Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ski and Sauna Weekend

Last weekend, we took advantage of the three day weekend to go skiing in the appropriately named town of Winterberg, Germany.  The four of us - me, Natalie, Eric, and Amy - left early Saturday morning and drove two hours north.  As soon as we got there, we rented equipment, signed up for lessons and hit the slopes.  We spent most of the day on the bunny slope in our class.  We practiced lots of various movements while skiing, trying to help us isolate motions so we put it all together.  About half of the runs, we had to do without the ski poles, so that we used our body weight to help us turn etc.

After we finished the lessons, the two girls and I met back up with Eric and took on a more difficult slope.  Although technically rated as the same level as the bunny slope, this hill was much steeper.  On the first big incline, I lost control and flew down the hill praying I didn't wipe out.  I was going way to fast for comfort and only managed to slow down and stop when the slope flattened out a bit.  The two girls caught up and I tried to make my way down the second steep incline.  This time I really focused on going side to side and it worked for like two minutes.  The slopes were so icy (it was late in the day) that I couldn't get any traction and I started speeding down hill on each turn.  I fell twice and when I couldn't get back up in the right position the third time, I picked up my skis and skidded down the rest of the hill in my boots.  We went back to the bunny slope for one more run, but even this slope now seemed too icy for me, so I made my way back to the hotel while the others continued skiing.

Funny story - Natalie lost track of time and was still on the slopes when they shut down the ski lifts.  She ended up having to hike up two hills to get back to the lodge.

We learned after we arrived that the slopes in Winterberg are the closest ski slopes to The Netherlands - about a 3 hour drive.  So, the hotel we stayed at catered to Dutch people.  All of the signs were in Dutch and German - no English.  The staff were all Dutch.  Even our ski instructor was Dutch.  To honor this, we ate dinner next door at the Dutch Pancake House - which was delicious.

On Sunday, when Eric and Amy went back out skiing, Natalie and I took a spa day.  I started off with a hot stone massage and then made my way to the spa.  German spas are generally coed nude spas - they actually forbid us from wearing swim suits.  We had robes and towels, so you could cover yourself whenever necessary, but it was still a bit odd.  As we were there during the day (when most people were skiing), I had every sauna to myself.  But, whenever you showered off the sweat (they highly encouraged heat, followed by cold, followed by rest), the shower itself was open to anyone walking down that hallway.  The whirlpool baths were like the final scene in Maverick with multiple baths in one room.  Despite all the potential for awkwardness, no one was strutting around hanging out like a scene from Caligula.  Most importantly, it was extremely relaxing.  I felt so good at the end of the day.

Sunday night we had dinner in town and then stayed up late to watch that crazy Green Bay - Seattle game on my iPad.  Three different times I said I'd turn it off if Green Bay scored again on this drive, but they never managed to put the game away and somehow Seattle came back to win.  Monday morning after a late breakfast, Natalie and I rented a couple of sleds and went sledding down the mountain.  We had a blast, pretending we were kids again.

Sorry no pictures.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Italian New Year Part III - Florence

On New Year's Eve we headed to Florence to meet Chris and Natasha, two of Sara's close friends, who were spending the week between Christmas and New Years in Italy.  When we arrived, we toured the Uffizi, stopped by the Duomo and walked a bit around town during the day.  We headed back to the apartment Chris and Natasha had rented in the late afternoon to relax and get ready for our evening out.
The Uffizi Museum
The Duomo's beauty is impossible to capture with photography

The shop down the road from our apartment filled wine bottles that you brought in from a tap.
We went to dinner at a recommended restaurant were, per Italian tradition, they were featuring seafood.  Where we first thought we had to choose from a selection for our first course, second course, dessert, etc., we soon found out that we were eating what was basically a ten-course meal.  The food was excellent, although a bit heavy on seafood for my taste (admittedly that was the point).  Although we got to the restaurant at 8:30, we had to rush out to get to the river before midnight.  Like most of Europe, Italy celebrates NYE by shooting off massive amounts of fireworks at midnight and throughout the night.  I was hoping there would be a city-organized display, but it was just tons of Italians setting off fireworks by themselves.  What the show lacked in organization, it made up in quantity, vigor and spontaneity.  After the fireworks died down, we hopped into some weird bar/disco playing awful 80s music. We danced, badly, for a half hour.  Further down the road, one of a dozen city-sponsored concerts filled a piazza with live music, families, champagne, and of course, more fireworks.  We were home by 1:30 and slept in on New Year's Day.
Sara and I before heading out on NYE

