Saturday, July 30, 2011

Food travels-Biltmore

For this week's meal I "traveled" to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina making selections from my Biltmore-Our Table to Yours cookbook. Everything I made was entirely summer themed-cold soup, pizza with grilled vegetables, and a cold cream pie for dessert. I love not having to use the oven when I can during the summer so all of these recipes were perfect.

Watermelon gazpacho
4 cups chopped watermelon
1/4 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1 cup chopped seeded cucumber
2 tablespoons chopped seeded green chiles
2 large tomatoes, chopped 
1/4 cup sliced scallions
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
juice of three lemons
salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Combine the watermelon, bell pepper, onion, cucumber, green chiles, tomatoes, scallions, garlic and cilantro in a large bowl. Add the lime juice, salt and white pepper and toss to mix well. Marinate in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours. Process in a blender or with an immersion blender until smooth. Adjust the seasonings and chill until serving time. Ladle into soup bowls to serve. 

Grilled Summer Vegetables and Goat Cheese Pizzetas

Peanut Butter Pie
14 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 chocolate cookie pie shell

Chocolate Ganache
1 cup heavy whipping cream
8 ounces semisweet chocolate couverture, finely chopped (the recipe recommends not using chocolate chips, instead it says to only use high-quality chocolate such as Ghiradelli, Valrhona or Cocoa Barry)

For the pie, beat the cream cheese and sugar in a mixing bowl with a paddle attachment until smooth, scraping down the side as needed. Add the peanut butter and vanilla and mix well. Beat in the melted butter gradually. 

Whip the cream in a mixing bowl with a whip attachment until soft peaks form. Fold into the peanut butter mixture. Spread in the pie shell and chill in the refrigerator. 

For the ganache, bring the cream to a boil in a saucepan. Pour over the chocolate in a bowl. Stir gently to melt the chocolate and mix well. Cool slightly and spread evenly over the pie. Chill until serving time. Cut with a knife that has been heated under hot water and wiped dry between slices. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Trip Tips-Beating the euro exchange rate

There are people who won't travel to Europe because they feel it's too expensive due to the exchange rate between the Euro and the United States dollar. Although the Euro is not as strong as it once was, Americans traveling to those European countries that use the Euro will find that the dollar is not of equal value, not even close. However, even with the rate being what it is (and has been for years now), one can plan and have a fun while still frugal trip to Europe if you follow some of these tips:

Tip #1-Book an air and hotel package. Although you'll be charged for everything all at once, your hotel stay will be charged in dollars. Since you won't be paying in euros you'll save considerably less. When D and I went to Ireland in 2009, we booked an air and hotel package through Expedia at a phenomenal price. On the counter side, when we went to Europe last year on our honeymoon, our hotels were booked separate from our plane tickets and four nights at our Parisian hotel ended up coming out to around the same price as our flight to and from.

Tip #2-If you're traveling to a major city, invest in a city pass. This will not only save you time standing in line at many famous attractions, but will also help with savings in cost. Instead of paying for each attraction, you'll pay one larger fee upfront but then have quick access to museums and other tourist attractions. If you're the traveler who likes to see and do as much as possible, a city pass is definitely worth investing in. My only recommendation is to check beforehand which attractions are covered. If you're finding that the sites you really want to visit are not included in the pass' offerings, then it might just be better to pay as you go. But do your research.

Tip #3-Learn how to say "plate of the day" in the language of the country you'll be visiting. In France it's plat du jour and in Spain plato del dia. The plate of the day is a set lunch menu in which the couple of menu selections to choose from are generally considerably less than at dinnertime.

Tip #4-Avoid the overpriced tourist restaurants that are usually concentrated within striking distance of a famous attraction and instead journey a couple of blocks further and eat at more of a local, slightly less glamorous place. You may or may not save money but you'll most likely be getting much better quality and much more of an authentic foodie experience.

Tip #5-If you're a full-time student in high school or college, get an International Student Identity Card. This offers great discounts on anything from flights and ferries to restaurants and museums. I had one during my semester in Spain and used the card extensively, both in Spain and elsewhere in Europe where I traveled. The greatest thing though is that the card costs only $22, so you definitely get your money's worth.

There are undoubtedly more savings tips out there so as to not let the high exchange rate quash any plans you may have for a European trip, but in the meantime these should get you started.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Key West Florida-An Exploration of (Some) Senses

Key West, Florida
August 2007

Sight: As I climb the last step, my heart starts to race a little bit. Although I had seen the view only moments before on ground level, I know that it is going to look entirely different from high atop the Key West Lighthouse. Eighty-eight steps to climb and already I have gotten my full money's worth from my admission ticket with the spectacular vista in front of me. My boyfriend and I joke that this would have been the perfect spot for him to have proposed, as not only were there no other people around, but it would have been the most memorable of stories. Having toured it prior to coming to the lighthouse, I am delighted to be able to immediately spot the Hemingway House, including the pool that Hemingway's second wife had installed much to his consternation when he saw the bill (more than double the cost of the house). I also sight our cruise ship which had brought us to the most southern of the Florida Keys earlier that morning. I think to myself how much our ship and its floating neighbor look like giant monsters about to wreak havoc on this tiny island. I see endless vistas of clear blue water that just continues on and off into the horizon (or eventually to Cuba).

