36 Hours in Tiny Montenegro
Our time being tight as it was, we limited our stay in Montenegro to 36 quick hours. With unlimited time, we would have loved to explore the canyons and mountains of the interior, but in order to make our way ...
A Whirlwind Tour of Croatia
You just can't plan everything right. We went into our trip knowing that Croatia would be the country most firmly on the tourist circuit, with all the crowded streets, disintegrated local identities, and price-gouging that always comes with. We also ...
Budapest: All the Charm at Half the Price
This Eastern European capital city has been on my list for a long, long time, and despite it being only a 3-hour train ride from Vienna (where I visit family often), I had still somehow never made it there. Budapest-- which ...
I can't rave enough about this awesome town at the base of the Smoky Mountains in the northwestern corner of North Carolina. It's been six months since we've been and I still smile when I think of our time there. [caption ...
The hands-down highlight of our trip is a country that we knew next to nothing about before looking at a map and seeing a blurb in a NYT list of 52 places to visit in 2014, so we should probably give you some quick background before diving into the fun stuff. This New Jersey-sized country lies on the Adriatic Sea, sandwiched between tiny Montenegro and Greece. It was conquered by Italy (from which it is less than 45 miles across the water) in 1939 and taken over by communist partisans five years later. So began Enver Hoxha's 40-year dictatorship, which severely curtailed freedom and religious worship, but rapidly grew the economy and practically eliminated illiteracy. Albania was left with no friends at all after shunning both the Soviets and the Chinese for being 'revisionist' to the ideals of Stalinism. Hoxha even oversaw the construction of 750,000 bunkers in case of an invasion-- many of which can still be seen crumbling in the countryside-- for a country of 3 million inhabitants! Once one of the world's most closed off countries, in 1991 the Communism Party dissolved, democracy began to take shape, and borders were opened. Albania has caught up to the Western world extremely rapidly in the last two decades, but remnants of its past can still be seen everywhere.
We arrived in Albania a bit wearier than we expected, after a rickety and slow bus ride (we're pretty sure the bus' top gear wasn't working!). However, as not-enough-time-in-a-city was quickly becoming the theme of the trip, we rallied as best we could to make the most of the 18 hours we had in Shkodra, a culture-rich city in the country's North.
We first tried to find the Marubi photography collection. For some reason the South Balkans took to photography extremely early, many cities in the region boasting a photography business dating back to the mid-19th century. The Marubi family began documenting everyday life in the town in 1859 in a practice that spanned three generations and amassed over a half million photos. Unfortunately by the time we located (what we believe to be) the correct unmarked door down an unmarked alley, it was about 20 minutes before closing time, and apparently the attendant had decided on an early happy hour and locked the door. The good news, on the other hand, is that the collection has taken to the streets, with semi-permanent displays of many of the most famous photos mounted on colorful placards all over the city, concentrated on the city's lively pedestrian street, so we got to see many of them after all.
After strolling up and down the street and taking in the pictures and nightlife, we made our way to a well-regarded restaurant in a hotel. We sat in the peaceful courtyard and ordered a selection of local dishes. Upon starting in on the spread, we were immediately struck by the difference in cuisine only a few short miles makes. While the food in Croatia and Montenegro had had a strong Mediterranean influence, we had now crossed into the Greek realm: grilled meats replaced fish, feta-like cheeses replaced mozzarella, and yogurt-stewed vegetables were served alongside fresh salads. With six dishes and two glasses of wine for under $15, we were looking forward to this new cuisine!
We woke up early the next morning for one of the most-anticipated legs of our journey: a three-hour ferry ride up a dammed river (the Komani Lake). After a bumpy ride through the countryside, passing donkey carts vegetable fields, we arrived to the pier. After some excellent espresso shared with a one-armed fisherman and a polyglot soldier, we were off! Boarding late, all the seats were taken, so we were shown to the flat roof, which turned out to be the perfect place to take in the panoramic river views. Dense forest occasionally gave way to small farms where we spied a handful of people working the land or taking the hours-long journey to their neighbors or to the riverbank to exchange goods. Eventually the trees and fields were replaced by dramatic views of sheer rock faces in every direction: we had entered the blessed mountains (so-called by their inhabitants in the belief that the mountains protected them from invaders--the repelled armies referred to them as the accursed mountains).
