close

Europe

Donuts and Beigels

no thumb
IMG_1982
The sign says “possibly DEFINITELY the best dougnuts in the world.”
Misspelling aside, that’s a bold statement to make. Especially to these American eyes. We did, after all, invent obesity thanks in large part to an endless supply of delicious donuts.
But, this is indeed a special donut. A big ball of fried dough oozing forth a vanilla cream that’s like eating a storm cloud, rich and thick…but also light and airy. I’m eating a storm cloud. (foreshadowing). Eating this thing is a gymnastic exercise in contorting your arm in all various positions to get every last bit of the cream before it’s claimed by Newtonian physics. I suppose you could use a knife and fork; but, that’s just un-American…even in England.
IMG_0514
With nary cloud in the sky the stream of the day is keeping us outdoors. The walk along Southbank is burnished into our subconscious, which is nice because that’s when you can relax a bit and pay attention to all the little things happening around you.
Lauren hasn’t been to the UK since high school, so the mission is to walk it out under beautiful blue skies and be tourists. Walking alongside Whitehall there is a small park with a series of war memorials. One of them is a simple oblisk with a soldier dedicated to the Korean War. It’s a sharp contrast to memorialize the same war on the National Mall. Again it’s fascinating to see how the collective memory works differently across international borders, perhaps it’s also a showcase of just how BIG we like to remember things in the States.
DCIM117GOPRO
DCIM117GOPRO

Passing by Big Ben the crowds thicken. It is Friday, and a gorgeous one at that. We opt out of a walk through Westminster Abbey, I’ve been in there before and Lauren isn’t £20 interested. A long walk later puts us in front of Buckingham Palace where the crowds actually aren’t that bad. Sometimes it’s fun to return to a landmark, it’s another case where your attention works differently. The little details matter more, you’re less awestruck. For me, this is a good spot to play around with the camera and then watch people as they watch a palace presumably full of royal people. At least according to the flag.

The goal for the afternoon is to spend some time in the National Gallery, but that’s the only official item on the itinerary. And official is a loose term here. I was also debating with going into the Churchill War Rooms, which was the underground military brain during the Battle of Britain. The Gallery wins, in large part because I dragged Lauren through the British Museum for hours longer than she wanted to the day before. And I’m genuinely interested in the collection at the Gallery. Not to mention it, also, is free. Trafalgar Square is a fun place to photograph, the neoclassical design of the museum combined with the fountains in the plaza and the lions at the base of the Nelson monument create interesting scenes. The sun hangs low in the southern sky offering up some great light for a good part of the afternoon. Inside the works are nothing short of inspirational. I’ve written many times about the ability of art to transport you to another place, another frame of thought, if you let it. A few hours and a few IMG_2026Renoirs, Monets, Dagats and da Vincis later we were on our way back to Southbank. Another one of our friends is flying in, and a we have plans to meet a whole other set later in the evening.
Walking back along the river the Christmas markets are really picking up along with the post-work rush. As we walk along Southbank the milk tree is gone, replaced with…wait for it…a BEER tree. It’s a promotional stunt by Carlsberg, but all we have to do is wait in a short line and pour some beer from a tap IN THE TREE! Of course. So we pour a beer and sit and watch the river traffic along the Thames. It’s an English Christmas miracle.
 IMG_2030
There are moments, if you’re paying attention, when you realize the depth and breadth of the scope of your life. It is through pure circumstance that I’m now at a place called Wheatsheaf adjacent to Borough Market sharing pints with seven Penn Staters. Five of them are good friends I’ve known for almost 15 years. A quirk of timing and opportunity brings us back together, and this is how life is great. Recreating the past, living in the present, pushing forward towards the future.
The pub scene of London is on full display here. We were lucky enough to score some inside territory, and a table, but the crowd is spilling into the street. That’s how the post-work pub party happens. It’s communal and maybe a tad bit excessive, but clearly traditional and, dare I say it, a bit more neighborly than the D.C. version of happy hour.
After a few pints we make some moves towards another part of town. The mission is salted beef bagels and, purportedly, the best pizza in London. In the process we lose one of our party to familial obligations, putting the kids to bed.
We choose the bus over the tube for this trip, and I’m more than happy with that. The double-decker buses are just as much tourist delight as they are public transit. The journey becomes the experience.
https://twitter.com/WorldDistrict/status/674951966028603392
Shoreditch is a model of gentrification. There are traces of a more traditional, and even turbulent past, but for the most part people here now have money and free time and a hunger to consume both.
We work up and put our name in at Homeslice. It’s actually a product of Covent Garden, but they’ve just opened this second location this week. The hope is that not too many people know about it yet.
Two hour wait.
So much for hopes and dreams. We put our names in, but with stomachs growling the new mission is IMG_2067salted beef beigels. We slice deeper into the neighborhood towards Brick Lane where the graffiti artist is a little more bold.
There are two competing places serving these sandwiches. Think Pats and Genos in Philly with smaller crowds. I’ve been forewarned that ordering is akin to an experience with the soup nazi. So yeah…just like Philly.
Within minutes we’re all on the sidewalk devouring these sandwiches from Brick Lane Beigel Bake. Some are pleased….others not so much. Me, well I’m in heaven. It’s a perfect balance of crunchy/chewy savory. Without even a word this thing is gone.
But, I can’t very well leave without trying the competitor. I walk two storefronts down to the Britain’s Best Beigel Shop. The sign says it’s the first and it has “best” in the name, so it has to be true.
“Kris, seriously…you don’t want to fill up on this before the pizza,” Em warns me.
IMG_2072Who’s filling up? This is the appetizer. And this is a mission, an experiment to determine the salted beef bagel champion.
The second is gone as quickly as the first. But, they lie: it is not “best”…it’s good…but not best.
With that eternally burning question satisfied we double back towards Homeslice, stopping at a pub called the Owl and the Pussycat to kill a little more time. This place is also packed to the brim, a situation made worse as we walk in the front door to the sound of shattering glass. It’s enough to prompt the bouncers to shuffle everyone inside. For about five minutes we’re playing the Jurassic Park drinking game. Oh, you don’t know the game??? It goes like this:
You’re in a crowded bar packed shoulder to shoulder such that extending your arm for a proper sip is an impossibility, thus the only way to bring rim of glass to lip is by pretending that your arms are little-T-Rex arms that you have to meet halfway. Jurassic Park. It’s a thing.
A beer or two later and it’s time for some pizza.
Here’s the deal, you know how I said there were seven Penn Staters…we now it’s actually eight on the evening. Another one of our friends from another era is in London with his wife house shopping ahead of a move to the city. Just another round of pure luck and he’s here with us for some pizza.
IMG_2081The pizza is delicious, not gonna lie. The chorizo and sweet corn is monstrously good. We plow through three of these pies with American efficiency. The stories along the way are as rich as the toppings (unfortunately those won’t be shared here).
The invisible string binding us all together is sometimes revealed when plucked just the right way. Tonight we’re playing that string like a harp.
Hugs, handshakes and waves later we’re back on a bus heading towards Southbank set for an early morning and a grand adventure (foreshadowing).
Continue Reading

Tea with Mummies

IMG_1903
Oh jetlag, sometimes you’re a sneaky little enemy.
I managed to make it until 1:30 in the morning before hitting bed. But waking up is next to impossible. My body wants to be in the deep REM mode typical for this time of day back home, but here it’s already mid morning. And all I want to do is sleep.
Coffee awaits.
Actually tea awaits…after the coffee.
Lauren has a reservation for a proper English tea. It’s not really my thing, but why not try out the experience.
Southbank is fairly easy access to much of what central London has to offer, and I love the need to cross over a bridge. There’s always a chance for a photo op.

A missed turn or two later and we are at Fortnum & Mason, a department store just bursting with four stories of Christmas.

