|An Orange Excursion||
All those miles, all those sticks and stones, those countless cracks and crevices, dodging traffic and sidewalk-sized people, finally culminated into a 42km (26.something) trek through Rome. Yes, one would say, "Why what a wonderful chance to see one of the most famous and historically important cities on the planet." Indeed that would be the case, however, after walking the city for 2 days, staying up way to late the night before, and standing for 1 hour like a human penguin in a huddle of fellow racers, by the tenth km I was focused on keeping pace and survival. Did I see the Fontana di Trevi, yes, the night before the the morning before. However, at the 39th km, I apparently ran past it, but never even noticed it. I can say that I probably know the cobblestones and pavement better than most Romans. However, I could not of asked to run a Marathon in a better city, as carbohydrates are readily available in almost ever form. Pizza (which I indulged in a number of times and in differing varieties, bianca, margharita, stuff with eggplant and feta), pasta (a beautiful sweet potato ensconced ravioli with cream sauce and arugala..mhmmmm), and enough cannoli's to make Sylverster Stallone jealous.
Now I would love to discuss my running. The marathon is one of the purest highlights of my life until this point. 42km of pounding the ground, of the purest sports on the planet. Just pushing until the end with no balls, bats, or helmets. Just running from point A to point B with some hills, uneven pavement, misguided tourists and fellow racers in between. Was I dead after this? Yes. Indeed, just destroyed, but the complimentary massage afterwards was the most painfully delightful experience ever. But I regret nothing, and for me, finishing with the time I wanted, and in a percentile that I would expect to get on a Calculus test if I had to take one now (3%). We runners are weird, but you haven't tasted a finale until you run around the Colosseum and finish to the thump of the theme song to Gladiator. I was dead but alive.
I am not going to lie, I was really hoping Tom Hanks would pop out of an alleyway and recruit me for some fantastic sci-fi Rome thriller. Unfortunately that did not happen, but some pizza and gelato stands did practically that. Two things, the best pizza form comes with only 2 toppings: salt and olive oil, and the secondly, follow the young people. If you follow them, the pizza will be good and the prices be reasonable. However, the best pizza was not even in Rome, but in a town a bit farther north, but to that, I shall get to later. In Rome, Antica Forno had a line out the door when I got there (after already eating a ton of pizza and just so happened to pass by, and obviously could not say no) and had a ton of pistachio flavored everything. This is a true sin of mine. So, I ordered what everyone else was getting, the simple, Pizza bianca and a pistachio biscotti, which I saved (unbelievably) until after my marathon. All one needs is a sunny, cloudless day in Rome with pizza in hand to appreciate life and the beauty of Mediterranean countries.
On the tip of a wonderful Roman colleague, who has made this blog post an easy one to type out, and who has made my running sanctioned trip to Roma both fun and organized, I must say Thank You to her (I don't name names on this blog, but she knows who she is!). The beautiful thing to the left was what I did not 1 hour off of the train. You cannot go to Rome and not have gelato within the first day. It is simply a deadly thing. So, I bee-lined for the famous old-school Giolitti to have my first encounter with true Italian cuisine from Italy. Unfortunately for my in Italy you pay first, then take the ticket to the counter to pick it up. This is anti-thetical to Belgium, where you get served then pay, or the US, where you do both at the same time. So after looking stupid for a little bit I followed suit and ordered a tiramisu and caffe gelato. If Italy could be blended, heated, then frozen into a cold treat, I think that is precisely what it would taste like.
Being able to see my three favorite things: Dead famous people, totally ancient buildings, and places where Russell Crowe chopped limbs off are so easily accessible in Rome that it is almost not even a challenge. Every church houses lots and lots of gold, glass encased dead saints or popes, and as I walked around there would be a ruin here, ancient staircase there, or something that I had seen on the History Channel across the Tiberius. But unlike some other European cities, it was very manageable, and I walked a good portion of it over the course of two days, and if you happen to have 3-5 hours and 42km of running room, can easily see it.
For 2.5 days it was all Rome. But the last couple days was spent with my family from Canale Monterano, they graciously showed me around the area, and really got me out of the "city mode" that I had been in for quite some time. Canale is the town, and Monterano is the fortress city that the French decided to destroy. Hey, s*^t happens I suppose. But it was home to prehistoric homo sapian caves, then the Etruscans came along making some pots and dishes, then the pope decided it would be nice cannon fodder for any invading army, and now it is a wonderful nature reserve and in May makes for a great party spot. But also I had the opportunity to see Bracciano, which is made famous by a castle that Tom Cruise got married in. I touched it, stood on it, and for once agree with Crazy Cruise, yes, that is one hell of a nice castle. I touched the house of a direct ancestor, which I imagine has not changed much since that generation has lived in it and had pizza that they probably ate, and if their genes are in me, enjoyed it just as much. One would not think much about Canale Monterano as a bastion of culinary genius. But it is. The local bakery has had a New York Times article partially dedicated to it, with a pizza bianca that is crunchy and like the most delicious piece of yeast leavened bread that you have ever had. The fact that I had sausages from there that I thought were special, but turned out to be "normal" sausages made me love Italy all that more.
