Monday, November 30, 2009

Almost vegan in Vienna II

Our full day in Vienna was probably one of my favorites of the trip. A very nice and unexpected perk of northern Europe in general was how at-home I felt there. Vienna is a great example—though it’s obviously far older and bigger than Kansas City, walking around there felt completely familiar and comfortable. No leering men to avoid (like in Italy), no pickpockets or gypsies to dodge (like in France or Spain), no street vendors constantly trying to sell you things (like in Italy or Turkey), clean streets and sites (UNlike Greece), and so on. I just felt very safe and at ease at all times.

I chose to wake up early to visit Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer home of the Habsburg family. The Habsburgs were the longest-running and most important royal house of Europe. They ruled for over 800 years (one family!), all the way up to the 20th century. Their empire included Austria, Spain, Hungary, and Bohemia, as well as parts of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Ambitious, no? The palace was built to rival Versailles, so that (and the picture below) should give you some idea of the immensity of this place. 1,442 rooms!

Of the palaces I visited on my trip, this one was my favorite. The inside is ornate beyond description. If only we were allowed to take pictures! Here is a shot of the astonishing backyard gardens.

After Schönbrunn, we bussed back to central Vienna, where we strolled around the museum district and through the Mozart gardens.

I went on a tour of the Habsburg crypts after that. Imagine a vast underground catacomb housing 800 years’ worth of one family’s bodies...truly fascinating.

The group disbanded after that, and Kim, Greg, and I excitedly walked down to the world-famous Hotel Sacher to have a snack at the attached Café Sacher.

This is one ritzy, expensive hotel. The inside of the café was as elegant as could be.

We had a seat on the patio. Greg ordered a Kapuziner (cappuccino), while Kim and I each had an Einspänner—traditional strong, black Viennese coffee served in a tall glass and topped with a hefty dollop of Schlag (whipped cream). (Can I just say that Schlag may be the silliest and most fun German word ever? Try using it in a sentence without giggling.)

Then, we ate what we came for: the famous Sacher Torte. You may have heard of it. Invented in 1832 by Franz Sacher, a 16-year-old confectioner’s apprentice, it’s pretty much the national dessert of Austria. The Original Sacher Torte recipe is top-secret, and there are only three places in the world to get a piece: the Sacher Hotels in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria (the only places it is made), or the official Sacher shop in Bolzano, Italy (the only other place it is sold).

The torte consists of two layers of not-too-sweet chocolate sponge cake, sandwiching a thin layer of apricot jam, and encased on the top and sides by a dark chocolate ganache. They serve it with unsweetened whipped cream (say it—Schlag!), since it’s considered too dry to be eaten alone. And oh yeah, we each ordered a shot of the Original Sacher Liqueur – an ultra-rich, incredibly thick chocolate liqueur with just a whisper of apricot – on the side. Talk about a decadent midmorning snack!

My mouth waters at the memory.

Kim, Greg, and I worked off a few of those calories with a long walk around the Ring Road that encircles downtown Vienna, admiring the city’s parks, monuments, and architecture. We walked all the way to...Sigmund Freud’s house!

As you might imagine, it’s now a museum. It was very small, but dirt cheap to enter, and we got to see his legendary couch.

After a stop back at the hotel, the entire group coalesced, and we took a trip to the Vienna Schnaps Museum. True Schaps (spelled with one "p"!) is not a liqueur, like in the U.S., but actually a very potent spirit.

It’s been run by the same family since 1902. Gerald Fischer, the great-grandson of the company's founder, conducted our tour, which ended with the opportunity to sample every single one of their products (!). We tried a half dozen different flavors of Schnaps, plus a half dozen flavors of creamy Schnaps liqueur, as well as brandy, whiskey, and some powerful absinthe. We were happy, happy people when we left.

Even had we not imbibed, the evening would have been a blast. We had dinner reservations at Marchfelderhof, which can only be described as a "crazy country mansion restaurant." We laughed in surprised delight when the staff greeted our bus with a "Welcome Friends!" sign, rolled out a red carpet as we walked up, and had Kim cut a ribbon strung across the front gate.