Taste: With the first bite I take of my "original Sloppy Joe sandwich," I can see why Sloppy Joe's restaurant was featured in Patricia Schultz's famous book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. Although I immediately taste the succulent ground beef that has been cooked to perfection in a sweet and aromatic tomato sauce, it is the spices that give it its distinct yet alluring flavor. Unsure of what they may be, but not too curious to cease all eating, I continue to take a second bite. All the while my boyfriend is about to polish off his sandwich entirely.

"Good?" I ask.

"You bet" he tells me.

Because the sandwich isn't enough of a sinful pleasure for our taste buds, we opt for a sweet finish, the quintessential summer dessert that originated in the late 19th century in Key West. Although I usually experience mind numbing pain due to sensitive teeth when eating sweets of any kind (especially the tart kind), the pain is worth it for there is no better dessert on such a hot day than a slice of refreshing key lime pie.

Contrary to the more common Persian 'green' lime found in American supermarkets, a key lime is actually bright yellow when ripe. It's smaller, seedier, and features a much stronger aroma than the Persian lime and is naturalized throughout the keys.

I'm not usually a fan of pie, but there's something about a meringue topping that wins me over every time. You're having a bad day, have some meringue. It's light, fluffy, and an instant mood (and taste) pleaser. Later that day in a shop, I find a book that mentions how the traditional conch versopm for key lime pie is made with egg whites instead of egg yolks and that one never uses green food coloring when making the dessert. Not only the look, but the taste would also not be the same.

Smell: When I was a little girl, every summer my mom, brother and I would spend the day with family friends who had a beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey. It wasn't a long drive from Philadelphia, but I always knew when we were close because all of a sudden you would want to roll down your window and smell the salt water air.

Our day in Key West I purposely have us wake up early and grab a quick breakfast so I can sit out on deck as we arrive in port. I want to see if the experience would be the same as it was all those years before. I want to breath in the fresh, crisp scent of the nautical air. Although we have been at sea for more than a day now, I think the air might smell different entering port, entering "civilization," leaving behind the endless miles of empty ocean.

Things don't smell much different when we dock. But as soon as we got off the ship and start walking towards Key West proper, the smell of an island summer permeates the air. There isn't just the smell of heat and humidity. There is the smell of a bright, tropical sun beating down on our backs as we walk along Duval Street. There was the smell of tropical fruits and flowers, native only to places like Key West. When we enter a charming shop on one of the side streets that sells native wares from Cuba, a country 90 miles away from where we are, I can smell the faint trace of mojo sauce and fried plantains cooking the back.

Although I've always equated Key West to be a destination best suited for certain demographics (Jimmy Buffet worshipers and those who reside at a Boca Ratonesque retirement community for instance), I discover how much Key West is a destination for everyone. As a history fiend, I am fascinated to learn that in the 19th century, a woman took over her husband's duties after he passed as lighthouse keeper, working until she was 82 and only leaving because she was forced to due to her support for the Southern states' secession from the North. As a huge admirer of Ernest Hemingway's writing, I am in literature ecstasy when on the tour of his house, I see the writing studio where he worked on the final draft of one of my favorite books of all time, A Farewell to Arms. I greatly enjoyed ambling along some of the side streets, imagining the characters from another Hemingway work, To Have and Have Not (that also takes places in Key West) as they went about their daily lives, long before Key West became the major tourist destination it is today.

A stop in port does not even begin to do justice to all that a major destination may offer; you may at most see some of the highlights, but still only ever skimming the surface. There is much more we could have seen and done in Key West, but for the limited time we had, we saw spectacular vistas, tasted heavenly food, and took in the smell of tropical summer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Attraction review: The Monument to the Great Fire of London

The attraction: The Monument to the Great Fire of London (more commonly known as simply The Monument) is one of London's oldest historical attractions. Constructed between the years 1671-1677, it was built to serve as a a monument to the Great Fire that raged three days and destroyed the homes of 70,000 of London's 80,000 inhabitants in 1666. Designed by architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke (the former the same man who designed St. Paul's Cathedral), its height of 202 feet marks the exact distance between it and the site in Pudding Lane where the fire began. Standing at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill, the Monument is the tallest isolated stone column in the world.

Pros to visiting: Although it's a grueling climb to the top, a total of 311 steps on an extremely winding and narrow staircase, the view of London is more than enough reason to visit. However, the 334 year old monument should be more the reason to see it. It's an attraction that has been receiving tourists for over three centuries. Very few sights in the world can say they've been in the tourist business for that long a period. It's by no means a hidden attraction, but I feel it's  not as well known as some of London's other sites, thus resulting in less of a mob like feel. The added bonus is that upon your descent to the ground you are awarded with a certificate acknowledging you have climbed the 311 steps of the Monument. It provides a brief background to the events of the fire and its aftermath as well as an 18th century illustration of the Monument on the one side.

Cons to visiting: For me there really aren't any cons to visiting. As the staircase is extremely narrow and cramped with climbers coming and going in both directions, I wouldn't recommend a climb to the top for anyone who is claustrophobic. However, there are still photo opportunities and experiences with history to be had by remaining on the street level.

