A couple of months ago, I had the treat of visiting my dear friend and her husband who were living near Porto, Portugal. Though my primary goal for the trip was seeing and hanging out with her, I was, of course, ecstatic to explore another European country. They were such wonderful hosts to me and took me all over the place to experience everything Portuguese.
One of my favorite pastimes ended out being scouring the surrounding areas for unique tiles and colorful doors. There is an abundance! The city of Porto is decorated everywhere with the iconic blue and white tiles, from the train stations to the church exteriors. But even in the smaller towns nearby, there is no shortage of intricate tiles in every color imaginable.
My other favorite pastime was— wait for it— eating! Big surprise. Thankfully, my friend and I have always shared a love for food, so I was never hungry. After they picked me up from the airport, we went into Porto and ate a massive, Porto-original sandwich, called a Francesinha. I think there were about four or five different kinds of meat inside, and the amount of cheese on top was crazy! In general, I found that Portuguese food is quite rich and hearty. The baked goods in Portugal are hard to beat. From the delectable pastel de nata to the traditional, pillow-soft, sweet croissant, Portuguese treats kept our tummies full in the time between meals. Oh and did I mention the churros?!? Interestingly, these Portuguese churros far surpassed the Spanish version. Lastly, I was obliged to try the strange but popular egg yolk sweet, called ovos moles. The town of Aveiro is known as the home to these little novelties. I actually liked it, much to my friend’s chagrin, ha!
This, my friends, is ovos moles.
Pastel de nata (custard tart)
We did so many other things too. And I wish I had more pictures to share. The view of Porto from the Gaia side of the river is stunning. The narrow, cobblestone alleyways are enchantingly medieval. The Ovar Thursday market is a bustling place of trade. The expansive, sandy beaches are warm and peaceful in February. And I mustn’t forget to mention the very awkward experience of accidentally walking in on a small, private funeral and backing out slowly.
The copious amount of sunshine was just one of the many pleasures of our recent trip to Malta. Needless to say, I sunburned a little. We spent three wonderful days on that tiny island and saw it all… well, almost.
Day 1 – Off-roading and jaw-dropping vistas
The theme of Day 1 really did seem to be off-roading. We had rented a little manual Kia Picanto, and Tex adapted to driving on the left side rather seamlessly. But our GPS directed us to take some very rocky paths (I won’t even call them roads). Somehow, we made it out alive and laughing and with somewhat higher blood pressures. Anywho, our first stop was to see St. Paul’s Island on the north side of the island. This is where they claim that Paul and Luke shipwrecked. You can read about it in Acts 27. While this stop wasn’t initially part of our itinerary, it ended out being one of my favorite things. Not only is it incredible to think of the apostle clambering out of a wrecked ship right there, but it is also a beautiful display of God’s creation. And as a cherry on top, we were the only souls there to soak it in that morning.
From there, we drove down to Mdina, an ancient city near the center of the island. This was the capital of Malta during the time of Paul and is likely the town where Paul stayed for much of his time on the island. St. Paul’s Grotto (technically in the town of Rabat, but within walking distance of Mdina) is the underground site claimed to have been where Paul founded the first Christian community on Malta. We purchased tickets at the Wignacourt Museum, which gave us entrance to both the Grotto and St. Paul’s Catacombs, as well as some WWII bomb shelters. The catacombs are early (4th century AD) Christian burial grounds, made up of innumerable tunnels and cave-like rooms. We had never seen any catacombs before, and these were remarkably fun to explore. One of the special pieces of architecture down there was called an Agape table. It was at this table that certain funerary feasts took place in honor of the dead.
Wandering the streets of Mdina
An Agape table in the catacombs
One more memorable stop in Mdina was an adorable tea garden, called Fontanella Tea Garden. It sits on the edge of the city’s high wall and overlooks much of the island. We ordered tea and tried a couple of their popular cakes, a strawberry meringue and a lemon cheesecake. I was quite pleased with the quick service and decent prices of this little establishment.
