The Liechtenstein Trail bounces New York Times off my bucket list

Martin Knopfel, who designed the Liechtenstein Trail, and I at about the midway point before it opened in May. Photo by Marina Pascucci


TRIESENBERG, Liechtenstein — I’ve always had two bucket lists: one for travel, one for writing. My travel bucket list has shrunk rapidly after 105 countries. My writing bucket list remained frustratingly stagnant, even after retirement 5 ½ years ago. It sat on my computer screen, mocking me like an old boss saying I should find another line of work. I had plenty of time on my hands to knock off goals. I thought I would X-out Publish in a Major Magazine four years ago when Penthouse agreed to buy my story on a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, that specializes in S&M. Then Penthouse got sold, its direction changed and all I got was a nice kill fee and nightmares about leather-clad women in cages.

Marina and I holding up our New York Times debut.


I’d tell you the cliche that I could wallpaper the inside of my apartment with rejection notices from The New York Times. But I never received any. I didn’t get a single response. However, my sportswriting background turned me into a bulldog at a young age and now I’m just a stubborn old dog. A year ago, I made a friend who knew someone at The Times who knew the travel editor who put a bug in his ear about me.

The result came May 26 when The New York Times published my story on Liechtenstein along with photos from my girlfriend, the uber-talented Marina Pascucci. My writing bucket list just got shorter, finally.

Why Liechtenstein? Where is Liechtenstein? What is Liechtenstein? Good questions, all. I visited and wrote about Liechtenstein in 2016. The tiny principality in the middle of the Alps between Austria and Switzerland was a fall-back destination after a freelance assignment in Austria fell through. Turns out, the fourth smallest country in Europe has more than just beautiful, oversized postage stamps. From the gorgeous, lightly trodden mountains to the cute villages to the great cuisine, Liechtenstein is Switzerland light, the perfect off-the-beaten-path post for the intrepid traveler.

Last year while researching future travel story topics I stumbled onto this factoid: 2019 is the 300th anniversary of Liechtenstein’s independence. Yes, through Napoleon Bonaparte’s wide swath through Europe, World War I and Nazi Germany, Liechtenstein never lost its country. Or its soul.

I called Liechtenstein Marketing for a story angle. Among the year long list of events, they were creating a 46.6-mile hiking trail that connects all 11 cities in the country. It would open in May 2019 and would include an app that gives information and virtual reality visuals of 147 places of interest (POI).

The views of Triesen from Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s called the Liechtenstein Trail and in October, I was going to be its first guinea pig.

Marina is a gym junkie and not much of a hiker but she loves mountains. I love her photos of mountains. She came along. We had a one-night layover in Zurich then took the train south to the cute capital of Vaduz and a bus to a gorgeous off-season ski resort, Malbun, the only ski resort in Liechtenstein.

Sure, saying I walked across a country, knowing it’s Liechtenstein, is like saying I got published in The New York Times and it was a want ad. I once walked across Monaco. It took 45 minutes. Liechtenstein isn’t that small but it’s all of 17 miles long and nine miles wide. As I wrote in The Times, “It is one cattle farm bigger than Staten Island.” You can drive the length of it in 25 minutes. A middle-aged person with a long-expired gym membership could walk across it in two days and have time for lunch and dinner out both days.

“Many people have only vague cliches about our small country,” Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, wrote in an email. “I hope that the anniversary will help the world to get to know Liechtenstein better.”

Alois, also known as Count Rietberg, is the perfect symbol of Liechtenstein’s friendly, homey, small-town feel. Not many members of royal families in the world can be seen jogging through the streets of the capital, or sharing wine with the public at his own winery or walking the same trails I walked.

The 51-year-old Hereditary Prince, the eldest son of Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein, opens his castle to the public every summer for an annual party. A bigger party occurred Jan. 23, the date in 1719 when the communities of Vaduz and Schellenberg, at the time members of the German state, signed the contract forming the principality of Liechtenstein.

Me and Marina at our Hotel Turna Malbun balcony.


This is heady stuff for the population of 38,000. Vaduz, about as big as some rest stops on Germany’s Autobahn, has all of 5,300 people. Liechtenstein has no airport or military. It has two train stations, two newspapers, one hospital, one TV channel and one radio station.

It also has one very proud boast: It has had the same border for 300 years, something its bigger neighbors can’t claim. In Liechtenstein the only things big are its mountains. This anniversary is bigger.

“Historically, this is the most important event in my life,” said Leander Schadler, 61, a Liechtensteiner historian and hiking guide. “For the people of today’s principality, the (merging) of the earldom of Vaduz and the lordship of Schellenberg to an imperial principality was a fundamental change. My ancestors no longer lived in a German state.”

Liechtensteiners have also waited 300 years to tell the world where they are. Please note: They are between Austria and Switzerland — “not Australia and Sweden” as Liechtenstein Marketing CEO Michelle Kranz often corrects. It’s not just geographically challenged Americans they must educate.

“Good journalists in Switzerland, they don’t know what currency we have,” said Martin Knopfel, Liechtenstein Marketing’s marketing director who developed the Liechtenstein Trail. “They think we have the euro. (It’s the Swiss franc.) This is one of our major tasks: To put Liechtenstein onto the landscape and for us, the 300-year anniversary is a big, big, big chance.”

Before 2019, Liechtenstein was best known for colorful — and large — postage stamps and being a tax haven for companies around the world. Liechtenstein used a low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent to lure corporations in the 1970s. At one point, 73,000 holding companies were in Liechtenstein. The tax windfall helped give Liechtenstein the third highest gross domestic product in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg.

In 2008, U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom investigated companies avoiding local taxes by registering in Liechtenstein. Now Liechtenstein is no longer so lenient. It hasn’t hurt the economy. The average annual income is $65,000 and its unemployment rate is 2.4 percent. In fact, there are more jobs than citizens to fill them. About 20,000 people commute daily into Liechtenstein for work, causing what many locals say is the nation’s No. 1 problem: Traffic on the main two-lane road leading into the capital can be a bit slow at rush hour.

That’s it.

Liechtenstein has maintained its culture through 300 years of independence. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“The greatest accomplishment of the last 20 years has been how Liechtenstein has handled the global financial crisis and modernized its financial industry,” the Hereditary Prince emailed. “Liechtenstein has a very internationally oriented economy with a large export industry and an international financial center.”

It also has something that doesn’t make the news: 250 miles of hiking trails. Working with Liechtenstein Marketing, I broke up my trek along the Liechtenstein Trail into five days. I’m an experienced hiker: I’ve backpacked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I lived and hiked in Colorado for 23 years. I trekked for five days in Slovakia’s High Tatras in 2014, in the highlands of Laos two years ago, the Caucasus of the Republic of Georgia last year and the Fan Mountains of Tajikistan in May.

But never have I experienced hikes with such variety as Liechtenstein: mountains, forests, villages, farms, rivers — sometimes all in the same day.

“This is the difference between this trail and other long-distance trails,” Knopfel said. “Nature, nature, nature. This trail is really in the heart of Liechtenstein.”

I’m 63 and pretty fit. But despite the trail having a mile in elevation gain, it is for anyone. Those who want to bail, can stop in any village and grab a bus back to their hotel — as Marina did in the two days she joined me.

The hotel Jacuzzi was a great place to greet me after hikes. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Malbun, our lovely ski resort, sits on the southeast end of the country. It’s a short ride from any town using Liechtenstein’s efficient bus system. And the Jacuzzi, Turkish bath and sauna at the Hotel Turna Malbun were welcome signs upon return each day.

Here’s what makes the Liechtenstein Trail unique to the world: No need to pack a lunch. Because it connects all 11 towns, you can always drop your backpack at one of the plethora of restaurants. I never did. I wanted to cut costs. But I often walked past people sitting outside in the sun digging into kasknopfle, Liechtenstein’s national dish. It’s a big pile of short noodles covered in two cheeses and shaved fried onions. It’s great fuel for hiking up your next mountain if you don’t fall into a food coma first.