IMG_1848
Down the stairs at Fortnum & Mason
The tea is served in the top level. It seems pretty fancy, then again I wouldn’t know otherwise. I’ve never done the high tea thing. At least the price tag says fancy. It’s all about the fine china here, and yet again Lauren and I are in a situation where we’re the youngest people in the place.
So tea is really lunch. At least that’s the impression I’m getting here. I mean, there is tea. But there’s also little finely cut finger sandwiches and scones and other delectable items about the size of my thumb. All of it is incredibly rich, some of it is tasty…and some of it I’d rather forget ever tasting.
It was a good experience. I’ll never do it again, but it’s worth trying…especially in London.
IMG_1858
The savory selection…which can get pretty interesting.
IMG_1859
It’s people having tea on a tea kettle staring back at you while you have tea. It’s all very meta.
IMG_1855
Just say no to teabags.
The British Museum has been something of a white whale for me. I’ve always wanted to check it out, but each time in London something would pop up. Not this time.
The natural place to start a journey through this immense collection is in the Enlightenment Room. It lays the foundation for why the museum exists in the first place, but it also serves as something of a monument to the Enlightenment (which also happens to be a historical infatuation of mine).
IMG_1884
Feeling enlightened.
The room is really a library, a collection of stuff. It’s organized to walk you through a dozen key points of the Enlightenment. Surrounded by books and artifacts and specimens you’ll get a new appreciation for the era.
The rest of the museum is a walk through time. Speaking of time, we didn’t have too much to play with before the museum closed. The map of the museum offers an “express highlight” tour that it says takes about 90 minutes.
I’m sure for most people that’s true, but with my ADD there’s no chance of making that timetable. Everything is interesting, even the things I wouldn’t think interesting.
There are entire civilizations and epochs to walk through, there’s no way this is happening in 90 minutes. It just took me an hour to get through the Babylonians and Assyrians and Persians.
IMG_1903
The long sleep.

We fast track to the Egyptian room. Surrounded by mummies and mummies and more mummies you get around to understanding that the British Museum barely has anything to do with the British. There’s also something really freaky about these mummies when you stop to think about it. Behind the glass in an atmosphere-controlled chamber, wrapped in linens, there are bodies…aged for three millennia. They died in the Egyptian desert and now here they are in damp London as millions of people gawk at them day in and day out.

Thankfully the mummies are not coming back to life today, and we make it to the Rosetta Stone unscathed. Here we are, staring at the stone that unlocked millions of mysteries of the ancient world. Just seeing this up close is worth the trip.
But alas, the English are serious about time, and at exactly 5:20 the museum staff politely escorted everyone out.

We are set to meet our friends at a Christmas market in Hyde Park (again this is the mission for Lauren). This means a healthy walk from the British Museum down Oxford Street. The sun sets early here, about 3:30, so we’re in full-on night mode. Light is a commodity in this part of the world. And to make up for a lack of natural light the English have gone full-out in decking the streets with every kind of Christmas light that exists.

IMG_1940
The London streets glow at night.

There are orbs and strings and stars and peacock-looking things. And suddenly it’s snowing! So magical…except, it shouldn’t be snowing. It’s like 45 degrees. High above one of the department stores snow guns are spewing out the artificial flakes. The crowd spills off of the sidewalk all along Oxford Street almost falling into traffic. A million carols and jingles drift in the air from competing storefronts, it’s holiday anarchy.

Clearly, the British take Christmas every bit as seriously as Americans…and Winter Wonderland is the final argument. Think of it this way: it’s like ten county fairs mated with the traditional German Christmas markets…that drinks like the English. It’s a spectacle. Ferris wheels and roller coasters and spinny-vomity machines illuminate the skyline. The pop-up theme park occupies a vast swath of Hyde Park. It feels a bit like the German part of Epcot, with a lot more whiskey.
https://twitter.com/WorldDistrict/status/675433643913977857
We sync up with Jon and Emily just as the rain starts falling in earnest. In our effort to find cover, we instead discover a gem of an experience. It’s a merry-go-round occupied by people drinking. AND there is a bar in the middle, so there’s no need to hop off this little carousel. But, hop off we do and continue on to another bit of cover. It’s a patio with a massive fire pit in the middle, a perfect spot to warm up and dry off, and game plan. I think we met our fill of Winter Wonderland relatively quickly, in large part because of a rain that was only picking up.
https://twitter.com/WorldDistrict/status/675444113051934720
An Uber later and we were eating an entire chicken speared into a plate of fries at a Southbank restaurant with cleverly named cocktails and pictures of naked women in the bathrooms.
Goodnight London.
IMG_1971
This chicken flew straight into the ground, sad story…
IMG_1973
You probably won’t find this menu item at Denny’s.
IMG_1941
Ah, yes…the traditional Christmas ferris wheel.
IMG_1948
That does not look like the North Pole.
IMG_1961
This fire pit could really be more fire and less pit.
IMG_1915
Just another staring contest lost by me.
IMG_1904
Bodies…everywhere.
IMG_1902
In case of emergency, do NOT break glass.

IMG_1887

IMG_1891
Nothing like a little 13th century chess match…somebody should just call a draw on this one.
IMG_1899
So happy my high school latin class is finally paying off…
IMG_1879
The British Museum is fancy on the inside.
IMG_1843
English candy is not unhealthy. #facts
IMG_1924
This is how I learned spanish!

IMG_1922

IMG_1931
The time machine.
Continue Reading

Some Thoughts on Paris

IMG_6399

My streak is broken, the resolution shattered. But, truthfully and honestly, I’ve been in no mood. Few things highlight the frivolity of a travel blog like an actual international tragedy. And as the details tweeted their way across the Atlantic I recoiled in the same horror as many Americans.

This post has nothing to do with travel.

The echoes of 9/11 still rattle about my brain. And living in what is clearly a target city, there’s always an edge. To be brutally upfront, rare is the day that I don’t look at someone suspiciously. My spider sense is always set to light tingle. Still though, I go about my day…not ignorant of the threats, but also not imprisoned by the possibilities.

A little more than a year ago I watched a guy get held up at gunpoint in the courtyard of my apartment building. For a moment, I was paralyzed. My brain couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were seeing, what my ears where hearing. That moment felt like an eternity as I let out a shout while calling 911. The robber fled, running and hopping into a car that sped away. The police arrived quickly, but, as far as I know, there was never an arrest.

I live on a very safe street by any metric. But, for months, I was hyper-vigilant as I walked to and from the Metro or my car. It wasn’t a good feeling, it was an anxious feeling. It was like surfing a wave, but never being able to stand. The irony in situations like this is that the best way to feel secure, to feel safe…but also to live, is to acknowledge that risk is a part of life. And the more you try to control that risk, the less you live. (you can take that surfing analogy wherever it leads you)

I’ve been deep in thought through this weekend, which has dissuaded me from writing…thankfully. If I had written Friday night, it would have been angry and caustic and it would have added nothing to the conversation. Through Saturday and Sunday I found myself vacillating between turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and eye-for-an-eye hawkism.

I’ve been to Paris, and like 99 percent of humanity I love Paris. But, it’s deeper than that. There are Parisian bits of DNA woven into the genetic fabric of our own republic. The District of Columbia stands as a civic monument to the beauty of Parisian design. Names like L’Enfant and Lafayette and Rochambeau grace our landmarks, our Metro stations and our maps. We are a child of many nations, but few have left an imprint as indelible as France.

Further, this is a continued assault on the path to Enlightenment, a movement birthed in Paris and London that hatched into a great experiment of democracy on this side of the Atlantic. It’s the notion that we don’t need kings or queens, popes or caliphs to direct our nations, to determine our rights and our fates.

And, that, perhaps is what’s most gut-wrenching of all about this latest string of barbarism…it has unleashed a reaction that is vile and antithetical to what we should stand for. America should be a grand symbol of hope, not an island of exclusion. The scourge isn’t defeated with bombs and bullets and brimfire. Those methods are but fuel to their message, proof to the fence-sitters that the West will only be satisfied with the erasure of Islam.

Our most powerful ammunition comes in the form of ideas and ideals. This, not force, is the hallmark of a Western democracy. And our ideals dictate that we should welcome all who seek asylum. That we should elevate the great swaths of humanity clothed in poverty to a life of hope and aspiration. These ideals are hard to achieve. It’s easy to shock and awe and believe that the scourge has been eradicated. It’s hard to realize that the scourge doesn’t exist as a matter of geography, but rather as a state of mind.

This is not about religion.

This is about economics and a culture of dominance.

There have been many who have made the case that religion itself should be banished. That idea is almost as stupid as those calling for a carpet-bombing campaign of the Middle East. Religion is but a tool. When used fairly and wisely it provides meaning and purpose, it motivates and inspires. It brings about the best in humanity. When mishandled it’s evil and ruthless, robbing us of character and instinct. It disenfranchises and it excludes. It brings about the worst in humanity.

So yeah, getting rid of religion is an idea. But the next logical step is the abandonment of degrees of reason, the limitation of colors along the spectrum of understanding. Next you have to get rid of political parties, and then state boundaries, and then national boundaries, the list is practically infinite. Getting rid of religion is a silly, simplistic idea…almost as silly and simplistic as insisting that everyone follow the same religion.

Silly is the wrong word.

Extreme is the right word.

And if there’s any single word that needs to be uttered less these days…it’s “extreme.”

I’m not going to debate military policy or strategy. I’m not going to defend the president, nor am I going to attack him. I’m not going to pretend that I have a clue how to fix any of this. But, I will say this: we all have a responsibility to right this ship, and more importantly we all have the ability to right this ship.