Conclusion: On my two trips to London, the Monument remains one of my favorite attractions there. Although many people can say they've been to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, not everyone can claim they were to the top of the Monument. It's a fitting memorial to one of the most horrific events in London's history and definitely a site worth visiting.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hotel Review-Hotel Patritius (Belgium)

Hotel Patritius-Brugge, Belgium
Date of stay-September 2010

The building alone is enough of a reason to stay at Hotel Patritius. A mansion that was built shortly after the Napoleonic era, traces of its elegant past remain today including the free-standing winding staircase that Scarlett O'Hara herself would have come down to meet her beaus and the large carriage entrance where guests would have been admitted.

A completely family owned and operated hotel, its owners, a young couple were courteous and attentive, and like most people in the Benelux region, spoke impeccable English. They preside directly over the extensive continental breakfast that is offered each morning. Although we stayed for two nights, we were only able to partake in the breakfast one morning due to our having to catch an  early train to Paris, but were quite pleased with the offerings. Eggs are also made to order upon request, a nice addition when looking for a bit more than the standard roll and fruit.

Its location is perfect. Only a quick five minute walk to the Markt (the city center), the hotel is still far enough away to not be subject to the immense crowds and loud traffic noise that sometimes inundate it.

There are a total of 16 rooms at Hotel Patritius, located on the first and second floors (the first being the second floor for American logic). There is also a lift which is always a blessing when having to contend with heavy luggage. Our room itself was lovely, decorated in colors and motifs that nicely complimented the hotel's historic past. My only comment, although not a negative, was the choice of artwork on the walls-paintings of dogs in human apparel. Although the television was quite small and limited to mainly Flemish channels, I certainly don't travel to a medieval city in Belgium for television watching. The bathroom was terrific for no other reason that the shower featured a curtain (always a major plus in my opinion). It was also amply roomy and the warming towel rack was a nice added feature.

While there is a vast array of lodging options in Brugge, I highly recommend Hotel Patritius for a unique yet affordable experience. You get all the pleasantries of a three star hotel experience with some history thrown in too.

Hotel Patritius 
Ridderrsstraat 11
8000, Brugge, Belgium

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Genealogy & Travel

Unlike my mom's side, ancestors who emigrated from Western Europe to America hundreds of years ago (and who have been in the same region of Pennsylvania ever since), I know very little about my dad's side, specifically of my "20th century" immigrant ancestors. My paternal grandfather's parents emigrated from Eastern Europe around the turn of the last century in what was truly America's European immigration heyday.

Being the somewhat nerdy 12 year old that I was, I wrote to the Immigration and Naturalization branch of the U.S. Department of Justice for more information on my great-grandparents because the short story of it was that I knew next to nothing about them. Eva, my great-grandmother, died an untimely death in 1944 while in her early 50s. She never got to see any of her three boys again, as they were all fighting overseas in the Second World War. Paul, my great-grandfather, never spoke much English, or so I'm told. My dad always said he was kind to him and would take him for a coke at the local Ukrainian club. My grandmother's memories of her father-in-law were slightly less warm. Apparently in the first couple of years of her marriage, she and my grandfather lived with his father and his demeanor towards his daughter-in-law was less than kind. (She was not of Ukrainian ancestry and she felt he snubbed her for that.) He knew enough English to ask every two weeks, "How much I get?" in regards to his paycheck.

I received my great-grandfather Paul's naturalization file sooner than Eva's. Hers was harder to find. It took another nine months to see the small picture she had submitted of herself with her petition. I discovered that was she was extremely short, her eyes were gray, and she was married on the same day I was born 68 years later. I also learned that she had immigrated to the United States in 1912 only two months before that doomed sailing of the Titanic. I saw the name of the liner she had crossed the Atlantic on, the port in Europe she had forever left the Old Country from. More importantly, I saw the name of her birthplace in Eastern Europe. And this is the point in when I realized that sometimes travel would be the only way to truly discover your roots.

Eva's nationality was listed as Polish which at the time I didn't quite grasp, since I had always understood that I was a quarter percent Ukrainian and not Polish. It was only after delving deeper into history did I learn about the constant changing of borders in Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how what was once Poland is now the Ukraine. Borders may have changed, but cultural ethnicities had not. Naturally, I was never able to locate Eva's village on a map. Granted I'm sure if I were to visit the Ukrainian or Polish embassy I probably would be able to.

This is why the Ukraine is on my bucket list of places I want to visit before I die. Simply put, I want answers. I can probably  assume that the reason for Eva emigrating from Europe was due to economic motives. And yet, who did she travel with? She immigrated in 1912 at the age of 17 but didn't marry until 1917. Even an immigrant girl would not have made a transatlantic voyage unchaperoned. But I know nothing of Eva's family-her parents, if she had any siblings. Her ship the SS Finland left from Antwerp, Belgium which is quite a distance from Eastern Europe, especially in the early 20th century. How did she get there? By train, by wagon?

When I visited Ellis Island as a teenager I tried to imagine my great-grandmother standing there almost a century before in the same places I was. I wondered if she was scared of having to pass the arduous exams physicians and other officials made the immigrants go through before they could be admitted to America. I wondered if she knew anyone that was deported back to the Old Country for having been sick or diseased.

I know trying to trace Eva in the Ukraine would not be easy. I'm sure much of its history was lost in both the Second World War and when it was part of the former Soviet Union. I know that hiring a native, specifically since the Ukraine does not use the Roman alphabet (they use the a variation of the Cyrillic) would be a must. I have no idea if I would ever be able to get the answers I so desire. Perhaps my only connection with Eva will be through a couple of sheets of paper that make up her petition for naturalization.

