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Familiar faces and places

22 Sep
22 September 2017.
When “Taxi Ivan” picked us up in Bolzano last week, we could scarcely contain our excitement. We were returning to Ortisei for our 6th summer visit. Ivan remembered transporting us with our cats last summer.

The street where we lived, temporarily. So charming!

Despite the calendar, it did not feel like summer.  Lows of 2 C/35 F and highs of 12  C/54 F were not quite what we expected. We each had to purchase a fleece as a warm layer: our long-sleeved tees and rain jackets just did not cut it.
Nonetheless, it felt like coming home. We stayed in the same apartment we shared with our cats, Libby and Jane, last year. Justine and Siegfried at Residence Astoria greeted us like old friends. We were honored to see Justine had purchased our book for use by her guests! Even the staff in the gelato and grappa store recognized us. It really felt great to come back and feel so at home. And my Italian came back rather quickly, if imperfectly.

That view looks fake, but it very real. The Sciliar and Punta Santner with Compatsch in the foreground.

We managed to carve out two good hikes in our four full days. One was crossing the Alpe di Siusi on a favorite route, stopping for strudel at a preferred mountain hotel. The other a very cold hike through fog across the ridge at Rasciesa. Luckily hot coffee and fine strudel awaited us at the rifugio.
Another day we listened to the forecast of rain all day and decided not to risk a mountain expedition, so we took a bus into Bolzano for shopping and lunch. But we never got our umbrellas wet! Not in 36 hours! It looked like rain most of the day so our time at higher altitudes might have been cut short. Hard to know when to believe a forecast.

One of our favorite rifugi, Rasciesa. We were the first customers at 9:45. As we were leaving, the crowds were arriving.

We cooked several dinners (restaurants get tiring when you travel long term) but treated ourselves to one fine meal at what has become our favorite fine dining establishment in Ortisei, Restaurant Concordia. We were one of only three parties on a Sunday evening, all seated in a cozy room with the woodstove burning. We dithered over many fine options on the menu, choosing an antipasto of involtini with mozzarella and grilled vegetables and secondi of venison and pork, with a fine local Lagrein to accompany. Everything was superb! The owners are wait staff and chef, making for a very personal experience. They were thrilled to hear we returned to them after a great experience last year. It is so nice to go to restaurants away from the main streets, no matter how small the town, and find such intimacy.
Here are a few more pictures from our stay in Ortisei. Click any picture for complete captions.

The canal where we live.

We are now in Venezia and the weather gods have cooperated. We were out in shirtsleeves and ate lunch al aperto twice this week.
Venezia is, of course, very familiar to us. We’ve been here 10 times although I am not sure we should count our one-night-stand in August of 2016 when we came here simply to briefly escape the heat in Roma. We know where we are going most of the time although I am grateful for GPS on the phone when we get twisted about. The first few times we visited we used only paper maps. I am happy to have adopted the electronic form when I see others standing around gaping at their maps trying to decipher Venezia.

Incredible saute of mussels and clams at Trattoria da Jonny.

It was another fine meal we got ourselves into at Trattoria da Jonny. Or rather, I should thank Michele over at Meandering with Misha for getting us there. She raved about it in March and I remembered her post was so inspiring we had to go. We were shocked to arrive and find the place lightly attended while out on the main tourist piazzas things were humming. It was to our advantage: a finely prepared lunch in a peaceful location with only schoolkids and local shoppers passing through. We kept it simple: branzino with spinach for Ric, a lovely bowl of mussels and clams for me, accompanied by seasonal veggies and roasted potatoes we shared. A little Soave washed it down nicely. A lot to eat for lunch but after our three-plus mile morning walk (and knowing we’d do four more miles before the day was finished) we deserved it. Again we are preparing food a casa so a simple salad and more good wine (Donna Fugata why are you not exporting to the U.S?) made a fitting evening meal.
When we travel long like this, our evenings are much like being in the U.S. If we do not go out to eat, and if we’ve had an active day, a simple supper at “home” with perhaps some streaming of American TV is a nice way to chill out. Unfortunately, Amazon and Netflix are wise to our use of a VPN. Although Amazon worked in Ortisei, they are apparently on to us now. We found PBS is still willing to feed our need with their fine programming. Is anyone else watching Ken Burns’ “Vietnam?”

