Sunday, June 28, 2009

Berlin, Revisited

Even though I greatly enjoyed discovering new places and visiting friends, the most surreal part of my trip was my split up visit to Berlin. Due to some reshuffling at the last minute, I had to make do with Berlin by using it to bookend my Copenhagen visit. This ended up working out rather well, luckily. During part one, I was at a hostel in Prenzlauer Berg, which is the neighborhood where I lived last summer. It felt so strange to be back so soon and to wander around the streets that I used on an almost daily basis. I was a big fan of El Bocho's Kalle and Bernd last summer, and I had a great time finding new appearances or old ones that I hadn't noticed before.

Since I was no longer a 'resident' or though of myself as one, albeit temporary, I had no qualms about doing something more touristy. The biggest tourist moment that I had was going up to the cuppola of the Reichstag at dusk. I feel as if not many people realize that security is open until 9, and they keep the observation deck open an hour or two after that. The views of Berlin were quite spectacular as the colors of the sky were changing. It made me wish that I had a better camera so as to capture the colors and lights in the lower light.

Even though much of my visit to Berlin consisted of trying to cram in visits to all of my favorite eating spots, I didn't want to make it all about the food. I made sure to visit Museum Island during free admission on Thursdays, though I was disappointed that the museum I visited did not have the rotunda or second floor galleries open. I can't wait to visit when the New museum finally reopens after a few years of extensive renovations. Also, I didn't pay attention to opening hours and missed out on climbing to the top of the Dom on museum island. Next time, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Relaxing in Copenhagen

Another stop during my trip was Copenhagen.  This was exciting for me not only because I got to use a third currency (Danish Krones) but also because I got to meet Ditte of ppk fame and frequent vegan host!  And what a great host she is! 

On the evening of my arrival, we got set to make dinner right away, with a quick trip to the store halfway through to get new potatoes.  We ended up having quite the feast with roasted veggies, crusty panko crusted tofu, and an amazing mustard sauce from Veganomicon in which to drench everything.  The night did not only consist of cooking as we also walked around during dusk so that I could get my first glimpse of the city.

The next day involved lots of walking around, city exploring, popping into thrift stores, and vegan food eating (naturally).  To fortify ourselves for this trip, we made pitas to take with us filled with veggies, fresh dried tomato hummus or yogurt dill sauce.  So much good food was had that day and also included a trip to the infamous bakery with vegan chocolate croissants and cinnamon roll pastries.  To top that all off, we even stopped at a fancy chocolate shop where there were two different kinds of filled chocolates which were vegan.

Even though we ate a lot of food, that wasn't the whole point of the trip. I enjoyed learning lots of things about the country of Denmark as well as getting to know my host better.  While walking in Christiania, we even met up with one of her friends for a bit. Christiania itself is a really neat place in the middle of the city which was overtaken by squatters years ago and is a congregating place for the alternative lifestyle/hippie scene.  What I found particularly amazing was all the green space that was crammed in the area and made if feel like you were anywhere else as opposed to the middle of Copenhagen.

Nothing about my trip to Copenhagen was strenuous, except for the large amounts of eating.  Of course my wonderful host pointed out buildings or things of interest while on our walks, but it was nice to not be overly touristy.  I cannot believe how much we walked around and ate in the short time that I was there, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I give full credit to my hostess, and I cannot wait until she makes her trip to the States next year! When she stops by my place, I can only hope to be as awesome and will return the favor of making her sandwiches when she leaves my place for the next stop on her adventures!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

In der Schweiz: a land of many cultures

After my time in Italy, I made two stops in Switzerland, in the south and north, respectively.  My visit in Mendrisio was very interesting because it is located in Ticino (Tessin), which is the southernmost canton of Switzerland, and thus made it similar culturally to Italy. (For those that don't know, it is interesting to note that Switzerland has four official languages: Italian, French, German, and Romansh, the latter is a romance language that is derived from Latin and is being spoken less and less.) Because of its location, I ate a lot of pasta, pizza, and foccocia-like foods while in Mendrisio and the surrounding area.