I do know that even if I can't find out her past, I at least one day want to travel to the Ukraine to see my cultural heritage. To see the origins of my surname that although forever mispronounced, really gives me a unique identity that I am quite proud of. One day I hope to make this come true, because for Eva, I do indeed want to do it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cooking with Julia-Strawberry Tarts

I didn't cook an elaborate meal this weekend only because I wanted to have the time to devote to making somewhat of a time consuming dessert-Julia's tartes aux fraises (strawberry tarts). I had been eying the recipe in The French Chef Cookbook for quite some time but never made them due to my lack of tartlet pans. That was remedied last weekend with my purchase of some at my new favorite store, Sur la Table.

To start it off I made the pastry dough yesterday afternoon. Julia writes that you can either use your favorite mixture or the recipe for French sweet dough which she provides. I opted for the latter as this was one recipe I didn't want to take shortcuts on. The dough was very simple to make (a combination of flour, chilled shortening, a stick of butter, salt, sugar, and water) and needed to chill at least two hours.

When the dough was chilling I moved onto making the creme patissiere (French pastry cream). People would be most familiar with it in an eclair context as it is the delectable filling found inside the pastry. The cream consists of six egg yolks, sugar, flour, hot milk, butter, and rum and vanilla extract for the flavoring and is continuously beat until it starts to thicken. Julia does note that the cream will keep for three or four days under refrigeration or can even be frozen. I had a ton of it leftover and ended up freezing it.

Making the tart shells was the slightly difficult and labor intensive part of the recipe. Once the dough has chilled, you roll it out about 1/8 inch thick and line the tartlet pans. You bake the shells two times, one with "weights," the other time sans. I didn't have baking weights and used lentils instead although I don't think they helped much...

Once the shells have been baked, you paint the insides with warm glaze (she provides a recipe for this) . This helps to waterproof the shell keeping it crisp under the filling. 

And then comes the adding of the French pastry cream and of course the fraises.

I thought they turned out pretty good for my first try at making them and
 I sure was happy with the taste results. Bon appetit!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Southern Cooking-The Best of the South

Here are some photos to visually accompany this week's food related narrative
Enjoy and don't be mad at your stomach if it starts to rumble a bit. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Southern cooking at its best

Asheville, North Carolina
May 2011

I wanted nothing more than old-fashioned, southern comfort food. After almost nine hours of driving to our destination of Asheville, North Carolina, I was spent. Our lunch at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in rural West Virginia seemed like a lifetime ago and I was anxious for my stomach to be re-fueled.

Since North Carolina is known for its barbeque, I knew we wouldn't have a problem in finding a place to eat. The problem was, I just wanted it to be the "right" place, an establishment where the locals went, not where Yankees aka out of town tourists like D and me would dine. Although it was listed in an Asheville visitor's guide that was in our hotel room, Luella's BBQ was definitely not your tourist restaurant.

Slightly removed from the downtown, the diners inside Luella's seemed locals. Granted, Asheville is a city of transplants, full of people who have moved there for its growing arts scene, its stunning location, and idyllic weather. However, I didn't feel like I was surrounded by dozens of other tourists like I have dining at other restaurants during other travels. Customers of all age demographics were there, all out for a night of good cooking.

Although the menu at Luella's featured a variety of dishes, I opted for a chopped pork bbq sandwich, a quarter pound of meat served with three hush puppies and a choice of two sides. (A plate option is available, the only difference being that you get a quarter pound more of meat). When I told D I planned on eating a lot of hush puppies during our time in the South, I was rewarded with a mildly disgusted look. Knowing that they would be done right there, I had the greatest amount of satisfaction when he bit into one of his and he immediately said, "That's really good." Luella's flagship sauces are its Sweet Pisgah (ketchup based) and Scooter's Vinegar Sauce (vinegar based, eastern North Carolina style).

Plain grits I'm not a fan of, but cheddar pimiento grits (one of the two sides I ordered) were simply fabulous. I'm a big fan of cooking experimentation and it seemed to me that adding not only cheddar cheese but red bell peppers (what pimiento means in Spanish) to broken grains of corn is sheer genius.

Even though we were hundreds of miles from the coast, we ordered a slice of key lime pie for dessert. Although I had wanted to try Luella's strawberry pie, feeling that seemed more western Carolina authentic, I was met with sharp opposition from my fellow diner who himself wanted peanut butter pie, so we decided on a mutual winner.

More than an hour wait at a restaurant like TGI Fridays isn't necessarily an indicator that the food is great. It's more to do with the fact that there are some people who only eat at non-chain restaurants, who aren't ones for trying new things. However, an hour wait at a restaurant like Tupelo Honey Cafe in downtown Asheville was worth it.

Tupelo Honey Cafe is all about serving fresh, farm to table food that is made from scratch. When my husband and I arrived at the hostess booth, I could tell that we would be in for a long wait. Tired from our day spent at the Biltmore house, we had gotten a somewhat late start on dinner. But being given a pager to let us know when a table was ready, we went back across the street to a small park, where D proceeded to play Angry Birds on his phone, while I jotted down notes from our activities of the day.