The Liechtenstein Trail officially opened May 26. In October, pre-app, I marched off feeling a bit naked using Liechtenstein Marketing’s stack of trail maps and my cell phone’s iffy GPS. With only a few wanderings astray, on sunny October days in the high 60s, here’s what I found (detailed map here: file:///C:/Users/johnh/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Panoramakarten-Grafik_2019_EN%20(9).pdf:

The 12th century castle in Balzers.


DAY 1 — Balzers to Triesen to Triesenberg: 8.6 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 5 hours, 15 minutes.

I stood on the edge of the border town in the shadow of a 12th-century castle high up on a hill. Above the castle the craggy brown peaks of 7,200-foot mountains faced another series of peaks on the other side of me. The only sounds I heard were birds chirping. The rural village road had nary a car.

Schadler met Marina and I in Balzers on the east bank of the Rhine across from Switzerland. The 12th century Burg Gutenberg castle is the first POI on the trail. Schadler explained that it belonged to Austria until 1824 when the community of Balzers purchased it and eventually turned it into a museum which it remains today.

Schadler is the authority on Liechtenstein history and hiking. Short, stocky with short gray hair, he peppered the day’s hike with an oral history of Liechtenstein. It began as the Earldom of Vaduz then became absorbed by the German state and the Holy Roman Empire. The German Reichstag felt that Schellenberg was too small to be a member so it joined with Vaduz to form Liechtenstein, which, in German means “light stone” for the color of the five castles that dot the landscape.

Leander Schadler, perhaps Liechtensteion’s leading historian, and me on a bridge heading to Triesenberg. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“There was a time when Liechtenstein was very, very poor,” Schadler said. “Armies were always going through the Rhine Valley and they took everything they could receive.”

During World War II Switzerland protected Liechtenstein and Adolf Hitler never invaded. “Maybe he had too much money in Switzerland,” Schadler said, half jokingly.

Balzers is a postcard-pretty town with bright white fences, vine-covered houses with a plethora of maple trees and a small creek running through it. We walked through town on deathly quiet streets then followed the Rhine until Triesen, Vaduz’s “suburb” to the south.

The trail then heads east and uphill, in parts, seemingly straight uphill. The steep trail to Triesenberg at 2,952 feet passes through beautiful green meadows with dairy cows whose clanging bells were about the only sounds we heard. We walked by dirt fields ready for farming. The trail turns to a dirt service road that is conveniently blocked off for foot traffic and mountain bikers.

A sign on one of many trash cans in the forest reads, “Don’t make noise in forest. Think also of animals.”

The unmanned souvenir shop.


We passed a small alpaca farm where alpacas graze near a self-service souvenir shack selling everything from cheese to llama wool. You look at the price and leave the money in an open cash register overflowing with money. I bought my nephew’s wife some alpaca wool gloves for Christmas and used the credit card machine to pay. Yes, Liechtensteiners are a trustful lot.

Between cuts in the trees are spectacular views of the Swiss Alps, all brown and craggy and imposing. Below are the tile roofs of Balzers and Thiesen peppering the landscape. Park benches are strategically placed at each vista. As I would learn, around every corner is a new view of this lightly trodden country.

All day we only see five people, all joggers.

Martin and I walk through the forest above the capital of Vaduz. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Day 2: Triesenberg-Vaduz-Schaan, 9.3 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 7 hours.

Knopfel met us at 8:30 a.m. at Triesenberg’s post office. Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein and the closest to Malbun, rests on a mountain with brightly painted houses sporting vegetable gardens and private vineyards and flower boxes with purple, white and pink flowers.. Grapevines hang over front doors.

Knopfel, 42, is a Liechtenstein native and lifelong hiking enthusiast. After Schadler led me through some thick forests and forks in the trail with no signs up yet, I asked Knopfel what should trekkers bring to Liechtenstein.

“What they should do is before they come here, download the app so they have it on their phone,” he said. “Once they are here, they don’t need Internet connection because the app will know your position by the GPS.”

The view of Vaduz, one of the many around every corner.


Day 2 was mostly downhill but no less beautiful. The main road that snakes its way up from the valley to Malbun has lookouts near cows grazing in meadows. Below I could see the town of Triesen, churches, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps beyond.

The path starts out steep into a forest and past little farm houses before we came to the day’s first Point of Interest: a rock. It looks ordinary, only five meters long and 4 ½ meters wide. However, it is 400 million years old, left over from a prehistoric glacier that 18,000 years ago stretched 35 miles into Germany.

We continued through the forest and, this being October, the leaves had turned to yellow, orange, green and red. It isn’t Vermont but add the view below of Vaduz and the Swiss town of Buchs on the other side of the Rhine and you may not find a better view of fall colors in Europe. I saw all of three hikers.

The 12th century Vaduz Castle is on the main road just above the capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As the mountain trail descended into a clearing, Knopfel told me this is the trail the Heredity Prince can often be seen. Then I knew why. Greeting us as we emerged from the trees was the princely family home: Vaduz Castle. If a 12th century castle can be unassuming, this is. While it looks majestic with its many A-frame roofs, tower and turrets, it sits directly above the capital. You can walk to it up the main windy road from downtown like a local market.

It has been in the family name since 1712 and their primary residence since 1938. I walked by the gated entrance, framed by ivy, as if walking by a neighbor’s. The castle isn’t open to the public, except one day a year, but Knopfel’s office negotiated with the princely family to include photos of inside the castle on the app.

We passed the castle and dropped into downtown Vaduz (Va-DOOTZ), where we stopped at a carnival and had bratwursts on brown bread for 5 Swiss francs (about $5), an absolute steal in a country with prices higher than Switzerland.

Vaduz is a small-town capital, with a walking mall lined with restaurants and boutique shops but that all but closes down at 8 p.m. I asked one local what you do at night in Liechtenstein and he said, “Go to Austria.” However, Vaduz also has the most Points of Interests. On the main road we walk by the Kunstmuseum art museum, the Postal Museum, the National Museum and garachly yellow brick Parliament building.

The walking mall in Vaduz.


Knopfel led me back up the hill past the ultra-rich Park Hotel Sonnenhof with a beautiful view of the castle from the gazebo and back into the forest. We eventually descended into Schaan, abrutting Valduz to the north and Liechtenstein’s largest city with a whopping 6,300 people. We stop near the bus stop for a well-earned beer.

After two days of going up and down nearly 2,000 feet, my legs were feeling the first signs of fatigue. Marina, whom I took to North America in August, told me, “I think I lost the two kilos I gained in the United States.”

“I have journalists and they say, ‘Oh, I’m a hiker and all physical and we should go on all the tracks,’” Knopfel said. “Then they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think Liechtenstein was so big.’”

Church of San Laurentius in Schaan, Liechtenstein’s biggest town.


Day 3, Schaan-Planken-Nendeln-Eschen, 10.6 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, six hours.

Schadler picked me up at my hotel and we drove to Schaan and walked through a string of businesses and past the 19th century Church of San Laurentius, another POI. I noticed there is no garbage. I remembered in Vaduz seeing a woman light a cigarette and walking 50 feet to put the match in a trash can. My street in Rome has so much garbage it looks like an alley in rural India.

Liechtenstein’s trails leading back into the highlands are spotless. Schadler says Liechtensteiners are particular about leaving the country the way they found it. We climbed high into the forest and he pointed out an example: A long expanse over a major drop off to the forest beyond. The country proposed building a 180-meter bridge for $1 million for easier access.

The citizens voted it down and leave it as it was, Schadler said, “No good for the forest, no good for the animals.”

Planken, home to Liechtenstein’s Olympic skiing heroes, Hanni and Andreas Wenzel.


The forest led uphill to the town of Planken, home to large, poster-perfect houses all lined with red shutters and flower boxes in full bloom. It’s also home to the Wenzels, Liechtenstein’s first family of skiing. Between Hanni and Andreas they have won five of Liechtenstein’s 10 Winter Olympic medals making the country, they proudly point out, No. 1 in the world in Olympic medals per capita.

We switchbacked down into Nendeln, walked through town where Schadler left me at a bus stop and told me I could walk to Eschen’s post office at the end of the trail just down the road. We said goodbye for the last time as the final two days it’d just be my maps and GPS.

