Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Holidays

Just a quick note to say Happy Holidays to you all and to give you a quick update on the house.

We are now at 7 1/2 weeks since the house first caught fire. I can tell you, it doesn't look much different than it did 7 weeks ago.

All of the drywall has been removed, the studs have been cleaned, and have been sprayed down with this white dusty chemical to lock in the smoke smell. It works pretty well because the house doesn't smell as much like smoke anymore... now it's more of a chemical, kill you in your sleep, kinda smell. Hum... not sure about that tradeoff.

I do have updated pictures that I took with my fancy new camera, however, I have yet to upload them. I'll work on that over Christmas holiday.

I finally got my initial estimate from the insurance for the base of the contents. What that means, is that the initial list covers everything I could remember at the time but there's still lots more to be put on there. I'm happy to be finally getting an initial check and getting that process started.

On the other hand, I have yet to receive a check to get the house rebuilding started. I'm lucky to have contractors who are willing to start without having a check in hand, but my insurance adjuster is just very very slow. I think he's close to retirement and just doesn't care anymore. For those of you that are curious the process for payout goes like this:

1. Get check from insurance for initial amount (of course it may need to be adjusted as the process continues).
2. Sign check and send to mortgage company (they own most of my house, so their name is on it also). Must also submit lots of other paperwork (go figure).
3. Mortgage company pays out 1/3 to contractor to start rebuilding.
4. Inspector goes out, looks at work, approves next 1/3 to be released to contractor.
5. Inspector goes out, looks at work, approves last amount to be released to contractor and/or me.

It is an understandable process, but it just takes a while. Ugh. Hopefully after the new year this can start moving faster.

So that's the update. Fortunately I'll be spending the holidays in PA and won't even have to think about the house. :)


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shutterfly vs. Blurb

I recently made a recipe book of all the recipes my mom has collected over the years. Since I'd used Shutterfly twice before, I was inclined to use them for this project. However, I'd heard about Blurb and decided this was a great project to give them a try.

First what I love about Blurb.

When you use blurb you actually download a program called Booksmart. Thus, you do not need to be connected to the internet all the time, and it eliminates the need to upload photos to a server. Once you are done then upload your book when you are ready to place your order. Booksmart is great. You have full control over customization of layouts, which is the biggest perk to Blurb. Plus it is really easy to use. The other nice thing is that you have full color customization over the backgrounds. You see a background you like, but it's in blue and white, well, you can change both those colors to be exactly what you want. There are infinite color options.

What I don't like about Blurb.

First, while I do like their background selection and color choice options, you don't have quite as many to choose from as Shutterfly. Second, while I love their layout and design flexibility they do have more limited book cover choices. (only 3). And then third, and probably the biggest, I don't think their quality compares to Shutterfly.

When I got my recipe book back from them I noticed the front cover wasn't as nice as the Shutterfly covers. I also noticed the book construction wasn't as good and the pages just weren't as nice. Now, for the pages, you do have the option to upgrade to "premium paper" which I had not done on this book. The other thing I noticed was that the last few pages in my book were not bound correctly. One of the pages was even ripping out of the book. So I emailed their customer support with some pictures that I had taken on my iphone and within 3 hours they responded to me saying they would replace the book at no cost. That was nice. I was even able to upgrade to their "premium paper" so I'll know in a few days what that looks like. It was a little annoying not to have a phone number to call, but they seemed to respond to the email quite quickly.

So my overall assessment is that Blurb allows for much more design flexibility, though the overall quality of book is just not as nice as the Shutterfly books. If you are okay with the limited layout options, I would recommend Shutterfly for your book needs. Especially photo books. However, if you have a project that needs full customization of layouts, then you're stuck with Blurb... for now.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cool People

It's the holiday season, and you know what that means. Crowded malls, lots of music, packages coming and going, and usually rude people. Okay, maybe not usually, but more often than not, the holidays (or at least the days leading up to them) seem to bring out the worst in people. Everyone is stressing.

Well I'd like to take a moment to write about 3 different people/companies that I've encountered recently that have made my day just a little better.

First, English Retreads. This company is awesome. First, they have awesome stuff. Second, the person or persons that work there are just super friendly. I recently purchased one of the seat belts only to realize that i'm not as small as I thought I was. Oh great, I was going to have to send it back, this would be a process. You know, first you send it back, wait 5 days, then they send you something back, but maybe you have to call to check up on it, ugh, a hassle, right? Wrong.