When asked if we minded sitting at the bar, we both said no. Anything to get us inside and eating that much faster. Sure enough, seats at the bar opened up faster than at a table, but in the end it was definitely the right move since we looked directly into the kitchen and saw the mind boggling antics of all that it takes for an item to be ordered, cooked, prepared, and brought to the table.

Since it was nearing nine o'clock and I was no longer a 20 year college student studying in Spain, I opted for a somewhat lighter entree, Tupelo's Sweet Potato Pancake. It was a large buttermilk pancake flavored with cinnamon and sweet potatoes, topped with whipped peach butter and spiced pecans. D, ever the "growing" boy, gravitated towards a perennial favorite of his, fried chicken and biscuits, two of the latter drowned in your choice of either red eye gravy or milk gravy and topped with buttermilk fried chicken.

The ambiance at both Luella's  and the Tupelo Honey Cafe was loud and noisy, and yet fun and inviting. At both places, our waiters were extremely conversational and seemed the types that would still talk with you, even if they weren't working for tips. They were just that warm and welcoming to visitors to their city.

Although I've done an incredible amount of traveling and living abroad, I've done very little domestic traveling in comparison. My trip to North Carolina was a delight for no other reason than I was able to try another region's food and experience southern hospitality at its best. It would be hard to sway me with a trip somewhere domestic over somewhere international, and yet if there is food involved was of the delicious caliber of Luella's and Tupelo Honey Cafe's, you might just succeed. Food is without a doubt just as integral part of the destination as a particular sight is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Historical Preservation-Why we should care

A recent article in my city's newspaper made me realize just how little people care about the topic of preservation, and yet the preserved buildings found in countries around the world are a main reason why so  many of us travel.

The article described an 1822-vintage log house that is in the process of being demolished. It's been said that the house might even be the oldest log house to remain a residence in any major American city. The house had been built between the years of 1822 and 1830 and dates to the neighborhood whose origins were of a village that grew up around an arsenal. A local architect is currently negotiating with the homeowner to save and tag the logs so that the house can be rebuilt somewhere else. Although it's just a house that hasn't been lived in for six years, so was Mount Vernon in Virginia, and Paul Revere's house in Boston, and even the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. They were all places that although monumentally popular tourist attractions today, at one time  stood in neglect and disrepair.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

I feel that we as tourists often take for granted the preserved historical attractions that are just "there." Moreover we in the modern age fail to realize the staggeringly high costs associated with preserving a historical structure. We may think a $20 admission fee is high to tour a century old building and yet it's really not. Upkeep of a modern home can be expensive, but when dealing with 19th century foundations and antique furnishings, it's only a fraction of the cost.

Until April of this year, there was concern over plans to build a casino half a mile south of Gettysburg National Military Park in central Pennsylvania. Supporters of the casino believed that it would bring revenue and jobs to the area, but the opponents knew better. They believed that a commercial site like a casino would wreak havoc on Gettysburg's sacred soil, a site where thousands of men died, and a during one of American history's most important events. Thankfully the gaming license was awarded to another company far away from the spot where Abraham Lincoln dedicated the battlefield in 1863,  due mainly to the fierce opposition led by various preservation groups. 

Preservation also stands as a testament to atrocities committed in the past. The preservation of Hitler's Nazi concentration camps in Europe is not for them to be a macabre tourist attraction but a reminder that such unimaginable places actually existed. For as much as books and other sources of information tell us about these places, seeing them in person is sometimes the only way to truly understand the depths of the horrors found there.

Throughout history there have existed individuals who have cared enough to preserve derelict buildings. They cared about them because they wanted them preserved for future generations to come and visit, to experience how life was and looked in past times. If today's generation doesn't care enough to preserve historic homes, or battlefields in danger of being forever lost, there will be no historic places for us to travel to in the future. Preservation and traveling really do go hand in hand.

Image courtesy of

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Rate-o-attraction: Zip line tour, Costa Rica

The attraction: Zip-line tours are one of Costa Rica's most popular attractions for visitors to this gorgeous and green Central American country. For anyone not familiar with the activity, a zip-line consists of a pulley suspended on a cable mounted on an incline. It is designed to enable a user propelled by gravity to travel from the top to the bottom of the inclined cable, by holding on or attaching to the freely moving pulley. For a more non-technical description, one travels through the treetops of rainforests at breakneck speeds, high above where mere mortals walk the land.

The pros: Although I have never gone bungee jumping or jumped out of an airplane, I found my zip-lining experience pretty daring and adventurous. If you're ever looking for an adrenaline experience while on vacation in the Switzerland of Latin America, I highly recommend zip lining. The ethereal beauty of being in the clouds, in a sanctuary of tree tops amongst birds and other animals in their natural habitats is amazing. It's almost as if you leave behind the tourist development on the ground and high above you descend into natural wonder, how the country would have looked for centuries. I haven't gone zip-lining since,  although it's an experience I would do again in a heartbeat if I had the chance. (Note: I'm trying to get D to do it when we're vacationing in Hawaii later this year, although I have been met with fierce resistance on this).

The con: I can genuinely say there is only one con and it's somewhat minor. Because you travel at such fast speeds, you can't really take photographs. You may hear the wondrous call of a toucan off in the distance but due to all of your reflexes being otherwise engaged when braking before you run into a tree, picture taking is just not optimal. But this shouldn't deter you from doing one of the most invigorating experiences ever because such things called "canopy walks" are also offered. (You walk through a series of hanging bridges in the tree tops. They are not as high up as the zip-lines but since you're walking you can obviously snap a photo or two without posing immediate danger to yourself.)

