4 03 2009

No matter how many times I visit the Pacific Northwest, I just do not get tired of it.  We have been to Seattle 5, 6, maybe 7 times?  We’ve been to Portland once and Vancouver, B.C., once as well.  Chris and I are both in love with the natural beauty, with how green it is, with the sense of life (meaning, living things…in Austin, for example, I can think of one day in the past 200 or so when it actually rained and the plants do not seem very alive), with the high consumption rate of good coffee and seafood, with the healthy and outdoorsy lifestyle, with the overall vibe…  The one thing we don’t agree on is moving here.  Chris would love to live in Seattle or somewhere nearby, but I also love Austin and the ability to live near my family, so we’re staying put…for now.

That being said, a member of my family now lives in the area.  My brother moved to Olympia about a year ago, so last April Chris and I figured it was yet another good excuse to return to the Pacific Northwest.  As usual, we had a wonderful time.  We arrived around 9 or so in the evening on a Thursday, rented a car, and found our hotel — the Ace Hotel on 1st Street, a block off Bell Street.  Cool, minimal place.  Our room was decorated with various commie propaganda.  It was a small room, but I’ve never understood why anyone would want a big room unless they planned on spending all of their time in the room…and we certainly did not.  It had everything we needed, including bathrobes for the walks to the shared bathrooms, a sink, a small flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, and even a mini Kama Sutra in the nightstand.  It was an interesting place!



The location could not be beat (except for when we wanted to sleep…more on that later).  After dropping off our stuff, we walked across the street and up the block a bit to Belltown Pizza.  This place was great.  By this point it was probably after 10, but they serve dinner late.  We sat in a cozy, tall booth along the windows and shared a medium Four Seasons pizza (portabella, tomato, black olive, artichoke, garlic and prosciutto) and a bottle of a Washington cabernet (can’t recall the name) and it hit the spot.  Delicious.  We walked back to the hotel and crashed for the night…or at least tried.  It was at this point we learned of the downside to our particular room — it was on the front of the hotel right above a bar, so it was really noisy.  Eh, what are you going to do?

The next morning (Friday) we woke up early, ate a quick breakfast in the basement of the hotel (granola, yogurt, fruit, toast, coffee and juice) and then walked over to Olympic Sculpture Park to visit Wake, a sculpture by one of both Chris’s and my favorite sculptors, Richard Serra.  Though it was a bit cold and rainy and I wiped out crossing the street (it was lovely…stepped on a slippery manhole cover…couldn’t manage to get my hands out of my pockets…I think I rolled around briefly like a helpless baby in front of the stopped cars) we spent a good hour or two wandering around the park.










And, the obligatory picture of ourselves…


On our way back to our hotel, we passed a beautiful little garden I couldn’t resist…everywhere I look, something is growing!







Gorgeous.  We decided to head over to Macrina Bakery and Cafe for coffee and another bite.  This place was outstanding.  I wanted to order one of everything filling the glass cases…I can’t even remember what I finally settled on.  Only that it was great.  We sat for a while drinking coffee, reading the paper, and making contact with my brother.  He had not yet visited Seattle but was on his way in to find us.  He managed to find a place to leave his car and met up with us at Macrina for one more coffee before heading out.

We decided to walk around Pike Place Market for a while — always fun to see.  We went to Matt’s in the Market for an outstanding lunch with great views of the sound.  Matt and I both got the lamb burger on a brioche bun with goat cheese, grilled onions, bacon, and an herb aioli and a pint.  Chris had the ahi tuna sandwich.  The food was fantastic and I think we were lucky to come in when we did and get a table…it got busy fast and a reservation appeared to be essential (even for lunch).  

After lunch we decided to go check out the Seattle Public Library designed by Rem Koolhaas, an avant-garde steel and glass building.  What a great example of forward-thinking city planning and a fun place to wander…






After winding our way down from the top of the library, we met up with another friend who had recently moved to Seattle and decided to go check out a few more sights before dinner.  We drove up to the Experience Music Project but decided not to go in…instead, we checked out the cool artwork outside…


We headed back to our friend’s house with the most amazing view of the the skyline and sound (I think we stared out his living room window for at least an hour) then headed back in to town for dinner at a place he recommend called Quinn’s Pub, a “gastropub” located at 10th and Pike on Capitol Hill.  WOW, was dinner good.

