December: the month of celebrations (Happy Birthday, Romania!)

For Romanians, December is a month of celebrations. Having Latin blood, we love our families and love a good party, especially around Christmas and the New Year. We beginning our celebrations, however, on the first day of the month: December 1, our national holiday and the day of our country’s Great Union.

Transilvania (the Romanian spelling of Transylvania) means the land beyond the forest and it has a complicated and tumultuous history. I love this land more than any part of Romania, being a biased native of this Dracula-land (spoiler alert – the vampire thing is not real, and vampires would NOT sparkle in the sunlight…if they existed, of course). Transilvania is as beautiful as is passionate. It has castles bearing rich tales of rulers from B.C. and the brave Dacian times, to medieval times, and beyond. The ancient edifices contrast the austere concrete buildings of the communist era, against the backdrop of lush natural surroundings of meadows and mountains.

In the heart of Transilvania sit several important cities, and one of the most important ones for Romanians is Alba Iulia. One of the oldest settlements in Romania, Alba Iulia has been around since before the Roman Empire and has witnessed Romania’s first union when Mihai Viteazul (Michael the Brave) fought off the ottomans and on the 6th of July 1600 first ruled the lands of Ardeal (Transilvania), Muntenia (the southern region of Romania), and Moldova (including the portion between the rivers Prut and Nistru).

mihai-viteazu

The union didn’t last, unfortunately, and a series of turbulent times passed before Romania was once again united on December 1st, 1918 with the union proclamation taking place in the same city of Alba Iulia. December 1st is when Romanians celebrate the National Day of Romania and the Great Union of our country’s lands.

RomaniaGreatUnionRomaniaMare

http://romaniatourism.com/alba-iulia.html

I had the privilege of visiting Alba Iulia this past September and I was impressed with its beauty and quiet majestic presence. We took a slow tour of the Citadel on the top of the hill, enjoying the gentle mingling of visitors and locals with echoes of an iconic past.

IMG_0561bIMG_0563bIMG_0564bIMG_0567bIMG_0568bIMG_0570bIMG_0571bIMG_0575bIMG_0576bIMG_0577bIMG_0578bIMG_0579bIMG_0580bIMG_0581bIMG_0583bIMG_0584bIMG_0585bIMG_0587bIMG_0588bIMG_0589bIMG_0591bIMG_0593bIMG_0594bIMG_0595bIMG_0600bIMG_0601bIMG_0605bIMG_0606bIMG_0607bIMG_0608bIMG_0609bIMG_0610bIMG_0611bIMG_0613bIMG_0615bIMG_0617bIMG_0618bIMG_0620bIMG_0621bIMG_0622bIMG_0624bIMG_0625bIMG_0626bIMG_0631bIMG_0632bIMG_0634bIMG_0636bIMG_0639bIMG_0641bIMG_0642bIMG_0643bIMG_0644bIMG_0645bIMG_0646bIMG_0648bIMG_0649bIMG_0650bIMG_0653bIMG_0654bIMG_0656bIMG_0658bIMG_0660bIMG_0661b

 

Sunny Sunday with Friends in Greece

Sunday morning in Voula came with plenty of sunshine and a sweet reunion with my best friend from college: my roommate of three years and sister-at-heart. It had been five years and two children since I had last seen her. My friend is one of the most loving beings I know, known also for her signature smile. It was the best feeling to see her again and spend a little time with her, now as responsible adults…

Her four little girls – three curly-haired like their momma, and one with straight black hair, like her daddy – greeted us in the church yard and swarmed as I gifted them with coloring books and colorful hair clips. Their brother wanted nothing to do with them, too busy burning energy by kicking a large yellow ball as hard as he could – and sometimes getting the ball stuck on top of the grapevine shading the benches around the church courtyard.

church

After a while, we distributed the children to family to watch over them while we drove south of Voula, along the coast. We paused at Okeanis, a restaurant perched atop a beach with the same name. The drinks, as well as the conversation, were refreshing. The waters didn’t seem to be affected by the recent oil spill from a tanker in the area and the beach was abuzz with action. In the distance, a swarm of white sails like tiny sharks were following the instructions of the local sailing school.

 

drinks on the terrace 3beach 1beach 2

Refreshed by the drinks and the gentle breeze coming through the large open windows, we headed further down the coast to Aperanto Galazio, a seafood restaurant on Varkiza beach. We pulled in the sandy parking lot and walked a few steps to a waterfront table. The arugula salad we had was unlike any I had in the U.S. The roka leaves were large and deep green; their mild peppery taste was further augmented by the thinly sliced Parmesan cheese and nicely complemented by olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. The mandatory slices of ripe and juicy tomatoes fanned out to form a bright salad base.

