Monday, April 30, 2012

The Land of Baths

(view from one of the bridges)

When I thought of Budapest, I thought of typical eastern european things. Strudel, blonde people, beer, and the movie Taken (the girls get kidnapped to Albania, but I figured Hungary was pretty close). Thankfully, I was only right about the first three. My relaxing spa weekend in Budapest was a success, filled with good food, tons of tanning and excessive amounts of sleep.

(yummm cherry strudel)

Alex and I arrived Thursday night and went straight to our hostel (Ginkgo Hostel) before our long day of sunning and shmoozing. I think our hostel was someone's apartment and they just rented rooms, because we didn't see another person staying there until the very last day. Whatever, it was nice and clean. Friday we explored a bit before heading over to the Gellert Hotel and Baths. It's a huge complex on the Buda side of the river (the city is actually broken up into two parts, the Pest side and the Buda side. We stayed on the Pest side). There are men's and women's thermal baths, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an outdoor thermal bath, a massage center and plenty of room to lounge. I got a massage here on Sunday (first massage ever!), making these baths officially the most relaxing place ever.

(giant wave pool)

Friday night we ate at a beautiful greek restaurant right on the river, called Taverna Dionysos. I'm just always the happiest human when I can find food that's not Italian. Not that the food in Rome isn't beyond delicious, because it is, I'm just starting to feel like if I have to look at another strand of spaghetti I will most definitely strangle myself with it. So you can imagine how happy I was with tzatziki and pita.

Saturday we took the metro (subway? tube? underground? Unclear as to what it's called in other lands) to the Szechenyi Bath in the city park. It was a lot bigger with a lot more people, and a bit overwhelming. After another day of relaxing and tanning we decided to be less-lame-than-we-usually-are and went to Ice Bar! 

(just chilling on an ice couch. Get it? Chilling? I slay me)

Ice Bar is a chain that has locations in major cities all over Europe. Basically everything's ice, from the walls to the furniture to the glasses that the drinks are in. They give you these eskimo-like poncho/parkas and gloves so you don't freeze (even though we both wore open-toe shoes, whoops) and it's like a regular bar. Only you're cold and it's small. But it was an interesting experience, definitely worth doing.

(mushroom soup on left, and goulash)

For our last meal in Budapest we wanted traditional Hungarian fare, like goulash. We stumbled upon Chef Cafe, a quiet corner restaurant that looked nice. We started with forest mushroom soup and goulash, that they so nicely split for us. Goulash is like a beef stew with chunks of veggies that traditionally is adorned with fresh paprika (chopped spicy peppers). The idea of the restaurant was that you create your entree, given a variety of meats, sides, and cooking preparations. With help from our waiter, we ordered roasted chicken with cheesy mashed potatoes and cauliflower. And they brought out this: 

They interpreted our weird concoction in such a lovely way that it was almost too pretty to eat. Almost. And thus our Budapest spa weekend came to a close. As with all the other cities we went to, we came, we ate, we conquered. And this time, we left approximately 10 shades darker than when we arrived.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Final Adventure

And the final place I'm traveling to is.... Budapest! Super random, I know. Alex and I were thinking of where we could go that was somewhere we would never get back to. Unless either of us becomes an international journalist who gets paid to travel the world, which is highly unlikely from where we stand right now. But you never know. Anyway, we leave Thursday night for a romantic girls weekend in, from what I've heard, a pretty relaxing city.

(all pics taken from google, I'll post my own when I get back!)

Isn't it pretty?? Budapest is also home to the largest synagogue in Europe and the fifth largest in the world, the Dohány Street Synagogue. Even more importantly, it's known for its baths and spas. The city has tons of natural water sources and hot springs, and way back when the Turks built these huge communal baths, and I guess the Budapestians liked them so much that they built hotels and spas and huge parks around them.

(that's the Szechenyi bath. Don't ask me how to pronounce that)

So that's where I'm jetting off to this weekend! It'll be the last plane ride I take before the flight home, which is, exactly, three weeks from tomorrow. I'm not counting down, I swear. Just keeping mental track.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Down to the Wire

In exactly four weeks from today, I will be home. My four month stay abroad will officially be over, and it'll probably feel like it never happened. It always amazes me how fast the time goes. It's not like I'm counting down the days or anything, I'm definitely going to miss living here. I'm just excited for summer to start. And I'm so ready for classes and homework to be done with.