Our group of four shared two rounds of “small plates” and everything was fantastic. T he roasted marrow bones were to die for…rich, delicious flavor…as was the seared foie gras.  The rabbit pate with fresh mustard was amazing, the oxtails and gnocchi divine, and the “duck, duck, mousse” plate was just outstanding.  Even the frites with melted gruyere were delicious. Our waitstaff was wonderful and the atmosphere was fun and casual.  The bread pudding at the end was a great close to a fantastic meal (I never thought about putting macademia nuts in bread pudding…so lovely).  I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed experiencing all of the new, delicious tastes on our well-prepared plates.  We got there early on the recommendation of our friend and were seated immediately– otherwise, it looks like there might be a wait at dinner time. I’d say it’s well worth it though…

The next day after a bit more random wandering, Chris and I had lunch at Wild Ginger, an old favorite.  We ate here (or there — it used to be in a different location) on our very first trip to Seattle several years ago, and make it a habit to eat there once every time we return.  I think Chris even orders the same thing — the Tuna Manada.  I tried a few different satays — the scallop, boar, and shrimp.  Each one came with a little rice cake and had its own sauce.  Each one was delicious (though I think the scallop was my favorite).  I also had the braised baby bok choy and one or two of their specialty cocktails — and both were fabulous. 

After lunch we relaxed a bit, drank some coffee, then wandered around the Pioneer Square area until we found a sports bar where we could catch two Final Four matchups — Memphis/UCLA and Kansas/North Carolina…the battle of the Number 1 seeds!  We enjoyed bloody mary’s and munched on bar food…the bar was a really random mix of rocker types, biker types, and then the occasional drunk guy who would run up to the life-size screen shouting, all excited, as if he was trying to actually get into the game or make a call or something.  Later that night, we went to the Showbox SoDo and caught a fantastic FANTASTIC show by the Black Keys.  Love the band, and the setting was good — small enough to really feel the music.  I’m still amazed by how large of a sound those two guys can put out.  I actually bought a t-shirt (but Chris made me get a large so he could wear it too…and really only he wears it).  I never buy concert t-shirts. 

On Sunday we headed out to Olympia to stay with my brother.  After we got to his apartment and drank a little more coffee (surprise!), he drove us out to the Olympic National Park for a hike.  He took us on the Duckabush River Trail.  It was so beautiful.  We hiked in about 6 or 7 miles to a vista, had lunch, then headed back.  The natural beauty of the park was breathtaking…everywhere I looked something was growing.  The rushing stream was gorgeous, and in the distance you could see snow-capped peaks.  There were still patches of snow on the ground.  The hike was only difficult toward the end when the switchbacks started, and even that did not last long.  This has to go down as one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done.  Here are a few shots along the way…












Our drive back home looked like this…


Once we got back to Olympia, we showered and headed into town for dinner.  We ended up at a place called Mc Menamins and it was perfect.  Great low-key laid-back atmosphere, good beer, I had a burger with blue cheese and seasoned fries…hit the spot.  We ended the night watching a movie back at my brother’s place with some ice cream we picked up at the grocery store…it was a perfect day.

The next morning we had to wake up early and head back to the Sea-Tac airport.  We drove through a little drive-up espresso shack — why do they not have these in Austin?!  Fully caffeinated, we headed for the Interstate, and I have a tip for you here — fill your car up with gas well before getting anywhere near the airport, because if you think there is gas nearby, you may not find any.  I didn’t.  That was expensive.

As you can see, in a few short days we managed to pack in a ton of great food, great music, great hikes, sports, sculptures, tons of walking, hanging out with my brother who I don’t get to see nearly often enough…it felt like we were actually there for a week.  It was wonderful, and I’m already ready to go back.


South Austin Citrus Battle

16 02 2009

Though the journey was not far in terms of miles, the world of tastes we experienced Saturday night was vast.  On Valentine’s Day we came together for a culinary adventure — the second Iron Chef Challenge with our friends, Abe, Erin, Rob, and Amanda.  This time, the theme ingredient was citrus — perfect for February.  Each couple offered an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert showcasing the theme ingredient.  Our gracious hosts, Abe and Erin, set the stage beautifully.



Rob and Amanda presented the first appetizer — a seared scallop encrusted with lemon, lime, and orange zest served with a grapefruit gastrique. 





The scallop was cooked perfectly and the citrus flavors were nicely balanced.  It was a delicious start to the night.

Next, Chris prepared our appetizer —  a small piece of sashimi-style tuna topped with a green apple, wasabi, lime, and ginger mixture, and then a small dollop of yuzu kosho mixed with chopped roasted onion and miso paste.  It was one perfect bite, full of flavor.  Delicious.  My camera does not do justice to the dish.  I must work on this.


