night watchman's cot wedged between the wall and the comically oversized hotel safe (that was in Enna, Sicily, where despite my copy of a months-old faxed reservation they insisted the hotel was fully booked).

Another memorable time in Marostica, a town famous for its biennial chess match on the main piazza using costumed people as pieces, another lost reservation meant I had to set up housekeeping in a little windowless room of the basement parking garage, most of which was taken up by the building's central heating/cooling unit, which would periodically roar to life, popping and squeaking and clanging, at irregular intervals throughout the night. In Germany, at least, I was getting actual hotel rooms. Just tiny, crappy ones.

However, as a consolation, my crappy castle singles do always come with the entertainment of watching folks try to execute 42-point turns in a tiny parking lot at the wheel rental car they're not really that used to. Since many castle rooms don't come with TVs, this is about as exciting as my evening gets. But since everyone now seems to be in for the evening here, the fun's over and I figure it's time I stopped putting it off. It's time to go rustle up some dinner.

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Friday, July 01, 2005

Enzo and His Hot Love Liqueur

Seven years ago, I immensely enjoyed a dinner at U Bossu, and accordingly gave Enzo's seven-table restaurant on a forgotten Taormina side-street a star rating in the Frommer's guide I was researching at the time.

Enzo was gregarious, friendly, jocular, and overall a genuine impresario for his little trattoria—and the food was fantastic, especially for a moderately cheap joint. At the end of that meal, he had poured me (and everyone else in the place) a shot of a fiery pepperoncino liqueur of his own invention. I love spicy things, and I love sugar, and Enzo's homemade hooch was a perfect marriage of the two tastes. Also, it packed an alcoholic wallop.

Fast forward to last night. As I entered, I saw the little "Recommended by Frommer's" sticker proudly displayed in his window, and gave a little smile, wishing I could tell him who I was and why he had so deserved that stamp of approval. Instead, I just dug into my dinner with relish, delighted that the food was as excellent as always--tagliatelle alla mafiosa (egg noodles made fresh that morning topped with a ragù of pistachios, tomatoes, cream, pancetta bacon, and mushrooms) and cartoccio di spigola allo scoglio (buttery sea bass baked in tin foil along with a handful of mussels)--and that Enzo was still a great character, endlessly entertaining to his few guests.

The pair of English ladies talking in low voices by the wall looked a bit taken aback at and overwhelmed by Enzo's gregariousness, but the Irish couple sitting behind me, who had eaten here every night of their holiday so far, thought he was a hoot. They shared with me their belief that our host looked like an Italian version of George W. Bush. Enzo made a sour face when he overheard that, but I had to agree there was a resemblance, and had trouble from then on shaking the image of Bush, with a tan and a little paper hat, speaking English in an Italian accent so heavy it was almost comical. When two young Dutchmen strode in, Enzo grinned widely and held out both arms "Welcome back!" then made a show of looking anxiously behind them. "But where are your girlfriends tonight?" When the pair explained that the women were off "For a ladies' night, without us boys." Enzo winked and said, "That's OK. We can have fun on our own. Sit here, I bring you good wine." And he hustled back to the kitchen.

At the end of the meal, Enzo asked if I would like an almond-flavored digestivo. Now, when I had arrived at the restaurant, Enzo had asked how I found his phone number (as I had booked ahead). I told him that he had provided me with a memorable dinner in the summer of 1998, and I'd always planned on coming back. So when he asked me about a digestivo, I said I recalled he had served me a fantastic liqueur of pepperoncino before, and could I please have that?

Enzo stared at me for a moment, bemused, then sighed. "Ah! My great failure." He smiled wanly, said, "Just a moment," and went to the little desk to rummage around under stacks of paper. He returned with a coated, unfolded paper brochure for his Liquore di Venere, and explained how he had tried to make a go of it.

