Sunday, July 28, 2013

Buon giorno Roma

Last February I traveled to Italy with my friends Vilia and Mike Wray and their daughter Nate ( think Jean Nate). Nate found a great deal for a "tour" of three cities, Rome, Florence and Venice.  We added three extra days to visit Sienna and beyond.
The tour included train tickets, a walking tour of Florence and very good hotel accommodations.  Nate scheduled tickets for a "hop on hop off" bus tour of Rome, the Vatican, Sistine Chapel and the Academie Musee in Florence to see "David". What was really great is that we didn't museum ourselves into boredom. Heck, Rome is one giant museum! Everywhere you walk are artifacts and crumbling ruins of days gone by. 

We were given good advice that one should stay awake when one lands so it is easier to acclimate to the time change. When you arrive at 9am, take a cab to the hotel Mecantate Palace and find out you can't check in until the afternoon there is no choice but to stay awake. We left our bags there and set off. Nate guided us to a little neighborhood bar for  cappucino and cream pastries. Luckily she spent 6 months in Florence and spoke passable Italian. The rest of us could say ciao, grazie and buon giorno pretty well.  One thing I loved is the language. It is like an animated song.  I liked learning how to pronounce the syllables for instance "ci"=ch. "Chi= k or "due=doo ay. There were a few online classes I started and I bought a phrase book by Rick Steve. No worries as most Italians spoke English and you could use your hands to explain things if needed. We got with the "hand gestures" program right away.

As we walked around our little neighborhood we came upon a piazza with a fenced off area of an ancient ruin.  Upon further inspection we noticed a large population of cats lounging on the stones and window sills. I love cats so took as many pics as I could.  The plaques said that Cleopatra gifted the gatto's from Egypt to Julius Caesar only to find out he was highly allergic. Well they stayed, making themselves at home. Romans do love the gattos and there were piles of food and bowls of water all around the ruins.  If you think about it they certainly are useful for controlling rodents.

This is old and full of cats

February is winter in Italy too.  It was pretty cold but we embraced it and bundled up. Vilia and I did some major shopping for warm sweaters, boots, jackets etc. before we left. 

We headed back to the Mecante Palace Hotel through the primarily Asian neighborhood but the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (largest church in Roma) was across the "Via" from us. The rooms were ready and very 4 star.  Huge marble bath with toilette (twah leht tay)and the other thing..bidet (b-day). They provided warm towels which were hung on the towel warming bars. One had to be very careful not to grab them when getting in or out of the tub as they were hot so I found out.  Nate and I had 2 beds, a nice view and beauty ornate high ceilings.

Not one to waste time, Nate had us all out the door after we barely dropped our luggage down.  We took the Metro to the Piazza de Spangna or the Spanish Steps= lots of steps. We walked them then sat down to take it all in. Everywhere we walked were fountains, old pavement, cool smelling shops selling pizza, salumi, breads, cheeses and more.  I couldn't stand it so we stopped in one and bought some cheese, salumi, focaccia and a slab of pizza for later. 

Spanish Steps w. Vilia, Mike and me

Nate leading us around

Next stop was the Trevi Fountain where you throw coins in the fountain and make a wish.  Can't tell you mine or it might not come true. We were sooo lucky that we were here at this time of year. The crowds were there but you could still get around without tripping over people. 

Nate guided us down little streets until we found a little bar and decided to get an antipasto misto and wine. This was our first encounter with real Italian food.  The wine is so inexpensive...15euro in restaurants and about 6-7euro in shops. Our "cameriera" (waitress) brought the most beauty Antipasto Misto...sliced proscuitto, salami, ham, soft mozzarella, out of season tomatoes, marinated artichokes and black olives ( like Lindsay brand). OMG!
Almost devoured Antipasto

If this is what was in store for us we had better walk long distances and often.  After this feast and a bottle of wine we headed to the Pantheon in Piazza della rotonda. It is a Roman circular temple to all gods.  First built by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus in 27 b.c. and rebuilt in 126 AD. There is a huge hole in the top that lets in amazing light and it is one piece of circular architecture.  Amazing. Not only the temple but the age of it!!