When I called to ask about the return policy, I spoke with Kate, the business manager. She was super nice and better yet, the return policy was the easiest I've ever encountered. She said not to worry about the return shipping or the shipping for the replacement item. She would send out the replacement, plus she would electronically send UPS a return shipping label. So bam, UPS shows up at my house the next day, with said return label, I hand him the old package, and away he goes. New belt is already on the way, and no delays! Awesome.

Second, my new wedding photographer, Beverly. I recently undertook the task of choosing my wedding photographer. For those of you that know me well, you know that I'm an engineer, and not just at work, in all aspects of my life. I like to gather data, ask questions, know all the little details, then make an informed decision. I'm really trying to do all this now, so when my wedding day comes I can just have a good time, or at least try not to stress. I'm working on it. Anyway, sometimes when you know people, it's hard to ask them tons of questions without feeling like a pain in the butt. But Bev has been really great about answering all my questions and still wanting me as a client. Thanks Bev!

Third, my fiance, Jeremy. Yea, he's pretty awesome. And he's been amazing these last few weeks. Between the house and the wedding and Christmas, he's been pretty understanding that I've been a complete stressball. I love you babe!

Friday, December 3, 2010

House Update - 1 Month Later

Well it's been one month since my dryer caught fire and my house burnt to a crisp.

You'd think by now they have a good start on the place, but since we are dealing with insurance here, clearly that's not the case.

Last Wednesday (11.30.10) the more-or-less final estimate was agreed to by myself, my insurance adjuster, and my contractor. Some interesting points:

1. They are going to give me a full new roof (yay!)
2. They are going to put insulation in all my exterior walls as part of a code upgrade (yay!)
3. They are going to rewire my whole house as part of a code upgrade (yay!)

Besides those three points, they are basically stripping the house down to bare wood, removing all (or mostly all) they drywall, tearing down the garage, and then rebuilding it all. Currently they have removed most of the drywall in the house and have started the slow cleanup from that. They will next clean the studs and seal them with "anti-smell" stuff.

Before they put the drywall back up, I'll have to decide what cables I may want to run throughout the house and what type of exterminators I may want to have come in and spray. I guess that will be on my to-do list for next week.

I also get to take this chance to do a different type of roof if I want, metal maybe? And change up the lighting around the house. I'm thinking can lighting in the living room and new ceiling fans in the other rooms. Probably add a ceiling fan to the guest bedroom and a bathroom vent to the, well bathroom.

Also at some point in the near future, I'm going to have to pick out paint colors for the rooms. That's such a daunting task.

Total cost of rebuilding the house (excluding contents clean/replace): $70,000

Thank goodness for insurance and low deductibles!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Warrior Dash Pictures!

Here are some of the pictures that Brightroom Photography got of us during the Warrior Dash. I only screen captured them off the website, so sorry if the quality is a bit bad. You get what you pay for, and I paid nothing :)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving...

Phew, what a weekend. And it's not even over yet!

This Thanksgiving I did something that I've never done before. Okay well I did many things that I've never done before, but the impressive, and probably most shocking, was that it was the first time ever that I've cooked a turkey. I know, I know. How have I gone 28 years without doing this? Well, I'll tell you. I don't like turkey. Yep, I said it. And it's not even that I'm not fond of it, I mean, I really don't like it. It's funny, because my parents insist that I love turkey and used to eat it ever thanksgiving. But I don't think they've ever realized that I only put a tiny piece on my plate and then take one bite and push the rest around a bit.

Now I realize this seems very un-American, but it's just the way it is.

So, my turkey. I brined it the night before using a salt water mix and turkey herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme). I cut back on the salt a bit and used about 3/4 cup for ~1 gallon of water. The next day I rubbed herb butter under the skin (where I could get it) and let it sit in the fridge for another 2 hours to dry out the skin. I'm told the turkey came out plenty juicy and was very tasty, though I wasn't overly impressed. But maybe that's just my lack of turkey liking. Either way, I'd like to give it one more try because I think I can do better.... I think. I'll need some turkey tasters again. Volunteers?

Thanksgiving day Jeremy and I went to New Orleans with some friends. Man, even that place is dead on Thanksgiving Day. Of course Bourbon street was still open, but half the bars were closed. Go figure.