In 1993, when he was still working as a chef in someone else's restaurant, Enzo thought a digestivo as fiery hot as Etna looming in the distance might prove popular. He admitted to knowing nothing of liqueur-making, or even really of basic chemistry, and so went through a lot of failed batches of moonshine before finally hitting on a method for distilling an essence of pepperoncino, mixing that into a sugary syrup, then marrying it all to a liquor base.

At first he served the stuff to patrons at his employer's restaurant as a "digestivo artigianale." By 1995, he had opened up U Bossu--dialect for "The Boss," which he finally was (though he jokingly calls himself little more than a "plate-ferrier," carrying dishes from the kitchen to the tables and back)--and decided to try and make a success of his invention. He picked out bottles, had labels designed and printed, and sent a sample of his liqueur (along with reams of paperwork) to the official governmental body in Rome that regulates such things.

Then, since moonshine is illegal everywhere, he had to have an official distillery to produce it. Since starting one from scratch would take far more money, time, resources, and--most significantly--paperwork than he could handle, it was far easier simply to buy a distillery that already existed on paper but wasn't actually in business. (The sheer bureaucratic inertia of the Italian regulatory systems makes such seemingly oddball solutions far easier than just going about things in a straightforward way.)

So, Enzo ran his new restaurant, and he made his Liquore di Venere, named for the kind of burning desire the Goddess of Love could instill in mortal man. He served the digestivo to all his customers, who were generally delighted and would often buy a bottle to take home. Selling the odd bottle to a patron, however, wasn't going to pay the bills--especially since most of the time Enzo would refuse to accept payment, and usually ended up just giving the bottle as a gift, insisting that the customer had already paid him "With excellent conversation." I know, because that's how I ended up taking home a bottle seven years ago. But the testimony of a few satisfied restaurant customers (not even those who would go on to encourage their guidebook readers to sample the stuff) were not going to be enough to turn Enzo and his liqueur into the success he was sure was in the cards. "Cinzano. Martini & Rossi. They all started as just one man with a recipe. Now look at them! Why not me?"

Enzo started sending letters and making phone calls. He contacted every liquor label and company he could think of. No one was interested in distributing a single item from a lone producer in limited quantities. He told them, no problem: he could make more. They all said, essentially, no thanks. They didn't really want to work with an outside producer.

Eventually, about a decade after perfecting his formula, Enzo finally gave up. He started serving a mass-produced almond liqueur from Marsala to his restaurant patrons as the digestivo he always offers "on the house" along with the bill.

"I still have three or four crates of the Venere at home." He said, and for the first time all night he looked sad--not the sad-sack act he puts on when moaning that he's nothing more than a glorified "plate-ferrier," but genuinely defeated. "I give bottles away as gifts, sometimes. I open one or two for special occasions at home. But in the restaurant, it's just the almond liqueur now."

He walked over to fetch a bottle of that and poured me a small glassful. I weakly said something about how unfortunate it was about the Liquore di Venere, because it really was a fine digestivo. "Eh, si." He said, with downcast eyes. "I was going to have great success with that." He looked up at me and smiled bitterly. "It was good! It should have been a success. The liquore would become famous, and I would have been rich."

It was late. The restaurant was empty of other patrons by then, and I was feeling downright awful having inadvertently re-opened what was clearly a painful wound. I tossed back the bitter almond liqueur, and stood up to leave Enzo and his cook to clean up and head home for the night. "Beh,' buona sera and thanks for another excellent meal." I said, sticking out my hand to shake Enzo's. He shook the vague cast of sorrow off his face, and beamed at me. "Tell you what." He said, taking my hand firmly and not letting go after the standard pump-and-a-half. "I'm back here around eleven in the morning, to do the shopping and get ready for lunch. Stop by around 11am tomorrow, and I'll bring a bottle of the Venere for you." Then he let go of my hand.

So, the next morning, I went by U Bossu. Enzo was bustling about in his little paper hat; though the open window to the kitchen I could see the taciturn chef chopping things up. Enzo smiled when he saw me and shuffled into the dining rooms, pausing to take a bottle from the desk covered with stacks of paper. In the clear liquid floated a hot pepper bleached white by time and long exposure to alcohol. Enzo dusted the bottle off with his apron before handing it to me.