But whenever by the sea, one must have seafood. I savored all that I could from a generous serving of pasta with muscles, octopus, and a giant prawn staring at me from the top of the heap. My husband didn’t say much as he cleaned out his plate of elbow macaroni with octopus, tomatoes, and fresh herbs. Desert was Samali or Greek halva, a semolina-based sweet, toasted in oil and infused with sweet syrup, with delicate aromas of cinnamon and clove.

roka 2seafood pasta 2octopus elbow pasta 2samali

After a while, we said good bye to our friends and headed to the Voula beach looking forward to a refreshing swim. We watched for oil before going in but couldn’t see any right away, so we immersed ourselves in the comforting waters of the Mediterranean, stepping gingerly over the slippery rocks lying on the bottom. When we came ashore, we figured out why the rocks were slippery: black tar was staining the soles of our feet… It seems that the oil had settled on the bottom of the sea. We tried in vain roughing our feet with sand. Then, I remembered the Dawn duck commercial! Didn’t rescuers use dish detergent to clean up the avian victims of oil spills? I told our host about it but she looked at me a little incredulously, as she hadn’t seen the commercial. Well, I am here to attest that the ad was correct: a drop of dish detergent did the trick and our feet were once again clean!

Next on the agenda was walk to Leoforos Vasileos Pavlou, a street closed off to cars and lined with restaurants and terraces, where everyone congregates for dinner, drinks, and to let their children play until late hours of the evening. But first, we stopped to admire the artwork of senior citizens in the area, who habitually get together to exhibit their crafts – not for profit but to share with the community. Our restaurant choice of the evening was Il Vero, an Italian affair, possibly because our friend is originally from Italy.

Il Vero menu

And when it comes to Italian food, pizza is a must. And, as our friend insisted, if you want il gusto vero (the true taste) of Italy, you must have the anchovies. So, we split the Napoletana (with anchovies, tomatoes, mozzarella, and a sprinkle of oregano) and Capricciosa (with tomato, mozzarella, ham, mushrooms, and artichokes). On the side, we had a slaw salad with a green pepper dressing that was spicy just enough to awaken the taste buds. We relaxed into the evening with great conversations as we sipped on a chilled local white wine – the perfect ending to another day in Mediterranean Paradise…

Once Upon an Olive: Athens, Greece

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Six a.m. came early and with it our ride to the airport. We guzzled down just enough coffee to crack open our eyes and finish packing. The ride was smooth and we stopped a couple of times on our way to Otopeni, the main airport in Bucharest, Romania. The Greek welcome came in flight in the shape of a Melekouni sesame cookie, a traditional honey and sesame seed sweet bar, given in Rhodes at weddings or christenings.

 

The short flight from Bucharest to Athens landed around noon on a hot and steamy day. We paid the 6 euros for the bus ticket and embarked the X96 towards Pireus. At our stop, Nosokomio, we got off and proceeded to drag our roller bags down the noisy sidewalks towards my dearest friends’ home. The walk we now did 6 times, brings back good memories, almost like going home.

Our sweet friend was waiting for us with a large smile and warm embrace. The furry friends Rex and Bonnie were also glad to see us although they had just met us.

 

Our friends’ house is right across from the Mediterranean and on certain days, there is a fresh market right down the street. We didn’t want to miss out on the occasion so, after we dropped off the bags, we took a quick tour of the fresh market. The olives are my favorite: so many types and looking so amazing. We chatted with the local vendors – even if we didn’t speak Greek and they didn’t speak much English – and learned that the green olives are simply young olives, which turn darker as they ripen. I tasted some of each and triumphantly carried a bag of them home. The pomegranates were poised for a photo op and the vendor told me how to shoot their best angle: from above. He tossed a pomegranate to my husband as he wished us a good evening. What a warm welcome! I must learn some Greek…

 

As any true European welcome, food was on the agenda. Our Greek friends took us to George’s where the traditional Greek salad with a healthy helping of feta on top and a nice glass of red wine kick-started our dinner. We feasted on keftedakia with potatoes, eggplant spread, tzatziki, and steamed greens.

 

After a short walk, we rested at a café terrace with a café freddo and a healthy discussion about life.Freddo

The evening came with a live outdoors concert on the beach of Glyfada. The mayor of Glyfada reassured the audience that the recent oil spill from a nearby tanker didn’t affect the local waters. The concert went on past the time we left and our first day in Greece concluded with a refreshing shower and a much-needed long sleep.

Home, again, in beautiful Brasov, Romania

The long trip home is always well worth it… Three planes, one automobil, and 20-some hours later, my husband and I arrived HOME, in my natal Brasov, Romania. Having lived half my life away from home, I can say that I never stop missing my true home. Things are not perfect but they are good.

We took the mandatory trip to the old city and found a main street and plaza, Piata Sfatului packed with people milling about or enjoying a warm and beautiful early fall day on a cafe terrace.

