It’s locals that are key to travels

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This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge 12. For more info go to the challenge’s blog!

Being challenged to get out of my writing hiatus by no lesser than Anatoli and Jeff, encouraged by Linda, and having felt the drag of not writing for a while, I checked out this month’s wine writing challenge’s theme: The Armchair Sommelier won the last challenge, and picked the topic “local”.

While I have mixed feelings relating to the word “local”, and tried to write a diatribe fueled by these, I decided to spare you my anti-hipster and local does not equate good rant, and instead use this theme to sing an ode to locals, the people that make my travels awesome. After all, I like to be positive and upbeat.

One of the reasons I love traveling so much is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, travelers and locals alike. I am keen on meeting people who have been living in a city for all their lives, or have intimate knowledge of the region (whether they are from there or just happen to live there or have spent a lot of time there). Our travels mostly revolve around where we can visit friends and tap into their local knowledge. Because it is locals that truly understand what is local and what should be part of our experience. Locals have a keen interest in you getting to know a region through their eyes, so that you can see why they love where they live.

This summer, we stayed in Tuscany for a week, in a small hamlet on a hill, about 10 miles from Siena. The next village was a couple of miles away, and it had an insanely typical tiny Italian grocery store which was our main source for fresh veggies, cheese, and meats. The store owner and I hit it off in Italian (I speak some), and one morning as I was there, a Belgian older man asked for a restaurant in English. The owner asked me to translate his directions to the Belgian and I did. As the man left, I told the owner that this was a great coincidence, because i had meant to ask him where we could eat well. He looked at me, horrified, and exclaimed: “No, no, no! Don’t go where I told him to go!! Let me think, there are no good restaurants here, but there is one, a couple of villages down the road.” He told me because he realized that I cared, and because we had a relationship with each other. It is always worth building up a relationship.

Sunset over Siena

Sunset over Siena

Last year, when we were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we stayed at a small guesthouse in the university part of town run by a young couple. The first morning when we came down the stairs, our host Tee asked whether we wanted western or Thai breakfast. When we said Thai (of course), he walked us to a tiny place in a side street, run by three women. The breakfast consisted of chopped chicken breast over rice cooked in chicken stock, and you added your own blend of ginger, chilis and soy sauce over it. It was divine. The ladies spoke no English, and when it was time to pay, we realized it was under a dollar. We went back every day, and our excitement about the place was only matched by the ladies’ excitement that we kept coming back. We communicated with hand and feet, as we say in German, and it was awesome. While I have no photo of the stall, I do have a photo of these local mushrooms, that our host’s mom had collected. They were delicious.

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This summer, we also went to Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy around Ancona, and visited Tenuta San Marcello, a young biodynamic estate, at the owner’s invitation. We had met Pascale and Massimo at VinItaly in New York this spring, and they invited us. When we arrived, we were floored by their hospitality (more on that in a separate post). However, one of the most amazing things was that Massimo wanted us to use one of our two days with them to visit other wineries in the region. He set up a whole itinerary for us, we visited an olive oil maker (a retired RAI journalist who gave us a two and a half hour tour) and several winemakers. It was a stunning show of what locals can do for you, and how their love of their region can make you fall in love as well. We fell in love so hard that we changed our plans and returned for another three days with my mother in law after our stay in Tuscany.

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

Staying at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, we had a long conversation with the reception staff. After Nina had convinced them that she is outright crazy when it comes to adventures, they told her that the world’s highest commercial bungee jump was six or seven hours away on the Garden Route. We changed our itinerary to make a detour there, and while I was so scared I had zero body control anymore, the result was this awesome photo, and the knowledge that I don’t ever have to do a bungee jump again. Needless to say, Nina jumped twice.

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

During our second visit to Le Marche, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports (I wrote about his awesome business here), arranged for us to visit another winery. Jonathan is considered a local by many of the people we met, including the owner of Vignamato, Maurizio, the estate we visited with Jonathan’s help. The owner had received Jonathan’s email Saturday morning, after hosting his birthday party on Friday night for over 100 people. We spent a good three hours with him that same Saturday evening, had tons of fun, and when I asked him “dove si mangia bene” (where does one eat well? – remember that sentence when in Italy!), he thought for a while, made a phone call, and then sent us to the most enchanted little husband and wife restaurant in an old Palazzo: Osteria sotto le Mura. At first, we missed the place, because there were no signs, but another local, a cute rotund septuagenarian walked us to the restaurant once I asked.

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

While we visited my host family in Burgundy (my host brother and I have known each other for 25 years this year!), they went on a mission to make me try true local foods. Everyone knows boeuf bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) and mustards, and some might be familiar with Dijon’s spice bread pain d’epices, but there is so much more! I tried jambon persillé for the first time, which is chunks of ham in a gelée of parsley, like a terrine. It was wonderful, and the genius idea of throwing it in scrambled eggs was Nina’s. Speaking of eggs, I also had my first oefs en meurette, poached eggs covered in a red wine sauce that is similar to a bouef bourguignon sauce, just without the beef. It was eye opening in its deliciousness. I had spent significant time in Burgundy before, but these were still firsts for me. Locals have an immense trove of treasures to share, and it never gets old.

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

I could go and on (like our friend in Milan making sure I have the most extensive restaurant list for Rome, where he had lived for a couple of years or the random Boer at a rural gas station who sent us to the most amazing guesthouse that was on no internet list), but my main message is this: When you travel, go find locals and talk to them, in bars, in restaurants, in shops. You don’t need to pay a fortune to get a “guided” tour by someone. I have never contemplated this as an option, because these tours don’t allow you to do whatever you please, and go wherever the wind or local advice takes you. Even if you find yourself in a bind, there are usually tours offered directly in a town or region and this cuts out the middleman. Locals are the true heroes of my travels, and I am thrilled to meet more on my next trip. So, thank you, locals, for making my travels awesome.

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