The third appetizer of the night was Abe and Erin’s — olive oil-poached shrimp with avocado and cucumber, lime, and grilled poblano pepper salad.  The shrimp was cooked perfectly and very well-balanced by the creaminess of the avocado and cool tartness of the salad. 


Round one — a strong three for three.

Next came the entrees.  Rob and Amanda presented their dish first and it was spectacular.  Two citrus-crusted lamb chops served with a blood orange polenta heart and a blood orange and fennel relish.  Outstanding!


After this course, I suppose I was too excited by all of the great food to continue shooting.  You’ll have to imagine what the next several dishes looked like. 

I presented the next entree — beef carpaccio served with arugula and a naval orange, red onion, and kalamata olive salsa (with paprika, cayenne pepper, and cumin).  I encrusted the beef with crushed black peppercorns, crushed white peppercorns, coarse salt, and crushed fennel seeds and let it sit for one hour.  I seared the beef on all sides for one minute, then chilled it and put it in the freezer for an hour.  I then sliced the beef as thinly as I could and pounded it out even flatter.  I poured the juices from the salsa on the arugula and tossed, then mounded a small bed on each plate.  I topped the arugula with a scoop of the salsa, then surrounded it with slices of carpaccio, a few Parmesan shavings, and a few blood orange “fillets.”  I paired this dish with grapefruit-rosemary daquiris. 

Abe and Erin presented the next entree — kobe beef in a lime, soy, and brown sugar crust served with fresh green beans.  The beef was heavenly…sweet and tangy, though not so much so that it masked the flavor of the beef in any way.  This dish, by the way, won a side-award for “best masking of citrus flavor, thereby giving the chefs a break.”

And finally, the desserts.  In this round, Abe and Erin went first.  They served a delightfully tangy lemon sorbet served in a hollowed out lemon, topped with a raspberry sauce, and two lemon shortbread cookies.  Oh my.  It was fantastic.  I remembered to photograph this one a little late…


I did, however, get this shot of the cookies when I first arrived…


Rob and Amanda served dessert next — individual lemon budinos topped with freshly whipped cream.  The texture of each pudding was sublime…on top, almost like a souffle, and creamy and soft on the bottom.  The lemon flavor was mellow and comforting, and the cream added just the right balance.  Wonderful.

Finally, we presented out dessert — two small lemon cakes served on a lemon and rosemary syrup topped with freshly whipped cream. 

All in all, the night was just fantastic.  We all mastered the art of the portion size and were able to enjoy each dish to the fullest.  We explored the tastes of lemons, limes, oranges, blood oranges, sour limes, Meyer lemons, and yuzu with scallops, shrimp, tuna, beef, and lamb with, in my opinion, exceptional results.  We will be hosting the next challenge, and I must (a) remember to shoot each dish, and (b) more importantly, work on my macro shooting. 


Testing the Top Ten Hikes — East Texas, here we come.

9 02 2009

Chris recently came across an old issue of Texas Monthly magazine that featured an article on the “Top Ten Hikes in Texas.”  Never ones to shy away from ranking our favorite restaurants in a given city, our “top five” albums we’d take with us to a deserted island, or anything else capable of being ranked and, of course, debated, we decided that one of our goals for 2009 would be to do each of these hikes and see what we thought.  After reviewing the list, we decided the Kirby Trail in the Big Thicket National Preserve would be a good one to start with, due mainly to the fact that if we waited until it got any warmer, the mosquitoes would likely be so thick out there they may in fact carry us away.  So, in late January 2009, we loaded up the mule (our Forester) and drove east.

We left Austin around 6:30 or so on a Saturday morning and headed toward Houston, passing straight through along I-10 to where the refineries start popping up all around, on into Beaumont, then turned north along 69 toward Kountze, Texas.  Before this day I had never heard of Kountze, though I am told I have family from the Woodville area, another 30 or so miles to the north.  We arrived in Kountze around 10:30 and, after stopping to fill up with gas, headed straight for the Big Thicket National Preserve.

We stopped first at the visitor’s center — a nice building full of information about the preserve, books and souvenirs, clean restrooms, and friendly staff.  We talked with a ranger about the best places to camp, and he directed us to an area off the Sandhill Loop (part of the trail system in the preserve).  There are no campsites in the preserve, so you just have to go in and register for a back country permit and then head out.  While Chris read about the park, I enjoyed the calm and cool weather from the rocking chairs on the front porch.


A nice touch.

We then got back into the car and drove another half mile or so down the road to the Kirby Trail trailhead and prepared for the 2.5 mile hike.  The hike is an easy loop that takes you through a dense forest of hardwoods and pines and a fascinating environment of Baldcypress swamps and baygalls.  The trailhead is easy to spot…


Parts of the trail are like boardwalks over swampy ground.


