Food, Rome, Travel

Best Week Ever: Eric, Franny, And A German Excursion

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quiestest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy

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Of course my current literary hero Pat Conroy would step in at a time like this to beautifully articulate how I’m feeling. Yes, Eric left yesterday morning, and yes, I was extremely sad to see him go, but this week is something that I could never forget if I tried, because it was less something I did or something that happened to me than something that will always be a part of me, a microcosm of these entire four months. So I refuse to stay sad, because I’m just so grateful that it happened.

I also just realized that I took 585 pictures…so just from a practical standpoint, forgetting seems rather implausible.

The first few days of the week consisted of La Boccaccia, magic balls, fancy beer at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa, dinner at Romolo and Taverna Trilussa  – which obviously means artichoke pasta and balsamic steak – and…in non-gastronomic news, some cathedral hopping and Rick Steves walks, because Eric gets separation anxiety without Rick in hand. Let’s talk churches real quick: On Sunday we went to mass at the Pantheon, Wednesday morning we had Renaissance Rome which took us to Santa Maria del Popolo with Tegsy, and we also hit the main basilicas of Rome: the Vatican, Santa Maria Maggiore (where Bernini’s tomb is), and St. John Latteran. I have yet to make it to Paul Outside the Wall, but I will soon.

Wandering through the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere with Rick as our guide also brought us to Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere, but more importantly, to the greatest Italian artisan cookie place in all the land, Biscottificio Artigiano Innocenti (which I also frequented today). Sweet fancy Moses are these cookies amazing. My favorites are the almond squishy-inside dark chocolate dipped ones (sounds better in Italian), and the beignets. I’m so sorry we didn’t get one of those Eric…but damn.

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On Wednesday, we made the trek to Villa Borghese which, even despite the somewhat dreary weather, was well worth it. It is the place where one man almost singlehandedly spurred an entirely new artistic movement: the movement Baroque, the man Bernini. My God, his statues make David look like it was made with PlayDoh during kindergarten recess. Possible exaggeration, but honestly the movement and emotion he is able to coax out of a solid block of marble is mesmerizing.

apollo and daphne back apollo and daphne front

I’m even a little bit upset by these pictures because they don’t even nearly do this masterpiece justice. The work is Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, depicting Apollo post-Cupid arrow to the buttocks attempting to rape the beautiful Daphne, who prays to her father to save her and thus is transformed into a tree. Bernini manages to capture that entire sequence of events, in one single statue. Starting from the back of the statue, you see love-stricken Apollo chasing a woman, who as you continue around to the right begins to take shape. As you continue to circle it, you begin to the see the roots growing from Daphne’s feet, the leaves from her fingertips, her strained but flawless facial expression – it’s not a still image, but a transformation that you are watching unfold. How a human being could stare into a block of marble, see this and bring it to fruition is so beyond me I can’t even pretend to comment, but experiencing it was one of the greatest pleasures I’ve had among all the art I’ve seen here.

SONY DSCBut of course, even that magnificent experience was nothing compared to CLAVE 2013. Because obviously, the election of a new pope becomes infinitely cooler when you abbreviate it. Exhausted post-Villa Borghese, Eric and I decided that the effort required to make it from our Testaccio B&B to the Vatican was quite necessary, and my God was it. For most a once in a lifetime event just to witness the election of a new pope, we actually witnessed the election of a new pope. The atmosphere was indescribable – the multitude of sisters tearing up in the midst of one of the greatest moments of their lives, the Italian woman with her young son in front of us joking that the pope must be Italian, because if he was German or American he would’ve shown up by now, all of us Notre Dame kids huddling together for warmth and shelter from the rain, the South American priests behind us crying tears of joy and telling us what Papa Francesco was saying…it all amounted to one of the most moving experiences of my life. No matter what you believe or how you feel about the Church, it was impossible not to be affected by the historic magnitude and emotional involvement of the event. If there is any experience in my life I can accurately describe as humbling, that was it.