Giant hands support a building along the Grand Canal. Interesting metaphor.

In addition to eating at several new-to-us places, this is turning out to be an art tour of Venezia as we finally attended the Biennale. More on that later. Always new things to see even in a place you’ve visited many times.
Per addesso, ciao!

 

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In Amsterdam, get away from the damn Damrak!

13 Sep
13 September 2017.
Katerina, Deb, and Catherine will be sad to hear I really did not care for Amsterdam: at least until we got away from the damn Damrak. Our first day wandering this bastion of all things commercial I was almost sorry we came to The Netherlands. The Damrak was crowded with trams, buses, bicycles, cars, and clueless pedestrians maneuvering helter-skelter around one another. It is a wonder more people are not taken out by cyclists. The mayor is now actively discouraging tourism and suggesting people go to Rotterdam instead.

Sunday by the Canal, Amsterdam. Locals kick back with coffee and a newspaper.

Amsterdam, awash in tourists and their trappings, does have quiet sectors where one can appreciate the history, the beauty, and the determination of the Dutch. Like other great cities, one must leave the main arterials funneling tourists who have not done their homework and find the neighborhoods where dogs are walked and Sunday papers are read on sunny benches along quiet canals.

Love the old tile work in the Haarlem station. “Washroom First Class.” 

We stayed in Haarlem, which is quite charming and untouristed as far as we could tell this first week of September. At least the only English we heard was from the Dutch who can switch languages in mid-sentence, so used they are to dealing with non-Dutch speakers. We were quite flattered to be mistaken for Dutch a couple of times having used a rudimentary “Morgen” or “Guten Abend,” in greeting. Even Utrecht, a day trip destination for us, seemed to harbor more travelers than Haarlem. It also harbored a terrific railroad museum where we whiled away a couple of rainy hours.

Haarlem is much more laid back. Even cyclists are less intense.

Most mornings, we traveled the 15 minutes to Amsterdam from Haarlem via commuter train with students and workers who had parked their bikes in front of the station in confusing swarms. In the evenings, we traveled “home” with the same crowd, enjoying the feeling of being temporary locals who lived in the small town of Haarlem.
We could walk a few minutes to the Albert Heijn market and try to decipher labels to stock our kitchen. We wandered the back streets of Haarlem and took in the history thanks to an obscure book of walking tours I found. The cafes and restaurants of Haarlem were excellent and frequented by the Dutch, not our own ilk. This endeared us to The Netherlands.
The Van Gogh Museum, though lovely and certainly with an incredible collection of the master’s works, was horribly crowded even on Friday night at dinner time. (My introverted and crowd-avoiding self specifically booked tickets for an evening opening that was said to be less crowded.) To our amazement, the museum was not full of English speakers, but mostly Dutch, with some German and Italian sprinkled in. I guess the American kids hanging around Dam Square had little interest in Vincent.

Rijksmuseum before the masses descend. If you go, get a ticket in advance. I cannot believe how many people miss this simple trick at museums all over Europe.

By contrast, the Rijksmuseum at opening on a Monday morning was accessible. We almost skipped it based on our Van Gogh evening. Proving again that getting out early pays, we sailed in shortly after 9:00 and after a highlights tour returned to the main hall to find a rising tide of people as 10:30 approached. The line for those without advanced tickets was a block long outside when we left at 11:30.
We found the Joordan neighborhood as well as the area around the Stopera and Zoo to be peaceful places to roam on a Sunday morning. Re-emerging in central Amsterdam after wandering the Joordan was startling. Much like walking the Champs Elysees in Paris or making the march from San Marco to the Rialto in Venice, if you do not leave the Damrak, Spui, or Leidseplein, you miss the character of Amsterdam, and getting completely out of Amsterdam allows at least a  glimpse into how people live.

This is half of our Indonesian Rijsttafel.