We got some light shopping done – I’m always looking for comfortable AND stylish shoes which actually exist in Europe – and then we got hungry. We looked for what we remembered to be a great little restaurant on a side street serving traditional Romanian food. The terrace was full at La Ceaun (The Cauldron) but the waiter directed us to their second and larger location in Piata Sfatului. We settled in at a table and savored traditional stuffed cabbage rolls, baked polenta bubbling with cheese, and apple pie. The bonus was the musical background: the Brasov symphony orchestra and choir performing popular opera. It was amazing, such a treat! Our waiter seemed happy and gladly sang along on occasions.

Ciao, bella Italia! (Part 2: Verona)

Verona – the city of Romeo and Juliet…

I fell in love with Verona the minute I stepped foot in that delightful old town. The old coliseum, the cobblestone streets, the street-side cafes in the main piazza instantly charmed me. The city reminded me a lot of my own home-town, Brasov and it felt like home – or like I could definitely live there.

Verona’s orderly but laid-back feel came as a surprise. When we arrived in the train station, people were queuing and waiting for the next taxi to come along and pick them up – no fights, no skipping of lines. Our taxi took us to the place where we thought we were staying. He pulled over and then accompanied us to the large and elegant door of the apartment building. He wanted to be sure that he delivered us at the correct address… how nice! We had the right landlord but not the right location – we found out that there was a second location for our B&B, closer to downtown: B&B Ad Centrum di Fraccaroli Fabio. The apartment was simple and the pillows could have used some more feathers but, all-in-all, it was O.K. The breakfast was included and it was simple but good. The best part about the B&B was its location: right around the corner from Arena di Verona, famous for its elaborate opera shows and the Piazza Bra, enticing passers-by with lovely cafes and store-fronts. We caught a glimpse at the sophisticated décor used in the opera shows and learned that only select artists get to perform inside this special venue.

IMG_5451

However, if you didn’t get the chance to get a ticket to the show, you could enjoy the music from across the street, while sipping the popular sweet orange spritzers the locals consumed on the restaurant patios in the piazza. I chatted with our waiter and found out that the lovely Italian singer we were overhearing was Pino Daniele – our waiter’s favorite artist and fellow Napolitano! The waiter disappeared for a moment across the street, in the direction of the coliseum, and returned proudly with a ticket stub as a memento for me. Such as sweetheart! Sadly, Pino Daniele passed away not long after we heard him, in January of 2015…

IMG_5453IMG_5454IMG_5456IMG_5457

One evening, the rain surprised the opera-attending crowd with a solid downpour during the first act. Luckily, we were already comfortably seated on a terrace, under cover. As the rain started pouring down, the crowds started pouring out of the arena and people ran for cover to the restaurants, which filled up quickly. We had two extra spots at our table, so we invited a German couple to join us. The gentleman spoke some English and told us about his other passion, football, for which he enthusiastically traveled all over the world to watch – as far as Japan and Brazil.

At some point during the downpour, the opportunity to sell ponchos and umbrellas to the in-dire-need spectators created a fist-fight among the Asian and African street merchant groups operating in Piazza Bra. One of them grabbed a chair from the patio and tried to thrust it towards the enemy. Luckily, except for a black eye, no other damage was done and the commercial activities resumed as per usual.

We toured the city in one of the double-decker busses leaving from Piazza Bra. We wanted to quickly get an idea of places we would want to later on see in more detail. After that, we walked a lot and simply enjoyed the quiet and quaint city.

Our next stop, Venice!

Christmas in Knoxville, TN

This year we had a very quiet and unseasonably warm Christmas. We had a lovely Christmas Eve dinner, complete with sarmale (Romanian stuffed cabbage rolls), mamaliga (polenta), and red wine in good company. Christmas Day came with gift opening outside, on the deck, while soaking in the sun in 60-degree weather.

cookiesnicethe-leg-lampsilent-night

New Year’s Eve was also quiet. Knoxville is not exactly a super party town and sometimes that’s O.K. The Red Piano Lounge is a quirky little place downstairs, in a shopping center. It used to be called 4620. The music was great, and the drinks were good if you stuck with wine.

But the best part about the holidays was the company – it’s so good to have friends and family around…

It seems like 2016 has been a very unpopular year and according to Facebook, everyone just wished it dead and gone. There is a general sense of hope if not from sheer desperation that the New Year will be considerably better and will make up for whatever sins 2016 had. I am joining that crowd and beyond hoping, I am doing… doing more of the things that I want to do rather than what others expect or want me to do. I don’t intend to be selfish – I really dislike selfish people – but I do plan on catering more to my own fulfillment. So I will do more writing, more dancing, more traveling, more relaxing, more hanging out with the people whom I love and who love me back. I hope your year is the best year yet!

Happy New Year!

Ciao, bella Italia! (Part 1: Rome, Orvieto, Florence)

Everyone should go to Italy at least once. I have always heard people singing its praises but until recently, I didn’t get around to visit and see for myself. So, in the fall of 2014, after a long and difficult year at work, my husband and I decided to take this long-awaited and well-deserved Italian vacation. We wanted to take a sample of the country, a bit of both the north and the south, scoping out places where we’d like to return and spend some more time.

