Ithaca and the Finger Lakes

Trip Start May 26, 2007
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Trip End Jul 06, 2007


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Flag of United States  , New York
Saturday, June 9, 2007

Ithaca, which I knew as home to Cornell University is about 40 miles north of Binghamton. Some months ago I has some correspondence with a fellow historian at Ithaca College who said that given I would be at Bingo it would make sens to come and see a pretty town on a nice lake. Then it transpired that Maria Cook, Professor of Migration Studies at Cornell, was a member pf Project SafeCom, the human rights organisation which I chair. So I arranged to visit. In the mean time I had read about the Finger Lakes region of NY in a book called "1000 places to see before you die", and realised that Ithaca was in the this region, and the lake it sits on - Cayuga- is the second biggest of the Finger Lakes. Trip became better and better.

The bus trip up was about an hour, over winding country road through hilly country covered in forest and dotted with ponds and streams. Passed a number of little hamlets and villages, many with empty dilapidated wooden houses, and barns slowly decaying back into the soil. They were cute, quaint, old - worldly. Not really changed since the roads were sealed in the 1950s I guess. But clearly decaying, like in Australia the countryside is emptying out, but rather than leaving a cleared, shattered, salt infested disaster, here the forest grows back fast. A beautiful landscape. A fellow passenger (tough looking African American guy in a leather jacket and round leather cap) on the bus was a keen fisherman, and he was telling me about all the various ponds and river she had fished in the area, and how looking at it he was wishing he had brought his fishing pole. Suggested he might be able to hire one in Ithaca, which cheered him up no end. He was good fun, Two other guys on the bus travelling to Ithaca for the Cornell reunion weekend picked up on my accent, and regaled mw with all the sites and views I had to look at once I got to Ithaca. Great fun trip all round.

To understand this area, you have to understand some geology. This region was shaped by the ice age. The basic structure is a high plateau, in to which the glaciers carved deep gouges. These became the "finger lakes, a series of more or less parallel lakes, long and thin like fingers. Cayuga and Seneca, the two biggest are about 2 km wide and 60 km long. These lakes are situated about 200 metres below the top of the plateau, so the rivers and streams that feed them (and this is a high snowfall area, so the water volume is immense) have to work their way down to the lake level through a series of deep gorges and waterfalls. Add the immense forest cover and you have an awe-inspiring set of scenery. It also explains why, once canals were built linking the lakes to the Hudson River and thus New York, the early American Industrial Revolution based on water powered textile mills occurred here. Just like the English Midlands and Yorkshire.

So an area of staggering natural beauty. Especially for an arid land dweller from Western Australia. The density of the trees, the greenness of the foliage, the sheer volume of water...stunning. This has to be the most beautiful part of the world I have ever seen. It exactly fitted my mental image of North America which I developed as a boy reading stories about Indians and trappers in the woods, especially the works of James Fenimore Cooper. No surprise, because those stories were set here. It is jus that I assumed this world was gone, felled, cleared, farmed and urbanised. To find if flourishing was amazing. And wildlife. I saw deer, squirrels, jackrabbits, woodchucks, raccoons, opossums, groundhogs, Canada geese. Lots of small brightly coloured birds. Vultures and hawks circling. Heard stores about wild turkeys and black bears moving back into the area.

Ithaca is a beautiful little college town full of nineteenth century weatherboard two or more storey houses. Maria and her husband Lance, a specialist in labor law and a consultant to various unions as well as a lecturer, live in delightfully and tastefully extended and renovated house originally built in 1842. The back garden is narrow, but formally laid out with hedging, water, a pergola vista and beds which Maria is gradually replanting with native plants. Amazing how many I recognised as general flowering varieties. The hydrangeas here are massive shrubby plants, quite different to the pot specimens we have, and the irises grow in large clumps, nothing like the individual bulb varieties we cultivate. Apparently they fight  a losing battle with squirrels over tulips - the critters just love to eat the bulbs. (We had a dog that used to do that too).

The town itself is on a flat bit by the lake, with the two colleges - Cornell and Ithaca, on the plateau above the town. Cornell is divided by two deep gorges, (students occasionally suicide spectacularly by jumping off the suspension bridge into the deepest one - it's called 'gorging out'!). The river runs down through the town and into the lake, and there is an impressive waterfall halfway down called Ithaca Falls.

Other falls we saw in the area include the absolutely spectacular Taughannock Falls, taller than Niagara, actually the tallest US falls east of the Mississippi.

The area is also a wine growing region, mainly whites. They try reds, but they are pretty awful. They do very good Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, are variety they call Vidal (the French St Emillon grape) and a pretty fine Gewürztraminer. We tasted about five wineries. Tasting fees are much better than California, $2 - $3, the operations are a lot less commercialised, and the wines are surprisingly good. Better I felt than the Californian whites. We had  a party of four, one of Lance's colleagues, a law lecturer from Brazil called Anna joined us too. A great time.

Finished up for dinner at Dario's Heuriger on the shores of Lake Seneca. Dario is Viennese and he has reproduced a slightly tarted up Viennese traditional menu. I was introduced, we nattered away in German for awhile, compared sauerkraut and Liptauer cheese recipes, (he actually wrote mine down), and ate very well. Appetisers of Liptauer cheese, horseradish and beetroot, cucumber with dill, pumpkin seed oil with caraway, celery remoulade, schorzena salad ( a root vegetable I  have only ever eaten or even seen in southern Germany, where it is called Schwarzwurzel or blackroot, It is like a squiggly small black carrot that is white when peeled), and potato goulash. My main course was Farmer' Plate (Bauernschmauss) a serve of sauerkraut, bread dumpling, knackwurst, smoked pork loin, and roasted pork shank. We shared a delicious vanilla - cinnamon bread and butter pudding and a slice of Linzer Torte (Austrian rich raspberry cake) for desert, and drank locally brewed wheat beer with the meal. Fantastic repast. Superb German food. Made me feel echt gemuetlich.
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