The Simplistic Enchantment of Murano

VaperattoMurano is the next island over from Venice, right on the Vaporetto (water bus) stop. It’s know for its blow glass, and the blow glass factories bring in their share of tourists. At the factory, you are brought in and shown a craftsman working for a few minutes and then quickly usher you into the gift shop. DSCN2837

While it was beautiful, I had heard from the locals that much of what is sold on the island is not authentic blow glass, but made in China. Given that I didn’t know how to tell the two apart and it was fairly pricy, I didn’t buy any. And Venice was the first stop on my trip, so carrying around fragil glass for 10 more days through 3 more cities seemed risky at best. There is blown glass on display literally everywhere.  Just walking down a back alley, we stumbled across this Chihuly – which is also not from Murano. Murano Chihuly

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Art and Soul

Finally got to try celebrity Chef Art Smith’s restaurant “Art and Soul”. He was the personal chef to Jeb Bush, Bill Graham, and most notably Oprah for years.  He has a handful of restaurants around the country that specialize in modern southern food. Like all his restaurants, Art and Soul in DC that is all locally sourced, organic ingredients, and of course everything is made from scratch. The food was delicious and you could most definitely taste the freshness and quality of the ingredients.  They have a seasonal menu that changes frequently so you really get the best of the season. We went with a group of people, so it was great to be able to try a few different dishes.  I’m vegetarian, so my choices in a southern soul food restaurant were less than the carnivores.  But none the less, I did try a few amazing dishes.  I was able to get pictures of some of the, but some of them were devoured before I could capture them.

We started out the meal with a cheese board and a meat board.  The chesses were all local and mostly French.  They were al amazing, and were served with toasted breaded and spiced nuts.  Both perfect accompaniments. The meat board had good reviews from the meat eaters.  All the items were of high quality and made in house. It was served with pickles, toasted bread, and jalapenos.

We shared some first courses for the table. There was a dirty risotto that got great reviews.  There were also two amazing salads that the waiter recommend. The first was a kale salad with a curry yogurts dressing, roasted chickpeas, and was topped off with little fried noodles.  This was just so flavorful and earthy.  I could have easily eaten the curry dressing as sauce with a main course.  It had an amazing balance of flavors. And again the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients just came through.

imageAlso tried the poached peach salad with roasted hazelnuts and blue cheese.  I usually don’t like fruit in my salad and I don’t like peaches at all, but the poaching technique they used, just caramelized the sugars and turned it into an amazingly delicious light flavor.  And the hazelnuts and blue cheese worked well together.  I think the salads were my favorite part of the meal.  They were very unique in flavor and just amazing ingredients.

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French Hospitality

I had always heard that the French are not friendly.  Especially how they wouldn’t engage with you if you didn’t speak perfect French.  This left me a little worried given it was a last minute solo trip. (Please see The Long Awaited Journey).  After the wonderful journey through London and all the friendly people I met, I was brushing up on my French as I arrived at Gare du Nord.IMG_0213From here I got directions for the Metro and made it to the Strasbourg St. Denis, a station in the 2ze district with a zillion exits.  I walked to the exit where I had agreed to meet my AirBnB host, but wasn’t sure if I had walked to the right place in the confusing Paris Metro.  I was a little anxious, since this was my first time using AirBnb and I didn’t have a phone in Paris and pay phones don’t exist any more.  A lady happened to be walking by with phone in her hand.  I asked her in English, if I could pay her to make a call.  She was so sweet, and handed her phone to me and insisted I make as many calls as I wanted since she has an unlimited phone plan. When I was done, she said “Welcome to Paris, have a great holiday.”  So touching!  Not sure if I would do that for a stranger, but after this experience I’m inspired to be more trusting of strangers and be just as helpful.

I was in the right place and made it to the apartment (Please see “Living” in Paris to read about the amazing apartment).  After dropping off my bags and getting out of the apartment, I spent an incredible day seeing Paris.  The owner of the apartment and his girlfriend lived upstairs.   When I got back later that night, they invited me over for some wine they had just brought back from their trip in wine country.  I joined them and a friend for a glass or 2 two of amazing French wine.  Over conversation I found out the owner was an international DJ who’s family has lived in this building for generations. He’s traveled around the world DJing.  His girlfriend was born and raised on Champs Elysee and had lived in America for years – hence both of their English was so good.