I did not have high expectations for food. Outside of Italy, it can be a struggle for us to be truly happy with meals, so I must comment on some of our best meals here.
  • We were stunned to discover a truly Italian pizza in Haarlem at Pizzeria Back-to-Basics . The owner, Francesco, is a Neapolitan who came to Haarlem 30 years ago. He produces masterpieces from a tiny wood-fired oven and kibitzed with me in Italian. Even the wine was a good Italian negroamaro. (More on that soon at www.OurWeeklyPizza.com.)
  • Another night we experienced the Indonesian rijsttafel, an experience we’ve not had prior and would not mind repeating. At Restaurant Flamboyant, an array of 12 dishes was not unlike a Lebanese mezza. Each dish presented a different flavor palate from mild to spicy, from sweet to savory. Deep-fried tofu, stewed lamb, tender braised chicken, fried bananas, coconut vegetables, zippy sautéed eggplant: too many to name and each a bit of heaven on the tongue.
  • On a stormy night, we arrived soaking wet and found a cozy yet trendy interior and non-traditional menu at Popocatepetl. Pollo asado was served with sweet potato fries (side of mayo, of course!) and Ric’s birria, a lamb stew, was something we’d not seen before on a Mexican menu. The playlist varied from jazz to Mexican and the hang-out factor was huge. No wonder the place is always crowded with the young Dutch.

Happened upon a wedding party celebrating in a little side street.

We did not get to see as many places in The Netherlands as we had hoped. The weather was terribly unsettled and wet for much of our stay so we did not venture to some of the other spots on my list of possibilities. Funny that we timed this trip so we’d have some warm late summer weather in Northern Europe. September is usually amazing. But watching what happened with hurricanes in the U.S. and downpours flooding Italy, we are feeling pretty darn lucky.
Off to München!

Can you tell why this train is called a “dognose?”

I love the little sheep. If I had room in my luggage I’d place one in our yard at home.

One Thanksgiving just isn’t enough

26 Nov
In the U.S., our Thanksgivings were usually over-the-top: 13 people in our tiny condo for a 5-course meal, for example. This is definitely the holiday I miss most living abroad and replacing our U.S. traditions just doesn’t fit. So we do Thanksgiving differently. One year it was a non-traditional hike. The next we cooked dinner for 11 Italians at our friends’ house. Last year we fed ourselves on American nostalgia by touring the Norman Rockwell exhibit that was here. This year, we celebrated twice, because once is not enough.
A week prior to T-Day, the American Women’s Association of Rome held their annual Thanksgiving dinner and we joined about 110 ex-pats and Italians for an Italian-ized dinner at the ever-so-elegant Hotel Hassler. If you want a room there tomorrow night you would pay €330.00 non-refundable for the smallest room. For only an extra €100.00, you do not have to pre-pay and get breakfast too. Such a bargain. Personally I’d prefer a 3-night stay in a cute B&B in Venezia.
Elegant tablesetting at the Hassler.

Elegant table setting at the Hassler.

Cin Cin!

Cin Cin!

The AWAR dinner was beautifully prepared and served with prosecco and wine flowing freely. So freely I had to put my hand over my glass a couple of times to prevent the constant topping-off.  As I said, the menu was Italianized. Of course, there was a pasta, in this case perhaps the most delightful lasagna I’ve ever eaten, made with pumpkin and porcini. It was my intention to NOT complete each course, to pace myself and not overdo it. I managed to do so with the soup, but the lasagna demanded to be eaten. If there had not been 10 other people at the table, I might have finished off Ric’s too. (Note bene: all of the Italians finished their pasta. I was just trying to blend in.) While on the menu it looks like we had five side dishes (Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, corn, apple/soy cabbage, and chestnut with baby onions), in actuality only the sweet potatoes were a portion; the other four were a melange, more of a garnish than a vegetable dish.
OMG to-die-for lasagn of pumpkin, mushrooms and almonds.

OMG to-die-for lasagna of pumpkin, mushrooms and almonds.

 
Italian take on a Thanksgiving dinner.

Italian take on a Thanksgiving dinner.

 
The little garnsih including the Burssles sprout and corn at 12:00 on the plate comprised of 4 individual items on the menu. More of a garnish,actually.

The little garnish including the Brussels sprouts and corn at 12:00 on the plate comprised of 4 individual items on the menu.