I was on my own.

A tractor rolls along the street in Eschen, Liechtenstein’s industrial town.


Day 4, Eschen-Bendern-Gamprin-Ruggell-Schellenberg, 14.3 miles, 1,640 feet elevation climb, 5 1/2 hours.

We made a mistake.

The day before we were supposed to walk around Eschen, not make a beeline to the post office. Backtracking, I had to hike the steep, quiet residential streets of this otherwise industrial town for an hour, not a good way to start my longest day on the trail. However, the sun had just come up on almost a panorama of mountains and the dairy cows eyeing me lazily as I walked by a meadow gave me an early second wind.

Eschen represents what the Hereditary Prince mentioned as one of Liechtenstein’s great achievements. It’s the headquarters for numerous multinational companies such as Thyssenkrupp Presta, an auto systems manufacturer.

The trail led to Bendern on the bank of the Rhine, noticeably shallow from the lack of rains in the fall. So shallow, I saw a man sitting on a sandbar nearly in the middle of the river.

In the mid-50s and sunny, the weather couldn’t have been better as I meandered through Ruggell, wedged between the forest and the Rhine and where an old man took a pole to knock down apples from his huge tree.

A stone oven from the Roman Empire in Schellenberg.


From Ruggell I walked across expansive farmland and the length of a forest before ascending through a 100-foot canopy into a clearing. Here I saw Schellenberg’s claim to fame. Liechtenstein was part of the Roman Empire and in front of me stood a Roman ruin, complete with a round stone oven and lookouts over Ruggell, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps.

For a Roman soldier, this wouldn’t be a bad outpost.

A forest trail in Schaanwald.


Day 5 — Schellenberg-Mauren-Schaanwald, 6.8 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, 6 hours.

My last day may have been the most beautiful and the most exasperating. Rising early as I had to catch a flight out of Zurich that night, I found myself high above Schellenberg. At 9 a.m., as I climbed through farmland, a sea of clouds had settled under the mountains beyond. A velvet blanket formed the perfect backdrop for small, lonely farmhouses in the fields.

Inspired that I’d seen it all, I began double timing it to the Austrian border and the trail’s end. However, my cell phone’s GPS failed me. It couldn’t match up with the maps and I wound up asking directions in the town of Mauren three times and backtracking twice. When I finally made it across a huge green field into Schaanwald, I could not find the entrance to my last forest walk.

At the Liechtenstein-Austrian border and the end of the trail.


Fighting the desire to see if primal screams echo in the Alps, I called Knopfel who sent me on the right course. However, I took the wrong exit out of the forest and when I found the Austrian border, I had entered on the Austrian side. I missed one side street.

Still, I ventured 50 feet back across to Liechtenstein, turned around and snapped a memorable photo of the border sign and the end of my, ahem, cross-country venture.

Since the trail opened on the day my story appeared, Marketing Liechtenstein reports that more than 10,000 people have already hiked it. Did my story spoil it? No. In this Internet age, the world has no secrets. It just has more people with more information. Liechtenstein won’t change anytime soon.

Three hundred years of independence will do that.

The morning clouds sit under a small shelter above Schellenberg.

Menorca: Mallorca’s little brother is the ideal birthday getaway from Rome — or anywhere else

Cala Santa Galdana is just one of the beautiful beaches on Menorca. Photo by Marina Pascucci


SAN LLUIS, Spain — For the last couple of years Marina and I have tossed around a plan to live half the year on an island and half the year in Rome. If there is a more heavenly existence than that, it’s in a religion I don’t believe in. We focused on the Caribbean. I leaned toward Tobago; she favored Antigua. We discussed doing recon missions every summer to scout new islands.

That plan got scuttled when we saw the airlines fleece Italians going to the Caribbean every August, the most extended vacation time Italians have under their society’s Soviet-era work schedule. Every flight was more than 1,000 euros. We also didn’t want to spend our half year in Rome worrying every hurricane season if our newly acquired island flat would wind up kindling in Venezuela.

Then last winter I asked Marina where she wanted me to take her for her birthday in June. We’ve gone all over. Nice. Berlin. Oslo. Her answer surprised me.

“Minorca,” she said.

Huh?

Wait, I told her. I’m not going to Mallorca. The place is a tourist trap, lined with crowded beaches and drunk Englishmen. (Does Mallorca really have fish ‘n chips shops on the beach?) I’ve never been there and don’t normally judge anyplace until visiting it first. But Mallorca sounds like tripe: I don’t need to taste it to know I probably won’t like it.

“No,” she said. “MINN-orca.”

As it turns out, Mallorca’s little sister, which had avoided my rapidly shrinking bucket list for my 63 years, is one of the true pearls of the Mediterranean. I hadn’t heard of it because the Menorcans kind of want to keep it that way.

Located 155 miles southeast of Barcelona, Menorca (English spelling) has a population of 94,000 and is about a 10th the size of Mallorca (pop. 895,000) 80 miles to the southwest. Ibiza, one of the other major islands in the Balearic Islands chain and 190 miles south of Menorca, has 133,000 people and, I hear, almost as many clubs.

A couple on the beach of Punta Prima with the Illa de l’Aire lighthouse in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Abhorring clubs and drunks with equal vitriol, I thought Menorca would be as nice a present to me as Marina. Yet when we landed — it’s only a 90-minute flight from Rome — I knew I’d made one big mistake in my homework. We walked by the car rental desks and each one had at least 10 people in line. We went to the taxi stand and the drivers were doing crossword puzzles. We were the only passengers.

You need a car on Menorca. But this isn’t like you need a car in California. With 270 square miles, Menorca is about the size of El Paso. You can drive the lone main road of ME-1 30 miles from one end to the other in about 40 minutes. Small roads snake off ME-1 to various golden sand beaches, lonely coves and quaint villages.

Menorca, a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1993, has no scenic coast road. Instead, it has Cami de Cavalls (Bridal Path), a 115-mile walking path that circumvents the island broken into 20 handy hiking sections. Visitors don’t dance the night away in Menorca.

The walk the day away.

The view from our balcony at the PortBlue Hotel San Luis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Correcting my brain lock was no problem. Our PortBlue Hotel San Luis, part of the PortBlue Spanish chain, arranged for a car to be delivered the following morning. The 133-euro charge for three days began a trend of surprisingly cheap prices for our entire stay.

The hotel is in S’Algar, an unincorporated coastal resort area in Sant Lluis, so named for King Louis IX when France ran the island in the 18th century. The PortBlue is one of the few buildings on the island more than three stories as Menorca’s government put the kibosh on construction for a recent three-year period.

Yes, this is MEN-orca and not MY-orca.

The PortBlue Hotel pool.


The PortBlue isn’t on a beach. But we had a huge swimming pool ringed with comfy lounge chairs, a big air-conditioned room with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean less than a mile away. The breakfast buffet, Marina’s find-or-your-life-is-over travel requirement, had more variety than Denny’s.

The PortBlue is one of those all-inclusive resorts where visitors can eat every meal and drink every drink and only leave if the grounds are invaded by cobras. One hotel source said a British couple has been coming here twice a year for the last 45 years. I wonder if they’ve ever seen a beach.

We did not do the all-inclusive. We only did breakfasts, allowing us to explore the island every day for four days. The beaches were atop our list as the island is ringed with rock-free beaches and the kind of secluded coves you dream about while working your 10th straight day at your computer.

We drove to Ferrerias, in the center of the island, and took a left down a well-paved two-lane road to a huge gravel parking lot just above the sea. We walked down a wide, dirt path through a forest for 15 minutes before it emptied out to Cala Mitjana, recommended by our hotel.

Marina and I gasped. We were astonished by the beauty of this small beach on a narrow cove lined with cliffs for diving beneath a forest of trees. The mix of turquoise and blue-green sea looked like a water color on a museum wall. We were also astonished by the crowd. It was packed, towel-to-towel flesh and not a lounge chair in sight. This is called savage where you pack in your own chair and umbrella.

