March 19, 2012

A Perfect Day in the Yorkshire Dales

After a cooked-to-order breakfast of pancakes with lemon and strawberries and French-press coffee, I set out, ready to explore the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve worked in this area for 3 years but have never had a full, uninterrupted day to really explore – until now!

In my trusty rental car, I headed to Coldstone Cuts first. The roads in this part of the UK would put the Amalfi Coast to shame. True, the drops aren't quite as drastic, but the lanes are much more narrow, curvy, hilly and in case that wasn't enough, don’t forget to stay on the left! Thank goodness the British are polite drivers, unlike the Italians. Sorry. I digress. Back to Coldstones Cut… Designed by artist Andrew Sabin, the interactive sculpture (think David Bowie’s Labyrinth, only with better views and no Goblin King) overlooks the Coldstone Quarry on one side and sweeping views of the dales in every other direction. The quarry itself is in a curious position. It’s one of the largest quarries in the country but totally hidden from sight unless you’re inside the Coldstone Cut sculpture. As you wind your way through the high-walled labyrinth, right about the time you’re considering giving in to the urge to climb the walls to catch a glimpse of the sights beyond, the walls get lower and the sculpture gives way to breathtaking views.

On my walk back to the parking lot from the sculpture, I passed an old man and his dog. As we got closer, I smiled. He grinned, tipped his cap and gave me a big, “Cherrio!” Have I mentioned yet that I love this country?

As I drove towards my next stop, Bolton Abbey, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and set the country side aglow. By the time I paid 6-pounds to park and then wandered my way on to the estate that houses the old Bolton priory, the sun was completely out from behind the clouds warming my cheeks and making the sights all the more beautiful. The Abbey is in the middle of 30,000 acres and sits on the banks of the River Wharfe. While the old 12th century priory is beautiful, my favorite part of the day wasn't wandering through the ruins. Oh, no! My favorite part of the day was shakily making my way across the stepping stones that stretched from one bank of the deceptively deep, deceptively swift river to the other. From the shore, it looked like child’s play. From the middle of the river, standing on a wobbly stone, realizing the next step is further away than you realized and the water is actually waist deep not ankle deep, things got a little more serious. It’s all fun and games ‘til someone falls in the river.

I’m happy to report I made it to the other side without any major incidents. I then spent the next hour camped out on the rocks, watching other unsuspecting tourists wobble their way across. Some turned back after a few stones and one little girl fell in. The sun was out and warm but it certainly wasn't warm enough for a swim! Traffic across the stepping stones seemed to be a one-way affair, so I used the bridge to head back. As I ambled my way along the river bank, listening to the trickle of the water, sun on my face, not a care in the world, I stepped right in a big ol’ pile of cow poop. Nothing could ruin the beautiful day for me though! I sighed. Then giggled. And just dragged my feet in the tall grass the whole way back to the car. I was as good as new by the time I made it back to the car park.

Settled back on the right side of the car – I meant to open the wrong door, I was just throwing my bag in the passenger seat, swear – I programmed my GPS (also known as the one item I would grab on the way out if my house was on fire) to take me to Wensleydale Creamery. Anyone who’s seen the classic British claymation show, Wallace and Gromit, should recognize that name. It’s Wallace’s cheese of choice and after sampling their many varieties (they had cheese with pineapple! cheese with jalapenos! cheese with caramelized onions! cheese with cranberries!) I can see why. Of all the cheeses I tried, my favorite was the traditional Wensleydale with ginger.

The Creamery has an interesting history, having been saved from the brink of closing twice – once in 1930’s by local legend Kit Calvert and again in the 1990’s. In the 90’s the Creamery actually did shut down for about 6 months, resulting in 59 lost jobs (20% of the entire town’s population). A few of the old employees banded together though, bought out the big corporate owners and re-opened. Today, their cheese business seems to be thriving with more than 200 employees and lots and lots of very happy, very full customers… and the cheese lovers all lived happily ever after.

Having crossed everything off the ‘must-see’ list for the day, I started off back towards the hotel. About an hour in to the drive, it started drizzling a bit. Nothing major, just enough to make a faint rainbow. A few minutes before 6pm, I realized a couple of things. First, that the setting sun was blinding me, making the odds of my running in to a sheep or off the side of the road that much higher. And second, that THE SUN WAS SETTING over the Yorkshire Dales and I was worried about hitting a sheep. I found a safe spot to pull off the road, conveniently right beside a bench. (There are walking paths all over the country side and lots of benches for the hikers to rest and just gaze at the views.) As the sun hit the horizon and started to disappear, I felt something ping off my head. I ignored it for a second until it happened again and then again and again. I ripped my gaze off the sunset and realized it was hailing. Not to be phased by ice the size of gumballs, I zipped my coat a little higher, wrapped my scarf a little tighter and gazed on. The sunset was magnificent – fiery orange and reds and pinks – and totally worth dealing with the cold hail. Quite the perfect ending to the perfect day in the Yorkshire Dales.