Munich

20130314_104509Thursday morning meant an impossibly early wake up and taxi to the airport but a worthwhile early arrival in Munchen, which is apparently what Muncheners call their own city, as the Deutschland is their country. Who knew?

Our first hour in Munich was an experience in itself. We arrived at the train station at the exact moment the train was supposed to arrive. We followed signs that pointed us toward the bus we had to catch in the most clear and efficient way possible. We boarded said bus, buying tickets in about thirty seconds from the driver, and it departed at the precise minute advertised. The bus was almost silent. We whispered so as not to disturb the somewhat eerie peace, a word I have never in my life used to describe public transportation. We walked the absolutely pristine and for the most part silent streets, and no one tried to sell us anything, asked for money, sketched on me, or accosted us in any way. We were walking around in a sort of mystified silence until one of us finally commented on the startling cleanliness of the place – Just then, we passed a shopkeeper sweeping invisible dirt from his sidewalks. There may have been five pebbles. At the most. Compared to Italy, it was just so strikingly civilized, so…comically German.

20130314_113034We hit up the Viktualienmarkt (complete with Maypole) for some morning wursts and beer – When in Germany right? The consensus came out: bratwurst delicious as expected, weisswurst a little bit…creepy. Sure I’m glad I tried stark white squishy boiled veal sausage that you have to peel the casing off, but I think once will last me a lifetime.

In Italy, climbing their tallest buildings involves medieval stairs on stairs on stairs, complete with sometimes impossibly slanted angles, odd curves, and uncomfortably low ceilings to emerge onto a balcony thousands of feet in the air with nothing but a waist-high wall between you and imminent death. In Germany, you take a modern elevator to a fully enclosed landing. Oh how the contrasts abound.

Aside from the mandatory Rick Steves walk, encompassing the center of Munich, its Old and New Town Halls, the famed glockenspiel, and St. Peter’s basilica, the day’s main attraction was the Munich Residenz, where those pesky Wittenbachs’ lived for some inordinate amount of time. My favorite was most definitely the massive wall sculpture composed entirely of shells, complete with shell women, from whose bosoms’ wine used to flow. I assure you do not jest. Observe.

20130314_153531The treasury also featured some interesting pieces including a prayer book that belonged to Charlemagne’s nephew, crowns on crowns, a gold reconstruction of Trajan’s Column, and several pieces of jewelry I requested as belated birthday presents. Who doesn’t need a massive pearl-encrusted stomach piece?

As the German food odyssey continued, Augustiner-Brau was the absolute perfect choice for dinner. We tried their dark beer and a Radler, which is light beer and lemon soda (surprisingly, not my favorite). However, the food was out of control: pork cooked in beer gravy with a potato dumpling, and the glory that is spaetzle. I have to tell you, while nothing about cheesy potato pasta with fried onions on top sounds bad, it also sort of sounds like a special at TGIFridays rather than a national delicacy. I could not have been more wrong.

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Following our incredible meal, we braved the hordes of Japanese tourists in mickey mouse ears at where else: Hofbrauhaus. Apparently, I only like dark beer in Germany – my palate is really authentic like that. There were also pretzels. Always pretzels.

Fussen

On Friday morning we boarded a train to the picturesque town of Fussen, which would be our home base for visiting the castles of Mad King Ludwig – first his boyhood home Hohenschwangau (High Swan Land) and then his dream palace, the made-famous-by-Disney SONY DSCNeuschwanstein (New Swan Stone), which is just as fantastical on the inside as its exterior. And considering the plan for the building was drafted (as an homage to Richard Wagner no less) by a stage designer rather than an architect, that is a fairly impressive feat. This quote from a letter from Ludwig to his buddy Wagner adds substance and meaning to the incredible sight that is Neuschwanstein.

“It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day […]; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world.” -Ludwig II

It also makes it all the more tragic that poor Ludwig spent almost 20 years working on the castle without coming close to finishing it, and only lived in it for 172 days until his mysterious demise. On June 13, 1886, just a couple of days after being declared insane, Ludwig went on a walk with the very doctor who made the assessment, and neither was ever seen alive again. Bruises on the doctor’s neck seemed to indicate that Ludwig murdered him and then killed himself. However, Ludwig was 6’4″ and a strong swimmer, the water he supposedly drowned himself in was something like three feet, and there was no traces of water in his lungs. Many – including, I think, the people who run the castle tours today – believe their crazy king was murdered and framed.

