El albergue

El albergue

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The last hurrah

Oo boy howdy are we ever dead, or as Ashleigh so eloquently put, we are falling apart. When we woke up this morning, we had slept really well, but we were still exhausted – puffy eyes and groggy brain exhausted. Breakfast helped a bit – we went to a nearby grocery store and grabbed bananas, blackberry and violet yogurt, and chocolate granola cookies. This was actually our 3rd pack of this brand of cookie this trip. They were just so good we couldn’t help getting more every couple of days! After eating our bananas on foot, we found a fence with a large stone ledge to lean against and use as a table, and we broke out the yogurt and cookies. The yogurt was really good with that delicate violet flavor beneath the blackberry. It went really well with our cookie spoons too. Num num num.

We wandered about for a while, enjoying the friendly weather and letting the streets take us where they would. We ended up coming out at the top of the Spanish Steps, our feet almost stumbling in our state of near complete exhaustion. It was a beautiful sight, and we enjoyed it silently for a couple moments, swaying slightly on our feet. It must have been all those miles we’d walked during that week as well as several nights of less than the optimal number of hours of sleep…

Ash and I meandered down the Steps and through the small streets in search of a café we might like, and we finally settled on one a few blocks away from the Steps with tables out in the small cobbled street. We sank into the wicker chairs, almost ready to go back to sleep, and ordered our coffee, our last culinary hurrah in Italy. Ash – a cappuccino. Me – café con panna, or a shot of espresso and a wonderfully large, dense chuck of freshly whipped cream. I added sugar and stirred it all together… it was like coffee cream. And when we crumbled some of those chocolate cookies into our cups… oh baby. It was no longer coffee. It was a wonderfully special treat.

Right now, we’re sitting at our table at the café, our empty cups at our elbows, quietly savoring these last few moments of our trip. There’s a little boy across the way nearly sleeping at the table with his family, his eyes heavy and his chin on the table. I feel like I would be in that state with only the slightest encouragement if I hadn’t just had an espresso. And here’s a street musician singing with his guitar, a lovely Italian goodbye to two American girls in Rome.

We were so tired that last night in Rome, but it was nice spending a little more time by the Trevi Fountain.

A few hours in Padua

We met up with Ash’s friend Clara at the train station after an agreeable little train ride from Venice. She’s from a little town in the mountains about 1 ½ hours to the north and is a smiling sweetheart. It’s fun to see how excited she seems to be to show us around part of her native country.
Such a pair of sweethearts

We wandered through some streets, eventually making our way to some little markets permanently set up in a couple of central squares. All the gorgeous veggies (boy do those artichokes look good) made me really want to go on a shopping binge and then make a delicious feast…

Street markets almost always have fun little things to discover. 

After a delicious lunch of pizza, polenta, spritzer, and squid cooked in its ink, we were completely full, but that didn’t stop us from getting gelato at supposedly the best spot in town… Rick Steve’s did it again. The luscious pear and chocolate scoops combined in my cup to take me back to a truly excellent chocolate bar I got in Helsinki… so good!

Clara had to go, so Ash and I meandered back to St. Anthony’s Basilica, one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Catholics. It was interesting to see the devotions of several people praying by his grave, touching the elevated marble sarcophagus with hands and foreheads, eye shut tight. In general, this church feels almost friendly and relaxing in comparison with some other churches we had been seeing recently.

Also in the Basilica - the tomb of the man who discovered Fallopian tubes, perhaps?
We were putzing around for a while, window shopping and book store browsing, when all of a sudden Ash remembered that the locker room we had put our back packs in at the train station closed at 6:00. Oh crap! We booked it back, slightly (or maybe a whole lot) worried. We got there 45 minutes after it was supposed to close, but THANK GOD they were still handing out luggage to other tardy folks!!!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Eating Florence

The Duomo is a truly beautiful cathedral.

I really enjoyed Ash’s and my time in Florence - wandering, almost warm weather, the Duomo, the School of Leather, and assorted museums - but my favorite part by far was the different amazingly delicious things we had. So I thought I’d share some of those with you and let your tastebuds water in jealousy.

