Friday, April 30, 2010

Bassano del Grappa

A few weekends ago, when the weather was wonderful and the cherry blossoms were in their full splendor, Michael and I took a Sunday drive to Bassano del Grappa. It is a small but lovely town that's situated near the locale that the Brenta river exits the mountains.  It's famous for three things. The first is an old bridge designed by Vicenza's famous architect Palladio. The second is that they produce world famous Grappa. I call it Italian moonshine. It's made from wine leftovers- grapes, stems, etc. and further processed to produce a super potent alcohol. It's way too strong for me, but the Italians will consume it after meals or sometimes in their espresso. They consider it a digestivo, in that it aids in digestion.  The third is their production of white asparagus.  This is achieved by blocking the sunlight and therefore preventing the development of the green chlorophyll as the asparagus grows.  We simply enjoyed a leisurely walk through Bassano's picturesque streets, window shopping, people-watching, and pausing for a Spritz now and then.   

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tulips and More Tulips

The Monday after Easter was our last day in Amsterdam. Our flight wasn't until 8 that evening so we had plenty of time left to explore Keukenhof, the tulip and flower park. There was a direct shuttle from the airport to the park so we put our luggage in a storage locker and hopped on the bus.

Keukenhof is only open during 2 months of the year, from March to May. We just couldn't leave Amsterdam without a visit. And I'm glad we did. Even though we were a little early in the season, and it could be considered a bit overpriced, and it seemed very commercialized and touristy, it was still gorgeous and amazing, beautiful and breathtaking. It was definitely the largest display of tulips and flowers that I've seen. There were a few indoor displays as well, the buildings or houses were named after royalty. Each one featured different types of flowers in the most beautiful arrangements. There was a tulip house, an orchid house, and finally a rose house. Certainly my photos do not capture the magnificence or the colors. There are professional photos on their website which do a better job and are at a later time in the season when the park has richer and fuller blooms.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Here Comes the Rain

The Saturday and Sunday of our Easter weekend trip were filled with intermittent rain showers.  As I said before, we tried to take cues from the weather.  We paused frequently in bars and cafes for drinks or snacks.  I tended to not take notice of cafe names during the downpours and as a result, I have a sparse trip report.  (Quite impossible when it's raining the entire time as in November.)  We noticed that the rain doesn't slow down the Dutch one bit.  They are a hardy bunch and push on, soaked atop their bicycles.   

Saturday morning we explored the Western Canal Belt and the Nine Streets District on our way to the Jordaan area for their Saturday morning organic market.  Unfortunately, our arrival to the market was perfectly timed with a downpour.  We attempted to dart between the awnings of the vendors but eventually gave up.  Another time I suppose....

Later that afternoon we had a better stretch of sunlight with spots of blue sky here and there.  The following are some photos we captured along the Western Canal Belt and the Jordaan areas.

Our afternoon wanderings led us to the Infamous Red Light District.  The timing of the visit to this area is crucial.  Late afternoon to early evening is best, around 5 o'clock.  Why?  There's still sunlight but it's starting to fade.  There were some ladies stationed in their red-lit windows, dressed scantily in their underwear. So we got some sense of the RLD's scenery.  Some posed seductively.  Some danced to music we couldn't hear.  Some sat looking bored atop their bar stools.  Some were texting on their cell phones.  At this time of day, something or someone was missing- the creeps you would expect to find lurking around.  In fact, the only people on the streets were the hordes of other curious tourists like ourselves.  I imagine a visit during the later hours would be a little more raucous.  It definitely feels a little bit grittier than say the quaint and lovey Jordaan or Western Canal Belt (the locales of my previous photos).  There were sex shops, coffee shops selling marijuana, peep shows, and lots of neon lighting, but it's a unique and one-of-a-kind travel experience if you time it right.  But it's not for everyone.....I don't think I would want to be there too late in the evening or too early in the morning either.  It's forbidden to photograph the ladies and not advisable within the area in general so the only photo I have of this neighborhood is the top of clock tower.  (I think it's the top of Oude Kerk - Old Church, but I'm not completely sure.)          

Saturday evening we had dinner at a quaint French bistro in the Jordaan area.  We both ordered the Halibut special, covered in beurre blanc - a French white butter made with white wine.  (A small digression - Julia Child raves about learning how to make this type of sauce to her sister in the movie Julie & Julia.)  For dessert, we had the most amazing lemon cheesecake.  We were truly sad when it was over.

On Sunday, we had  Easter brunch at a place called Pancakes!.  I give you one guess as to what we had.  I'm truly in love with Dutch pancakes.  They are thin and crispy around the edges and actually remind me a little bit of crepes.  Mine had bananas and Michael's had a coffee liqueur sauce with whipped cream.

