When travel is all about food
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Washington - I'm not necessarily saying that the chief reason to take a long hike is a good meal at the end.
But for travellers like me, the point is often the food. No, that's a lie. The point is always the food.
My husband and I have friends who share our philosophy: If you haven't gone to a country known for its food primarily to experience its food, you're missing the point of travel. Beyond the occasional glitch (no, I will not go into that long day on the Great Wall of China), we all travel well together and have so for years, since first meeting over moules frites in Brussels when we lived in that food-obsessed city.
Take the Path of the Gods (Sentiero degli Dei) along the mountain peaks above Positano on the Amalfi Coast in Italy a few years back. True, we were hiking along ancient stone pathways bleached white by the sun and put in place by ancient peoples. And true, the vistas of sea and olive trees and craggy hills were breathtaking. But for us, the ultimate joy of the Walk of the Gods was the heavenly fresh mozzarella and the clam pasta at La Cambusa on the stony beach in Positano later that day.
Then there was hiking in the verdant hills of the Auvergne region of France, magical if muddy. Sodden weather had made the paths into shoe-sucking, manure-enhanced muck that meandered down mountainsides into villages built entirely of gray stone, medieval places where time has stopped. Despite the fairy-tale scenes, what was truly a peak at the end of the soggy day were the lentils and pork at the charming inn Les Tilleuls in Saint-Cirgues-de-Jordanne.
Another holiday involved climbing the high peaks of the Andes in Patagonia. Argentina was green and fun, as was sipping mate tea on the mountainside with our cute Germanic-blond Argentine guide. But the real reward was asado - grilled steak and chicken, tender and charred - as we sipped malbec that evening.
This year's adventure took us to Santorini, Greece, the land of cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives, feta cheese served in a dizzying variety of ways, and yogurt that's thicker and more flavourful than any I've ever eaten. Of course the famed 10-kilometre hike from Fira to Oia at the northern tip of the island was going to have something to do with food.
At least it was in my head. But as we set off around noon on that hot and sunny September day, we were armed only with water and a bag of salty almonds I had insisted on buying in Fira.
More than three hours later, after having been fried by the sun along the rim of Santorini's caldera - a deep crater of lushly turquoise water encircled like a backward letter C by the rocky volcanic peaks that make up this island - we finally sat down to eat in Oia. Although it was easily the 10th Greek salad I had eaten in a week, our late-afternoon lunch was still rich and satisfying, with a fat slab of feta atop a pile of deep-red tomatoes, cucumbers, Kalamata olives and slices of onion, all seasoned with olive oil and oregano. A simple meal, washed down with Mythos beer, but a fitting reward for the sweat under Plato's sun.
Later in the day, we made an enormous tactical error. Actually, I'll take the blame for this. I wanted to see the sunset. To do so, we made reservations at a restaurant in town with a westward-facing terrace. We also chose the place because of its appealing name, though I first thought it was Okra, like the vegetable. The name was actually Ochre, like the burnt-orange color of the setting sun.
Oia, the town at the northern tip of Santorini, is famous for its spectacular sunsets. The only problem is that the town's narrow cobblestone alleys, chockablock with gift shops selling sea sponges and silver earrings and cafes serving souvlaki and baklava, become a nightmarish mass of humanity as sunset nears. The closer the orange orb gets to the horizon, the more the hordes of Chinese, German, Australian, American and French tourists crowd the lanes, selfie sticks held high, to capture the sun-over-water scene.
I was swallowed into the wave of people and became separated from my husband and friends, who, it turned out, had balked at the tide of humans and turned around without telling me. They found Ochre. As they drank sparkling water with lemon and tried to call my cellphone, I was trapped, peeking around shoulders to stare at the sun as it burned my eyes and thinking of the far more beautiful sunsets in El Nido, in the Philippines, and even Nokomis, Florida, on the Gulf Coast.
When I was eventually rescued and reunited with my companions at Ochre, set on a terrace above the selfie-obsessed tourists, I was rewarded with a meal better than any sunset: tender deep-fried calamari, moussaka, and some seriously alcoholic gin and tonics. As my pounding heart slowed down, I dipped my bread in olive oil and took in the remains of the day, the sky pink with wispy clouds streaking horizontal and the air cool and pleasant.
All was well, though I had almost failed by violating one of my infallible rules of travel: Make it about the food and you will always be rewarded. Look to the feta.
* Bruno recently returned to Washington after living in Beijing for three years. She and her husband, Bob Davis, are the authors of Beijing From A To Z: An Expat Couple's Adventures On China, published as an e-book by the Wall Street Journal.
The Washington Post