Large hole in the ceiling

It started to drizzle and we were getting cold so we took the metro back to the  hotel.  Now the metro is another story.  It is a great deal..6eu for a day pass and not crowded at, say, 1-3pm. however when rush hour is upon this area of Rome it is one crush of Italian humanity. Having lived in crowded cities before it was familiar but to the babes from T.O. (IE Mike and Vilia) it was unbelievable.  We made it back to the hotel and settled in for our soon to be routine "happy hour".
Mike had stashed a bottle of vodka in his bag, found some fresh oranges and procured ice from the bar downstairs.  We set out some of the goodies I bought earlier and popped a bottle of the $7 wine from the shop across from the hotel. Most of the wine we had was Chianti Classico or Rosso, a blend of usually Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet. The bottles with the rooster on them were the best choices and very authentic Tuscan wines. All good!!

Mellowed out but ready for more, we hopped back on the metro to see the Colossa ( Colosseum) at night.  It was amazing despite the many pesky vendors.  You can only view it from outside but it is lite up and beauty.  Supposedly in that neighborhood was a restaurant Nate had read about.  We walked and walked, crossing busy streets up hills and down hills until we finally found it. It was fun seeing the neighborhoods of this part of Roma. The restaurant was called Naumachia ristorante pizzeria It is billed as "steps away from the Colosseum". As I pointed out we walked in a very roundabout way until we did finally get there. Upon looking it up for this blog I see that neighborhood is infamous for tourist trap-ey ristorantes. Glad we stuck to Nate's suggestion as this was very good.

ghostly up there
Colosseum lite up at night

The experience started out a bit rocky.  I noticed a Canadian family at the next table who seemed to be regular visitors. That was encouraging.  The waiter wasn't at all attentive and since we had only been here 12 hrs our Italian wasn't even close to being able to come out of our mouths. Finally we got his attencione and ordered a very nice ($26.) bottle of Rosso de Montalcino Leonardo. We opted for pasta all around. Nate- Ravioli con spinaci, Vilia- Homemade fettuccine w. linguica sausage in a very thick-yummy sauce. Mike- Lasagna w. linguica sausage bolognese. Me-bucatina a'la Amatriciana-totally blew my taste buds it was sooo good.  The pastas were thickly cut except for ravioli and lasagne sheets which were thin. Vilia and I decided we needed insalatas so she ordered Insalata con tonno(tuna) & uova (egg) and I Burino Insalata-arugula, romaine, thinly sliced mushrooms, artichokes, chopped burrata ( soft moz.cheese), and those Lindsay-like ripe black olives.  They offer olive oil and red wine vinegar so you can dress the insalatas. Two large bowls arrived filled with our insalatas. I asked for plates by way of " how do we eat these?"  The waiter brought plates but it was still way too much food. He seemed to tolerate us but soon warmed up to us as the meal was drawing to a close. For dolce=dessert, we opted for limoncello. So good. The waiter comped us a second glass, just what we needed.  By the time we paid the bill "Antonio", our new best friend  was blowing us kisses. We vowed to return which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Maybe someday. We only moved forward on this trip as time was an issue.

Burino Insalata and Bucatini a'la Amatriciana

Ravioli con spinaci

The metro ride back was fun. It wasn't crowded and we were all laughing from limoncello highs and no sleep in 24 hrs. Vilia struck up a conversation with a German tourist who was trying to find his way to the Termni=train station. Well she thought he wanted to go to Germany. Finally Nate pointed him in the right direction while we were bursting laughing for our lives!! You had to be there.

Back at the hotel we fell into bed at 11pm Roma time which was about 2 days ago our time.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hooroo Australia..Thanks heaps!

Peta is a friend of Aarron and Mindi's. She travels all over the world organizing the Australian teams in the Winter and Summer Olympics then she returns home to Bondi Beach and looks for a job. The current job she has is an Event Planner and one of her clients was Julia Gillard who up until 4 days ago was the Prime Minister of Australia.  Julia's home was pointed out when I took the Sidney Harbour tour a week ago.

I met Peta at Mindi's wedding and have followed her adventures via facebook ( what else?).  We were happy she could join us for the evening.