Afterwards, since it was raining.... we made an impromptu decision to go to the Rijksmuseum (pronounced "rikes" like "bikes") to check out the Dutch masters.  With it being Sunday and Easter, the line was around the block.  The museum is actually under an extensive restoration so we decided to skip it this time.  We did visit the Van Gogh and Riksmuseum gift shop though.  There are many neat things that feature the artwork.  We made a purchase for Eddie, a print he requested that he failed to buy on our last visit.

We dropped off our purchase and had a little bit of down time at our apartment.  I found it through Trip Advisor, of course.  It was a self catering rental- one bedroom and bath with a full kitchen and small private rooftop terrace.  I really enjoyed this setup as it made me feel like a local.  Plus, we saved some money as the price was much lower than the hotels and B&Bs and we were able to stock up on breakfast, snacks, and drinks at the grocery store.  I really liked that when we came in for a break from our city treks or at the end of the day, we were able spread out and relax on the couch in front of the TV.... or use the internet to plan and map out the next restaurant for dinner.  Here are some pics I snagged from the Trip Advisor website.  Once again, I failed to take any myself...


Later, we went to a local pub, Cafe Gollem, especially for their selection of Belgian beer.  We were excited to see that they had Brugge Zot on tap!  (It's a beer from Brugge, Belgium that we sampled in November.  We also toured the Half Moon Brewery where it's made.) 

For dinner we went to Brasserie Harkema.  It was a highly recommended place and we were pleasantly surprised.  I loved the atmosphere.  The restaurant is housed in a renovated warehouse giving it an open and airy feel with a ton of natural light.  Again, we enjoyed more delicious food.  Michael ordered a tuna steak with wasabi mayo while I ordered a grilled portobello with a savory ratatouille (chunky veggies) sauce. 

Funny how I can remember every detail of our meals including what we each ordered.....Like I've said time and time again, I'm in love with good food and it's one of my favorite things about traveling.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sunshine and Blue Skies with Beer and Beef

We couldn't have asked for better weather for our Friday arrival.   After checking in to our apartment, we wandered over a couple of blocks to the Albert Cuyp market- the biggest street market I've visited (and I've seen my share of markets).  It was the perfect day to sit outside for lunch, coffee, and people-watching.  We found a bustling sandwich shop for a super delicious and fresh lunch. 

We later took the tram over to Brouwerij 't IJ, a brewery that I found through my extensive research.  "Brouwerij" is Dutch for "brewery" and the brewery name translates to "The Egg".  Egg references are used frequently in their naming and labeling. For example, their spring beer is appropriately named Paasij or "Easter Egg".  We were in time for the entertaining and informative free tour and enjoyed a variety of their tasty organic beer.  In the past, the wind mill ground the barley but now it just looks cool (per our tour guide).   

For dinner, we traveled to Cafe Loetje.  There's a good reason it was loud, crowded, and that we had to wait almost an hour for a table.  They have a reputation for having the best steaks in Amsterdam.  Michael and I completely concur.  It was glorious.  (I'm discovering that I have a special relationship with food...)  I can't even tell you how amazing that piece of beef was.  My mind keeps coming back to "velvety".  With complete honestly, I say that it was THE best steak we've ever eaten.   I am salivating as I type this and also wishing I could return sooner than later.   

Have you noticed that the highlight and focus of our vacations are food and drink?  Yeah, me too....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Looks Like Rain

For Easter weekend, Michael and I returned to the newest place on our favorites list - Amsterdam.  You may be thinking "What?  Didn't they go to Amsterdam over Thanksgiving?" If so, you're correct.  We did, but the weather was honestly the worst I've ever had on a vacation.  Cold. Windy. Rainy.  All day. Every day.   You couldn't stop to enjoy the canal views with their adorable row houses because you had your head ducked and tucked under an umbrella hustling to the next place of cover.  Luckily, the companionship of our good friends saved that trip. 

This most recent visit, we were blessed with one day of perfect weather- bright and sunny with blue skies.  Two of the other days had intermittent rain and the last day was mostly cloudy but stayed fairly dry.  We attempted to match our indoor-outdoor cycle with the rain but always seem to fail.  Inevitably, we'd be caught in a downpour trying to decide which bar or cafe looked worthy for a stop.  While enjoying our drink-break away from the elements, the rain would cease and we would be inside when we should have been out enjoying the short glimpse of dryness.   I've come to learn that rain is just part of the Amsterdam package (for us at least).  And, it's best to just "go with the (rain) flow."  Well, enough talk about the weather...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

John and Beth visit Italy

We had an excellent weekend hosting John and Beth!  Here are the details of our adventure together.

