26 July 2011

20 July 2011

Extended Family

On 4th of July weekend, we were lucky enough to have many members of our River family join us in a special tribute to my dad. The River is the last place I saw my dad, and if it wasn't special to me already, it is even moreso now.

We dedicated a bench in the bocce ball area, a place he was so excited to see when they first put it in, to him.

It has now been almost 11 months, and I can hardly believe it. Thankfully, we have a great support system everywhere we go, and his memory is alive all over the place.

14 July 2011

Best Things: Food & Wine Academy of Florence

I was so excited when my mom and brother agreed to do a cooking class with me in Florence. I've been to Florence a few times, and always found myself drawn to the Tuscan cuisine (perhaps because there doesn't seem to be a lot of fish?), so thought it would be the perfect place to learn a thing or two. Plus, my friends A & M had taken a class there and raved about it, so, off we went!

We decided on a class at the Food & Wine Academy of Florence, and booked through the Viator website.  You can also book through other sites, but I always like Viator to keep all my tours together in one easy place (and, you can often find coupons, which is always a bonus!).

Biscottis at the Central Market
The class started bright and early with a group meet up in front of the Florencetown offices. We met our chef for the day -- Giovanni -- and his sous chef, who promptly took us over to the Mercado San Lorenzo to buy the supplies for the day. We first stopped off at the Conti shop to taste some olive oil and balsamic vinegar...and grab some goods! (I personally got La Salamoia, a Tuscan grey salt mixture; I now sprinkle it on everything!)  We continued our tour to pick up tomatoes, eggs, fresh cheese, eggplant, bread, and freshly ground meat straight -- all necessities for our upcoming meal. I was already getting excited!

After the market, we were taken to a back alley and a closed stall of some sort...which we soon discovered was actually an old restaurant and our home base for the day. Once inside, Giovanni laid out the menu for the day -- Bruschetta, Eggplant Caprese, fresh pasta with meat sauce, veggie pasta, and tiramisu to top it off. And, as we all spied, sitting upon the counter, WINE!

Our class had about 12 people from all over the world -- the USA, Canada, Britain, Georgia (the country) were all represented -- and everyone got to take a part in the prepping of food. I personally sliced some tomatoes and possibly whipped some eggs, though I am not 100% positive on that one!

We started by making our tiramisu, as it took the longest and also needed to sit for a while to really build the flavor. Once that was done, it was time to start on the pasta itself. My brother did a fine job mixing up the flour and eggs to create a great doughy base. As that was setting for about 10 minutes, we started working on other parts of our meal. This was one thing I really liked -- often when you are in the kitchen, you are called on to multi-task so the food is all ready around the same time; in this class, we learned how to effectively manage all the dishes at once.

Soon it was time to finish off the pasta and sauce, all which took about 10-15 minutes total. This was a totally simple meal, and we were all jonesing to eat it right away! Luckily, they held us over a bit with some vino. Eventually the meal was all done and we were ready to chow down!

Of course, our group ended up being the last ones standing. We helped Giovanni polish off the wine (can't leave a wounded soldier on our watch) and got some details on where to eat that night! While I have seen some reviews complain about the lack of hands on activity, but I thought our class size was perfect, and we all got to contribute (if we wanted). And, most importantly, everything we cooked could be made easily at home. Cooking in Tuscany is one thing I would highly, highly recommend.

11 July 2011

Way Back Machine: The Promise

I was going through my music the other day, and happened upon this song. I had forgotten all about it... but it was on an album pivotal to my college years, and reminds me so much of running with my lax buddy S (always at the back of the pack, the two of us chatting, much to the chagrin of our coach).


07 July 2011

Best Things: Blue Trail, Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre of Italy's Ligurian coast must be one of the most beautiful places on earth. These small, peaceful towns offer great views, kind people, delicious food, and lots of tourists! And, as an aside, I am in no way anti-tourist, hell, I usually am one, but these are small towns and the many tourists are the main drawback. I heard a lot of Italian being spoken as well, so it is perhaps a favorite regional destination, as well. If you go at an off time -- September was my favorite -- and perhaps during the week, the crowds will be smaller.

