Saturday, April 5, 2014

Buona Tornata

I'm ba-aaaaaack!  It's amazing how normal it feels to be back in the small tuscan town of San Giovanni Valdarno.  The smell of Italian espresso wafting from the buildings made me giddy, despite all the gawking locals staring at the crazy girl rolling two suitcases down main street on a Friday night.  I went immediately to the grocery store and stocked up on prosciutto, cheese and wine.  Maybe I'll burn myself out on these italian staples this year?  Probably not.

Yep, yep, yep!

Time for the good stuff

So, I had an interesting experience yesterday at the Florence airport bus stop.  It made me sincerely wonder if this would take place in the U.S.:
There was a line of people about 50 meters long waiting to board the shuttle to the downtown Santa Maria Novella train station.  After about 15 minutes, a man and woman joined the scene, but immediately went straight to the front part of the cue.  To their credit, we weren't the most organized line, and they had simply chosen to stand under the actual waiting shelter.  A Spanish man approached them and tried to explain the process of our cue and where to appropriately join.  The blonde couple simply shook their heads and smiled.  No Spanish, check.  An Italian man helpfully followed suit, thinking since they were traveling here he'd have a good shot at getting through.  Nada.  A nice German girl gave a third effort.  Nill.

I figured if European languages were failing, I probably had the best shot.  I approached the couple and asked, "Do you speak English?"
"Nein." The man replied, though apparently he didn't understand German.

So there we were, standing with the first couple traveling the world who had never seen a line of people waiting for a bus.  And maybe the first people I've met in Europe that understood nothing of Spanish, Italian, German nor English.

The bus finally arrived, and it was apparent that the people in the front of the line were standing their ground, myself included.  The blonde couple stayed where they were, allowing the assertive ones to board ahead of them.  Partway through the cue, a couple of soft-hearted young girls let the couple in.  When they boarded the bus everyone started clapping (except my German seat-mate and myself; were too busy laughing), and loudly complimented their balls.  Though they probably missed the compliments coming in languages they didn't understand.  Their faces were red, but they smirked unabashedly and took their seats.  Winning?

I haven't taken many public buses in the United States, but I've certainly never experienced anything like this.  I tried to imagine what I would expect Americans to do in this situation.  Would we become violent and force the couple to the back of the line?  Or would we be proper and ignore the fact that we were butted in order to save face?  I don't know, maybe we'd bravely approach them and kindly explain the situation, then sarcastically applaud them when they beat the system.

I'm not convinced that this is a culturally specific interaction, but I'm also not convinced that it isn't.  It struck me as very unique, and I couldn't stop giggling at the brazen balls of everyone involved.  What would you do?


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

J'aime la France

Right now I’m sitting inside Thevenin, our Parisian neighborhood patisserie/boulangerie, marveling at the complexity of a macaron.  I truly had no concept of what a macaron was before I came to Europe this year; I just assumed that it was not worth my time.  Erroneous!  Little did I know that they are not at all the fluffy air-texture of a meringue, rather they are both light and dense at the same time, folding instead of brittlely breaking under my teeth.  The inside is like soft taffy no matter what flavor I choose: salted caramel, chocolate, fig, pistachio… They each make a wonderful friend for my coffee and myself. 

An example of the delicious things you can get here: Gros Macaron au Caramel, un pain viennois, caffe, caffe au lait!
The inside of the caramel macaron. Yes, please!
My French entries are going to comprise a sort of food blog, with some beautiful buildings thrown in the mix.  Each day, my friend Jane and I make a plan of attack that usually goes something like this:

“I need to eat cassoulet.”
Google search.
“There’s a good place in the 3rd arrondissement.”
“Perfect, let’s see Notre Dame while we’re at it.”
"Parfait."

Chocolate and Fig macarons with coffee.  My kind of Ménage à Trois.




