Friday, October 30, 2009

Almost vegan in Rome

In order to fit Rome into a single entry, I’m going to do my best to be minimally chatty here, and let the pictures do the talking!

The first evening in Rome, we took a walking tour, stopping at such sites as the Spanish steps...

...the Trevi Fountain...

...and Piazza Navona, the artists’ square.

About a dozen of us went off in search of dinner together, and landed at Anima e Sapori (which means “Soul and Flavors”) just outside the Piazza Navona. Most of us were hankering for some authentic Roman gnocchi, but to our chagrin, the restaurant only had ONE serving left! As a consolation, they gave it to us on the house, and we passed it around the table so everyone could try a bite. (I, of course, ate from the edge to avoid the cheese.) It was everything you’d want it to be—tender, finely-textured, and coated in a rich, tangy tomato sauce.

It was too hard to choose just one entrée, so Kim and I decided to order two and split both. Pesto linguine was an easy choice, since we’d missed out on trying pesto while in Tuscany. Little did we know we were about to eat the most delicious, luxurious, tongue-dancingly tasty pesto of our LIVES! It was thick, salty, savory, and bursting with fresh herb flavor. (Kim took care of the parmesan-y noodles on top.) We wanted to lick this plate when we were done, seriously. We actually might have; I can’t remember.

We also shared a pizza with eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, garlic, and red and yellow peppers. (The bottom, cheese-free half was mine.) It was a great pizza, but after the magnificence of the pesto, I don’t think we could fully appreciate it.

Kim and I walked across the street to get gelato for dessert, which we ate while sitting on the edge of the fountain in the Piazza Navona, watching the bustling throngs of Romans roam about. We took a short walk ourselves to admire the Pantheon at night before returning to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

We needed the rest, because first thing the next morning, we went to the Vatican. We walked past a looong line and met our pre-arranged guide Salvatore at the entrance. We toured the museums, which included the Sistine Chapel, and then found ourselves in Piazza San Pietro, a.k.a. St. Peter’s Square. To call it "massive" would be laughable; it can hold over 300,000 people.

Behind us loomed St. Peter’s Basilica.

It’s impossible to select a picture representative of the immensity of the place, but suffice it to say, those letters running in a gold strip across the top (see top left of photo) are 18 feet tall apiece. It boggles the mind, even if you’re standing there looking right up at them. The building can hold over 60,000 people.

Even after all that, the best was yet to come. If you recall what I said at La Sagrada Familia, the Colosseum was one of the most important things I needed to see in my life. As we circled around it in the bus, I couldn’t speak. Walking up to it, I felt like I was in a dream. I cried a couple silent tears, because as silly as it may sound, I cannot fathom that that place could have meant to anyone else there that day what it meant to me. That visit was, for me, the apex of my 10 years of Latin, 14 years of Romance languages, and nearly two decades of love for all things historical, cultural, literary, artistic, and scholarly. I am a nerd to the core, and proud of it.

Ok, enough sappiness. Here I am inside the Colosseum, feeling more elated than I may look.

Kim and I met some nutty gladiators outside.

We walked across the street and checked out the Forum, then figured 'When in Rome, eat more gelato.'

Our group ate dinner together at Canova, located right off Piazza del Popolo (the People’s Plaza).

Another absurdly huge meal was in store for me. I started with a small antipasto platter...

...followed by asparagus risotto, which was alright but underseasoned.

Next they brought me spaghetti marinara. I swear, all the marinara sauces I ate in Italy were the best I've ever eaten.

I had thought the spaghetti was my (one) main course, but since they were so flummoxed at how to accommodate a vegetarian, I guess they thought I needed MORE pasta! This one was tagliatelle with pesto, and although it was good, it just couldn’t compare to the night before’s.

What could better end an Italian feast than tiramisu?

During my final walk through the city that evening, I soaked up all I could of the unique and ethereal atmosphere of Rome by night.

More Italy is next! And after that, we sail to Greece.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Almost vegan in Florence

We drove all morning along the Mediterranean coast, leaving France for Italy, and stopped for a couple hours in Pisa to see the Leaning Tower. I swear I was not Photoshopped into this picture! It was just a ridiculously nice day, and the Tower really does look artificial in a strange kind of way.

Once we reached Florence, we checked into our teensy hotel (it was the tiniest room I stayed in on the whole trip). Florence itself is actually quite small, at least compared to other major cities we’d been in. It wasn’t a far walk to our dinner at Baldovino.