A Taste of Italy: August 28-September 4, 2014

We flew from Knoxville to Atlanta and then to Rome at the end of August, which is the end of the high season in Europe. The weather is still great but the crowds are thinning out, as everyone is going home and getting ready to go back to work or get the kids back to school.

ROMA (ROME) – arrival

From the Fiumicino airport, we took a bus to go to the train station. The magnificent Coliseum appeared out of nowhere as our bus zoomed around the roundabout and sped along towards the Termini.

We followed our plan of leaving our two large suitcases at the station and retrieving them on our way out, and quickly repacked our bags. David, my husband, had read that it was € 6 per day, so one week would have been reasonable. However, the reality was: for each piece of baggage it was € 6 for the first 5 hours, and then € 0.90/hour for the next 7 hours, and € 0.40 for every additional hour after that…no, grazie.

The train station reminded me a lot of the Bucharest North Station but that certainly didn’t help me getting around…. We were completely lost when it came to what train to catch and where to find information. I blamed it on the lack of sleep – crying baby on the plane, super-tight and uncomfortable seats – funny how planes now have all the electronic bells and whistles, including Wi-Fi connection above 10,000 feet but you can’t really recline your seat and you have to pay $ 65 to get a Preferred seat (gaining you a whopping 4 additional inches of space…) – ridiculous. But I digress. We bought tickets and then ran around the station, trying to find the correct line only to get back to where we started and wave our train good bye…. We spent somewhere between one and two more hours trying to switch our tickets. Then we made sure we read the panels located at the end of the platforms for the correct line.

While we were waiting, a group of Italian policemen asked us a favor; there was a woman who needed to get on our train and she needed help. The three policemen kept explaining to her how to get to her destination but she kept forgetting and asking over and over again. My husband seized the occasion and asked one of them to help us call the B&B in Orvieto and let them know we were arriving late. One of the policemen was kind enough to let David use his cell phone (we couldn’t figure out the calling card situation) and chatted a while with David, expressing his desire to someday visit Philadelphia and watch a WWE fight. Meanwhile, a group of seemingly intoxicated men came by, drinking from a large bottle of wine or some other lightly colored liquid. One of the policemen thought about approaching the group but decided against it. The group walked anyway. The policemen seemed very nice and a bit laid back.

ORVIETO

In Orvieto, we dragged our luggage up the street, loudly, on the cobblestone street to our lovely and quiet B&B. Sant’Angelo 42 (bborvieto.com) was as advertised: charming, quiet, and welcoming. Giulia, our host, prepared a delicious breakfast for us, complete with home-made marmalade and wonderful coffee. It was interesting to see the Etruscan ruins beneath the B&B’s floor, right at the entrance, as a welcome from history.

So, after a long trip and a rough beginning, we adjusted to being on vacation and to Italy. We enjoyed the hill-top small town and the beautiful yet still very hot late August weather. We walked around a lot and struggled to adjust to the time difference. I loved hearing (and understanding) the languages around me, including Italian. As bad as my Italian was, the locals still understood it better than they did English. Some waiters seemed intimidated if approached in English and some avoided us. They didn’t seem as accommodating as in Greece or Spain but maybe it was just an outlier event.

We learned the natural way of things in Orvieto: breakfast, walking/shopping, a nice siesta between 1 and 3 p.m., more walking and shopping between 3 and 8 p.m., followed by dinner between 8 and 10 p.m. dinner (people dress up for dinner), and a late night gelato, socializing, and strolling along the cobblestone streets, under the moonlight.

I had to give in and shop at one of the local ceramics store. I loved the pretty yellow and blue hand-painted pottery and the store owner was very nice. Some of the pottery was meant for gifts, so I didn’t have that much buyer’s remorse.

pottery

20140830_184621

During one of our evening strolls, we witnessed some of the Italian passion: tears from girls fighting with their boyfriends, passionate kissing in the middle of the sidewalk, fights between an unhappy customer and the funicolare ticket sellers, and one overheard by the entire town of Orvieto through an open window – part of the charm.

Orvieto was a good base for us for a day trip to Firenze (about two hours by train) but we underestimated how late we would return and failed to consider that the funicolare would be closed. We wanted to walk up the hill to our B&B but we were informed that it was a 20 km walk, so we decided that waiting 30 min. for the 10:20 p.m. bus was a better choice than walking in the dark for 10 miles. We thought that most places stayed open until midnight so we set out to find something to eat. We didn’t have much luck – apparently, most places want to close down after 11 p.m. and two places we tried basically ignored us…. We finally found a busy bar (across from the pottery shop) and the terrace was full, as everyone was watching the soccer match (gioco del calico) on TV. David was about to become the Hunger Hulk, so I pulled out my emergency Italian. I told one of the waiters Voremos mangiare qualcosa (not too far from the correct vogliamo mangiare qualcosa). He said Certo but that the only space they had was inside. It turned out that the inside space was plentiful and we had it all to ourselves. We had a pizza Capriciosa, with cheese, ham, sausage, radicchio, and topped with an over-easy egg. We also had some red wine and agua naturale (not frizzata). Of course, like in other European countries, people like to stay and talk for hours instead of rushing through a meal, getting the check, and leaving. So the waiter took his time checking back with us but he was more than nice and accommodating. We finally left around 2 a.m. We slept in on Saturday, had a cappuccino, and an espresso with two pasti and took it easy during the rest of the day.