 
The dessert buffet was insane and totally Italian. I managed — only being polite — to down a wedge of something intensely chocolate. We finished the evening with a visit to the rooftop for a moonlit view over Roma. Fabulous.
Our “second Thanksgiving” is barely underway but is decidedly low-key. Setting up the house for Christmas, watching a movie or two (last night, the annual viewing of Planes, Trains and Automobiles), and later dinner with friends at a favorite trattoria. 
May those of you who celebrate this great American holiday have a truly blessed day. We look forward to hosting one of our classic dinners when we return to Portland. 
Dessert buffet: no pumpkin pie in sight.

Dessert buffet: no pumpkin pie in sight.

 
Roma by moonlight from the hassler, above the Spanish Steps.

Roma by moonlight from the Hassler, above the Spanish Steps.

 
 

Chamber of Commerce picture-postcard-perfect day in Zermatt

25 Sep
The last time I was in Zermatt was 43 years ago. A college girlfriend and I made the Grand Tour of Europe in the summer of 1972 following Frommer’s Europe on $5.00 a Day. Zermatt was a splurge because we had to pay $5.35 EACH just for our room and breakfast, way over budget. I think we lived on bread and cheap wine for the duration of our stay. I never forgot how beautiful it was. It still is. It’s still expensive, too.
Postcard view. The Matterhorn remained cloud free all day.
Postcard view. The Matterhorn remained cloud free all day.
We arrived the other day to cold — almost winter-cold — weather. Having worn my jeans for 3 days, they could practically stand up by themselves. I needed to wash them and had only unlined hiking pants to wear for Thursday’s planned expedition to a high elevation. If it was cold in Zermatt, 10,000+ feet was not going to be any better. I set off to see if I could find any tights to wear as insulation. At one of the many shops selling high-priced outdoor fashion, I stated my need. “We didn’t expect it to be so cold,” I told the clerk. “Neither did we,” he said. If the Swiss think it’s cold, it IS cold. Luckily they had a lovely pair of purple and black merino wool long johns for me. I guess today we do not say “long johns” nor even “long underwear;” it is a “base layer.” How elegant. And they were just the ticket.
From the Rothorn. There are other mountains, but it is hard to not focus on the Matterhorn.
From the Rothorn. There are other mountains, but it is hard to not focus on the Matterhorn.
Thursday morning we layered up with everything we could and headed out to ride the underground funicular and two gondola lifts to the Rothorn, where one get the classic postcard view of the Matterhorn. The day could not have been more perfect!  A light dusting of snow from the night before added to the beauty.
Not wishing to hike from quite that high, we headed down to the Blauherd station and set off to hike The Marmot Trail. We wanted an easy-ish hike the first day so as not to repeat our July 6 experience. I picked The Marmot Trail as it was rated for those as young as 4-years-old. I figured a couple of anziani could manage. The 4-year-olds the writer had in mind must have been mountain goats! The first third of the downhill-bound trail was marked by rocky portions waiting to twist your ankle and slippery, gooey, clay-based, green-tinged mud that made footing even on flat portions dicey.
Black & white goats, unique to the Valais, resting in a high mountain pasture.
Black & white goats, unique to the Valais, resting in a high mountain pasture.
The only sign of marmots we saw was scat.
At Sunnegga, a lift station and restaurant, we decided to take a restorative espresso while lounging on the delightful deck in full view of the Matterhorn. Switzerland is expensive, but I was shocked when our two double-espressos came to 12.40 CHF! And I had to prepare them myself from a self-service machine. I said to Ric, “And people complain about Starbucks prices.” He quipped back, “But Starbucks doesn’t have a view of the Matterhorn.” Amen.
This little guy and his friends were hanging out trailside on our path-to-lunch.
This little guy and his friends were hanging out trailside on our path-to-lunch.
There’s a trail from Sunnegga to Zermatt called the Gourmetweg. Along this trail one encounters not only several restaurants, but several  exceptional restaurants. We are used to having good meals when we hike: freshly prepared food, ceramic plates and real glasses, good wines, and so on. (No hotdogs, burgers, nor nachos with gummy cheese for the European hiker!)
More trailside companions. But no marmots.
More trailside companions. But no marmots.
Chez Vrony takes outdoor dining while hiking or skiing to a new level. It is Michelin Guide rated and outstanding in every way. The salad ingredients (forgot to take a picture!) came from Vrony’s garden. Hard to believe it is located between two ski runs. The Matterhorn looks down on the deck, and under stunningly blue and cloudless skies, we had a hard time resisting a second glass of wine knowing we had an hour-plus hike still ahead of us. For the record, we took the short Gourmetweg. There is a cut-off that practically dropped us at our front door, near the Furi lift at the south end of Zermatt. Here are a few choice shots from our lunch. Click on any photo for a larger view and slide show.
My pedometer claims the day’s walking burned over 800 calories. Yippee! But today my quads are telling me that cannot happen every day.