Lyon

Let's rewind a bit before Paris and talk about our entrance into France.  Jane and I started out doing some end-of-season-monotony work at our company's warehouse in Provence (near Avignon).  The weather, if not fully summer-like, was certainly pleasant.  We decided to see the city of Lyon on our way to Paris, as it is widely recognized as the gastronomic epicenter of France (big words have to be proven...)  We booked a pull-out couch in an AirBnB apartment and hopped on the train.

It immediately became clear that we were heading north to greet winter.  Lyon was consistently gray, and chilly enough to send us on a Zara survival-shopping mission for a coat and a sweater.  I bought a thick button-up sweater with elbow pads that makes me look like my dad.  Don't worry, Dad, I decided to take that as a compliment ;)

We found these wall murals with the help of the guy at the information desk (see more info below).  Then we made it our mission to eat everything depicted here.


Lyon has some serious personality! Jane had the brilliant idea to hit up the information center for a map, where we also received dining recommendations, viewpoint locations, giant wall mural areas (see two photos above) and info on how to find secret medieval passages sprinkled throughout the city.  Our 48 hours were planned in less than five minutes!

By this time it had been at least three hours since our last meal, and we were huuuuungry.  ("Teacher, I'm soo hungryyyyy")  We wandered into a cozy little restaurant with a funky atmosphere; there were different styles of clocks ALL over the place.  Our favorite was a seal dressed as Michael Jackson (what? why?).  Unfortunately I did not take a photo.  However, I did document our delicious meal:

At this point I spoke and understood zero French, so I had a good ole time ordering blind.  At this restaurant I chose "les pieds et paquets", or the packets of feet.  Sounds good, right?  I did know that it was sheep tripe going into it; I'd never eaten a whole meal of tripe so I decided to give it a go.  I am so glad I did.
I admit, I was a little scared seeing the cellular structure of the sheep intestine, but gosh darn they were good!
I really thought the texture was going to break me, but each bite was pleasantly firm and tender. The sauce was delicious; made partly from a stock of slow-roasted sheep's feet (hence "les pieds").  The flavor was reminiscent of a red curry, but more subtle with the spices.  The steamed carrots were tender, but not mushy, and the rice was the glue that held the whole dish together.  A bit of sheep tripe stuffed with pork + saucy rice = miam miam!  Even though "meat-on-meat" is not Jane's thing, she was brave and gave this dish a try.  It even made her thumb raise!
The "pieds"/feet part of the dish is a stock of sheep feet in which the packets are simmered.  Apparently when slow-roasted, the feet of sheep could melt in your mouth.  If that don't make you hungry I don't know what will!
We confirmed that French people eat lunch at 1:00 PM, as the entire restaurant was clear (except for us) by 2:15.  We realized we were overstaying our keep, so we paid "l'addition" and headed out for a stroll through Lyon.  Upon the recommendation of the young man at the information desk, we found a GREAT overlook of the town:
Jane (right) and I at Place Rouville, overlooking the Saone river into downtown Lyon.
In between the two rivers (Rhone and Saone), just past the Opera House and the Hotel de Ville, the streets open up into a lovely plaza lined with cafes.  In the center of the Place de Terreaux is an impressive statue-fountain.  I felt similar urges to stay here all day, like I feel in front of the Trevi Fountain, but we had secret passageways to find...
Place de Terreaux
According to our Info-desk friend, the secret passageways of Lyon were originally built starting in the 4th century as more direct routes to fresh water and safe transport routes to market.  There are over 100 of them marked on the tourist map, along with the street address of where they begin and end.  We found our first one directly behind the fountain on the Place de Terreaux, but for the life of us we couldn't figure out how to open the door.  That is, until someone came and pushed the unlocked door open for us... Oops.
But HOW do we get in???
A locked gate to the entrance of the passage tunnel kept us from completing this first mission.  In fact, the other doors and archways we wandered into while following our numbered tunnels on the map were so sketchy that we always ended up walking rapidly away hand-in-hand.  Sometimes it's fun to maintain a bit of mystery...