A bit after noon, we hopped into the car and headed towards the Blue Grotto on the southwest coast of the island. We were amazed at how easy it was to cover pretty much the entire island of Malta in one day, well really only 2 hours, of driving. Once we arrived and parked, we headed out to buy tickets for the much-sought-after boat rides into the Blue Grotto. I can only imagine the crowds there in the summer, but early February proved to be the perfect time to visit. For only 8 Euros each, we rode in a small motorized fishing boat out into the crystal Mediterranean and cruised through several grottos, including the Cat’s Cave, Reflection Cave, and of course the Blue Grotto. The light turquoise water that you can see in one of the pictures is caused by white sand on the sea floor reflecting light back up through the water. This was truly breathtaking.
Our last destination for the day was the southern tip of the island, near Marsaxlokk. We took in some sun and watched the waves lap against the stony edge of St. Peter’s Pool. While I do wish it had been warm enough for us to swim, we were happy to be there with fewer people. We also visited the Salinas salt pans, one area of many on the island which have been used since the Phoenicians first established them. Still today, throughout the summer months, there are families that tend to the salt pans and harvest the sea salt after the water has evaporated.
After a very long walk to a highly-reviewed and very much closed restaurant, we stopped at a little seaside joint in Marsaxlokk to eat. Tex had quite a plate of pan-fried calamari, and I had some yummy fish-filled ravioli.
Day 2 – The Maltese Capital
We spent all of Sunday in the capital city, Valletta, which boasts of forts, gardens, and long hilly streets. The two main things on our agenda were Fort St. Elmo and the Palace Armory. And of course, some renowned pizza.
An unending staircase sidewalk
Looking over the city wall by the main gate
To start off our morning, we began walking along the city wall towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens. I think we could have stayed in the gardens looking across the Grand Harbor all morning and never have gotten bored. Plus, it helps to have a walking encyclopedia like Tex to tell you all you need to know about the Great Siege which happened there.
We continued along the wall until we reached Fort St. Elmo (which was closed for another couple hours), and then walked into the old city center to the Palace Armory. The Armory seemed to be a fairly extensive collection, exhibiting everything from real Knights’ suits of armor to early guns. By this time, we were famished and rolled on down to Sally Port Pizzeria. I ordered the La Vallette pizza with Maltese sausage and goat cheese, and Tex had the Genovese pizza with pesto, parma ham, and “too much green stuff” (haha!). There weren’t any seats available at the restaurant. So we carried our pizzas down to a bench by the fort, tore the napkin in half, and devoured the pies while hungry spectators eyed us.
Next, we finally made our way to the historical Fort St. Elmo. Some crazy things happened there. During the Great Siege, where the Ottomans were surrounding the Knights Hospitaller who inhabited the island, the Ottomans succeeded in taking Fort St. Elmo. The Ottomans subsequently slaughtered the defenders and floated their bodies across the Grand Harbor on wooden crosses. Some Knights who still remained in another fort, which I’ll discuss later, answered their foes with cannonballs made of the heads of Ottomans. Pretty gory and sad.
To end the day, we roamed the streets of Valletta, poked our heads into a couple of churches, and grabbed some pastizzi to take back to the apartment. Traditional Maltese pastizzi are crunchy, flaky pastries filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. When still warm from the oven, these little things are delightful!
Day 3 – A Place Called Victory
Well, actually, it has been called Birgu for its entire history and was renamed Vittoriosa about five centuries ago. Depending on who you are talking to, the town could be called either of those names. Personally, I like Vittoriosa, because it seems a fitting name for such a gloriously lovely town. Vittoriosa is built on one of the main peninsulas in the Grand Harbor and is known for its strong fortification, Fort St. Angelo. The town had a very medieval feel, with pale yellow stones paving the streets and covering the sides of houses. The Fort itself was more charming than an Italian villa. So charming that I told Tex he should become a Knight so that we could live there. (There is one resident Knight of the Order of St. John who has the privilege of doing so!)
Fort St. Angelo was the fort I mentioned above where some knights remained after St. Elmo was taken in the Great Siege. It was here that the knights prevailed, hence the town’s name Vittoriosa.
To wrap up our time there, we visited the Malta at War Museum, where we donned some hard hats to explore another underground network of bomb shelters. Malta was very heavily bombed by Axis planes during World War II, because of its critical location in the Mediterranean. The museum provided a unique look into the lifestyle of Maltese civilians during the War. Finally, we stopped in the town main square at the Café du Brazil, which served up our favorite meal of the trip… Maltese rabbit ravioli!