Being spoiled by Italian beaches, which make up for what they lack in barren simplicity with modern comforts, we stayed only 90 minutes and returned to the car. Getting directions from a woman handing out restaurant fliers, we walked out of the parking lot and descended a steep staircase. In five minutes we were at Cala Santa Galdana.

The water at Cala Santa Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Oh, my God!” Marina said in her soft Italian accent.

We had found Spanish Nirvana.

Cala Santa Galdana is a wide, gently curving beach about a kilometer long with fine, white sand and big shady trees scattered along the beach. Each comfy lounge chair had its own thatched umbrella. A couple of restaurants serve fresh fish and beach bars sling cold mugs of underrated Spanish beer.

I was definitely at peace on Cala Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We ignored the plethora of screaming children and fat, pasty English tourists and had a lovely two days on the sea. The Mediterranean was crystal clear and just cool enough to ward off dry, mid-80s temperatures. Between the comfy lounge chairs, a good English novel, the occasional cold beer and Marina under the umbrella, I think I saw a glimpse of our future part-time home.

Galdana isn’t even Menorca’s best beach. Cala en Turqueta, about three miles west as the seagull flies, is so popular a sign in the junction town of Ciutadella indicates if Turqueta’s parking lot is full. It always is by 10 a.m.

Menorca’s many outdoor cafes are perfect places for Estrella beer breaks. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The beauty of Menorca is the towns and villages all have their own individual character, fleshed out after a violent history. Formerly part of the Roman Empire, Menorca was also a target of pirates who raided rich Roman establishments. Then came the Vandals, Moors, Catalans, Turks and, presumably, Real Madrid. This is an island that over a 100-year period came under English, French and Spanish rule. The Spanish loved Menorca’s port to launch its naval wars and to begin the slave trade.

Sitting on Sant Lluis’ Carrer de Sant Lluis street, it’s hard to imagine the hardship suffered in a village so quaint. San Lluis is a collection of whitewashed buildings on quiet streets. A 40-foot flour windmill, built in 1792 and operational until 1942, dominates the landscape. An 18th century water well is nearby.

The 18th century windmill in Sant Lluis was operational until 1942. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The narrow road is cut off to cars on weekends but on weekdays not many come, either. We took an outdoor seat at Divinum, a wine bar that has five Menorcan wines in its collection from around the world. Owner Rachel Fletcher, a tall, statuesque wine connoisseur, came to Menorca when she was 9 after her father remarried and fell in love with the island on his honeymoon. He went back to England and brought the kids.

Forty years later, she’s still here. Over a glass of local Binifadet red wine with soft Spanish jazz playing in the background, I asked her what Menorca was like back when she was a kid.

“There was nothing,” she said. “It was wonderful. When we came over, there were four English families. We were one of them. That’s it. The port, the harbor, was all brick. If you moved over too much you’d be in the water. And it was real narrow.”

I told her it seems like Menorca has kept its culture. The island government’s restrictions on building have worked.

Carrer de San Lluis street in San Luis.


“Yes, Ibiza and Palma (Mallorca’s capital) have grown a lot more and they’ve got more hotels,” she said. “Here we’ve tried to maintain or keep the architecture. You don’t see huge hotels everywhere.”

Some in Menorca claim they’ve kept growth down too much. Tourism this year is down 30 percent. They blame excessive airport taxes that have made flights here more expensive than to Mallorca. A sample flight from Rome to Menorca on July 26 and returning a week later was 244 euros this week. To Mallorca on the same dates is 172 and with many more times from which to choose.

That’s fine with me. We were able to stroll the lovely city of Ciutadella, Menorca’s largest town with only 29,000 people, without ever running into a tour group in headphones. On the far western tip of Menorca, Ciutadella has quiet streets lined with maple trees, plazas filled with outdoor cafes and people strolling in the summer sun.

The pastel buildings on Ciutadella’s Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat in a quiet courtyard with two facing outdoor cafes. I ordered an ice-cold Estrella from inside where old Spanish women played video poker while young women in stylish shorts walked their dogs past our table. People of all ages biked down bike lanes with palm trees providing shade in the median.

We walked down Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis, an alley lined with small houses of beige and yellow and pink and blue. Pots with blooming flowers sat on window sills. And the town was spotless. In fact, all of Menorca was clean. We nary saw a cigarette butt. Coming from Rome, the filthiest capital in Europe, I almost felt as if I should take off my shoes.

Ciutadella’s harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“They are very recycling friendly,” said Vanesa Rodriguez, our hotel manager. “Everybody on the island is very responsible with the nature.”

At the end of the alley we saw Ciutadella’s beautiful harbor, a narrow inlet lined with pleasure craft bobbing up and down on cobalt blue water.

It made us want to jump in. So we did. I got us on a 3 ½-hour catamaran cruise out of Fornells, the major port town in the north. We joined about eight others from Sweden and Germany on a 40-foot boat under cloudless skies and pleasant wind.

Marina and I in front of Ciutadella’s 19th century city hall.


Few expensive pleasures are better than a sailboat ride on a perfect day. Spray over the bouncing bow cooled us off as we sunbathed on deck. When I gathered enough energy, I raised my head 12 inches and saw the high cliffs showing the geological marks dating back to the Jurassic Period. Due to the dryness, Menorca isn’t beautiful from sea. We passed barren land mass as we skirted around the west end of the island.

Snorkeling revealed remarkable visibility of about 60 feet. That’s South Pacific level for Europe where I’ve always avoided scuba diving despite being certified for 36 years. A school of a local seabream called an oblada circled around my fins before being served up in local restaurants later that week.

I came

The 40-foot catamaran even had a windsurfing board. Photo by Marina Pascucci

aboard and the captain greeted me with a pomada, an addictingly sweet local drink made from Menorca gin and lemon soda. With a little ice, it is what a Spritz is to Italy or a martini to Manhattan.

Besides the beaches, the tranquility and the villages, our other draw to Menorca was food. While Italy has the best food in the world (Shut up, you French. Tartare sucks.), Spain is certainly in the top 10. The fresh seafood along its 3,000-mile coastline, combined with its national dish of paella, its tapas and variety of grilled meats make dining out anywhere in Spain a gastro kaleidoscope.

Our paella at La Oveja Negra on Punta Prima. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We started out with seafood paella, Spain’s big sloppy skillet filled with brown rice, clams, mussels and octopus all swimming in a thick sauce. We found it La Oveja Negra, part of the string of casual, open-air restaurants lining Punta Prima, the beach just south of S’Algar. La Oveja Negra (The Black Sheep) has a sign listing all its different paellas, ranging from lobster to chicken and artichokes. It’s one of the heartiest dishes in Europe and the perfect fuel for a walk along the quiet beach in the moonlight.

At Meson El Gallo.


We ventured further afield to Meson El Gallo, a long one-story converted house in a garden covered with shady tree branches along the road to Cala Santa Galdana. A giant cactus stood in the parking lot, giving it the feel of a hacienda in rural Arizona. The waiters all wore jeans and T-shirts. If it was any more casual it would be a beach bar. But I had a terrific, lean steak in cheese sauce and a glass of Rioja, Spain’s internationally famous red wine that can’t match Italy’s gems but on a Spanish island in the middle of summer no other world wine is a better match.

But if Spain doesn’t have a law requiring every visitor to try tapas, it should. Tapas are Spanish hors d’oeuvres. These are not chips and dip or celery sticks. These are handcrafted snacks, usually hot, using everything from fresh fish to spicy sausage.

Salud to Menorca. We will return. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We returned to Carere Sant Lluis and took an outdoor seat at S’Olivera, next door to Divinum. From an entire page of tapas, we ordered little plates of croquetas de endivia (a breadcrumbed green vegetable native to Menorca), tiras de pollo (chicken fingers with salsa curry and mango sauce), camembert con jalea de moras (goat cheese with blueberry jam) and good ol’ fashioned fish ‘n chips. It was just the right amount of food and with a glass of wine each, the total bill was all of 33 euros.

About 80 percent of Menorca’s businesses close from about Oct. 1 to April 30. Still, that leaves about five months of pure island bliss, away from Rome’s heat during the tourist season and its growing garbage all year round.