In the weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to D.C. I spent a lot of time with volunteers, documenting their efforts to welcome their religious leader. I remember talking to one volunteer, his name was Chris, as he unloaded crates of food from a truck prepared for a line of homeless and hungry stretching down the block. I asked him why he volunteered every Wednesday night to take three hours from his life to help strangers. His answer still resonates with me.

He didn’t say his priest told him to, or that the pope told him to, or that Jesus told him to. He looked at me and said:

“There’s just so much happening in the world, so much negativity…but this, here, is my corner. And if I can change just my little corner for the better, than I’ve done good.”

There is power in those words.

Weeks before that, I sat in the balcony of the Metropolitan AME church in downtown D.C., and I watched as a woman who knew several of the nine killed in Charleston pray for their murderer, just hours after that homicidal spree.

That had power.

Like Thor’s-hammer-to-the-heart-and-mind power.

I’m not saying that we ignore the Middle East or just outright forgive the scourge. But, instead of succumbing to our base human desire for violence and vengeance, maybe we instead try something different.

Ron Fournier at the National Journal floated an interesting idea: Mandatory service for every U.S. citizen. I know, it’s not a new idea, but it’s interesting in this context. Essentially, that by putting everyone in a position to serve, individuals are engaged with ideas and environments different than their own. Which makes them more aware and, ultimately, more enlightened citizens.

I’d take this a step further, lets slash the defense budget by 40 percent (relax, we’d still spend more on defense than any other nation) and throw the remainder into this new program. That’d be more than enough money to put teachers in every school, workers to rebuild our infrastructure, and ambassadors to raise up the poorest parts of the world.

Even without such a program, why can’t we dedicate ourselves to service? Why not find avenues for our energies to push someone else forward? Let us react to senseless violence by individually performing sensible acts of good, showing that that nation, and any nation so conceived, shall long endure.

What better way to combat hate?

It’s better than the alternative of yet another massive land invasion of the Middle East. We’ve tried that…a lot. And as far as I know, it’s never really worked out.

This is not naïveté.

It’s a faith in reason and a conviction to ideals. It’s following the true path that the best of our founding fathers envisioned. That we be world leaders, not through conquest, but by example.

(your regularly scheduled travel blog will return tomorrow)

 

 

 

Continue Reading

A Cooking Class in Rome

IMG_4813

A trip to Italy is associated with a delicious, stuff-your-face-with-the-best-food-ever kind of experience. So, participating in a near 7-hour cooking class in Rome delightfully checks a major box off the nom list.

Cooking Classes in Rome in the heart of Trastevere is owned by a half-Italian, half-American couple who is charismatic, witty and ready to open their kitchen to you for a day that will leave your belly full and your heart happy. Chef Andrea Consoli and wife Erica begin with an introduction to Roman cuisine and transition into what is a full afternoon of interactive cooking that’s educational and super fun–and I’m talking in the form of taking a meat cleaver to a chicken or making your own bow-tie pasta from scratch.

You’ll be greeted with espresso and breakfast sweets in a beautifully decorated front room and given a chance to mingle with the other students (a small international group of 10). Following that, you don your apron and get to work stirring, chopping, laughing and tasting.  Andrea provides Italian culinary histories, tips and know-how the whole way through. It’s a hands-on experience with never a dull moment.

You should be prepared to eat. A lot. Our menu included stuffed artichokes that we trimmed and cleaned ourselves, a blow-your-carb-loving-mind dish with porcini mushrooms, prosciutto, sausage over pasta, a traditional chicken cacciatore with 2 side dishes and, naturally, a sweet and creamy tiramisu.

Not only does Cooking Classes in Rome provide you with an opportunity to learn more about traditional cooking, but it also makes you feel like you had a chance to really delve into the culture and expand your knowledge through your taste buds.

Class including 4-course meal is €65 per person; optional wine pairings €20 per person.  Menus change seasonally and based on dietary requests.

Previously posted by Lauren on Girl Meets Food 

Continue Reading

Florence for Foodies

IMG_4367

Florence. The birthplace of some of the most inspirational people in the Western world: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Dante and…Natalie Panozzo, co-owner of Florence for Foodies; a walking food tour that will school you on everything from grassy olive oil to grappa spray.

Florence for Foodies begins with a marocchino; an espresso with milk, cocoa and melted chocolate (pictured above) at a lovely little cafe where Natalie or her partner Samantha Boi teach you the Italian Coffee Code of Conduct—i.e., no dairy in your coffee past lunch. That’s for babies.

In the central market, you’ll sample the very best bollito (pictured), a sandwich made of marinated veal and two secret sauces that the people of Nerbone have been making since 1872. You’ll also try outrageously fresh cheeses, cured meats, olive oils and decades-aged balsamic vinegars, all accompanied by chianti—a breakfast wine, of course.Bollito Sandwich

IMG_4371IMG_4372

IMG_4375

IMG_4377

At the next stop, you’ll be greeted with a glass of Prosecco and a fantastically salty, doughy coccolo sandwich filled with prosciutto and creamy Stracchino cheese. Wash this down with more Chianti Reserve and learn about the wine region while you stand in a 500-year-old wine cellar that was once a prison cell!

Next, a dreaded grappa spray. Grappa = hard alcohol made from grapes, to the tune of 120 proof. This mouth spray of death comes in an innocent-looking perfume bottle and has been used as an afternoon pick-me-up for decades. Oh yes, it will definitely induce an involuntary yowza at first. But don’t worry bella, everything gets sweeter from here on out as you live la dolce vita with chocolates and gelato.

IMG_4384

IMG_4392Florence for Foodies lasts 3 hours and leaves you with a wonderful experience. You’ll learn about the historical nature of food production in Tuscany and eat and drink your way through one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Who can say “no” to that?

 

Previously posted by Lauren on Girl Meets Food

Continue Reading

Now You’re Cooking with Romans!

Fire

And so it rained.

A rainy Roman morning
A rainy Roman morning

Throughout our time in Rome we had been waiting for the rain. It was supposed to start the night we arrived, and yet conditions remained dry. Until this morning. But really, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We had a cooking class that was to take up half the day.

We walked across the Tiber into the neighborhood of Trastavere, where things seem far more residential…and maybe a smidge less touristy. The challenge would be finding this place, because Cooking Classes in Rome looked to be run out of a house in the neighborhood on a small side street…at least that’s what I got from the website. In truth the operation is run from a storefront, but inside it feels like a warm home. There are pictures on the walls of cooking classes past and a large dining table in the middle of the main room.

We were welcomed in by an American named Erica…originally a Michigander, which made Lauren happy. The table on this particular day would be full, with fellow cooks in training from Germany, Hungary and the U.S. All said there were ten people, half of whom were named Nicole.

Chef Andrea showed up as we were enjoying some coffee and breakfast pastries around the table. Erica and Andrea are married…Andrea is not American, he’s from Rome and full of amazing insights to Roman cuisine.

Look at all this food we have to cook!
Look at all this food we have to cook!

He struggled to get in the front door, both arms strapped down with bags and bags of food. Everything we were about to cook had just been picked up from the local market. After a few minutes of introductions we moved into the kitchen, we heard the rundown of what makes Roman food so different and special. Andrea also spent a lot of time stressing the importance of locality and seasonality. For that reason we’d be carving artichokes for one of the courses. If you’ve never carved an artichoke it’s an adventure.

I’m not going to go over every detail of the class…I’m not looking to give away any secrets. But here’s what we made: stuffed Roman style artichokes as the appetizer, home-made bow-tie pasta with a fresh mushroom and sausage sauce for the first course, chicken cacciatora with a side of roasted potatoes with rosemary and sautéed flat beans with cherry tomatoes for the main…and the desert was tiramisu. I ate a lot of the tiramisu.

Here’s what you need to know about the class: it’s very hands-on. Whether butchering chickens (don’t worry you’re not killing chickens) or properly cleaning mushrooms fresh from the earth or making pasta from scratch I picked up a bunch of new skills in the kitchen. The class isn’t going to teach you to be a chef, but it will give you an appreciation for cooking…and maybe inspire you keep learning once you get home. And because of Chef Andrea’s focus on locality, you’ll learn a lot about Roman cuisine and Roman culture.

We're happy because we spent all morning chasing this stupid bird
We’re happy because we spent all morning chasing this stupid bird

It’s been said many times on this blog: eating is at the core of travel. We all eat. We all eat differently based on where we are. So if a person is what they eat, a key way to understand them is to eat what they eat. At the very least you’ll get a taste of their culture.