That is the long and short of our most recent adventure. Thank you for taking the time to read it 🙂
In October, we took a little camping trip over to the Black Forest and spent a day on the other side of the border in Strasbourg, France. I expected Strasbourg to be very German. And it is… But it certainly has a French feel too. Anywho, I thought I would share what we did and how we pinched a few pennies along the way.
Penny-pinching tip #1: Take your car. And take your tent. This has become one of our favorite ways to travel in Europe. We have camped in the Wachau Valley of Austria, the Netherlands, and now the Black Forest. Camping does not have to limit you to outdoor activities (though that is something we enjoy). A tent can also be your base from which to explore the bustling towns of Europe. Heck, you can still pack a nice sweater or a dress. I’ve done it. Europeans tend to pamper their campgrounds, which does annoy me sometimes, but I know a lot of people might prefer it. There are also Airbnb campsites, which is what we did this time. And we ended out spending for two nights probably half of what we would have spent on one night in a hotel. As an added bonus, you get to take in all the beauty of nature.
Additional advice: Park at park-and-rides in larger towns and cities. And then take advantage of the tram or bus system. This is usually cheaper than paying for parking in the city center… and less stressful, in my opinion.
Penny-pinching tip #2: Go out for one big traditional meal, instead of three meals a day. This is a tip we also implemented in Ireland. I would especially recommend making lunch your big meal, because menus tend to be cheaper. So real question– how do you get by on one restaurant meal per day? My answer– bring snacks from home to tide you over and/or go to the grocery store and cook for yourself. On our Black Forest trip, I made these pumpkin energy balls, packed some homemade biscuits, and brought along a couple other snacks. So breakfast was covered, and the snacks pretty much got us through lunch (I must admit that they were supplemented by a few “pain au chocolats” that we picked up from a bakery as soon as we got into Strasbourg).
The meal that we ordered that night in Strasbourg still makes me laugh. One of the must-have regional dishes is called “choucroute,” French for sauerkraut. It’s ironic because we live in Germany, the land of limitless sauerkraut, and yet on our little excursion into France, what did we order? Why, choucroute! I have never seen such a massive pile of sauerkraut. They served it warm with a few different pork cuts and potatoes. It was quite hearty and delicious.
Alternative to PP tip #2: Street Food! This is another of my and Tex’s favorite ways to eat plenty without breaking the bank.
Penny-pinching tip #3: Be a low-maintenance traveler. This is one that I am still working on… Ahem, yes, I did ask Tex to buy us some [DELICIOUS] lemon shortbread cookies at a specialty cookie shop. But honestly, it is not very difficult to spend an entire day just wandering the streets of a lovely European town, without spending money. Soak in the architecture, even of commonplace houses. Feast your eyes upon bakery displays. Walk on into that beautiful cathedral or through that peaceful park. Be a person who can appreciate things without having the thing. I’m preaching to myself here.
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg
Wandering through the alleyways…
Strasbourg’s charm did not disappoint. We promptly found the cathedral, which was stunning. It actually may tie (with St. Peter’s Dom in Regensburg) for my favorite cathedral. I am so glad that we decided to wait in the long line to go inside. Entry was free! We meandered through the streets surrounding the cathedral. All kinds of signs and banners decorated one of the streets, and countless bakery windows were filled with every manner of sweet treats and breads.
Next, we decided to visit the most famous and historic part of town, Petite-France. Half-timbered houses, adorned with flower boxes in the windows, lined the edges of the canals. We strolled over cobble-stoned footbridges and gaped at the quaint beauty surrounding us.
Those are all the penny-pinching tips that I can think up right now. Hopefully, I’ll have more soon ♥
¿Qué hicisteis el fin de semana pasada? This was the common topic of conversation for a whole month of my summer. As you may know, I spent 5 weeks studying sophomore-level Spanish in Seville. Well, sophomore-level Spanish means only one thing—verb conjugations. We spent a decent chunk of time practicing the preterite tense, especially asking questions like the one above, “What did you all do last weekend?” (Please do note the use of the vosotros/”you all” verb ending which is a necessity in Spain, but is obsolete in Mexico!) Let me just say… I had four thrilling weekends while I was there, and I would love to tell you what I did. Yo tenía cuatro fines de semana emocionantes cuando estuve allí, y me encantaría escribir sobre eso.