This is a Southern Magnolia…I’ve never seen Magnolia trees grow so tall and straight up like these.


This is a Loblolly Pine, another of the common trees in the preserve.


Here are a couple of shots of the baygalls we walked past…


The little stumps poking out of the water are called knees, and are thought to help anchor the Cypress trees.


We also encountered trees growing in all kinds of shapes and sizes, such as a rhinoceros.


Or these…



After we finished the loop, we decided to head back to Kountze for some lunch before heading out with all of our gear.  We went to Caroline’s Quality Bar-b-q, and it was a delight.  The little building is right on 69 and has exactly three tables inside. 


Caroline took our order at the cash register and we could immediately feel that great East Texas hospitality.  I ordered the three meat plate (brisket, pork ribs, and chicken) and Chris just got the brisket plate.  We sat down at the only empty table and within a few minutes, a different woman brought out two plates and asked which was which…after setting down the brisket plate in front of Chris she looked at me with a bit of disdain and said, “You gonna eat all this?”  I looked at my plate and noticed it was piled high with brisket and ribs (no chicken) and said, I’m gonna try!  She came right back with another plate and said “and who had the chicken?”  I raised my hand and she gave me another look…”you really gonna eat this?”  It was a LOT of meat, plus beans and potato salad.  I really wanted a good sampling of the barbecue, though, so I felt I HAD to order three meats (I had actually tried to get the sausage too, but they were all out).  I knew I had my work cut out for me.  The brisket was my favorite — they smoke their brisket for thirteen hours, and the flavor was deep.  I could cut it with my plastic fork.  They serve their barbecue with a thick, slightly sweet sauce that I enjoyed, though Chris prefers a vinegary sauce to dip the meat in, if any sauce at all.  The ribs were incredibly tender — meat fell right off the bone.  The chicken (I requested dark meat) was juicy and delicious.  I also thought the sides were fantastic (made eating all of the meat all the more difficult).  The beans had a nice sweetness to them, and the potato salad was light and fresh.  Needless to say, though I tried my hardest, I could not finish.  Caroline brought me a box for my leftovers (while there was no way I’d be able to take my leftovers on an overnight hike, I simply could not leave them on the table).  Here are my leftovers (and really, I ate a LOT!  the portions are really big!!).


After lunch we headed back out to the Kirby Trail, but this time loaded up our packs and instead of looping back around, took a left at a bridge and continued on toward the Sandhill Loop.







We took the Sandhill Loop and started wandering off the trail somewhere around the first or second “L” looking for a good spot to set up our tent.


Chris marked the campsite on his GPS device…



Happy with our choice, I set up our tent and we relaxed with some wine (yes, I backpacked with wine) and enjoyed the weather for a bit.  Dinner came from a bag…a Mountain House vegetable lasagna.  To be honest, we were quite pleased with dinner…it really was not bad at all, and nothing beats a hot dinner when it’s chilly outside.  Once the sun went down completely it got even colder, so we decided to turn in early.  Really early (I’m not even sure if it was 8pm yet).  We stared at the stars from the tent for a bit, then eventually drifted off to sleep.  By 2am, Chris was wide awake.  I suppose we had basically gotten a full night of sleep.  He woke me up and told me he was going to get out, make some coffee, and sit outside for a while.  I was not ready to get up (it was still cold and dark) so I stayed in the tent. 

I heard him rustling around a bit, then I noticed what seemed like a bright flickering light through the tent.  That did not seem right to me, so I called out to Chris and asked if everything was okay.  His response was simple:  “No…I think you should probably get out here.”  I jumped out of my sleeping bag, out of the tent, and into my boots and saw a fire!  Apparently, we had a bit of a burner malfunction, and when he tried to ignite the burner flames shot out of the entire canister (even though it worked just fine for dinner).  The burner fell over on its side as he jumped back to avoid burning his arm, and the fire spread to the leaves, pine needles, sticks, etc., all around…and quickly!  We tried dousing it with what little water we had left but that did nothing.  We threw a pot down on the burner but it did nothing to stop the flames.  I was really surprised at how quickly the fire spread and for a few seconds seriously feared we had started a forest fire (though, to be honest, it was probably only a few feet)!  Chris, thinking quickly, grabbed a big stick and cleared a perimeter around the fire so that it could not spread any further, and it finally began to burn out.  We stood and watched as the flames from the canister got smaller and smaller and smaller.  Once it was out, we looked at each other, then at our watches (it was 2:45 am).  It was the middle of the night, but we were wide awake…out of water…so no coffee…we decided to hike back.  Luckily it was not too difficult finding the trail again, and once on the trail it was an easy hike back.  We were back at the car around 3:15 or so, and back home by 7:45 in the morning.  This really was not how we had envisioned the camping trip to go, but it was still fun and we later got quite a few laughs out of the “incident.” 