Chef Andrea was very good about “showing” and then letting everyone “do”. I’ve been to a lot of cooking classes that are a whole lot of show without the do…or, even worse, the do without the show.

When we finally sat down to eat it felt like an accomplishment. We were about to consume the spoils of a great victory. The class also offers a wine pairing with each course, Lauren and I opted out because we had a busy afternoon and evening ahead. Everything was delicious…and because we had spent the last few hours with these people it was a very relaxing friendly meal. There were students experiencing travel for the first time, photographers

Here we are all enjoying the dinner
Here we are all enjoying the dinner

offering the eye of perspective, a few just visiting Rome for the weekend, some looking for the next step in another land and at least one who was absolutely obsessed with Bon Jovi. All in all it made for great dinner conversation…such that we got carried away and stayed longer than the class actually ran. But in true Italian fashion there was no rush to get anyone out the door…because that’s all part of the experience.

Lauren and I were the first to leave, because we had a laundry list of things to do on our last night in Rome. Before we left though, Erica gave Lauren a list of shops to find some of the great ingredients we used through the day…she also gave us a list of restaurants and at least one tiramisu spot to find.

As we walked out the door the rain was finally letting up…it seemed perfect as we walked through Trastevere on a hunt for some of the spots on the list. Collecting things along the way we worked our way back up to the Pantheon. We stopped by the other night, but it was closed. I really wanted to get inside, since that didn’t happen in my last trip to Rome.

The Pantheon is also important to me as a Washingtonian. So much of our architecture is inspired by this building: The Capitol Building, Museum of Natural History, National Archives, West Wing of the National Gallery of Art and most obviously the Jefferson Memorial. Walking into the Pantheon is the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to appreciating the classical

A look at the Pantheon from the outside
A look at the Pantheon from the outside

Romanesque influences around Washington.

Like all the great Roman buildings still intact, or partially intact, the Pantheon is still here because it was turned into a church. Being inside and seeing these Catholic symbols littered about the building I can’t but help to feel sad for what once was. There’s a certain silliness in making this a church, with it’s high unsupported domed roof with an oculus leading to the heavens. This was a temple to all the gods of Rome, putting crosses and portraits of the Virgin Mary inside doesn’t change that.

And that’s why the Pantheon is important…because it’s not a testament to Roman polytheism or to Christianity…but instead to human power and the use of symbols to solidify that power. Making the Pantheon a church was a way for the Church to show it reigned in the absence of Roman power. Taken in that context the Pantheon is very much a living building. On this night it felt a little more alive as the moisture in the atmosphere outside succumbed to the wicked ways of gravity and fell into the building through the oculus. The rain reinforced the idea that the reclamation of forces bigger than all of us combined are never far away. Still though, for about two millennia this was the largest unsupported dome in the world. The Romans knew what they were doing.

St. Peters from up the Tiber
St. Peters from up the Tiber

We headed back across the Tiber to a shop that Lauren wanted to get back to on Via Cola di Rienzo. I probably would have put up more of a fight but I wanted another shot at that gelato. And so we walked. While we were in the shop the skies opened up and Lauren, with hopes of making things faster, had me wait in line while she went looking for one other item. Our plan was to rendezvous at the gelato shop.

Back outside and without an umbrella I darted from awning to awning hoping to dodge the raindrops. It was not an effective strategy. By the time I made it to the shelter of the gelato shop I was thoroughly soaked and Lauren was MIA. I ordered and paid, she still wasn’t there. So I went outside to look (under the awning of course) and I heard Lauren shouting from down the street. She was soaked.

“I was missing!” she said grabbing her gelato. She had walked out a side entrance of the shop and ended up on a completely different street. We finished the gelato as the rain subsided and then headed back towards Piazza Navona for dinner. We had already made reservations at a restaurant we scouted the night before, and we wrestled with whether we should just break them and try one of the eateries Erica had listed for us. Ultimately proximity was the deciding factor, we were just across the bridge from the place with reservations…and we had done an amazing amount of walking in the last three days. In fact, I kept track. In three days we walked 17 miles.

The dinner was alright, not to the level of what we’d experienced over most of the trip. But I think a lot of that was due to my still being full from our earlier dinner at the cooking school. Still though it was a nice romantic spot to enjoy the last night in Italy with Lauren.

Throwing our coins in...it looks a little freaky
Throwing our coins in…it looks a little freaky

We stopped by the Trevi Fountain on our way back home…seeing as we were in bad moods the last time we were there we didn’t want to jinx any possible return to Rome. And so we returned to throw our coins in again to curry favor with the fates. Even at the late hour the fountain was busy, although nothing like the mobs that are there during the day. It’s touristy, and it’s awesome.

Coins deposited we took our time wandering through the streets of Rome back to our hotel. Again I had fallen in love with this city, with this country. For Lauren this would go down as her favorite trip abroad, and I’m inclined to agree with her. From the canals of Venice to the streets of Florence and Rome there’s something around every corner to stir the heart and inspire the mind. And obviously there is the romantic appeal, the notion that one of the biggest moments of our lives will be forever frozen in time in this country. The next morning we flew home to Washington, where the broad streets seemed out of place. Buildings a few hundred years old now seemed brand new. Meals seemed rushed.

For a moment we had returned to our native landscape seeing it as a foreigner. That is the true mark of an excellent trip.

Continue Reading

There’s no Pope at the Vatican

Rome_0329

Our hotel in Rome was modern, coming with all sorts of neat amenities…including blackout shades. They were soundproof and completely dark. I woke up on this morning trying to figure out why the people in the room above us would be vaccuming at 3am. After a bit of fumbling around I found my iPhone, it read 9:30…certainly my phone was still on American time. But then I looked at the alarm clock in the room. Also 9:30.

Could it be 9:30 at night?? I was in a downward spiral of confusion, it was like a horrible episode of the twilight zone. I had no concept or idea of what time it actually was…where was the sun!

And then Lauren pressed a button and the shades opened. And low and behold it was a beautiful sunny day outside…not raining…

Road paint Vatican
Road paint Vatican

We walked to the Vatican with no tour plans. Again this is a flexibility allowed while traveling in the off-season, not necessarily a great idea in the busy season. I’m not really sure why we walked, but we did. It was a long walk, but pretty as we followed the Tiber.

After ducking in for coffee we headed down towards St. Peters Basilica…it’s tough to miss, big dome…it’s own country. As we approached the square it was only a matter of moments before we were hit up for our first tour. Getting a tour is a little like buying weed outside a Phish concert…you get a lot of shady offers, and ultimately you just have to go with the one that looks least desperate.

We ended up with a guy named Angelo, a fast talking American-Italian. He told us he grew up in Rome, but his parents were Italian, but that he went to college in California. I don’t know, I lost track…but he sounded pretty American with very Italian pronunciations. It didn’t matter, because he was good. I secretly grade all guides in the back of my head…mainly because I was, and still am, one. I’m not afraid to admit that I think I’m very good at doing the job, and it takes a lot for me to admit that someone’s actually better than me.

Angelo was better than me.

The model for God
The model for God

His information was top notch, his timing was excellent…but most importantly his presentation was perfect. I’ve always lamented guides who spit out random dates and facts as though they mean something to an audience. What separates good guides from the rest is the ability to put those dates and facts into context. Make them part of the story that explains a culture. Create a narrative that engages the audience enough to build a curiosity within them. A good traveler should be hungry to learn…and a good guide transforms average travelers and tourists into good travelers.

This was my second tour of the Vatican, and honestly…it didn’t really get me going the first time around. I’ve got a natural distaste for organized religion, and I really let that cloud my last trip through more than it should have. I broke my own rule about keeping an open mind. This time I wanted to fix that.

Things were much busier than we had expected around the Vatican for the low-season…but something was happening. In just 48 hours Pope Benedict XVI would be giving his final mass, and by weeks end he would be retiring. The first pope to do so in 600 years…and we were there for it.

I know when I give tours around big event in America I really try to stress the importance on my clients, because it goes beyond a simple holiday or vacation. Your trip is now intertwined with history, and every time you hear about that important moment you will remember your trip. For the rest of my life when I see Pope Benedict XVI or Francis I I will think of my time in Rome. Angelo did a masterful job of driving that point home.

Walking through the Vatican museum halls
Walking through the Vatican museum halls

Around the square scaffolding was going up for television crews, already satellite trucks from around the world were deployed. Just walking to the entrance of the Vatican Museum I counted three cardinals. We were but flies on the wall…but it was an important room of history. Inside the museum was crowded…walking through I took notice of things I hadn’t recognized before. Partly thanks to Angelo, partly because I wasn’t quite so disoriented as before.

