Stay Connected

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

European Vacation: Part 4 (Messina, Sicily)

The next part of our trip brings us to Messina, Sicily. I have to say that though it was beautiful, it didn't "thrill me" like other parts of Italy had and I was a little disappointed (especially since my ancestors came from here...well maybe not Messina exactly). We spent most of the day on the tour bus driving around what seemed like in circles. 

The highlight of our day (besides finally getting pizza and a good canoli!) was the clock tower (which was in walking distance from our ship so we spent money on the tour unnecessarily). It was beautiful to watch. When the clock strikes 12pm, church bells are struck by two 10' bronze statues. After the chimes, a lion, which represents the strength of the city, waves his flag, wags his tail and turns his head to face the piazza and roars three times. Next, Ave Maria is played while an angel appears bearing a letter for the Madonna, who is greeted by Saint Paul.  The story continues as bronze statues are "brought to life" during a 10 minute show. 

After Sicily, we headed for Nafplion, Greece where we saw an ancient theatre that is still used today. The acoustics were amazing and really traveled to the top of the structure. 

 We visited Palamidi Castle which was a fortress built in the early 19th century with 8 self-contained bastions. This was at the entrance of the castle and was believed to have lion heads. 
 We also visited underground tombs. It's so hard to imagine all of these being built so long ago without the equipment we have today. This was the entrance to the fortress where it was then entirely covered with dirt. Here is a picture of Rachael and I so you can see how tall it was. 

After touring the sites, we went to a local restaurant for Greek fare; which they served lamb (and I don't eat lamb), so it was Greek Salad for me which was PERFECT! It was 105 degrees this day and we all weren't very hungry and couldn't wait to go back to the ship to go swimming!

To Be Continued...

Monday, July 30, 2012

European Vacation: Part 3 (Rome, Italy)

Our next stop was Rome, Italy where we spent the day with our wonderful tour guide Marco from Miles & Miles. I highly recommend this company when touring Italy. Our tour guide arrived on time in a clean, Mercedes van, took us to all of the sights WE wanted to see (not the ones that are pre determined by the cruise company) AND, it was far less expensive to go privately too! It worked for us since we had been to Rome once before(we stopped there last year on a cruise also when we went with my in-laws to celebrate an early 50th wedding anniversary) and toured the major sites like Vatican City, the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain (to name a few). We did make one return trip to Trevi Fountain to throw in our coins again (hey, it worked last time!). For those of you not familiar with the legend, it says that if you throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder into the fountain, with your back to it, that will ensure a return to trip to Rome. A  newer version also says that not only will it ensure a trip back, throwing in a second coin will result in a new romance and throwing in a third coin will lead to marriage. (P.S...we only let the girls throw in one coin. I'm not ready to lose them yet to love and I wasn't about to take any chances! lol)

We saw a few more sights around Rome...

...then decided to drive out to the Roman countryside. Once there, we stopped at a small town called Nemi. It was so quaint with brightly colored buildings, shops and cobblestone streets. 

The town overlooks Lake Albano. Isn't it beautiful? 

We also sampled some homemade meats like prosciutto and soppressata, and cheeses from a specialty shop called Norcineria Castelli. The Ancient Norcineria Castles was created by a family of butchers for five generations. A place where you can find great local produce, pork and sausages. My husband said it was the best prosciutto he's ever tasted, though the kids were a little turned off by the hanging cured boar legs and other meat. 

We then ventured around the lake and stopped at this wonderful restaurant on the top of a hill called Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli, where we toured their wine cellar and had a leisurely, early afternoon wine tasting luncheon. The restaurant has been family owned since 1882 and is in it's 4th generation. It is located next door to the Pope's summer villa at Castel Gondolfo. We sampled a white wine made with red grapes and it was superb! It has all of the flavors of a red wine but they remove the skin before pressing so the wine is actually white. We ordered a few bottles to be shipped home and I'm anxiously awaiting their arrival! :)

The view from our table outside on the terrace overlooking the lake.
My husband had Ravioli stuffed with Blackberries and Goat Cheese, Gabrielle had Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce; while Rachael and I had this amazingly simple, yet wonderfully presented Fettuccine with Lemon and Mint served in a lemon. It was absolutely delicious with just the right amount of lemon and mint and the perfect portion size. 

