Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thoughts on 5 Months of Traveling and Plans for 2015

 The end of this November marks five months on the road. 

Top of Tuscany- The Duomo in Florence
These five months have been some of the shortest and longest months ever. Time seems to pass so quickly and my life before this trip seems light years ago. Traveling almost constantly for 158 days has put us through the ringer of emotions, both good and bad. 

We never set out "to find ourselves" as many young travellers do. To be honest I was pretty secure in my personality and my ways before the trip. I was not and am not searching for enlightenment. I was looking for adventure, culture, and connections. And tons of yummy things to eat. What I found was love in the form of strangers, long-lost friends, and family members. We have had some of the funniest most spontaneous moments and learned so darn much about the other cultures of this earth.  The food's damn good too.

Lunch after biking through vineyards in Bordeaux
I'm sure because I resisted I ended up changed. Even though I stubbornly I didn't intend to, I am a little different. Mostly small things have changed, a couple profound ones in there too. I care more about the earth and my own personal footprint on it. I realise that I can take things too personally and can be too serious at times. I am somehow a morning person and my coffee addiction is very real.  I like hiking and camping and am not half as girly as I thought. I am learning to just laugh when things don't turn out quite the way I imagined. Also learning that it's alright to be a bit cheesy sometimes when I'm feeling it  (like right now).

When your restrictions of your daily routine are taken away you have a strange kind of freedom. Tom and I literally have absolute control over every part of our day. It is fascinating to see what you decide is important. There is of course tons more stuff we have no control over. Learning to roll with it has been interesting.

 In my old routine most of my time was taken up by my various jobs. I was given expectations for these jobs and guidelines to perform them. In this less structured lifestyle my time is spent hoping to be a good travel partner, a interested respectful visitor, and a whole bunch a travel organising. For once, there is no 'way' to do it. I have no degree in traveling or proven formula. There is no adult peek over at and ask if I am doing this right? For maybe the first time ever I feel grown up. And how silly is that? I am twenty-three and I finally feel I can stop saying "when I grow up..."

And so there concludes probably one the most cheesy but true things I'll ever write. Hopefully. 

These past five months we have been 12 countries, a surreal 40 cities or towns, not lost any socks. I am completely shocked that we still have another five months of traveling to do before we call it quits. I know I am an erratic blogger if any thing, so if you've been wondering what we've been doing for the fantastic five I've written it out below. Any links lead to posts I've written about that place.

IcelandReykjavik, South coast road trip

United Kingdom: Manchester, London
France: Strasbourg, Guebwiller, Paris
Portugal: Lisbon

Portugal: Sintra, Porto
United Kingdom: Winchester, Aberdeen, Stirling, Edinburgh, Woodbridge
Spain: Granada

Spain: Sevilla, Barcelona, and Menorca
Morocco: Marrakesh, Fes, Chefchaouen
Spain: Madrid, San Sebastian

France: Bordeaux and Beziers
Germany: Dusseldorf, Munich, Berlin
Turkey: Kapadokya

Turkey: Istanbul
Hungary: Budapest
Croatia: Zagreb, Dubrovnik
Greece: Santorini
Italy: Venice, Bologna, Florence, San Miniato

Italy: Rome
Belgium: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent
France: Paris
United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi
Sri Lanka: The Southern Coast and Yala National Park

United Arab Emirates: Abu Dhabi
Philippines: Manila, Coron, Bacolod, Bohol, Siargao Island



New Zealand


That's all we know right now. If you have advice for us or tips or just wanna wish us luck write me. I am all ears.

P.S.- I don't think traveling with goal of finding yourself is a bad thing. It just wasn't my thing.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Ultimate Italian Experience for Foodie Freaks

As we get to the halfway point our travels we've been trying harder to be strict about our 60 euros ($75) a day budget. Not surprisingly, it's pretty easy to pretend your euros are monopoly money when you are surrounded by so many delectable new things to stuff your face with. It doesn't help that they come in those pretty colors.

Extremely happy foodie freaks.

Thankfully, we were finally getting a proper handle on eating really well for really cheap in Europe.

 And then Bologna happened. 

Within an hour of the citta rossa, the red city, are the world famous counties of Parma and Modena. As in parmigiano-reggiano cheese, prosciutto ham, and balsamic vinegar di Modena. So essentially, any foodie's dream come true. In a fit of madness we decided to spend 150 euros each on a food tour with the food tour company Italian Days. My only excuse is that dreams of creamy balsamic were clouding my vision. With the experience fresh in my mind, I can honestly say that it was worth every single euro. It was even the worth the 6:30 am wake up time.
map by James Martin of Europe for Visitors

Here's why:

1) Alessandro (our guide) runs one of the least tourist-y tours I've ever been on. We rolled out in a black Mercedes eight-seater van with tinted windows. No umbrellas and head-sets here. All the producers we visited were personal friends of Alessandro's and let us get all up in their business. It felt like he was a long-lost second cousin twice removed taking you around to see what's good. No exit thorough the gift shop with him. Instead, a master cheese-maker let me poke his curd at seven AM and we finished a whole bottle of wine before nine.