Conclusion: I'll admit, I was absolutely petrified before I embarked on my first ride on the cable. Between the height and speed of the cables, in addition to being told by your guide that if you don't brake properly, you could potentially die, I wanted to abstain. But once I was harnessed in and pushed off the platform by the guide, all fears I had immediately evaporated and I became free as a bird. Go on one; you won't regret it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Summer Vacations"-do you actually take one during the summer?

It's strange but I haven't taken a summer vacation in a long time. Not because I haven't wanted to, but as I've gotten older, my travel knowledge growing ever larger, I prefer traveling when crowds are less and often costs are too. I'm neither a student nor a teacher so I'm not restricted to the "summer travel season." My wedding last year was in August but D and I waited until after Labor Day to go to Europe for our honeymoon. Plane tickets were considerably cheaper if we waited those two and half weeks after the wedding and not to mention many of Paris' smaller shops and restaurants are closed during the months of July and August. (This is when many of its residents head to the mountains and beaches for their own summer vacations.)

I spent a long weekend in Chicago this past February after this year's infamous storm there and another long weekend in Asheville, North Carolina for the Memorial Day holiday, but D and I have no plans to travel anywhere the rest of the summer. We are however taking a Disney cruise to the Bahamas in September to celebrate our first anniversary. And of course we'll be doing the hula dance in Hawaii come November. But those are trips that will be after the "Dog Days" of summer. When gone will be the smell of grilling, trips to the pool, and delectable finds at local farmers' markets and in its place, colder temperatures, shorter days, and an ever intense desire to travel somewhere. So of course costs and crowds play a factor in my wanting to have my summer vacation not actually during the summer, and yet I love the thrill of knowing I'm going on a trip when everything seems cold and monotonous at home. Summer is flying by and while I can't wait for my two vacations, I wouldn't wish the season away for anything. There's simply nothing like it.

What about you, do you have a preferred time of the year you like taking a vacation?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Unlikely Traveler

My paternal grandfather was the exact opposite of a traveler. When my dad was growing up, summer vacations were usually spent at the Jersey Shore, but that was about the extent of his traveling wanderlust. Once he retired, a time when many embrace traveling, excited about visiting all of the places they never had the time or money to when they were younger, he preferred staying put. Visits to my family and me in Philadelphia were the furthest he traveled (about a 90 minute car ride) and even then they stopped once my grandmother could no longer drive. The grandfather I knew was a slightly gruff old man who adored watching the Philadelphia Phillies on television and smoking his "cigs" at his home in northern New Jersey. And yet, when a young man in his twenties, he truly saw the world.

My grandfather was the son of Eastern European immigrants and from what I could garner, he most likely had a tough childhood. He grew up in a steel town in northern Pennsylvania and dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. After the United States entered World War II, he enlisted rather than being drafted. His reasoning was that he "could not see himself doing all that walking" (being an infantry soldier). And so he became part of the 12th Army Air Corps, specifically a top gunner on a B-17.

Image courtesy of
When my grandmother was planning a trip to Las Vegas, she obviously wanted my grandfather to come along with her. He declined, saying he had already been there. Well he had, only a half a century ago, long before Las Vegas was the glitzy and cosmopolitan place it is today. He had gunnery school there before being part of a formal unit in the Air Corps. In the 1991 film Bugsy when Benjamin "Bugsy" Segal takes his mob associate Meyer Lansky to post-war Las Vegas to show him around, Lansky is less than impressed with the desert city and asks Bugsy, "What are we, Bedouins?" I'm sure the "Bedouin" landscape is what my grandfather would always remember of Las Vegas,and surely not recognize the city it became.

Image courtesy of
My dad remembers his father telling him about the less than ideal traveling conditions when flying across the Atlantic Ocean. He was apparently flown from a base in the United States to Labrador (a region in the Canadian province of Newfoundland) and from there to Europe. The flight was 14 hours and the bombers were strapped in the entire journey. We travelers of today think we have it rough in regards to flying, and yet they really aren't in comparison to previous times.

By the time the United States had entered the war, the British had already been battling it out against Germany's Rommel and his Afrika Korps in Libya and Egypt. With his unit my grandfather participated in the invasion of Algeria and French Morocco in November 1942. As the infantry would advance, taking more land, the Air Force would move up and establish new bases. He was in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, for most of us countries that epitomize the foreign mystique.

After the Allies had successfully won the North African Theatre, my grandfather moved on to the liberation of southern Europe, specifically Italy. From Tunisia they went to Sicily and then up Italy's famous "boot." His bases were in the south of Italy and once it was apparent that the Allies were indeed winning the war as they had been able to keep advancing north, he and his flying mates were able to get leave and be "tourists." On one leave, he went to Naples and from there took a boat to the Isle of Capri and swam in the Mediterranean. A boy with immigrant parents from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, swimming and sunning in one of Europe's most popular and well known locales.

Bizerte, Tunisia during World War II
Image courtesy of

Isle of Capri in the 1940s
Image courtesy of

He never again was the international traveler he was during the war. Ironically, war or no war, he was an unlikely traveler and yet a genuine world traveler. 