Yes, this is a real, hollowed out lemon. 
Now, for those of you not familiar with Italian lemons, they are HUGE. Here is a picture of Gabrielle in Sorrento, Italy holding one up over her head so that you can see how big they actually are. 
I am definitely going to try to recreate a similar meal once my kitchen is completed, but will probably use a grapefruit since our lemons are so small, so stay tuned...

After lunch, we went next door to visit the Pope's summer residence. We couldn't go inside; however, we almost got to see the Pope in Nemi as the shop owners were all bustling while we were visiting speaking in excited tones as they got wind that he was going to visit there that afternoon. 

We took in a few more sights on the way back to the ship...

...then called it a day. A fun, exciting, but very long day. 

To Be Continued...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer Olympics 2012

The Summer Olympics start this evening at 9pm est with the Opening Ceremonies and run until Sunday, August 12th. For a complete listing of all sporting times and schedules, click HERE.  Our family likes to watch them; however, we don't usually have any parties surrounding them or watch them on a consistent basis but my favorite sport to watch is gymnastics. While looking for information on the schedule I came across this list for how much food is needed...amazing!
  • 25,000 loaves of bread
  • 232 tonnes of potatoes
  • More than 82 tonnes of seafood
  • 31 tonnes of poultry items
  • More than 100 tonnes of meat
  • 75,000 litres of milk
  • 19 tonnes of eggs
  • 21 tonnes of cheese
  • More than 330 tonnes of fruit and vegetables
To see a complete list of food facts, click HERE

So, since I'm from the good old US of A, I thought I'd share some red, white and blue recipes with you in case you're entertaining this weekend. Click on the title to be taken to the recipe. Enjoy!  

European Vacation: Part 2 (Florence/Pisa, Italy)

After Barcelona, we boarded our cruise ship and spent the next day at sea en route to Livorno, Italy. Once docked in Livorno, we spent the day visiting the beautiful cities of Pisa and Florence. 

As we journeyed to the Tuscan countryside on our way to Pisa, there were sunflowers, olive lemon trees as far as the eye can see. 

Once we arrived at the Piazza dei Miracoli, the streets were already humming with vendors setting up their souvenirs and tourists all gathering to see the famous site of the Leaning Tower...

And of course Gab had to do the infamous "pushing the tower" pose. :)

The Cathedral...

And the Baptistry...

Just look at the detail in these columns...amazing!

Interesting Facts About the Leaning Tower of Pisa

The leaning tower of Pisa weighs 14,500 tonnes - Although it took quite a long time for construction to be completed, the official estimated weight of the tower is just shy of 14,500 tonnes. No wonder the clay foundation couldn't handle the weight!

The tower took over 800 years to completely finish - With the final modifications to the tower made in the early 21 st century, the entire process took over 800 years. During this time it witness two great wars, civil war, change in religious governments, and a change in use. It was "completed" in 1350 (over 200 years after its initial construction), but has undergone constant additions and modifications since that date.

The leaning tower of Pisa is only 55.86 meters tall - With its low height, it's the smallest "tower" achieve worldwide recognition.

Europe 's most famous monument was the result of a slight miscalculation - Although many factors have contributed to the lean, the decision of where to build the tower resulted in the original tilt of the tower.

It is located in the Piazza Dei Miracoli - The "field of miracles" is where the tower is located, along with a few other famous structures, such as the Duomo, the Camposanto, and the Baptistery.

It was upright for five years upon completion of its initial construction - Having only two floors, no one was aware of any problem with the tower. Upon the addition of the third floor the tower began to lean, and the result was thousands of confused people and hundreds of years of quick-fixes.

Construction was halted for 100 years - Once the tower began to lean the construction was halted for 100 years. During this time, engineers hopes that the clay beneath the tower would settle and harden enough to permit further construction.

A new architect resume construction - Giovanni di Simone continued where the tower had left off, adding four additional floors to the tower. Fortunately, and despite his efforts, he was unable to correct the lean.