Since I’m a totally foodie, I asked them where I could have a vegetarian-friendly authentic French meal.  I told them I wanted to experience Paris like a Parisian and wanted some local recommendations.  They made a couple of restaurant suggestions, but then said it would be best if I joined them tomorrow night for dinner.  They would cook me an authentic homemade French meal.  I totally took them up on the offer and joined them for dinner the next night.  They put together an amazing spread for me.  A super tasty leek salad that you mix in blue cheese. A potato and yam mash that was like nothing else I’ve ever tasted.  A cooked celery dish with an amazing sauce and cheese of some kind.  And last but not least a spread of cheeses  and breads that I have never heard of or never tasted before.  They were all very French, very unique in flavors, and super tasty – very different than anything I had tasted.  The irony is that I don’t like blue cheese, but the one I had here was seriously so different, that I literally inhaled it.  Again with dinner we had great wine and some amazing conversation. image

The next night was my last night in Paris and happened to be a Saturday night.  Since the owner would be in the French Rivera DJing an event, the girlfriend was going to spend the evening with friends and she asked me to join them.  She told me there would be real Parisians there, so I could experience Paris. After a long day I got back at midnight, and came back to an awesome gathering.  I spent the night hanging out with some of friendliest, super fun people I met.  They were all offering to take me around town and telling me their life stories.  I didn’t sleep that night.  I spent time with my Parisian friends till the wee hours of the morning, and got ready to leave for the airport. It was an unforgettable night, with some unforgettable people, and unforgettable stories.  So grateful for the kindness of strangers and French Hospitality!

 

Finally in London

I was beyond excited when I landed in Heathrow and had cleared immigration, claimed my bags, and was through customs within 20 minutes.  Anyone that has ever even connected through Heathrow, knows several hours is a short time to get through this airport.  So this was no small victory.  I made my way to the Underground and headed towards my hotel.  While the tube is one of the most connected subway systems, I had to make 2 transfers to get to my hotel.  At each of the station, without my asking, there was some stranger, that would help me carry my bag up and down the stairs, and not one even waited to hear my “Thank You”.  I was totally blown away by the kindness of this city.  And as I learned at every step along this trip, Londoners are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.

I have become a bit of a “Rainmaker” during my travels. There have been many times during my travels, where it feels like simply my presence has inspired rain – or as my grandmother used to tell me, the heavens are showering their blessings on you.  I spent a few days in the Moroccan dessert, and it rained for the first 3 days.  I’ve been to California in the middle of the drought, and it rained several times during my trip.  So coming to London, I had prepared for rain.  However, the day I landed in London, there was no forcaste for rain.  I got to my hotel early and was lucky get a room before check in time.  By the time I got ready and left, it started pouring.  Given that I was jet lagged, my plans were still unclear (please see The Long Awaited Journey), and the rain, I decided to “tour” the city in the climate controlled, super cool double decker buses.

Getting the front seat of the double decker bus was a bit of urban survival – fastest person gets the best view.  You have to slowly keep switching seats and move forward, with the hopes that one of the four people in the very front get up and you are the quickest to grab the seat.  Once I got to the front it was a really nice view (even in the rain). An unique experience to see the city from that height.  Big Ben was the first landmark I saw, and even through the rain, was a awesome sight.image

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My First Meal in London

I was cruising London in a double decker bus shortly after I landed (Please see Finally in London).  Along the way I spotted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant “Italian” not too far from Westminster Abbey.  Since I’m vegetarian and British food doesn’t have the most vegetarian options, the next best things is to try the food of a famous British chef with a more veggie friendly menu.  I got off at the next stop and walked back to the restaurant.  This was my first British dining experience and I was really looking forward to it.  While the food was good and this restaurant was very reasonably priced, I can’t say it was in line with the healthy eating theme he advocates.

imageI started off my meal with a fresh strawberry drink, which was very fresh and effervescent.  Strawberries are my favorite, so it’s hard me not to love anything made with them.

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For my appetizer I had the spicy Italian “nachos”.  This was mini fried cheese raviolis topped off with cheese and a spicy tomato sauce to go with it.  It was filled with a smoky cheese, which isn’t my favorite, but overall the flavor was really good.

And for the main course, I had the blue potato gnocchi with pesto, goat cheese, veggies.  This was incredibly good. The freshness of all the ingredients came through.  The flavors all worked so well with each other and the warm, crispy, salty blue chips on top added just the right amount of texture.  This was an excellent dish.

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In typical urban style the tables at this restaurant were placed close to each other.  I was sitting next to an older British couple that had come into town for the weekend.  While we sat at our separate tables, it felt like we were dining together.  The lady was a teacher and her husband was an engineer with a government agency. They were sharing stories about their life in the UK and how London had changed over their lifetime and they were curious about my solo trip.  They were very helpful in telling me where to go and what to see in London.  They even gave me a map and drew on it to make sure it was clear.  It was so heart warming to have a meal with total strangers and just share stories.  This was the first in many meals what I would eat with people I didn’t know, and enjoy just getting to sharing a common experience.  The British are so friendly and welcoming.  This couple, like so many other people I met, made my meal and this trip that much more memorable.  So grateful to all the hospitality.  My first meal in London was clearly a memorable one.