Lyon has some amazing wall murals.  To be honest, I didn't comprehend their full significance until I checked out the group's website.  Apparently CiteCreation is a group founded in the 1970's, which took on city mural-painting projects after studying Diego Rivera's work on the streets of Mexico.  The murals of Lyon intend to remind/teach residents of local history and identity, as well as bring free art to everyone.  Cool!

This mural (yep, none of those windows are real) depicts famous Lyonnaise citizens throughout the centuries.
I took my first funicular, an inclined cable car, up to the Roman Theater of Lyon.  Originally built in the latest years B.C., this UNESCO World Heritage Site is now the host of some legit outdoor concerts. Look at the view in the background!

Just down the way from the Roman Theater is the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvier.  You can see this grand structure from almost every angle in lower Lyon (at the base of the funicular).  I was surprised to find out it was built as recently as the 1870's.  We snuck inside and listened to some of mass.  There are beautiful mosaics and paintings inside.

All that funicular riding really worked up our appetites, so we searched for some typical Lyonnaise fare.  We found a free table in the upper deck of a cozy restaurant in the 5th arrondissement of Lyon. And the food was good:




Quenelle (on the right): a typical southern France light egg dish, here filled with a chicken mixture.
La boeuf (my favorite French word) with potatoes au gratin and a raspberry sauce.
Both chocolate cake and cheese for dessert.  The cheese was reminiscent of Tzatziki sauce, with garlic, parsley and cucumbers.

Friday, November 15, 2013

!Viva la Espana!

At the end of every summer season my company hosts all of the employees on one of our active travel biking trips.  Last year we were in Crete, which was phenomenal.  This year was in Andalucia, Spain.  I had never been to the country before, and I need to brush up on my Spanish, so all around I was stoked!  And rightfully so...

Pre-Staff Ride: Seville

I arrived on Friday evening, three days before our company Staff Ride began.  I shared a great AirBnB hotel room with a couple Backroads' friends.  A couple friends quickly turns into hundreds as Staff Ride nears, and even a sizeable city like Seville couldn't stop us from meeting someone we knew around every turn.  The first night we went out to see some live Flamenco dancing (WARNING: joining in is NOT encouraged) at a bar.  The dancer was beautiful and the singer had that perfect raspy, wavering Flamenco voice.  Post-performance Backroads leaders poured in from all directions.  I was reunited with friends who had been working in the U.S. and other areas all summer, so it was an overwhelming blast to catch up!


Post-bar badminton in the street?  Right on
 The next morning a couple of us decided to take ourselves on a walking tour of Seville.  What a great city!
Plaza de Espana
 The Plaza de Espana was built in 1928 to host a world's fair the following year.  It was stunning; a humongous arc of Spanish architecture surrounded a moat where people were renting gondolas.  Along the building each region of Spain was represented in alphabetical order with a section of tile artwork.  We each chose our favorite region to take a picture with:
I chose Leon, because I'm a Leo... I like all of Spain, ok?
These people on the tandem have the right idea!

Look closer; there might be two people hiding behind the front pillars.
Plaza de Espana

We noticed a repetitive symbol on the sewer covers and street signs that looked like NO8DO with the 8 begin a tied rope.  It turns out that this is the official symbol of Seville (also appears on the flag).  There are several legends about the origin and meaning of the design, but my favorite is as follows: Seville used to provide many of its citizens as sailors to the important river ports in its surroundings.  The sailor's knot in Spanish is called "madeja".  If you add the "no" to the front and the "do" to the end of "madeja", it sounds like "no me ha dejado", which means "it/he/she hasn't left me".  Loved ones of the Sevillan sailors clung to this symbol to show their loyalty and faith in the fact that the sailor would always return.
Seville's symbol: "No-madeja-do"

View from the top of the cathedral.  You can see the bull fighting ring in the top right.