I can’t even begin to describe the interior of this place. Every inch of wall was covered with photographs, paintings, artwork, and the most random of décor, which also hung from the ceiling. Think lights, garlands, baskets, scarves, ballet slippers, musical instruments…

Downright kooky! At our tables, a shot of apple Schnaps (in a test tube) and a slice of unique and tasty garlic butter-sesame seed bread awaited each of us, as well as carafes of red and white wine.

Now, have a confession to make: I ate fish for dinner. Yep, that’s right. There was NO decent veg option, and honestly, if I were ever going to eat fish on this trip, then fresh-caught catfish from the Danube River was probably the fish to eat. And the truth is, this was delicious beyond my wildest dreams. The enormous, lightly breaded and panfried catfish fillets were served with creamy chunks of parsley potatoes and a scoop of garlic-chive butter. Not at all vegan, and not even vegetarian, I'm sorry to say, but DAMN this was good. Easily the best fish I've ever tasted in my life.

After that awesome entrée, dessert was a mere afterthought, but I certainly ate at least a portion of my vanilla-and-chocolate custard-crème parfait with macerated berries and tart, juicy berry sauce.

Vienna absolutely won my heart—and taste buds! Next, on our way out of Austria, we travel through Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart and setting of The Sound of Music.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Almost vegan in Vienna I

The drive through northern Italy was lovely, but once I saw the gorgeous Austrian countryside, I felt right at home. The rolling hills were peppered with dense tracts of forest-like area and sprinkled with adorable cottages and farms. Austria was, for me, the clear winner of the Prettiest Landscape Award.

Our tour director Bern had hyped up this chain of Austrian/German roadside restaurants called Rosenberger, located in or near gas/service stations in the region, and WOW, they lived up! Upon walking inside, we were flabbergasted at the wide array of food available, buffet-style: salad, fruit, hot food (vegetables, rice, pasta, etc.), freshly baked breads and pretzels, desserts and baked goods, even fresh-squeezed juices! I served myself a huge bowl of mixed fruit and a plate of rice, ratatouille, sautéed bell peppers, steamed carrots, and herbed new potatoes, with a bretzel roll (not a typo, that’s the German) alongside, all for only about 7€.

Our hotel in Vienna was the absolute nicest so far. Apparently it used to be a Club Med. (Inside joke, but it’s true, haha.) We only had a little bit of time to clean up, though, before heading to dinner. We were the only group in the quiet restaurant, which appeared from the outside to be a cozy Viennese family abode.

At last, we were in Riesling country! I had grown to love my red wine during the first half of the trip (which was actually a personal goal of mine), but I welcomed the return to my longtime favorite: sweet whites. The whole group received a glass apiece of local Riesling on the house (served in short glass beer mugs!), and then Greg, Kim, and I shared another bottle.

Throughout the trip, I had expected that my enjoyment of local cuisines would taper off. Northern Europe makes me think sausage, cabbage, gross creamy cheesy stuff, and other such "comfort foods" that I’ve never liked. Vienna proved me wrong in a big way. The rye bread on the table was a great beginning to the meal, but my main dish really blew me away—a savory vegetable strudel topped with a fantastic paprika gravy and served with chunky parsley potatoes. I had a brighter overhead shot of this, but I wanted to show a peek of the inside, which was stuffed with carrots, potatoes, green beans, and more. What a delicious surprise!

The strudeliciousness continued with dessert—a flaky, powdered-sugar-dusted apfelstrudel (apple strudel).

As in Paris, Florence, and Athens, we were treated to in-house music during our meal.

I was really jazzed for what was in store after dinner—a visit to the symphony! How very bourgeois of me, no? I LOVE classical music; I grew up on it, in fact. The opera hall (Börsensäle Wien) was handsomely ornate.

The nine-piece ensemble played Mozart and Strauss pieces, accompanied at times by either a pair of opera singers or a pair of ballerinas, and (even though I'm more of a Bach and Beethoven girl myself) I adored it.

It was a beautiful first evening in Vienna, and it really stoked my excitement to spend the entire following day there.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Almost vegan in Venice II

We awoke the next morning in Venice to an ominously gray sky. It began to just barely sprinkle as we water taxied back to St. Mark’s Square, which looked much drearier than the night before (but was still stunning).