Living in Menorca is a long way off but as this long weekend proved, it’s not just the destination. It’s the journey that’s the most fun.

Procida: Beauty and love in the Bay of Naples

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ten miles north of Capri, Procida is only 1.6 square miles with 12,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

(Director’s note: I’m traveling. Below is a re-posting of a blog from two years ago.)

PROCIDA, Italy — Italy has an innocence that can be forgotten when spending too much time in a city. Italy’s magic is in its sounds, colors and tastes. It’s not in its wealth or innovation, technology or military. It’s not the United States. It’s better, at least the lifestyle is.

Peel away the first layer of culture and see. Look past Rome and its monuments, Venice and its canals, Florence and its museums. You’ll see an Italy you dream about when you grind through your 10th straight day at the office or daydream after an old Italian romantic movie. It’s an Italy where villagers sit at sun-splashed outdoor cafes and talk about nothing, where fishermen mend nets on a quiet harbor, where boys play soccer in narrow, cobblestone alleys, where the smell of grilled fish and garlic permeate the air and where men have nothing better to do but fall in love.

It’s where I am right now.

The island of Procida doesn’t get much play outside Europe. The way it’s overshadowed by Capri 10 miles to the south, Capri might as well be Australia. But Procida (pronounced PRO-chee-duh) holds its own with Italians who see Capri as I do: an Italian theme park with better wine. Procida doesn’t have Capri’s vistas — and Capri’s do meet the hype — but it does have an Italian soul.

It’s why I took my girlfriend, the lovely and talented Marina Pascucci, to Procida for our two-year anniversary. She’s a Roman for Romans, a street-smart, third-generation Roman whom I can read like a Dante novel just by watching her hand gestures. But in Procida she softens. We both melted into the island culture like provolone on a pizza. Whether it was sitting on a marina sipping cold drinks or strolling the sandy beach or dining on ravioli so sensual we nearly forgot the gorgeous view of the harbor lights below us, Procida turned us into bit players in a romance novel.

Marina had never been to Procida. She’d only heard of it. She heard it was the anti-Capri, the place you go to get into Italy’s beauty without the crowds and remind yourself why you live in this gorgeous country.

There's not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci

There’s not a lot to do on Procida. So? Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s shocking, really, that she was also on her maiden visit. Procida is so easy to reach from Rome. We took a 70-minute train ride to Naples, a short cab ride to the ferry dock and a 30-minute hydroplane to the island. Another taxi through the windy streets up Procida’s hill took us to a hotel right out of Italian Dreams magazine, if there was such a thing.

The four-star Albergo La Vigna is a combination spa, vineyard, garden and lookout over the beautiful Gulf of Naples. Our room opened up to a big courtyard with a little cocktail table and two chairs looking out over the sea. The courtyard abutted a big garden where paths lead under grape vineyards and past flowers of orange, yellow, pink and white. A short stroll leads to a fence with a spectacular sea view, made even more comfortable by the small table and two chairs, perfect for a bottle of wine at sunset.

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Breakfast at La Vigna. Photo by Marina Pascucci


However, La Vigna’s big selling point is its spa. Twice we went to the front desk and blocked off an hour for ourselves to enjoy a private Jacuzzi and a Turkish steambath, topped with lounging on wicker lanais chairs and a cup of tea.

But we don’t travel to sit in hotels. It’s just that there isn’t a lot to do on Procida. That’s the point. The island is 1.6 square miles and has 12,000 people. You take in Procida from a seat on the sea. You drink it in as a chaser behind the Campania region’s delicious wines. After checking in and catching a breath after seeing the view from above, we descended the steep staircase from our village to Marina Corricella.

Couples can reserve La Vigna's spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Couples can reserve La Vigna’s spa for themselves. Photo by Marina Pascucci


For an idea of how idyllic Italian is this marina, they filmed “Il Postino” here. If you don’t know it, you should if you dream of Italy. It’s the 1994 film about a mailman (“postino” in Italian) named Mario who falls in love with a beautiful woman but doesn’t know how to get her to notice him. During his daily deliveries to the famed, exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, he asks him for the right words to say. The movie won the 1995 Oscar for Best Music and was nominated for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. Not Best Foreign Film. Best Picture.

The film is set in 1950 but today Procida looks pretty much the same. The pink building where Mario sits contemplating life without love is still there. Marina and I walked past it as we made our first stroll down the marina. It’s now a restaurant, christened La Locanda del Postino. It’s decorated inside with photos from the movie and star Massimo Troisi, who put off heart surgery to make the movie and after the last day of filming died of a heart attack. The building is one of a cascade of pastel buildings colored turquoise, green, yellow, white and orange. It’s like walking past a rainbow.

"Il Postino," starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“Il Postino,” starring Massimo Troisi and Maria Grazia Cucinotta, was filmed in Procida and nominated for Best Picture in 1995. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat at one of the many seaside restaurants with views of small boats bobbing up and down on the water. Fuego has red tablecloths and a touch of elegance but it’s definitely unpretentious, with pizzas priced at 4-8 euros. And it’s all Neapolitan-style pizza with the thicker crust featuring slightly burned edges from the wood-fire ovens that cook mankind’s favorite food to perfection. I had a lovely pizza of sausage, provolone cheese, cherry tomatoes, chili pepper and — and a first for me — a sprinkling of cream.

Next to us commandeering a long table were 26 Brits. They’ve worked for NATO in Naples for the last three years. Procida is their company getaway.

If food is big in Italy, it’s even bigger on the islands where seafood reigns supreme at cheap prices the cities can’t approach. In Procida, mussels fill entire soup bowls as appetizers. Calamari comes as thick as lobster tails. Shrimp pepper everything from salads to pasta. They’re on nearly every menu with interesting twists throughout the island, such as Crescenzo on the beach where I had the mezzo paccheri polpo and pecorino: thick, halved macaroni with octopus and pecorino cheese.

A night out in Procida.

A night out in Procida.


We had our first dinner at La Lampara, so romantic the tables should have blankets instead of napkins. It’s on the limestone cliff connecting the marina to the piazza above. Every table on the covered patio has a gorgeous view of the gently curving marina. The marina lights danced off the water, bathing the boats in soft gold.

La Lampara defies my theory that the better the view, the worse the food. My ravioli al sapore di mare (seafood ravioli) was ravioli stuffed with a ground mix of shrimp and ricotta cheese. It tasted like a tangy shrimp cocktail. It was simply the best ravioli I’ve had in a country that treats ravioli as works of art. Chased with a tiramisu sprinkled with lemon and a half carafe of local Falanghina Benevento red wine, La Lampara moved into my top five favorite restaurants in Italy.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.

Mussels and tiramisu with lemon at La Lampara.


After one day, I could see how Mario fell in love here. Procida drowns the senses with flavors and sights but also sounds. At one point in “Il Postino,” Mario records the sea lapping against the beach as part of a tape he makes of the sounds of Procida. I heard similar sounds the next day when we took a bus from the port to the long beach on the north end of the island. The bus took us through the heart of Procida few stop and experience. Little villages with names like L’Olmo and San Antonio and Centane had the same pastel colors lining the streets. Flowers were everywhere: on corners, on balconies, in windows.

We walked on the beach’s fine brown sand and I repelled Italian convention by walking into the dark blue sea in early May. Then I quickly walked out. It’s too cold to swim. Locals told me it’s swimmable from June through September. But the brilliant weather made it perfect for a completely suitable way to spend an afternoon in Italy: sitting on a beach towel and watching seagulls hunt for fish.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Chalet Vicidomini.