Photo Challenge – Dinnertime

When in Rome

imageThere is a lot of buzz around the Pope’s visit to America.  Huge crowds are expected for all the events and the Northeast practically shutdown, as the Pope gets a rock star welcome.  Last weekend, I even saw this t-shirt commemorating the Pope’s visit.  While I don’t have a t-shirt to show for it, I was reminded of the Sunday Mass I attended in Rome.  The unexpected surprise was that the mass was led by Pope Francis!

I had joked with my friends before my trip, “When in Rome on Sunday, go to Mass in St. Peter’s Square”.  In general, I am drawn to the beautiful vibrations at places like this.  I have found this to be true across every religion. I get goose bumps just thinking about the millions of people that have come to these places for centuries with such faith. It feels like the energy, the love, of all those people still resides there.  And to truly experience this powerful energy, you can’t see it like a tourist.  This energy doesn’t open up to outsiders.  You have to experience it like those millions before you, with an open heart and with faith – and preferably attend whatever prayer is happening there.  It really changes the place from a photo op to spiritual experience.St.Peter's Square

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“Living” in Paris

A couple weeks ago was my first trip to Paris – the city that has inspired to so many artists, writers, and creative thinkers.  I thought the best way to experience a city as inspiring as Paris is to “live” in an apartment – just like those artists and writers did. And who knows, maybe be inspired in the process?  I had very little time to plan this trip, and I was not very familiar with the geography or neighborhoods of Paris.  I took to Airbnb and did some quick research. With 2 days left there were very limited choices and limited time to make a decision (Please see The Long Awaited Journey for more on this last minute trip).  As I learned, having a apartment with a real bed as opposed to a sofa was a premium and a loft with a bunk bed type of situation was common.  With a leap of faith, I booked a studio in the 2nd district close to a few Metro stations (which was important) and a real bed.

imageThe owners of the apartment were on vacation when I got there, so their French speaking maid met me at the Metro and brought me to an old building in the Passage du Caire, a 13th century area with a deep history for which I’ll do another post.  She helped me carry my American size suitcase up 2 flights of a very narrow spiral staircase and handed me a big bundle of keys to get through the many levels of locks.  She pointed out that this was an old building and the plumbing was a little lacking.  While there as a toilet in my bathroom, I should use the “out house” just up the stairs to make sure the flow of water works.   After the maid left, I started to get out of the building, and was unable to open the first set of locks with all the keys.  A shot of panic set in that I was trapped! Not only would I miss a full day in Paris, but I would spend a day without food.  After taking a few deep breaths and searching around the door, I found an old school multiple level lock system that required 2 items to be pushed simultaneously.  I left all the doors open behind me to make sure I could get all the way out, before I closed anything.  This is an experience I can laugh at now, but was sheer terror for a what seemed like an eternity.

I’m used to staying in nice hotels with modern amenities.  This room was smaller than my studio in Manhattan, the building was old, and I had bruised from carrying my suitcimagease up 2 flight of a narrow spiral staircase.  I reminded myself that I wanted to experience the soul of Paris and live like a local – and this was as local as it got. Over the next 4 days so much would unfold.  Through this apartment, the neighborhood, and gracious hosts I was not only introduced to Paris, but truly immersed into the culture.  For the next 4 days, I most definitely lived in Paris – and all because I happened to pick this apartment. So grateful that life took me exactly where I needed to be to experience this city. Please see French Hospitality to read more about this experience.

 

A Memorable Night in Trafalger Square

Trafalger Square at night3Trafalgar Square is located in the heart of London, right next to the National Gallery and in the midst of bustling business district.  I had first been to London as a 5 year old child.  I don’t have a lot of memories from that trip, except being in Trafalgar Square and feeding the pigeons.  This was one of first childhood memories, and I was hoping to relive it, during my trip to London last week. Much to my disappointment, I learned that you can no longer feed pigeons in Trafalgar Square.  Since there were no pigeons to be fed, and I had not seen London by night, I had decided to take a stroll of the city, with Trafalgar Square being on the night route. In a lot of urban setting, the feel of an area changes so much between day and night.  Trafalgar Square which is very busy by day, takes on a quitter life at night. With a slower flow of traffic and surrounding buildings light up, there a surreal vibe to this area. The few people that are here, have made the deliberate trip and are just enjoying the moment.  There is peace and a liveliness all at the same time.  Trafalger Square at night fountain

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The Long Awaited Journey

“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t you so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”