To be honest, this is probably not an area where one would spend an entire weekend on a vacation, but I enjoyed being shown many of the surrounding villages both in the valleys and up in the mountains.  My friend and I even braved the cold and rainy weather one afternoon to visit an UNESCO world heritage castle in Bellinzona.

My visit north was quite different because I was in a bigger city, though Basel is by far not the biggest city in Switzerland.  The biggest shock to me in Basel was the language.  Even though they speak German there, it is an entirely different dialect.  I had learned about Schweizer Deutsch in the University, but hearing it was another thing entirely. Despite the fact that it was German, I could not understand very much of it at all. (Luckily, I can take comfort in the fact that native German speakers themselves have a hard time understanding the Swiss dialect until they themselves have lived there for some time.) I was still able to use my German (Hochdeutsch) to understand maps and menus in restaurants.

The food in Basel was a big change from the south because of obvious Germanic influences.  (Also, the Turkish imbisss and restaurants were much more prevalent here.)  After I saw much of the town by wandering around all morning and early afternoon, I had an early dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, which wasn't far from where I was staying. Tibits is an all-vegetarian buffet, which has vegan items clearly marked.  I wasn't very impressed by the few hot vegan options available, but around half of the chilled grain and other salads were vegan. However, the highlight of my meal was the Sauerkirsch Tortchen (sour cherry mini tart) that I bought separately for dessert.

Since the food was decent, and there was a wide selection, I also visited for breakfast the next morning before I left. A morning brunch was advertised, but the vegan options were very slim.  I wasn't too disappointed however since I chose to have a simple breakfast of a spelt croissant and an apple pocket that was available from the bar.  Sandwiches to go were also available near the register, and I was not disappointed with the white asparagus (Spargel in German, which is a really fun word to say, by the way), bean sprout, and tomato with a mustard sauce one that I ate later on my train to Germany.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cinque Terre: Beyond the Food

Before I begin with my additional account of Cinque Terre (because I loved it that much), I wanted to put up a disclaimer that I thought I'd be updating more often than this. I have plenty of foods and places to share (especially since there are only 10 days left in my trip), but I feel guilty if I am on the internet too much. Here is a little something that I wrote up a while back, and hopefully I can prepare a few drafts on the flight back to Berlin tomorrow.

As I just alluded to, there was more to love in Cinque Terre than just the food; the views and character of the towns were amazing. Obviously, tourism brings in a lot of money to these quaint little towns, but somehow the locals have made sure that the tourists don't detract from the charm. If you are a hiker and enjoy ocean views, I would highly recommend Cinque Terre as a must-see place to visit.  I enjoy a good hike on occasion, but I got more than my fair share while i was there. One of the main attractions is the trail along the coast that connects the five villages. Because it is now a state park, you have to buy a ticket to hike the extensive trails, but it is very reasonably priced, and you can get one, which includes the train and bus transportation between the villages. I paid around 14 or 15 Euros for a two-day pass.

Even though I had been exercising more at home before leaving for my trip, wow did I get a workout while on the trails. The paths connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola to Corniglia are pretty tame, with the first being quite easy and short.  There are many other trains connecting to the other villages in the hills or towns quite a way away. I took one of the less used trails to Volastra from Manarola.  It was quite the challenge going up those steep trails and stairs through the vineyards, but the views of the area made up for the shaking of my quads when I walked down the same way that I hiked up. On my second day of hiking, my legs were a little sore, so I only did one of the two harder trails, which are from Monterosso to Vernazza to Corniglia. I only did the first leg, but I also explored Monterosso a great deal and climbed up to the old monastery and cemetery that overlook the town.  I would have continued the hike from Vernazza to Corniglia, but it was mid-afternoon and very sunny, so a 90 minute hike with little shade did not sound very appealing. Also, a guidebook that I had consulted stated that the views on the first, and harder, trail were much better.