We walked along the boardwalk to the enclosed Marina Chiaiolella where we settled in at Chalet Vicidomini, a simple but romantic snack bar right on the marina. I had a cold beer and Marina had a bitter as we sat in the sun and stared out at the modest boats bobbing up and down in the water. This is the shoulder season, meaning the local joints are populated by Neapolitans, boat people and one couple from Rome: us.
Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida's Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Nowhere in Italy are lemons better than in Procida’s Campania region. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Locals say that Italy’s biggest recession since World War II hasn’t had an effect here. Advanced technology drove away its once-thriving shipbuilding industry in the 18th century and tourism has taken over what was once their biggest business: law enforcement. Hanging like a dead dragon nearly 300 feet up the cliff from Marina Corricella is an abandoned prison. Palazzo d’Avalos was built in 1500 for Cardinal Innico d’Avalos, but in 1830 it was converted into a prison and stayed active for more than 150 years. It finally closed in 1988 for the occasional guided tour but not before incarcerating tens of thousands of criminals and hundreds of guards.
This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This prison upon the cliff operated from 1830-1988. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The prison never appeared in “Il Postino” but looking at the boarded up prison windows, at least the prisoners had good views. You can’t miss its omnipresence as you climb the steep road to get the great views of the marina. But like the rest of the island, the prison is now at peace.

If you do come to Procida, here’s a tip: Return to Naples with enough time to eat at Da Michele. If you come to Italy merely to try authentic Italian pizza, Da Michele is a must. Started in 1870, it’s considered Italy’s first pizzeria. It’s also considered the best. Think about that. Think about how many pizzerias there are in Italy. That’s like being the best pub in Ireland.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.

The crowd waiting to get in at Da Michele.


I’d been there twice and wrote in my old traveling food column at The Denver Post that it was my favorite pizzeria in Italy. It still is. Just don’t expect ambiance or variety. Those left town generations ago. We arrived with our luggage after about a 15-minute walk from Naples’ ferry dock. As usual, a mob waited outside to get in. I took a number that had about 30 people ahead of us.
Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me and my margherita. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But the beauty of Da Michele is its simplicity. It only makes two pizzas: margherita (marinara sauce, provolone cheese and a sprig of basil) and marinara (marinara tomato sauce). That’s it. They’re 4-5 euros, depending on the size. Thus, it’s not like in the U.S. where they spend 15 minutes topping pizzas with everything from Sarawak pepper to a ‘67 Chevy. Our number was called in only 30 minutes.

We took a seat at the same table as another Italian couple. The waiters don’t even bother with menus. One came over and just said, “Margherita?” They came out in five minutes. While I love the healthy aspects of Italian pizza, with the thinner crusts, more natural ingredients, fewer toppings, I’m an American and I do like my meat. Sausage. Guanciale. Prosciutto. I like protein pizzas.

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Da Michele opened in Naples in 1870. Photo by Marina Pascucci


But at Da Michele, less isn’t just more. It’s the most. The marinara sauce tasted like biting into garden tomatoes. The provolone cheese was so fresh I could’ve dipped bread in it. The best part? The bill for two giant pizzas and two beers in arguably the best pizzeria in Italy and, thus, the world?

Fourteen euros.

Da Michele is also only a 10-minute walk from Naples’ train station. Like Da Michele’s pizzas, life in Italy can be oh, so simple. And Procida is simply the best.

Cycling in Tuscany: Salute! to winery hopping on two wheels

(Director’s note: I’m currently traveling in Central Asia and am running a couple of old armchair travel blogs. This one is from May 2016.)

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.

Few things go better with Tuscany than wine and cycling.


MONTERIGGIONI, Italy — I covered pro cycling for 10 years for The Denver Post and one question I asked pro cyclists when I first started was how much do they enjoy the scenery? Every cycling shot I see is of the cyclists cruising past fields filled with sunflowers or along an ocean beach or crisscrossing up a snowcapped mountain range. This is arguably the most beautiful sport in the world. Yet I usually got the same response.

“What scenery?”

Pro cyclists are too occupied jetting down mountains at 65 mph to gaze at green meadows. They’re too stressed trying to manage their final breakaway to ponder a sidewalk cafe in a French village.

We weekend hackers don’t have to worry about that. On my bike ride in Tuscany Tuesday, my biggest stress was which Chianti to buy.

Living in Rome is a cycler’s paradox. Rome is to cycling what Tehran is to nightclubs. It’s one of the least cycling friendly cities in the world. There are no bike paths. The cobblestones are brutal. The drivers are worse. I once wrote a blog about trying to cycle along the Tiber River to Ostia on the sea and wound up in a gypsy camp. Cycling in Phnom Penh is better. However, I’m only a short ride from some of the most beautiful cycling terrain in the world. It’s where grape vines flicker in the sun under emerald green hills. It’s where wildflowers of red, purple and orange line forest roads and lead to quaint villages where wine flows like water and the air smells of cheese and prosciutto.

The Giro d'Italia comes through Castellina in Chianti today.

The Giro d’Italia comes through Castellina in Chianti today.


Cycling in Tuscany is such a remarkable experience it’s almost a cliche. But like all overused terms, the core is truth. On Tuesday I took my first Tuscany bike ride. In Tuscany, cycling takes on a different quality. Wineries dot Tuscany like snowflakes on a ski slope. You can’t ride more than 30 minutes without seeing neat rows of grapevines behind an 18th century house teasing you with outdoor tables and a view of a meadow.

I went with a company called Bike Florence & Tuscany (www.bikeinflorence.com, info@bikeinflorence.com). Piero Didona and his wife, Elena Boscherini, started the company three years ago after Piero ran a bike shop for 20 years. They both have those lean, tanned bodies that are the committed cyclist’s calling cards. This isn’t just a business to them. Cycling is their passion. Piero told me when he’s not leading tours, he’s riding, sometimes up to 100 miles in a day. Riding in Tuscany always appealed to me. But one thought haunted me as I took the dawn train ride 90 minutes from Rome to Florence.

I haven’t even sat on a bike in three years.

This was my first time on a bike in three years.

This was my first time on a bike in three years.


I wrote about cycling but I’m not a cyclist. I always thought cycling is how you go to a 7-Eleven when your car breaks down. Part of my problem stems from riding the same bike I received as my high school graduation present in 1974: a 10-speed Raleigh Grand Prix that weighed just slightly less than my Honda Accord. The bike lock alone could shackle most minimum-security prisons.

Piero told me not to worry. It isn’t difficult. He did offer a pseudo warning.

“You have to be fit,” he said. “Tuscany isn’t flat. Some people think they’re fit because they bike 150 miles per week but they’re riding in Florida. It’s very flat. After the first hill they about die: ‘We don’t have this at home.’”

I wasn’t concerned. After all, if we’re cycling to Tuscan wineries, I’ll find that extra gear.

Florence in the morning mist with the Duomo on the right and the tower in the Palazzo di Vecchio on the left.

Florence in the morning mist with the Duomo on the right and the tower in the Palazzo di Vecchio on the left.


Elena met me at the train station and immediately took me to a spot in Florence I’ve never seen. Piazzale Michelangelo offers a spectacular view of one of the world’s prettiest cities. Florence’s famed brick-domed Duomo stood out through the morning haze over a quilt of red-tiled roofs.To the left was the tower of Palazzo di Vecchio and running below was the Arno River, looking as fresh as a mountain brook in Colorado compared to the filthy Tiber. Florence is so overrun with tourists all year it’s hard to find a quiet spot in the city.

This is one of them.

A young couple from New York met us and we drove up the winding hills to the town of San Donato where we met Piero and a family of five from Chicago. This is where we would start our adventure. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. The trip is basically a wine tasting with cycling thrown in. We covered only 13 miles, mostly downhill. We started at 1,800 feet and ended at 600. You do the math.

The view from San Donato.

The view from San Donato.


I didn’t feel bad dressed like I, indeed, was going to the 7-Eleven because my car broke down: baggy beach shorts, red T-shirt and Nikes. Not one of us eight riders had a stitch of Lycra. If you’re into wine and need an excuse to ride a bike again, this is the trip to take.