Here's to you Pop Pop.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Food travels-Latin America

A region that will always be near and dear to my heart is Latin America. I've spent the most time there in all of my travels and adore the cuisines of many of its countries. I received this cookbook as a birthday present many years ago from my old piano teacher.

I particularly like this cookbook as all of the recipes are healthier alternatives to the original recipes (using egg whites instead of egg yolks, baking instead of frying, etc).  For this week's meal I made 

Ensalada de palmitos (hearts of palm salad)

The first time I had hearts of palm was in Costa Rica. I had traveled to the Guanacaste region for the weekend with the other people from my study abroad program and we had stopped at an organic farm for lunch. Unlike the hearts of palm that came in a can and cost $6 at my local supermarket, the hearts of palm I ate in Costa Rica had literally just been harvested. 

Sopa paraguaya (Paraguayan cornbread)

This is not your typical cornbread as it resembles and tastes more like a corn pudding. I made this dish years ago for an international food festival at my church and was happy to discover a new recipe for it. 

Tikenxik (Yucatan-Baked Pompano)

Tikenxik (tee-ken-SHEEK) is an ancient Mayan dish that predates the arrival of the Spanish. The recipe calls for pompano fish but my supermarket didn't have any. I had to settle for tuna steaks instead. The steaks are marinaded in a mixture of onion, garlic, Mexican oregano, lime juice, and water. I added a pinch of paprika to give the marinade an orangish hue. 

Natilla (Spiced Milk Pudding)

Natilla is nothing more than milk pudding and yet it's utterly delicious. Not too rich and extremely simple to make, it was a great end to dinner. 

Buen provecho!

Friday, July 15, 2011

All there is to Belgian beer-a photographic documentation

Belgian beer is simply la vie. Be sure to check out this week's narrative about it (and also take notice how each beer is served in its own glass, tres fancy). 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

La vie de la biere belge (Belgian beer life)

Beer is an integral part of Belgian society. Besides the fact that there are over 500 standard beers produced by Belgian breweries, each brand will often have its own glass. Heaven forbid if your Leffe is not served in its own Leffe glass. Although being the farthest thing from a beer fan or especially a connoisseur, I was anxious to delve deep into the Belgian beer culture when spending part of my honeymoon there last September.

When given no other beverage options, I have on occasion drunk Budweiser and Corona beer, but it's usually resulted in me having a look of mild disgust on my face with each sip I took. However, on my first day in Brussels, I finally found a beer I could drink without the aid of food, one that I also mildly enjoyed. Our first foray into the Belgian beer culture was at A La Morte Subite (Sudden Death), a historic cafe a couple of blocks from the Grand Place.

Its interior appeared to be the same as when it first opened, more than a hundred years ago. Although there were a few modern conveniences, you felt as if you were in a different era, before Brussels became the melting pot city it is today, and before two world wars irrevocably changed Belgium. The drink menu was quite extensive, even intimidating, but I knew immediately what I wanted based on earlier research. A lambic beer, specifically framboise (raspberry). I had read that fruit beers have become especially popular and that whole fruits are traditionally added to the beer after the spontaneous fermentation has started. Malt and hop characters are generally low to allow the fruit to consume the palate.

Although D opted for the more masculine Chimay Blanche (White), not wanting to be caught ordering a "fruity beer," my framboise even managed to garner a thumbs up sign upon his taking a sip. I reasoned that when in Belgium drinking its wondrous beers (or so I am told), you can never have a bad experience unless you're not really a beer drinker to begin with.

What I loved most about Belgium was that cafe life didn't include a variety of wines to sample too. It was all about the beer, but not in an obnoxious American spring break kind of way. Beer is drunk and regarded with the same amount of class and respect that wine is. One sniffs his glass of beer in much the same way that a sommelier sniffs and appreciates his choice of wine.

With the exception of the taste or two I had at the De Halve Maan brewery in Brugge, I drank no more beer for the rest of our time in Belgium. Beer is just not my cup of "tea" and yet I am immensely fascinated all the same by a country in which it is their piece de resistance. Something that is an integral part of their culture, their society, and their history. I much enjoyed writing down the names of all the beers D sampled on the rest of our trip, and reading up on them after we returned home.

I do hope to return to Belgium one day, for it was a country I fell in love with, and when I do, I have every intention to try another beer (or two). If there was one thing that could induce me become a beer drinker, it would be the wonderful country of Belgium.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Attraction review: Sacre Couer & Montmartre

I decided to start a new feature entitled "rate-o-attraction." It's basically a review of a popular tourist attraction consisting of a summary of the attraction, pros and cons for visiting, and a conclusion. For the inaugural post I decided to do Sacre Coeur/Montmartre in Paris, France.

The attraction: The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris (more commonly known as Sacre Coeur Basilica) is a Roman Catholic and minor basilica located at the summit of the butte Montmartre in Paris' 18th arrondissement,  It was built as a symbol of the return of self-confidence after the destructive years of the Commune and Franco-Prussian War. Designed by architect by Paul Abadie in Romano-Byzantine style, groundbreaking took place in 1875 and it was completed in 1914. The top of the dome is open to visitors and affords an even higher and more breathtaking vista than the one offered along the steps of the basilica.

