Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Venice Once Again


Last week I needed a change of scenery. 


It was one of those weeks when it's just too hard to live away from everyone I love, and I needed to get out and distract myself. I thought about going shopping or heading to the park, calling a friend or getting a gelato. Everything seemed to quick and escapable, not enough of a distraction. While hard times make it challenging to live away from my family, it also provides wonderful distraction opportunities in the ease of travel. My flight home wasn't until Saturday, so on Thursday morning I woke up early, made my way to the train station with my already-packed carryon (I had never unpacked after Florence), and headed to Venice. 




As soon as I arrived, I quickly found a vaparetto to Burano, an island I'd read about but never visited

This filled most of my day, but left plenty of time for a little gift shopping I'd been hoping to do. I always love the little paintings you can find artists creating and the various piazzas, as well as a gift shop that I've now visited (and over-bought from) three times called Zacaria's. The artwork here is incredible! They use pieces of handmade paper, Murano glass beads, dried flowers, ribbon, even scraps from candy wrappers to create gorgeous, colorful, intriguing, collage-like (do I have enough adjectives yet) pieces that I just can't get enough of!

Other than the shop, I didn't look for anything this time. 

I let myself get lost in thought as well as in the winding streets, and was grateful for it. I did try and follow my iPhone map to get to Zacaria's, obsessively tracking my little blue dot. I have to say, it detracts from the experience. I got frustrated and it really didn't seem to help me much, as the streets twist and turn, and some don't seem to have names at all. When I was trying to find somewhere in particular, I stopped observing. I stopped noticing the crumbling bricks and the fact that residents were starting to fill their flower boxes as spring set in. But when I looked up and just let myself get lost, the magic of Venice took over. 

This was especially true Friday morning. 

I had a few things to take care of before my flight the next day, so I woke up uncharacteristically early for breakfast and one last walk around the city. My train wasn't until 10:00, which gave me a few hours to get myself lost again. While Venice is constantly packed with tourists once the weather warms up, the early mornings belong to the locals. The streets were nearly empty, and I reveled in the ability to stop and stare wherever I wanted without the fear of being trampled or smacked with a selfie-stick. I loved stumbling into a quiet square where the only people were a few children playing  a quick game of soccer before school, completely unaware of anyone trying to maneuver around them without getting hit by a ball. The streets stayed empty until about 8:45. In the end, I was VERY grateful for the little "Ferrovia" signs around the city that pointed the way back from the train station; otherwise I'm sure I'd never have found my way back (especially once my phone died!). 


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Burano: A Rainbow of a City


Even from a distance, the candy-colored houses of Burano stood out vividly. 

Burano is a small journey within itself, and while this was my fourth visit to Venice, it was my first on the tiny island. 

To get to the colorful island, you need to first take a vaparetto to Murano, then disembark and grab another to Burano. The process takes at least an hour, and includes waiting in an incredibly long line. However long, the trip is well worth the time spent as Burano is incredible. 


As the daughter of a painting contractor, we always had tons of fan-decks lying around (you know, the flip-book with thousands of paint colors that you can find at Lowe's or Home Depot). I use to flip through them, picking out all of the colors I'd paint my room. I always wondered if anyone's parents let them paint their bedrooms the colors at the bottom of each card, the brightest, most vibrant shades. Well, everyone who ever dreamed of painting their bedroom neon pink or bright green must will find their sanctuary in Burano! 

Set against the cloudless blue sky, the picturesque town didn't even look real. The town itself is small, and easily explorable within just a few hours. While the main strip is busy with tourists, stepping off into any of the deserted side-streets is enough to remind you that this isn't Disney World; someone really lives in these intensely colored homes.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Easter in Florence: The Explosion of the Cart


Easter is a huge deal in Italy, and is celebrated with varying traditions all over the country. 

In Florence, Easter is celebrated with the Scorpio del Carro, which translates to the Explosion of the Cart. This tradition dates back to the First Crusades, when a Florentine knight was the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem. As a reward for his bravery, he was given three splinters of the stone from the church they sought to liberate, which are still housed in a Florentine church.  After they accomplished their goal, the crusaders gathered in a church to purify themselves and receive the holy fire. Since then, Florence has celebrated Easter by using the three flints to light a small torch of holy fire, and then leading a procession through the city to deliver the fire to each home.