The entire trip is done in the famed Chianti region which spreads like a wine stain over nearly half of Tuscany. One of the major things I took away from this trip — along with two terrific bottles of wine — is the difference in Chiantis. The Chianti region covers several overlapping areas designated as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). To be labeled a Chianti, a wine must consist of at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes. And the grapes must come from these regions to guarantee this important DOC or DOCG label on the bottle. If you buy a Chianti without one of those on the label, save it for cooking or your cat.
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Chianti is the pride of Tuscany and one of the prides of Italy. And it is massively popular around the world. Every year this small region produces 8 million cases of wine. Not all are the same. Pay attention and impress your friends at your next dinner party:

Chianti: A simple Chianti is a blend or consists of some grapes found outside the designated regions.

Chianti Classico: The grapes come only from a Chianti sub-region in Chianti’s heartland. Only Chianti from this area can use the black rooster seal (the gallo nero) on the neck of the bottle.

Chianti Reserva: Is aged at least 38 months instead of the usual four to seven. At least one year must be stored in wood.

Chianti Gran Selezione: Made with the very best grapes from the same vineyard as a reserva and stored at least 18 months.

San Donato

San Donato


San Donato is a good place to start. At 1,800 feet, it felt cool despite the beaming sunshine. I strolled through the village which was about 100 meters long. I heard roosters crowing. I saw old men chat in front of a cafe. I looked down from the height over an array of purple wildflowers and saw vineyards and meadows and forests. All I needed was a glass of wine.

The bikes loaned to us were high-end Specialized, the American bike company that’s the top selling bike in Italy. Mine was a 27-gear hybrid that felt like a Maserati after 40 years on my Raleigh. We wheeled down the hill, going just slow enough to take in the incredible green panorama below us. With so few hills, it was like riding through Tuscany in a convertible and at the end of a 20-minute ride one of the best glasses of wine in the world waited for us, not to mention Simone, their assistant, handing out wet towelettes.

The departure from San Donato.

The departure from San Donato.


We came into the town of Castellina in Chianti. Its one main drag is lined with Italian specialty shops ranging from espresso makers to dried risotto to leather belts. A souvenir shop sold Lycra cycling jerseys labeled Chianti Classico in Chianti’s purple color in honor of the Giro d’Italia bike race that’s coming through town today. An underground street has a cozy enoteca and the back entrance to our first wine tasting. I looked at my watch. It was 11 a.m.

“You can’t drink all day if you don’t drink in the morning,” deadpanned one of the riders.

Aleandro , owner of Enoteca Le Volte in Castellina in Chianti.

Aleandro , owner of Enoteca Le Volte in Castellina in Chianti.


Aleandro opened Le Volte Enoteca in 1960 and is still running around the store in his wine apron to this day. The brick, arched store smelled of cheese and cinghiale, the wild boar that are as plentiful in Chianti as corkscrews. Le Volte is such a fine store, it serves a bottle of balsamic vinegar from Modena on a gold pillow in a wooden case for 145 euros.

Aleandro’s burly French assistant, Gilles Kehren, started us off with a Vernaccia, the famed white wine from San Gimignano, the Tuscan town known worldwide for its massive towers. It’s as good a white wine produced in Tuscany and one overlooked by those drowning themselves in Chiantis and Montepulcianos.

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.

Gilles Kehren and the Vernaccia.


I fell for a wine I’d never heard of: the Bolgheri. The Bolgheri Superiore is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s deep, rich and full bodied and well worth the 31.50 euro retail. Giles plied us with slivers of cinghiale and pork sausage on bread and we were ready to head back down the hill.

We wound down the hill over some lovely long stretches of flat road where each turn offered new villages in the distance to see. We could even see San Donato high above us but just below us around the next turn was our destination.

The road to Monteriggioni.

The road to Monteriggioni.


Lornano is a winery/agriturismo outside the town of Monteriggioni. An agriturismo is like a villa but in a farmhouse. I took one look after walking down the gravel path and immediately wanted a reservation for June. A sparkling turquoise swimming pool overlooked the rolling green Tuscan countryside. A small cast iron table and two chairs stood on a patio lined with vines, shrubs and white flowers. The stone buildings housing the rooms looked like something Leonardo Da Vinci may have stayed in while resting from painting Madonnas.

And inside the main quarters were barrels upon barrels of some of the best wine in the world.

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.

The pool at Lornano argriturismo and winery.


Angioletta took us into the crispy cool storage areas where she explained the fermentation process. She showed us a glass designed by Michelangelo that takes the excess gas from the wine barrels. We had tastings of a whole array of Chiantis which became extraordinarily educational for someone like me who has made wine one of my four major food groups. Living in Rome, Chianti has become the table wine I get when I don’t want to spend money on something better.
Chianti Classico at Lornano.

Chianti Classico at Lornano.


But in Tuscany, especially at Lornano, I re-fell in love with Chianti. The first Chianti Classico I had, a 2012, was 100 percent Sangiovese and absolutely terrific. Rich enough to serve with spicy Italian sausage but light enough to drink with crackers and cheese. It was an absolute steal at 19 euros.

I tried the Chianti Gran Selezione. Its classy gold label well represented its 62-euro price tag but I’m not discriminatory enough — or rich enough — to tell much of a difference. All I could think of was sipping that bottle of Chianti Classico in June, poolside with my girlfriend, Marina, looking down at rural Tuscany.

I had to wake from my daydreaming to get back on my bike for our last stretch. This one consisted of three little hills that wouldn’t rate a Category 5 on the Giro’s Cat 1-5 mountain chart (5 being the easiest) but did rate a warning from Piero that anyone not feeling up for it can ride in the chase car. One woman did. The rest plowed along. As I rested at the top of the rise after barely breathing hard — more from the ease of the three climbs on my two-wheeled Maserati than any fitness — two women were walking their bikes uphill.

Piazza in Monteriggioni.

Piazza in Monteriggioni.


They managed to make it to the village of Monteriggioni, a medieval walled town founded in 1215 and mentioned in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” It’s still populated by only 42 people. Its piazza, inside 1,870 feet of walls, houses a gargantuan Romanesque church and Antico Travaglio, a cute trattoria where we sat in an enclosed courtyard. Over a bowl of papperdelle cinghiale, one of the trademark dishes of Tuscany, I asked Piero about the massive popularity of cycling in Tuscany. It is as romantic as it sounds.
Pappardelle cinghiale.

Pappardelle cinghiale.


“Now cycling is becoming more popular,” he said. “More people are looking for beautiful places to express themselves. More tourists are bikers.” His company runs bike tours 12 months a year and have all levels of routes, including some similar to the Giro stages for the serious masochists.

We went upstairs to our last wine tasting. Monte Chiaro Terre della Grigia is in the first building in town, built nearly 1,000 years ago. Seila Bruschi is a wildly enthusiastic blonde sales manager who gave us the rundown. “See that church?” she said pointing to the one across the street before pointing around the store. “This is my church.”

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.

Seila Bruschi with the Malvesia Nera.


She had me try a Malvesia Nera. It’s 100 percent Pinot Noir, exactly the same as my native Oregon which boasts — and I agree — the best Pinot in the world. The Malvasia was damn close. Adding chunks of Chianti-induced pecorino, I knew what I’d have on my terrace the next time I got home.

Cycling in Tuscany. It was more fun exercise than a workout but the views were only surpassed by the wines. The biggest surprise wasn’t the ease of the cycling but the reasonable prices of the world-renowned wines. Next time I see a pro cyclist I know what I’m going to tell him.

You have no idea what you’ve been missing.

Nephew’s visit to Roma-Juventus adds perspective to U.S. soccer woes

Me and my nephew, Spencer Treffry, the Oregon High School Soccer Player of the Year in 2008, at Sunday’s Roma-Juventus match in Olympic Stadium.


My nephew from California and his girlfriend are staying at my place in Rome for a week, mixing in some wine, pasta and art with his passion for soccer. His first European soccer match was Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals May 1 and then the couple joined Marina and me for Roma’s 2-0 win over evil Juventus Sunday night. He has nearly worn out his cell video of Lionel Messi’s epic free kick goal. I think he may have slept Sunday night wearing his new AS Roma scarf.

We both quasi represent the world’s two biggest soccer disappointments. Neither the United States nor Italy qualified for last year’s World Cup, ending a string of 21 combined straight appearances. However, Italy has won four World Cups. Last year’s pratfall is considered a blip on its historical radar.