What I love about New Orleans is the wonderful food and the great music. There's a restaurant called Desire on Bourbon Street and I highly recommend it. Everything on their menu is great. I can say this with confidence since the 4 of us tried almost everything throughout the weekend. We also found a grocery store on Royal street that's a perfect place to get breakfast if you just want some yogurt and fruit.

Friday night we stopped by Fritzels (on Bourbon) to listen to the Jumbo Shrimp Band. We'd heard them last time we were down and this time they did not disappoint. We picked up a CD. We also hit up Frenchman Street on Saturday night. This time we heard two guys sitting on the sidewalk jamming. They were great. I believe they were "19th Street Red." We got another CD.

I love collecting jazz music from New Orleans. It makes great background party music.

On the way back from Frenchman Street, we happened upon this band "Blues 4 Sale." They don't have a CD out yet, but once it comes out, I highly recommend getting it. They were fantastic.

Before we left N.O. this morning Jeremy took me on a carriage ride through the French Quarter. It was super romantic and really neat. I loved it.

And... after we got home from N.O., Jeremy continued his romanticism (is that a word?) by taking me ice skating at Discovery Green. I'm so lucky.

Now after stuffing my face for the last 3 days with more food than I eat in a month, I think I'm going to stop eating for a while. I'm going to bed tonight and not eating until Tuesday...

well, maybe just one kieful that I make tomorrow.... and maybe one jumbo raisin cookie.... maybe some corn chowder.

But really, no eating

unless I do.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Warrior Dash 2010



This years 3.2 mile Warrior Dash in Bastrop was so much fun. Jeremy and I, along with 4 of our friends, ran the 10:30 wave on Saturday. We couldn't have asked for better weather.

The 'race' was fun, but we didn't actually run it for time. We just went out and had a good time, stopping to take pictures as we desired, and staying together.

While I was prepared to run the 3.2 miles, I was not ready for the uneven terrain. I haven't really done trail running at all, so I wasn't ready for how much up and down there would be. Also, I wasn't used to having to constantly look at my feet and make sure I wasn't about to turn my ankle or something.

Here are a few of the obstacles that we encountered. Thanks to Mark for bringing along his camera. They were pretty fun, but I'm looking forward to the Tough Mudder where the obstacles are hopefully a lot harder and bigger.

Friday, November 5, 2010

1 Week Later... And some exciting news!

First, the exciting news. Jeremy and I have chosen a date and a venue! Yes, we are very excited. What is that date and venue you ask? We'll, you'll just have to wait to find out! Unless of course you are one of the few who are lucky enough to be privy to that information this early. But now that we have a date picked, I feel like a giant stop watch has started and is counting down the days, hours, seconds! So much to do, so little time! Next goal: pick a photographer and a band!

And now, a fire update...

It's been a week since my house first caught fire. Within two days of the fire, my wonderful contractors, Paul Davis Restoration, already had the house gutted. All the furniture, clothing, etc out. They were wonderful. There were no less than 10-15 people there each day working on the house.

On Monday my insurance claim agent was out to look at the damage and write up his initial report and to get things started.

First goal, get the ceilings ripped down in each room to assess the damage to the roof. The initial feeling is that 50-60% of the roof is damaged. I don't yet know if they'll be replacing the whole roof, or just half the roof, but I should know in a few days.

The garage and its contents are pretty much totaled, so that part of the house will be torn down to the ground and rebuilt.

The siding is destroyed on two sides of the house, so we have yet to determine if they will replace all the siding or just those two sides. It seems odd to me that they would only replace two sides of my house, but if it looks bad, I'll fight back.

My housing situation seems to be getting worked out. I convinced my claims agent to let me stay in an extended stay place for 3 months instead of moving to an apartment. I'm happy about this because I dont' have to deal with moving crap around a lot and I don't have to sign an apartment lease, deal with utilities, cable, etc.

So that's about where I stand. Hopefully the work order from the contractor will be completed by Monday and they'll get approval for destruction by early next week.

I'm hoping to move back into the house by the end of January, but we'll see.

Friday, October 29, 2010

So my house caught on fire last night…

… no really, FIRE. And not just a little fire. BIG flames shooting out of the garage. See...

I know you all are dying to hear the story, so here it goes.