I had my first ever waffle in Europe here. Since it was my first, I felt slightly skeptical at the beginning, but I think I’ve decided that the Nutella-covered treat was worth it. It was nothing like the breakfast waffles I’ve been used to eating at home my whole life. It wasn’t at all light and fluffy, but rather heavy, almost like a dense cake but approaching the realm of donuts, with a moist inside and crispy exterior, deliciously drenched in warm Nutella… num.

We came across a tiny little sandwich shop as we wandered through some small streets – it was almost just a window onto the sidewalk – and we paused to see what the swarm of people clustering around was all excited about. We accepted a thin menu from a man standing nearby, and after the first glance realized that this tiny joint called I Fratellini (The Brothers) was exactly where we wanted to be. The options, all of them, were simple, and yet they sounded exquisitely lovely. And at only 2.50 a Panini, it seemed to be perfect for the snacking mood we were in. We elbowed our way through the ranks lounging in front of the counter and ordered. Our two sandwiches were quickly prepared and handed out by the brother in charge of assembling who must have been moving almost automatically, he knew his small space so well – it was his kingdom, his domain.

We leaned against the opposite wall, savoring our elegantly simple treats as we watched the others all mill about, me with soft goat cheese, arugula, and prosciutto on a crisply fluffy roll, and Ash with salami and artichoke. After feeling all proud of ourselves for our wonderful find, we realized that this little hole in the wall (literally!) was actually one of the places recommended by Rick Steves in his Italy guide book that has been our constant companion and friend during this trip. Wow! We found a really awesome place without any help, and it turns out that someone famous in his own way rather agreed with us. How awesome is that!

I loved seeing all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables being
displayed outside the produce shops.

Another delightful treat - Nutella calzone!!!

We set out from a pit stop at the hostel happy, arm in arm, anxious for some culinary adventure.
This street looks good, let’s go this way.
A turn here, a turn there, and soon we find ourselves in front of what seems to be THE most perfect of perfect places. It calls out to us. The interior is warm and dark – it speaks of intimacy and quiet connection. I love the classy, yet homey decorations.
The waiter, a kind-faced old man with a stiff, slightly bent neck, calmly invites us past the small front room and open kitchen, around the corner, and into a surprisingly open dining room.
We delight over the menu, trying to pick the best out of all the wonderful options.
It all comes, course by course, and it is… really, I should almost just say that it is too good for words and leave it all to your imagination, but if I did that then you probably even then wouldn’t be able to understand just how marvelous this meal is.
Over nearly three hours of savoring, silence, and quiet conversation, we feel as if we have eaten THE best and most perfect dinner of our entire lives. Let me try to explain why…

We start with soup – white bean and wild wheat with a sprig of rosemary. It is creamy and thick, the kind of thing you crave on a cold winter day. The texture is sublimely smooth, and the flavor gentle and caressing on my tongue. The sprig of fresh rosemary gives a brilliant burst of flavor whenever I get a bit in my spoon.
I seriously want more.

The true star of the evening is our second dish – artichoke salad in a parmesan bowl. Yes, this is a BOWL made of toasted, crispy parmesan cheese filled with a fresh, lightly sweet and vinegary salad made with thinly sliced raw baby artichokes, topped with several paper-thin slices of fresh parmesan because we didn’t have enough cheese already, obviously. The combination of flavors takes our breath away, just as the unheard of (to us) combination of ingredients blew our minds. The savor of the toasted cheese also goes with our glasses of simple house wine to perfection.

Third, we opt for a fresh pasta with duck. Our excitement over the intriguing idea of duck – which Ash has never had before – is fully justified when we take our first bites. Not only is the ground meat tender and smooth (can you call meat smooth?), you can feel and taste the wonderful freshness of the pasta noodles. I imagine they squirmed out of the press soft and perfect on the kitchen counter this morning, just begging to be eaten. Such wonderful texture.

To finish off the meal, we follow the gentle waiter over to the tasteful display of fresh desserts. Seeing us in a decision dilemma, he graciously offers to give us 2 half portions of 2 different desserts so that we could try two kinds without overstuffing ourselves. We gladly accept, of course.
And are we ever so happy with that decision. The tiramisu is lovely – creamy, gentile, softly yet effectively flavored. And the cake is AMAZING. Pear and apple with shavings of orange white chocolate on top. It is dense and tender and moist. It is absolutely sublime. I need more…

Imagining the next time I get to go to Le Fonticine...