Confession: I did not care for the table bread in Italy. Yes, it’s true. After all those crusty-outside, tender-inside rolls and loaves and slices and baguettes I’d eaten throughout France and Spain, I was surprised to learn that Italians like their bread somewhat stale; day-old. Not that it wasn’t edible—dipping it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar made up for the missing flavor in the bread.

It was pizza night! I got a pizza marinara (or pizza napoli, depending on the region), which just means cheese-free. The sauce was nicely spiced, and the black olives, yellow bell pepper, and grilled zucchini and eggplant on top were tasty, but it’s really all about the crust there.

I went non-vegan for dessert and partook in the panna cotta with macerated mixed berries.

That evening, we chilled out at a sweet nearby champagne bar called Oibò that specialized in super-creative cocktails. More on that later.

The next morning, we took a walking tour of the city, and then had all day to explore on our own. This here is the Neptune fountain in the Piazza della Signoria, a particularly nice plaza in the center of town.

I visited the Accademia museum and saw, among other things, Michaelangelo’s David statue—very impressive. No cameras allowed, though! After that, I met up with Kim and we got...gelato.

Here’s the scoop: I ate gelato at least once a day, every day we were in Italy (and a couple times elsewhere!)—so much of it, in fact, that a) I stopped taking pictures of it all, and b) I’m not even going to post many of the ones I did take. Suffice it to say, I made a big-time almost-vegan exception for this stuff, but oh MAN was it good. I’m not even an ice cream person, but I became slightly obsessed with gelato. This one, even though it was outrageously expensive, was one of my two favorite gelati of the trip—it’s a triple-dip consisting of crème caramel, Nutella swirl, and Kinder bar (a brand of candy bar from Germany that’s popular across Europe).

Kim and I shopped till we dropped that afternoon while taking in the local scenery, architecture, and sculpture. Here I am in the Piazza della Signoria.

Our group met up for dinner in the early evening. On the way there, we stopped across the Arno river to admire a panoramic view of Florence.

We dined at another out-of-the-way locale, a winery nestled in the Chianti Hills. We socialized for a bit first in their pretty garden...

...with glasses of Prosecco di fragola (strawberry champagne).

They had a MONSTROUS antipasto buffet of over 20 different dishes, and get this—all but one of them (which had cheese) were accidentally vegan!

I piled so much on my plate that I’m not going to be able to even name everything. I can see (clockwise from top) wheat berry salad, roasted bell pepper bruschetta, veggies and rice, stewed tomatoes, pinto beans, garlicky pasta shells, green beans, and marinated mushrooms.

I could have made a meal out of just that stuff, but they had much more in store for us. While the others ate pasta with meat and alfredo sauces, I noshed on penne with marinara and mushroom-herb sauces.

Our table shared some delicious roasted potatoes.

As if that weren't enough, they provided me with a gigantic plate of grilled zucchini and eggplant. I was already so full I could barely make a dent in this thing.

On top of all that, there was a choice of three desserts, and you know me—I had to try a bite of all of them. From left: cream cake with berries, sponge cake with chocolate cream and ganache, and good ol’ tiramisu. The clear winner among them was the tiramisu.

Did I mention that we were polishing off bottle after bottle of wine during this meal? We were in Tuscany, after all!

Even though I was stuffed to the gills, I went with the group back to Oibò for one more drink. I’m glad I did, because I wound up with the strangest and most unique cocktail I’ve ever tasted, or even heard of. It’s the short glass in the middle there, a "Patatina"—muddled strawberries, champagne, vodka, and balsamic vinegar. No joke! WEIRD! It might sound scary, but to tell you the truth, as perplexing as it was, I genuinely liked it.

Florence was a GREAT introduction to Italy! Next, we head south to the city that years of Latin classes prepared me to adore: ROME.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Almost vegan in Nice

I never expected to fall as deeply in love with the South of France as I did. This is going to be one of my favorite entries to write and reread.

Leaving Barcelona, we crossed back into France, stopping in Cannes in the afternoon. Truth be told, Cannes was pretty dull. There was the film festival building, and of course plenty of beaches and yachts, but not much else. It took only an hour more to get to Nice, where we had just enough time to spruce up before heading out to dinner on foot. By the time we were 100 feet away from our cute little hotel, I knew I loved Nice. The narrow streets were clean and lined with all manner of shops and cafés. Their main square was ringed with big pink-and-white buildings, paved in smooth cobblestones, and lit up with charming streetlamps. They also had a series of poles topped with these odd-but-cool multi-colored people-shaped lights.

