Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Only in Amsterdam...

...can you be enjoying a nice dinner at an outside cafe while a 60-something man swings from a rope, circus style, in nothing but a homemade g-string. Sorry blog fans, no photos this time!

Lake Balaton – the Hungarian Sea

Hungary doesn’t have a coast line, but is sure does have a beautiful sea! Lake Balaton is the largest freshwater lake in Europe outside of Scandinavia, which provides Hungarians with a very relaxing summer vacation spot and plenty of restaurants where they can enjoy their tasty summer favorites like cold strawberry soup.
We didn’t have much time for leisure though, as we were there to meet with our E. European partners who were hosting us for a recap/planning session. In between the work stuff we did find time to explore the small town of Balatonfured and the lakeside promenade and beaches. And on our last evening of the 2-day trip, we went to the most charming Tolgyfa Csarda winery for dinner and got a great sampling of the relatively unknown but truly fantastic Hungarian wines.
On the drive back we enjoyed the scenery of the countryside full of beautiful sunflower fields, the oil of which the Hungarians use in their cooking in lieu of olive trees. It's the fun facts that interest me most.....

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Sicilian Adventure

After 6 weeks of work travel, I was really looking forward to this trip. I had no idea what crazy adventures were awaiting...
I flew to Catania, on the east side of the island of Sicily, where I met up with my good friend Kopervos. I was expecting a cute beach town instead we found a big, dirty city. Needless to say I did not fall in love with Catania, but the views of Mt. Etna, the largest, active volcano in Europe were quite impressive, and, of course, the gelato was very tasty. We spent the first day exploring the city and the next we took a hike around the volcanic craters. Our guide, a big time Geology smarty-pants, and his girlfriend did a great job of showing us around. They took us into a house that was partially buried by lava, into a cave created by a lava lake, and to a place where a lava stream stopped just short of a Mary statue that had women selling all varieties of honey (or as I call them “honey pushers”) --- strawberry honey, almond honey, eucalyptus honey!
That evening I was introduced to what is now one of my favorite Italian dish…pasta alla norma. Go figure, eggplant could spice up regular spaghetti so much!
On the third day we took a bus to the cliff-side town of Taormina. This beautiful village was much more like what I had envisioned of Sicily. The only thing about cliff-side villages is that there are usually a lot of steep, winding roads leading down from the upper most point. We realized just how steep and windy when we foolishly set off on foot, with luggage in tow, from the bus station in search of our hotel. About 40 minutes, probably 2 miles, and half my body weight in sweat later, we learned that it was located pretty darn close to the top – great views though, as Kop assured me in her ever-positive way. With the look of utter desperation in our eyes, we finally stopped an older, local gentleman to ask how much further and he graciously offered us a ride the last half block to the Villa Ducale.
Well, Kopervos was right…the views were amazing from this place, at night we could actually see the lava streams running down Mt. Etna! And we had an incredibly warm welcome from Lucca, the hotel manager, to this utterly charming Villa hotel. Enjoying a crisp glass of wine on the outdoor terrace before dinner was just heavenly. The cherry on top of this lovely day (post-trek up the cliff side!) was a fantastic zucchini, risotto dinner and chocolate gelato dessert.
It was difficult leaving that wonderful place, but more adventures awaited so we were off to Vulcano, one of the Aeolian islands. It was quite the process getting there, involving 2 taxis, 2 trains, one incredibly late ferry, a hotel shuttle van, and finally, finally the most gorgeous hotel/spa I could have imagined complete with a pool boy (excuse me, pool man) named Carmelo. After settling into our luxurious room and drinking in the magnificent views of the Tyrrhenian Sea, we decided it was time to brave the nasty sulfur smell that permeated the entire island outside of our hotel, and try out the thermal mud baths the place was famous for.
How do I paint the picture of what it was like wading in a boiling mud puddle and scooping so-called therapeutic mud on to your body in the 100 degree weather? I can sum it up in just one word --- gross!
Thankfully there were normal, albeit black sand from the lava flow, beaches nearby where we could wash off and try to get rid of some of the horrible smell we voluntarily put on our bodies.
Our final stop on this whirlwind vacation was to the city of Palermo where we met our cooking instructor, Vincenzo, an American raised Sicilian who moved back from Baton Rouge to open Ristorante Cin Cin. Vince’s first lesson was to open our minds to local “delicacies” at the outdoor market where we picked up our ingredients for the day. It was a lot fun, but I didn’t really appreciate being made to eat a lung & spleen sandwich or a snack of hot, animal fat from a mystery basket on the street….yuck! The rest of our cooking experience was a big success, we learned to make pesto, sweet & sour pumpkin, breaded eggplant, and stuffed calamari (all me, by the way).
During our lesson, a New Jersey book writer came by to interview our teacher for a novel she’s writing about an American girl who up and moves to Italy. She really added to our experience and was nice enough that we asked her to come exploring with us for the rest of the afternoon.
After the cooking we went to the Cappuccino (yes, seriously) Catacombs, basically an external cemetery that has over 8,000 preserved skeletons still wearing their 1800s dress! It was solemn, amazingly historic, a little creepy, and very cool. After that intense experience we were in need of something lighter, so we went to a traditional marionette show. Although I couldn’t follow the story line since the whole show was in Italian, and Sicilian at that, the skills of the puppeteers, who worked several 20 lb dolls at one time, was unreal.
I wasn’t really expecting much from this trip, but in the end it turned out to be one of the most adventurous I have ever been on! Now it’s back to work where I can have a vacation from my vacation…..

Bucharest, Romania

My first impression of Romania was that this is a surprisingly westernized E. European country. The fact that Bucharest is the largest (2.1 million population) of the three cities I’ve visited on this tour could have much to do with that. My first stop was to the Banesa Shopping Center and what to my wondering eye did appear….Starbuck’s!!!
The second impression I had of this city is that there is a lot of beautiful parks, old architecture, amazing statues, and traffic & parking nightmares all around! I later learned that during communistic rule, it was extremely difficult for Romanians to have cars so now that the veil of oppression has been lifted, people have indulged as much as possible but the infrastructure of the city hasn’t kept up.
Our hotel was located quite far from the city center so there wasn’t much opportunity to explore the sites, but I did get to see some things driving to work commitments throughout the week. On the way back from the mall, we saw the Palace of Parliament, which is the 2nd largest building in the world (it has 7 floors below ground level) after the Pentagon. And on the way to my Romanian TV debut– that’s right I’m turning into quite the celebrity in E. Europe, and this week we were featured after some very cool Romanian pop stars!! – we saw the scene, marked with 10 stone crosses, of a revolutionary massacre in ’89. The ruler, Ceausescu, who they were protesting was executed by firing squad just 4 days later, on Christmas no less, and a new day dawned for the people of Romania.
Before I wrap up, there is one last fun fact about Bucharest I’d like to share --- it’s known as the city of stray dogs. There are an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 lonely pups roaming the streets, and they are everywhere! There were 2-3 hanging out at our show, in fact one of them even swiped a bottle of water from our group of local partners and proceeded to gnaw off the cap to get himself a drink! Those dogs might be homeless, but they sure do have street smarts.