I have now been there twice, staying in Monterosso al Mare, and had the pleasure of wandering the towns both times. There are many trails around the CT, and many smaller towns that may not be as crowded as the main five, but I think you would be remiss to go to the area and not spend one day on the Blue Trail.

Most books I've seen have you starting at the most southern town of Riomaggiore and hiking north. I am not quite sure why, but I haven't seen many (if any at all) that have you start in Monterosso. I guess this would ease you into the hike, as that direction starts out rather flat, and that may be a plus for some people. I have started both times in Monterosso, which I think is the better way (there may be bias).

One thing to know is that you must have a pass to hike the trail. It is a protected park, and the locals are doing their best to sustain it. There are several passes and several ways to get them -- at the train stations, at the entry gates in each town, and I believe at the tourist offices of the neighboring towns like La Spezia. Both times I have gone, I have purchased the one-day, trail + train pass at the Monterosso train station (need to go upstairs to the special office). In April 2011, this card cost 10E, and could only be paid for in cash. This pass allowed us to get on trains or hike for the entire day, which was ideal. They told me I needed to validate it at the train station, so I obliged!

A few pointers...wear comfortable clothes, and LAYERS! Have a bottle of water in your day pack, and a few snacks. Eat a good breakfast before you head on the trail, and leave early. Oh, yes, and make sure to bring sunscreen and reapply during the day.

We started early, hitting the starting gate at the top of Monterosso by 9am. It was already heating up! The gate guards checked our passes to make sure they were valid, so be sure to not lose them and keep them handy. It should be noted...in my opinion, this stretch between Monterosso & Vernazza is the most challenging part of the trail. I am in good shape, and it was still a good workout for me. You go through quite a steep altitude change, so make sure to take your time as you hike up. I've seen very old people on this trail, so I know it can be done, but slowly. This trail can get very narrow, and there are often hikers on there with huge hiking poles that will not cede the right of way. Be prepared.

Arriving to Vernazza from this direction affords a stunning view of the little cove town. Once you enter the town, you continue to follow the trail right down to the water. This is a great time for a gelato and to dip your feet in the Med. The path is pretty clearly marked, and takes you back up through the town, past the train station, to the trail towards Corniglia. (this second time, we took the train from here on out... it started training and we'd heard this trail was closed; turns out it was the Corniglia to Manarola part.)

Corniglia is the only town not accessible by water. It sits perched on the hill, and even if you take the train, you may have a bit of a hike ahead of you...there are 382 steps from the train station to the town. There is a bus that will take you up there, included in your pass. We didn't realize that until it was too late! Since this town is all on a hill, you'll get a bit of a workout just walking around. It is worth it to walk all the way to the top and look out at the vista; it's pretty amazing.

Soon, you'll want to head to Manarola, another very picturesque town (and I think my mom's fave). If you head to the bottom, harbor area, you may find sunbathers lounging along the rock walls. It's another opportunity to dip your toes in the Med, or simply look straight down into the clear water and check out the fishies.

After Manarola comes the easiest part of the trail -- Via dell' Amore. This is a flat, 20-minute walk is a celebration of love, and decorated with lovers locks. Local lore tells us lovers go and hitch their lock to parts of the trail, then throw the key into ocean, sealing their fate as a couple forever. I find this so endearing...but it doesn't explain some of the combination locks we found. I wonder if there is a huge pile of keys right along the coast?

Both times I've visited Riomaggiore, it has been at the end of a long day, so I am not sure it gets the fairest shake from me. I am sure it is a lovely little town. For me, it has always been a welcome site that my day's journey is almost done.

Doing the walk + train took us about 4 hours. Doing hiking only, one way, is about 5-6 hours depending on your pace.