A bad idea made the lean worse - Alessandro Della Gherardesca tried to show the world the intricately decorated base of the tower by digging a walkway around the base. You can imagine the resulting disaster when his workers struck water, flooding the ditches.

Mussolini tried to fix the tower - Embarrassed of the tower, and calling it a disgrace to national pride, he attempted to fix the tower by way of a cement counterweight drilled into the base of the tower. It didn't work.

The tower has 294 steps - How fast can you make it up?

The tower was almost torn down - American soldiers, under the orders to destroy all buildings that may act as a potential nest for enemy snipers, nearly destroyed the famous tower during World War Two.

All text and leaning tower of Pisa pictures © 2010

Next, we headed to lunch at a Tuscan restaurant in Florence called Ristorante Buca San Giovanni where they served us some Penne Pommodoro, Pork with Salad and for dessert, homemade tiramisu. Now, I never cared for tiramisu. Or Jello. Or pudding for that matter. It's a consistency thing but when in Rome (well technically Florence!), I vowed to try it all. This tiramisu was the best I had ever tasted and I was glad I was doing a LOT of walking because I ate the entire piece. 

Oh, and you can't forget the wine. They bottle their own and it was superb, just like the rest of our meal, but then again, I'm partial to wine from the Tuscan region of Italy. :) 

Next, it was onto visit Piazza della Signoria to see the copy of Michelangelo's David and the Basilica Santa Croce. The original statue took three years to complete between 1501 and 1504 and was symbolic for civil liberties of the independent Florentine Republic. The original statue was moved in 1873 to the Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti; however, this replica was created in 1910 in the same location. 

The Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the principal Franciscan church of Florence, Italy. Situated on the Piazza Santa Croce to the east of the Duomo, it is best known for its Florentine artwork and its tombs of illustrious dead, including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Legend has it that Santa Croce was founded by St Francis himself. The current church was probably begun in 1294, possibly by Arnolfo di Cambio, and paid for by some of the city's wealthiest families. In 1439 the Council of Florence, which attempted to heal the schism between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, was held at Santa Croce. In 1560, the choir screen was removed and the interior rebuilt by Giorgio Vasari, who damaged the church's decoration in the process. The neo-Gothic facade only dates from 1857-1863 and the campanile was built in 1842.

One thing to note, and this pertains to everywhere we went in Europe, when entering a church, you must have your shoulders and legs covered; especially women. Depending on the country you are in, they will sometimes have a disposable shawl or scarf available to use or you may have to purchase one from a peddler trying to earn a little extra cash. As you can see, Rachael wasn't overly thrilled (notice the lovely scarf adorned at her waist). :)

Then, when got a little free time to walk around the square and visit all of the wonderful shops. I don't even think we got to half of them as there were so many. 

We did manage to find a local wine shop and did some unexpected wine tasting, always a plus when in Italy. Did I mention my favorite wines are from the Tuscan region? ;)

Allow me to introduce you to Tony Sasa, one of the owners of Enoteca PontevecchioAs a child, Tony grew up in a farming family where he learned about genuine food and joyful lifestyle. Tony is a passionate wine enthusiast who has worked in the wine and restaurant business in Chicago, Florence and abroad for more than a decade. Throughout these years he has built enduring relationships with Italy's foremost enologists, winemakers and journalists. 

We had the pleasure of meeting Tony and tasting some of his wines and sample some other products they sell like Chianti Jam (REALLY!), extra virgin olive oil and homemade balsamic vinegar. His daughter even drew the label (in crayon no cute!) on one of the bottles. I couldn't resist and had to buy some of each. I had it shipped home and I can't wait until it arrives! He comes back to the US on occasion for wine tasting events throughout the year and we've since been in contact and I'll make sure to let you know when and where they will be held. 

Tony has some great tips on buying wine and the grapes themselves on his website if you want some more in depth information. I've learned over the years, that if you like a certain type of grape, you're more likely to like the majority of wines made with that type of grape as well. There are exceptions of course, but here is a tip from Tony that I found on his website about when to taste old vintages.  

