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Even the Roman ruins we stroll by in the endless chambers of Vatican art remind us that half the reason we love Italy is the food we eat. The mosaics display a banquet of roast boar with mushrooms, crisp vegetables, ripe fruit, plentiful seafood and other succulent morsels that taunt a grumbling belly four hours into my insistence that I will get my 14 euros worth of this gargantuan museum.

The sad truth is that many visitors to Italy do not take advantage of the great culinary honors of the country. Most decent eateries are not near the tourist magnets, and if you insist on eating at 6 p.m., you will find no self-respecting Italian restaurant serving. Although we had our share of mediocre sandwiches and passable ice cream cones — when hunger strikes and trekking out to the foodies’ favorite district was not in the cards — we also delighted in the delectable without extreme measures nor an outsized budget. Have others in Italy eaten better? Sure. But we were quite content with our taste bud travels inextricably linked as they were to a hardcore cliche visit to the big three: Rome, Florence and Venice.

To start off with the big stuff, the best meal we discovered, indeed, off the beaten track. But not too far off. The small town of Fiesole sits in the Tuscan hills above Florence. Even the hop-on-hop-off bus reaches the main square, off of which the tiny Vinandro offered us melting carpaccio, succulent rabbit, rich truffle cream sauced pasta and a 7-euro liter of fine red wine.

Not all our meals were so refined. We set up a picnic of meat-and-cheese-stuffed rice balls (arancini) and a zucchini flower fritter amongst the ruins of an ancient Roman town. We returned again and again to gelatto counters in different cities: caramel, coffee, chocolate mousse, melon and — my favorite — pink grapefruit.  There were sweet rolls packed with sweeter cream from a pastry shop, a pizza lavished with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil leaves and another topped with grated spring artichoke, uncooked and tossed in lemon juice. We were even pleasantly surprised in Venice to be served a lovely little Parma ham and cheese sandwich scattered with crisp arugula.

But I could not limit myself just to what was served. An unexpected food market of regional specialties set up in front of Santa Croce presented the opportunity to take home truly sun-dried tomatoes, a gnarly salami made with red wine and salty firm ricotta. Even the smallest grocery store overwhelmed: perfect purple artichokes, giant juice pears and alien-fingers of spring fava beans, all products of Italy. Ah, and my first real, sweet tomatoes since last summer.

And for anyone who fears she may not discover such marvels on their own, I have all the confidence of ten days experience to declare: at the very least you shall find a fair cappuccino.

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Wish us luck on our culinary treasure hunt. See you back here in ten days with tales to tell.

Random Images in Belgium

We have arrived at that point where I realize all the stories that I planned to build do not have the privilege of time to offer them. In addition, as I sort through various images collected over the past few months, there are those that amuse but without the content for a whole post. So combined together, I offer random images in Belgium . . .

When you are late for church, but really need to go? Hope to be a man, in Bruges. This styling steel design replaces the stone and cement urinals of the past. Those offered the chance to pee directly onto the church itself.

It’s up for sale, if you want it. This barn door caught my eye on a ride through the countryside. In this area, however, the “farmer” is more likely to be a well-off doctor/lawyer/banker.

Where the coolest manekins hang out for a cocktail after work in Brussels.

Ink, in every imaginable color, displayed at an exhibit of “script” at the Castle of Bouillon. In the second grade here, I had to learn to write with a fountain pen. My admiration for fine pens — much to my budgeting disappointment — has remained with me ever since.

When buying pork in a foreign language, I appreciate the pictorial proof that I am buying pig. They appreciate a good graphic here.

From the back garden here, this is just one example of the keen eye and crafty imagination of our hosts. Beauty surrounds.

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.

I refuse to pay the full admission to the Rijksmuseum, which claims to be “open” but has a measly fraction of its collection actually on display. The shell of scaffolding and the lack of any apparent progress underneath that layer may not dissuade the line of tourists outside its side “entrance,” but I will not stand for it. Not for 14 euros, at any rate.

That left two museums on the Amsterdam to-do list: the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum. The first I had never been to, the second I visit any time I happen to find myself in town. They are, of course, two very different places.