The fire started Thursday night around 9:00pm. I was laying on the couch waiting for the clothes in the dryer to finish before going to bed. I’m so glad that I did not go to bed with the dryer running!

As I walked into the kitchen I heard what sounded like the dryer banging against the wall. At that point I smelled electrical burning and I knew.

I ran out of the house as fast as I could, opening the garage door and fully knowing what I was about to see. It was already bad. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and hit the flames but they were too big and the extinguisher too small.

I ran back inside, grabbed my cell phone and dialed 911. I also grabbed Malachi and threw her in the car. Thank God that she was still laying on the back of the couch and not hiding under a bed or on the fridge. She was more perplexed why I was grabbing her and running. I also managed to grab the laptop, camera, and my purse and a few pictures.

After what seemed like forever, the fire department finally got there. Though I was more than annoyed when they ‘charged’ up the hose, and there was no pressure in the line. Seriously WTF.

At this point I realized I should take some pictures, so I snapped some with my phone. As you can see the flames were HUGE!

The cause of the fire is definitely related to the dryer, though there are conflicting reports. The fire marshal says that it was caused by a faulty three way plug behind the dryer. However, the Nationwide investigator says that it was caused by lint build up in the hose running from the dryer out of the side of the house. I’m starting to believe the second cause over the first, because I can see the fire origin on the back of the dryer and the direction of the flames.

Note to all you out there. Make sure your lint line coming out of your dryer is clear. My line had a 90 deg bend it in and that’s where the buildup occurred.


The garage is pretty much gone, as are most of its contents. The mountain bike, fixi, and the old beater bike are all destroyed/melted/etc. All the power tools are gone, gardening stuff, etc. The bike tools are gone. However, I did say that “most” everything was gone. What was not destroyed was my silicon baking stuff that my mom got me a while ago. I hardly ever use the stuff, but there it was, in good condition, not even damaged. I little dirty, but not burnt or melted. I was amazed. My house should be a commercial for that place.

So that’s the update. I’m tired now and I’m going to take a nap. I will be homeless for a while, but the insurance will be putting me up at a hotel (woo hoo).

Thank you for all your concerns and well wishes. Sorry if I have not gotten back to you yet.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Army 10 Miler - Part 2 - The Weekend

I had to split this post up into two parts, otherwise it would have been way too long.

While my main purpose for going to DC this past weekend was to visit Jeremy's cousins and to run the Army 10 Miler, I also wanted to take some time to visit some college friends and to see the city.

On Friday morning, Jeremy and I took a short tour of the Capitol then walked down the Mall. I love walking down the National Mall on a beautiful fall day. It was gorgeous out. Although we had walked the Mall before, it was nice to do it again, and a great way to spend the morning.

Mid-afternoon we met up with Jeremy's cousins to pick up our race packets and then head down to Granville Moore's for dinner. I LOVE this place! I discovered it while watching the Food Network two years ago, and come here each time I'm in DC. Okay, it's only been twice so far, but their mussels and fries are soooooo good. Not to mention their huge selection of Belgium beers. My favorite was the La Chouefe.

Thanks to our friends Albert and Shawna for hooking us up with a great table. It's so hard to go to a small restaurant with 8 1/2 people and try to get a table together.

Saturday was a great day. I had told a friend that I would be in town and mobile (that is, with car) and he organized a bunch of people to come watch the PSU game at a local bar. I was so surprised to see so many of my college friends there! Kenz, KB, Heslin, Cory, Janine... it was so great seeing all of you. I felt like I was back up at Penn State again.

Not only did I get to hang out with the gang above, but on Sunday, my friend Jesse, made a special trip down to Silver Spring to hang out with me at Jeremy's cousins place after the race was over. Thanks for making the drive Jesse! I can't wait to hang out with you and Erin in May.

Sunday night we had a large cookout at the house, thanks Angela and John, and then Monday morning we took a quick trip downtown to check out the view from the top of the old post office. If you haven't gone, I'd suggest taking a few minutes to stop by. The view is great and I really love the architecture of the building.

Thanks to everyone for making this a great weekend getaway. Can't wait to see you all again next year!

The Army 10 Miler - Part 1 - The Race

I just got back from an amazing weekend in Washington DC.

The main reason for this trip was to visit Jeremy's cousins and to run the Army 10 Miler. Of course if I was dragging my butt up to DC for the weekend, I was gonna make sure that I also had a chance to visit some other friends from way back in the day. But that's a different post.