Friday, April 5, 2013

Seeing Venice

It’s rather nice taking a break from the rain and the cold and getting inside among all these beautiful rooms in the Correr Museum. I’m also immensely enjoying looking at rooms, architecture, and delicate designs rather than halls and halls full or oppressive paintings and statues. The colors in the rooms of the Imperial wing (the museum is in what used to be a very important palace) once used by the newly wed Austrian empress “Sisi” are fresh and soothing. I wouldn’t half mind just sitting here with a good book and reading for a while, taking breaks to study and sketch the intricately feminine designs on the walls and ceilings.

As we were about to leave the area in front of an amazing ancient map, a big group of older tourists came in. As their guide started pointing things out about the ceiling of the room, we turned around to see a little old woman leaning on her cane, her eyes peering up from underneath a white beret demurely topped by a shower cap. That’s what beats the rain, I guess.

We splurged and got ourselves coffee in the first café
 to serve coffee in Europe

After the Correr Museum…
We’re hungry, so we take a back street behind St. Mark’s Square in search of a quiet restaurant in which to take refuge from this freezing cold. Oh this place looks decent! Let’s go here. We unwrap our layers a bit, searching for warmth to help us release a little bit of the cold clamping down in our toes. Hm… it’s going to be a tad more expensive than we typically go… Ah well! Let’s not worry about it, embrace the extra cost with open arms and enjoy this meal, dang it! I mean hey! We’re in Venice, for cryin’ out loud! …umm… good plan. This gnocchi is absolutely amazing. Slightly chewy with an incredibly creamy and savory gorgonzola sauce that doesn’t overwhelm. Wow. The soup was perfect – warm and hydrating and light. The artichoke sauce on the ravioli goes with the wine to perfection… Pure perfection.

What a funny hat you have, dear Doge
For some reason, I expected the Bridge of Sighs to be big and open, but it really makes more sense for it to be as small and closed-in as it is – it was for moving prisoners from the justice rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the prison, after all. But that prison. Wow! If we, in our several layers of clothes, still feel insufficiently protected against this cold, what must the poor souls locked away in these small stone cells with even fewer clothes have felt?

After minimal wandering – it’s pretty cold after all – we head to the grocery store as best as we can with our soggy map to grab some things for a simple dinner at the hostel. Our rambling and gazing through the small aisles filled with fun things we can’t get in Spain is cut disappointingly short by the business-like worker informing us that “we’re going to close in 5 minutes.” We head out into the night with our spoils, infinitely relieved that we know exactly where we are and so aren’t going to have to study the maps every 30 seconds to avoid getting lost in this maze of a city. As we quietly check our emails and drop onto our beds to work on our trip journals, we are happy, a state made infinitely more profound when we find the kitchen free and open for us to cook our dinner unmolested by noisy guests. Sigh. How deliciously calm and warm we are here inside and not out in the cold. We cook and talk and listen to Jack Johnson sing us crooning lullabies. We sit down to our steaming pasta - zucchini with balsamic, corona beans, fresh tomatoes, and pesto - and are happy, sweetly and quietly happy. 

We both really liked the clock tower in St. Mark's Square

Transition - Rome to Venice

Nice, quiet breakfast with our great roommates Adriano and Pablo. Chat a bit with the extremely friendly hostel staff member Claudio (him in Italian, us in Spanish!). Go to the grocery store… Oh no! Look at the time! Go! Go! Go! Hurry! Run! Catch the metro to the train station! Wow, just in time. 30 seconds on board, and the train starts to roll…

It's so nice to get great roommates when you're in a hostel!

Hmm… It’s been an interesting first day in Venice. It’s rather rainy and a fair bit colder than we were thinking. I think we’re both really tired too after nearly a month of going solid. Our minds have been running at full speed for a while, whirling around between school and private classes and running and church and friends. At last we have been forced to relax, and it has lead to a little emotional rollercoaster. Plus, it’s really stinkin’ cold. I mean COLD. As we snuggle in Ashleigh’s bed to get warm, we can hear the windows quivering beneath the united efforts of the wind and rain to break inside. In fact, you might almost say the wind is shrieking a bit in anger. But after getting lost in the cold maze of this tiny watery city, our hostel is like a safe haven. It’s a beautiful city though, and we did have some delicious pasta pomodoro for dinner, so we’re hoping for the best tomorrow.