Now, back to the top ten list.  The best thing about this hike and the preserve in general was the environment.  The mix of trees and swamp was pretty cool — I’ve never seen anything like it.  The hike itself was very easy, though, and there weren’t any grand vistas.  My biggest complaint, however, was that it did not seem remote enough.  Throughout the night we both woke up off and on due to the sounds of dogs barking, gun shots, and other unidentifiable noises.  We also seemed to be right underneath a flight path.  Civilization felt too close.  The only wildlife we spotted were birds and squirrels.  At night we only heard crickets and deer snorting.  It is, however, a beautiful part of the state, a part I had never seen, and a reminder that the Texas landscape includes so many different environments.  That in and of itself is pretty cool, and one of the reasons I love living here.

Istanbul, the final destination

4 02 2009

Istanbul is wonderful, and my sad lack of notes in my travel journal is a sign that I was savoring every moment and didn’t want to stop for too long to write it down.  I loved being in Istanbul.  I wanted to try living there.  It’s beautiful, everywhere we went the people were friendly, the culture and history is fascinating, the food is delicious.  And lest you worry about the lack of content in this, my final post on our Europe 2006 trek, I surely made up for the dearth of words in photographs.

We stayed at the wonderful Dersaadet Hotel, a reconstructed 19th century Ottoman Mansion, in the center of  Istanbul (Sultanahmet).  The owner and staff were extremely friendly and helpful — in fact, on our last night there (we stayed five nights) they upgraded us to a larger room.  My favorite part of the hotel was the rooftop terrace where we had breakfast every morning and often returned to in the afternoon for tea.  The views from the terrace were amazing.  We slept with our window cracked the first night and the sound of the early morning call from one of the nearby minarets is something I will never forget.  I took this first set of photos from the rooftop terrace.






A driver from the hotel met us at the airport and drove us to the hotel.  We arrived around 8 or 9 in the evening.  We were hungry for dinner but also a little tired out from our day of flying (we flew on Olympic Airlines from Rome to Istanbul with a long layover in Athens…but hey, my first “trip” to Greece!  I made a point of ordering Greek airport food…I will say this.  It definitely beats a lot of American airport food I’ve tried…) so we asked the hotel owner to recommend someplace close by where we could find dinner.  We ended up at Doy Doy across the street.  You have to walk up several flights of stairs, first through the ground floor (I’m not even sure this was part of the same restaurant), then through the smoking lounge, then you arrive at the rooftop where the restaurant is located.  We shared lamb kebabs and flatbread, lentil soup, and a hearty farmer’s salad of diced cucumbers, diced tomatoes, cubed cheese, fresh herbs, and a light lemon and oil dressing.  It was great…and filling!

We did a lot of walking in Istanbul.  On our first full day, we went to the Blue Mosque…  






…and Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmet II between 1459 and 1465.




Our first night, we ate at a restaurant called Develi, also recommended by our hotel.  They even arranged a ride to and from the restaurant for us.  In some ways it reminded me of going for dim sum, as waiters would bring dishes by and you would just say yes or no (I said yes a LOT).  We loved the little bowls of cheese, onions, and herbs on the table.  We also ate quite a lot of meat.  I remember everything being great and the rooftop terrace was very pleasant.

The next day we saw the Hagia Sofia, a structure more than 1400 years old.  It was built over two earlier churches and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537.  In the 15th century the Ottomans converted it into a mosque.  Inside it is a truly amazing and beautiful sight to see…










Afterwards we went to the Basilica Cistern.  The cistern was built under Justinian in 532.  The Ottomans did not even know the cistern existed for a century after the conquest, and only rediscovered it after people were found collecting water, and even fish, by lowering buckets through holes in their basements.  The Medusa head bases are in a back corner of the vault, and are evidence of Byzantine plundering.  They are also really cool.




We walked around afterwards until we found good spot for a Turkish coffee and kunefe, the delicious sweet cheese pastry.  In fact, I very much enjoyed the sweets in Turkey and sampled them often.   

We spent the next day shopping.  We walked around the Sultanahmet some, then over to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar.  While I found the two bazaars to be a visually stunning and beautiful, exciting place, I somehow did not take any photographs.  I also did very little shopping and left that up to Chris.  I am simply not good at negotiating and, quite frankly, I can’t stand it.  Chris, on the other hand, thrived on it and we found all kinds of goodies to bring home.