The Anne Frank House was a place to be. The simplicity of the arrangement — mostly empty rooms with excerpts from The Diary of Anne Frank included in a few displays. It required time and slow moving to recall the story of the families who hid there and a smart young girl with a diary. It made for a very personal experience — even if we were swamped by a tour group of French teenagers.

A visit to the Van Gogh Museum, on the other hand, cannot help but be a very public and often contact sport. First there is the game plan strategy: spotting the empty pocket of space into which I jump and then ride the current of shuffling feet. Then, there is the general hum about the place. While this is not the ideal way to enjoy art, there is something nice about the fact that the chatter is generally about the work itself or, at the very least, the artist. So, whereas it may sound like a loud cocktail lounge at times, there is a satisfaction in knowing that these two little old ladies here are talking about the color and those kids over there are pointing out the subject. Or, you could wear headphones to cancel the noise and add a soundtrack to the drama of those strokes.

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

It started off as The Great Tulip Caper: Three days of biking through the bulb fields of Holland, staying at cozy bed and breakfasts and visiting charming towns, gardens and windmills. Then Iceland got involved and the trip truncated. Deftly adapting to new circumstances, my visiting friend and I rerouted a one-day excursion combining train and bike to maximize both the pedaling and flowering experience.

We opted for the bike shop located at Amsterdam Centraal. Although dauntingly heavy and ominously broken-in, not to mentioned bright red, our rides were deemed part of the adventure. After battling the ticket-purchasing process which erased any illusion Dutch efficiency, we sought out our track. Unfortunately, the entrance involved a narrow staircase with a 90-degree turn and a flood of pushy passengers who had just disembarked. Did I mention the bikes were made of iron?

With the exception of some confusion at our transfer station in Haarlem — Track 4 being located so that only Hogwarts students might guess its location — we smoothly arrived in Hillegom to a cool breeze saturated with the sweet scent of hyacinths. One more set of long steps down and we were on our way.

Both guidebooks and our biking map encouragingly print little tulips throughout the region. The late spring brought us past one field of disappointingly green tulip buds, but we pedaled on and were soon rewarded with row upon row of vibrant colors from tulips as well as hyacinths and daffodils, normally spent by this time.

The simple pleasure of biking through these fields could not be replicated by car, or certainly bus. Yes, the wind was nippy, but with so intoxicating an aroma, we envied the woman who carried her laundry out to line-dry.

Biking also enabled us to take on a late-day adventure after our long stroll through the Keukenhof gardens. With the advantage of long daylight hours, we decided to bike back to Amsterdam. 

It started off well. The Netherlands offers an incredible network of dedicated bikes lanes, often running parallel to roads, but safely separated from them. In addition, motorists plenty familiar with the concept of share the road, provide little concern in the few areas where lanes merge. We ventured off on one such path, soon finding ourselves pedaling past small homes along the side of a wide canal. Pens of sheep and gregarious horses greeted us along the way. Ducks and egrets fished in the waterways that outline every field. It was delightful.

Of course, we did not realize then that the route home would wind us around for 56 kilometers (35 miles). Nor had we come to grips with the reality of a natural feature we had considered: wind.

“I know you said Holland was flat,” my friend had written to me, “but it just occurred to me that Holland is also famous for windmills . . . WINDmills.”

We had made good time before that wall of force hit us. For the most part, the breeze had been to our backs, making the ride smooth and fast. Unfortunately, where our route redirected us into the oncoming gales was at an immensely boring stretch that circumvents the enormous Schipol International Airport.

Just when hope for a good end to the day dimmed, however, we came upon a pleasant surprise. Just past the airport, we stopped to gobble down a much-needed granola bar and examined two signs indicating Amsterdam but pointing in opposite directions. If my limited Dutch was correct, it seemed the one was via the woods or bos. After watching  a solitary jogger turn in, and thus convinced that it could not be too dangerous for two biking ladies at twilight, we followed.

The meandering, perfectly maintained paths drawn along trees and small grassy fields reinvigorated us. When we popped out in the southern outskirts of the city, our enthusiasm was more than amply restored to tackle the slightly more complex city biking. And when our last leg slipped us into Vondel Park we felt a surge of accomplishment as we pedaled past the royal residences and late-day strollers.

It ended up a great tulip caper indeed.