Four days, so many kms traveled, so many years of human history traversed, so many calories ingested and burned, and bonded with my fantastic family in place it all started. I think I did some good work for my short stay in Rome, and look to be back sooner rather than later. It is rare that I am infatuated with a place but it was a magical four days that won't soon be forgotten. Plus Rome's streets are very nice...trust me, I saw every bit of them. So Rome makes me really happy. I think my area of travels will have to take a turn south. I already love their cuisine, so why not dive right in? Well, off to take a two week adventure to compliment my work on Europe with practical, hands-on, tasteful and well museumed Central-Eastern European trip. But the cities I am visiting will really have to do something special to overtake Rome. Ohh that pizza.......
I come from a 'Burg. So naturally, it makes sense that I end up in a few 'Bourgs while abroad. It was also my dream to finally finish off the the "Lux" of the BeNeLux countries, with a trip to the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg. Luckily for me, it decided to snow--a lot--over the course of the entire day. It was as Luxembourg should be, snowy and picturesque. Only trying to climb up all the hills and avoid dieing on medieval steps while wearing very thin, very lite, and very un-snow worthy boots was a challenge. Note to self--when traveling to Luxembourg, prepare for what you want.
Castles on a hill, underground caverns that have had many different functions, but are now cheap tourist attractions (and a UNESCO Heritage site of course) and overly helpful people, that is what Luxembourg City is. Every time I pulled out my map, people wanted to know if I needed help. I don't know if I look Luxembourgisch...in fact I am unsure as to what one looks like...but by god, they were nice. I guess growing up on that hill surrounded by forests and brick walls can do that to you. A new face gets you all excited. Or maybe they just wanted my business...which would not be unheard of in the richest per capita country in the EU. Anyways, the City showed me a grand day. With snowed covered pines and frozen fortifications everywhere, along with a nice hearty plate of pork and beans with baked potatoes (their national dish), I was feeling really good. One of the most interesting parts was the Bock Casemates which are essentially catacombs that are were storage areas, which were then bunkers during the many sieges that fortress Luxembourg has seen. What is not okay about them is the severely uneven floors, pitch black hallways, and steps which, while internationally protected have been so worn down that they are more of a ramp than step. For someone wearing shoes with very little traction cover in ice, it was a harrowing experience (normally I would be fine with it, but c'mon I have a marathon in a couple of days!)
Luxembourg, for being essentially a micro-state, it pretty neat. I mean the place was dismantled by the Great Powers because no one could break its defenses (like Fort Thueringin above). That takes some ingenuity, and by god they have turned it around into a gold mine. Surprisingly decent beer, hearty food, a nice blanket of snow, and a tidy little mountain capital city...all in about 6 hours...can't beat that!
Luckily, one 'Bourg is one the way to another 'Bourg--Strasbourg. Technically the same thing that is in Brussels, only once a month the European Union decides to due business there because of Treaty obligations. At least it is in a very, very cool city. I agree with any city that has a plethora of canals. I also agree with any city who has a monumental cathedral (if you need any evidence of this, please reread 2011's trip to Cologne). Lastly, I agree with any city who is known for their fattened goose liver and white Alsatian vin. Yes Strasbourg, you won many points.
This behemoth to the left really gave the Kolner Dom a run for its money. Not only is it, yes, offer center, but there is not one inch that is not adorned with something. Spire, gargoyle, guy on a horse, demon thing, it is all there. Not only that, but the inside houses an ancient astrological clock. Me and a a bunch of Italian school students watched as 12.30 rolled around, and a wooden Jesus blessed some apostles, and the whole "this is time, it is ticking down, but don't worry because it'll all be fine and dandy in the end" deal was the theme. However, I thought that having it as a personal alarm clock would be fantastic.
The interesting thing about STR (the abbrev. of Strasbourg) is that is French and German. The area has French cuisine but drinks German wine, eats dainty pastries but houses down big, deep pots of stewed meats and cabbage. So, naturally, it is my type of place. The pasty block that you see on the left is foie gras. It is a specific type of European goose that is specifically fattened to specific qualifications to produce one hell of a piece of liver. It is nutty, fatty, and sweet, and when you mix a little bit of berry and chive on there, it is pure heaven. For 20Euros--as an appetizer--it is heavy on the wallet, and the waistline. But in the Alsace region of France, if you do not get it there, where they have perfected the entire process, then shame on you!