January 1, 2012

Buon Anno

Auguri!


I spent another holiday with Enrichetta, my landlady, and her family today as we rang in the new year together. Apparently, it's tradition in Italy to feast on seafood at the first of the year. When Loretta, Enrichetta's daughter, asked me if I liked fish, I squared my shoulders, answered, "Si!" and prepared myself for suction cups and tentacles. There were a lot of both but… everything was SO delicious! Not only eating but actually enjoying seafood. Who would have thought?!


Our menu:


Antipasti

Sliced tuscan bread with raw salmon/lemon and tuna/olives

Octopus and potatoes

Prawns and lentils

Primi

Spaghetti with mixed seafood (lobster, clams, shrimp, squid and octopus)

Secondi

White, lake fish with carrots, zucchini and fennel

Jumbo prawns

Dolci

Pineapple, orange (fresh off their tree outside) and grapes

Dried figs, dates and nuts

Panettone with dark chocolate and grappa

Ricotta torte

Almond cookies


All of this (oh, that's right, we're not done yet) was followed by a spumante toast and cafe.


After stuffing ourselves, I was introduced to an Italian card game that, despite playing for over 2 hours, I still don't understand. Loretta's husband, Giuseppe, helped me through though, and I didn't loose too terribly.


If today's afternoon, surrounded by my surrogate Italian family (no hot grandsons today, unfortunately, but you can't win them all) was any indication, I'd certainly say I'm in for a wonderful 2012!

November 3, 2011

Brrr

Prague in one word? COLD. So, so cold.

Arriving from 60-degree, sunny Pisa, the minute we stepped outside of the Prague airport, I gasped. An actual, oh-my-gosh, I just stubbed my toe or bashed my funny bone and no it's not funny, audible gasp. The 40-degree, humid air in Prague hit me, like, well, a wall of ice. Good thing I packed that winter coat and gloves and scarf...

The day we arrived, we ventured out in the cold to explore the area and find a Black Light Theatre per Rick Steve's suggestion. The city is beautiful. Full of art-nouveau architecture and wide, cobble-stone streets. Unfortunately, I can't say such nice things about the black light performance. We saw Aspects of Alice at TaFantastika. I only have one thing to say to Rick about this one... like Cirque du Soleil my BUTT.

The show was, at best, a middle-school quality production full of bad music, bad props, bad acting and bad costumes. (When there were even costumes to be found. I'm not going to get in to the bit of "artistic nudity.") Perhaps if it was still 1960 and perhaps if we were all high, it might be enjoyable. But, I live in 2011, was not high and most certainly not impressed. Give this one a miss if you're ever in Prague and looking to get out of the cold, dear readers. Our last night in the city, we saw a beautiful classical concert in Smetana Hall at the Municipal House. That almost made up for the black light debacle. Almost.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped for dinner and heat at a typical Czech restaurant. We all enjoyed our piping hot soup (I had Grandma's Potato) and Czech beer.

The next morning, another cold, grey day greeted us. (Did I accidentally get off the plane in Russia? ) We bundled up and left the warmth of our hotel. For 4 hours, we traipsed around Prague with Kate, our guide on the Sandeman Free Tour. (Guides expect a tip at the end of the tour, so much like everything in life, it isn't really free.) We walked from Old Town Square to New and the Charles Bridge to the Jewish Quarter. At every stop, before sharing the history of the sight, Kate would lead us all in aerobics to warm everyone up, or at the least, fend off the hypothermia.

On the tour, we learned that Prague is the capital city of a relatively young country. In 1989, after almost 40 years of Communist rule, Czechoslovakia declared their independence in the Velvet Revolution and the Communist regime crumbled. Then, in 1993, the country again changed course and split into 2 new countries -- the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Meaning the Prague that is the capital of the Czech Republic is just 18 years old. And, cold. Don't forget cold.