Trying to get a handle on the Vatican Museum in one day is impossible, in fact it’s impossible in a decade…that’s one of the reasons a guide is so critical. Aside from the National Mall here in DC, the Vatican is the second largest concentration of human knowledge on the planet. Really getting to know everything here requires a PhD.

I finally caught the significance of the headless, armless sculpture that everyone stopped to photograph: it was Michaelangelo’s model for God. I understood the connection between ancient Rome and the Church: a large porphyry wine vat/bath will do that. I grasped the symbolism of the Map Room: the maps are arranged in geographical order from south to north with the west on the left and the east on the right. My brain was just being bombarded with incredible information throughout the tour with the grand finale yet to come.

My first time in the Sistine Chapel was memorable, but slightly underwhelming. I didn’t fully comprehend what I was looking at. Before we even entered the museum corridors, while we were in the Court of the Pine Cone, Angelo did what all the guides do: he went over a replica of the Sistine Chapel on a poster board. But he told the story so well that I could feel the angst of Michaelangelo as he spent four years arching his back in the most unnatural way, alone, in the dark…painting. And he had never painted a fresco before. Never. Angelo illustrated how we could look at the ceiling and watch Michaelangelo learn from panel to panel as the depictions became less cluttered and sharper.

The point being that as we came into the Sistine Chapel with a much better idea of what I was looking at…key considering you don’t get a lot of time in there. It really is a stunning place, and this time I felt moved by its power. It’s not a well lit room, I’m sure mainly for preservation, and everyone inside is craning their necks to look at the paintings. Every once in a while someone takes a photo, prompting one of the guards to shout, “No, photo.” Seriously people, just stop taking pictures. Respect the room, there are good photos online…and your picture’s going to suck because you’re trying to take a quick shot in a dark room before a security guard yells at you.

Instead, soak in the moment…in just about two weeks television sets around the globe will be showing this room full of cardinals as they meet to select the next pope. This is the intersection of history and travel. We’d be one of the last groups to come through before the Sistine Chapel was sealed off for preparations. But in that moment, we saw what the cardinals would see…the place where stoves would be installed with pipes leading to the roof that would gush black smoke or white smoke. This was an epic transition, and we were standing in the room where it all would happen.

Rome_0256From the Sistine Chapel we went into the cavernous St. Peters Basilica…it does a good job at making you feel small. The interior again offered reminders that big changes were coming. The statue of St. Peter was outfitted in an ornate robe and wearing a crown. Thousands of candles were lit in every corner of the church. There was a general buzz of energy rolling through the great hall. We walked around taking pictures and listening to the stories about the statues until the tour wrapped up. It was a much better experience than my first visit to the Vatican, as a matter of fact I didn’t even make it up to the dome the time before.

Thankfully, again, the line was short. After walking miles already on the day we opted for the lazy route and took the elevator up…but even so the elevator only goes about halfway up. There’s still a cramped staircase to walk up. In one section the spiral case is so tight as to bring on some serious dizziness. And then the path follows the curvature of the dome such that you have to walk while leaning to the right. And then it’s a final set of ladder-steep stairs before emerging atop the dome. And the site’s worth it.

Even on this cloudy day Rome is sprawled before us beautifully. We can look down on the square and on the interior of the Vatican and on the Sistine Chapel.

Panorama from St. Peters Dome
Panorama from St. Peters Dome

Leaving the Vatican we walked down Via Cola di Rienzo toward Piazza del Popolo and finally stopped for food at a little market and had some pizza after a long day of not eating. The place was a good find, not necessarily unknown…but also not crushed with tourists. We kept walking before a tractor beam lured us into a gelato place called Mo’s Gelatarie. I don’t care if the name sucks.

Awesome gelato
Awesome gelato

I don’t care if it’s touristy (which I’m not sure it is). It was the best gelato we had on the trip. And as we devoured our gelato we crossed back over the Tiber and found ourselves in Piazza del Popolo. This was the entrance to Rome from the north before the city expanded. In the middle of the piazza is an obelisk brought in by  Augustus from Egypt…like all the other obelisks and pagan symbols in this city a cross has been attached to the top, so as to protect it from being torn down.

Looking south from the obelisk is a straight show down Via del Corso to the Altar of the Fatherland, or the Victor Emmanuel II Monunment. It’s a neat site-line that also gives some clues to the city’s layout. We sat at the base of the obelisk for a little while, resting up our sore feet, before continuing down to Piazza Navona. This was a spot Lauren was anxious to get to…as was I. My last time through Rome I got a cursory look at it and then left, and it just seemed like a place I wanted to spend some time.

We sat at one of the overpriced cafes to grab a drink before dinner and take in the scene. The piazza had once been a stadium where the Romans would flock to watch the games and some races. Today it’s still a popular gathering place flanked by restaurants and churches…the centerpiece being Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, which has an…wait for it…obelisk as a centerpiece.

The plaza was full of chants and songs…not Italian chants and songs, but Welsh shouts and songs. It was the night before Wales took on Italy in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament. And the Welsh were out in force…and they tend to drink, just a little bit….and then they tend to chant and sing. After a trip to Cardiff a few years ago I can testify to the anarchy that is Welsh fandom, and it is beyond entertaining.

As we listened to the Welsh cheer, Lauren and I started talking about rugby, and the need for America to embrace the sport. As the conversation continued one of the guys sitting at a table next to us started leaning further and further back,  until finally he turned around.

Piazza Popolo
Piazza Popolo

“Sorry for interrupting, but can I just say how nice it is to hear Americans talking about Rugby,” he said in a South African accent. And from there he and his friend basically joined our table. We drank with our random new friends for another hour and a half talking about random topics and giving them advice from our path. It’s chance encounters like this that really make me love travel. Finally after a few beers we made our way to dinner and then home.

St. Peters Square
St. Peters Square
Inside St. Peters
Inside St. Peters
Let my people go!!
Let my people go!!
Lots of candles
Lots of candles
I was in this church on assignment the day Benedict announced his retirement.
I was in this church on assignment the day Benedict announced his retirement.
The Sistine Chapel from up high
The Sistine Chapel from up high
Jesus on the rooftop
Jesus on the rooftop
Looking down into the square
Looking down into the square
Tight spiral staircase
Tight spiral staircase

 

Continue Reading

Roman Ruins to Spanish Steps and a side of liver

Arch of Constantine

There is a circuitous nature to travel. You’re always on your way back to somewhere. We started off our journey in Roma Termini shortly after landing in Italy, and now we were back at Roma Termini to start the Roman chapter of this holiday.

Thankfully our seats were more comfortable than this.
Thankfully our seats were more comfortable than this.

The train ride was the best yet…the business class seats were the same price as coach. I’m not really sure how or why, but I went ahead and seized the opportunity. The result was leather seats, more space and a lot more silence.  The weather changed as we sped down the Italian peninsula. Florence was still cold and rainy, which made saying goodbye all the more melancholy. But as we continued south the clouds broke and sunshine reigned.

It was really just a tease. I had been paying close attention to the forecast and the sun was expected to stay through the afternoon…and then rain, lots and lots of rain for the rest of our stay in Rome. I was annoyed. It’s stupid to be annoyed at the weather, you can’t change it unless you’re a believer in cloud busting in which case you have bigger things to worry about. Suddenly there was a lot of pressure that Lauren and I were artificially creating to see as much as possible before the rains came.

We got to our hotel just after noon and thankfully we were able to check in, drop our bags and plan…well, sort of plan. I had left this part of our trip open to anything, specifically for the unforeseen: i.e. weather. The only thing we were booked into was a cooking school class on our last day. With the absence of a clear plan, we waffled a bit before getting out and about. We debated the plan of attack, and I won Lauren over to making the Colosseum and Roman Forum a priority for the day. They were outdoor activities, and we should make good use of the weather.

We took the long way to the Colosseum to grab some food.  Although we live in a big, busy city it takes some adjustment whenever you step into another big, busy city. Moreso after spending a week in smaller, tamer cities. Rome can be very overwhelming, and for a few minutes it was. My travel equilibrium was a bit off as we sat down for a snack, sometimes you just need a reset.

A look down Fori Imperiali at the Colosseum
A look down Fori Imperiali at the Colosseum

We walked down Fori Imperiali, the ancient stadium looming large on the horizon as columns and ruins occupied the cityscape. As did growing crowds: tourists snapping pictures, street vendors selling random useless wares, street performers painted as statues or wearing Roman Centurion garb. It’s a walk that has an almost amusement park feel to it…something I suppose is virtually unavoidable in a place like this.

We had not booked a tour of the grounds, it’s not necessary…but it is recommended. There’s just so much to take in, it’s easy to get lost in the site. Typically you’re better off planning a tour in advance, but the spontaneity of the day prevented that for us, so we got in the general admission line before being sold on a tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It ended up being a good call. To be honest I didn’t pay too close attention while we were in the Colosseum, this was my second time doing the exact same tour.