As a backdrop to the rest of my musings, you must know that the Spanish people are simply lovely. My host mom, Nancy, was the first to demonstrate this. One of my favorite times of the day was our late-night supper and learning more about Nancy and her husband, as well as about Spain and Andalusian culture, through our many conversations in Spanish. At first, these conversations were intimidating. I didn’t know half of the words that I wanted to use. But Nancy was so gracious and patient as we tried to describe what we meant to the best of our abilities. I remember one time, as Nancy was serving us eggplant, I described the vegetable as “una planta de huevo,” literally “plant of egg.” How confused she was! And for good reason. Haha!
Aside from my host parents, I also got to know a few of the Spanish tutors who worked with our class. These guys and gals were fun to be around and were a wealth of information about the language and how to navigate life in Seville.
PLACES & THINGS
The Alcazar and Catedral in Seville— According to our guide, approximately 100 grams of Christopher Columbus is buried in the Catedral.
La Giralda tower of the catedral
A courtyard inside the Alcazar
The jaw-dropping Alcazar gardens
Italica Ruins—These were some neat ancient Roman ruins, the birthplace of Emperors Trajan and Hadrian.
Bullfight in Seville—This was a very interesting experience. And I’m glad to have seen it, just so I know what it really is. However, I don’t know if I would sign up to go again, as it is rather gruesome and sad. For those of you who think a bullfight is mainly just a matador saying “Olé!” (as I did), here are the nitty-gritty details… The bulls are raised in an environment such that they never see two-legged animals (aka humans) until they charge into the ring. They are colorblind animals but have a keen sense for movement, which means that it’s actually the waving motion of the cape, not the bright color, which entices them. In the first “tercio,” or round, the matador and his accomplices (I forget what they were called) engage the bull in a series of cape-waving and charges. Then the picador comes out, riding on his horse, and stabs the irritated bull in the upper neck muscles with a lance. As the second tercio begins, the bull can smell his own blood. The banderilleros run out on foot and stab the bull in that same neck region, using colorful, small, barbed sticks. This part looked terrifying, since the bull was already incensed and the banderilleros were relying solely on their ability to escape by running faster than the bull. By this point in the fight, the bull’s neck muscle has been significantly weakened. The third tercio begins as the main matador makes a few skillful passes of his cape (called the “muleta”), keeping one foot in place if he is top-brass. Finally, after some dramatic gestures and facial expressions and yelling, the matador goes for the kill and guides the curved sword down through the neck into the chest cavity towards the heart. In the entire evening, we saw three matadors each kill two bulls. Some fights were obvious successes for the matador, accompanied by loud “Olé’s” from the crowd and the waving of white handkerchiefs. A couple of times the kill was not very clean, and the crowd showed their disapproval by whistling at the matador.
The Alhambra and the Royal Chapel in Granada—The Alhambra was another beautiful example of Islamic and Western architecture in combination. Granada was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain to surrender to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs. Those same two monarchs are buried in the Royal Chapel… And by the way, did you know that Granada means “pomegranate” in Spanish?
View from a gorgeous Alhambra window
The Alhambra from Mirador de San Nicolas
The Mezquita (Mosque) in Cordoba—Apparently, this iconic building has Roman origins, was later converted into a Muslim mosque, and eventually acquired an enormous Catholic cathedral nave right smack in the middle of all the arches.
Inside the Mezquita
Malaga—A group of girlfriends and I visited over a free weekend. We hit Picasso’s museum and, of course, the beach.
La Rabida Monastery and Palos de la Frontera—This monastery was where Christopher Columbus stayed before he left for the New World. The monastery itself was just beautiful. Plus, not far from there, we were able to see life-size replicas of Columbus’s three ships. They were much smaller than I had imagined!
A courtyard in the monastery
Cadíz beach—Tex and I thoroughly enjoyed this beach trip. We went in the morning to avoid crowds and took a picnic. It was pretty windy, but that didn’t keep us out of the water. The sand was some of the best my toes have ever felt.