Pros to visiting: The views offered atop Paris' highest point can't be beat. Although the city offers numerous incredible views from the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Eiffel Tower, sitting on the steps at the base of the basilica, taking in the City of Light, there's no comparison. You're in Paris, and yet you're not due to Montmartre being so incredibly far away from the city center. (It was in fact a separate area until the annexation of 1860 when it became part of Paris.) The basilica itself is striking, its wedding-cake white facade a welcome and pleasant change from the numerous dark and somber cathedrals that are found throughout the city. It often reminds me of Rome's monument to Vittorio Emanuele II who was the first king of a unified Italy, both being white, striking, and decidedly different. I enjoy the quaintness of Montmartre's windy and hilly streets, that is, those away from the mobs of people that flock to the basilica. On our last day in Paris, D and I visited Sacre Coeur and from sheer aimless wandering, we came across a delightful little shop that sold wares from the country's Provence region. I came away with a bar of lavender soap and a striking yellow tea towel. Not at all kitschy Parisienne souvenirs.

Cons to visiting: D and I took the metro to the Montmartre area and got off at the Pigalle stop. For anyone not familiar, the Quartier Pigalle is the city's adult entertainment district. Numerous sex shops line the boulevards and side streets and the world famous Moulin Rouge cabaret is also located there. (On my first ever visit to Paris I did take a picture of the famous red windmill but I've never had any desire to pay near to 200 euros to sit amongst tourists while watching a mediocre cabaret show). Although during the day Pigalle's streets are perfectly safe and filled with plenty of locals and visitors, we did walk by (twice!) a woman who appeared to be a bit mentally disturbed, as she was rubbing a graphic sex toy across her face as she talked to herself. At night I probably wouldn't want to be walking the streets there unless I was seeking out Pigalle's infamous sights.
Like many European cities, Paris has seen a surge in immigrants from developing countries who at times obnoxiously and unnervingly hawk their wares in your face. When D and I arrived at the base of the butte Montmartre, near to its famous merry-go-round, we were harassed incessantly by African immigrants wanting you to spend a euro for a string trick. When we moved away from them after having politely said "non, merci", some of them even had the audacity to follow. I finally had to sharply say "nous lassier seuls" (leave us alone) to one of them. He seemed to get the picture from my extremely aggravated facial expression.
My other problem was with the Romas. Along with a queue of other tourists and locals we had paid our fare to ride the funicular to the top of the hill (instead of climbing the dozens of steps). To gain admittance to the funicular, each person had to pass through a turn-style that automatically counted the number of occupants. Having already boarded, we saw three Roma teenagers sneak on the funicular without paying and thus causing people who had indeed paid their fare and waited patiently in line, to have to wait yet another turn. I found this outrageous and some of the locals did as well, because there was even a back and forth that went on between one of the teenagers and a local.

Conclusion: Is it worth it to visit? Yes and no. If you've never been to Paris before then yes, I feel like every visitor to the City of Light should gaze upon the city atop its highest point. Sacre Coeur is a striking religious building and some pleasant shops and cafes can be found in the area. If you've already been before, I'd find a new area to become enchanted with. Sacre Coeur and Montmartre is simply not an idyllic spot. Where there are thousands of tourists, unpleasant aspects and people will follow, and unfortunately, remain.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hotel Review-Jacob Rohrbach Inn at Antietam Battlefield

Jacob Rohrbach Inn at Antietam Battlefield, Sharpsburg, Maryland
Date of stay: June 2007

I adore staying at bed and breakfasts, especially historic ones that are more than 200 years old. When it came to planning a girls' road trip for my mom and me, a bed and breakfast was at the top of the list. Sharspburg isn't a huge locale, so the Jacob Rohrbach Inn stood out when considering places to stay. Built in 1804 and witness to much of the fighting and the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam in 1862, it's had a storied past.

Joanne and Paul Breitenbach are the proprietors and they were warm and gracious. Parking is included in your room rate and is around the back off of Main Street. There are a total of five rooms at the inn, four of which  feature private entrances and porches. My mom and I stayed in the Harper's Ferry Suite, which is great if you're traveling with more than two people (it has both a double and twin bed in addition to a foldout sofa bed). Also in the room is a TV with DVD player, along with an assortment of DVDs, history and Hollywood history. My mom and I opted for Cold Mountain, the screen adaptation of Charles Frazier's famed Civil War romance,

Available at any time of the day are cold beverages in a mini fridge situated on one of the porches, outside as well as delectable homemade cookies baked by Joanne. For me, one of the primary reasons for staying at a bed and breakfast is obviously the latter and the breakfast prepared by Joanne was no exception. A full breakfast is served in the dining room every morning at 8:30 AM, although fresh coffee is offered (along with the Washington Post) at 7 AM in case you're an early riser. Included in the breakfast is fresh fruit and juices along with a main course that changes daily (Belgian waffles, Eggs Benedict). Company at the breakfast table was also lovely, a variety of people who like my mom and me were on a Civil War sojourn. Some had come from Harper's Ferry, West Virginia like us, while others were on their way to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

We only stayed a night at the Rohrbach Inn, but it was a fantastic night, one in which I truly felt I was living and breathing history simply by being there. Although I can't dispute the many benefits there are to staying at chain hotels, but if the occasion should come along in which you have the opportunity to stay in "history," I say go for it. Most likely, it will be a stay like you've never had before.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Photo Essay of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater

Interior photography isn't allowed at Fallingwater but the outside alone more than makes up for it. 
If you're ever in western Pennsylvania I highly recommend a visit.