A fancy panoramic look inside the Colosseum
A fancy panoramic look inside the Colosseum

The guide was good, but I had heard it all before. This was more for Lauren. This gave me a chance to soak in my surroundings, to imagine the tens of thousands watching as gladiators fought thousands of wild animals or each other to the death. This building was the symbol of Roman power. Think about it, they built this thing 2000 years ago. If a stadium in the States turns 20 the ownership starts crying for a new stadium…and I doubt future societies will be paying for a tour of Cowboys Stadium in 4013…at least I hope not for the sake of American legacy.

A wide angle look at one side of the Colosseum
A wide angle look at one side of the Colosseum

Being on the grounds later in the afternoon was also nice. The tour seemed much more relaxed than the last one I did, and the lighting made the Colosseum feel more alive. Our guide took us outside and tagged off to another guide who would show us the Forum starting with Palatine Hill. This time I paid much closer attention, last time I didn’t get up to Palatine Hill. Also the weather was fantastic, as we walked up the hill the sun was dropping towards the horizon. The yellows and oranges of the Roman cityscape took prominence. I remember and think of places in colors…and Rome has always been yellow and orange. Weird, I know. With the city sprawling before us, ruins around us and everything framed by umbrella pines and a setting sun the scene was quintessentially Roman.

A look through two umbrella trees at the Colosseum
A look through two umbrella trees at the Colosseum

Our guide walked us through the ruins atop the hill, painting a picture with her words of what was once here. I would kill for a time machine to see this place in its glory. Just the little bits of marble and porphyry offered glimpses into the imperial grandiosity of this place. The guide was Canadian, but had been living in Rome for a while. This would be a bit of a theme: North American expats giving tours throughout Rome. She told us that if we wanted to see the stone that was once on Palatine Hill we wouldn’t have to go too far…much of it had been used in St. Peter’s Basilica. This was another, more tangible, theme: the Catholic Church destroying or absorbing what was left of the Romans. It is proof of the First Law of Thermodynamics, that energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The total amount of energy and matter in the universe remains constant.

Substitute power for energy and you can understand the development of Rome.

We finished the tour in the Roman Forum, surrounded by shells of buildings that had been excavated from under thirty feet of earth…and then quarried out for their stone. But there were no shells in theses crumbling structures. Even in the midst of total war that devastated much of Europe the Allies and Nazis were able to agree to avoid turning this testament to the ancient world into a battlefield.

And that only underscores the apocalyptic feeling of the Forum. Here a great civilization once stood…now they are

This was once a palace
This was once a palace

gone completely. If you’re ever in the mood for an existential crisis, this is the place. We walked along the main road of the Forum, which is now disjointed and about as smooth as U Street in NW (for you non-Washingtonians…that’s not smooth).  We were told that at the height of the Empire the road would have been smooth enough to rollerblade on, but as the site was first excavated little care was given to the road. Regardless, it’s a terrific exercise to imagine in whose steps we were walking as we meandered down this now bumpy road. It’s also interesting to look around and see the inspiration for our own city, our own country. Many of the design elements in DC are modeled from Rome, and certainly the modern idea of American democracy has its roots in Greece and Rome under the senate before becoming an empire.

Leaving the Forum we decided to head towards some other “outdoor” activities before the weather moved in. Already clouds had shut out the setting sun and the temperature was dropping. Thinking with our stomachs first we decided to stop by a restaurant we had scouted and make a reservation. We continued up Via del Corso before taking a right

Proof they actually do clean the Spanish Steps!
Proof they actually do clean the Spanish Steps!

on Via Candotti…it was only a few blocks to the Spanish Steps, but it took us a while to get there as Lauren stopped at virtually every storefront to say, “Ooh, pretty.” The street is like a condensed version of 5th Avenue, or maybe an ancient version. One way or the other it ends at the Spanish Steps, one of those random landmarks that inexplicably draws crowds. In this case the crowds were in the plaza, and not actually on the steps. Police were holding everyone back as a cleanup crew scoured the stairs. We walked around the corner and sat outside a wine bar and finally got a chance to relax. We had been moving non-stop since getting off the train, and this was our third day of crazy-distance walking. After a few drinks we took some crazy random set of side steps up through an alley and then up another set of steps before following the road to a large open balcony. There below us were the Spanish Steps, looking over our shoulder behind us was the Trinitia dei Monti church…and momentarily we were on French soil.

And so we walked down the Spanish Steps, which were funded by the French, leading from a French church to an Italian piazza where a fountain dedicated to an ugly boat was commissioned by a Pope. Rome.

The plaza was hopping with activity as we wandered around. We didn’t manage to get into John Keats house, which is probably for the better because he owes me $50,000…but that’s another story for another time. We walked back down Via Candotti, and again it took forever, before heading back to the restaurant for dinner. This meal ended up being our worst in Italy, although I’m going to attribute that to

Via Candotti from the Trinitia dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps
Via Candotti from the Trinitia dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps

grumpiness at the end of a long day and menu selection. I ordered lamb sweetbread…which is neither sweet nor is it bread. It was a pressure decision, and it didn’t work out. There’s just something about lamb liver and pancreas lightly fried that doesn’t appeal to me. I got about halfway through the dish before my gag reflex kicked in. There was certainly a moment when I thought I was going to hurl liver chunks all over the restaurant…though I managed to keep it down. The gnocchi I had for my pasta dish was tasty though.

Our plan after dinner was to stop by the Trevi Fountain for one last good weather excursion. We threw in our coins and left…we were both in a bad mood, cranky and arguing with each other…I’m blaming the liver. Nevertheless we walked home quickly and in a huff. If you’ve ever traveled with anyone else, you’ve hit this point. Mutual exhaustion leads to mutual miscommunication and mutual annoyance. As a couple we’ve hit this point on a few different continents in more than a few different countries. And our point on this trip was now, brought on no doubt by the pressure we placed on this first day because of the weather forecast. Weather. Maybe I’ll study cloudbusting when I get home.

But 99 percent of the day was awesome;)

 

A seagull sits atop the Roman ruins
A seagull sits atop the Roman ruins
An inscription in the Roman Forum
An inscription in the Roman Forum
A message along the main road of the Roman Forum
A message along the main road of the Roman Forum
Moonrise over the Colosseum
Moonrise over the Colosseum
A wider look at the Colosseum and the moon...Apollo would be proud
A wider look at the Colosseum and the moon…Apollo would be proud
An umbrella pine tree atop Palatine Hill
An umbrella pine tree atop Palatine Hill
It's a grassy, viny hypogeum
It’s a grassy, viny hypogeum
The Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum at the opening of the Roman Forum
The Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum at the opening of the Roman Forum

 

Continue Reading

Inspiring Florence on a cloudy day

Uffizi gallery

Inspiration is often fleeting…sometimes it hits you like a thunderbolt from the heavens: unexpected and with great force.

In the Uffizi courtyard
In the Uffizi courtyard

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is shaped like a U, its open end flowing into the Piazza della Signoria. The closed end of the U is an archway leading to the Arno…but inside the U is a category 5 vortex of inspiration. The Portico degli Uffizi is the courtyard formed by the U and is guarded by statues of great Florentines either by birth or through life. There are a few names you might recognize: Amerigo Vespucci (can’t love ‘Merica without him), Leonardo da Vinci (he had a code), Dante (Hell’s a hotter place), Michaelangelo (David is a goliath because of him), Donatello (did not, in fact, carry a bo), Machiavelli (politics would be no fun without him), and Galileo (you are, in fact, not the center of the universe).

If you’re mind is not blown surrounded by this greatness….you have no mind. All of these men shaped not only the world of their time, but the world of today. In fact, I’m still sending letters of apology to the people of Florence for having defiled such great intellect with the moronic presence of the Jersey Shore cast. No, I’m really sorry about that. Really.

Before we made it to the Uffizi we had already started our day inspirationally. Our first stop was Galleria Accademia to see The David. My first time seeing David I remember being unexpectedly awe-inspiring. I went in to see what I thought would be just another statue and instead sat there in amazement at the detail and precision of the sculpture. There would be no element of surprise for this second time, but I was still in awe. To be that close to such a masterpiece and bear witness to the skill and labor that enabled its creation…it’s, well, inspiring.

After lingering we walked through the rest of the museum before grabbing some coffee. Just a heads up: there’s almost always a line, in the offseason the line’s short and fast so it’s not really worth spending the extra cash on an express ticket. Can’t say the same about the busy season. But two off-season visits I waited a combined total of 15 minutes to get in.