Eventually the tradition expanded to include the transportation of the fire by a cart. It wasn't until the 14th century that fireworks were added to the cart. Since then, the cart has "Exploded" each year. As it makes it's way through the city (with the explosion taking place in front of the Duomo), it is accompanied by a procession dressed in historical costumes, drummers, and members of the church.


After spending the night in Florence, I woke up early Sunday morning, ready to set out on the town. 


Making my way to Piazza del Duomo took less and less time and map confusion each time I left the hotel, though my sense of direction is truly terrible. The piazza was packed. So many people were stuffed into the space that it was completely impossible to see the front of the giant cathedral, let alone anything going on at its entrance. 



I tried to wiggle my way towards the front for a while but kept getting shoved back (to be fair, they were there first). Eventually, I came up with what I thought was a very clever idea. There was no reason I needed to be shoved in with all of these people; I could go through an alley and watch from a side street! Well, I was not the only person with this idea. While there were far fewer heads to peer over, I was still pretty far from the front and really could only see the top of the cart.



The procession was over by this time (not that I could have seen it if it wasn't), and there was still a good 45 minutes to stand and wait. I guess it's good for practicing patience! The alley was full of wonderful people watching opportunities. My favorites were a family with two little boys and a baby, who I entertained myself with by trying to eavesdrop on and understand. From what I could gather, the boys wanted to leave immediately, and the older one kept trying to get inside the baby's carriage. I also loved two little old men standing next to me, who would look at each other in exasperation every time someone with a selfie-stick would raise it above the crowd. 

By far the most interesting was a man in a second or third story window, directly next to the Duomo. 


Can you imagine that beautiful plaza and magnificent cathedral being the first thing you see every morning? He leaned out over the windowsill every 10 minutes or so to check on the scene below him, sometimes with a cup of coffee, other times with a cigarette. Standing there for an hour had me fawning over the marble striping, colorful patterns, and religious icons, let alone the sheer size of the monument. But to live next to it every day? I wonder if you ever stop being impressed, or if it is still just as striking, day after day?

At 11:00, the cathedral bells began to ring, deafening even over the thousands of voices below them. 

11:00 was when the Exploding of the Cart was meant to begin, and I could feel the crowd tense and become restless around me. Being in crowd is never comfortable for me, and it became even less so as the air filled with selfie-sticks and raised cellphones. The bodies around me seemed to grow like trees as everyone craned for a better view. But, this was Italy, so of course 11:00 came and went with no explosions, only adding to the tension. To make it even more uncomfortable, ambulance sirens rang out every half hour or so (as they do in a city), making the crowd feel more like a potential stampede. I can't help but always feel a small amount of panic when in a crowd from which I know there is no escape. Anyways, eventually fireworks erupted from the cart, filling sunny piazza with smoke. It was pretty impressive show, but I couldn't help but wonder (in Carrie Bradshaw form) how was it possible that the cart didn't literally explode?!


After escaping the slow and enveloping horde, I wandered over to see the some more of the markets. 


Though I wasn't overly disappointed that I hadn't seen the actual procession in front of the Duomo, I was THRILLED when it made it's way right by me! Everyone was dressed in colorful medieval costumes, which reminded me of Siena's contradas. I somehow had found a spot that they paraded right by, without a single person dampening my view! Woohoo! But it gets even better; after the procession ended, I continued my stroll around the city, deciding whether to head to the train station or stop and grab another coffee. There, almost directly in front of me, was the cart! White cows wearing flower garlands were pulling it down the road, and stopped for a few minutes for some reason- maybe to catch their breath, maybe to clear the way. No matter the reason, I got to see it right up close and personal! It was more beautiful and elaborate than I had thought from afar.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Focaccia Trials


Remember a while back when I said I wanted to take advantage of living in Italy by learning as much as I could while here? (Exact words were "Be a better Italian"). Well, one of the ways I'm striving to be a better donna italiana is to learn to cook some of my favorite dishes! I've been working on perfecting my focaccia recipe, and trying to do so without gaining 40 lbs of bread-weight in the process.