Cappuccinos and pasti (pastries) in Orvieto were great! So was the thin crust pizza with lots of creative toppings. The Bellini I had was simple, yet delicious: Prosecco and fresh peach juice. We had some Orvieto area wines and we enjoyed them. I prefer red wines usually but I found the white wine I tasted to be delicious and better than the area reds: it was light and buttery, with a smooth finish. Chianti area is not far from Orvieto (about two hours north, with Montepulciano wine area within an hour’s train ride). There is a lot left to see in Orvieto. It seems like every time we turned on a different little street, we discovered yet another thing, a great panorama or a historic dwelling.

I think that it’s definitely worth going back to the area and maybe renting a car, exploring the wine country and Orvieto in more details. In between Montepulciano and Orvieto, Castiglione del Lago looked like a place I might want to visit too.

FIRENZE (FLORENCE)

One day in Florence is hardly enough time…. So we wanted to see Il Duomo. Getting tickets was a more complicated endeavor than it should have been. We walked to the monument but couldn’t find the ticket place nearby; we walked back to the church across from the railway station in hopes of finding it, only to turn around and finally find the place on a side street before reaching Il Duomo plaza. The tickets were € 10 each. We walked over to Il Duomo and stood in line for maybe one hour. Finally, we were moving and going inside. There were two ticket scanners and when I tried scanning mine, it didn’t work. Not to hold up the line any further, I told the guard that the ticket office must have given us the wrong tickets and that we’d be right back after we went to set them straight. Back at the side-street ticket office, we showed the attendants our “bad tickets” and had another precious moment when the guy told us with an amused but benevolent smile on his face that we were trying to use Umbria bus tickets…. Somehow, I had grabbed the wrong tickets from my small but sneaky purse. Oops – scusa, colpa mia…. We walked back to Il Duomo and made it inside. The cool air was a welcome respite before climbing to the top. The ascent was long and steep – I was the color of Pomodoro by the time we emerged from the narrow and twisted staircase onto the rooftop – but it was totally worth it! The view was amazing and gratifying!

IMG_5325

After such great turmoil and effort, we were famished. We didn’t have a lot of time before catching the train back to Orvieto, so we looked around nearby for a casual bite. Luckily, we didn’t have to walk very far to find All’Antico Vinaio, and have the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever tasted – EVER! I had freshly baked bread with cured wild boar meat, artichoke spread, pecorino cheese, roasted red peppers, and greens. For € 2, we helped ourselves to some wine. We sat on a bench across from the small place where they made the sandwiches and savored the taste of Italy.

slide_osteria_1

(photo above courtesy of All’Antico Vinaio)

10636061_10203740291600885_4164376043762439228_n10612643_10203740291280877_4853089945404837878_n10623096_10203740290000845_3143565263527575097_n10624987_10203740290200850_2718227449328947399_n

IMG_5385IMG_5387IMG_5388IMG_5391

[pause to reminisce; mouth watering…. OK, I’m back]

Next, we saw Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Michelangelo for a nice overview of the città.

Back at the train station – lesson learned earlier – we made sure to pay attention to the train track number, which of course, changed at the last minute…. Luckily, David noticed the switch, which was only to the adjacent track, and we headed back to Orvieto.

…to be continued (next, Verona, Venezia, and more)

Beaufort, SC: a cute little town by the sea

In May 2015, we got away for a quick trip to the beach. I have heard about Beaufort, SC from HGTV, I believe, and then I have read about it in Coastal Living. It was described as a quaint little artist town by the water, so I really wanted to check it out. We always go to Charleston but this time we ventured out about an hour and a half to check things out. Beaufort was indeed a cute little town. We went to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park and had lunch at Plums restaurant. I tried the soft-shell crab sandwich – the special – and I didn’t really like it. The shell was not as soft as I would have expected it to be but the drinks and the view were great. We walked about, in search of the haunted Castle, a 19th century classic house. Get the story from the locals: www.beaufortonline.com/the-castle-in-beaufort-sc.