The Pope is in the house
The Pope is in the house

From coffee we made the call to go ahead and grab lunch, it was already midday at this point. We headed over to one of the suggestions that Nat had given us: Pizzeria Ciro and Sons. The place has a bunch of outdoor seating, but the day was cold, damp and gray. Our first bout of bad weather on this trip. So we opted to sit inside. Walking in you’re greeted by the “kitchen” of wood fired stoves. The main dining area was under a high domed ceiling that, along with the walls, was covered in heavily weathered frescoes showing the past glory of Rome. See, the restaurant was once a home. A home owned by the family of a guy named Ippolito Aldobrandini who would go on to be a cardinal in the Catholic Church before changing his name to Clement VIII…as in Pope Clement VIII. And now we were eating pizza in his house…Italy…

By the way the pizza was delicious. Lauren pronounced it the best she’s ever had. I’ll give it a pretty damn good rating…I mean it was holy pizza. With lunch just finished it was time to start thinking about dinner.  Lauren was particularly excited about one suggestion that Nat had made, a small family operation adjacent to Signoria. We stopped by to make a reservation on our way to the Uffizi…key, for reasons to be explained.

If I ever started an Italian hip-hop group it'd be called: Statues and Frescoes
If I ever started an Italian hip-hop group it’d be called: Statues and Frescoes
The Vasari Corridor, because walking outside is sooo unbecoming
The Vasari Corridor, because walking outside is sooo unbecoming

My last time through Florence I didn’t make it into the Uffizi, an omission I always regretted. So this time there was no way it wasn’t happening again. Further…the gloom of the day was perfect museum weather. The gallery is extensive, think of it as the massive attic collection of the Medici family. If you’re not sure who the Medici are just think something…go ahead, think something…anything. Now you know who the Medici are, seeing as they’re largely responsible for modern thought. It was through their patronage that the Italian Renaissance was born and flourished. PBS probably put it best, calling them the Godfathers of the Renaissance in their tremendous four piece series on the family.

So there you have it. A family with power and cash and an urge to show off that power and cash. What better way to do that than to collect the art of the known world while commissioning the greatest artists alive to create new pieces. And now we wait in line 500 years later to see what they made. Our line was short…if you come in the high season book in advance or face lines up to 5 hours long.

The main corridor of the gallery is lined with statues from ancient Rome and the Renaissance and frescoes line the ceiling from end to end, a distance I’d estimate to be about four city blocks. There are 45 rooms, each showcasing incredible art…pieces like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus da Vinci’s Annunciation and Tiziano’s Venus of Urbana not to mention works by Michaelangelo, Carveggio, Rembrandt and Ruebens. Oh, also there are somewhere between 3,000 and a million works depicting the Madonna and her Child…no disrespect to the Mother Mary or Jesus Christ, but that’s one theme that gets a bit old. With that said, there are interesting tidbits to find in some of these pieces, little notes of rebellion against a Church that forced artists to submit to its despotic ways.

The end of the first gallery overlooks the Arno, which even in the murkiness of February effuses with inspirational waters. We spent somewhere between three and four hours in the gallery, and only scratched the surface. I mean we didn’t even make it into the famed Vasari Corridor with another KILOMETER of art stretched along the secret passage built for the Medici to walk from the Pitti Palace through Ponte Vecchio to the Uffizi. That’s something you have to book well in advance and, even at that, be lucky. By the way, I love that they measure their art in Italy by the kilometer.

In reflection...I was there
In reflection…I was there

We walked up to the rooftop balcony overlooking Signoria…and even with low clouds and chilly temps the view is astounding. As is the perspective, think of the people who have stood here and down below. Think about what happened here. Think about the modern Western World starting right here, at this spot. This is why I love Florence.

Leaving the gallery we went on something of an expedition, Lauren spotted a piece of pottery in a storefront on our first night and she wanted to go buy it. We crossed Ponte Vecchio exposed to the elements instead of in the comfort of the Vasari Corridor and found the storefront. Closed. But Lauren wasn’t giving up. We dove into the narrow alley of shops next to this storefront and found a collection of little pottery shops. While Lauren shopped I stood outside taking things in. There was a bank of mailboxes for the occupants of the apartments and stores. Average enough. Then I looked above the mailboxes to a tile with a passage written in Italian…I noted two phrases: immortali di storia florentina and in quest casa dei macchiavelli. I took two years of latin high school, and just enough stuck with me here to know that said: “the immortal history of Florence” and “in this house Macchiavelli” deductive reasoning allowed me to grasp that I was standing at the mailbox of Machiavelli, the masterly and dastardly skilled political advisor.

Something to the effect of the ends justifying the means
Something to the effect of the ends justifying the means

And someone who’s works I’ve studied extensively, he’s known for The Prince but it’s his Discourses that really teach. And here I stood where he once worked. Today it’s just a simple collection of shops and apartments. I took a picture of the tile and translated it, this place had been reconstructed…but still. Alleys in Italy.

From what I understood of the translation, the original had been destroyed in total war…as in World War II, which leads to an interesting point as we cross Ponte Vecchio. You see, there is this wonderfully sensational rumor that I’ve heard a few times regarding this old bridge. They say that as the Nazis retreated across the Arno that Hitler ordered all bridges destroyed…except…Ponte Vecchio, because he loved it. I had heard that story a few times during my previous visit to Florence, and I only bring it up here to say I’ve never been able to confirm it. These sort of rumors tend to have a way of propagating and becoming truth simply by repetition. Being a former tour guide I’ve heard more lies come out of the mouths of my colleagues than any politician. And nearly 100 percent of them unintentional. I know I stand guilty of this. It happens easily enough, someone trains you, you trust them and their information, they say something interesting…you say “that sounds interesting!” you note it and add it to your spiel and never think to check up on the fact. So it goes, the unofficial history of the world. I don’t say this to bag on guides, you’ll usually learn more from them than doing something on your own…but always keep a bit of cautious skepticism in your travel arsenal.

We went back to the hotel and cleaned up before dinner. I think at this point we were both a little tired and grumpy…but dinner would change that.

Just a little bit of Madonna
Just a little bit of Madonna

The place is called Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori, calling it a restaurant is generous. They only have seating for 18, so really it’s as if you’re at somebody’s house for dinner. To make things even more rich, it’s run by a family. One son cooks with the mama while another son waits tables and the father tends bar. We were seated at a table of four, but it wasn’t the two of us for long. About 15 minutes after we sat down another man came in and sat himself at our table. He was clearly a regular, bantering with the family before finally settling in with a biography of Andre Agassi and a glass of prosecco.

The menu was handwritten…in Italian…no translation. We stared blankly at it, recognizing a few words and getting ready to order based on those few words. But fear not, for the waiter son, Tommaso (who looks like he’d do very well in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood) knelt down at our table and translated the entire menu, offering advice and warnings. We started with prosecco and switched to wine, both flowed freely and often. Our first course was a Caprise salad that, if I could recreate and sell, would make me a wealthy man. The pasta course brought rabbit ragu pappardelle for Lauren and ravioli stuffed with butter and sage for me. The main was fried beef with tomato for Lauren and beef stew for me. Every bite was amazing. The stew was so thick as to be served in a clump on a plate rather than in a bowl. We cleaned our plates and downed a few more glasses of wine, which were filled by Tommaso once they were a quarter full. Eventually the man reading Agassi was joined by his wife. Between each course was a break, a chance to breath and take in the atmosphere. The restaurant was full now, with people waiting outside. The walls decorated with wine bottles and a massive wooden chianti vat cut in half  and covered in postcards from around the world and homages to Madonna, the singer not the Mary.

We were told not to leave without trying the raspberry tiramisu. When Tommaso asked us about desert, we said two please…he looked at us:

“No, are you sure you want two? Are you not full?”

I couldn’t tell if he was offended by our sweet ambition.

“No, we are full…but we heard amazing things.”

“Ok, I will bring you one…then if you want another I will bring you another.”

I’ve waited a lot of tables in America…and at every place I was urged to upsell at every chance possible. I’ve never come across a server in America that would say something like Tommaso. For him, it was about really taking care of us over making a few more euros off an extra dish that might be wasted.

The tiramisu was gone in less than thirty seconds…it was that delicious. And we are that disgusting. We ordered another, Tommaso laughed. And we killed that second one as well. I still want more.

The bill came, it would be the cheapest meal of the trip. It was also the best.

We walked through Palazzo Signoria, meandering through the streets taking our time on our last night in Firenze…inspired by the incredibly lit palaces, and the shops sporting world-class fashions. We were inspired by a divinely delicious meal and an incredible show of hospitality. We were inspired by the voluminous history of this place and the enormous pride of its residents. We walked home that night inspired by our surroundings, inspired by life…inspired by travel.