Possibly the only thing I find more picturesque than a snowy castle in Luxembourg is anything that sits on a canal. Where water and man-made stone meet, I have a love-affair. In STR there is definitely no shortage of that. Everything was different, yet uniform, all very old looking, and they took great care into making the new building blend in with the original surrounding, unlike that other European capital...yes, you Brussels...that make for a very harmonious scene. The winding, tight streets, the toll of bells, the sound of the streams, it was so peaceful. Especially the area of Petite France which is literally out of a storybook. A little village on a bunch of little islands, all medieval and such. Something that is routine here, but to us Americans, it is an entirely different world. Drinking in pubs that had people in them dieing from the bubonic plague just makes a meal historically satisfying.
Yes the 'Bourgs treated me right. Good food, nice towns, and I maxed out my camera. Can't say anything bad about that. And all on one train line. A great way to spend a quick three days-from impenetrable castles to lazy canals, separated by only a couple of hours and the occasional train blockage!
Okay, so the bad thing about traveling is that I cannot properly write my blog. I see that my last one happened on February 23. Yes, I am a bad person, or as some Spaniards say, 'I'm a bad pawhson." Sorry world, sorry, I was having too much fun, going to far (not really), getting my medieval swag on, and eating...a lot.
I suppose the easiest thing to do is start with my "Meal of the Week." Yes I have eaten much, that is a given, but I must say that PIZZA has been my theme. Thick, thin, extra thin, and a Dutch pancake, because it really is a Napolitano pizza. Especially when you put cheese, bacon, ham, cucumber, and olives on it. Plus I had it in a "Snow White & the Seven Dwarves" themed restaurant surrounded by crying children. One who especially hid behind my corner seat and kicked me repeatedly. So for what I endured, the kicking, the screaming, the scary looking troll people watching me as I indulged, IF I CALL IT PIZZA, BY GOD IT'S A PANCAKE. But a boerenpannekoek was not the No.1 digestation of the period. Yes I had a nice pizza at an Italian place, however it took 2 hours to arrive. It was nice, but it wasn't this:
Yea. You can see them. Small discs that are half the thickness of a tortilla. Covered in not mozzarella, but gruyere cheese, with some anchovies, ham, obviously an egg, and the other has not burnt, but crispy and well done eggplant, scallops, and a some creme fraiche. Beautiful, simply beautiful. Can you eat the Mona Lisa? No, but you can and we did eat these. Because of their thinness, we didn't feel weighed down from them. That was good, because it was time to go to a very trendy university bar to have something called the Pink Elephant in a shaker bottle. Good thing it wasn't a long trip back! Could I have eaten more? Yes. However, it was so awesome, so pizza-life changing that I was on a pizza high and didn't get the name or picture of the place. That is the hallmark of a good restaurant menu, you never see the insignia, just the bible-length list of pizzas.
But now to my title. Medieval. Yes, for 3 out of 4 days I existed in some of the best preserved medieval cities around. Middelburg en Gent. Middelburg was fantastic. Back in the Netherlands for me! As soon as I passed the border I knew it was back in the big old NL. Bikes, clean trains, and of course, everyone is tall and blond and the guy on the train who sat next to me feasted on cold mashed potatoes and carrots. What a guy. One of the best parts of M'burg is the fact that you can literally walk through people's backyards. Because it is a medieval town, there are little entrances and by-ways, little doors and narrow streets that go sometimes to absolutely nowhere. I spent a good hour of my day being quite intrigued by these little guys. I suppose the tenants don't usually sun bathe naked, otherwise a tourist like I may just get more than just a glimpse of old churches and cobbled stone streets. For example, who could pass up the intrigue of this:
But M'burg is really too cool. A nice college town with boats and tons of old stuff. I mean to stand in the city square and to think that people may have had bubonic plague there. It really is inspiring. Plus it was a fortress town, so there were definitely knights of there at some point. Not the Knights of St. John's, who are a horrible basketball team, but real, touchable, "I'll cut you in half with my two-handed sword" type of people. Not too mention that at one point, way after dusk, I stopped in the middle square--the hub of town--and heard------NOTHING. Nothing but the silent peddling an occasional cackle of a loose bike chain. I am always one who believes that getting out of your current place gives you much respect for the new spot. Either because of the little things like hearing very little, or the that you know on your way home you'll be stopping in your favorite Belgian city (Antwerp) to drink at your favorite non-Amsterdam tavern (Da Vagant) and will be drinking classy jenevers (Pumpkin-Oude-Appel--I did). The only problem with M'burg wasn't the delicious haring, the huge pancake, the back alleys, overt Christianity (I was evangelised while trying to send a text), but the fact that on the day I was there with no map, thus wandering aimlessly, but always with intellectual purpose, the same silver clad girl kept trying to sell my gum. Please girl, I have stuff to see and things to eat no crappy gum to chew.