"Liquore di Venere," he said with a flourish. "I hope you enjoy it!" I could tell he meant it.

And, just like before, Enzo refused to let me pay.

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Jane Eyre, Forbidden Love, and the British Dukedom in Sicily

The old inland SS 120 used to be the only road from Sicily's east coast to Palermo until the Autostrada from Messina was built along the island's north shore. It wraps around the north side of Mt. Etna, passing the bushy grapevines that thrive in the volcanic soils and a number of small towns whose crumbling castles and thriving little medieval centers are a reminder that, though now an agricultural backwater, this used to be a main highway through an empire.

Exactly whose empire we're talking about has changed repeatedly.

Just in the past 2,800 years or so, Sicily has variously belonged to the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish Bourbons, French Angevins, and--only since Garibaldi landed at Marsala in 1861 to start the Savoy King Vittorio Emanuele's conquest of the peninsula--the Italians. Also, just in this one forgotten corner of the island, for a time, technically it was part of the British Empire as well. Well, a Dukedom, really. One belonging to, of all people, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

The forests through which I was passing, which were blocking the sun from drying out my passport on the dash, lay on the edge of the Duchy of Bronte, a realm which was based around the town of Bronte (famous for producing the best pistachios in Europe) but which was ruled from the Castello di Mainace, a good ways north of town in the forest.

The castle was named for the Byzantine general Geroge Maniakes, who fought the Arabs in Sicily, won a decisive battle here, and founded the castle in 1040 on the site of an Arab fortification. In 1173 the place was turned into a monastery, which tumbled down (along with most of the rest of eastern Sicily) in the massive earthquake of 1693. A century later, the castle was rebuilt, and these days it mostly goes by the name "Castello di Neslon."

Here's how that went down.

In 1799, the Spanish Bourbons--monarchs over The Two Sicilies--had been forced out of Sicily #1 (Naples) by Napoleon, and had taken refuge in Sicily #2 (Palermo). King Ferdinand wanted Sicily #1 back (my guess: because of the mozzarella), so he looked for outside aid to help slow the juggernaut that was the Napoleonic army.

The British counsel in Palermo at the time was able to secure the services of their Admiral Nelson to lead his fleet against the French (something he was to prove incredibly good at) and drive them away from the interests of the Bourbons. The reason the consul was able to convince Nelson into the fray had nothing whatsoever to do with his talents as a diplomat, and everything to do with the fact that he was Lord Hamilton. Lord Hamilton's wife was Lady Hamilton, and Lady Hamilton was Horatio Nelson's lover.

In gratitude for chasing off the French, Ferdinand gave Nelson the Dukedom of Bronte, which included this castle and estate. This royally granted British fiefdom in sun-drenched Sicily gained a measure of fame back home at the time. One rabid fan of Nelson's, a certain Reverend Patrick Prunty, went so far as the change his last name to Bronte--only he added an umlaut over the "o," for reasons clear only to himself--and passed along the new surname to his bookish daughters: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

Officially, Nelson never even set foot in his Sicilian castle. Unofficially, however, he just may have spent here the happiest days of his life. Voices whisper that Nelson consummated his tryst with the Lady Hamilton here, in the Castello Mainace, and that this is where they conceived their illegitimate daughter, Horatia.

Whatever the case, the bliss was short-lived. Nelson had his fleet to command, and within four years, he heroically lost his life--yet again besting Napoleon--at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Sicilian estate passed to his brother, William. Lady Hamilton and Horatia fared even worse.

In that era, even when a hero as great as Nelson was involved, the scandal of such a relationship with another gentleman's wife was utterly unacceptable to British society. In the end, Lady Hamilton was reduced to serving as a maid back in London, where she died destitute. The bastard daughter Horatia descended into poverty as well, and disappeared from history.