Monday, our last full day in Prague, it wasn't quite so cold. The sun showed its face a few times! We caught lucky glimpses of the astronomical clock and Prague Castle bathed in sunlight and a beautiful sunset over the Charles Bridge. I even managed to shrug off my winter coat for about 30 seconds to pose for a picture in front of Lennon Wall!

(Photos coming tomorrow!)

November 1, 2011

Ilha Lilás

Once upon a time, I flew to a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. While on this island, I went hiking with friends...


On the drive back from this hike, we got stuck in a goat jam. Seriously.

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Safely out of the goat jam, I set out an a tour of the island.


I visited Biscoitos and its beautiful lava rock formations where the locals go swimming in the summer-time.


I met a basket maker...


... and a bootlegger. Still serious.


And we all lived happily ever after!

THE END

October 26, 2011

Lisboa

Ok, ok... I take back (most of) the bad things I said about Lisbon. In the past 5 or 6 visits to the city, I've faced short layovers on my way to and from the Azores, required to spend the night and half a day or so due to genius flight scheduling. As a result, I came to label the city as dirty, crowded, ugly, noisy, so on and so forth. This time around, I intentionally scheduled a whopping 3-nights in Lisbon. I started a little Brownie troop at one of the international schools last year. So, the extra time was warranted. I'm not going to lie though, I also was sure to leave myself a full day for sightseeing.

Sunday morning, I awoke to a knock on my door at 10am. Room service! One of the many hotel tricks I've discovered in my travels is that room service breakfast is often cheaper than the breakfast served in the on-site restaurant. I paid 11-euro for the room service while they charged 17-euro for the restaurant buffet. Plus, I got to stay in my PJs a little longer. Win, win!

So, after breakfast in bed, I drug myself out of the hotel (one of the downfalls of traveling alone is that its way too easy to talk yourself into staying in the room all day) and went in search of a big, red tourist bus. Within 10 minutes of planting myself at what I thought was the bus stop, I spotted one, stopped about a block up the road from where I was waiting. I made a run for it and reached the bus right as it was pulling off. I decided to wait at this new found stop. 10 minutes later, a big, yellow tourist bus stops a block back down the road, right where I was waiting earlier. Another run for it. Another miss. I walk dejectedly back up the road. Another 10 minutes pass and a 3rd bus stops ACROSS THE BUSY STREET. Not my day. I decided to stay put and wait it out. (Wo)man versus big, red/yellow tourist buses. About an hour and a half after first leaving the hotel, I finally climb aboard a bus!

Because my hotel was a bit off the beaten path, I had a long ride to the center. The bus took me through the part of town that hosted the World Expo in 1998, looped back around to the Alfama neighborhood (which I'd get to know better Monday evening) and up to the Marques de Pombal. I changed buses here and headed towards my ultimate destination (finally!), Torre de Belem. I'd been advised to try out the tasty Pasteis de Belem too but I swear, I was going mostly for the Torre.

When I hopped off the bus, I was greeted with a face full of salty air (being near the water and all) and this view:


After checking out the mini-castle, I promenaded down the sidewalk, following the water. Along the way, I spotted a few women on the beach, frantically picking up something and throwing it in a plastic shopping bag. Curious, I kicked off my shoes and wandered down to see what was up. They were collecting perfectly shaped, tiny seashells. One of the women told me she uses the shells in jewlery. I spotted a nice one and pocketed it as a free little souvenir of my time in Lisbon.


Moving further down the water, I spotted a market across a giant, 6-lane road. How to cross, how to cross... Not wanting to risk my life for a few hand-made goods, I went off in search of a pedestrian over or under pass. I found one what seemed like miles away, crossed over and traipsed all the way back to my market. It turned out to be a great find! Markets can be hit or miss in Europe and luckily this one was a hit with original jewlery, art work and unique antiques. After browsing every stall, I headed off towards Pasteis de Belem (PDM), recent purchases in tow.

As I approached PDM, I was greeted by a mob of people milling around outside in what was their attempt at a queue. (Not surprisingly, about every 60 seconds, a yelling match would ensue when an Italian tried to waltz directly to the front, leaving a lot of angry and vocal people in his/her wake.) I stood and laughed at the scene for a few minutes before taking advantage of the insider scoop I'd learned the night before. From the outside, it seems like the shop is tiny with almost no seating. So, most tourists queue up outside, resigned to take away. However, wander a few steps in and you realize the place is actually massive. Room after room presents itself, filled with the smell of their world famous pastel.

