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Archive for the ‘Walks’ Category

Although the weather may not have reflected the idyllic Italian May we had envisioned after a long, cold Northern European winter, we were not entirely disappointed. Spring was in the air, quite literally. The fragrances wafted about from jasmine hedges, flowering bitter orange trees, wet cedars and honey suckle. And wild flowers abounded around and atop the Roman ruins and throughout every country hillside.

Ah, the hillsides. Above the city of Florence and its teaming masses of tourists and students shuffling from David to the Uffizi, in the sleepy town of Fiesole, we took advantage of a generous invitation of hospitality. As much as the artistic wonders that the city contains wowed us, we were enchanted by the green hills that repeated endlessly into the horizon. Olive trees punctuated the panorama and meandering streets contained in old stone walls wound though our view from the front step. We hiked through blazed paths that led us by castles and ancient olive groves filled with red poppies, purple thistles and countless other yellows and whites and pinks in the tall grass.

Although Fiesole was only a bus ride away from the center of Florence, it provided a sigh of relief. We sat under a cafe veranda with a bottle of wine overlooking the red roof tiles packed in around the massive dome of the cathedral in the valley below. Another day, we walked up to the Franciscan monastery perched at the highest point of the town and hid under the exterior cloister while we watched a violent lightning storm submerge Florence and then race up the hillside toward us.

Amongst these scenes of natural beauty that strike memories urging us to return, we found in Fiesole smaller moments as well. At the town cemetery I was stunned (and relieved) to find a public, and clean, toilet. How thoughtful of them to consider what I assume must be the parade of devoted old ladies that hike up this hill to pay their respects. We also stopped briefly in the cemetery. Each stone held a photograph of the person remembered. Most were elderly, but not all. One stone marked the grave of a couple. His picture showed a charming young man, killed during the war. Her picture, beside his, was of a woman in her sixties, buried next to her husband, forty years later.

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hutspot

It was a great pleasure to travel beside a fellow voracious eater armed with an admirable sweet tooth. And to top it off she could even out pace me getting around town (and out of town) on foot in search of something to eat.

Not that my expectations for food were set high:

The Netherlands does not have a distinct culinary culture because . . . the absence of a strong culinary tradition at the court due to an emphasis on Calvinist soberness. Food is seen as a necessary part of life, with no need for luxury.

the best quiche ever

Clearly this was not looking good. Still, the basic staples of Dutch food described in travel guides appealed: cheese and pancakes. Plus, it is spring, which means seasonal smoked eel on the menu, supposedly.

But before we arrived at the more daring culinary tries, my friend and I surfed the menus of Amsterdam to great satisfaction:
  • a pancake with baked-in cheese covered in preserved ginger;
  • the most perfect slices of quiche ever — light and airy in a crispy thin crust scattered with salty ham or luscious goat cheese;

    bitterballen

  • a late-supper Rijsttafel — a personal smorgasbord of Indonesian delights in graduated spiciness (note: spicy in Holland does not equal spicy in NY);
  • perfect yogurt dip and baba ganoush inside a hip restored church in de Pijp district;
  • roombrodje which caught our eye in a tiny bakery and turned out to be as good as “cream bread” sounds like it should be;
  • a three-course meal of delectable tomato soup, hutspot with “bal/wurst” and vla dessert, all for 9,50 euros; and
  • a final evening of canal-side bitterballen — deep-fried meaty croquettes — cheesy fondue at a brown bar at the coolest square in town and poffertjes — miniature yeast-based pancakes — at the carnival.

room broodje

Whew.

And then there is the matter of the 10 km eel.

The trouble with an adventuresome traveling partner is that she is game for anything. That includes ideas like: Let’s take the train to this stop in the middle of nowhere, where my bike route map of Holland indicates there may be a combination of different shaded little lines that lead to a tiny town where, I read in my 20-plus-year-old Michelin Green Guide, they serve smoked eel.

When we disembarked at Spaarnwoude (which a train conductor made me practice pronouncing three or four times) before the mighty blue mass of IKEA, I was skeptical myself. But a few steps away, under the highway overpass and over a small hill, we found a park-like setting and a legitimate route. Bridges linked us over the water where needed. We even passed two windmills.

But then the distances posted became grew and by the time we were in the town of Spaarndam itself we had covered about 5 kilometers and still had to make it back.