After years of traveling very constantly for work and pleasure, I had hit an unexpected dry spell of being grounded – quite literally.  I made a few domestic business trips and a couple trips cross country to see family, but I was missing a true overseas adventure.  While those small trips had their share of enjoyment, what my soul truly craved was a journey to an unknown destination where I could discover.  After having seen a few places in Europe, my heart is always drawn to culture and history there.  Between switching jobs, work deadlines, family and friends (which were all fun) I just couldn’t fit in a time to take a trip.  There were many well laid out intentions, but all ended in near misses and disappointments.  There was a trip to Germany that didn’t happen because of work.  The trip to Thailand, that fell apart due to family stuff.  A trip to Israel that didn’t work out weather wise.  This spring, I determined to take a trip overseas before the weather changed.  With different work commitments, things just weren’t coming together – I just wasn’t able to get time off.  There was a small window that looked promising in August, so I tried planning a trip for then, but that window closed with 2 days of it opening.  That one almost broke my heart.  Then finally on a Tuesday, all the stars aligned, and I was able to take vacation the following week. I started my mad search for destinations, tickets, and hotels.  I was so lucky that by Wednesday I was able to book my flight and by Thursday I was able to confirm all my lodging.  And Friday I was flying out!!!  Yes – 3 days from vacation being approved, I had begun a trip to London and Paris.

This was my first time in both cities, and with the limited time I had to prepare for the trip, there was no time for any planning – I would just show up and let the next step find itself.  This was also my first solo mission.  I’ve traveled alone for work a lot and done portions of vacations alone, but this would be my first time doing  a whole trip by myself from beginning to end – the whole 10 days.  While I love traveling with friends, I really wanted to experience a full trip on my own.  This was an opportunity to discover an unknown place all on my own.  The thrill and excitement of surviving on my own with nothing more, then my own instincts (and Google maps) to show the way. It’s in moments like this when you are dependent on just yourself, that you realize who you really are.  And this was also an unscripted trip with no agenda – all I wanted to do was experience these 2 cities and would let the journey unfold for me.  This was a time to enjoy my own company and on some level prove to myself that I have the ability to survive and have lots of fun on my own.

It was finally time to break out the newly renewed passport with its crisp unmarked pages, and start filling it with stamps.  As I got to the airport, fairly tired from 3 days of prepping and a little anxious at the lack of planning, I get upgraded to first class.  And that is when I knew this would be the beginning of an incredible adventure.

To continue this journey please see Finally In London.
Daily Post Survival Discovery Challenge – Adventure

The Most Amazing Sunset

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“In your light I learn how to love.

In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest where no one sees you,

But sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”

– Rumi

Sunset is probably my favorite time of the day.  Partly because I don’t have to wake up early to see it, and partly because it’s watching the Earth slowly shutdown for the night.  Having traveled to a few places, I’ve realized that no two sunsets are the same, and no two locations will leave you feeling the same after experiencing such a beautiful show.

My favorite sunset is seen from the island of Santorini in Greece. I came to Greece to see my best friend after 20 years (to read about this please see Journey to Greece).  But I was drawn to Santorini by all the enchanting blue and white pictures I had seen. Santorini is a very mystical island with an incredible rich history (which will warrant a lot more posts to do it any justice).  The shape of the island provides for three distinct views of a very different sunset over the Aegean Sea.  I was lucky enough to experience two of the most popular, in Fira (Thira) and this one in Oia.  While the one in Fira was amazing in it’s own right, the sunset in Oia literally moved me to tears – a first for me.

If you have seen pictures of Greece, you’ve seen the signature blue and white buildings, and some of the most famous pictures are from the town of Oia in the northern part of Santorini.  That was my initial draw to visit Santorini. When I actually got there I felt like I had stepped into a postcard.  It felt so surreal taking in all the blue and white buildings, through the hilly steps, windmills, and steep cliffs.  I asked for directions on where to see the sunset, and I was told to just walk, and I would find “the spot”.  People were gathered here for hours to scope out a good view, some on steps, some on balconies, some in restaurants, and some on rooftops – a lot with champagne.   There was a perfect moment where a boat was passing through, almost posing in that last ray of sun before it sets for the evening.  This shot couldn’t have been timed better if I tried.  Once the sun started setting, it turned bright red, and melted into the ocean within a couple of minutes.  In a blink of an eye it was dusk. Words and pictures just can’t do justice to this sight. It’s something you have to experience more with your heart than your eyes. The cheers and applauses, followed by popping of champagne corks, seems so subdued for such a spectacular show by nature.

If this isn’t heaven, I’m not sure what is! It’s experiences like this that have changed me in ways I can’t articulate.  Experiencing such magnificence of nature in it’s pure form transforms you.  In that moment, I had somehow connected with something so much larger than me, and the only way the overwhelming emotion can find expression is through tears of awe.
Half-LightDaily Prompt – Vision Transformation