Castello Mainace, however, stayed in the family of Nelson's brother, and was passed down to his niece Charlotte, who married the Baron Bridsport. The Bridsports held onto the joint all the way up until the land reforms of the 1960s did away with noble holdings. By 1981, everything but the little English cemetery across the road became the provenance of the local comune, which has set it up as a museum to the distinguished Nelsonian connection.

The most interesting item in display in the upstairs living quarters, isn't the lovely tilework on the floors or the period furnishings behind velvet ropes, nor is it portrait of the petulant teenage Bridsport who served as the last Duke of Bronte, nor even the engraving, signed by both men, commemorating the only meeting, in early September 1804, between Nelson and Arthur Wellesley (this was five years before Wellesley was elevated to "Viscount Wellington," and ten years before he got bumped up to "Duke").

No, the most interesting artifact on display was a set of crystal: a wine carafe and two glasses set into a wooden base, with little metal clamps that swiveled over the foot of each glass designed to keep it steady and in place as the ship pitches and yaws. It was the drinking set the Admiral used onboard his ship just before the phyrric victory at Trafalgar.

It was this everyday item, a token of the nuance of Nelson's shipboard life, which struck me the most. The idea that the Admiral might have done something as gloriously mundane as enjoy an aperitif before the fateful battle sat well with me, and it reminded me of Enzo and his fiery Liqueur of Love. But that tale will have to wit until the next post.

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All Wet

I am staring at the reflection of my passport photo in the windshield. I'm on a road winding through the forested northwest slopes of Mt. Etna, and every time I pass from the treeshade to the sunlight on a curve, there it is: my face, with a silly grin; my signature, in Sharpie; the bold words USA (in frills), PHILADELPHIA (where I was born) and New Orleans (where the thing was issued, but which European hotel clerks always assume indicates where I live, so that's what they write on the check-in form I have to sign).

My passport is there, up on the dashboard, staring at me accusingly, because it needs to dry out. It needs to dry out because I took it swimming with me this morning, breaking a half-dozen of my own iron-clad travel rules in the process.

As my Brazilian friend Daniel would say: lemme 'splain.

When I left Taormina this morning town, I followed the same twisting road winding down to Giardini Naxos that Jay and took on scooters seven years ago (on which ride, if I recall correctly, I bent my right thumbnail back almost in half flicking the starter, which still ranks as my one and only scooter-related injury). I followed the valley of the Alcantara Torrent inland to the point at which it issued from the tall, narrow basalt walls of the Gola di Alcantara, which means Alcantara Gorge but actually translates literally (and more poetically) as the "Throat of Alcantara."

South of the Taormina promontory, all of Sicily is Etna-formed territory, and the Throat of Alcantara is one of its most striking features. The volcanic basalt here cooled into long, geometric columns ranging from pentagons to octagons -- geological cousins to Giant's Causeway in Ireland and Devil's Tower in the States -- all fitted together in giant woodstacks and pipe organs. These formations have subsequently been lifted, twisted, and turned by volcanic convulsions, carved into a narrow, twisting slot of a valley by the Alcantara, and polished to a smoothed, gleaming leaden gray by millennia of water flow.

The effect is remarkable, and in the wide valley floor where the close walls of the Throat open up, allowing the Alcantara to braid itself into several streams rushing around low, pebbly island flats, Italians by the dozen were strewn out, raisining themselves. Their kids, too impatient to lie there roasting for hours on end, were splashing in the shallows or wading up to the opening of the Throat, where the water swirled above their heads in a deeper pool and they could haul themselves up onto some rocks and challenge each other to jump in.