Field trip: Eataly

19 Sep
Eataly is not on the itinerary of many who visit Roma. If you only have a few days in the city, trekking out to this distant-from-the-center-grocery-store-on-steroids is probably not how you want to spend a precious vacation day. We, however, are always on the prowl for a good field trip. (No permission slips required.) So one day this week, remembering a nice lunch we had there sometime ago, we made our fourth trip there in 3 years. No, we don’t go there often.
My lunch, Piadina "La Saporita" from La Piadina. True to its name, it was flavorful.
My lunch, Piadina “La Saporita” from La Piadina. True to its name, it was flavorful.
Eataly, to me, is not a place to do the regular shopping (for one thing it is a long way from home), although around lunch time, it gets busy with Italians who are snapping up the fresh produce and other delectables. To me, it is entertainment. Meters and meters of pastas, in shapes I have never seen accompanied by colorful produce, prime meats, abundant fish, hanging prosciutto and salumi of every kind, endless cookbooks, kitchen implements for which the use is obscure, row-upon-row of wine, a rainbow of preserved vegetables, a chocolate selection to make the Swiss jealous, and several interesting eateries. It is four floors of decadence. It is expensive. Everything sold there is Made in Italy. Bravo!
The produce area is almost unreal in its beauty and bounty. All Italian in season, of course.
The produce area is almost unreal in its beauty and bounty. All Italian in season, of course.
Tucked behind Stazione Ostiense, it can be difficult to find when arriving by Metro. The first few times we thought we should leave a breadcrumb trail as we traipsed through tunnel-after-tunnel. This time we noticed prominent signage that guided us. It was excellent, we thought. Perfect help for tourists: giant signs and arrows everywhere…until the last couple of turns where clearly the direction givers assumed “You can’t miss it.”  (This happens a lot in Italy: assumptions on way-finding.) The final leg has you traverse the entire under-track corridor at Stazione Ostiense on the hope that at the end one might emerge near the entrance to Eataly. If you decide to go, persevere.
Conservanti included these gorgeous peppers.
Conservanti included these gorgeous peppers.
There’s a new Eataly in Piazza della Repubblica.  (They took over an old MacDonald’s. Quite the change.) We have not visited yet, but certainly it is more central for most visitors. We’ll make that a future field trip.
This trip, we had a nice look around, and a fine lunch, but we did not buy much: an olive-pitter and some pretty orangey-yellow Moleskin notebooks, which I love for note-taking on trips.
Vino sfuso at a very good price. They even sell bottles in case you forgot yours.
Vino sfuso at a very good price. They even sell empty bottles in case you forgot yours.
The food outlets are called "Ristorantini" or little restaurants. They are semi-self-serve but food is made-to-order. This one empty at noon, because lunch here really does not start until 13:00.
The food outlets are called “Ristorantini” or little restaurants. They are semi-self-serve but food is made-to-order. This one, empty at noon, because lunch here really does not start until 13:00.
Long long shelves of almost everytning. Here, preserved vegetables. Not your Green Giant corn....
Long, long shelves of almost everything. Here, preserved vegetables. Not your Green Giant corn….
Riding the moving ramp down. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.
Riding the moving ramp down. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.
Prosciutti hang from the ceiling at the top of a moving ramp leading to the salumi department.
Prosciutti hang from the ceiling at the top of a moving ramp leading to the salumi department.
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