I quickly got a table and ordered a pastel and port. When the pastel arrived, I topped it with powdered sugar and cinnamon. (It took spying on a near-by table to realize the shakers weren't salt and pepper.) A sip of port and a melt-in-your-mouth, warm, creamy goodness bite of pastel and I was in heaven. The pastel was so good, I asked the waitress to bring me one more, por favor.

Happy with my pastel experience, I settled the bill (just 6-euro, quite the bargain!) and headed out. As it turns out, I lingered just a little bit too long in Belem; the buses (or, the tourist ones at least) had all stopped running. Being a brave, independent traveller, I gathered my courage and what little sense of direction I posses and headed below ground.

Traveling alone almost never bothers me anymore UNTIL moments like this, when you find yourself in a metro station, deciphering a tri-color, dot-laden map. What I wouldn't give to have someone I could confirm with, "Hey. We take the blue line to the red line and then continue on 2 more stops to our hotel, right?" But, when you travel alone, there's none of that. You just study the map extra hard, hold your breath and hop on a train. I'm not going to confess here how many times I've had to stop dead in my tracks, make a complete 180 and head back the way I came. Luckily, the Lisbon metro is pretty simple and easy to understand. I found my stop on the first try, spotted my tall hotel about 3 blocks away as soon as I got above ground and called it a day.

Monday, I went to the International School for a quick meeting with the Headmaster. More importantly -- in my world anyhow -- I met 5 little Girl Scout Brownies to sing songs. I taught them the Bean Song (my dog green likes to roam!), the Button Factory Song (Hi, my name is Joe!), the Milk Song (Just give me that milk, moo moo moo moo!) and the girls' favorite, the Blackbird Song. You know, the one where the blackbird flies in the country store and Pfttts on everything. Ahh, I impart such important life lessons on today's girls. After the fun song session, we headed back in to Lisbon. (The school sits above Lisbon in a beautiful town called Sintra.)

That evening, I met Sara, a friend of a friend for dinner. Some days, I swear, I've never met a stranger. Knowing I had a 7am flight (meaning a 5am taxi ride to the airport) and having been particularly extroverted for the last 7 days of business travel, it was actually more like I was forced to have dinner with a friend of a friend... at first. Almost immediately, I warmed up to Sara though and realized I was in for a fun night.

We hopped on the metro and headed to the Alfama neighborhood. Sara described this part of town as, "soulful, back alleys full of locals..." and she was right! Seemingly worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon, the Alfama area is an eclectic, funky part of town with small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Many of these restaurants were advertising live Fado that evening. I dropped hints for a few minutes before Sara asked, "Do you want to see Fado?" Um, yes! Fado is traditional, Portuguese folk music, full of longing for lost love. When I told Sara the music sounded eerie and melancholy, she explained to me that Portugal was a country of explorers for a very long time. Many people lost their lovers to new lands and expeditions and this love lost and longing lead to Fado. Well, that explains it.

We ordered a typical dish of cod fish stew (not my favorite, I'll admit, but edible) and listened to the 12-string guitar for hours. With my taxi ride to the airport just hours away, we eventually pulled ourselves away from the music so that I could get a couple hours of sleep.

I left Lisbon the next morning (if you can even call 5am morning) with the Fado still ringing in my ears and waved goodbye (for now) to this city.





October 3, 2011

Welcome Back

In honor of my dad, I'm going to attempt a return to this blogging business. I've been all over the place since I last wrote -- from Lake Como to Berlin (both for pleasure) and New York to London (both for work). So, I'm not going to try to fill in the blanks of everything you've missed but rather pick up from yesterday morning...

On Sunday, my dad and I said our 'goodbyes' in front of the Rome airport's Hilton Garden Inn after a whirlwind 2-week vacation/tour of Italy from top to bottom. I hopped on the bus to the airport and held on tight as the driver flew through one stop sign after another. An unknowing American tourist sitting in the seat to my left remarked in earnest to his wife, "Those stop signs must be for someone else..." Uh-huh. Right.

As we approached the airport, our fearless driver spotted a traffic jam in his parking spot. We were still 50-feet away when the horn honking started. In case his morning wasn't already ruined by the Land Rover parked diagonally across 2 lanes of traffic, a ballsy taxi driver then decided to try his luck. Disregarding his stop sign, as traffic started moving again, the taxi wormed its way in front of our bus. I could see our driver weighing the pros and cons of a side-swipe to the taxi with the bus but luckily for all involved, he refrained. Instead, he threw open his window, started yelling and took both hands off the wheel to start in on the "Vaffanculo" hand gestures. I swear, the man actually screamed, "Che parte di stop non capite?" Or, in English, "What part of stop don't you understand, asshole?" The guilty taxi driver stopped in front of us to plead his case with an unsympathetic police officer before moving on. Our bus driver pulled in to his hard earned parking spot but not before stopping to bid "Buongiorno" to the police officer. The doors opened and we all piled off.