"As a collector I will open some of my old vintages I have in my cellar, like Tuscany 1997. Why not? This is the only way to see evolution. I don't take the aging of certain wines very seriously. For example, a wine is supposed to taste delicious after 10 years, then you open it after 5 years and the wine is dead. What the hell is wrong? Wrong bottle, wrong wine or did the guy sell me the wrong bottle? If you buy a case or 6 bottles of a certain type of wine, I recommend opening the first bottle a year or two later to see the evolution or revolution." 

Well, are you as tired reading this post as I was at the end of this day? I LOVED Florence a.k.a. Firenze and felt so at ease and at home there.  I was sorry it was only for the day and hopefully, I'll get a chance to return someday for a longer period of time. 

To Be Continued...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

European Vacation: Part 1 (Barcelona, Spain)

Well, after four days, I'm finally getting around to downloading all of our pictures from our trip (all 776 of them...yikes!) and what great memories we will have to cherish forever. I will be sharing some of our experiences over the next several posts, so sit down, grab a cup of cappuccino (my new favorite beverage) and I hope you enjoy! 

We started off our vacation by flying into Barcelona, Spain. Our flight left at 7:30pm on a Tuesday evening from NY and we made sure to arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare so that we could eat a decent meal before getting on the plane for our 8 hour flight. There is a 6 hour (ahead) time difference and we landed at 9:30am local time (3:30am est) so we were pretty exhausted upon our arrival. We got to our hotel and even though we had requested an early check-in, they could not give us our room yet so we had to kill some time exploring the hotel property before heading upstairs. 
View from the hotel to the adjacent beach. 
We rested up a bit then headed out for dinner at one of the local restaurants located by the Olympic Port  where we feasted on Chicken Paella (no seafood for me remember!) and my daughter tried the local fresh shrimp where the waiter was oh so gracious and offered to peel it for her before she ate it (p.s. she was eternally grateful! =} ) 

Rachael's Shrimp Dinner in Barcelona
Now for those of you who don't know my kids, they have inherited my warped sense of humor. So the entire time, the girls were singing "Mr. Lover Lover" from one of Mr. Bean's (Rowan Atkinson) movies, all the while envisioning this scene from Mr. Bean's Holiday.  Nope...Never dull in my house! 

The next day, we spent the morning soaking up the warm sun on the beach, then headed to La Rambla, which is a street with many other side streets filled with shops, shops and more shops, that are accessible mainly by pedestrians. There is so much to see and so much history is located all throughout the entire area with beautiful architectural buildings, statues and entertainers. 

A mime dressed up in costume to entertain
the pedestrians in La Rambla.
We had the privilege of visiting Barcelona last year and did a 2-day tour to see all of the beautiful sites, but I didn't get a chance to go into the La Boqueria market last time because it was so crowded, you couldn't even move through it.  According to Wikipedia, the first mention of the Boqueria market in Barcelona dates from 1217, when tables were installed near the old city gate to sell meat. From December 1470 onwards, a pig market was held at this site; at this time it was known as Mercat Bornet. Later, until 1794, it was known simply as Mercat de la Palla, or straw market. Later, the authorities decided to construct a separate market on La Rambla housing mainly fishmongers and butchers.  It was not until 1826 that the market was legally recognized, and a convention held in 1835 decided to build an official structure. Construction began on March 19, 1840 and the market officially opened in the same year, but the plans for the building were modified many times. The inauguration of the structure finally took place in 1853. A new fish market opened in 1911, and the metal roof that still exists today was constructed in 1914.

Can I just tell you I WAS IN MY GLORY! They have so many wonderful vendors all under one roof, all selling their freshest produce and meats. Even though I couldn't buy items to take home (as we were going to be leaving to go on the cruise ship and immigration frowns upon bringing produce and meat through customs...darn!), I couldn't help but walk around in awe of all of the beautiful colors from the fresh fruits and vegetables....

The homemade meats and cheeses....

The farm fresh eggs.... (look how gorgeous this display is alone!)

And you can't forget the CANDY... (Yes, that is Gab eyeing up all of that sugar!)

We had a marvelous time just unwinding from the usual hustle and bustle of daily life, reconnecting as a family and getting used to the time difference before heading to the cruise ship.

To Be Continued....