Another bumpy van ride (Albanian roads are pretty basic) brought us deeper into the mountains and to our destination for the next two nights: the Rilindja guest house in Valbona National Park. We walked into the idyllic mountain setting and immediately felt right at home. The guest house, run by a warm and helpful Albanian-American couple, immediately reminded us of our favorite hostels from our year abroad. After another fantastic country meal, we planned our hiking route for the next day over a bottle of wine on our balcony with another stunning mountain view, and called it a night.
After getting a slightly later-than-expected start, our hike was nearly a complete loss when an errant trail marking a half-mile into the hike derailed us. We retraced our steps over and over for more than an hour until Claudia correctly determined the mistake we had made and our location on the map. Then we bushwhacked for about 15 minutes in the direction we thought we needed to head, and eventually stumbled upon another marked trail. Once back on the path, it was much easier to find the way, but the physical challenge was just beginning. Remember two paragraphs back when I mentioned sheer and impenetrable rock faces? Well the range we were walking in was no exception. After two hours of relentless climbing, exhausted and nearly out of water, we made it to a shepherd's small shack where several onward paths split. We relaxed in the shade, drank the cold water piped in from an underground spring, and treated ourselves to a lemon soda the shepherd sold us. He and his ten year old son were unbelievably kind and humble, and we're still in awe that the arduous climb we took to get there is a commute they must take every few days in order to graze their cattle in the surrounding mountain pastures (and haul Italian lemon sodas up there for passing hikers!).
Refreshed by the break, we decided we had the time and energy left for one additional hour to a mountain pass from which we could peek into Montenegro. The mountains we could see over the pass were otherworldly and dramatic, and the valley we had risen out of, along with the mountains that surrounded it, just kept getting more and more breathtaking. The views we saw between the shack and the mountain pass were every bit as impressive as those afforded by our three-day hike in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, and probably more beautiful than those afforded by the five-day ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro (I don't mean to sell that experience short though, it was unlike anything we've ever undertaken and I would do it again in a second; it's just that that mountain was freestanding so the surrounding landscape was relatively flat). The Himalayas may still have it beat, though the exposure available in this single-day hike is truly unique.
All in all, it was an incredible hike, and a day we won't soon forget.
On our last day in Albania, we were privileged to participate in a very special experience. The company I work for, GlobalGiving, works with thousands of nonprofits all over the world, so when we were planning a trip to this part of the world, I researched projects we could visit, and was excited to learn that we partner with a project that runs a mobile library in Northern Albania. We spent the morning riding around the countryside until we pulled off on a dirt road that we followed for about a half hour to an extremely remote town (it's not even on Google Maps!). We stopped at a small crossroads in sight of only about three or four houses and got a look inside the van while the librarian set up a table and umbrella. The organization, Partnerë për Fëmijët, painstakingly converted the van into a fully functional library that they take around to 45 small communities, visiting each one only once a month. The walls of the van are lined on the inside with books for kids from 5 to 18, many about public safety, leadership, and reproductive issues, but we also spotted Steven King, Shakespeare, and of course the entire Harry Potter series. They also have posters, coloring materials and activities, toys, and hula hoops.
At first we weren't sure if many kids would come to participate because the area was so sparsely populated (we were also warned that many families leave their homes in the summer to go to a sort of mountaintop camp). But sure enough, after only a few minutes of waiting, first one, then a few more kids started to join us, books in hand and huge smiles on their faces. A few minutes later, about 15 children had joined us and began eagerly trading their books for new ones. We were struck by how polite the children were, waiting quietly for their turn in the van and sharing a few coloring book pages between them. After they had all exchanged their books, the librarian took out the hula hoops and led them through a few games and activities.
Perhaps it wasn't until we began pulling out of the town and our hosts pointed out the shabby one room school building that we truly understood the necessity of the program. The kids in this community really have almost nothing, so we can only imagine the joy that the library brings every month with its bright sides and wealth of resources inside. But with this understanding came a touch of sadness, too, as we pictured all the days between visits when the van doesn't come. We were floored by the humility and generosity of the staff we spent the day with, and I was so proud to contribute in any small way to the success of such a vital and positive program in this underserved community.
We left Albania with full hearts and huge grins, having barely scratched the surface but already plotting how we could come back to see the rest of this incredibly friendly and beautiful country.
Our time being tight as it was, we limited our stay in Montenegro to 36 quick hours. With unlimited time, we would have loved to explore the canyons and mountains of the interior, but in order to make our way south, we opted for just a quick stop in the country's undisputed highlight: the Bay of Kotor, a convenient stopover between the Croatian coast and Albanian highlands.
We didn't get a good feel for the people or culture of this Connecticut-sized country that used to be part of Yugoslavia, especially because we were in probably the most touristy area. Montenegro has a close relationship with Russia, and many Russians spend their vacations on the seaside here, so at times we weren't sure if everyone around us was speaking Montenegrin or Russian!
Our one full day in this tiny but varied country happened to by my birthday, and we spent the day biking along the water, wandering around the city's historical streets, stopping in on a museum featuring an impressive collection of historical cat-themed postcards, and slogging up (and up and up and up) the city's protective walls and fortresses for an amazing panoramic view of the bay. We ate seafood for dinner, of course, and then wandered the piazzas with gelato before resting up for the trip over the border into Albania!
You just can't plan everything right. We went into our trip knowing that Croatia would be the country most firmly on the tourist circuit, with all the crowded streets, disintegrated local identities, and price-gouging that always comes with. We also knew the common wisdom of "the only way to see Croatia is by sailboat", but that just wasn't going to work with our itinerary, which included a music festival and meeting up with friends and family.
We planned our route determined to see as much of the fabled coast on public transportation as possible, and I believe we succeeded, but despite having seen some amazing beaches, eaten some delicious food, and experienced some untouched historical and cultural treasures, we left feeling we had missed out on some of the island-covered coast's hidden secrets, tied as we were to the main ports and roadways.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We outraced a thunderstorm on the train/bus/train combo from Budapest to Zagreb, and arrived there late at night and under a low and foreboding sky. Having only a few hours in town the next morning before our bus to the coast, we decided to check out one of the quirkier attractions in the city's old town: the Museum of Broken Relationships. What started as a traveling exhibition of artifacts of failed relationships has grown into a full-fledged museum of carefully curated pieces, each of which was clearly too important for the owner to throw away, but too painful to keep. Alongside their stories, the broken toys, shoes, jewelry, and letters all speak volumes about their former owners and their former owners' lovers. They're meticulously chosen, displayed, preserved, and documented. As all museums should be, it was provocative, evocative, slightly unsettling, and strangely affirming.
The next week or so saw us working our way down the coast by bus, ferry, car, and foot. We ate our fill of fresh seafood, got lost in medieval alleys, swam in crystal-clear waters, and dodged tourists. We were accompanied for some of our time there by two of the most fun travel companions: Claudia's cousin Sara and our friend Chip, who embarked on his own round-the-world trip around the same time we did and who is always up for anything.
Some of the highlights of these few days were:
- Enjoying the two landscape art installations in Zadar. The first, called "Greeting to the Sun" is the visual one, made up of a few hundred square feet of solar tiles set into a large plaza. During the day they soak up the sun's energy, and then at dusk they pay it all back in a brilliant display of shifting colored lights. It's a popular gathering place where kids love running around and playing, and people of all ages gather to have their pictures taken (though the lighting conditions are quite a challenge!) The second installation is an auditory one, called the "Sea Organ". It consists of long subterranean tubes that run from near "Greeting to the Sun" into the ocean. As the sea's waves move in and out, they force air in and out of the long tubes, and across a thin slit to make a tone. Each is "tuned" to a unique tone by its length, making ghostly and beautiful music all day and night.
- Finding our way through some of the area's most ancient and untouched streets to climb up to a church and former leprosy sanitarium with expansive views on the island of Murter.
- Attending a music festival. The whole coast wakes up in the summer with festivals to suit all tastes. The Garden Festival came highly recommended by friends who had been in a past year, and offered the additional incentive of a boat party to take us to and from a "secret island". While the island wasn't as secret as we hoped (it turned out to be a point alongside a public beach where the locals gawked at the weirdos dancing under the shore trees), it was a great day and a unique experience.
- Meeting Claudia's cousin Sara's father and family, who had just finished their bi-annual sailing trip in the Adriatic. We had a wonderful dinner together and they even let us sleep on their sailboat one night in Trogir's harbor!
- Watching a crazy water spout make its way across the bay on a dark and stormy day from our cute balcony in Korčula.
- Walking out of the town of Korčula for 15 minutes to a country restaurant just in time for a tremendous thunderstorm to roll through. We ate one of our best meals in Croatia on a patio surrounded on all sides by sheets of water.
- Hiking through the national park on the island of Mljet and jumping into the crystal waters to swim to an island in a lake on an island, or to get across a straight with super fast-moving water so we could continue our hike. Mljet was the absolute highlight of Croatia, boasting many miles of well-kept trails around two "lakes" that are actually inlets with a very narrow straight connecting them to the sea. Perfect swimming and picnicking opportunities abound, and with little in the way of nightlife or touristy restaurants, the island is as laid back as we could find.
- Walking the city walls of Dubrovnik, where a significant chunk of Game of Thrones is filmed, and looking out over the sea of terra cotta tiles, and then learning about the region's recent violent past in the war photo museum.
Croatia's gorgeous coast line and endless sailing possibilities have certainly earned it a permanent spot on Europe's list of best summer vacations. We hope that we can come back to experience this Adriatic jewel by boat next time. Until then, we'll be dreaming of the salty air, crystal clear waters, thousands of miles of rocky shoreline, and all the hidden treasures that we have yet to discover there.
This Eastern European capital city has been on my list for a long, long time, and despite it being only a 3-hour train ride from Vienna (where I visit family often), I had still somehow never made it there.
Budapest-- which was formerly two cities, Buda and Pest -- reminded me a lot of Vienna visually, with beautiful architecture and open public spaces. Throw in some 80 geothermal springs, tasty food, cheap and delicious wine, fun nightlife, and you have a recipe for success.
Cities need quirks, in my opinion, to set themselves apart from every other city with nice buildings and good food. Within two hours of walking around Budapest, we found a sign for the "Cat Cafe" and immediately turned to follow the arrow. We were not disappointed to find a rather large cafe full of friendly kitties, cat wheels, platforms, toys, and of course, wine.
Besides befriending Hungarian cats, our days were spent admiring the architecture, learning about the history, partaking in the coffee and pastry culture, and cooling off in one of the city's many public baths (swimming pools of various sizes and temperatures, including some with wave pools and lazy rivers!). We even stumbled upon the inspiration for Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. At night, after sampling the peppery cuisine, we caught the World Cup games, and checked out the "ruin bars" (drinking establishments set up in abandoned buildings, often taking over the courtyard and several rooms and decorated with all manner of yard sale goods).
Food-wise, we're talking a lot of paprika, a generous amount of meat, dumplings, pickled vegetables, and all sorts of peppers. Meals begin with a shot of the potent palinka (plum brandy), then a bowl of soup (often goulash) and meaty mains with vegetables. The food can be heavy, but it never lacked flavor, and it was always accompanied by a variety of local, and very drinkable, wines. And the pastries were absolutely scrumptious, tasting like an Austrian and Jewish grandmother (the kinds I know best) spent hours in the kitchen together and made some magic happen.
Things were not always so rosy in Hungary. When communism took over shortly after World War II, peasants were forced into collective farms, and a network of spies (the secret police, ÁVH) began to expose 'enemies' of the communist party, resulting in interrogation, torture, exile, forced labor, and execution of an estimated 25% of the adult population of Budapest during this time. The epicenter of this horror, where much of the torture and killing took place, is now a museum called the House of Terror, and we visited to understand more of the frightening and fascinating history. Hungary continued to struggle through various forms of communism and socialism until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
Our final evening was spent with our feet in the city's biggest fountain, drinking a bottle of wine, surrounded by dozens of locals of all ages-- the perfect end to a lovely three days of exploring what just became one of my favorite European cities.
Eat: Hungarian Jewish food and the friendliest service at Rosenstein; meat dishes and wine at the more brusque Bock; lighter fare with lots of veggie options and a large garden at Kőleves; pastries at Fröhlich Cukrászda
Drink: chill and play with the toys at the awesome ruin bar Szimpla Kert; find the elevator up the roof at an old department store turned bar, Corvinteto; check out what's happening at Godor; sit with your feet in the fountain and a beer in your hand at Deak Ferenc ter
I can't rave enough about this awesome town at the base of the Smoky Mountains in the northwestern corner of North Carolina. It's been six months since we've been and I still smile when I think of our time there.
We'd been wanting to check out Asheville for a long time, and finally decided to make the 7-hour trip for a long weekend over New Year's. We reserved a cute apartment (complete with a kitty and chickens in the yard) in the West Asheville neighborhood through airbnb, and off we were with a list of a few dozen (!) restaurants, breweries, and galleries to visit!
Asheville packs a lot in a small space, but we managed to eat, drink and explore to our heart's delight, and left plenty to do for our next visit (hopefully in warmer weather!). When we weren't eating delicious Spanish tapas made by a chef with El Bulli training or sampling Indian street food that reminded of us our favorite snacks in New Dehli, we were tasting microbrews and contra-dancing with the locals.
To burn off those calories and check out the local art scene, we spent half a day exploring the River Arts District, which spans along the French Broad River in former industrial buildings and showcases dozens of artists' work, ranging from pottery to paintings to textiles.
While most people think of the Biltmore mansion when they hear of Asheville, we skipped it because of the hefty price tag. So we did the next best thing, and spent a couple hours at the Grove Park Inn, which hosts a huge gingerbread house competition around Christmas every year. Sunset drinks on their expansive patio weren't bad either!
Are you somehow still not sold on canceling whatever plans you had this weekend and driving down to Asheville right away?! How about a giant used bookstore with a champagne bar and tons of nooks and crannies to spend your afternoon?!
Asheville has a friendly, down-to-earth feel that has clearly cultivated a creative community of people who love where they live and want to share it with others. We felt welcome everywhere we went and by our fifth day there, I was wishing I was a local too!
While we weren't able to explore the area's endless outdoor opportunities-- hiking and rafting to name a few-- we did end the trip with a dip in the natural hot springs in - wait for it- Hot Springs, North Carolina! There's nothing quite like renting your own private tub for an hour in a rustic setting and treating yourself to some mineral therapy to confirm the fact that this little corner of the Carolinas is where it's at!
Eat and Drink:
- The Admiral - random, delicious, constantly changing menu in what looks to be an old dive bar-- there's a fireplace outside to keep you cosy on a cold winter night, and there's dancing after 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays (this is hipster heaven)
- Biscuit Heads - biscuits the size of your heads, served with gravy of your choice, or help yourself to the delicious butter and jam buffet!
- The Bull and Beggar - From the team behind The Admiral- we only had cocktails at this spot in the River Arts District by but wished we could have tasted the food!
- Curate Tapas Bar - grab a seat at the bar and enjoy delicious tapas!
- Cucina 24 - Italian, try the tasting menu
- Chai Pani - Indian street food. Try the Bhel Puri!
- Early Girl Eatery - Southern/comfort food, go for breakfast
- French Broad Chocolate Lounge - almost any kind of chocolate creation you can imagine, go after dinner for dessert!
- Ben's Tune Up - small but good draft selection served with a side of Japanese food in beer-garden atmosphere
- The Southern - ask for Connor at the bar
- Wicked Weed - awesome brews and great food. Always crowded.
- Wedge Brewing - fun brewery in the River Arts District (but beware, there is no food except peanuts!)
- Walk around the River Arts District
- Peruse a great selection of used books and sip champagne at Battery Park Book Exchange
- Check out the general store-y stuff at Mast General Store
- Grab a huge rocking chair in front of the fire at the Grove Park Inn
- Buy good quality used outdoor gear at Second Gear
- Go contra-dancing or see a show at The Grey Eagle
- Pick up some local brews to bring home at Bruisin Ales
- Catch a live show at the Westville Pub
- Check out Christopher Mello's public garden at Westwood Place and Waynesville Avenue
- Pick up some records at Harvest Record Shop
- Soak in your own personal hot tub in Hot Springs, NC
2013: The year of the unwritten blog post.
I don't know where the year went, but here we are, in glorious 2014, and I realize, thinking back, that we actually kinda got around this past year. Nothing like 2011-2012, but hey, you can't always have the (travel) year of your life. I'm not complaining, but I do miss the days when blogging was our full time job.
This past year involved a lot of US travel, some of it afforded by unexpected furlough time off for me, as well as a big Switzerland/Italy trip for my mom's 70th birthday that took us to possibly my new favorite place in Europe. I meant to write about all these adventures, but alas, this recap will have to do!
We started 2013 off by celebrating the new year with best friends in New Mexico, where we stalked Breaking Bad sites and stuffed our faces with 'New Mex' food in Albuquerque and then tried to burn it off on the slopes skiing in Taos. We hope to be back in that part of the world this spring, when Yael and Curtis welcome their first baby girl!
February involved a trip to NYC to see Nick's uncle who was visiting from Israel, and then a local skiing weekend at Snowshoe in West Virginia with friends that turned out almost as much fresh powder as our Taos weekend. Not wanting to push our luck any further with two amazing skiing trips under our belts, I began to think about sun. March took me to Palm Springs for my dear friend Chris' bachelorette party, where we ate citrus fruits off the trees and pretended we were in Mad Men.
April rolled around, and I had my mind set on making lemonade (a SCUBA diving trip) out of lemons (forced furlough days). And we all know... when I set my mind on a trip, it is going to happen, come hell or high water. I brought little more than a bathing suit, my PADI card and my mom, and spent a week diving off the world's second largest barrier reef in Roatán, off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Added bonus: it matched my furlough budget perfectly and the diving was some of the best I've ever done.
In May we celebrated our second wedding anniversary with a laid back weekend at Deep Creek Lake, in western Maryland, and then got ready for our big vacation in June! I first went to Switzerland to see my uncle and cousins whom I had not seen in years, and then Nick and I spent an absolutely amazing 11 days in Sardinia (Italy) with my mom and cousin, followed by a date weekend in Rome. I've said it before, but really, make Sardinia your next European vacation.
We try not to make a habit out of letting more than a year go by without checking out a music festival, so July brought us and our music fiend friend Kelly to Newport, Rhode Island, for the Newport Folk Festival. While I am not a huge folk fan, I loved the laid back vibe of the weekend, the awesome setting on the water, biking around the area, and of course, all the fried delicious Rhode Island seafood at Flo's Clam Shack. Seeing Black Prairie, Beck, Bombino, and The Lumineers wasn't too shabby either. We'll be back for more, that's for sure.
Since we didn't make the annual family reunion in upstate New York over July 4th weekend, we packed up the car and left for a long weekend to join Nick's dad's family in Sylvan Beach (on Lake Oneida near Syracuse) in August. Gin and tonics, fire pits, sunset photos, beach croquet and an upstate New York culinary specialty called "salt potatoes" made for a fun and relaxing long weekend with the Violi clan.
September brought me to East Hampton, New York for another amazing bachelorette weekend full of lawn games, delicious food and tons of laughs to celebrate my college roommate Joyce. Joyce, if you're reading this, don't forget about my offer to housesit that gorgeous Long Island South Fork house of yours anytime!
I love east coast fall more than anything. But before we totally let go of summer, we spent the last weekend of September in Southern Maryland, a place that's special to us because we were married there in 2011, and also because Chesapeake Bay crabs, hello! We camped and canoed in Point Lookout State Park, which was a Confederate POW camp during the Civil War; 4000 of its 50,000 prisoners supposedly died there. Prisoner ghosts aside, it's a lovely and serene gem of a place at the southern tip of Maryland's Western Shore, and it's also one of the launches for the ferry to tiny Smith Island, an eroding island with a population of less than 300. There's not much to do here, other than eat soft shell crabs at one of two restaurants, grab a slice of the famous Smith Island Cake, and bike between the two towns. We rounded out the weekend with a wine tasting at Woodlawn Farm, where we got married and hadn't been since!
October brought an unexpected trip to Chicago for me. The government shut down had me at home way too much, trying to avoid the relentless rain and the constant news feed that only seemed to indicate I definitely had enough time to take a last minute trip somewhere before those goons on the Hill got their acts together. The Windy City has been on my list for a long time, and I was lucky enough to make it there just a few weeks before my friends Jeff, Aimee, and their 5-month old daughter moved away, so I had lovely hosts to boot.
October and November took us to NYC two times, first to spend time with our close friends and their baby girl, and then for my friend Joyce's wedding, which was a fantastic college reunion. Between those two, we squeezed in a trip to Austin to visit our friends Amy and Ben, eat tacos, hit up a music festival, and eat more tacos. We were successful on all fronts!
Thanksgiving through Christmas is all about family, and we do it up right. Nick's family in Boston throws a superb Thanksgiving get together, and three weeks later we reunite again at his grandparents' house in Manhattan, this time complete with a white elephant gift exchange and plenty of rounds of Coffee Pot and Celebrity. No reunion tee-shirts, no drama, just straight up fun!
And that (phew!) brings us to the end of the year, which Nick and I spent in adorable Asheville, North Carolina. I cannot speak highly enough of this town and our time there; it deserves its own post. All in all, a wonderful end to an awesome year! Already pumped about where 2014 will bring us...
This fall has afforded me some great East Coast and Midwest travel (thanks, dysfunctional government, for those 16 days off!).
My first fall trip was to East Hampton, Long Island, where a group of extremely fun gals and one lucky guy spent a long weekend in September celebrating the upcoming nuptials of one of my dearest friends Joyce. Her house is set on the stunning north coast of the South Fork on Gardiners Bay, facing slightly west for perfect sunset viewing. I spent most of the weekend laying in the grass, lifting my head up slightly to stare out at the gorgeous bay, and brainstorming how I could best convince Joyce's family that they needed a full time live-in caretaker who happens to be me, and who could be available for immediate hire. Here are some of my favorite shots of the weekend. I'll let you all know when they finally get around to hiring me!
Dreaming of Rome on this lovely evening...
Its adorable piazzas
Its secret bread rooms (this door was open so we peeked in; it was two doors down from our apartment building, and made our room smell like freshly baked loaves every day!)
Its street performers
... And of course, its pizza!
It really is no wonder Rome is my favorite city in the world.
I had never spent much time thinking about that "other" Italian island until last year when I was looking for a destination in Italy that would have pretty beaches but other activities to keep my husband (a hiker, a climber, but not a beach bum), my mom (a beach bum and culture enthusiast), and myself (all of the above) happy for ten days. Italian beaches, from my experience, are disappointing--small, crowded, rocky, with polluted water and overpriced real estate (a lounge chair and umbrella can set you back $25 for the day). But to my surprise, I was finding nothing but great reviews of Sardinia's white-sand beaches with turquoise waters, many only reachable by boat, some backed by imposing limestone cliffs or huge sand dunes on all sides.
I was intrigued by the island's history of occupation which seemingly has left Sardinians proud and fiercely independent, their culture and traditions intact over the centuries (they still speak their own language, Sardo). It seemed like a rugged, intense, but still welcoming place. And the more I researched, the more I realized that this semi-autonomous Italian island might just be the perfect place for all of us: tales of world-class rock climbing, hiking through mountains on uncrowded trails, more archaeological sites than one could ever see in a single visit, SCUBA diving, gorgeous (/perilous) mountain drives, and quaint towns had me convinced that I needed to look no further. Watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations in which he (of course) eats his way through the island with his hot Sardinian wife pretty much sealed the deal for me. Mom and I decided we had found the perfect place for her celebratory 70th birthday trip.
With high expectations, my mom, my cousin Sara (she barely needed the twist of an arm to be convinced to join us), Nick and I found ourselves in sunny Sardinia this June. The three ladies spent our first three days in and around Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, and a city on the southern coast that proved to be much more than just a convenient base for day trips. We started each day with espresso and croissants at a sidewalk cafe, then hit the road to explore the southeast and southwest areas of the island, stopping at gorgeous beaches each day and enjoying our picnic of delicious tomatoes, crusty bread, and mozzarella di bufala while gazing at incredibly blue waters. We hiked in the Monte dei Sette Fratelli, where we saw no other hikers during our 5-hour trek.
While Cagliari is perfectly located within an hour of some of the island's prettiest stretches of sand and therefore serves as an ideal base, we found ourselves really enjoying the pace and feel of the city itself. I expected it to be sleepy, but was surprised at not only how many locals we encountered at the town's may cafes and piazzas, but also by the large proportion of young people (the economic crisis has caused many young Sardinians to seek work on the mainland and beyond). And the seafood- THE SEAFOOD!- was to die for. I have never eaten so many different kinds of fish and shellfish cooked in various ways, all for the wallet-friendly price of less than $20 per person for all-you-can eat hot and cold appetizers, brought to your table seemingly fresh from the sea.
On the fourth day, Nick joined us, and after a rental car snafu that may or may not have been caused by me burning out the clutch on an Alfa Romeo during rush hour in a crowded roundabout (no really, I am still not sure if it was totally my fault or if the car was a little screwed up to being with...), we were back on track and driving up into the rugged Gennargentu mountains toward Cala Gonone, our home on the east coast for the remaining week.
Until relatively recently, Cala Gonone was inaccessible by car and only reachable by sea. It's a pleasantly laid-back holiday town, beautifully situated on the Golfo di Orosei, arguably one of the island's most breathtaking stretches of coast. Huge limestone cliffs are interrupted occasionally by postcard-perfect beaches that are almost all only reachable by boat. Some of the island's best rock climbing can be found in this area, so we were basically in heaven. We chose a different adventure each day: hiking between beaches, or bringing our climbing gear and reveling in the jaw-dropping views that rewarded us after a tough ascent.
We drove on roads with switchbacks that would be highly illegal in the US to reach our destinations. We hopped on a boat to check out a grotto one afternoon, and hiked through a gorgeous river valley to explore one of Europe's deepest canyons the next. In the evenings, we either cooked delicious dinners in our apartment and spent the evening drinking local wine on our cozy balcony, or we tried the local delicacies at a restaurant. Each night we went to bed with huge smiles on our faces--we were tired, full, and happy; excited to see what the next day would hold.
My Umbrian family wouldn't be happy hearing me say this, but I think Sardinia is my new favorite region in Italy (if not in all of Europe). Somehow, I don't think they'd be too offended, because Sardinia might as well be its own country; I almost don't feel that it should be compared to anywhere on the mainland. The slow pace of life, the proud but friendly people, the strong sense of tradition, the striking natural beauty of the place--sure, those things can all be found in Italy, but there is just something incredibly special about this island. Trust me, go there, and I promise you will not be disappointed.