They arrived late, late on Friday night.  Even though we were all tired, the excitement of their arrival kept us up and going. We opened up a bottle of wine and had a munchies spread of Parmesan cheese, olives, artichokes, bread, and a variety of salami including prosciutto, speck, and mortadella.  

On Saturday morning, we popped into a pasticceria so they could sample their first cappuccinos and pastries.  The cappuccino here is heavenly and must be tasted by all who visit.  Next, we ventured to Padova's market scene for some browsing and buying.  We did a lap through La Basilica di Sant'Antonio and gawked at the relic of St. Anthony's tongue!  (Beth didn't want to see the saint's tongue but we made her anyway!)  We found a small pizza place that featured the wood-fired type, our favorite! 

After lunch, we drove to the small town Soave.  As I've mentioned before, it's known for its white wine production and beautiful hilltop vineyards.  We tasted Valpolicella and Amarone at the cantina and of course couldn't leave without a hefty purchase.  We hiked to the ruined castle and by the rows and rows of grapes.  Soave is only about 10-15 minutes from Verona, so we ventured onward. 

In Verona, we paused for a much needed cafe in Piazza Bra with amazing views of the Arena.  We made the tourist trek down Via Mazzini to Juliet's statue and balcony.  Beth and John will now have outstanding luck for they both groped the left breast of Juliet.  We took them back through the beautiful Piazza Erbe and to one of the watering holes we always frequent while in Verona.  It was Saturday night during la passigata, the evening stroll, which meant that the Italians were out, dressed in their best, ready to see and be seen.  The weather was quite nice so we were able to drink our pre-dinner wine standing out on the street.  We love that about Italy- patrons of bars and cafes always spill out on to the streets to drink, socialize, and people-watch when the weather is lovely. 

For dinner, we went back home to cook.  We started with some pecorino cheese topped with Chianti jelly (picked up on our Toscana adventure).  For dinner, I made baked cherry tomatoes with spaghetti- a recipe from my newest Italian cookbook by Lidia Bastianich (a beautiful gift from my Mama).  It features fresh cherry tomatoes seasoned with pepperoncini (crushed red pepper), garlic, basil, and ricotta.  We opened a bottle of the Chianti Reserve that Michael and I also picked up while in San Gimignano.  

On Sunday, we made the required visit to Venice.  You can't come to northern Italy without seeing Venice's charming canals.  We took a vaporetto down the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco.  It's our favorite way to show off the glorious facades of Venice's former palaces.  We had the panino lunch on sandwich row and then stood with all the other tourists, taking in the facade of the Basillica di San Marco.  Unfortunately, the interior of the church was closed and we were only able to visit the entry way.  We wandered the winding streets over to the Rialto, pausing at glass and art shops along the way.  John and Beth purchased a stunning glass plate for Chateau Papillon. 

For dinner, we headed back to Vicenza to take them to our local favorite - Vecchia Portega.   (We take everyone who comes to visit  because it is so very good.)

On Monday, we ended their visit with a walk through Vicenza.  We pointed out Teatro Olympico, Palladio's Basilica and Loggia, and Villa Valmarna.  Lastly, they were also able to check gelato off their must-taste list.

The weather was wonderful- bright and sunny, a sharp contrast to the earlier part of the week which featured snow.  The whole weekend was enjoyable.  We always love sharing with others what we love about Italy - food, wine, landscapes, and architecture.

A note about the absence of photos....
John is an amazing photographer.  He has top of the line gear including multiple cameras, lenses, flashes, and others gadgets I have no clue what they are or what they do.  He also has a good eye, and understands composition and lighting, and other advanced photography jargon.  I would love to have a learning session if he would teach it.  He has a website of his own and I am sure will feature his photography from this trip.
A true story...I took only one photo the entire weekend, and John's eyes were closed!  I hope to "steal" some of his.      

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Little Bit of News

It snowed this week.  I'm always thrown a little when there is snow in March.  I know the first day of spring is more than a week away, but for some reason I feel we should be having warmer, not colder, weather.  I think it's the little sneak peaks of spring- one or two days of nice weather, tricking you into thinking "Ah! It's here!" and then the next day it snows.  "Just kidding.  You better get that puffy coat and gloves back out.  You put them away too soon....again!" 

Other news, we're hosting this weekend!  Michael's cousin, John, and his wife, Beth, are in route as I type this.  We're planning to visit the markets, sample/taste some local wines, and head to Venice.  I'll tell you all about it next week.  Until then, hope you have a nice weekend!  If you drink some Italian wine or eat a pizza, think of me.  I'll be doing the same!   