Hey there, big bull fighter...
 We were strolling down some quiet streets on Saturday night when we heard the sound of footsteps.  A huge crowd of college-aged students ran past us.  Shop owners along the street started locking their doors and pulling down metal gates to close up.  It seemed that an organized riot was taking place.  When we heard what resembled a gun shot noise in the distance, we dived into a shop as the woman pulled down the gate.  I wouldn't have been nervous if the locals didn't look so nervous; we asked the woman what was going on.  Apparently country-wide riots were taking place over the high cost of university.  A moment later the riot had passed and we returned to the street.  There were police officers with intimidating firearms out to maintain order, but based on their conversation they were as clueless as we were.
Keeping the peace...

We took shelter under this mushroom cloud shopping center.
The tail-end of the riot.
 On Sunday we rented bicycles and rode through the city.  YESSSS!  We found an international market and decided to take a world culinary tour: we ate crocodile and drank cannabis beer (nothing special) from South Africa, had kangaroo sandwiches and Victoria Bitters from Australia, and mojitos and free top hats from Cuba.

My first kangaroo!
Salsa dancing outside Cuba.  Check out our sweet rides. 
This little boy fell in love with my friend Stasa.  Adorable!

Staff Ride Day 1!

 Finally, it was time to start our big Backroads party.  We were told to meet in front of a palace in Seville at 10:00 AM.  It was quite a sight watching all 234 of us check the hanging whiteboards for our names, tag our luggage to head to the correct hotel and then get on one of SIX massive tour busses waiting at the curb.  We shuttled to our pack lunch/start of ride.  We were each capable of fitting ourselves to our own bikes, unlike a typical guest, but you could imagine how many supplies had to be set out for us: water jugs were EVERYWHERE, sunscreen, snacks, labeled bikes, trunk bags...  I grabbed a Spanish omelet sandwich (yum!) and gathered my things on the side before joining the gargantuan train that would be our Backroads riding group.
Our set-up location, pre-ride.
 My roommate, Kelsey, and I were very lucky the first night and got a room in the main meeting place/nicest hotel.  We walked into a room with riding maps for the week and our snapshot of information for the following day on our beautiful beds, and a large balcony overlooking the pool outside our window.  Perfecto!
Staff Ride riding maps and info on our beautiful beds.
 The first two nights, we stayed in the town of Ronda, which had a gorge at its backside.  A group of us hiked it together after our short 30 km introductory ride:
Ally, Julie and Katie at an outlook point on the gorge.  Gorgeous!
Night 1 our nine fearless Staff Ride leaders performed regional flamenco dances on stage and introduced us to the area.  Then we moved inside to have dinner and our official company meeting.  Each time I walked into one of our meals I felt like it was middle school lunch all over again; where are my friends, can I find an open seat, should I sit at the cool table?  I sat with different people every time and was always fed, so I think I did okay.
Our 9 Backroads leaders dancing for us.
The beautiful view at our cocktail reception (everyone is facing the stage).

Staff Ride Day 2

 The Day 2 ride was...epic.  I figured this would be my day to do the long option, as everyone said it was the most beautiful, so I geared up for a 100 km (62 mile) ride.  It started out gently, and Kelsey and I cruised together.
Kelsey and myself.
 A quarter-way through the ride, we came across a sign on the side of the road that was pointing all of us Backroadsians into a hotel parking lot.  We entered to find a torrero ring holding the bullfighter and, eventually, a baby bull.  An adult bull can only be part of a bull fight once because they are so smart that they would certainly figure out how to kill the torrero/matador.  This is also why bull fights are kept very short; too much time gives the bull too much time to learn.  Supposedly when the bull is killed it is full of adrenaline and it doesn't even feel the pain.  There was no killing done in the practice we witnessed.  Phew!
Look at the view surrounding our bull ring!


It was really a beautiful, brazen dance the torrero performed.