Madrid and Toledo—The highlight of Madrid, in my opinion, was the Prado Museum of art. After a semester of taking Art Appreciation, it was pretty cool to see the actual Las Meninas by Velazquez, Goya’s Saturn (though creepy), and Van der Weyden’s The Deposition of Christ. On the last day of the program, we visited Toledo, only a short trip from Madrid. I want so badly to go back to Toledo again (but this time, take Tex with me!) during the celebration of Corpus Christi. We were there at the end of the week’s festivities. The entire town was dressed up—colorful banners draped from the windows, flower baskets and garlands hanging over the streets, bows and streamers tied in the trees. All of this, added to the town’s already medieval ambiance, bewitched me. We also walked to the edge of town, where we stumbled upon the Don Quixote Trail. How fun is that?! He was “from” the Toledo area and “adventured” along this trail. If we go back, I would love to road-trip along it. Sorry in advance for the uncanny number of photos…
EXPLORING SEVILLE ON MY OWN…
Las Setas—This is the modern icon of Seville, and its name actually means “the mushrooms.” If you go, there’s a lively market down below… including a stand crawling with snails! It is also a great place to get to know some local Sevillanos. So great, in fact, that our teacher thought it would be nice for us to go there and interview people in Spanish. It was tough but made for a great memory.
La Plaza de España—Tex and I made a stop here in the heat of the afternoon to ride a boat around the little canal. The architecture and tiles are beautiful!
“Yemas” at the Convent of San Leandro— I’m so glad I had a free morning to hunt down this gem. After hearing about a few different convents that make and sell their own sweets, I decided I had to try some. The sisters of this particular convent are completely cloistered, meaning that their direct contact with the outside world is limited. Thus, to sell their egg-yolk and sugar sweets (called “yemas”), they have devised a rotating door with shelves. I waited for a few minutes, until I finally heard a voice ask what I wanted, then I ordered and placed my money on the shelf. She spun the door, around came my bag of treats, and then next my change. I never saw a soul.
El Torre del Oro— The Tower of Gold
Shopping the streets and the markets (Mercadillo Historico del Jueves—Thursday Flea Market in the Feria)
Pisto con huevo- This is basically the Spanish version of ratatouille, though in my opinion, much better… It’s tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, onion, and garlic all stewed together with a fried egg on top! I’ve already made it a couple of times at home, though it’s hard to replicate Nancy’s recipe.
Freshly squeezed orange juice- My roommate and I discovered this reasonably-priced treat in one of the many cafes on our first walk to campus. And we enjoyed it many more times after.
Churros con chocolate- Thanks to a sweet friend who wanted to celebrate my birthday, I was able to finally try authentic churros with chocolate at the Virgen de Lujan Chocolatería.
The churros were huge, and the chocolate was pudding-y.
Pisto con huevo
Tapas- gambas (shrimp in a garlicky butter sauce), albondigas (meatballs), calamari, salmorejo (a Cordoban twist on gazpacho… made of tomatoes, bread, and garlic). Nancy first took me out for tapas at Bar Bugarín, one of the neighborhood favorites. And then, it was so good that Tex and I made a trek across town for lunch.
Chicharrones!- This deserves a whole paragraph. If you are from Texas, you’ve probably had pig skins before, but you have NOT had Spanish chicharrones. Tex and I tried them at a market (Mercado Lonja del Barranco) that my host mom recommended. It was a memorable food experience. They are meaty, fatty bits of pork, deep fried so that they truly do melt in your mouth, and coated in a delectable spicy salt. Needless to say, I raved and raved about them to Nancy, who later bought me a large package of the tasty morsels. I ate nearly the whole bag in one afternoon and had to confess to Nancy as she was taking us out for our final “family” supper that evening. And I sadly do not have a picture.
Paella- (with a LOT of seafood… Mom, I still prefer yours.)
Berenjenas con miel- Fried eggplant topped with honey. This was another of Nancy and her husband’s specialties.
Gelato– Sometimes multiple times a day. Specifically, the flavor “Nata” (cream).
Tostada con jamón- Toast drizzled with olive oil, spread with pureed tomato, and topped with thinly sliced Andalusian ham. This is the quintessential Spanish breakfast.
Fresh-squeezed orange juice and tostada
Paella… And yes, that shrimp has an eye.