From the Square, we walked to the Murano glass factory to see a glass-blowing demonstration and to ogle all the gorgeous glass creations in their shop. Kim, Isis, and I split off after that and got gelato. At 10am. Yes.

It started to rain harder as we ate our gelato, so when we were finished, we sprinted just a couple doors down to a mask shop. We spent the better part of an hour trying on all sorts of handmade masks—big ones, small ones, colorful ones, embellished ones, dramatic ones, silly ones, and just plain beautiful ones.

There was a break in the rain at that point, so we left the mask shop and wandered some of the back streets. I marveled at all the magical little canals traversing the city...I felt like I was inside the big painting of Venice I have hanging over my fireplace at home.

We stopped at a small bakery to select and share a bag of treats.

During our walk back to St. Mark’s Square, the rain started coming down again. Gangways had been set out in the Square for people to walk on, because the ground was beginning to flood. Kim, Isis, and I sought refuge in the Doge’s Palace. While running towards it, my right foot landed in a huge, deep puddle. I remember thinking "Damnit! Now my sock is all wet!" Later in the day, I looked back on that thought and laughed at myself.

We had hoped that the rain would quiet down by the time we were done touring the palace, but it only came down harder. We stood awestruck as we watched the rain pour off the building and into the courtyard in sheets.

We couldn’t stay there forever, though. Kim left to try to do some shopping, and Isis and I bought hoodies and an umbrella and ran back off down a side street. It wasn’t more than a couple minutes before my pants were soaked from the knees down. The rain got so bad that we had to stop under a café awning to wait (in vain) for it to subside.

My camera could not do this storm justice. We had to turn around and run back to the Square to meet back up with the group, where we officially learned that our afternoon gondola ride was canceled. That was difficult for me to accept—a gondola ride in Venice was among the top few things I wanted to do in Europe. Well...that just means I have to go back.

I met back up with Kim and we decided to try and buy a bottle of bellini. I say "try" because at this point, shops were closing all over the city. Many were flooding—I ran by quite a few where a hapless owner or worker was trying futilely to sweep the water out the front door, but it was coming in twice as fast as they could mop. We had to stop under another store awning when the rain again began pounding down so hard you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. But, determined to find bellini, I left Kim there and ran down the street in search of an open shop. There were none. It was right about then that the rain broke my umbrella. I am not kidding—it was coming down like such a hail of bullets that the supports inside my umbrella snapped like twigs. I finally turned around to head back, and ended stopping in the pub right next to the shop where Kim was waiting for me, finally buying a[n overpriced] bottle of [warm] bellini.

My shoes were filled with water, both my legs and my right arm (the one not holding the umbrella) were soaked, and then what did we have to do? Run across town to the dock by the Ponti di Suspiri to meet the group again, even though it was quite clear that our evening lagoon cruise to the island of Burano was canceled as well. Kim and I tried to take a shortcut, and lo and behold, we got ourselves a wee bit lost, in the back streets of Venice, during the rainstorm of the century. 20 minutes later and 100% wetter, we found Bern, Greg, and Bronwyn by the dock. Bern confirmed our cruise wasn’t happening, and told us that she’d instructed everyone to meet at a pub instead. Which pub? Wouldn't you know it, it was the very pub where I’d just bought my bellini. Right where Kim and I started our getting-lost-crossing-Venice odyssey 20 minutes prior. So we turned around, ran back to where we'd come from, and staggered in utterly drenched to greet our equally drenched fellow travelers. Almost every inch of me was sopping wet, right down to my underwear (UGH); my hair was dripping, my shoes were completely waterlogged, my umbrella was trashed, and that pitcher of red wine we shared was some of the best of the trip, I swear.

We tried drying ourselves under the hand dryers in the bathroom to no avail.

That pub didn’t have an enticing menu, so we ran around the corner to another pub to eat and continue drinking. I choked down a few sips of way-too-sweet Sex on the Beach before switching to shots of vodka, courtesy of Greg. We ordered lots of food to share, too. I chose another pizza marinara—simple, classic, delicious.