In addition to being very pedestrian-friendly, Nice is also quite small, so it only took 10-15 minutes to walk to dinner. We selected Le Gustave 5, situated on la Promenade des Anglais, a street that runs right along the Mediterranean. It’s kind of like (if you’ve been to eastern Florida) the A1A of the French Riviera.

They kindly prepared me an off-menu linguine primavera, with tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, and bell pepper.

Dessert was a feather-light strawberry cream terrine.

I went to bed fairly early that night, so that I could get up the next morning and run. I rose at 7, walked down to the shore, and ran 10 miles along this picturesque coast, stretching for miles in either direction and cupping a gorgeous blue scoop of the Mediterranean sea.

It was amazing! Well, except for the moment at mile 6 when I tripped and skidded across some gravel. I've never fallen while running, but I guess if it had to happen, the south of France is the place to do it! My companions were pretty shocked when I walked into breakfast filthy and bloodied across my right arm and knee. It really wasn’t that bad though, and it was totally worth it anyway.

After cleaning up, Kim and I walked along the beaches, finally picked one, and while she lay in the sun (which burned me even underwater, ouch) I spent at least an hour and a half bobbing around and catching waves in the warm, salty sea.

It was so blissfully idyllic, I can’t even describe it. I could have stayed in that water and on that beach forever (provided I had some miraculously powerful sunscreen, that is). Kim and I both felt it was our favorite and most relaxing afternoon of the trip.

On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a snack stand that we’d smelled that morning as it was opening. We shared a fresh, fat pretzel and a melt-in-your-mouth chausson aux pommes (apple turnover).

That night, our group had dinner reservations at an out-of-the-way but very special place. We boarded the bus for a drive up le Grand Corniche, the highest road on the French Riviera that hugs the very tops of the cliffs along the shore. Perfect little red-roofed houses littered the hills...

...and the views of the winding coast left me speechless. That drive was the most beautiful 45 minutes of the whole 35 days. Hands. Down.

We dined at La Bergerie, a completely-off-the-beaten-path bed-and-breakfast villa nestled into the mountains. This place was so inexpressibly wonderful. I never would have found it on my own, and am so lucky to have had the opportunity to eat there. Luckier still is the fact that until the last 10-15 minutes, we were the only group in the whole place.

We were led out to the patio as they prepared our table, and greeted with pain de tomate (tomato bread; like foccaccia topped with zesty pizza sauce!) and a welcome kir royale (strawberry-infused). The porch overlooked the lavish landscape of lovely homes and exquisite shores below.

I can’t recall what my cohorts had as their appetizer, but I do remember that they were quite envious of my smooth vegetable soup. I loved this, especially with their crusty table bread.

My main course was a vegetable picnic of roasted red peppers, snow peas, carrots, a baked potato “fan” (at top) and a roasted potato tartlet (bottom left), plus rice. Numerous bottles of wine accompanied our dinner, and a shot of potent grappa followed it.

Kim and I ordered two different desserts—a slice of ice cream cake with fudge sauce and a bowl of fresh strawberries with rich vanilla bean ice cream—and then split them both.

After dinner, we did not go straight back to our hotel. No, sir. Instead, we detoured east into the tiny principality of Monaco to visit MONTE CARLO! I was excited for it, but I had no idea I'd love it that much. Wow! The ocean glittered around scores of yachts, buildings along the sea glowed like glitzy nightlights, and the whole thing just screamed "lifestyles of the rich and famous." This picture sucks, but I hope you can at least get the idea.

We walked around a bit, trying to soak it all in, then visited the Grand Casino (the one in James Bond!). The inside was incredibly ornate (no cameras allowed, though!). Greg played some blackjack, and Kim and I “helped” him (i.e. stood next to him sipping wine and feeling glamorous) win 100 Euros. It was all so ritzy and luxe, we felt like royalty! Or movie stars! Or just plain millionaires! It was SO GREAT, I can't gush enough!

I went to bed that night euphoric and in love with everything I’d seen and done in and around Nice. The next morning, I was dismayed to leave, yet so full of life from having been there. I can't describe the feeling I had on the bus as we drove away from the crystalline water and enchanting hillside homes. Even as a tear fell from my eye, no thought ran through my head except "I am so happy to be here." I just can't explain. It was so right.

But lest you think this is a climax, know that 2/3 of the journey is yet to come! Next, we arrive in illustrious Italy and get artsy in Florence.

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