IMG_6658IMG_6660IMG_6661IMG_6662IMG_6663IMG_6666IMG_6672IMG_6673IMG_6674IMG_6677IMG_6680IMG_6681IMG_6683IMG_6688IMG_6692IMG_6696IMG_6697IMG_6698IMG_6699IMG_6701IMG_6702IMG_6703IMG_6704IMG_6706IMG_6708IMG_6710IMG_6711IMG_6713IMG_6714IMG_6715

IMG_6716
Carriage stepping stone

IMG_6722IMG_6723IMG_6726IMG_6727IMG_6729IMG_6732IMG_6734IMG_6735IMG_6736IMG_6737IMG_6739IMG_6740IMG_6743IMG_6745IMG_6746IMG_6748IMG_6749IMG_6750IMG_6751IMG_6752IMG_6753IMG_6754IMG_6755IMG_6756IMG_6759IMG_6760IMG_6761IMG_6764IMG_6765

IMG_6769
Two dogs, one real, and one ceramic.

My kind of town, Chicago is

I heard a lot about Chicago, mostly about the jazz & blues scene and the cold winters. I had the chance to visit very briefly while in college. I really wanted to go to a piano jazz bar. However, as fate will have it, I was a day or two shy of my 21st birthday. In Europe, this wouldn’t have been an issue but here we can drive at 16, be in a war at 18 but are not responsible enough to drink until we are 21… Anyway, the funny thing is that I didn’t even drink back then (it’s all over now 😉 ). I went to Chicago just for a day. I remember walking along the river and having the distinct feeling that I was in one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping

(0:44) Walking Along The River / They Are Walking Between N. Michigan Avenue and N. Columbus Drive Bridges, Chicago (Note: They Are On The North Side Of The Chicago River Walking Toward Columbus Drive)

 

I was mesmerized by the tall buildings (there aren’t many skyscrapers in Berea, Kentucky). We really wanted to find the Sears Tower, so we walked towards the tallest building we could see. Of course, the closer we walked, the tougher it was to know which one was the tallest… We made it but only to be turned down for a ride to the top with ten minutes left to closing time. What a bummer.

Two years ago (in June of 2014), I returned to The Windy City for a professional conference. I had very little time to explore but I had the chance to walk along the water, through the park, and on to the famous Bubble (Cloud Gate in Millennium Park). I enjoyed the wide sidewalks and taking in the refreshing 70 F degree air – a welcomed coolness after Knoxville’s 80s-90s F degree weather.

1234567891011121314

I tried one of the hot dog places that was supposed to be the best in downtown (Portillo’s) but I wasn’t impressed. Maybe I just chose the wrong type of dog? The other thing that just had to be tasted right at the source was the Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Now, that was good! I met a friend who was also in town for a conference and we had a great time at Gino’s East pizzeria. Ginos with AmyDeep Dish Pizza

This time I did make it to the top of the Sears Tower – now called Willis Tower. The views are spectacular and for some reason the jazz theme song from  Moonlighting TV series popped into my head (Al Jarreau). I too stepped into the glass box dangling 103 stories above the ground and had my picture taken for the world to see how brave I am! But most of all I just took in the panorama and enjoyed smart cocktails with strangers. There is just something so romantic about the sunset over the lake and the city lights, high above the ground…

134571416171823

10

20

8

19242527333510307200_10152583566257189_8543822945082458013_n10388661_10152583566397189_3501607102966669572_n10397176_10152583566217189_5205254266658030544_o10438220_10152585430692189_4914540807226446668_n

Willis Tower photo32302810440841_10152583566322189_5964017497065640329_n

262910438220_10152585430692189_4914540807226446668_n2710409560_10152583566992189_6296406695830924336_n

3610361990_10152583567052189_275190999684867153_n

The Navy Pier is a must when visiting Chicago. We concluded our Chicago trip with a wonderful boat ride into the sunset…

 

10346106_10152587277462189_5764682005497815763_n10416599_10152587277807189_359271995763887841_n

10401439_10152587275817189_1234357456847410745_n10453373_10152587277047189_7709902004442574447_n10450452_10152587276707189_6703753218365909086_n10380240_10152587277182189_3825585788678465665_o10363898_10152587275912189_5766657602142990158_n10418343_10152587276597189_186688533115813408_n10361326_10152587276287189_6232062818009230129_n

10372797_10152587276222189_1029256976934147558_n

So for now, so long, Chicago. I will return in search for that perfect piano jazz/blues club. Any recommendations are welcomed.

Christmas in Romania – part 5: Brasov

Christmas in Romania – part 5: Brasov

Saving the best for last: Brasov, my home – always!

Home is always the best, at least for me. I can honestly say – and not just because I’m from there – that Brasov is one of the best cities in Romania. It has a perfect blend of old and new: melancholic cobblestone streets are meandering among brick and stone houses with red terracotta roofs, guarded by ancient watch towers, and the fortresses on the hill. There is so much history here. There is also a lot of life and living. People enjoy each other’s life-long friendships, meet and spend time together at the sidewalk cafes, or get together on the weekends to enjoy nature, good food, and good companionship. Brasov is a true gem, located in the best possible setting: surrounded by lush mountains and showing off its best panorama from Tampa, the hill overlooking downtown and Piata Sfatului (the central piazza).