(ingredients at Chef Andrea's cooking class)

Between doing immense amounts of homework and sleeping, I fit in some time this week to attend one of the cooking classes (the same one I took earlier in the semester). There were only five students this time, so compared with the 20 that there were before, it was like a personal lesson! The menu du jour was:

For appetizers, we had stuffed Fiori di Zucca, which is actually a pumpkin flower. You know when you go to the pumpkin patch and see those pretty yellow and green flowers? Well, turns out that you can eat those - and I highly suggest that you do. All you have to do is pull out the pollen stem from the inside and then you're good to go. We stuffed half with prosciutto and mozzarella, and the others with thinly-sliced eggplant and mozzarella. Then we dunked them in a beer batter and threw them in the deep fryer (tangent: I need a deep fryer. I know it would become so dangerous so fast, but there are so many things that would just be better deep fried. Like grilled cheese. And pancakes. And a banana.)We made a sicilian pesto (includes tomatoes and almonds) for dipping and I could have eaten them all. They were probably the best thing on the menu (and that's saying a lot, the menu was great).

(pre-fry, yum)

(post-fry, even more yum)

For the pasta course, we had a zucchini carbonara (zucchini in place of the pancetta). At home, carbonara is like a cream sauce. Here, it's literally eggs whisked with parmesan cheese, poured over hot pasta. That's it. It was delicious, don't get me wrong, but something felt strange about using raw egg as a sauce.

(just whisking up the egg sauce, don't mind the handprints)

For the secondo, or meat course, we had a delicious veal dish. You bread the thinly-sliced cutlets in flour and quickly brown them in a pan with olive oil. Then you sautee up a bunch of mushrooms and peas with white wine. Once that's ready, you mix the little cutlets in with the veggies and let those finish cooking. And voila, italian scaloppine. Now, for dessert. I've never made a "souffle" before, and I don't think this was like a traditional souffle, but Chef Andrea called that so I will too. We added chocolate and pears to the mixture and it was warm and light and just the perfect ending.

(how cute is he, writing our names on our dish)

I really think that if being a food writer/sporadic blogger doesn't work out, I might go to culinary school. Or law school. I'll decide eventually.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Hiatus Over

It's been a while, I know. I should have warned you about the temporary break I would be taking, but I was so excited about my parents coming to visit that my thoughts were elsewhere. And then they were here and I forgot my camera uploader cord and they ran me ragged (I was their full-time tour guide) and I was too spent by the end of each day to remember to blog. So here I am, two full weeks later, exhausted and blogger-backlogged.

(chicken and poppa came to visit!)

You know how they say that the only way to know if you really know something is to teach it to someone else? Well I think that's the same about showing someone else a city. I (sort of) really know Rome because I was able to show it to my parents. I made an itinerary, including restaurants, gelato tours, scheduled naps and obviously all the important sights they needed to see.

(me and momma at trevi fountain)

It was fun being able to show them my city, the way I choose to see it. And I even got to see things that I hadn't already seen - which, you'd think after three full months, there wouldn't be that many things, but there was a lot. I had never been to the Jewish quarter or the giant synagogue (so beautiful), I had never been inside the coliseum, I'd never seen the Sistine Chapel, I'd never gone to Villa Borghese, or climbed to the top of the Spanish Steps or eaten a real Italian cannoli (clearly the most important). But when you're showing someone else around, you need to do the touristy things. 

(the MOST delicious cannolis from Nonna Vincenza, a sicilian bakery)

While my parents enjoyed the sights Rome has to offer, they were definitely more interested in its culinary delights (obviously, where do you think I get it from?) I restaurant researched for weeks, for good reason, because 6 out of the 7 restaurants we went to were some of the best places I've eaten at so far in Italy.

(burrata with sundried tomatos, mint and filo dough)

We started our eating escapades at Ditirambo, which is right outisde of Campo dei Fiori. The restaurant was hopping at 9:30 when we got there, mostly with locals, though we coincidentally sat next to some old celebrity that my parents knew (my dad was weirdly star struck). We ordered tons of food (as per usual), though the best dish was the burrata. I think it's pretty clear that I love all kinds of cheese, especially when it's sitting atop flaky pastry, but burrata has to be one of my faves.

Unfortunately a lot of places were closed on Easter Sunday, it's kind of a big deal in Rome (you know, cause the Pope's here and makes a speech and all that). So we wandered around the Jewish quarter (they were still open!) and took it easy. Sunday night we ate at Ciccia Bomba, on Governo Vecchio right behind Piazza Navona, and it was possibly the best meal I've had here. Everything was just SO good. The wine, the antipasti, the pastas, my parent's couldn't get over it. They wanted to go back later in the week, but it would be a sin to eat at the same place twice when there's so many other places to try (though I think I'll have to take my friends back).

