Monday, March 7, 2011

A Tale of Two Ancient Cities

Our next travel destination led us to two of the oldest cities in Europe, Rome and Athens.  When you first arrive to these places, you are awed by these enormous structures that have been standing for thousands of years.  The ruins from past empires are interspersed with modernity.  Both Rome and Athens are constructed around these ancient sites.  Although we may have a tendency to group these cities together, they are wholly different.
The Colosseum
Our first stop was Rome.  Rome is one of those cities where (on your first visit) there is so much to see, you are left with little time to explore on your own.  We of course were no different and wanted to see all the tourist attractions.  The first day was devoted to the Colosseum.  We must have taken at least 500 pictures on just that day; from the inside, from the outside, from a distance, and from every angle and camera setting.  After playing models for a few hours, our stomachs were talking.  We decided on the obvious, pizza and gelato.  I know Naples is famous for pizza and Florence for gelato, but its Italy, I doubt that food could be bad anywhere in the country.  Jon and I enjoyed a 4 cheese pizza and artichoke bruschetta. 
Artichoke Bruschetta
We located a small gelato shop that had 20 flavors.  There was a long line which is usually a good sign; I mean it wasn’t a particularly warm day.  Jon treated himself to chocolate, tiramisu and crème caramel and I enjoyed coconut, nutella, and crème caramel.  We both were thoroughly satisfied with our choices.  When choosing gelato, it is always a gamble because not all flavors are created equal so taste, taste, taste.  I learned this lesson with a not so good strawberry gelato. 
For dinner, we ate pasta, that versatile ingredient that seems to define Italy.  Jon chose pasta carbonara and I ate the house special which was homemade egg noodles with sausage and mushrooms.  We found the flavor to be decent but not spectacular.  The thing is with Roman food, there did not seem to be much variety in the menu from restaurant to restaurant.  I guess this can be said for most places in the world but for some reason I was not expecting this and found this fact disappointing. 
House Special Pasta
The next three days were spent at the Palatino, Roman Forum and Vatican city.  Rome offers a lot of sites that you can visit for free like the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish steps which we did not hesitate to take advantage of.  These iconic Roman places were beautiful but jam-packed with tourists.  We visited on the off season so I can only imagine how it is during the summer.  The most notable foodie adventure was a trip to Pizzeria La Montecarlo which has been voted best pizza in Rome and has been recommended in Le Guide de Routard almost every year since 1996.  It is located on a small side street, nearly impossible to find unless you are paying attention to the indistinct street signs.  This was another case which we were about to give up, but then found our destination.  Besides being delicious, Pizzeria La Montecarlo is affordable, speedy with good service.  We of course ordered pizza and fried mozzarella balls.  The mozzarella balls were crusty on the outside and oozing cheesy goodness on the inside.  The pizzas had super thin crusts, crisped in a wood fired over causing a charred flavor to be added.  I chose the Montecarlo special which came with olives, peppers, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and an egg.  Jon ordered the 4 cheeses, he was devoted to finding the best one in Rome.  I would have to agree with Le Guide de Routard, it was not only the best pizza we had in Rome but also the most enjoyable meal we ate during our stay.
Mozarella Balls
Me and my Pizza
We didn’t have time to miss Rome as we were whisked away to Athens for the weekend.  We were greeted with sunshine and a pure blue sky.  We felt like we were in paradise.  We were tired of the rain and gloom, and the warmth was a welcomed treat.
Temple of Zeus