I greatly enjoyed my time in this little gem tucked away in Liguria between Genoa and La Spezia. I would definitely come back, though perhaps with a friend, so I can have someone motivating me to stop being a wimp when I stop to catch my breath on the trails. Hearing the waves of the ocean from my bedroom window was quite soothing, and there is something about the ocean that I love but can't quite describe. If you were expecting sandy beaches, then you would probably be disappointed. There are two smaller beaches in Monterosso and Vernazza, but I feel that they do not have as much character as the other rockier areas.  I found a very charming pebbled beach close to Corniglia off the trail from Manarola, and there were several people there swimming and getting some sun. Manarola and Riomaggiore also have places to swim, but they are smaller and rockier, though they do have steps and ladders to make getting out of the water easier. You don't even need to actually get in the ocean (I didn't), and can appreciate the beauty just by soaking up the sun and view.

Monday, June 8, 2009

It's Amour

If I ever had any doubts about my love of bread, let's just say that they were reaffirmed while in Italy. Don't get me wrong; I am usually of the whole grain always toast my bread variety, but in Cinque Terre I fell in love with fococcia. This stuff is amazingly addicting and the basic kind is vegan by default. What is it? Simply put; bread with olive oil and salt that was poked by the baker before it was baked to give it the characteristic dents. The plain version is decent, but there are so many variations (quite a few which are not vegan). But, there are plenty of them which are vegan. I tried ones with herbs, tomatoes, onions, mixed vegetables, green olives, and even potato slices. All were good, but my favorites were the potato and olive varieties.  They are best eaten after being bought because the bakers will pop them in the oven to reheat them before handing them over to you.

What makes an excellent fococcia? My favorite was eaten in the town of Vernazza. The crust was crispy with just the right amount of flake so it could not be mistaken for being hard or chewy. Also, the topping did not overpower the hint of olive oil brushed on top, and the inside was nice and light. Can you tell that I ate several slices of this stuff every day?

Another quick bite found in many pizza or fococcia shops, which is vegan by default is farinata.  This consists of chickpea flour, water, and pepper. It is either baked or lightly fried with olive oil brushed on it. When ordered, it is reheated in the same manner as the fococcia. I only ate it twice, but my initial taste was far better than the second (even though the second one is pictured). It was crispy on the outside with just enough oil left that it reminded me, in an abstract way of course, of the hash browns fromMcDonalds in my pre-vegan days. Due to the simplicity of it, I may be looking for recipes and experimenting with this after my travels are over.

A simple meal that I had first upon my arrival was Brusketta. This is an appetizer mainstay in many Italian restaurants in the States, but is considered to be a good snack or quick meal in Italy. Mine was served on a huge slice of very thin bread, which had been cut up to ease eating. With only bread, olive oil, tomatoes, and garlic, it is another one of those foods where the original version is vegan by default. Mine was especially enjoyable, not only because I had just traveled several hours by train, but also because it had just the right amount of garlic without being too overpowering. And, for me, my opinion of just the right amount of garlic is most likely far more than the average person's.

On the last night, I enjoyed a small glass of the special local wine called Sciacchetra. This is made from grapes that have already been used to produce wine and are practically raisins.  Because of this, it is served as a sweet dessert wine. When I had it, it was served with little cookies, which I sadly could not eat, and in almost what looked like a mini champagne flute (to my untrained eye). The taste was initially sweet, like you would expect, and nothing like most white wines that I've had. Very much like what could be associated with a raisin. The aftertaste was where the alcohol could be felt, but it gave the impression of a combination of apple juice and rum. It may seem like an odd combination, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Too bad that I had no room in my suitcase to buy a bottle and take it back with me, even though it was rather pricey. I guess that means I will just have to come back to Cinque Terre with more room so that I can take one with me, right?