This exciting ride was a fitting ending to an equally exciting 2-weeks with my dad. He landed in Rome on September 17 and we didn't stop going until we parted for our separate flights yesterday. Highlights included:

- Matera! A pre-historic town of recently restored cave dwellings. This place was unlike anywhere I'd ever been. Our hotel was literally in a cave -- humidity and all -- and we discovered the world's best pizza at Oi' Mari, a hole in the wall (Get it? Town of caves? Hole in the wall? Ha, ha, ha...) spot at the bottom of Matera.

- The beautiful Amalfi Coast and the less than beautiful driving. I haven't decided if the spectacular scenery and doting hospitality of our Mafia-run hotel makes up for the insane driving here. We stayed in Praiano, right in the middle, between Amalfi and Positano. Every day we faced driving like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tsv7rMEJx3M.

- Dinner with my friends Sandra and Ale. We ate, we drank and my Dad and Ale talked photography while Sandra and I gossiped about work (it's what we do) all night.

- A return to the Isola di Capraia, possibly my favorite spot in Italy. After an early morning ferry ride from Livorno on Saturday we blew off treking for beers and a nap by the pool. We made up for our lazy day on Sunday though with a 3-hour trek along the coast and a private boat ride around the island, complete with a stop for swimming in the crystal-clear, cool Mediterranean Ocean.

- Lake Garda, with a day trip to the Dolomiti Mountains (i.e. my favorite place on earth). I breathed in the mountain air, wore a sweater and long pants most days and just generally enjoyed being in the north of Italy (where things are cleaner, quieter, calmer...) for a few days. Garda is a beautiful, serene spot, glowing blue in the day time, pink at dusk and twinkling with lights after dark. On our 3rd day there, we took a sail boat across the lake and back. It seemed as if the lake was just made for sailing. We stayed in a so-so hotel in Malcesine -- while the hotel was nothing special, we did discover an amazing restaurant thanks to TripAdvisor. If you're ever in the area, be sure to plan for a meal (or two or three) at Al Gondoliere (www.algondoliere.com). I'm still dreaming about their ravioli in pistachio sauce.

Dad arrived back in Charlotte yesterday afternoon and I went back to work today but life doesn't go back to "normal" for me anytime soon. So, there's hope yet for more of these stories. I'll spend a week and a half in Portugal (mostly work, some play) soon. A quick 4-day trip to Prague at the end of October. Prague is on my bucket list! I love crossing places off the list... (Ok, ok... and adding a magnet to my collection.) Then, a week in Houston, Texas for the big Girl Scout National Convention (Happy 100th Birthday to us!), followed by 2-weeks at home in Charlotte in November. Somewhere between then and the end of the year, I hope to squeeze in trips to London, Amsterdam and Germany. Whew. 2012 is going to be here before I know it!

January 22, 2011

Buon appetito

I cooked up a storm today at Chef Paolo Monti's class in Lucca. Italian food, Tuscan food in particular, is just so much fun to make. The ingredients are all so fresh, colorful, fragrant and easy to find and most importantly... delicious! The class was fairly interactive, but with 12 people plus the chef around the table, we didn't all get our hands in every dish. Buuuut, we did enjoy eating every dish! Menu is below:

Antipasti
Panzanella - Tuscan bread salad
Crostini alle melanzane - Toasty bread with eggplant
Crostini ai fegatini - Toasty bread with chicken liver and capers (I usually HATE pate, but this was actually edible)

Primi
Tordelli alla Lucchese - Ravioli with vegetarian filling (swiss chard, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, stale bread and raisins)
Ragu di carne alla Lucchese - Meat sauce from Lucca (my favorite thing of the day!)

Secondi
Arista di maiale alla Toscana - Roast pork with pancetta, rosemary and sage
Patate arrosto - Roasted potatoes

Dolci
Cantucci di Prato - Almond biscotti cookies

I think I could easily recreate the cantucci (if only I had more counter space), bread salad and pork roast. I'm going to try out the pasta sauce next weekend. I've been meaning to learn a home-made spaghetti sauce for a while so that I can ditch the bottled stuff.


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