But the U.S. remains a sport-wide mystery. Despite 325 million people, a rich federation, a successful pro league and a sport that has exploded at the youth level since the 1970s, the U.S. has only gone as far as the World Cup quarterfinals once. Last year, it didn’t even qualify despite playing in CONCACAF, world soccer’s equivalent to a sunset stroll.

My nephew, Spencer Treffry, has qualified insight into the problem. At 28, he was a product of the U.S.’ elite Olympic Development Program and saw first hand the problems the U.S. has had and why it hasn’t caught up with Europe’s elite. He started playing in kindergarten, made traveling teams when he became old enough and developed into the Oregon State Player of the Year in 2008, leading Eugene’s Churchill High to the state title. Deemed too thin (he was a wispy 5-foot-10, 120 pounds) for a college scholarship, he continued playing club ball at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and continues playing city league soccer today around their home in Pismo Beach, California.

As he grew up, I tweaked his interest in world soccer by sending him jerseys during my various travels, from the Brazil national team to Zenit of St. Petersburg, Russia. He even has one from Togo, bought in Munich when I covered the 2006 World Cup. His Palermo jersey was always one of his most popular, due to its pink color and his security in his own manhood.

The U.S.’ biggest problem, he says, isn’t at the national level where it is on its fourth coach in three years. It’s at the youth level where he saw first hand the differences between the American and European approaches.

“I was lucky to have some good coaches growing up, but most people don’t,” he said. “Most youth coaches in the U.S. are just dads. They played baseball, football, basketball and their second grader needs a soccer coach. So they’re out there running kids around and making sure everyone’s having fun, but they have no idea how to play the game.”

Growing up in Eugene, his first club coaches were English, he had another from Germany and one American who played professionally in Costa Rica. They knew what they were doing and did more than just roll out the balls. The American introduced them to futsal, soccer played on a miniature field, forcing you to develop skills in tighter spaces. It’s very popular in South America.

“He brought little goals out on the tennis court, brought speakers out and played samba music,” he said. “Bounce to the rhythm and go have fun. You see it in the way Barcelona plays, the way they ping the ball. It’s very natural, very flowy.”

I don’t agree that the problem is too much competition from other sports. The U.S. has the population. When I worked in suburban Seattle I wrote a story about how youth soccer numbers had passed baseball’s in the state of Washington. I quoted officials saying it shows the U.S. would someday be the world’s greatest soccer power.

I wrote that story in 1979.

Even today, 2.5 million boys play youth soccer in the U.S., almost as many as the 3 million who play youth baseball. Croatia made last year’s World Cup finals and its entire population is only 4.1 million. The problem is just because American youths like to play soccer, they don’t necessarily like to watch it.

Spencer didn’t start watching soccer until he reached college.

“I started watching it and my game immediately elevated, absolutely,” he said. “When we were in Florence we were talking to the guy who owned our B&B who’s an artist. He was talking about you immerse yourself in this art community that is Florence and go look at and watch what the masters did and then you go back and try to apply that in your apartment. I always draw these metaphors back to soccer. It’s the same thing. You watch somebody do something and get a spark of an idea and then you go back and apply it.”

The situation in the U.S. is changing. The MLS’ average attendance last year of 21,876 is nearly on a par with Serie A’s 24,767. It has expanded to 24 teams and each club must now have its own youth academy. Even the national team has gone 3 wins, 1 tie and no losses in friendlies under new coach Gregg Berhalter.

NBC has the English Premier League contract but even in Spencer’s soccer-crazed area of California’s Central Coast, he couldn’t find the Real Madrid-Barcelona game on TV at noon California time.

Unfortunately, he did find last year’s United States-Trinidad & Tobago match in which the U.S. only had to tie in a half-empty Caribbean stadium where a good portion of the fans were American. They lost, 2-1, and combined with Honduras’ win over Mexico, the U.S. was sent home as well as coach Bruce Arena.

“Totally uninspired, uncreative soccer,” Spencer said. “I am optimistic now that we’ve basically had a change of guard. This last World Cup with that result basically said bye-bye to the players entrenched for the last 10 years. We’re not going to see (Michael) Bradley in the starting lineup anymore. (Jozy) Altidore is probably out the door. (Tim) Howard. (Clint) Dempsey, all these guys who were good players when they were young.

“The U.S. wasn’t terrible on the world stage. They just didn’t turn over any new talent for 10 years. It’s always hard for me to watch the U.S. men’s soccer team and believe those are the 11 best players in the country.

Spencer is a growing romanista in California.


***

He was about to see the best player in the world and arguably in history. After seeing Messi light up Liverpool (before, of course, Barcelona folded like a lawn chair in the second leg), Spencer was going to see Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo. Every country in the world has sports bars debating whether Messi or Ronaldo deserve the crown and then they throw in Pele and Maradona in the GOAT argument.

Marina is a third-generation Roman who has plied me with AS Roma gifts for four years. She is a romanista but too much of a fashionista to wear anything with a logo depicting a nursing she-wolf. I bought her a generic AS Roma ballcap for the game.

“John,” she said as she reluctantly put it on for the walk to the stadium, “this is love.”

The game had plenty of drama. With three games left, sixth-place Roma stood four points behind Inter Milan, which won Saturday, for next season’s fourth and final Champions League spot and three behind AC Milan. After Sunday, two games remain in the season although Milan has three.

Considering the mess Roma has been in, it’s a remarkable achievement. It fired its coach after getting bounced from this season’s Champions League and the current one is caretaker and Rome’s native son Claudio Ranieri. The sporting director quit in protest of the firing, and the goalie got benched. The best player the last month has probably been new goalkeeper Antonio Mirante who’s about my age.

Olympic Stadium was packed with 50,000 people to watch Roma try and save its season against a Juventus team that clinched its unprecedented eighth straight Serie A title by about Easter. I was hoping Juventus showed up wearing little pointy party hats or Ronaldo hung over. Nope. He doesn’t drink.

Juventus played its top lineup and previewed its next season’s uniform, a sharp black-and-white checked number that Juve fans have destroyed on social media. Juve played loose and free and was gunning from all angles. Mirante made a brilliant save in the sixth minute on a one-on-one encounter and then stopped Ronaldo 10 minutes later.

I’ve watched enough soccer to know the biggest gap between the U.S. and the soccer powers is the creativity in shot making. U.S. players don’t play on the streets or beaches. You don’t see the shots you see in Europe, or even the first 16 minutes Sunday night.

Spencer agreed.

Before the game, from left, Marina Pascucci, me, Kelsey Weber, Spencer.


“It’s the touch before the shot,” he said. “Give yourself an opportunity to take a controlled shot, to curl a ball into the far post or put it inside the near post. You’re not reaching for it. You’re not stretching or off balance.

“(These guys) land on their feet after they take a shot. You watch a lot of American players and they’re just swinging for a ball and they fall over afterwards because they’re off balance.”

It’s 0-0 at halftime and the second half the Roma ultras in Curva Sud are in full throttle as they greet an injured Juventus player with, “DEVI MORIRE! DEVI MORIRE!” (YOU MUST DIE! YOU MUST DIE!).

Ronaldo piqued Spencer’s dream as he scored on a beautiful one on one breakaway but was called offsides. Both teams were pretty sloppy until Alessandro Florenzi, the Roma captain who grew up in the heart of Centro Storico, looped a ball over ex-Roma goalie Wojciech Szczesny for a 1-0 lead in the 80th minute. Edin Dzeko, Roma’s up-and-down star striker, scored on a 3-on-1 in stoppage time for a desperately needed 2-0 win.

Marina screamed like a season ticket holder. We all high fived. We stuck around to listen to the 50,000 fans sway together singing “Grazie, Roma.” After a long walk to the subway and post-game beer, I asked Spencer what he, an American soccer fanatic who knows the game, thought of the atmosphere in Europe.

“It’s awesome for me to get to watch professional soccer at this level,” he said. “To have a fan section that really knows the game, watching. Even the people in front of us: father, son, younger son, all leaning forward watching the game.

“We need that kind of passion and education.”