First, the Army 10 Miler.

For the last 4 months I've been training to run this race. When I started 'running' back in May, I could do about 3 miles in 34 minutes. Since then I've been out on the trail 2-3 times a week at distances varying from 3-8 miles. I even did two 5K runs to see what it was like running in a big group. By the time race day came along, I felt confident that I could at least finish in the required time (15 minute/mile pace). My goal: finish somewhere between 2 and 2 1/2 hours.

I was fortunate to be in the first wave so I had a little more time to make it to the 5 mile marker by 9:30 (cutoff time). Turns out that I didn't need this extra time, but you know, it's always nice to have. As a pleasant surprise I found out that my friend from college, KB, and his wife, Janine, were also running the race and were also in the blue group. Surprisingly out of 3,000 people in our blue group, I managed to find them! It was great starting off with them and passing back and forth for the first few miles.

The first few miles went by quickly. Mile 1 approached before I knew it, then mile 2, then mile 3. Somewhere between mile 2 and 3, I tore off my long sleeve shirt and wrapped it around my waist. It was fairly chilly in the early morning but it had warmed up nicely and was around 55 deg for the race. Perfect weather. I hit mile 3 around 28 minutes and mile 5 around 48 minutes. My best 5 mile time yet. During mile 5 you run past the runners coming back toward you during their mile 8. I looked up just in time to see Jeremy toward me. He was doing great. At the mile 6 water station I slowed down to a fast walk and took a bit of water and a Clif shot packet. Since I knew mile 7 and 8 would be a bit uphill I kept running and saved my "fast walking" for then.

I was surprised how little I really had to "fast walk." Every time I slowed down I found myself wanting to keep running. I was a bit concerned at this, as I wasn't sure this ability to keep running constantly would last another 3 miles. At mile 8 the bridge begins. This is seriously the longest bridge ever. Okay, maybe not ever, but when you're running across it, it feels long. I mean, it just keeps going! A bit of the way onto the bridge there was a guy dressed as Michael Jackson handing out beer. The smell of it almost made me puke. Around mile 9 I knew that I'd make the 2 hour mark and decided to try to beat 1 hour 45 minutes. My feet had started hurting but I was still surprised how good I felt. As we came into the home stretch I slowed down a bit to look for Jeremy and was happy to see him cheering me on. I sprinted toward the finish and raised my hands in joy. I had finished my first 10 mile race and I felt pretty good... for now.

My official results were:
10 miles
10:17 min/mile pace
1:42:51 total
top 66% overall
top 52% of females

Now I say that I felt good after the race... for a while. It took me about 10 minutes to manage my way through the crowd and back to Jeremy. When I got to him, I felt my stomach start to turn. For the next 3 hours my stomach was terribly upset. I have no idea why, but I'm suspecting it had something to do with those 10 miles I just finished. Damn you running! And that was just the worst part. It's 2 days later and my stomach still isn't right. Though I had a good run, so I guess you gotta take the good with the bad.

Besides the stomach pains for a few days, I also noticed that I had a very tough time getting out of bed the next day. And by tough I mean I could barely move. Wow. Even after riding my bike 170 miles, I never feel as sore as I did the day after running this race. I miss my bike.

All in all it was a fun race, and I'm sure by the time sign-ups come around next April I will have forgotten about the pain, and sign up again.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Open Letter to Website Designers

Dear Website Designers, Photographers, Event Sites, and anyone who owns a website,

I cannot possibly express to you in words, how much it pains me to visit a bad website.

As a future bride, I spend quite a few hours each day looking at websites. Everything from photographers, videographers, vendors, reception halls; if you've got a website, I'm looking at it.

First, lets discuss my number 1 (and by far number one) pet peeve... music. Ugh. Come on people, some of us are at work here! I HATE visiting websites that automatically play music. This isn't myspace... turn it off. Not only is the music annoying, but it's usually set to play at max volume. If I can't find your "off" switch within 5 seconds, I'm gone. Done. Not coming back.

Secondly, how easy are your photos to view? And this is really a #2 and #3 complaint here. If I'm looking at your event center for my ceremony or reception the first thing I want to see are your photos. I should be able to flip through them quickly on ONE page. Not a separate pop-up each time I click a new image. Not a new tab or new window. All in the same window. And what's with the annoying scroll bars that scroll either way too fast or way too slow. Here are some classic bad photo websites:

Example A:. go ahead, click on "home."
Example B: "for more photos click on snapfish, to which you must be a member to view photos."
Example C: scroll bar at 1000x per second.