Natasha and Sara at dinner 
Music in the piazza
 Many of the major tourist sites in Florence were closed on Jan. 1, but we found a modern museum with a fantastic Picasso exhibit open for the day.  We had been worried about restaurants and shops being closed all day as well, but quite a bit was actually open.  After lunch, we walked to one of my favorite spots in Florence - Piazza Michelangelo.  Fifteen years ago, this was my first view of the city, looking down on the majestic red roofs and the dominating Duomo.  The Arno river crawls across the landscape, crisscrossed by bridges with the famous Ponte Vecchio in the center.  Despite a few subsequent trips to Florence, I had yet to return to this first wonderful view and it was as great as I remembered.  The sun shone brightly with a crisp blue sky, while an Italian singer crooned U2 and Coldplay cover songs in the background.  Despite the crowds, we were able to secure a spot along the railing and just look across the city and hills.  We were in no hurry to go anywhere or do anything and we just stayed there for close to an hour.  Everything was just serene.  Probably my favorite part of our time in Florence.

It was not warm.  We were wearing coats, but Sara wanted a photo without our coats on.

The Ponte Vecchio and Arno River

That evening, we had another wonderful dinner.  Chris wanted to try a famous Florentine steak - a thick T-bone weighing in at over a kilo (2.2 lbs.).  Having personal experience with Italian beef, I thought better of it and stuck to pasta.  Surprisingly, the steak was fantastic, perfectly cooked (really hard to do with a 2 lb T-bone), wonderful flavor.  Smartly, Chris didn't even attempt to eat the whole thing. 

The next morning, as Chris and Natasha headed to Chianti to do a wine tour, Sara and I headed back into town to take a free walking tour.  As a former tour guide, I can admittedly be a bit of a tour guide snob.  I have certain expectations and I have generally found that these free walking tours offer some of the best tours (better than many paid tours I have taken).  As they generally work for tips only, they have to be good in order to make money.  There is an art to corralling large groups of people, regaling them with interesting and (mostly) truthful stories about art, history, food, people, and culture.  Give them more than they can get from a guide book.  Oh, and be on time and make it easy for people to find you.  Like I said, I am a bit of a tour guide snob.  The tour that we went on was easily the worst tour I have ever been on.  The guide was late, leaving dozens of people wandering around the square wondering if they had the right time and place.  She spoke like a mouse and her microphone system was broken.  The only information she provided was opening and closing times and the cost of visiting sites.  She gave some vague information on dates and who built stuff, but none of it came alive.  It was worse than reading your high school history book.  After our third stop, I made Sara leave the tour (she wasn't enjoying it either) and we ventured off on our own.

We wandered into the Central market, which was the perfect end to your foodie trip.  This market was filled to the gills with fantastic produce, cheeses, bread, bottles of oil and vinegar, and meats of all varieties (Sara didn't like the chickens with heads), as well as flowers and spices.  While somewhat touristy, this is where many Florentines come to shop on a daily basis.  Upstairs from this fresh food mecca, they had an upscale food court, serving all sorts of cooked to order meals (even fast food in Italy is cooked to order).

I loved the calm reflective waters of the Arno

Look at these oranges!

And the artichokes (artsy photo courtesy of Sara Caniglia)

Our final walk over the Arno

One thing I forgot - the Gelato!!!  We ate tons of it.  Sara got mad at me a few times because I am a gelato snob and won't just eat it anywhere.  She complained as we stopped at several "gelaterias" and I made her turn around again.  When we found one of the good places, she admitted it was worth the extra walk.  God the gelato was good.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Italian New Year Part II - Emiglia Romagna