Focaccia is perfection. It is a Ligurian specialty, and is said to be similar to pizza dough. Personally, I find them very different. Focaccia is soft and squishy in the middle, crispy and golden on the outside, and full of the most wonderful olive oil flavor. 



This has been my first attempt at making any sort of bread, as well as with using yeast! Trying to decipher what's what in Italian has made it extra difficult, but is also adding to the fun. In my first attempt, I used Lievito Istantaneo for Pizzaiolo, Torte Salate, e Piadine. My thought is that it was dry, instant yeast. However, my first batch didn't rise, and I wonder now if yeast meant for pizza and sandwiches might have been made for... flatter breads? I don't know. For my second batch I used Lievito Fresco, or fresh yeast. This one came in a cube and I had to cut it down to size. It went much, much better!


Ingredients


  • 5 cups flour (in Italy, I'm using "0"), plus more for kneading
  • 2 cups water 
  • 2 teaspoons yeast (active seemed to work better)
  • 2 teaspoons + 1 salt
  • 1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
  • Lots and lots of olive oil
 
  

Instructions

  1. Combine the yeast and water, and let sit for about 10 minutes.
  2. While the yeast prepares, whisk together flour and 2 tbsp salt. Create a small well in the center, and pour in the yeast mixture. Add in about 2 TBS of olive oil. Combine with a wooden spoon until it forms a well-mixed ball of dough.
  3. Flour your surface and hands well. Begin kneading the dough, adding more flour as needed to keep the dough from getting too sticky. Knead for about 8-10 minutes, pulling the dough back and pushing it forward on itself until it forms a soft, smooth, squishy ball. 
  4. Create a dimple in the middle of the ball and pour in a teaspoon or so of olive oil. Knead into the dough. Repeat once or twice more until the dough is completely coated.
  5. Cover the dough ball either with an upside down bowl, or return to the bowl and cover in a warm place. Allow it to double in size (this can take 40 min - 2 hours. My second try took about 1 hour). 
  6. Once the dough has risen, knead for another few minutes before pressing it down with your fingers into a baking sheet coated in olive oil. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F, and leave the dough to rise, covered in plastic wrap, for another 15 minutes. 
  7. After 15 minutes, press your fingers into the dough to create dimples all over the surface. These will be wells for olive oil to pool, flavoring the bread, as well as create a surface that bakes evenly. If the dough is sticky and you're finding it difficult to poke, alternate pressing the dough with coating your fingertips in flour- it helps a lot! Drizzle the surface with olive oil again, allowing it to settle into the dimples, and sprinkle with rosemary and salt. Add any additional toppings now as well, such as tomatoes or olives. 
  8. Place baking sheet in the oven, immediately lowering the temperature to 350 degrees. Allow to bake for 20-25 minutes, checking after 15. When golden brown, remove from the oven and let sit for a few minutes on a cooling rack.
  9. Focaccia is best enjoyed warm with a glass of procecco. Buon appetite! 


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Stavanger and Jorpeland


I loved Norway in a way I never expected to. The rolling hills, deep fjords, and ever-changing skies have been impossible to forget. Of course, hiking Preikestolen was the most momentous part of my trip, but exploring Jorpeland and Stavanger were quietly perfect as well. You may want to leave this to load for a few minutes, because it's about to be a VERY picture heavy post!

Growing up with Lake Wallkill, Cayuga, and Keuka have given me such a love for being on the water. I love the way the air smells near lakes, and the contrast of the water and sky, whether it's a bright and sunny day or dark and stormy. In Norway, we were never far from some beautiful body of water or another, beginning with our journey from Stavanger to Jorpeland. Though we were blown around like crazy, we spent as much of the journey outside as we could. One of my favorite views in the world was so prevalent during that ride, and would be for the rest of the trip as well. I am a little obsessed with how hills look as they overlap in the distance. To me, the way that the colors mesh together and fade away is incredible!