I, of course, stripped off my shoes and socks, zipped off the legs of my convertible pants (momentarily becoming more interesting than their sunbathing to the surrounding Italians), undid my belt with the camera bag on it and slung it over my head and one arm like a bandoliero, emptied my pockets of cell phone, wallet, and change and stuffed them into my shoulder bag along with the pants legs, took my shoes in one hand, and started wading across to the far shore of the braided streams and as close to the Throat as the dry land went. There, under a scrubby tree, I broke another major travel rule. I put down my shoulder bag -- which contained several thousand dollars worth of electronics, my irreplaceable notebook, and various and sundry other items -- took off my shirt and left it on top, and then walked away from it all, around a corner and well out of view.

I waded into the deep pool at the Throat, holding my camera bag and belt way up over my head, and sort of breast stroked/doggy paddled to the slick rocks at the entry to the gorge. One of the Italian kids, a morbidly obese little guy of about 11 called Tancredi (it's nice to know that some names from Sicily's early medieval Norman dynasty survive down to today), saw me and called down for me to hand up my camera to him so I could use both hands to scramble up the slippery rocks.

I thanked the kids, left them to dare one another to jump off the rocks, and continued wading up the now much deeper waters inside the Throat, taking pictures and fretting endlessly about the camera over my head and the unattended bag way back on the beach. I got several hundred yards in, just before the turn where the Alcantara rushes down over a series of waterfall rapids, when it became too deep to go any further--not to mention too cold. Tancredi had told me the water temperature was about 14 degrees (57 degrees Farenheit). "In the afternoon, it gets as high as 16 degrees, but now, it's about 14. Maybe even 13!"

By the time I got back, it was getting on lunchtime. The little pebbly beachlets were clearing out, and the kids were gone. I managed to slither down the rocks, swim/wade back to dry land, and located my (thoroughly unmolested) bag. In wading back across the stream braids to the far shore -- at some point I had lost my Molefoam, and the sharp river pebbles were murdering my heel blister -- I even managed to find a nice souvenir stone with just the right leaden color and smoothed geometric form to recall the geology of the gorge. I sat on a rock to dry out a bit, reassembled my pants and footwear, and hobbled back up the trail to the cafe-cum-car park at the lip of the valley.

It was when I went to the bathroom and unzipped my fly that I realized there was one precious item I had not left unattended in my bag on the beach. My moneybelt was still safely clamped around my waist under my clothes, and it was dripping wet. Inside it was a small Ziploc-type (and, apparently, not waterproof) baggie filled with folded-up twenty-dollar bills, and a soggy, lumpy roll of some kind of cardboard that turned out to be my passport. Cursing, I took it out, flattened it as best I could, and placed it on my dashboard when I got back in the car to hit the SS 120, the old back road towards Cefalù.

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Breaking the Rules and Wasting a Morning in Taormina

I must be seriously out of shape, mentally. This trip started with me breaking a trio of travel rules right off the bat: (1) I picked up a rental car at the airport (which always incurs an extra fee), (2) merely to drive it into downtown Palermo (never drive in a city--especially not an Italian city; and especially not a Southern Italian city--if you can avoid it), and then (3) paid for it to sit, parked, for two days whilst I traipsed about town on foot and by bus (always pick up the rental on the day you leave the first big city on the trip, that way you avoid paying for those few days of a needless rental, for the parking, and for that airport pick-up fee).

Another disturbing indication of my mental flabbiness occurred during the drive from Palermo's Punta Raisi Airport--now renamed (though not all road signs have got the memo) Aeroporto Falcone-Borsellino after the two crusading anti-mafia magistrates assassinated in the early 1990s. During the ride, I started getting really aggravated about all the slow, timid, and downright stupid drivers all around me. It was while I was accelerating to weave through the traffic, throwing Italian invectives and complicated hand gestures at other drivers, that I realized what was wrong with this scenario. One does not find European drivers to be slow and timid--especially not Italian drivers, and especially not Southern Italian ones.

That was all a week ago, when I first arrived in Sicily. Yet my mind has still, apparently, not gotten itself back into whack. I managed to infringe upon yet another travel rule before I even woke up this morning. Yesterday, when I checked into the Villa Gaia in Taormina, I asked the hotel clerk if there was anything exciting going on in town--concerts, spectacles, or simply anything new to see or do that hadn't been available seven years ago on my last trip here.