That night we had dinner on another rooftop terrace above a hotel, and for the life of me I cannot remember the name.  I remember that I had grilled fish and Chris had lamb, but I don’t remember it being especially great.  I will never forget our waiter, however…he was so cute!  You could tell he really enjoyed speaking English with us (even though I had really been trying hard to pick up more than just a few Turkish words!) and after every other sentence, it seemed, he’d exclaim “High five!” and hold out his hand for a slap from each of us.  It was great!  The funniest part of the meal came at the end.  We both ordered Turkish coffees with our dessert, and the waiter set one down in front of Chris, and one in front of me.  Mine, however, was completely wrapped in a paper napkin (saucer, cup, and all) that was twisted at the top.  He looked at me and said “a bomb!”  He then proceeded to pull out a lighter and light the little twist on fire so that the napkin flamed out revealing my coffee.  He was very proud.  It was really too funny. 

On our last day in Istanbul we walked along the Eminönü — the port area where ferries depart for trips along the Bosphorus.  Here we found some fantastic fish sandwiches.





We left Istanbul on a 5am flight, which meant leaving our hotel around 3am or so.  Another couple at the hotel was also headed to the airport, so there were four of us in the car plus the driver.  The one odd thing we experienced occurred on this drive.  We were on what felt a little like a highway (at least it was a multi-lane fast-moving roadway) and we encountered a roadblock.  At this roadblock, officials (soldiers?) looked in the car and appeared to ask the driver for papers.  The discussion became quite heated between the driver and the officials.  Or course I had no idea what was going on.  They let us through, though, and we made it to the airport in plenty of time.  And thus began our journey home.  Three and a half weeks, five countries, more photographs than I know what to do with, and memories to last me a lifetime.  But really, this trip only whetted my appetite for travel.  I am hungry for more.


Next-to-the-last stop, Rome

3 02 2009

We arrived in Rome late at night on the 12th of September, 2006, and made our way on foot from Termini train station to our hotel, the Hotel Montreal.  It’s right by the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore…


and across the street from a coffee shop with “Illy” in the window (much to Chris’s excitement) and a barber shop where he later had the best shave of his life.

We spent five nights in Rome and I lapsed a bit in my note-taking.  I did manage to write down most of the highlights.  It was great to spend more time in one place…we did not feel rushed to fit in a million different things every day.  That being said, I’m sure I did not write down a lot of great experiences, but perhaps those gaps will be filled in by my photos.

On the 13th, we woke up, had a little breakfast at the hotel, then went to the coffee shop across the street and people-watched for a while.  The day was fairly relaxed — I even had time to find a laundromat and wash our clothes. 

That evening we set out on the “Dolce Vita” stroll (described in Rick Steves’ Italy book).  We walked from our hotel to the Spanish Steps, then to the Piazza de Popolo (the “starting point”) and walked down the Via del Corso to the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II.  It was fun to look in the windows of all the fancy shops. 

I took this shot not too far from our hotel.





We decided to fuel up for our walk by enjoying a little gelato in the Piazza…


By the time we made it to the monument, the sun was beginning to set.







We had dinner that night at the Trattoria der Pallaro and it was great — and fun.  They have no menu, they just start bringing you food and wine.  We had a white wine, lentils and prosciutto for an appetizer, arancini (fried risotto balls that I cannot get enough of), pasta with mushrooms and a fabulous eggplant, and then veal steaks and potato chips.  For dessert we had a ricotta tort and juice.  This place was comfortable, even homey…and I loved waiting to see what they would bring out next. 

The next day we went to the Vatican and met up with Raul, our tour guide.  We called a company from our Rick Steves’ book (we found this book invaluable in Italy) to find him.  At first I was very opposed to doing the tour guide thing.  I have been very tired of seeing those groups of tourists go by with all of their little headsets, blindly following someone with a flag, getting in my way…but I am actually very glad we did.  For some place like this with so much history, it was perfect.  He was able to point out all kinds of little details and tell us about them…and I actually learned so much.  First we toured St. Peter’s Basilica… 





I can’t resist photographing a member of the Swiss Guard.  I’m sure everyone does…but the uniforms are just too fantastic.


Then we toured the Vatican Museum…




I cannot remember the details, but this was, I believe, some of the original floor…




This really impressed me because it was just a painting…



Later that afternoon we went to the National Museum of Rome.  It has an amazing collection of ancient Roman sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and coins.  These were the highlights for me…















We had dinner that night at a place near our hotel (it had started raining and we did not want to go far) — Ristorante del Giglio.  It was…not so great.  Almost had an institutional feel.  I did not take notes of my meal.