And that’s all folks! Thanks for taking the time to read my long-winded post ❤
England. It’s a place I have dreamed of seeing since I was little bitty. My history lessons about Henry the Eighth’s 6 wives (“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived!”) and then my love for Jane Austen’s romantic tales set in the English countryside and my more recent overload of Downton Abbey episodes have been a few of the reasons that I have longed to go see the country of England for myself.
It’s the place that the Pilgrims left in search for a different home… the place where sooty chimneys and thick London fog concealed the sky from little children in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Burnett’s A Little Princess… the place that Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and C.S. Lewis (yes, he belongs in this list!!) all called home. If you asked Tex, he could give you an entire other list of great knights and generals and admirals who also flew the English flag.
To be in this land of stories, both true and fictional ones, was thrilling. We are already talking about when we can go back. I’ll give y’all a little run-down of what we did, and hopefully include some descriptions for your imagination to feast upon.
>> We took a C.S. Lewis walking tour in the City of Dreaming Spires, more commonly known as Oxford. I am so glad we did this. Starting at the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop (which was super fun to peruse), we walked from place to place listed on this itinerary to witness several of the places Lewis frequented. My two favorite stops were the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin where he preached his sermon “The Weight of Glory” and the Inklings’ favorite pub which they called “The Bird and Baby.” The town of Oxford is just beautiful, and had a very different feel from any of the other English towns we explored.
>> We had high tea! I hadn’t ever known there was a difference between just plain old afternoon tea and “high tea,” until a sweet friend recommended it to us. So, we found a place called The Grand Cafe in Oxford that actually offers high tea all day (which, I realize, is probably not the most proper way to do it, but it was very convenient!) and at a much more reasonable price than many of the London venues. From delicate smoked salmon and egg sandwiches to yummy biscuit-looking scones and sweet petit fours, we left feeling as if we had eaten a big meal rather than just an “afternoon tea.” The teas really were delicious. I had a hot peach tea and Tex had Earl Grey (we actually ordered vice versa, but then our orders came swapped, and we were both surprisingly pleased). Poor Tex was comforted by the sight of other men in the cafe… I don’t think this English tradition was exactly his cup of tea, but he was a trooper.
We hopped onto a train that took us from Oxford to Portsmouth via Southampton. I had found some good deals ahead of time through the website Trainline.
>> In Portsmouth, we explored Lord Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory. This was at the top of Tex’s list of things to see. And it was really neat. This ship was built in the mid 1700’s, and is open for visitors to tour all the levels of it. With the audio guides, we were able to walk through the timeline of the Battle of Trafalgar, but also to glimpse what naval life was actually like at the time. Down in the dark, musty hold of the ship, I was amazed by the hundreds of huge barrels, which were how food was transported and stored. Tex said that he was most impressed by the military functionality of the entire ship, even down to the captain’s quarters.
>> We gobbled up our very first meal of Fish and Chips! Just across the street from the Historic Dockyard is a cute, blue restaurant called The Ship and Castle. After finding a seat and making our orders (by the way, we were thrilled to find that there is free tap water most places in England!), we struck up a conversation with an older Englishman. Turns out, he’s a huge Buddy Holly fan and was so excited that we were from his state. The English people are so very friendly. It seemed like anywhere we went, a kind English voice would pipe up and ask us a question or make some honest comment.
Then we caught yet another train, this time from Portsmouth to London, for the last leg of our trip. The London train stations are massive, just for anyone who is wondering. I’m talking nice shops on the second story and food courts on the ground floor. For some reason, I was not quite expecting that.
>> We enjoyed an evening in London. Navigating the underground stations, stopping for a hot bite at the Southbank Centre Food Market, meandering over to Trafalgar square– these are the main things we did on our first night in London.
Yummy Indian curry
Cute custard tartlets
>> For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to book an Airbnb in the suburbs… I won’t go into all the details, but here it is in a nutshell: walking through the dark for a mile in a strange town, a misunderstanding about how to read English addresses, no WiFi, only a couple of screenshots of the map, two wonderful English gentlemen who directed us to the right house, nobody home, figuring out how to open the lockbox, and four shining eyes glaring at us as we step inside. Thankfully, they were nice cats.
The next morning began our full day in London!