“I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.” –Luddie II *Cue creepy music*

SONY DSCFollowing my very first and quite monumental love affair with snow amounting to over 100 photos, it was time for a
freezing cold Rick walk around Fussen. I learned some things…saw some pretty sights…some body parts froze off…and then, out of the midst rose my salvation: Greek food, a preview of my week to come and but a distant memory for Eric. Thank God for Kelari, run by a couple who had their own restaurant in Athens before moving to the Munterland. Nothing better than stumbling across people who will feed you paprika-ed french fries with tzatziki when your fourth toe on the right side is about to break off am I right? Classic situation.

Salzburg

SONY DSCAnother day, another train with individual garbage cans for each pair of seats. Oh sweet German civilization. I couldn’t possibly summarize Salzburg better than Rick Steves did when he said, “While Salzburg’s sights are rather mediocre, the town itself is a Baroque museum of cobblestone streets and elegant buildings—simply a touristy stroller’s delight.” That I am, and that it was. And the phrase “touristy stroller’s delight” ran through my head on a loop as we strolled into platz after platz after connected platz. Neither of us being Mozart- nor Sound of Music- crazy, we saw a few sights, but mostly just wandered through Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich’s attempt at a “Rome of the North” and soaked it all in.

A personal highlight was my four-Euro grilled fish sandwich straight off the bus at a Rick-recommended place on the river. I may never know what that white sauce was or how to make it. Hell I might never taste it again. As Eric said, it was just a magical fleeting moment in time I’ll have to cherish the memory of forever. Yes, it was that good.

SONY DSCOther prime moments include taking an elevator up the side of a cliff – because again, that’s how Germans roll – to witness this view, ducking into a packed Rick-recommended bar and taking housemade and surprisingly smooth fruit flavored shots, speeding through the woefully unexciting birthplace of Mozart, and witnessing a huge gash taken out of a wall by an American general who tried to drive his tank to a (still open) brothel. The red light was on and everything. We didn’t make it to the fortress up on that hilltop there, nor did we ever find the mysterious chocolate place, but it didn’t matter. I could not have had a better time doing any of those things with anyone else.

SONY DSCAs our final day in Germany arrived, unwelcome and startling, we traipsed through Munchen’s English Gardens to the Chinese Tower where we found – what else – a German biergarten which served the brats we craved and Hofbrahaus brews. Also, this sugar-coated doughnut-like concoction, the taste of which floods back to me just by looking at this picture. Fighting sadness, I had the feeling that our last German beers, last wursts, and last pretzels of the weekend, wouldn’t actually be our last.

And that was kind of the beauty of this week for me. Because even as I was living it, I felt its place within the broader context of my life, and it didn’t feel like just something that I did one time. It felt like a significant memory of a first. Although I’ve reacapped everything here for my own recollection in (I’m sure) painstaking detail, none of it was ever about what we did or saw or ate. (Except maybe the fish sandwich; it really was about that.) But truly, the week was romanticized and the uncomfortable travel bits removed immediately in my mind because though they certainly happened, they never really interfered with the active contentment of being together and exploring places together and reveling in that. And that’s why the importance of all of it, no matter if we were gaping at a Bernini or getting poured on or being blessed by the new pope or complaining about blisters or eating delicious food or strolling through a palace, was never lost on me for a second. So at risk of publicly displaying affection because I feel confident no one but you made it through this entire novel of a post… I love you Eric, and I can’t wait for more adventures with you.

And if anyone else made it, I’m sure I love you too.