The next day we decided to tour the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Forum area.  Based on the grand success of our tour with Raul, we joined another tour group.  This tour guide — and I can’t recall her name — was not so good.  She was an American who had moved to Rome a few years earlier.  She was quite annoying, actually.  At one point she spoke one of my favorite lines of the trip:  “Look at this little crescent moon shape…a friend of mine always used to say it’s like a chessy cat.  I don’t know what a chessy cat is but that’s what he told me!”  Still, I learned a few things, and we did take in some amazing sights.  Chris, as usual, supplemented my history lessons with tidbits he had read.  These are sights we have all seen, but I would be remiss not to include at least a few…








Later that night we had dinner at Ristorante il Gabriello.  The small, cute dining room felt like a cozy cellar.  We asked for the chef’s menu and were treated to an amazing meal.  We started out with a mixed seafood appetizer — two types of smoked fish and cold prawns, then an octopus and potato dish, a plate of asparagus and salamis, and then pasta with mushrooms and clams.  Next they brought us veal and a roasted fish.  Dessert was a chocolate tort served with a delicious cream or mousse of some sort.  Fantastic.

The next day, the 16th of September, Chris decided to spend a day filming, as he had forgotten to bring tapes with him two days earlier on the trip to the Vatican, and he forgot his camera all together on the trip to the Forum.  So, I went off to wander.  That night we had dinner at Ostaria da Giovanni ar Galleto on the Piazza Farnese.  The restaurant was in the corner of a quiet, peaceful piazza, and dinner was good — I won’t say it blew me away, but it was good.  Chris had the gnocchi and I had the carbonara.

In the six days we spent in Rome, we walked all over, we drank a lot of espresso and a lot of wine, and we ate well.  The sights were amazing, and the sense of age and of history was immense.  Our next and final stop would add a historical piece tied in many different ways to several stops throughout the trip — Istanbul, once the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

And then we got to Florence…

30 01 2009

Florence was great.  What is really funny is that I actually had a little trouble adjusting when we first got there…I suddenly felt as if I was in a huge city and my nerves were quickly rattled.  I was completely on edge.  I blame the Cinque Terre.  I think I had been taken to such a nice level of calm relaxation I was not quite prepared for noise again.  For some reason this did not happen to me in Venice, but that was such a quick whirlwind that was shocking in other, different ways, perhaps I was too distracted…perhaps it was the lack of cars in Venice (it certainly was not the lack of people). 

Anyway, when we first arrived in Florence we set out on foot to find our hotel (all the while I’m jumping out of my skin any time a car speeds past or someone yells) and there has been another hotel mix-up, but this time it was our fault.  It’s really not easy to keep track of which day it is, and when you’ll be where, especially after spending a few days in complete relaxation (in fact, we stayed an extra night in the Cinque Terre because we didn’t want to leave).  So, somehow we arrived a day earlier than we had told the hotel owner.  Seems like it would have been later, right?  No…earlier…we counted wrong.  No big deal, though, as we were confirmed for the next two nights at that place, and the hotel next door had a room for us the first night. 

On our first night in Florence we had dinner in this little hole-in-the-wall spot — Trattoria Sostanza.  Oh my.  It was fabulous.  We shared the bisteca fiorentina and tortellini (stuffed with ham) with meat sauce.  We also had an artichoke pie — pretty much artichokes in egg with lots of butter, oil, and garlic (I think).  The steak was juicy — fantastic flavor.  And the meat sauce on the tortellini was rich, full of depth.  So delicious.  This definitely helps calm my nerves.

The next day, a Sunday, we poked around town.  We crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio and up to the Oltrarno neighborhood where we walked through beautiful gardens above town and found magnificent views in the Piazzale Michelangialo. 









The next morning we went up to the top of the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori) — beautiful.  The mural on the ceiling was fascinating and the views from the rooftop were breathtaking. 




That night we had dinner at a place called Bibo…really, nothing to write home about.  So I won’t.  I don’t even remember what I ate.  The next morning we wandered through the Mercato Centrale.  I am in heaven here.  I make a mental note to return to rent an apartment next time we stay in Florence so we can shop here and do our own cooking.  Here are a few shots from the market.







Okay, that was more than a few.  But I was in heaven!  You would take a lot of pictures too.