Mindi met Peta and I at Bistro Moncur in the Woolahra Hotel on Queen St. in Paddo.  I had walked by the day before so I knew where it was. Cute neighborhood with lots of little shops, great gardens and older brownstones.  She had to drive 2 hours to get here after prying herself away from the boys. Aaron was a real trooper to offer this sleep over for mommy.
I am sure he would have liked to join us as Bistro Moncur is one of their favorite restaurants.  It is very hip and busy.
The food was incredible, wine good and the conversation lively.  Check out the menus..amazing

The next morning Mindi and I were up at 6 am. Check out was at 10am so we got an early start packing up.
The plan was a drive around some familiar Sydney neighborhoods. She lived and worked here for 4 years or so before Aaron got transferred to Newcastle. Since my flight wasn't until 9:30 pm we had alot of time to do a "drive around". 

We started out the drive around in Darlinghurst past Centennial Park, Rushcutters Bay ( I wanted to see this), which is quite small but pretty and on up to Sydney Harbour National Park which is huge. We took the Fairfax walk to North Head which is considered a "bushwalking track". There were spectacular views and unusual vegetation. The large sandstone rocks were very smooth from years of bushwalking visitors. Mindi pointed out where people jump to their deaths sort of like they do on the Golden Gate bridge.  There are park rangers that patrol plus some good Samaritans that have stopped many from jumping.  I took many pictures before we left, just as three huge tourist buses pulled up and people were pouring out with cameras hanging around their necks, all Asian, not school kids this time.

Park entrance

North Head

Mindi B.!

Jumping off point

Bondi Beach was next.  Mindi was to meet a Vintner who was interested in hiring her to distribute his wines. I told her I hadn't had an Aussie beer since landing-too busy discovering the yummy wines. We stopped in a beach side pub and did just that. As she was sipping a glass of sparkling wine her phone went off. It was the man saying he was in Bondi early and could they meet soon. We were laughing hysterically at her showing up a little tipsy.

And she got the job!!

I wandered around taking photos while she went to her meeting. It was hard to fathom, but many people get attacked by sharks in these beauty waters. One of Aaron's surfing buddies had been attacked a month or so ago in the evening. He survived. Mindi won't set foot in the water and she wishes Aaron wouldn't either.
Surfers at Bondi Beach
Shark bait?
Beautiful Bondi Beach

Time for a late lunch. We went to Surry Hills to the Red Lantern, a Vietnamese restaurant.  The neighborhood is quite charming with lots of interesting shops and Victorian buildings, also a few loiterers, one of whom started ranting and raving. Since we were on the patio there was no ignoring this man.  He must be a regular ranter as everyone kept their distance until he finally moved on.  The lunch was fantastic. I don't know why I didn't take any pictures.  When I went to the restroom I passed a table with cards promoting the owner and the cookbook he wrote.
I did a double take... it was Luke Nguyen's restaurant!  He is a chef on the Cooking Channel who travels around Vietnam and cooks outdoors in the street or on little boats. I love his show. I didn't even know he had a restaurant or that he was from Sydney. Now I do! His wife Pauline runs the restaurant when he is away.  We had three "entrees" which are appetizers to share.
Goi Vit- a warm duck, ginger and cabbage salad with banana blossoms, Bi Cuon Chay, Vietnamese vegetarian spring rolls and Goi Du Du. green papaya salad with pork and prawns. The Goi Du Du link is Luke's recipe. 

It was 4:30pm and Mindi had to head back to her little ones. She dropped me off at the airport.  I  was looking at 2 hours before I could check in and get rid of the bags and another 2 hours before boarding. What to do? Why have a last glass of wine and spend the rest of those Aussie $$. Hawaiian Airlines jetted off to Honolulu for another 5 hour layover.
I didn't regret one minute of this trip except the 5 day jet lag when I returned home....honestly it was a doozie.
Full moon over Sydney as we took off. Hooroo.

I know everyone is waiting to hear about the trip to Italy and I have started on that one. Just had to tie up the loose ends and couldn't pass up posting the Bondi Beach pics.