And while we are on the subject of photos. Events centers, pay attention here. I could care less about a closeup of the brides face. I could care less about a closeup of the wedding cake or the flowers, or anything else not related to your venue. As a perspective customer, I want to see the VENUE! I want to see a nice shot of the ceremony site as well as the reception hall. I want to see how big it is, how big your dance floor is, if you have 1970's carpeting. And if you're making me use your catering, show me pictures of the food you make, and your presentation style.

I really don't understand why these concepts are so hard for people to understand. If you're a web page designer you've gotta talk your client out of these traps people fall into. "Oh would it be cool if we did this awesome flash thing on our home page that takes 10 minutes to load, but looks really neat?" NO. No it would not be, is not, and will never be "cool." It's annoying.

Thank you for your time. Now, please go fix your website.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Crazy Crazy Weekend

Jeremy's brother, Matt, and his cousin, Jake, came down from Ohio this weekend. Wow, I don't think I've had such a go-go weekend in a long time.

Of course we hit up all the best eateries: Hula Hut, Daily Juice, Fliphappy Crepes, Saltlick, and one still TBD (but most likely Guero's or Maria's). After the Saltlick binge last night, I don't think I'll be eating meat for a while. We went through 4 plates of all-you-can-eat family style. I can't believe we ate all that meat.

Saturday morning we took Jake trapezing at Trapeze Experience. He loved it. Jeremy and I also went again. Check out some of the video's below and the rest of the pictures HERE.

Jake on the Trapeze

Jeremy on the Trapeze

Shelley on the Trapeze

After the trapeze I took them all down to Seismic to go climbing. It was at this moment in my life that I finally discovered that I officially am no longer a climber. Okay, I may climb, but I can't consider myself a climber any longer. Why, you ask?

Well, up until this point I may have lost my endurance, but I did not loose my technique or a degree of strength. Sure, I couldn't do 10 climbs in a day anymore, but I could still manage my way up climbs like Prototype, Bolt Talk and Unnatural fairly well. However, yesterday was my first day back to Seismic in about 2 years. My favorite climb at Seismic has always been Diving for Rocks. It took me a while to master the dynamic move in the middle, but since then I've always hit it, and the stick has always been solid. Yesterday, while we were waiting for some of the 7's to open up, I decided to give Diving a go. There was not a doubt in my mind that i couldn't do this climb. After all, I'd done it like 1000 times in the past.

Lucky for me, I had Jini there to belay me. First time up, I set myself up for the jump. Left hand in the bowling ball hold, right hand in the pocket. Left foot up, right foot up, butt down, prep and jump... and... fall. Fall?!?! WTF? I couldn't believe what just happened. In fact I was in a state of confusion. It was almost a little surreal. Okay, I thought, that was weird.

So I setup again and went for it. A little more "umf" this time. Bam. Stuck. Excellent. Then... fall. Fall? Again WTF? The contact point was not as solid as I once remembered and I could tell it was very polished and my hands were very slimy.

I went up for the third time, again sticking the move, but this time just not having the strength to hold on to make the clip. I couldn't figure out where to place my feet and my arms were hurting so much that I knew I couldn't hang on with one hand to make the clip. I also knew I didn't want to throw a heal up there, as my chance of successfully clipping was about 10% and I didn't want to land on my head.

At this point my arm strength was shot (which I'm sure the trapeze didn't help with), so I accepted my failure and decided to go put up some climbs for Jeremy and Jake. I need to get back out to seismic sometime soon to regain my strength and to work on that climb again. I will not accept defeat :)

Jeremy and Jake did great climbing and they both had a lot of fun. Check out the pictures in the set above.

Before my little climbing tirade, I was talking about this awesome weekend that we had. After running around trapezing and climbing, we took a little break had some dinner and headed downtown for the night. It's been a while since I've been out downtown and around midnight I had my second epiphany of the day: I am not the same person I was in college.

I know, shocking.

Around midnight I realized that I would be much happier at home, sleeping in bed, then staying up drinking for the rest of the night. And it's not that I don't enjoy being out with friends and listening to music. It's that I didn't want to stay up drinking until 2am, cause I knew the next day it would hurt... bad.