Giuseppe, the master cheese maker lets us touch the curd.
Giuseppe works hands on starting at 4:30 am 355 days a year.

Breaking up the curds and whey. 
The men tie up the newly 'born' clump of cheese curd.

The ball of cheese rests before salting.

 2) Alessandro really freakin' cares about the producers and their products. He has been exporting the highest quality products from Emilia-Romana for over ten years. As a result he has the best connections and a real true zeal for these products. His passion for farm-to-table food action is positively electrifying, and he is extremely knowledgeable about every step of the production. In the parmigiano-reggiano factory he walked us through each step of the producer's day. Did you know the rind of a parmigiano wheel can tell you what grade cheese it is? Alessandro did. Alessandro is an energetic ball of Italian passion for food.
The cheese library- where baby parmigiano goes to grow up and be tested by the cheese experts.

Our sassy gear- Tom wanted to wear it all day.

Each proper wheel of parmigiano has an imprinted rind with the date and then eventually a special brand from the D.O.P experts. Found my birthday cheese among the stacks.
The D.O.P experts literally tap each individual cheese listening for air pockets before giving their stamp of approval.
Sorry about my goofy teeth- I was trying to stop laughing. Giuseppe the cheese master.
3) The small D.O.P producers. The producers we encountered today all made products that met the lofty standards of the D.O.P. In Italy D.O.P or the Denominazione di Origine Protetta is like an exclusive club for only the finest products in the meats, cheeses, oils,vinegars, breads and pasta businesses. Each producer must only use Italian supplies and face rigorous inspections as well as hefty fees to get this seal of excellence.
Taking on production of these types of products are more a labour of love and tradition than a super large commercial business. Take for example the Balsamica Di Modena. You have to start with a set of barrels that costs a minimum of 2,800 euros. Then you have to fill them all with juice from Italian grapes that you must pick and press by hand before cooking off half of their volume. Then you have to repeat this process every year for 12 years to replace any of the grape must that has evaporated over the course of the year. After that 12 years, you get to take the whopping amount of 1 liter of vinegar from each set of barrels. IF the D.O.P.'s panel of vinegar tasters approves your vinegar, you get a total of 10 bottles of vinegar, which each sell for about 40 euros. Most of the money earned is spent on D.O.P. fees, bottling, and labelling, so after 12 years of working and waiting, you have a chance to make about 250 euros per set of barrels (that cost 2800 euros 12 years prior...). So why in the hot hell would anyone take up this endeavour? In the 300 families that still make this vinegar, a set of barrels is bought when a child is born and given to them as a gift when they are old enough to carry on the tradition or get married. It is a left over dowry tradition that is sadly dying out. And also, they just love the real, true, beautiful creamy balsalmic vinegar we all dream of.

Alessandro getting right up in it as usual. This is the grape must (juice) that proper vinegar is made from. 
A tiny operation compared to the cheese and ham.
Fresh ricotta and balsamic jelly. Delicious.
1st Stages

Notice anything interesting about these meats?

4) Amazing food and lots of it. Tom and I both agree that this is some of the best food we've had in Italy. In each of the three production sites we were given a huge tasting. After thoroughly annoying the six parmigiano makers as they go on about their regular day, we stepped into their back office for Alessandro's "Breakfast of Champions". We tried several ages of parmigiano- reggiano, the local sparkling lambrusco wine, foccacia pizza, fresh mortadella sandwiches, more wine, and finished with cream and nutella pastries. We eventually had to turn down offerings because we already getting full and it was only eight, we had seven more hours of learning and eating to do. All of the products we got to try were the best I've ever had. The prosciutto was so delicate and flavourful that we wanted to cry. All of the balsamic vinegars were creamy and we were given different qualities to taste the contrast between them. We had balsamic jelly on fresh ricotta and vinegar on sweet vanilla gelato. We were encouraged to eat more at all times. And then more. After all of that came what Alessandro described as a "light" lunch. I'm not kidding, I was a little nervy about how much I was going to be able to eat at this point. Those of you who know me well understand the magnitude of this. We were driven though the hills of the Emilia-Romana to a small hilltop trattoria. There we were seated and stuffed to the brim of typical dishes. I think we had a total of nine or ten courses. I lost count (I managed to photograph half of them below). After happily torturing ourselves with the immense deliciousness we had the pleasure of catching the two Italian grannies who make the pasta for the trattoria. The two nonnas worked like machines, but much cuter. They could make a perfect tiny tortellini in a second, with a flick of a wrist and pinch around a pinky.

The only picture of the beautiful country side I managed to snap.
Pastry puffs with yummy meats
Mushroom and meat Tortellacho 
The 1st pasta course. 
Second pasta course with parmigiano, speck, and arugula
Some kind of local sausage and white beans
Delicious steak cooked to perfection with rosemary
The pasta Nonne. They were so speedy.