Spaarndam Eel

In desperate need of a bathroom as well as hungry for lunch, I directed us straight past the first cafe in order to examine every possible option in this one-lane-and-a-canal town. An hour later, we settled into the Tourist Cafe, which was not only a charming 100-year-old building and served exactly what I was looking for — paling or eel — but was the first and only place we had come upon. Most importantly, they had a bathroom.

Without that, I fear my friend may have abandoned me for a very solitary 5 kilometer stroll back to the Spaarnwoude train stop.

She forgave my oddness, again. The eel was worth every step.

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Amsterdam appears to be forcefully redefining its public image. I dare to suggest that Amsterdamers themselves never had any doubt about its nature, but city officials seem intent to present a better image to the general public outside. So when a certain disreputable commentator from the United States described the city as a “cesspool of corruption and crime” (which not surprisingly makes no sense at all) two residents, supported by the local tourist bureau came out with the Youtube video “The Truth About Amsterdam.” The country then gave itself the Citymarketing Innovation Award as a little pack-thyself-on-the-back.

Less original but even more alluring to me, for the first time this year Amsterdam, the International Bulb Center and the Tulip Museum got together to plant a whole lot of tulips in public spaces, museum gardens and even a few backyards. This is their attempt “to revive the city as a tulip capital.”

Ten euros bought us a scavenger map, descriptions of the plantings and admission to some rarely seen regal Amsterdam corners. The best by far were the backyard gardens. Some of these were the central spaces behind small museums — Museum Van Loon, Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen, Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds and the Museum Willet-Holthuysen — situated in former canal-side mansions donated back in the day for their current curatorial life. 

Even more remarkable were the equally stately private homes in which Amsterdamers currently live. These included a small patio garden reached through a basement-level kitchen in perfect yellow, the mayor’s home and a dashing estate with a view of the kitchen — vintage silver and china set on display, along with the gentleman of the house eating his lunch.

Of course the biggest garden of them all is Keukenhof, which we had strolled for three hours on a previous day. Between the two tulip tours we witnesses greater shape, height, texture, saturation, density and color variety than I had ever imagined possible in a tulip. There were brand new hybrids, wild varieties and heirloom selections.

Of course, the practical Dutch included in the Tulpen Dagen Passepartout an honest caveat in the guide’s introduction: “Let’s hope they will all be in full bloom!”

They were not. A cold spring has not been overly inviting to the tulips.

But that just meant some of the most notable bulbs were the tulips’ often overlooked companion: the daffodil. This too came in many more varieties than I could have guessed. Some grew with clumps of flowers on each stem. Another in white and creamy orange was called “Butter and Eggs”. But the most memorable was the densely petaled “Narcissus odorus plenus,” which three months of high school Latin meant smelling either really good or really bad.

I took a chance. The flower rewarded generously.

Narcissus odorus plenus

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The perplexity of a single day in Paris is that it can seem like just a dream. Was that cherry tree in Jardin du Luxembourg really that pink? Was the boeuf bourgogne that rich? Was the restaurant toilet really a ceramic hole in the ground?

Of course, there is little to complain about for having a dreamy day, even if it left us eager for another, more thorough visit. The privilege, and truly it is just that, of several visits to this most beautiful city allows us the time to experience the magic of dreams. We no longer need to scurry from renown monument to acclaimed museum, and so we can take a parcel of Paris and wander about it in a state of reverie.

Our only handicap is a growing list of little shops that beckon us back: Mariage Frères for a shiny black satchel filled with one of our favorite teas; the Maille shop at Place de Madeleine where we refill our ceramic pot with mustard on tap — a sweet and refined ancienne style this time; E. Dehillerin to wander amongst the towering shelves of fabulous kitchen goods; and a reputable patisserie displaying those beautiful packages of sweet delight: les macarons.

On this trip we added new stops at a number of well-known bookstores: Shakespeare & Co. and Gibert. The trouble is that it only encouraged a desire for a full day spent meandering bookshop to bookshop in search of rare finds and intriguing book deals.

Otherwise, we walked a meandering tour through the neighborhoods once haunted by the famous expatriot writers and authors of the early twentieth century. At this bookshop Hemingway, Pound, Wilder, Fitzgerald and Joyce mulled around. In that well-lit, second-floor studio, Whistler pissed off his colleagues with his arrogance. Faulker spent 55 cents a night to stay at that gorgeous hotel across from the park; it now sets guests back about $450. Looking into that courtyard Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms. Miller ate his porridge at this cafe and Pound hosted great parties on a pittance income at that apartment — encouraging news, really.