I found the people in Athens to be genuine and overall good folks to hang out with.  This attitude created a comfortable atmosphere for us outsiders.  Our first order of business was lunch.  We went to the first place we saw and did not regret it.  Our character of a waiter recommended pork gyros and tabbouleh salad (I still think my Dad’s is better!).  The waiter believed that the gyro symbolized Greece and I would have to agree.  Wherever you go, you can always depend on a delicious cheap gyro, which we got to know well over the course of our time there.
Pork Gyros
He taught us how to say thank you in Greek, efharistó.  Overall a pleasant and insightful lunch.  Next, we walked to the ruins of Hadrian’s library which was guarded by stray dogs.  By the end of the trip, I regarded them as the Guardians of the Temple.  After, we tried to go to the Acropolis but it was closed.  Temple of Zeus, closed. Finally a tourist office, also closed!  For some reason Athens shuts down after 3pm on a Saturday.  For dinner, we were lured into a restaurant by the owner promising free drinks and dessert.  Who can turn that down?  Again, we were not disappointed by the food or service.  Drinking our Alfa Beer we shared moussaka and lamb with a lemon sauce smothered in cheese and ham. 
Lamb Dish
Both were simple and tasty dishes.  Sunday brought with it the excitement of another day of ruin tourism.  Even though Athens closed down the day before, it made up by having all attractions free on Sunday.  We were able to go to the Ancient Agora, Hephaestus Temple, Zeus Temple, Dionysus Theater and of course the Acropolis (otherwise known as the Parthenon).  We had another beautiful day hiking through the Athenian hills.  I mean we had a real climb to the Acropolis but the clear views of the city were stunning.  The Parthenon itself was a magnificent site.
The Parthenon
We were lucky enough to spend Valentine’s Day in Athens. We started the day by visiting the meat market.  That sounds romantic, doesn’t it?  I assure you, it is not for those faint of heart or squeamish characters.  The market smelled of raw meat mingled with the scent of oregano and mint.  It was like nothing I had ever seen with men in white butcher coats shouting as you walked past to come visit their stall.  Different cuts and animals hanging from big metal hooks, it was raw in every sense of the word.
Meat Market
There were shops of dried fruit and nuts, olives, spice stores and of course feta cheese.  I had to have a taste and the nice salesman gave me a nice chunk to eat. 
Feta Cheese
We treated ourselves to some sweet and savory Greek pies at Apiston.  We had spanakopita (spinach and feta), pumpkin with honey, and sweet cheese with cinnamon.  They were decadent.  One will definitely fill you up.
Sweet Cheese Pie
We spent the day wondering the city, exploring the lesser known sites like the national gardens and the Olympic stadium.  There was a strike so all public transportation was not running and Greek guards were standing on every corner to ensure violence didn’t break out (nothing happened).  Since we were low on cash at this point, we opted for a luxurious chocolate cake called love cake instead of dinner.  This cake was so rich and moist.  It tasted like it had been sitting and soaking up chocolate sauce all day.  It was a perfect end to our time in Greece.
Love Cake
Re-reading my account, it would seem that our trips are fine and dandy without the slightest hiccup.  Although we are having the time of our lives, it doesn’t mean we haven’t had to experience growing pains.  You can have the best parents in the world who try and prepare you for the real world, but you don’t understand how difficult it is until you have to make the decisions yourself.  I consider myself lucky to have parents who have given me tools to cope with the world around me; I hate to think where I would be without their guidance.  I understand more than ever the stress money and a budget can put on a relationship.  I am discovering how to balance living life and enjoying the present while being conscious of the future.  When I came to Europe, I felt that a big change in my life would occur.  Imagining an amazing career opportunity or dreaming of an epiphany that would guide me to my right path.  Instead I am learning how to deal with life as it comes, jumping over hurdles, dodging wrenches, and adapting to each opportunity presented to me, good or bad.  It’s not a fun process but a necessary one.  All in all, Jon and I are supporting each other through these life lessons while enjoying the scenery along the way.