Jorpeland was cute but teeny. 

It was a very residential neighborhood, and the first Airbnb I'd ever stayed at where the family was literally right upstairs the whole time. We spent that first day in the car, driving through the hills. Every 15 minutes or so someone would say something along the lines of, "Oh my gosh, look at that!" and we'd stop, unload ourselves from the car, and take in whatever beauty we had found. We took it all in with such giddy excitement, whether it was a little lake nestled into a valley or a family of precious little sheep. 









In part because the scenery was just so breathtaking, the sunsets were mind-blowing. One night in particular, we were exhausted yet exhilarated from a hard day of hiking. We set out for a picnic with the strangest assortment of Nordic snacks,  including curry-flavored tuna and pear cider. Along the way we stopped at least 6 or 7 times because the sunset was just too incredible from whatever new angle we were at, and we couldn't let it pass us by. 





Jorpeland is close enough to Stavanger, but it is about an half-hour ferry ride away. 


We had rented a car, arrived in Stavanger late at night and were leaving early in the morning, so it made sense for us to spend our first and last nights at the Stavanger airport hotel. It worked out perfectly and gave us enough time to see the city! Stavanger was so different from Italy. The port city is full of white, 18th century homes and shops, offset with colorful flowers and bright street art. We stopped for the best seafood meal I could possibly imagine. I ordered a shrimp sandwich, which honestly sounds pretty gross. It was citrusy perfection, and couldn't have been tastier. I would love to figure out how to recreate it! In high contrast with the bright city was the rock festival that was taking place during our stay. As a result, we explored the city with a soundtrack of intense guitar-solos and scream-o vocals, which somehow didn't detract from the experience. 













From Stavanger we found a boat cruise through the fjords. 


At this point, you should probably know that I will forever be a seven-year-old at heart with my love for Disney, which makes the fact that we sailed by King Olav's council island (Tingholmen) extra exciting (Olaf... Norway... I'm basically Princess Anna from Frozen). We cruised down the Høgsfjord and Lysefjord, the latter of which was home to our lovely Preikestolen. It was crazy to see it from below; what had looked so massive from above was such a minuscule piece of the fjord from below. 

Small geology lesson: Fjords are deep strips of water surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, and are open to the sea on the fourth. Like the Finger Lakes in NY, they were carved away by glaciers 10,000 years ago. These glaciers were often as giant as 2,000 meters of pure ice! There is a 'sea threshold' at the mouthes of the fjords, which is much shallower than the rest of the water. This helps to maintain calmer waters than out in the actual sea. 

Lysefjord and Høgsfjord were such impressive examples of nature's power. We passed rocky islands covered in pine trees, which were once home to King Harald, Norway's first real king from 872. Cliffs rose above us up to 1,000 meters high. Trees grew from every surface they could cling to, spilling out from ravines and down the waterfront. You'd never think that plants could grow in such a rocky landscape, but, to quote Dr. Ian Malcolm, "Life will find a way." 


One of our stops on the cruise was at the Vagabonds' Cave, where a group of (what else) vagabonds once hid out while being chased by the local police. As the boat circled through the seemingly too-small cave, "In the Hall of the Mountain King" began to play loudly over the speakers. It was super corny, but I absolutely loved it because of some  childhood memories with my sisters. We had a game where we'd play the song (through Encarta '95, not to date myself) and each of us would be a different sneaky character, and we'd chase each other through the living room. Silly, I know, but it completely fit with the whole idea of Norwegian trolls and vagabond hideaways! Shortly afterwards, three little goats (Three billygoats? Were they gruff ones?) came down to the waterfront (well-trained to expect good things when they saw our ship each day) which only added to the fairytale vibe. 





Leaving was hard, but Norway gave us one last gift in the views from the plane. I've never had a more interesting view from above! Narrow rivers snaking through rolling hills to thousands of oddly shaped lakes- long and skinny, big, small, filled with islands, random patches of snow- Norway's topography is a geologist's dream!