>> We ventured through the Tower of London. This was one of the coolest stops we made. It is still hard for me to wrap my mind around its multifaceted significance over the past 10 centuries. Built in the time of William the Conqueror, the Tower has seen the mysterious disappearance of Edward IV’s two young sons (whose skeletons were found under a staircase in the Tower), the execution of Anne Boleyn (the second wife of Henry VIII and mother to Elizabeth I), the imprisonment of Elizabeth before she became queen, and the torture of Guy Fawkes. Morbid, I know. But the Tower has also played an important part in the minting of the country’s money and housing of the Crown Jewels. For almost one thousand years, the English royalty used the Tower of London for these and many other purposes. One quick note: we got to see the Crown Jewels with our own eyes! I hardly knew such enormous diamonds existed.
>> We ate a truly English meal at a stately pub called The Hung, Drawn, and Quartered. Guess where it was… Right across the road from the Tower. Ha! It was much nicer than it sounds. Here, we feasted on lamb and mushroom pies, which were downright tasty. We both agreed that it was our favorite meal of the trip. I want to learn how to make them!
>> We spent the rest of the day speed-walking past as many as we could of the most iconic London sights. We strolled over to see Shakespeare’s globe, stepped into St. Paul’s Cathedral, walked all the way to Buckingham Palace, and finally found Westminster Abbey and Parliament right as the sun was setting. The only place we slowed down to a more leisurely pace was in the Covent Garden Market, where we peeked into all sorts of delightful little shops. Tex and I enjoyed the bustling city even more than we thought we would. And honestly, we hardly scratched the surface. Now that we have a general idea of where things are and how the transportation works, I’m ready to go back and experience more. Already!
The Great Fire of London Memorial
Covent Garden Market!
Wow, that’s a lot of buildings. Maybe next time I’ll have more variation in my pictures!
Have I mentioned how wonderful it was to be in a land where English is the common language? Oh my. We were able to actually order what we wanted at restaurants and to understand where a given train was supposed to stop. Not to mention the daily necessities of “Excuse me,” and “How much?” and “We’re ready to pay.” I had no idea how much I’d missed the English language!
Ciao! That’s Italian for hello. Also, the Germans use it to mean “Bye!” In Texas, it just means food and is spelled C-H-O-W. Those are the three languages I’ve encountered over the past week. My husband (who I will forever after refer to using “Tex”) and I are born-and-bred Texans living currently in southern Germany. And last weekend, we made the road-trip to northern Italy, where we stopped at Lake Garda, Verona, Vicenza, and Venice. It was lovely.
Here are the things we did on our first day:
»» Drove through the Austrian Alps in the rain. Even as we got into Italy, it kept pouring. My hopes of a hot Italian weekend and beautiful views of the Veneto countryside were sinking quickly. But within a short ways of Riva del Garda, our first stop at the lake, the Lord graciously cleared the skies. We met our friends there for a bathroom break (where I used my first squatty potty!) and also stuck our hands into the cool water at the foot of breath-taking mountains. Then we started driving down the little road on the eastern coast of Lake Garda. It was about a 2 hour drive straight from the north side to the southern tip, and it was so worth it.
»» Made a stop at the Scaligera Castle on the peninsula of Sirmione. IT WAS INCREDIBLE. I think this was our favorite part of the whole trip. The castle itself is unlike any other we have yet seen. Not only was it built in the 13th century, but it still seems to be completely intact. It had a moat and two drawbridges and a tall tower that we climbed up to, and there we were met by some of the best views of the weekend. For our entrance to the castle we paid €6 per person. While the area does at first seem to be crawling with tourists, it was much less crowded feeling than the bigger cities we went to later. After the castle, we took a little time to wander through the old town of Sirmione. And we happened upon some of the best ice cream I have ever put in my mouth. Mascarpone e biscottino!!!! It’s a creamy gelato made with mascarpone cheese and little chocolate-y cookie pieces. Yum.
On day two of our adventure, we:
»» Explored an ancient Roman arena in Verona. This was pretty neat, though there were lots of tourists there. This arena is actually older than the Colosseum in Rome. No, I don’t think it’s quite as grand. But, still, it was surreal to sit in the same place where people used to cheer on gladiators. Apparently, they now show operas in the arena. We didn’t watch one, but they were setting up while we were there.