Since Sara and I had both spent a bit of time in Italy hitting up the major cities and sites, we decided to spend a few days exploring the less visited parts of Italy.  I had always wanted to visit Emiglia-Romagna - the heartland of Italy.  Fed by the Po River, the fertile valley is home to some of the greatest delicacies in Italian cuisine.  At the center of the region is Bologna - home to the world's first university.  Our first night in town, we explored the main shopping and touristy area in town and ate in what was merely a mediocre pizzeria.
Bologna built a tower and it started to lean.  Rather than market it for tourists, they built a taller one next door.
The next day, we headed to Parma.  Original and true home of Parmesan cheese and prosciutto crudo.  We walked around town and saw a few sites - a church here, a piazza there.  Again, our goal was food oriented.  After some last minute googling, we made out way to La Prosciutteria.  A mecca to Italian cuisine with hams hanging from the ceiling, soft cheeses behind the counter, parmigiano sold by the kilo, salami, fresh crusty bread.  The place was amazing.  After looking bewildered for a few minutes, I talked to the clerk and told him we wanted to take some stuff for lunch.  He sliced us some delicious prosciutto, hacked off some parmigiano, sold us some bread and sent us on our way.  We added a few fresh tomatoes from the produce stand down the street and ate our delicious lunch in the main piazza.


La Prosciutteria

After lunch, we left Parma and headed to Modena for another Italian specialty.  We had arranged for a tasting at a century old acetaia, making traditional balsamic vinegar.  To make the vinegar, they start with local grapes (both red and white), cook the juice to make "grape must", which they put in a large barrel for 2 years.  After the first two years of aging, it is transferred into a serious of barrels and aged for at least twelve years.  The barrels, some centuries old, are made of different woods which affects the final flavor.  Each barrel has a hole on the top which allows for evaporation.  As the vinegar ages and evaporates, more vinegar is added from the next biggest barrel.  At the end of the twelve years (twenty-five years for "extra vecchio" balsamic), the vinegar is tested by the local consortium and bottled in specific bottles.  The acetaia we visited bottled only 2,000 bottles each year.  They only sell online and at their production facility (which is the home of the owners).  Only vinegar that has undergone this process can be called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DPO.  There may be variations of that name, but that is how you know you are getting the real good stuff.  And it was pretty damn good.
Sara and I with some of the barrels - not the clothes covering the holes on the barrels

An oak barrel - labeled and numbered to mark the provenance of the vinegar

The final product.  We bought two.

Beautiful sky behind the Modena tower (which also leaned)
To end our day, we had dinner at a place recommended by our AirBnB landlord.  Upon arrival at Drogheria Della Rosa, we were given a table in a narrow hallway just barely wide enough for three people to stand abreast.  Somehow, they fit two tiny two-tops on each side of the hallway.  Precise and speedy wait staff zoomed through the tiny spaces, despite a young couple with their forty pound dog being sat next to us.  Without ever seeing a menu, we were brought prosecco and a cheese and salad starter.  The waitress came by and told us the menu options.  We both ordered a pasta primi.  Sara ordered a vegetarian secondo, while I got a veal dish.  Although we initially asked for a wine list, the owner (who kept tormenting the dog by making bird whistle sounds) listened to what we ordered for dinner and then ordered the waitress to bring us a bottle of Sangiovese wine that was the best we had on our trip.  The food was to die for, perfectly cooked, tasty, rich and light at the same time.  As we split dessert, a bit tipsy from the strong wine, we debated how expensive this four-course dinner was going to be.  Our estimates ranged from 85 Euro to 190 Euro.  We were both flabbergasted when the total came to only 80 Euro - less than our most ambitious guess.  Since we both loved the wine and knew it might be hard to find again, I asked the waitress if we could purchase a bottle to take with us.  She returned a few minutes later with a new bottle - compliments of the owner.  If you ever go to Bologna, be sure to go to Drogheria Della Rosa.

Our last day in Emiglia-Romagna, we got a late start to the morning and headed to Ravenna.  For a short period of time between 400 and 750, Ravenna was one of the most important cities in the world.  It served as the Western capital of the Byzantine/Roman empire.  One of the primary legacies of this history is the amazing mosaics in several churches.  Unlike in Istanbul, these religious mosaics were wonderfully preserved over the centuries as Ravenna remained Christian throughout the duration of its history.  
Basilica of San Vitale features mosaics from the 6th century.
The intricate and complex designs and beautiful colors are amazing to behold.

Basilica of San Vitale

Even the floor was a gorgeous mosaic.

Behind the Basilica is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, which houses 5th Century mosaics.  I can't get over how advanced these mosaics are, especially compared with early Renaissance painting in the 14th century, which is clearly a backwards step from these mosaics.