A funny little thing they do in M'burg. Besides putting their name on the door, they put little witty sayings, such as "De Zwarte Paar" (the black horse) "De Gouden Boothuis (The golden boathouse). But this one took the taart. "De Drie Monsterzakken" while to untrained english ears sounds like a horror movie in the making, it actually translates to "The Three Sample Bags." The bears don't quite make sense, but sometimes one doesn't question things. I don't know if that is what they were going for, but okay, I guess I am cool with it!
So after that, it was back to good old, yet warm and cheery Brussels. As I always say, as I run around town in the cold, see about 15 people over the course of 2 hours, and wonder if I am missing a big party (I think I do, it is called the "We hate cold and are staying indoors party"). Once it got about 50degrees Fahrenheit people took clothing off, laid out on park benches, ate outside, and genuinely smiled. I guess Vitamin K deficiencies do exist!
But alas, on Thursday I had the time, and energy to go the Ghent, or Gent in Dutch, which I how I'll spell it because my right forefinger doesn't want to go left (now try typing without thinking about consciously typing that "H"--your're welcome, go home, your web browsing for the day is finished.)
To sum up, Gent is old--really old. It was once quite the powerful Flemish city, and is now home to way too many tourist trap restaurants, giant gothic cathedrals, a painting called 'The Lamb of God' which I paid 4 Euros to see, and like most of these hyped up paintings, thought the copy outside was just as fitting, and a lot, I mean a lot of small batch breweries. It was really how I planned my day. De Gruut, Het Bierhuis, De Trollekelder, Cafe de Turk--meaning I drank a bruinhuisbier, something called a "Makkelokker", a Trollebier (yes another freaky place, instead of Dwarves watching me, it was trolls), and a Gentse Strop, which was a hoppy blond beer, but drank in a cafe that had been around doing what it does since Anno 1228. I like to think a lot of people did the same as I did, for almost 800 years. Is our beer just as good? Yep (I had a medieval beer in Antwerp whose recipe has never changed since the 1200s, and guess what? No hops, but nothing different from a bruinbier).
I like old stuff. Dead saints, old graves, things that look like they are physically unsound, it is all in good fun and happy travels. Gent is the king of this. A Belfry, and 3 ancient churches all within 2 minutes walk. To this a drink to you Gent! You made my walking easy. It may have rained a bit, but that made it again an interesting scenario, that I was standing in the main square, fumbling with my cheap Polish umbrella, and someone, at sometime probably was at that spot in the 1300s, fumbling to stay alive because of bubonic plague. Now Gent has quite the history. CIA blacksites, where the government shipped people for questioning and "enhanced interrogation techniques" made popular by Kiefer Sutherland, look like nothing. Gent was the medieval torture capital of Europe. The big castle there, De Gravensteen (translate-the Grave stone....) holds a wonderful exhibit of things you were exposed to if you laughed at the king. Let me tell you, if a necklace of spikes being forced into you neck doesn't not sound like a good time,then it was definitely a "yes sir, no sir" type of society.
Did I mention the digestations? I mean the drink was great. The only "stadbrouwerij" or city brewery is De Gruut. Drinking in between them making beer? That is what I call knowing what you are drinking. But the Gent is home to the best Brussels-style waffles in, maybe, the world. To this I knew I must have sampled these beasts of the waffley world. Indeed, housed in an Art-Nouveau house overlooking a St. Baafcathedraal and some funky modern art version of a chapel, laid Establissement Max. With Frank Sinatra blaring, Dean Martin swaying, and a very many smiling old people, I ate THE BEST BRUSSELSE WAFEL EVER. It was crispy on the outside, but not burnt, as some make them, but the inside was not completely airy, but gooey and not quite cooked entirely. On top of that, I have the advocaatse wafel meaning whipped cream and advocaat, which is sugar, egg yolk, and cointreau mixed into a light syrup. Heaven on a dish? No, because I have had too many of those, but a damn good time in my mouth. Brussels, you have been duped by your Flemish counterpart and the old sweaty guy in the back.
Overall a splendid 6 days. Now it is off to pay homage to beer gods (literally, it is Trappist Monks we are talking about here). Then, I will have the most busy month of my life. I will be Hilary Clinton-lite. Luxembourg to Strasbourg to Rome. Then after that, it is still being finalised. So, look forward to a another inundation with stuff from 3 very different cities in 3 very different cities (I don't think Rome and Luxembourg City will be comparable) --this last adventure had the cities to be pretty homogenous). Cheers!