IMG_7746IMG_7749IMG_7751

It was named “Corona” or the Crown and it’s really with good reason.

20160108_125237

It has also been named “Probably one of the best cities in the world” – and you have to appreciate both the loving pride and the disclaimer in this slogan…

BV with slogan 1

I love that the young and the old can peacefully coexist and enjoy the same wild dance parties. I love the main piazza, Piata Sfatului, a popular rendezvous and hang-out spot, which turns into the perfect performance stage for music festivals, Argentine Tango or Salsa dancing, and for the giant Christmas tree and winter market. The city has so much charm, and it seems to me that it’s getting better each year. Yes, I’m biased but I also have the perspective of seeing the city only once a year and really noticing every change.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwNtlYX_iYM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQu3Dick4Fg

My beautiful Brasov was decorated and poised for the winter holidays and, even without snow, it glowed and enchanted me. I enjoyed strolling down the street, window-shopping, listening to the carolers, having a cup of hot mulled wine, and admiring the Christmas tree. There was also a popular Nativity scene and a carousel for kids. I love the juxtaposition of worldly fun, candy shops, and lights with the somber shadows of the Black Church and the vigilance of the White Tower.

20160108_125305

20151225_091131

20151231_052802

20151231_133817

Learn more about the historic sites http://romaniatourism.com/brasov.html

Enjoy this slideshow of Christmas 2015, downtown Brasov (photos might take a bit to load up, so be patient).

IMG_6798IMG_6808IMG_6833IMG_6834IMG_6835IMG_6849IMG_6858IMG_6859IMG_6860IMG_6861IMG_6862IMG_6888IMG_6893IMG_6894IMG_6901IMG_6904IMG_6905IMG_6906IMG_6911IMG_6933IMG_6934IMG_6936IMG_6937IMG_6941IMG_6942IMG_6944IMG_6986IMG_6990IMG_6992IMG_7012IMG_7016IMG_7017IMG_7023IMG_7026IMG_7030IMG_7031IMG_7033IMG_7034IMG_7035IMG_7037IMG_7038IMG_7039IMG_7043IMG_7044IMG_7059IMG_7064IMG_7065IMG_7072IMG_7073

One of my favorite activities at Christmas time is decorating the tree. My family (of four) lived in a small two-bedroom apartment, so we always had a small Christmas tree. However, it was always well-dressed and it smelled divine. I love the smell of pine tree and, since I was a baby, I could watch the twinkling lights for hours. This year I went with my dad to the market to pick a tree and chose this guy:

20151223_091527

With the tree up (we usually have the tree decorated only a few days before Christmas), we were ready to receive carolers. There are plenty of groups going around if you wish to receive them but we opted for someone we knew. A neighbor of ours has a beautiful daughter who is studying music. She played a few songs for us on her pan flute, which I understand is pretty hard to learn.

Thanks to Facebook, I was able reconnect with a couple of friends from high school. We met at Festival 39, a beautiful restaurant on the corner of Republicii street, in downtown Brasov.

High school was not a good memory. The Headmaster was a sadistic math teacher who tormented me every day for four years. Sadly, he doesn’t even know or understand that… Oh, there are some stories to be told from those days….but I’ll leave that for another day. It was great seeing my friends. It’s like we’ve never been apart, although twenty years passed…ouch! Time is silly like that: it likes to surprise us.

My husband and I made several trips to downtown – some for purely selfish shopping reasons – but most just for the joy of walking, sightseeing, and eating. We heard about this little place called La Ceaun (“At the Cauldron”), so we tried it one night for dinner. There were two sections: one with a big common table and a to-go counter, and the other one called La Ceaunul Tihnit (“At the laid-back/calm cauldron”), which we chose. The décor was very nicely done, in a modern fashion but using old/traditional elements: local ceramics, woven towels, and wooden menu holders. The food was delicious and very cheap, comparatively speaking. We ordered mulled wine, traditional meat and cabbage rolls with polenta (sarmale cu mamaliga), a pickled hot pepper and sour cream on the side, bean and pork belly soup in a bread bowl, and for desert, galusti cu prune (potato dough stuffed with plum and boiled) – all for a whopping 52 RON, or about 13 USD.

20160108_11324420160108_11395720160108_11484220160108_11484920160108_12281120160108_124856

Another great place we visited for dinner was Bistro del Arte, a very quaint little restaurant tucked away on a cobblestone side street, in downtown Brasov. The number of tables available is small, and the setup is very cozy. Local artists display their sculptures or paintings throughout and some nights, there is live music playing.

20160106_040900

The restaurant’s loyal stray dog respectfully sits outside the bar, waiting for his treats. I offered him some bread, but I was informed that he prefers cheese… He was still nice enough to keep us company for a while.

doggie

 

The cheese is not to be shared with dogs, sorry (growl). We had a glass of the house red and a small cheese plate, for starters. I loved the presentation:

Next, we had paella with chicken and a Mediterranean salad, and more wine.