Monday, January 31, 2011

My Magic Year in Paris

When I was a little girl and first set eyes on the magnificent structure that is the Eiffel Tower, I knew at once that I would have to visit Paris at some point in my lifetime. It was only natural that as I fell more and more in love with food that my attraction to Paris and France would grow. I would read about Julia Child’s life on Rue De L’Université and her culinary adventures at Le Cordon Cooking School. Or about how Judith Jones only ate one meal a day so that she could enjoy a delicious Parisian dinner. My moment came this year when I was fortunate enough to spend my 24th birthday in this beautiful city. I also had the great pleasure of having my fiancé, Jon, accompany me on this trip.
Love at the Eiffel Tower
When we arrived on Wednesday night, the first thing we wanted to do was eat. I saw a bistro down the street that looked particularly intriguing with its dark interior and red florescent lights on the outside. We walked in and in broken French explained that we wanted to have dinner. The waiter responded quickly that “this was impossible” and shooed us out the door. The only other restaurants nearby that were still open were a Chinese takeout and pizza place. The Chinese food on display did not look particularly appetizing so we settled on pizza. When you walked in, you would see a man making pizza to order and shuffling the pies into a hot brick oven that faced his back. There was no place to sit, only a narrow hallway with a counter. We ordered pizza Margarita because it was the only thing on the menu we recognized. As I watched the pizza chef, I knew that we had made a mistake as I saw the generous sprinkling of different toppings like goat cheese and lardons. I saw him make a pizza by piling on 4 different cheeses and an egg in the middle. I piped up and asked if we could have a pizza like the one he was making. He obliged and soon we were walking back to our tiny hotel room with a coke and our pizza box. Since we didn’t have any utensils, we ripped pieces off and savored each bite. At the end we popped the egg and dipped the last bites in all its yolky goodness. Now, for all those critics don’t knock it until you try it, that’s even if you appreciate a good runny egg. That moment marked a great taste memory and was probably the best pizza I’ve ever eaten.
Jon and Our Pizza
Before we would venture into the city, we stopped at the same bakery every morning and select one sweet and one savory pastry to share. This tactic served us well because it was an inexpensive breakfast and we were able to try an array of French pastries. One morning there was a small outdoor market in the square next to the hotel. I was immediately consumed by the bounty surrounding me. There were butcher’s displaying their house made patés, cheese makers with over 50 kinds of cheese, a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a beautiful display of seafood (scallops still in their shell!). This was the moment I truly fell in love with Paris. To me, when you hear people say how much they love French food- what they are really saying is that they love the care and quality of each ingredient. When you start off with high quality ingredients, it takes little effort on the cook’s part to produce a delicious dish. These producers were experts on their products and could tell you what was especially delicious this week whether it be a cut of lamb, a camembert cheese, or the sweet carrots that were just dug up that morning. This intimate knowledge is attained only when a person has been through the entire process, from seedling to fruit. I envy this connection to food and strive to one day soon be able to enjoy the fruits of my own labor instead of buying the glossy but tasteless foods that are so often found in our supermarkets. My only regret in Paris is that I did not have a kitchen to conjure some of my own Parisian creations. On my next trip, that will be a must.
Mounds of Cheese
Fresh Scallops and Other Seafood Goodies
Being an EU student has its advantages and disadvantages. In Paris, most museums and cultural attractions will let you in for free. On the other hand, you don’t have that much money to begin with. Keeping our budget in mind, I was allowed to splurge on two things (it was my birthday after all): French macarons and one nice meal. My goal was to seek out the famous French macarons from master pastry chef Pierre Hermé. We had trekked in the cold rainy weather searching for one of his bakeries on Rue Bonapart with no luck. Giving up, we walked to our next destination Le Cordon Bleu. We didn’t realize how far that was, practically on the other side of the city. I wanted to give up several times but Jon (bless his heart) kept pushing me saying "we’ve gone this far already, let's just finish."  And what do you know…there was a Pierre Hermé patisserie!!!! I was smiling from ear to ear. It’s funny how such a small success can lift your spirits and push you to move forward (of course with 20 Euros worth of macarons in hand). 5 minutes later I was standing in front of the famous culinary arts school. It was closed, which was probably a good thing as we didn’t have extra money to shop in the school store. I settled for a picture, which has more meaning than anything I could have bought.
French Macarons
Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School
Ready for a nice dinner I chose Micouleau, a small place that specialized in duck and foie gras (duck or goose fattened liver). We started our meal with the restaurant’s award winning foie gras. I ordered duck confit, a duck leg cooked in its own fat until it is so tender that it melts in your mouth. As if that wasn’t decadent enough it was served with fried potato coins tossed in garlic oil and a small green salad. Jon chose cassoulet, a stew of beans, duck, and sausage. The food was heavenly. We lingered over every bit so that we could thoroughly taste all the flavors hitting different parts of our tongues. It was so French and so wonderful.
Foie Gras
Duck Confit and Potatoes
This trip taught me about how to be a grown-up. Every day we had to make choices and sacrifices based on what was “most important.” Clearly I wasn’t able to stay in a nice hotel or eat at Michelin stared restaurants. That doesn’t mean I never will, just not on this trip. This trip was special in its own ways. I was able to see some of the world’s most famous monuments and museums with my husband-to-be. We learned how to balance each other, when one of us felt overwhelmed or stressed the other knew how to take over the situation. This skill will be most valuable on the adventures to come. When you travel, you learn that you can’t have everything but that what you do get is enough, and we should be reminded to be grateful for those moments.
The Glass Pyramid at the Louvre