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Toscana: San Gimignano

Rolling hills topped with Tuscan villas surrounded by vineyards and olive groves...

These are the words that come to mind for many when they think of Tuscany.  I can now say that's exactly what I think too... I can only imagine that it's even more beautiful in the spring or summer when everything is lush and blooming.

On our way back to Vicenza, we stopped in the hill town San Gimignano.  It's been described as picturesque but also a little touristy.  Luckily, we found it during the off season.  Surprisingly, it felt a little sleepy.  It's notorious for its remaining towers and great wine including Chiani and Vernacia di San Gimignano. 

We explored the cute streets and hiked up to a park surrounded by olive trees with an amazing overlook over the surrounding hills.


Michael even made friends with a sweet cat.

For lunch, we stopped at a lovely enotecca (wine bar), La Grotta Ghiotta.  We dined on a tasty bruschetta with pecorino cheese and olives along with some Chianti.  Afterwards, we had a lengthy tasting of San Gimignano's Chianti and Rosso di Montalcino.  We also tried some Chianti jelly smeared across slivers of pecorino.  Let me just say, it was divine!  We ended the meal with Vin Santo, a dessert wine with almond biscotti for dipping.  It was a fun experience and we drank some of the best wine we've ever tasted.  We came home with more than a few bottles...

We especially enjoyed our weekend exploring Toscana and hope we'll have the chance to visit one more time in the spring...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Toscana: Siena

We did it.  We went on another adventure!  The weather here this past weekend was wonderful- bright, sunny, and in the low 60's.  We've heard such great things about the beauty of Siena and the hill towns of Tuscany that we decided to take advantage of the early glimpse of spring and make a visit.

Saturday, we woke up super early and drove down to Siena.  We were there by lunch time and spent the afternoon wandering the medieval streets. 

I understand now why everyone raves about Siena.  The streets are small and winding, and also mostly limited to pedestrians. Everything is picturesque.   It's also unbelievably clean.  There was little to no trash or graffiti, creating very pleasant surroundings. 

The main piazza, Il Campo, is just magnificent.  The city hall and tower made me think of a gigantic medieval Lego set.  There is also a beautiful fountain.  The weather brought out many who were also lounging and socializing. We sipped glasses of Chianti and Vernaccia di San Gimignano while taking in the beautiful buildings and people.

While sipping, we gabbed about the Palio di Siena that happens twice each year in this exact square.  It was hard to imagine the square packed full of sweaty people in the heat and humidity of July and August to watch the world's most exciting horse race.  The outer ring is lined with dirt and mattresses are even put up on the walls.  There is a horse and jockey team with an animal mascot for each neighborhood.  The first horse to make it three times around the square wins.  I happened to catch some video footage from the 2005 Palio later at the hotel.  I was surprised at how emotional the people were.  It's a lively and exciting tradition that seems very personal to the people of Siena.

Later in the afternoon we visited the Duomo.  The exterior had a mix of Romanesque columns and arches and Gothic spires.  The inside and outside walls were lined with white and green striped marble.  

The she-wolf image with Romulus and Remus was present everywhere- both as sculptures and marble inlaid in the floor. Apparently, it is one of the symbols of Siena.  I found this unusual because I've always associated the she-wolf icon with Roma.

The dome in the center of the cathedral was painted with an optical illusion- it appeared 3-D and sculptured although it was simply a flat fresco.

The walls and ceiling of the Piccolomini Library (a side chapel off the main church) were beautifully frescoed. I was impressed by the 3-D effects created by the artist Pinturicchio.  The colors and gold of the paint were brightly illuminated by the natural sunlight coming in through the windows.  This room was radiant and warm and I thought there was a striking contrast between it and the darker, colder interior of the rest of the church. 

For dinner, we ventured away from Il Campo and found a wonderful osteria called Taverna di San Giuseppe.  I really loved the interior and ambiance.  It had a grotto feeling that was rustic but dressy with modern touches.  And the food- amazing!  For my primo, I had pasta with pumpkin, saffron, and leeks.  Michael had pasta with artichokes, leeks, and Gorgonzola. We even had enough courage to order a local Tuscan speciality for our secondo- wild boar!  Michael said it reminded him of slow roasted pork.  We ended the meal with the best tiramisu we've ever had.

We strolled hand in hand back through Il Campo to our hotel.  Ahhhhh.  We, too, now looooooove Siena.

Some additional photos...

The fountain in Il Campo

Duomo with Bell Tower and Dome

She-wolf sculpture plus beautiful ornate marble

A handsome tourist

Come back tomorrow for details of our visit to one of the hill towns.