This town seems to have potential...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Day two

The Vatican Museum is all just a bit overwhelming, especially when your legs are already tired from all the miles of walking you did the day before. You actually almost feel like running away to escape the halls lined with statue after statue and painting after painting. Nearly any single one of these thousands of pieces of art would be worthy of at least 10 or 15 minutes of quiet contemplation, and here you have them stretching out before you in endless rank and file. Nearly four miles in total, I’m told.

We had fun touring around everywhere with our goofy
hostel roommate Pablo.

The Sistine Chapel was so much more interesting to see with the little bit of background info offered by Rick Steve’s Italy guide. Understanding what things were was the key to understanding even just a part of what Michelangelo was trying to communicate. The ceiling is a personal retelling of the Creation of the world. That most famous painting in the middle, The Touch I think it’s called, has to be how he imagined the first moments between Adam and God. It is “the gospel according to Michelangelo.” The artist was in his mid 30s during the four years it took him to paint this masterpiece, and at an older age he returned to the chapel to paint his epic Judgment Day covering an entire wall. Its huge scale gives a sense of enormity to this solemn event. It shows everything from the dead being pulled from their graves to the righteous ascending to heaven to the unrighteous being dragged down to hell by demons to Jesus in the center, hand upraised as he divides the sheep from the goats.

We had a lovely dinner at a great little restaurant in Trastevere.

I love the little neighborhood of Trastevere, or “behind the Tiber.” It feels free yet a little cluttered, something like Malasaña in Madrid. It made me feel rather alive to move through the thronging young people out for a night of good food and drinks with friends. If barrios were people, I’d like to be friends with this one.

Ah the famed cats of Rome... can I take you home?

Day one in Rome

The Colosseum was our first site of the day - good start.

What a lovely breakfast brought out to us in the springtime garden. Coffee, danishes, juice, sunshine, friendly conversation with our roommate Adriano from Argentina. Breath deep and grin.

There's so much at the Trevi to make you smile.

We saw the cutest old couple at the Trevi Fountain. I want to be like them when I’m old – traveling with my husband and lover, quietly taking in the joys offered in all parts of the world in shared joy.

Beautiful sunset

Watching the sunset from the top of the Spanish Steps is so beautiful and calm. There is a sea of people spilling out below your feet and cascading down the regal tiers of stairs; there are still others ebbing and flowing around you and the crowd of street caricaturists, and yet you feel still, anchored to the solid stone banister in front of you as you lean out and gaze over the city to the pink and orange glow on the horizon. You notice the peaceful terrazas here and there graced with soft plants and quiet furniture and share in the enjoyment of early evening diners in the nearby open-air restaurant seating.

Gelatto was also a must this day. Big must.

An introduction

During this past Easter break, my friend Ashleigh and I took a nice little trip through a couple of the bigger cities in Italy. The itinerary: Rome – Venice – Padua – Florence – Rome again. It would have been wonderful to be able to see more cities or even just spend a little more time in the ones we went to. After all, one of my favorite ways to travel is to just relax in the place I find myself, taking time to soak in the things that surround me… and that’s a little difficult when you have a limited time to see an unlimited list of sites and attractions.

We tried our hardest to get some balance in our trip, with as much site seeing as we could handle as well as plenty of moments of quietly sitting and enjoying a meal or a simple coffee. Heck, even just going to the bathroom can sometimes qualify for a little break if you’ve been staring at ancient art for the past four hours and need a little bit of plain white wall space to cleanse your cluttered brain.

Some of my favorite relaxed moments were when the two of us were journaling. At a café table with empty coffee cups in front of us, during a walk through a museum filled with interesting things, or in the gently swaying train taking us to another city, we wrote and sketched and planned in our little travel journals, thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

Now, going back and looking through all the pages I filled with my tiny writing, I thought how wonderful it would be to be able to share the things I was thinking and feeling in the moment with everyone. But since reproducing every word might be a little bit of an overload, I decided that over the next few days or so, I’m going to post a few of the best highlights of each city we visited.

So, (drum roll please) I am now proud to present Excerpts from a Travel Journal. Enjoy!

We journal whenever, wherever!