(fried artichokes)

(butter poached asparagus with parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs)

(pear and pecorino cheese ravioli)

(rigatoni with tomato, pine nut and basil pesto)

Sorry for making you all hungry, but La Giostra in Florence is tied with Ciccia Bomba for deliciousness and I couldn't not include all of the pictures. The three of us took a day trip to Florence on Tuesday and went here for lunch. It was a bit outside of the central part of the city (and by that I mean it was a 10 minute walk away from the Duomo, which is like the center), but it was totally worth it. I wanted an entire bowl of the fried artichokes. And though I usually don't like asparagus, I could have eaten the entire plate. And the pear and pecorino ravioli (what the restaurant is known for) was sweet and savory and perfect.


Now, about that gelato. Of course I took them to Della Palma (see this post) for the profiterole gelato that my dad has been dreaming about for weeks. However, on our way there we passed San Crispino, one of the most famous gelato places in Rome. They don't serve their gelato in cones because they think it compromises the flavor, and they don't have their gelato in a big display case like most places. You have to just trust the names. We tried the pistachio and honey flavors. The pistachio was good, but the honey was amazing - it was just cold, creamy honey. Then, because it was right there, we went to Della Palma just for a taste (of course we had to go back later in the week so they could actually try different flavors). During our trip to the Vatican, we stopped at Old Bridge Gelateria, which serves up enormous cones in a variety of homemade flavors. My favorite was the banana and nutella (really soft and creamy, more like froyo). And on their last day here, I brought my parents to Gelateria Frigidarium, right behind Piazza Navona. Remember Magic Shell ice cream topping? The chocolate sauce that hardened? Well they serve that here, in dark and white chocolate. I wish I had picture to show you, but when gelato's in front of me I have trouble thinking of anything else. All in all, it was a great week with my parents. Tons of sightseeing, even more great food, and more one-on-one parent time than I've had since I was two. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Amsterdam Fairy Land

That's me, just chilling in a giant "e." That kid to my left clearly thinks I'm weird, but how could my abroad experience possibly be complete if I don't travel all the way to Amsterdam and take the oh-so-sorority picture at the IAmsterdam sign?! Thank god there was an E there, or what would I have done! Can you tell that I'm not Amsterdam's biggest fan?

(one of the 1,281 bridges)

It's not that I didn't like the city itself. It was really beautiful, like something out of a fairy tale. The buildings are all a bit mismatched, the canals, and colorful store fronts, it's charming. But then there's this whole dark side that makes the city so deceiving. Walking around in the daylight, I felt like I was being tricked. You see these scantily-clad prostitutes in their windows in the red-light district at two in the afternoon, and then you see an adorable little family taking a stroll along the canal with ice cream cones and a cute puppy. OK, so maybe I didn't see that exact scene, but it could have happened! Luckily we were only there for two days. Friday (my birthday!!!) we grabbed some food and started out on our walking tour - which didn't last long because I potentially got food poisoning and had to go back to the hostel. Much later in the day, after I was feeling a bit better, we headed over to the Anne Frank Museum, which was amazing. I actually haven't read The Diary of Anne Frank, but I've learned enough about it that seeing her story come to life, actually walking around in the house she lived in, moved me to tears. There were so many people at the museum, too. It made me feel strangely proud that people are still so interested and that they still care. 

(yay birthday dessert! waffle with custard, strawberries and bananas)

So, back to the red-light district. Prostitutes just stand in these windows all day, waiting for "customers." If the red-light is on, that means they're busy. I just don't get it. Some of the women looked not much older than I am, and this is their job?! Be a waitress, or work at a supermarket if you're that desperate! It was just such a strange sight to see. Even more strange than the coffee shops, which do NOT serve coffee. People casually sit out front of these shops, just smoking a joint and relaxing in the sun. Strange world, this Amsterdam.

(Amy and I just brewing some Heineken)

On Saturday we visited the Heineken Museum. It was actually really cool, considering that I don't particularly enjoy beer. I don't know really what else we did during our time there; it was a while ago, and it just wasn't all that exciting. Would I suggest that people go there? Probably not. But then again, I hardly partook (well that's a funny word) in all that Amsterdam has to offer. Don't worry though, I did eat their signature foods (duh).

(chocolate banana pancake)

(apple strudel)

I love pancakes, but these were no fluffy Aunt Jemima's. They're basically a crepe, with whatever you want on top. Good, but nothing really to write home about. The apple strudel was like an apple pie roll-up, just with walnuts and the apples were diced really thin, like charoset (ha, getting in the Passover spirit already). Well Amsterdam, it was meh while it lasted. See ya never.