20160104_134034

Warmed up by the wine, we stepped into the cool night. We walked briskly, past the mulled wine wagon, still very much alive with visitors, past the late-night walkers, taking in the charm of city in its festive lights, feeling alive and happy.

20160108_124901

20160104_120214

20160108_112850

20160108_112536

20160108_125658

Brasov has many perks and one of them is being the foothills of Poiana Brasov, one of the best skiing resorts in Romania. My brother and his friend convinced my husband to join them for several days of skiing. I don’t ski but I ice skate… It’s crazy, since I grew up there but I never took skiing lessons. I went skiing a few times, when I was a kid, with strap-on skies, and once, while in college. I had the “pleasure” of trying out the black diamond slopes using my fancy plow move and my thigh as the brake, so I didn’t return… But back to my story. My husband didn’t bring any skiing attire from the U.S., so we ended up buying a helmet, goggles, gloves, hat, socks, and ski pants at the local Decathlon store. He rented the other equipment from Poiana Brasov, and off they went. I joined them to the base of the slope and then went for a few hours’ stroll. I went to find the old Olympic skating rink I remembered from my childhood. I remember the little changing area serving hot tea with rum – so soothing and satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed the vendor huts lined up between restaurants, along the main road. I ended up buying a ridiculously large furry hat and walked around with a grin the entire time; Hey, when in Rome (or Romania for that matter)…. I squeezed my way into a small wooden church to listen to a part of the sermon, then I walked past the sledding slopes and proceeded to look for a nice place to grab a hot coffee. I really wanted to find something non-smoking (which is still hard to find but finally existing!). I found this traditional-looking restaurant and chose a corner table, in the upstairs section, overlooking the slopes. I had a decadent and cheesy pastry and sipped on a cappuccino. It was fun watching the kids – by themselves or with their parents – sled down the hill, and a couple of young adults – possibly having had one too many rum teas? – who kept of falling off the sled before it reach the bottom half.

After a while, I walked back to the parking lot at the bottom of the ski slope to wait for my boys: husband, brother, and nephew. While waiting, I enjoyed people-watching: the colorful suits, the skillful – and not-so skillful – slaloms, and the random dog managing to dodge the skiers as they came to the end of the slope. There was one lady who arrived with the aid of the Salvamont, on a stretcher. Her leg must have been broken. She hobbled to a fence, where she waited for the ambulance to arrive. I felt so bad for her; she looked in pain.

After a good day of skiing, what’s better than a warm and plentiful meal, cooked by mom? Nothing, of course. My parents prepared mici (or “the little ones”, a mixture of beef, lamb, and pork, with spices, grilled), alongside veggies, and washed down with beer or red wine.

On the last day before heading to Bucuresti and then back to Knoxville, we visited with my brother and his family one more time for another feast. Even if it had finally started snowing outside, the guys fired up the grill on the patio and cooked tuna steaks, chicken, and beef. The side dish was either pasta made by my nephew (he had taken a cooking class the previous day, making pasta from scratch), or couscous, to stay on the healthy side of things. The wine was good but the time was short.

Good-byes are not my favorites and we rushed out to catch a cab back to my parents’ apartment. When we walked in, a familiar vanilla smell was coming from the kitchen. My mom showed up with a knowing smile on her face. “You made doughnuts, didn’t you?” A large plate of hot beignets was waiting on the small kitchen table and we gladly indulged my mom before hitting the road.

20160109_102223

Our driver took a while to find us and was a little distraught at the number of luggage pieces we had (little did he know that we left quite a bit behind; we brought three bottles of wine, carefully packed in our check-ins). In Bucuresti, we stayed at hotel RIN, which is very close to the airport and offers free transportation to and from the airport. It’s a four-star hotel (although it’s not really) but we found a room at a discounted rate of only 30 dollars per night.

Our flight out of Bucuresti was bright and early at 6 a.m. In Amsterdam, we boarded our big plane, only to disembark because the cleaning crew had missed a check point. But better safe/clean than sorry. After that, it was smooth sailing to the U.S. I sat next to a foreign-looking guy (I had the middle seat), who happened to be sitting next to me on the flight to Knoxville. Turns out that he was indeed foreign (from the Check Republic) but was living in Knoxville – small world….

I really love flying KLM. The staff is always so nice and calm. I noticed that they are very heavy into branding, which I can appreciate being that I do marketing for a living. Everything from the plastic cups to the napkins and more had something typical Dutch etched or printed on it: a bicycle, tulips, clogs, windmills. Some of my best friends are Dutch, incidentally – but that’s another story… I do have a lot of stories, so stick with me. Meanwhile, I leave you with these beautiful flowers (which my husband and I bought for my mom before we left).

20160108_104725