After the bull fight the real "fun" began.  And by that I mean a mountain pass that climbed 1357 meters.  OUCH!!  I remember the first view I got of the switch-backs climbing up the mountain, I thought; "No way.  There must be another way around."  Alas, there was no other way around.  We just kept climbing.  I really thought I was not going to make it; I wanted to lie on the ground and wait for someone to save me, but I had to be my own prince.  It was a long mediation period for me, letting people pass me from behind and maintaining my slow and steady pace.  Eventually, I did reach that beautiful summit.
At least entertaining things like this happened on the mountain pass.
THE TOP!!!! Thank God!

Myself and Jane; we did it!!

SR Day 3

The Day 3 ride was MUCH more gentle than the previous day.  At least it was until lunch, where I grabbed a shuttle and missed the rest of the climbs in the afternoon.  Aha! Take that, Staff Ride!
Just a man walking his goats.
 In the evening, we met in a beautiful plaza in the town of Antequera.  There were people walking around offering little plates of tapas and plenty of wine and beer.  I thought, "what a wonderful aperitivo!"  The snacks were so little and good.  Then I realized this was our entire dinner.  We had just finished riding 60+ km and we were getting snacks for dinner!  No way, Jose.  I went (with a not-so-small contingency) and got a kebab down the street.
This man was a MASTER at slicing prosciutto.  It only took him two days to slice one plate, but it was very skillful.
They paired the prosciutto with a grappa-like liquor from these barrels.  The pouring was also an art form.  This guy did not spill a drop!

Day 4: Halloween

'Nuff said.  It was hilarious watching the locals' faces as hundreds of us rode past in funny outfits.  Making people smile makes me smile.
Batman and Robin!
The Tuscany crew found superhero bike kits online.  Represent!

My Tuscan co-leaders
 At night, we took a 20-minute shuttle from our hotel in downtown Granada to the Albayzin district.  We ate in a restaurant that was formerly a cave-dwelling in the side of the mountain.  We had a phenomenal night-view of La Alhambra (more on this later) off the terrace.  Everyone wore a costume, and it was hilarious to mingle and see what each person had put on.  After dinner, we shuttled to a dance club which was rented for Backroads until 2:00 AM.  There was a fantastic final flamenco performance for us on the stage, and then we danced our pants off (only literal on occasional).  It was a great way to end the week.
My training group from February.
La Alhambra

Post Staff Ride: Granada

I have to admit, my crotch was thrilled not to get back on a bike when Staff Ride ended.  Instead, I decided to rehab with local food like churros and chocolate:
Chocolate caliente con churros. Nom nom!
Fortunately, my friend Laura had been very proactive in planning our stay in Granada, and we had already purchased tickets to tour La Alhambra.  It was a holiday weekend (All Saint's Day/Dia de Los Muertos) in Spain, so others trying to get last-minute tickets were coming up shorthanded.

La Alhambra was built originally as a Moorish fortress in 889 AD.  It is reputedly the last Muslim stronghold against the conquering Christians in Andalucia.  The architecture and artwork were so different than anything I had seen before; it was mind-blowingly beautiful.
A close-up of a wall.

The ceilings were also extremely detailed. 

So cool!  Court of the Lions

Court of the Lions: each hour one of the 12 lions spurts water out of its mouth. They represent the strength and steadfastness of the Moors.
Another dizzyingly-detailed ceiling.
The gardens

View of Granada.

This plaque described the loose sexual ways of a woman in the court and how she was punished for them. Nice

My final night in Granada, I ate dinner with two of my close friends from training.  We wandered into a nice little restaurant and were greeted by a man wearing a sequined-tuxedo and singing.  It turns out our quiet dinner was taking place in the middle of a bachelor party in which the groom-to-be and his brother were in a band.  We were serenaded all night, and offered champagne for our patience.  We loved it!
Us with the bachelor party chicos.  Spanish men are attractive.
The groom/wedding singer.
Thank you Backroads for finally getting me to Spain.  I can't wait to go back!