Turns out that, as with all the other ancient Greek theaters in Sicily that have been rehabilitated (and spoiled, visually, with ranks of aluminum risers where the stone seats have crumbled away) to serve as summertime stages for all sorts of entertainments, I managed to pick the one week out of the whole summer during which every single one of them is "between series."

Segesta had just finished a run of classical Greek plays and was gearing up to start classical concerts next week; Siracusa was taking a breather between experimental modern theater and a schedule of ancient dramas; and Taormina had just ended one set of theater and art shows and now had a team of workmen scurrying around trying to turn the 2,500-year-old Sicilian stage into a sheet of ice (on the day when local temps hit 100 degrees) for a revue of skating prowess that was to take place two days hence, which was to be followed the next day by a concert by Diana Ross (whether or not the Supreme would also be required to wear ice skates was not clear).

At any rate, I was out of luck in terms of actually getting some use out of the visual eye sores represented by the intrusion into these glorious ancient spaces of modern seats and scaffolding-pipe erector sets serving as grandstands and to hold lighting arrays. However, the hotel clerk told me, Isola Bella was now open to the public. I had only ever been able to admire from afar this tiny, gardened islet cupped in one of the pocket-sized swimming bays on the coast below Taormina's promontory. Yes, the clerk said, this summer they were ferrying the public to the island on tours at 10am and 3:30pm every day. I knew I had to take off next morning (in order to go swimming with my passport, then drive to Cefalù), but this sounded like a worthy diversion, so when she asked if I'd like for her to call and book me a spot for the next morning, I said sure.

Travel rule: Never rely on a hotel clerk to provide some service you can do perfectly well on your own. At worst, the clerk's going to turn out to be all rotted out underneath the smiles and language of deference and will end up scamming you into something shoddy and at an immense profit to themselves. At best, you're relying on someone else's ability to recall a passing promise made to some stranger from New Orleans they're trying to get to sign the check-in register so they can go back outside and finish that cigarette your arrival interrupted.

What I got was the "at best."

I duly slept in a bit later than I had planned to do when I had planned on an early start. I took breakfast in the garden, where I taught an older American woman sitting near me to ask for "Hag" if she wanted a decaffeinated espresso. Then I watched in horror as a newly-arrived middle-aged Australian man abused first his girlfriend, who showed up a few minutes after he did, then was nasty to the hotel clerk and ordered her to take away the "nasty pastries" and go inside and bring him some sliced bread instead--"Can you do that, d'ya think?" he sneered--which he proceeded to slather with avocado and slices of raw tomato he produced from a plastic shopping bag. He then ordering the clerk back inside to bring him a phone, whereupon he called his boss (who was apparently staying down in the beachside resort community of Giardini-Naxos) and suddenly turned all oily sycophancy, bitching crudely about this "god-awful little town" and eagerly arranging to go down to Giardini-Naxos to see the boss's hotel and make arrangements to stay there instead.

In the face of his maltreatment, I put off bothering the put-upon clerk about my Isola Bella arrangements until about 9:15, at which point I inquired politely. She blanched, said "Scusi!" and dashed back inside. A minute later, she returned, apologizing that it was no longer possible to take the 10am tour, as I would have already had to have left to take the gondola down to the beach. "Do you want to do the one at 15:30?" I sighed inwardly, smiled outwardly, and said "No. Unfortunately, I have to get on down the road."

Still I tarried in town (more on that in a moment), and spent 45 enjoyable minutes wandering the back streets where Taormina's annoying, polished resort air falls away. Laundry flaps on balconies, street corner shrines support tiny vases of dried flowers, and an itinerant fruttivendolo (fruit and veggie seller) operates out of the bed of a teensy three-wheeled ApeCar pickup, selling his produce to a small clump of local ladies of a certain age and with each sale gallantly offering to carry her purchases back to her house.

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