We ate lunch afterwards at this wonderful place and I did not write down the name.  How could I have done that?!  I do know what we ate, however.  We started with buffalo mozzarella as an appetizer.  I had pasta with tomatoes and basil and Chris had the Florentine crepes (filled with ricotta and spinach).  We shared a carafe of the house white wine.  After a nice nap back at the room, we had a quick dinner at a wine bar and then went to an organ and oboe concert at a church not too far from the Duomo.  We had seen fliers posted for it that morning and we thought it would be great to hear Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in a church in Italy…it was really cool.

The next day we went to the Bargello then walked south of the river to another fabulous restaurant – Alla Vecchia Bettola.  We started with paté on crostini and a couple of different varieties of meats and funghi.  I had the special pasta of the house — penne with vodka, tomato, and red chile.  It was delicious (and now something I love to make at home).  Chris had risotto with gorgonzola and some type of squash…perhaps acorn?  We also had a carafe of the house white wine.  Delicious.  After lunch we walked over to a local park and sat on a bench and dozed off occasionally while watching a few little kids play soccer for over an hour.  It was a gorgeous day and the kids were so cute.  A lovely afternoon.

Once we roused ourselves from the park bench we walked around some more, ending up at the Accademia.  David is a perfect, beautiful masterpiece.  Later that we night we caught a train to Rome.

Venice in 24 hours

26 01 2009

On Friday, September 8th we began our hellish trip to Venice.  Let me start by saying that I had been to Venice one time, maybe back in 1999 or 2000, and I was not exactly looking forward to our return trip.  I found it overcrowded and touristy.  But, Chris had never been and he did not want to take my word for it.  I really can’t blame him, either.  I mean, we’re here in Italy, we’ve all seen images of Venice…he does need to see for himself.

From Vernazza we took a train to La Spezia, then to Bologna, then to Venice.  Once in Venice we took a completely overcrowded boat (I’m still not sure how it stayed afloat) from the train station to the Piazza San Marco and battled our way through the massive crowds to the hotel we had called two days earlier (the Hotel Riva) only to discover that had not kept our reservation.  Chris maintained a calm anger and we sat and watched as the woman at the front desk started calling hotels for us, looking up every so often and telling us how it is very crowded, no rooms, etc.  To top things off, there were no seats on any trains leaving Venice that night.  We actually passed people crying at the train station, stranded in Venice.  Mayhem!

Anyway, after about 45 minutes, she finally found us a room at the Hotel Vivaldi at €300 a night!!  I can tell you that was NOT in our travel budget!  But, what could we do…things were going down hill fast.  This was, according to her, the last room in Venice.  At this point it felt like that to us, so we took it.  And it was lovely.  It was too expensive and too fancy, but a fun change of pace.  It was right along the Grand Canal just a couple of blocks from the Piazza San Marco.  We battled back across the crowds and checked in and headed straight for the rooftop garden for a glass of wine.  This is the view from the roof of our hotel. 


After finally calming down and unwinding a bit, we headed out to the Piazza San Marco and went up into the bell tower where we encountered beautiful views.







After taking in the view in all directions, we started walking around.  I did enjoy this aspect of our whirlwind Venice trip — we were actually able to find quiet little streets and even got turned around a few times (not hard to do here). 


We had a great dinner that night at the Osteria de Mascaron, despite having to share a small table with another couple who looked to be enjoying a nice meal together until we joined them.  They were not speaking English, or Italian, Spanish, or French for that matter, so at least I wasn’t finding myself paying attention to their conversation.  We started out with the antipasto misto, which consisted of squid fixed two ways, conch, a white fish, and grilled vegetables.  For the main course we shared a delicious flat, wide, short pasta with crab and enjoyed a good white wine (house wine, of course) along with it.

After dinner we went to the Piazza San Marco again and sipped expensive coffee at Cafe Florian while listening to a quartet (accordion, piano, violin, and bass).  Apparently Woody Allen has sipped coffee here.  After coffee we got three gelatos — three, because my first one rolled right off the cone onto the ground.  So sad…

Saturday we had a huge breakfast at the hotel (included, thank goodness) and then toured the Doge’s palace.  It was very beautiful, though I’ll leave the history of this palace up to your own research.  Chris is my historian.  Here are a few shots from the palace.





After another cup of coffee, it was time to catch a train to Florence.  Venice was crowded.  It even felt a little like Disneyworld, not that I’ve been.  I’m glad we went — at the very least I’m glad to have tested my first impression.  I’m sure there is a much better way to do Venice, but we did not have the time to dedicate to this portion of the trip and I guess it suffered for it.  I need someone to show me there’s more to Venice to this.  I saw a few lovely sights, and I had some good food.  I could have done without the stress, but…what are you gonna do?  I did score lots of really nice shampoos, conditioners, soaps, stationery, and other Hotel Vivaldi goodies!