In the waiting line...
In the waiting line…
Roadpaint without the paint
Roadpaint without the paint
Lauren's always posing
Lauren’s always posing
The bar...with a few legs of meat just hanging out
The bar…with a few legs of meat just hanging out
At home this bike would already be stolen
At home this bike would already be stolen
David and his shadow
David and his shadow

 

Continue Reading

Speeding into the Renaissance at 150 mph

Florence_0181

Sometimes I really hate travel. I don’t hate the drama and the discomfort and the unfamiliarity. I hate falling in love with places…and then breaking my own heart as I leave. It’s a strange phenomenon, one I know all too well.

I purposely set our train to leave midday from Venice with the idea that we’d have a bonus morning to check out anything that might have been overlooked. But in fact, it only turned out to be another wander. I know there are readers out there who will cringe when I say this: Venice is all about the wander. Yes, great museums and restaurants and churches and towers and cafes and palaces are plentiful in this city of islands. But its character is in the walk.

Colorful peppers
Colorful peppers
This just makes me want to be a vegetarian
This just makes me want to be a vegetarian

We crossed the Rialto Bridge again heading over to the markets…and we found them…in the Lost Square! What was empty space the previous days was now kiosks full of fruit and vegetables and storefronts with freshly butchered meat hanging. It was a scene for the senses, with captivating smells and sights and textures everywhere. We spent some time walking through the markets, watching the traffic of the Grand Canal cut through the brilliant morning air. The sun, fresh for the day, brought out the colors of the mansions and palaces and hotels hanging over the canal…it’s waters reflecting that crayola creation aqua-marine.

Horsemeat anyone?? Strange...now I want a nachos belgrande.
Horsemeat anyone?? Strange…now I want a nachos belgrande.

It was a scene I just wanted to put on a movie screen and show everyone in the world.

After a couple of laps, and Lauren posing outside a shop that apparently specialized in butchered horse meat (I couldn’t find the Taco Bell sign), we settled into a little cafe. My morning coffee routine is important…very very important. The odd thing is my addiction to caffeine only started four years ago, and not for taste…but truly for the benefits of the drug. It gets tiring to take Australians out every night of your life followed by early wake-up calls. Coffee became an occupational necessity.

Some morning coffee
Some morning coffee

I point this out because the last time I was in Italy, I had yet to develop this delicious addiction. And now my morning coffee in Italy is not just a necessity…it’s a religious experience. Italy has ruined coffee in America for me. For us it’s utilitarian: on the go, mass-produced, ancillary. For them it experiential: on the slow, carefully crafted, communally central. There’s no sleeve on your cup to stop you from getting burned…because there’s no cup you can take with you. You sit there at the coffee bar and you drink, surrounded by patrons talking incessantly and animatedly about who knows what (I really should’ve learned Italian). I know at any one of the 16 Starbucks within a block of my apartment talking above the looping Josh Groban album is highly discouraged. As is loitering unless you’re retired, homeless or in a meeting because your non-profit doesn’t have meeting space.

I’m struggling to go back to that.

And so we sat, enjoying our morning coffee, enjoying each other and enjoying everything around us. We stopped in a few shops along the way…but generally we just walked around. Enjoying another day of wonderful weather. We lingered, walking slowly back to the hotel. Neither of us wanting to leave Venice.

We grabbed our bags and walked the 200 feet to the vaporetti (on our way in we walked like two miles) and boarded for the last trip down the Grand Canal. 15 minutes later we were back at the train station. Naturally we were early (I say naturally for Lauren’s sake…if it were up to me we’d get there within 60 seconds of departure) and so we sat on the steps of the train station soaking in the sun watching Venice sail back and forth along the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal

Back on the train, I felt better about sleeping the entirety of the trip up. Because the train follows the exact path from Venice to Florence as we did from Rome to Venice. Not that you get a feel for the countryside at 150 mph but it’s remarkable to watch everything zoom by. Also the train was almost empty until we got to Bologna..and even then it was only about 75 percent full. This is probably a good chance to plug a great blog I’ve used for the last five years or so when it comes to planning train trips: seat61.com. I’ve followed this guy’s advice in the UK, US, South Africa and Italy and he’s never steered me wrong. And if you’re not using trains while traveling abroad…you’re not really traveling;)

Getting into Florence reveals the bad side of train travel. You don’t exactly see the most glamorous side of a city first. So it goes in Florence, lots of graffiti and dilapidated apartment blocks. Even the train station is an odd shell of a building with a bizarre hybrid of brutalist and art deco design elements.

And then you walk out of the train station.

And there Florence opens her arms to you. Gorgeous and cobblestoned. (Yet another Italian city not made for rolling luggage…what were these people thinking?!?) Walking to our hotel something felt very off-center and it took me a few blocks to recognize why I was subliminally distressed: the re-introduction of the automobile. It’s noise and it’s speed and it’s smells. I’m certainly biased, I think urban cores should be limited to automobile access, but after a few days without seeing a single car it’s a bit of a shock to the system to be surrounded by them.

The Doumo
The Doumo

Florence is orders of magnitude easier to navigate than Venice and within minutes we were at our hotel. But I didn’t really believe it was our hotel. We were staring at two massive wooden doors with heavy brass rings as door handles. Behind us, about 100 steps away was the entrance to the Duomo. Score.

After being buzzed in Lauren got her workout of the day trying to open the mammoth doors. We scrunched into a tiny elevator that occupied the space between a square spiraling staircase. Getting out onto the third floor we attempted to check in. This place is a bed and breakfast, technically, built into an ancient palace. The staff is limited, and as we tried to check in the poor woman manning the desk was assaulted by a phone that rang every thirty seconds. Eventually she just ignored it and showed us to our room. Massive by European standards…big by American standards. There were no frills to the room, but it was comfortable and the window opened to the dome of the Duomo. We loved it.

The moon and the Duomo
The moon and the Duomo

Both starving we dropped our stuff and exploded into the crowds of tourists clumped together gawking at the Duomo. We settled on the first pizza place we could find…not bad…super touristy, we ate in the basement seating area surrounded by the signatures and catchphrases of people who had visited in the past.

“John 6/29/10 from North Carolina”

“Bec…Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…Aug. 2009”

“Gag…me…2/2013”

I didn’t sign. There were no signatures pre-dating 2008…I didn’t want to be erased. We walked on down to the Piazza della Signoria. My last time through Italy I found Florence to be my favorite city…and I was anxious to see if that feeling was justified. We walked under the Uffizi Gallery and along the Arno before crossing the Ponte Vecchio. And now I was on new territory…I didn’t cross the bridge on my last trip.

For whatever reason I expected Florence to be warmer than Venice. That was not even slightly the case. Crossing Ponte Vecchio the wind whipped through the spaces between gold and jewelry stores and chilled me to my bone. Naturally, I craved gelato. We stopped, gobbled some

The Arno in the waning light
The Arno in the waning light

more down and kept walking, before finally settling on the sun-soaked hillside in front of Palazzo Pitti. We sat here for a while…there was no real purpose to the walk aside from getting the lay of the land. Now I just wanted to warm up in the sunshine until it dipped below the horizon.

We got a good tip on a restaurant and so we decided to swing by to make a reservation…and after we stopped in a random coffee shop, that was also bar and ordered drinks to warm up. It was just going to be one drink, but then we discovered the free wi-fi. Up to this point in time we had kept the engagement to ourselves. Now we reached out to our friends and families. Lauren sent out some emails and posted to Facebook (it’s not official until it’s on the FB) while we got drunk in a bar decorated in American license plates and playing music videos from 1983. It was awesomely weird.

After a quick hotel stop we doubled back to the restaurant…both thinking we were on our way to something truly Florentian and slightly off the track. Open the door, and every table is full, thanks to a couple of busloads of Japanese tourists. Definitely very much on the track.

Whatever. It was delicious. The place is called L’Osteria di Giovanni. We drank and we ate…then drank some more and ate some more. In total the meal lasted almost two hours. (Vegetarians close your ears) I had a steak that was close to one of the best I’ve ever had. Medium-rare with proper coloration but no blood…apparently they hang the beef draining it before cooking. But it was still amazingly juicy and tender. After more wine we paid and left.

Walking along the late-night streets of Florence as the college kids headed out in packs we were driven to stop in one more bar for a final drink…another American bar…WTF!? Seriously, just randomly chosen by the fates. After a final beer, as Lauren checked back in on email, we made our way past the shining Duomo and back into the hotel. The pain of leaving Venice now replaced by the joy of being in Florence.

Continue Reading
%d bloggers like this: