The Long Drive: Texas

photo 1Day 7

Miles Driven: 637

Texas surpassed my expectations for the better. So, I was expecting to see tumble weeds, long stretches of dusty fields, and cacti. But no, after leaving Colorado and New Mexico, the rolling plains with cacti turned to rolling green hills of “Hill Country” that looked like Paso Robles. Everyone has been very friendly and they are all proud to be Texans.

photo 3Near the town of Amarillo, we turned onto Route 66 and found the Cadillac Ranch. This art sculpture of ten Cadillacs buried half-way was commissioned by a wealthy land owner and designed by artists from San Francisco. They encourage the visitors to add to their art by spray painting on the Cadillacs.

photo 2photo 2

On the drive, what seemed like rain drops started hitting the windshield. Yet, the sky was blue and it was not rain, it was the splattering of a swarm of bugs!

Day 8

Miles Driven: 239

photo 4We stayed the night at a road side motel and finished the final drive to Fredericksburg, TX. We met mom’s old ballroom dance partner from 25 years ago. It was fun to meet Frank and his wife Nancy. This town was established by a German community and we enjoyed eating at some of the German inspired restaurants. We window shopped and talked.

photo 3Dinner was at a great restaurant. Otto’s just opened last year and they really push towards farm to table seasonal cooking. We enjoyed a roast duck with duck fat fried potatoes and a peach glaze (peaches are just now ripe. Fredericksburg is even having a peach festival this weekend). For dessert, a new take on black forest cake; a flowerless chocolate cake with a cherry drizzle. Excellent meal. The chef even came to ask us how everything was and we saw him picking herbs from the garden out front.

We spent the night at the KOA campground in Fredericksburg.  A very windy night!

Day 9

Miles Driven:162


5 emblems represent the 5 governments that ruled over Texas.

In the morning, we packed and left right away because it was still so windy. We enjoyed breakfast at the Lyndon B. Johnson Historic Park (his birth place) and then made our way to the Capital: Austin. Austin’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird” and as I see it, take Portland, OR and add cowboys and you have Austin. The Capitol was a classic building with wings and rotunda, and it did a good job at explaining Texas’s history and the evolution of the flag.

From there, we had lunch at the funky Shady Grove on Restaurant Row where we had our first taste of TexMex. Yummy chicken tacos and Fritos pie. We then visited the flagship Whole Foods Market where I always have fun wandering the aisles and picking out some local made foods and chocolate. I can’t wait to try them.

Last stop was an area called SoCo, or South Congress. This street is lined with fun boutiques and local restaurants, cafes, and ice cream. We had some coffee at Jo’s and Mexican Vanilla ice cream at Amy’s. Then we peeked in the flagship Tom’s Shoe’s cafe and I drooled over the shabby-chique decor. Totally painting a wall in my house like the one in their bathroom.

photo 5Final stop was in Allen’s Boots, where aisle upon aisle was filled with every type of cowboy boot you can imagine. Quite overwhelming!

We made the drive to our campsite in San Antonio and met some very “interesting” people who were camping next to us. Also, it was so hot and humid, I barely slept. Ah well.

Day 10

In San Antonio today, the downtown was bursting with fans of the Spurs, San Antonio’s Basketball team who are the NBA champions of 2014. They had a big boat parade down the River Walk. We got to explore the river walk before the festivities started and enjoyed the cool breeze along the water while eating at Casa Rio. I enjoyed Chilli con Carne, a San Antonio original.

_MG_1118 _MG_1130


We poked our head into and ultimately took a nap in the lobby of the Menger Hotel. This hotel is one of the most famous in San Antonio and has played host to many presidents and socialites. Along with guests, this hotel also houses 32 happy haunts from a murdered maid who is seen still cleaning up the Victorian wing to President Theodore Roosevelt who is often sitting in the bar having a drink and trying to recruit soldiers. It is such a beautiful hotel!

Next was the Alamo, the battle ground that began the Texas Revolution and secession from Mexico ultimately allowing California and many other states to join the union and make the US a cross continental super power. I was surprised to learn that Davy Crocket fought and died at the battle of the Alamo.

_MG_1128Now back at the campsite, we enjoyed some sausages made in Colorado. Still humid, but there is a nice breeze and the lightning bugs are out.

Total Miles: 2,653

Rocky Mountain “Hi” – Colorado

photo 4Day 5

Miles Driven: 435

While driving the I-70 from Moab into Colorado, we paid tribute with mom’s old John Denver tapes. “Country Road, photo 3Take Me Home” played as we wound our way across rolling hills and into the jagged peaks of the Rockies. The scenery was reminiscent of the drive through the Austrian Alps; flat valley floor jutting into the snowy peaks of the Alps. The mountain sides varied in shades of green as aspen trees mixed with pine and spruce.

We stopped at Vail ski resort for a German lunch. Again, I felt like I was in Germany once more with the architecture of the timber buildings and cobblestone streets.

_MG_1089We visited one of my old classmates from Cal Poly. Mic was snatched up by one of the largest architecture firms in the US and relocated to Denver, CO. He is just loving the lifestyle in Denver. We also drove by the Denver Art Museum. This new art museum was designed by Architect Daniel Libeskind (he also designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin). The museum features a huge cantilever that reaches over the street below. I remember learning in my engineering class that they had to have extra structural testing done to prove the cantilever would hold even if some sort of accident occurred.

Day 6

IMG_3459We are spending the day with my cousin Emi and her husband Eric. They have been remodeling/updating their new home in Colorado Springs over the past year and they are _MG_1111creating a very cute and cozy home for themselves.

We spent the day exploring Colorado Springs. The Cadet Chapel at the Air Force Academy was a very cool building to visit. It was designed by firm SOM as wings taking flight. Once inside, the beautiful stained glass changes color as it rises towards the sky. Below the Christian chapel are chapels/temples for Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist worshipers.


Next, we went to downtown Colorado City and wandered the farmers market before photo 1eating lunch at 2 South Food and Wine Bar where I enjoyed a pork chop with a rosemary-apple glaze and a potato casserole as a side. It was wonderful.

After wandering through the shops, visiting the original Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and driving through The Garden of the Gods, we were exhausted.

Early night tonight before the start of a long drive into Texas.

Total miles: 1,615

Feasting in Florence with my Mama.

21-26 June 2012.  Thursday to Tuesday.

Gelato: Coffee Crunch + Cream

It was strange to arrive in Florence but not go directly to my little apartment on Via Giraldi.  Instead, my mama and I went to the B&B we had reserved, directly across from Mercato Centrale.  This was going to be more a tourist experience than a student/resident experience–having to live out of a suitcase and explore all of the most famous sights like I had never been here before.

We had dinner across the Arno at Gusta Pizza and gelato at a little Gelateria called “Perché No?” (meaning Why Not?).

The B&B provided us with breakfast at a cute bar down on the street corner.  A bar in Italy is not like a bar in the states.  Yes, it does serve alcohol, but also cafe and pastries in the morning.  Mom, especially, enjoyed sitting at the outdoor tables, before the leather market opened.  The weather still cool, before the day’s heat would set in, we enjoyed our cappuccinos and people watched before starting out for the day.  After breakfast, we crossed the street to the Mercato Centrale to explore the various food vendors.  The fresh fish was particularly interesting, with a pot full of octopus tentacles boiling next to the case of iced shrimp.

Around 11:00, we met up with my friend Krist, who had stayed in Florence for a month to kill time before joining the next group of students to participate in CalPoly’s summer Switzerland program.  We met at the SITA bus station to visit my dear Antica Marcelleria Cecchini in Chianti, one last time.  After raving about it the first two times, I was so excited to show Dario off to my mama.  He was there, working behind the counter.  We enjoyed our little glasses of chianti classico and crustini con lardo (toast topped with lard and Dario’s secret season salt–simply divine). We headed upstairs and enjoyed the outdoor tables, summer Tuscan sun, and vineyard views.  There is something picturesque about the Tuscan countryside; the landscape seems almost too accidentally perfect to be real.  Mom, Krist, and I dined on the usual meats and fresh vegetables.  This time of year, the Tuscan fennel was in season and was so tasty to dip into olive oil mixed with the season salt–so refreshing.

On the way out, mama and I got to stand behind the counter with Dario for a photo and he treated us to digestive shots of Grapa.  While behind the counter, with his huge arms squeezing us together as we posed for the picture, he announced in his deep voice: “To Beef, or not to Beef?!”

That evening, to counter all of the meat we had eaten earlier, we enjoyed a very local restaurant, Il Vegetariano (The Vegetarian).  Located near the train station at Via delle Ruote 30r, the crowd of visitors is young and Italian.  We enjoyed Lasagna and a delicious salad.  This was one of my favorite restaurants in Florence, excellent and healthy food for a good price.

Gelato: Pineapple

We met up with my roommate Alex, who had just returned from visiting her family in Greece for a month, to take the train to the Cinque Terre.  By 10:00, we had arrived in Riomaggiore, the southern most of the five towns.  We slowly walked up the hill to the great view overlooking the sea, wandered through a few shops and down to the harbor.  Next we walked along La Via del’Amore (The Walk of Love) to the next town of Manarola.  We enjoyed lunch at a little seaside restaurant before hopping on the train to Vernazza.  The previous fall, a massive rain storm had caused a huge mud slide, covering much of this town.  Over the year, the town was slowly excavated from the mud and many repairs had to be done.  I was very impressed by how much work had been accomplished since the devastating flood, and it was still possible to see the height of damage caused by the mud and water.  We really enjoyed the little beach and soaked in the sun.

The entire train ride home was quite entertaining.  The peddlers who usually pester visitors, selling silly items to tourists at places like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, must have just gotten off work.  As our train stopped in Pisa, tons of these men got on the train, with their bags of souvenirs and counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags.  They all seemed very nervous, as though they were trying to be sneaky by constantly changing seats and avoiding the conductor.

Hot and tired from a long day in the sun, we just crashed when we got back.

Gelato: Green Tea (while doing laundry)
Fogli di Procopio + Lemon and Basil (post dinner)

Today was the feast day of San Giovanni (St. John the Baptist) the patron saint of Florence.  This is a big day for the Florentines, full of activities.  After breakfast, mama and I headed over to the Duomo to see the festivities taking place at the 10:00 mass.  A choir was singing in the Baptistry and then a huge procession made its way into the cathedral for the grand, feast day mass to be held by the once Archbishop of Florence who had recently been appointed to Cardinal.  He was all decked out in new red robes.  Mama got a little teary eyed and said “I just love it here.” awwww….

We enjoyed sandwiches at Il Due Fratellini (The Two Little Brothers) before hopping on the bus to gather my huge suitcase and a box I had left with Krist, and brought it back to the B&B.  They were both so heavy!  We did some much needed laundry before meeting up with Krist to peek in on the Calco Storico.  This Historic Soccer is a brutal combination of Soccer and Rugby, with no rules and dates back to the ancient Florentines. It now takes place once a year, on the feast of San Giovanni.

Pizza dinner at A Casa Mia (My Home), a favorite of CSU Firenze students and locals alike.  Located near Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, the students usually congregated here for birthday dinners.

The feast day fireworks started at 10pm.  Shot from Piazzale Michelangelo, the best vantage point was the banks of the Arno.  The fireworks were themed with red, white, and green and after about half an hour of them, people started clapping, expecting the end.  But no, they lasted an entire hour.  The intensity of the fireworks kept the streets alive and vibrant as we walked home.

Gelato: Neve di Riso + Baccio

We spend the morning weeding through my suitcases and boxes, trying to fit everything into two 50 pound bags and two carry-ons.  I like to save everything, so it was tough to throw away my old Italian homework.  We walked to school to take some clothes to donate and to visit Connie and Ref in the office.  They were like our parents, always holding our hands as we slowly learned how to navigate in this foreign land.  We visited my old front door on Via Giraldi.  From the corner, we watched as some blond girl entered my home for the past year.  *tear*  Mama had visited Florence with my Oma 30 years ago, when she was my age.  She brought with her some of the photos she had taken and we tried to discover the locations.  We recreated some of the old pictures with my mom posing in the same spots.  It is amazing how little both my mama and Florence have changed in 30 years.

Lunch was at my favorite Panino shop.  Ke Ci Metto?, located at Borgo La Croce 52r, is one of the best places to grab a quick yet delicious panino.  I will go in and say to the owner “Qualcosa ti piace” (something you like) and he will quickly choose one of the many homemade focaccia breads (flavors range from spinach to corn, tomato to beet) and create the best sandwich.  But this is not just a sandwich, he chooses from a special spread, Tuscan meat, and accompanying cheese, all of which go perfectly with each other, and then pops it on the little grill so it is piping hot.  Aw man, so good! yummmmmmm…….

We took the bus up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo to meet Alex.  We enjoyed the view and I did a little shopping at the Benedictine Monk’s craft shop outside of the church San Miniato al Monte.  On the way down, mom and I enjoyed a sit-down dinner before heading back across the Arno to Santo Spirito, to see my friends one last time before we all headed our separate ways.

A final Italian breakfast, last minute packing.  We slowly dragged our bags to the station to catch the bus to the airport.  It was the same hot weather and crowds of people that had greeted me when I had arrived in Florence 10 months before.  We made it to the airport, our bags met the weight requirement, and we were on the plane.  I was sad, but mama and I still had one last adventure to enjoy before heading back to reality.  Ciao Firenze.

Next, and last, stop: London.

Bavaria, Baby!

Over the next three weeks, I will be staying with my cousins in Germany and Austria until my mom meets up with me in Austria, to bring me home.

31 May to 12 June 2012.

The train from Florence to Munich is always a relaxing yet stressful experience. For some reason I’m always afraid I got on the wrong train, but once the conductor checks my ticket, I can sit back and do… nothing. It’s great. Barb met me at the Ulm train station and we had a somewhat epic run down the platform into a warm embrace moment. It is always fun to have someone waiting for you at the station.

Since lunch is the main meal of the day in Germany, we enjoyed a light bread-meat-cheese dinner.

1-6 June. Friday to Wednesday. Staying with Cousin Barb.

Cousin Barb and her family live in the town of Laupheim, about 15 minutes from Ulm. That afternoon, Barb gave me a little tour of the town, while we did errands. The supermarket (I found an ice cream named after me–see picture), Pet’s school, the Bäckerei, and a subtle tribute to Laupheim’s most famous resident, Carl Laemmle. I never knew that the founder of the Universal Motion Picture Company was from the same town as some of my family! Who knew! Laemmle also owned a movie theater called Nickelodeon, which I assume the Universal owned TV channel is named after.

That afternoon, Barb showed me her vast recorder collection. I was quite impressed by how many sizes there are. and so large too?

Finally the weekend, and the family decided to take a drive down to the Bodensee aka. The Lake of Constance. The shore of the Bodensee is shared by three countries: Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, but we stayed on the German side. After a short drive to the sea, we visited the church Birnau, a very decorative Rococco style church. The walls were dripping with carvings and little angels. This is also the location of the origional Honigschlecker (honey licker) statue that my Opa recreated.

After a picnic on the grass outside of Birnau, we visited the town of Meersburg. Here, we visited two beautiful castles, one old and the other very old. We put our feet in the sea and enjoyed the warm sun while we had it — rain was in the forecast for the rest of the week. Next, we took a boat to the Blumeninsel Mainau (The Flower Island of Mainau). With a castle at the top of the hill, the surrounding grounds were covered with flower gardens. Whenever a new rose is germinated, the creator has the honor of planting it in the Minau’s rose garden. The island also had a large green house filled with beautiful butterflies.


I joined the family for mass on Sunday morning. It was a nice change from the very stiff Italian mass because we got to actually sing worship. That afternoon, just as the weather had predicted, it rained; but Ber was brave and decided to do a barbecue anyways. I got to sample many German sausages. He told me to never tell a person from Munich that he put a weisswurst on the bbq.

Tante Git came for lunch today. yummy… Lasagna.

This afternoon, Barb took me to the Castle Sigmaringen. The tour was all in German, but I got an interesting booklet to read in English and I could actually understand a bit of what the guide was saying! At the end of the tour, we walked through the Armory which included a huge collection of medieval and foreign armor. It was pretty cool.

Pet is fascinated by rockets and outer space. He just lights up when we talk about it and he loves going to visit Laupheim’s planetarium. This morning, the planet of Venus was going to pass between the earth and the sun, a “Venus Transit,” so we got up very, very early to go see it just as the sun was rising.

Barb had to go to work that day, so I stayed behind to pack up my things before her sister, my cousin Mar, would come to pick me up.

6-12 June. Wednesday to Tuesday. Staying with Mar and Wolf.

Wednesday. continued.
Mar is a teacher for a university in Ulm that is built in an old abbey that has one of the most beautiful libraries. The University of Wiblingen is a school of medicine and the library is fantastic. The library is also rococo in style and has an amazing mural on the ceiling and many statues throughout.

It was a bavarian holiday making this weekend a four-day weekend! We slept in and took a slow drive down to the Alps. Barb and Wolf have a little hutte nestled in the mountains. We stopped at a ruined castle on the way down and then had an early dinner at a perfect outdoor restaurant. So relaxing.

The hike up to the hutte took about an hour and was tough work! With the aid of hiking sticks, I was able to push myself and my big travel backpack up the mountain. The hut is a simple one room cabin with an outhouse. It was rustic living that weekend for sure. No running water, no electricity. Just a small spring outside and a gas tank for the lamp and stove.




Friday, we went for a walk to a little farm and rest stop for hikers. We enjoyed fresh milk, cheese, and holunder (elderflower) water, along with an amazing view of the mountains. On the walk back to the hut, it started to sprinkle, slowly getting heavier and heavier. I had a little rain jacket on which was ok at first until, suddenly, it started to down pour! I think there was even some hail! I just stood there laughing. I was soaked through and I got to walk for an hour back to the hut to a fire and dry clothes. Even though I was cold and wet, I was so happy. Such a beautiful place. Most beautiful in the world.

Wolf was very proud of himself as he hung all of my clothes up over the little pot belly stove to dry. It was quite the contraption.

While walking through one of the villages near the hut, we stumbled upon a Kneipp Pool. This form of Hydrotherapy was developed by bavarian monk Sebastian Kneipp and involves submerging different parts of your body in ice water and then allowing them to return to room temperature. A Kneipp Pool had been installed along one of the hiking trails, so, we had to try it. Snow melt had come down from the peaks and was directed into this circular pool. As you walk through the mid-calf deep water, you must fully bring your foot out of the water before you take the next step. It was pretty funny looking, but it felt very good.

Wolf’s mother came over in the late morning to try and teach me how to make something that my Oma had made for me when I was little.. I asked for Semmelknoedel in Metzelsupp (bread dumplings in a Butcher’s broth) however, she had never heard of such a combination (maybe it’s an American combination). Semmelknoedel is made from day old bread, formed into balls and boiled. Usually, they are served as a side to meat with gravy. Metzelsupp is one of the best broths made from a left over bone. The marrow seeps out while cooking and really warms you up.

That afternoon, the town of Ulm was holding an open house of the fortress Bundesfestung. This 9 kilometer polygon fortress completely surrounds the cities of Ulm and Neu-Ulm and is one of the largest working fortresses in the world. Constructed in the 1850s, after the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte, it housed many armies throughout many wars, and still holds a small post of the German military. Tours were given through many subterranean bunkers used for defense and storing weapons. I really enjoyed touring the actual fort. One huge ramp wound its way around the pentagon shaped building and up to the roof. We passed huge rooms where soldiers had lived. We also learned that after WWII, these rooms were used as temporary housing for refugees. It was cramped living, but it also had an amazing view of the city of Ulm.

I went with Maria to work today and after lunch, Tante Git came to pick me up for the afternoon. We went to downtown Ulm to do a bit of last minute shopping before I was to leave Germany. Yet again, we got caught in the rain. Mar met us later for afternoon coffee. We all headed back to Mar’s house where Tante Git taught me to make Schupfnudeln (potato noodles).

I miss the food in Germany. Mar always wanted to make something special for me, but it was the typical food that my Oma cooked for me when I was little, that is special for me. I miss the home cooking, the bags of inexpensive marzipan, the honey (Germany has the best wild mountain honey), the schupfnudeln, dampfnudeln, semmelknoedel, pretzels, oh, how the list goes on. Some people rave about Italian and French food, which is excellent, don’t get me wrong. But for me, I choose German food.

Up early. A train to catch and lots of crying on the platform! I’m going to miss them. Next stop Austria.

Gelato Anyone?

It’s the beginning of October and so comes the annual heat wave to California’s central coast.  I sit here, in my concrete architecture studio prison, trying to work on my thesis and sweating in today’s 99 degree dry heat, dreaming of gelato

23-27 May 2012.  Florence Gelato Festival.

The last week in Florence, while I was trying to study and write papers, my tastebuds were constantly tempted by the knowledge that an amazing festival was taking place just blocks away.  This was the third time that the gelato festival descended upon Florence, inviting the best gelato craftsmen from all over the world.  For 10 euro, I got a cool bag, a coupon allowing me to taste 6 different artesian gelati (plural of gelato), and a demonstration on how gelato is made.  Over the five days, I tasted so many different gelato and got many free samples.  In the end, I got to vote on which one was the best.

Gelato’s roots date back to 16th century Florence.  Did you know an architect, Bernardo Buontalenti, is said to have invented gelato?  And it was Catherine de’Medici, whose family is also from Florence, that brought gelato to France and then the rest of the world.

The flavors ranged from sweet to savory, fruit to chocolate.  I will always remember a Parmesan cheese flavored gelato that was topped with sweet balsamic vinegar and a piece of dried prosciutto.  It was — interesting.  But my favorite was the winning gelato.  Canadian Gelato craftsman created a simple gelato flavored with maple syrup.  It was awesome.

Since this festival does not happen every day, the least I can to, after living in Florence (the birthplace of gelato) for a year, is give you a brief review of the top five, must taste, gelaterias (gelato shops).

1.  Antica Gelateria Fiorentina
Via Faenza, 2  (located just around the corner from San Lorenzo)
Small cone (2 flavors): 1 euro
This small gelato shop provides some different, yet tasty flavors.  Try some of their “Gelati Gourmet” like Matcha (Green Tea) or Cuor di Pardula (orange, lemon, and saffron).

2.  Le Parlgine
Via Dei Servi, 41-red (between the Duomo and Piazza Santissima Annunziata)
Small cone (2flavors): 1.50 euro
They have lots of fresh fruit flavors like pear and banana and yummy flavors like After 8 (mint cookies).  My favorite combination was canella (cinnamon) with cafe.

3.  Gelateria La Carraia
Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25-red
Small cone (1 flavor): 1 euro
Located on the south bank of the Arno river, just across Ponte alla Carraia, is this hidden gelato shop.  My roommate Han found it and she recommends Yogurt with Nutella.  But I enjoy Torta di Limone (lemon cake).

4. Il Procopio
Via Pietrapiana 60-red
Small cone (2 flavors): 2.50 euro
A bit more expensive, but totally worth the extra cost.  They also have different flavors like Limone e Basilico (Lemon and Basil).  I sounds strange but it is so refreshing on a hot day.  Also try Fogli di Procopio (translates to Layers of Procopio) and so many delicious flavors are folded into this delicious gelato.

5. Gelateria Ermini
Via Vicenzo Gioberti, 123-red
Small cone (2 flavors): 1.50 euro
Located right between my school and COOP (my grocery store).  I often stopped at this historic Gelateria on the way home, and slowly it became my favorite gelato joint.  And I like to think that the cute Italian boy behind the counter (and I think the owner’s son) began to recognize me after a while.  The usual:  Neve di Riso and Baccio  (translates to Snow of Rice and a kiss).  Neve di Riso is a simple, milk based flavor that has bits of rice and it was the best.  Baccio is a blend of rich chocolate and hazelnut with huge chunks of hazelnut mixed inside.  The combination of these two flavors always made me happy as I slowly walked home from school.

Why is Gelato better than ice cream?  It’s creamier, it’s smoother, and, following the Italian tradition of using local products, it is just so flavorful and fresh.  Gelato anyone?

Croatia. A Hidden Treasure.

6-15 April: Spring Break. Part 2.

Croatia is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Our week long drive through this very small country took us to beautiful and diverse landscapes, ancients cities, and some of the friendliest people we had met anywhere else in Europe. Everyone we interacted with was very hospitable and was happy to show us their Croatian culture.

Croatia is a very young country, but its culture dates back to the Romans. Many palaces were established by Emperor Diocletian. Control always seemed to be held elsewhere; first by the Ottoman Empire, then the Hapsburg Empire, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was only in 1991, during the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, that Croatia declared their independence and fought a brutal war to gain their own republic government. Compared to other formerly Yugoslav countries like Romania and Albania, they seem to be doing amazingly well after such a short time of independence. They have become a very popular vacation destination for Europeans, they have recently built a beautiful highway system, they hold an active part in Mediterranean trade, and they can still encourage their unique culture; yet, their very recent and tough past can still be seen reflected in their eyes. They have had a hard 20 years since independence but what they have now is incredible.

9 April: Monday

The Croatian boarder guard was very daunting as we passed between Hungry and Croatia. They carefully looked at each of our passports and visas and had us open the trunk of the car. We were now stepping out of the EU and into “unknown” territory. The “Republika Hrvatska,” aka Croatia, had a very tight boarder control and, from what I could tell, they were not too eager to open boarders and join the EU.

Our first stop was in the capitol of Zagreb (to the north east). It was just a quick lunch stop where we discovered our staple food for our stay. Beef soup was a beef broth with little noodles and veggies and it was so delicious everywhere we ate it!

Today was long drive to the seacoast. The cross-country trek took us through grassy countryside, snow-capped mountains, miles of tunnels, and finally down winding roads to the seaside. I was amazed how quickly the landscape changed. We stayed in the town of Zadar and slept very well at a little guesthouse an older couple was renting to us.

10 April: Tuesday

We made a quick visit to the ancient town center where we visited ruins, and the water organ (see the video below) and discovered something special. In-&-Out! We had heard fantasy stories of an In-N-Out in Croatia and we were so surprised to happen upon it during our walk through the town. It looked legit at first, until we noticed some changes to the sign. Can you spot the difference? Al was so excited that he ordered us all double-doubles that turned out to be larger than my face and none of us could finish them.

We spent the afternoon at Krka National Park, the little sister of the Plitvice Lakes. Raised wooden paths glided us over the clear blue water, amazing waterfalls, and calcium carbonate deposits. The weather was perfect and I was blown away that such a beautiful place exists. Al was brave enough to take a dip in the one swimming hole, but the water was too cold for us girls.


A little interview with Al before we left the lakes:

11-12 April: Wednesday & Thursday

Tuesday evening we arrived in the town of Split. We made arrangements to rent an apartment for the four of us for less than a hostel. Our apartment was just a block away from Diocletian’s palace (the ruins had been turned into the main shopping area and tourist center) and steps from our favorite restaurant FIFE, where we ate each night. At FIFE, we feasted on seafood risotto, grilled catch of the day, beef soup, and free water. We ate the local cuisine “family style” at this restaurant every night. We met lots of nice people and we sat next to an Italian couple one night and they gave us the food they could not finish! It is perfect for poor and starving college students like us. 😀


We spent these few days soaking up the sun, eating, shopping, and goofing off. We even took a swim in the, still cold, spring, sea. Madi broke off from the group she was traveling with and met up with us in Split on Thursday night and would travel with us for the rest of the trip.

Me, JC, Al, and Jess in Split.

13 April: Friday

Croatia is also called the Dalmatian coast, named for the thousands of small islands that dot the coastline. We decided to take an hour ferry to the island Hvar. The weather was horrible, but I think it was one of the best days of the trip. I think our group and a Japanese-American tour group (led by a cute, 85-year old powerhouse Japanese granny) were the only ones visiting the island that day. The sea was angry and it rained all day, but we still ventured out and enjoyed the view. I even did a watercolor!

our dates. jk

The best part was dinner that night. We left our lodging up the hill and ventured into the town. The poked our head into the only restaurant with lights on and it was packed. We were seated quickly by the owner, who was ecstatic to discover that we were from California! He said, “I have a cousin in California! He owns a winery in Pismo Beach!” Again, our world is so small! Alviz served delicious us delicious food. I had cevapcici, ground beef fingers grilled over an open flame and served with a spicy red sauce. So tasty! The owner gave us some desserts to try including an almond semi-freddo that was to die for! Mid-way through the meal, the owner’s buddies (I think most were fishermen) can in to have a drink and they all started singing in Croatian and having a grand old time! It was such a fun atmosphere!

14-15 April: Saturday & Sunday

In the morning, we took the ferry back to Split and began the drive back to Firenze. We spent the night in Rijeka, one of the largest ports in Croatia that had a bustling student nightlife. Dinner was at an Italian restaurant where Al and Madi had the spiciest pizza ever. They were both crying.

Sunday morning, we visited the town of Rovinj. We had lunch and wandered through the stone streets of this hill/sea town. It was very beautiful and quaint.

We were back in Firenze around 8pm. All exhausted from sitting in the car and traveling. This trip was a nice break from our normally rigid travel schedule.

– – – – –
I loved Croatia. I would recommend 1000 times over to anyone. The country is so diverse and offers many unique things to see. We were there in the early spring, when the weather is still cold and rainy and I can’t wait to go again some summer when I can enjoy the turquoise water.

Thanks Croatia for the best of times.

The Butcher of Panzano

31 March 2012: Saturday

“This is Antica Macelleria Cecchini. It’s a butcher shop, but not really. In the words of Bill Buford, writing about it in his best selling book Heat: “It’s a museum of Tuscan cooking.” And this man, Dario Cecchini, is the most famous and respected butchers in Italy, and maybe the world. But just as a Macelleria is not simply a butcher shop, Dario is not just a butcher, he is something else entirely. He is a repository of knowledge for all things Tuscan. Be it food ways, historical arcania, literature, or poetry. He is a huge defender of traditional methods of preparation and original Medici era recipes. ” -Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Tuscany

Located in the small town of Panzano in Chianti, this butcher shop, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini, has been passed down from father to son over the past 250 years. Every ingredient he uses is local and fresh, from the meat to the glass of Chianti wine served to me as I walked in the door.

Panzano in Chianti is an easy hour bus ride from Florence, and we arrived just in time for lunch. I was joined by my friends JC, Fran, Gabe, Kat, and Kat’s friend Ling who was visiting from home. We pushed ourselves into the small shop, there were lots of people there buying meats, the walls were covered with antiques and memorabilia, the fridge was hung full of waiting carcasses, and there was Dario himself, pouring me a glass of wine and handing out samples of wonderful Salami Toscana.

Just across the narrow, cobblestone street, is Dario’s restaurant. There are only two items on the simple Menu. We all shared orders of the Dario Doc, a half pound, crumb crusted burger, and Accoglienza, which included samples of steak tartar (yes, I tried it, and yes, I knew it was raw), Chianti tuna (pork with herbs and garlic), and meatloaf with a sweet bell pepper sauce (my favorite). Everything was so tender and fantastically flavored that we were all in a carnivorous heaven. We had to be rolled out the door and down the hill to the bus.


Before leaving, Fran (who was just as excited to meet Dario as I was) and I got to stand behind the counter with Dario for a photo! Dario was so excited to hear that we were from California. In a combination of English and Italian, he told us that his wife is from California and that they were heading there in a few weeks to do some cooking for the LA restaurant Valentino. This is a great butcher, in the tiny town, and he was so great.

Fava Beans

I guess I have been on a bit of a food kick lately, but some of the food is so different than what we have in the United States.  Food is always so fresh that I can’t help but try it.

Fava beans were something I had always heard of,

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”   -Dr. Hannibal Lecter

but never seen at the markets before.  With the onset of spring, the beans were ripe and Italian Grandmas were buying them by the bag load.  So, I bought a few.

The beans themselves had to be removed from two shells.  First, the thick outer pod, with its fuzzy inner lining.  Then, I quickly boiled them in some salt water and the bean slipped out of their individual shell.  For the size of the pod, the actual beans are really tiny.

I mashed them together with some lentils, olive oil, and salt and spread them on a piece of baguette and then added a slice of fresh mozzarella.  It was so fantastic and fresh.  Perfect for a warm spring day in Toscana!


Cucina Italiana: Pumpkin Ravioli

Pumpkin Ravioli. After living in Firenze for 7 months, I finally feel confident enough to try my hand at homemade pasta.

3.5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for hands and rolling
5 eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small can pumpkin
4 teaspoons chopped red onion
1/3 cup butter, cubed
3/4 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 egg, lightly beaten

1. Put 3 cups flour in a large bowl; make a well in the center. Beat eggs and oil; pour into well. Stir together, forming a ball. Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, about 8-10 minutes, add more flour if necessary to keep dough from sticking. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, sauté pumpkin and onion in butter. Add thyme, salt, pepper, and cream. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes or until thickened.

3. Divide pasta dough into fourths; roll one portion to 1/16-in. thickness. (Keep remaining dough covered until ready to use.) Use cookie cutter or glass to cut out round circles from dough. Place rounded teaspoonfuls of filling in center of each circle. Brush egg lightly on edge. Fold in half, pinch edge together. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

4. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add ravioli. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer; cook for 3-5 minutes or until ravioli float to the top and are tender. Drain and keep warm.

Sauce Options.

Thyme and Cream Sauce:
In a saucepan, bring cream to a boil; cook, uncovered, until reduced by half. Stir in 1 T. butter and thyme.

My favorite sauce is a simple browned butter. I think it goes best with the sweetness of the pumpkin while the cream sauce is a bit richer. Both are delicious!

Recipe adopted from: Taste of Home

I Can’t Eat Pizza Again. Ever.

‘”Please go to this pizzeria. Order the margherita pizza with double mozzarella. If you do not eat this pizza when you are Naples, please lie to me later and tell me that you did…’ I am having a relationship with my pizza… Meanwhile, Sofie is practically in tears over hers.” Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Glibert

It’s true. I can never eat pizza again. And it is not because I am tired of pizza or that I had a bad pizza. It is because I am afraid of losing the taste of the amazing pizza that I experienced while in Napoli.

My gastronomic goal while in Napoli was to visit Pizzeria da Michele. This old pizzeria has been passed down through generations since 1870 and is said to have the best pizza in Napoli. Napoli is said to have the best pizza in the world. Therefore, this pizza, the pizza of Pizzeria da Michele, must be the best pizza in the world. And you know what? I think it was the best pizza I had ever eaten, and I have had my fill of pizza in Italy!

When we got to the pizzeria, a huge crowd was already gathered around the door, waiting for their table. We waited about an hour and then we were finally let in. Our table was right by the ovens. We had a great view of the baker and watched as the quickly slipped the thin, floppy pizzas next to the wood-burning fire.

The dough was thin, but soft. The sauce was sweet. I even got double mozzarella; that is, double buffalo mozzarella! It was heaven.