I also sampled what they called vegetarian bruschetta, but the cheese was a little off-putting.

After the day we’d had, we decided to return to the hotel just after 8pm. By then, the rain had finally ceased. Some of the group had discussed the storm with locals who’d said – get this – that they'd never seen rain like that in Venice in their LIFETIMES.

What a crazy, unbelievable day. I think it says something that despite the mess and trouble, I loved the city as I always knew I would. I just knew there was a reason I'm so enchanted by Venetian history, art, architecture, and so on and on; why I have a huge picture of the place in my living room; why I've fantasized about that damn gondola ride for so many years. Basically, I am thankful just to have been able to go there. I am also now OBLIGED to go back, and that's not such a bad thing. Oh, Venezia, ti amo.

But believe me, we breathed a huge sigh of relief upon entering sunny Austria the next day.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Almost vegan in Venice I

We landed the next morning at the port of Ancona on the east coast of Italy. It was most of a day’s drive north to get to Venice. Our hotel was on the mainland, so after dropping things off, we drove across the bridge to the entrance of the city. We took a water taxi up the Grand Canal to get to our dinner at a restaurant inside an unassuming little waterside inn. They poured us red wine in these ginormous glasses.

I said it before and I’ll say it again—the Italians, not surprisingly, make superb marinara sauces. This one was probably my favorite of the trip.

Alongside that, I got yet another antipasto platter.

Dessert was a slice of vanilla-hazelnut ice cream terrine topped with caramel sauce.

After dinner we walked right outside the inn and got on another water taxi for our Venice-by-night canal cruise. The oohing and aahing was nonstop (as with the Seine cruise in Paris) as we whizzed through the inky sea past building after beautiful lit-up waterside building.

Our cruise wrapped up near the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), and from there it was a short walk to the magnificent St. Mark’s Square.

We were the envy of the Square as we relaxed at the tables we’d reserved on the terrace of a ritzy restaurant, sipping bellinis and munching on crunchy snacks.

The sky had been overcast that afternoon and the air had been moist throughout the evening. We expected rain the next day, but we never could have predicted the tempest that was in store for us...
To be continued!

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Almost vegan in Patmos/Santorini

After leaving Turkey, it was a short sail to the Greek island of Patmos.

We took a long, steep hike up to the monastery of St. John to take in the incredible scenery.

I went back to the ship for dinner after a walk around town. These Greek cruise entries (this one especially) are very light on food because I ate three meals per day on the ship, so there wasn’t much of note to photograph and write about. Here, though, is a fun dessert we had that night at dinner—a trio of mini Greek pastries.

We docked at Crete the next morning, but since there wasn’t as much to see there, I took the opportunity to sleep in. I needed to rest up for the afternoon in Santorini.

Santorini was definitely my favorite stop. Once a single island, it was destroyed by the eruption of an underseas volcano 500 years ago. What remains is an archipelago of tiny islands ringing the mouth. The two main towns, Oía and Thira, are built on the steep rim of the caldera. Before visiting there, though, I chose to take an excursion up the volcano itself.

It was a 40-minute hike up the rocky remains. Once at the top, though, we had a 360-degree view of the magnificent caldera and and its towns, as well as the surrounding lagoon and the Aegean Sea stretching into the distance. This was my very favorite thing I did in Greece.

On the way down, we passed several smoking, sulphuric hotspots of the still-active volcano.

After the hike, we bussed up the cliffs to Thira. I walked around the quaint downtown until twilight fell, then took a cable car back down into the lagoon and reboarded the ship.

That was the end of our lovely 3-day Greek cruise. We disembarked back at Piraeus, and on our way out of Greece, took a daytime excursion through the countryside... visit the site of the old Oracle of Delphi. Yep, more ruins. We saw the old temples, the stadium, and the amphitheatre.

The mountain air was thin and chilly, but the views were spectacular.

We said goodbye to Greece after that, crossing the largest suspension bridge in the world to reach the port of Patras and board another overnight ferry back to Italy.

I’ll be making up for today’s lack of food in the next entry, one of the most unique and romantic cities in the world: Venice. (Just wait till you see the weather we encountered...)

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