»» Ate our first real Italian food. There is an eerily empty road coming straight off the buzzing Piazza Bra, where the arena is. Here, we found a splendid little trattoria and pizzeria called Il Bacaro dell’Arena. Tex ordered a calzone filled with salami, ricotta, and some other kind of cheese, and I had gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce. If I could go back, I would order that calzone. The generous amount of ricotta in it was what most enamored me. My gnocchi was delicious, but it was very rich. We both left feeling stuffed. Oh and it wasn’t too expensive! Around €8 or 9 for each of our plates.
»» Toured Palladio’s Villa Capra la Rotonda in Vicenza. This beautiful piece of architecture has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. One of my college professors taught all about it and highly recommended visiting if we ever got the chance. Palladio designed it to represent the “sancta agricultura,” the idea of farming as a sacred duty. This is especially demonstrated by the four porticoes on each side of the villa, a characteristic which had only been used on temples and holy places until that time. (It was a bit tricky to find parking for our visit, but we finally just pulled off the side of the road in a neighborhood. It seems like any time we park anywhere here in Europe there’s always a little doubt in our minds whether we will find our car still there when we come back.)
»»Bought ingredients for an authentic Vicenza meal– bigoli and duck sauce! After the villa, we wandered around Vicenza, gaping at the architecture and poking our heads into little shops. We came upon an adorable specialty foods shop (for lack of a better term) and browsed all kinds of pastas and sauces… They had asparagus sauce and rabbit sauce, to name a few of the more unusual ones. We tried asking the lady working there what was the best, but our ignorance of the Italian language kept us from clearly communicating the question. Finally, another customer came up and interpreted what we meant, subsequently pointing out the ingredients of the regional dish. Bigoli is basically a thick spaghetti noodle and duck sauce is, well, ground duck, I guess? We shall see!
»»Took a late-night walk around downtown Bassano del Grappa. Bassano is a rural town further north near the Airbnb where we stayed. It was busier than we expected for 10 at night! People were hanging around bars and ice cream shops and cafes all over the place. We stopped in at a lonely little cafe for a cup of Italian hot chocolate, which is almost a hot pudding. I would love to go back during the day and look around. It seemed like a fun town and felt pretty local.
On our last day there, we took a train into Venice and:
»» Ferried over to the island of Murano to watch a glass-blowing demonstration. This also turned to be one of our favorite stops, and we hadn’t even planned it! My friend actually came up with this idea. And boy, am I glad she did! For only €3, we were admitted into a dark barn-like building along with a small group of people to watch how they make Venetian glass. The fellow’s glass-blowing blew my mind. Over a period of about 20 minutes, he crafted two beautiful vases with handles and a pretty decorative glass horse. He ended the show with a surprise… blowing up a piece of glass like a balloon until it quite literally popped! Stopping at this factory was very insightful to the area’s age-old industry.
»»Got lost in the crowded, winding streets of Venice. We stopped for a short time at the Piazza San Marco, the most touristy part of the city (though really all of Venice is pretty darn touristy). After that, we just took off walking. Tex was the head navigator for most of the day, which I think he thoroughly enjoyed. “Take the next right. Over a bridge. Stay straight. Now we turn here!” On that note, a map is critical if you wish to find anything particular while there. We heard that cellphone service can be pretty spotty since the buildings are so high and the streets so narrow. It really is dreamy walking through this town built on water. Clothes hanging over the waterways. Mask shops on every corner. Mysterious alleys leading into bright piazzas.
We decided not to shell out the money for a gondola ride, and ended out being happy with our decision. Instead, we got all-day passes for the water bus, which allowed us to travel to any island in the area or up the Grand Canal. On the particular day we were there, however, the Grand Canal was closed off for a big boat race, the Regata Storica. This race is several hundred years old. Pretty cool! We got to watch it for a bit from the top of a bridge.
»»Ate, and ate, and ate… We tried slices of yummy street pizza, some more Italian pastas (spaghetti carbonara for Tex, and tagliatelle with salmon and cream for me), AND OCTOPUS! This was certainly our most adventurous dish of the trip. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t really feel the need to have it again. Ha! Surprisingly, the tentacles were the tastiest part.
That wraps up the details of our wonderful trip. Thanks for reading! There will be more coming soon ♥