Inspired by the ghosts who once lived there and fed by conjured images in just one neighborhood, we slipped smoothly from a stroll on the streets of Paris into a dream-like memory of a lovely day. Spoiled and lucky we are.

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Nightwalk

A post-supper walk in the brisk air aids in the digestion, perks up the soul and invigorates the spirit for a productive evening ahead.

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Walking Louise

Mademoiselle Louise is turning into quite the young lady. She has grown up since her puppy summer days, but she rounded her one-year birthday still full of energy and enthusiasm. We took the opportunity of her day-long visit next door to make a run around the abbey ponds.

As her little wagging body led us, we took in the next seasonal change in the backyard park to which we are privy. The snow has receded, but the ice-capped ponds still keep the swans topside. Like ladies lifting wide layered skirts, the birds picked themselves up from the hardened surface and waddled to new locations.

After passing with muted trepidation a few fellow canines — one distinctly less friendly than the other — we passed the bare shrub branches finally dripping free from ice encasement. In the distance, over the brown and yellow grasses the abbey tower sounded the hourly bells

On the abbey grounds, into which we turn at the end of our stroll, we paused for a dispersing funeral procession. Louise welcomed each person with an eager tail and big-eyed stares. On the other side of a fence in the remnants of last summer’s garden, tall dried stalks of dejected sunflowers hung their heads.

Arriving home, we cleaned our feet — all eight of them — and settled in for an afternoon nap.

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Life Makeover in One Month?

I  sat down with my nightly slice of hazelnut-chocolate spread and a cup of tea to peruse a mass email to which I subscribe although rarely read. “Make Over Your Life This Month.” Intrigued, I clicked further. “It’s Not Too Late,” the message began . . .

This month at WholeLiving.com, we’re focusing on improving all aspects of our health and wellness — our physical strength and conditioning, our eating habits, and how we handle stress, to name a few.

The enthusiasm screamed of infection with a twinge of induced guilt.  I bit into my open-faced dessert sandwich and considered the options.  There were action plans and added movement, food switches and junk food nixes, life changes and career boosters, and a nosy question about how much I know about fitness. Moving deeper into this virtual world of actualized New Year’s resolutions, I began to wonder: disregarding the ridiculous suggested time frame, was a life cleanse really possible in Belgium?

Let me clarify. My hesitation applies only to myself. During no other visit to this country have I encountered so many fit-minded folk as I’ve seen tromping through parks and over sidewalks. This feat was all the more impressive considering a certain lack of respect for clearing sidewalks and roads (bike paths — check) of ice and snow. This has only added to the deep sense of intimidation at  the very notion that I might eventually join their ranks or, rather, jog in their dusty trail gasping for air, one hand clutching a jar of Nutella.

I looked at the makeover list specifics. Number 1:

A food diary can help you identify challenges (whether it’s managing portion sizes or coping with cravings).

In Belgium might as well be called My Never-Ending Fascination with Food, oh, in Belgium. Clearly, I am obsessed with eating and drinking and am in a country filled with fabulous bits to eat and drink. I see this less as a personal challenge to my health than a geographic one.

Number 2 on the list directed me to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. One of my delights here is the gorgeous produce. Today’s market run alone provided a billowing head of lettuce, crisp endive, lean leeks, tiny tight Brussels sprouts and shiny clementines. I could also endure vegetarian entrees (at home) and whole grains are delivered every breakfast and lunch in the form of fabulous bread from the bakery. Three points for me.

But on the next action point, which sounds a lot like the first, I start to head downhill again.

Track how you feel — both physically and emotionally — after a meal or snack.

As my readers know, I am really, really happy after I eat.  And as long as I try to avoid all seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day — I’ve tried, this is empirically tested —  I feel physically pretty good. I don’t think this was the direction the nutritionists were hoping to take me.

This life makeover agenda continues on to moving and breathing, of which I do a fair amount. Since I couldn’t be placed in an “advanced” fitness category, my daily walks around town — and many more miles if we have taken a day trip — satisfy the exercise criteria. I also do breath, often and slowly, at bakeries, in cheese shops . . . again, perhaps not what they had in mind.

As the life-reviving list draws to a close, I find myself even — just as likely to be able to commit to a healthier me than not while here. But at the closer, and let us assume it is an important point that draws us to a conclusion, it seems I am positioned to earn super bonus points. “Unburden Your Brain,” the title declares, and celebrate your life:

List the people, things, or events for which you feel grateful today.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am in Belgium. Score.

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