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Food, Rome, Travel

Sicilia: A Vacation Within A Vacation

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Yes, I did just call my semester of study abroad a vacation. And I realize that it isn’t, and I do have classes (which I do attend and enjoy), and I am learning – probably more than I ever have in a semester, mostly outside of the classroom. But it feels like a vacation in the sense of my mindset: I don’t think I could describe my head space as nervous or stressed since the day I got off the plane. I almost never know what time it is or where my phone is, and I rarely care. I’ve never been one to stress about school, but this isn’t just that – it’s a complete lifestyle change. I’m often exhausted, but always feel at peace. I guess it’s that elusive contentment. Here, I never feel like there’s something I’m forgetting, something else I should be doing, an email I need to send, a text a need to reply to, a meeting I’m missing. I just am wherever I am whenever I’m there, and feel okay with that. Hence, my mental vacation.

But Sicily… now that was a real life beach-filled Champagne-drinking Turkish bath-going arancine-eating verified girls trip vacation. See that view up at the top there? Yeah, that’s the view from our apartment terrace, featuring Mount Etna just four days before it exploded. Of course before we made it there, we experienced a happy mishap which brought us Ostia Antica on the Friday we intended to depart. 

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As Pompeii was quite possibly my favorite experience of my first trip to Rome with la mia famiglia, Ostia Antica was high on my Rome priority list. It is a massive archaeological site that was the port city of ancient Rome – in fact it may have been Rome’s very first colony. So far they’ve found ruins that date back to the 4th century BC (and they’ve probably only found about two-thirds so far), and was inhabited until it was finally  abandoned in the 9th century because they kept getting sacked, which sucked. Luckily for us, an incredible amount of the ancient city was preserved thanks to silt. There were some beautifully preserved frescoes, though unfortunately Ostia’s crowning fresco at the Temple of Neptune was temporarily covered when we were there. It made us extremely uneasy.

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But after that brief excursion, some Jewish Ghetto fried artichokes, and apertivo-hopping/backpacking in our own neighborhood, we arrived in Palermo to one of the most beautiful views we had ever been lucky enough to eat pastries within view of.

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We saw the necessary Palermitano sights – the Palermo Cathedral, the Palazzo di Normanni with its (gaudy) Cappella Palatina, the botanical gardens, and the Teatro Massimo. But if we’re really going to be honest here, we chilled and we ate. And boy did we eat. Just a few of our standout meals:

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  • Arancine: A Sicilian specialty, these fried balls of rice with meat sauce or prosciutto in the center may be the world’s crowning street food.
  • Seafood risotto at a restaurant on the beach in Mondello. It was as amazing as it looks.
  • Squid ink pasta
  • Swordfish cooked with tomatoes, capers, and olives (just like my mommy does it! One of the best meals I’ve ever had) at Trattoria ai Cascinari, the best restaurant in Palermo according to several sources
  • Brioche filled with gelato…exactly what it sounds like

I know what you’re thinking (or not): You went to Sicily and didn’t have any cannoli?!? I am extraordinarily saddened to report that we went to the alleged best place for cannoli in all of Palermo…and I didn’t love it. I don’t blame the cannolo: I blame a lifetime of exposure to the very thick, very sweet, very chocolate-chip filled, Americanization of the cannolo. But regardless, it just didn’t do it for me. I am so sorry foodies.

If you’re wondering what Mondello is from that name drop there, it’s Palermo’s main beach town, about twenty minutes away from the city. It’s also drop dead gorgeous. And made me feel like this:

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We frolicked along the beach in skirts and sundresses as the Palermitans huddled together in hoods and blankets, seemingly unaware that 65 degrees is reason to celebrate. And to finish up the ultimate girls trip, there was the Turkish bath, Hammam. We doused ourselves in buckets of hot water while sitting on a giant marble slab, stifled uncomfortable laughter as a woman entered in nothing but a paper thong, were doused in another bucket of hot by the Hammam lady, sweated in a sauna so full of steam you couldn’t see a foot in front of you, got exfoliating massages, chilled out in the jacuzzi, and lost five pounds. Simultaneously exciting and relaxing, it was a perfect ending to the perfect mini-vacation.