At the end of the day it was a perfect outing for people who just adore food. It was truly fantastic food with people who really care about quality in the most unpretentious manner.
Worth every funny colored euro.

Italian Days didn't pay for us. All of our opinions are ours and ours alone. Have you ever been on a tour that was worth it? Have you ever been on one that wasn't?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

5 Things Not to Miss in Porto, Portugal

Tom has a love affair with Port Wine.

To be honest, originally we went to the town of Porto purely for their specialty, Port wine.

 Porto brought to mind older british gentlemen from a century gone by, sipping the ruby (or tawny) wine from tiny glasses perhaps also chewing on a cigarTom and I were just dying to learn about port wine in the only town in the world that produces it. And of course have a little taste too. Porto surprised us by having much more to offer than it's famous drink. It's beautiful to say the least with it's smash of colors, rolling hills, and the glittering Douro river winding it's way through it all.

1) Taking in the Town on Foot

One of our most favorite (and free) ways we enjoyed Porto is just by walking around on foot.  Our normal day started with waking up at the amazing Tattva Design Hostel (one of my favourites ever), grabbing a coffee and custard tart or Pastel de Nata, and picking a direction.  Porto has great mix of historically significant buildings with beautiful facades ranging from the traditional azelujos blue tiles to art deco store fronts to contemporary street art. The busy river front Cais da Ribiera is fanatistic for people watching and a Unesco world heritage site.

An example of the early art nouveau influences in this deli A Perola do Bolhao which first opened in 1917.

A fantastic example of Azulejos cover the flanks of this church.

A view of the Cais da Ribiera from the opposite bank.

People watching by the river.

2) Try a Franceschina

If you are health freak, scroll past this right now because this Porto specialty is delicious health nightmare.
It is essentially a sandwich all hopped up on cheese and meat. It's white bread, sausages, beef filet, pork filet, cheese, an egg on top, then absolutely smothered with cheese, and doused with beer gravy with a side of fries. Melty, meat-y, and coma inducing. Perfect for the day after one too many ports.
I would suggest Cafe Santiago. It's a no frills place that attracts tourists and locals alike. if you're not a big eater ask for a half portion and small beer instead of the classic pint.


3) Taste Porto Wines at Vinologia

Tucked away down a street leading to the Ribeira is Vinologia. In my mind this is the ultimate Port Wine experience. This tiny shop has only two staff, six tables and, hundreds and hundreds of Ports. We arrived around six p.m. and there was only one other table busy. The staff was friendly and handed us their extensive tasting menu. Their tastings can be as cheap as five euros all the way into the thousands. Tom and I didn't really know where to begin but with the help of the staff settled on the 49 euro menu of six glasses of port paired with three cheeses from the region. 50 euros is more than 60% of our daily budget but it was well worth a couple nights of ramen dinners. We had spent so much time discussing port and, believe it or not, learning that by the time we had finished our tasting it was past nine and dark. Vinologia are unique because they try not to promote the larger port wine corporations. They like to buy from independent producers and only buy what they taste and like. As a result you get an experience that you just can't have anywhere else. Now Tom and I walk around wine shops and pretend scoff at their selection yelling things like, "You'd think they'd have a '64 for that price!". It's great.

4) Go on a Tour and Tasting at a Famous Port House

All that being said, going to a famous port house is a must. The first night we made friends with a couple from the hostel and decided to walk around town for fun. As crossed the stunning Dom Luis bridge we saw all the famous port names light up in white. Names like Sandemans, Calem, Kopke, Taylor's are just a couple that come to mind. All the world's port is aged on this bank no matter which part of the Douro valley it's fruit are grown in. 
Tom and I decided to opt for Taylor's five euro guided tour. This is a great place to start if you don't know anything about port and includes three tastings and a tour of the grounds and cellar. The waiting/tasting room is beautiful as is their rose garden. Taylor's really gives you a sense of the long history behind their company. I would suggest doing this before heading to Vinologia.

The tasting room.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Photo Diary: Sevilla and Grenada

At the end of August Tom and I went to visit my little brother in Sevilla. Together the three of us went on a weekend jaunt to Granada. Both stunning cities are prime examples of the Andalusian region of Spain. We spent a week in the 'frying pan of Spain' eating all the tapas we could get our hands on, visiting beautiful sights, and soaking up the ancient atmosphere.  It is the land of flamenco, strict siesta times, endless tapas and dinners that start at 9:30pm in square filled with laughing people. 
This part of Spain is what I had imagined Spain to be like as a little girl but better.

 Photos of Granada

Granada means 'pomegranate' hence the grenadine syrup. If you look carefully you can see references to this all over the city in the form street lamps and tile work.

The climb up to the Alhambra is beautiful and oh so sweaty. Pictured: my little brother.

Gardens in the Alhambra complex.

Ceiling of the 12th century moorish baths in the Alhambra complex.

Albino bee?

Inside the Alhambra