 

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Travel

Paris: Distant But Not Dissatisfied

20130223_232106Oh Paris. Our tryst was beautiful but fleeting, passionate but shallow. You were charming, surprisingly friendly, and often delicious, but we just didn’t connect on a fundamental level. We didn’t quite get past casual banter over crepes, never pondered the deep questions of life together or asked each other’s hopes and dreams. Despite the way you warmly helped me navigate your streets, I was persistently, profoundly aware that I was a vistor on them. Sure, we had some moments — channeling Midnight in Paris on Rue Mouffetard that first night, sipping wine in the fairytale-esque bar of Ladurée, marveling over your art, a moment of beautiful silence in Sacré Cœur, but something was always missing.

To preface, we had a great group of people in Paris, saw all the sights, relaxed, ate onion soup and macaroons, drank wine, laughed, experienced the art, walked the streets, went to Versailles, walked the lock bridge…for the three days we had, we really did it all. And certainly it was my complete and utter lack of French that helped to make me feel like such an outsider. And maybe that’s not even a bad thing. Maybe sometimes it’s good to view a culture as a pure unbiased observer looking in. I just want to make it clear, this feeling I have isn’t Paris’ fault. Nor is it mine, or that of the people I was with. Sadly, I think we just didn’t have enough time to really get to know each other deep enough.

That first night, a group of us wandered into a random restaurant on Rue Mouffetard, and I was greeted with the
realization that in Paris, French onion soup is just “Onion Soup.” And it’s delicious. I followed that up with steak frites, also quite good. We met up with the rest of the gals and meandered back down the road a ways for some dessert and wine, mine being chocolate cake filled with pure molten chocolate. I didn’t hate it.

Our first daylight in Paris brought us to the Louvre, with some pastries on the way. Oh and this.

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Good morning indeed. Now, if anyone knows how to do a museum, it’s me and Lily. Part subservience to the almighty audioguide and part in-depth analysis the likes of which cannot be publicly disclosed, it’s always a great time. Two happy surprises: 1. the Louvre houses the Law Code of Hammurabi. Like, the actual, 18th-century-BC, legible law code. Nuts. 2. Here, I made a connection. My favorite canto in the Inferno, definitely one of my favorites in the entire Divine Comedy, is Canto V, the second circle of the lustful.

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“When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne’er from me shall be divided,

Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein.”

It’s impossible not to feel their pain, which, I realize, makes Paolo and Francesca the subject of art on art on art. That fact doesn’t change my excitement when I saw this, the 1855 version (the third of its kind), of “Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta appraised by Dante and Virgil,” by Ary Scheffer. If you didn’t feel it already, you should now. Shout out to PLS and JRo, who facilitated my love affair with this courtly love tale within a courtly love tale within a courtly love tale.

We also hit up Notre Dame, which as a Domer I hate to admit didn’t quite hit me like I thought it should have. Dinner though, at good ol’ Ernest’s house (apparently Hemingway actually lived there), did the trick. Duck, salmon, and Prosecco are never bad things.

The next full day we made it to Versailles, but not before visiting an animal exhibition of its namesake…not on purpose. That’s a story for another time. And yes, Versailles was elaborate and over-the-top and beautiful, but without the gardens in full bloom or even weather that was warm enough to walk around them in, it just felt lacking. Our next stop however, did not. Sacré Cœur was awe-inspiring inside and out, and the rare silence in a tourist destination was welcome and peaceful. (I am choosing to ignore the Godforsaken coin machines.) I lit a candle for family, and it was lovely.

Our little band of ambitious travelers then commenced what turned out to be a five-mile walk. Seriously. Check it.

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It was cold but full of lights, long and tiring but absolutely worth it. On the way we grabbed dinner and later, some drinks and dessert at the famous Ladurée. And at the end of course, the Eiffel Tower and its light show greeted us. That was a bit of a moment for Paris and me, watching the lights from across the Seine. Our final day in Paris, we visited the Musée d’Orsay which, happily and sadly, might be my favorite museum I have ever been to. Sadly, because I definitely did not spend enough time there.

Some day in the future I plan to return and pick up where we left off, this time not only with memories that will give me a feeling of connectedness, but with time to not just see Paris, but live it.

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