At what point in life do we start thinking of the consequences of our actions and letting those dictate our current decisions?

I must admit, I felt a bit lame. But I was happy to leave the boys to have their boys night out and to come home and relax a little. I think they had a great time, because they came home at 3:30am laughing hysterically.

Sunday we chilled out, walked around south congress, gorged on meat at Saltlick, and took a run around town lake. I did my best time ever at 29:14 for 3.1 miles, which was quite surprising considering my abs were killing me from trapeze.

It was a great weekend, and I think I'm going to need to spend Monday night recovering. Oh, and in addition to all this, I made a Mickey cake this weekend :) I think it turned out quite well.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy 60th Birthday

A birthday shout out to my Dad. Happy 60th Birthday!!!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Videos from Italy

UPDATE: a very nice reader just posted a comment letting me know where I could purchase a pirun (or porron in Spanish). Thank you so much Eric for the link. If you'd like to order one of these for yourself or a friend, GO HERE or type "glass porron" into amazon.com!

Here are a few videos I took while we were in Italy. Enjoy!

View from the Train (Venice -> La Spezia)

Jeremy drinking from the Pirun.

Shelley drinking from the Pirun. (I tried to do it fast so I could get the pirun higher, but that didn't work out too well for me)

By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a pirun, please send me a link or let me know! I'm trying to find one that I can buy.

Stairs down from our apartment in Vernazza (Camere Rosa)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Italy Photo Book and PHOTOS!

I compiled a photobook for our Italy trip. Check it out below or use this link HERE to view it in shutterfly (don't forget to click on "full-screen" in the top right corner). I've also posted the "reduced" photo group on FLICKR.

Click here to view this photo book larger

Friday, September 17, 2010

Italy, Part 6 - Rome

Wow, we sure did a lot of sight seeing while we were in Italy. Up to this point, my favorite part of Italy was the Cinque Terre. However, now that I've been to Rome, it would be a hard choice.

I loved Rome. From the first night we were there, I thought this was an awesome city.

We arrived around 6pm and after a bit of confusion we finally got the rental car dropped off and got the metro to our hotel. For those of you renting a car (or dropping one off) at the train station in Rome, the rental car places are all in the parking garage on the north side of the train station. And the signs are about as big as the numbers on my front door. Also, the train station is HUGE. I think we walked about a half a mile to get to the Metro A platform.

In Rome we stayed at Domus Cavour B&B. It is located due east of Piazza del Popolo, about 2 blocks on the other side of the river. The location was perfect and we walked everywhere, with the exception of the catacombs out on the Appian Way. The room we had was very nice and they came in each day to clean, the breakfast was also nice, amazing pastries. Christiano, the owner, was always available and very helpful when it came to booking our ride back to the airport.

Our first night we took Rick Steve's night walk of Rome. Following his guidebook we walked around the city from the Campo de' Fiori, through Piazza Navona, past the Pantheon, around some other monuments (some of which we never found), to the amazing Trevi Fountain, and then up to the Spanish Steps. We actually stayed out until 1am that night. Who knew we still had the ability to stay up that late.

This night walk of Rome was the perfect way to be introduced to the city. It was just so beautiful. Hands down my favorite area is the Trevi Fountain. Before you even round the corner, you can hear the rush of water. Never had I imagined it to be so large. Definitely not your typical fountain, or even your typical Roman fountain. We stayed there for about 30 minutes and would return for a stop at least once a day over the next 3 days. I can't think of anything we have in the states that compares to this fountain. Not just for its magnitude, but also for the people that it brings. Steps surround half the fountain and there are just hundreds of people there at any given hour.

The next day we decided to do Ancient Rome: the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. Since the lines at the Colosseum can get very long, we started our day at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (really one area). The ticket costs you 12E and is good at all three locations, so may as well start at the place with the shortest ticket line. The line for tickets was only 4 people long at Palatine Hill, whereas the line for the Colosseum was around an hour or more.

While there's not much to Palatine Hill, where the emperors used to build their palaces, we did spend quite a bit of time in the Roman Forum. It was very interesting to get an idea how people used to live at the height of the Roman Empire. For this, and the Colosseum, we listened to Rick Steve's audioguides that we had downloaded before we left. These were great and really interesting. Inside the Roman Forum we saw the Arch of Titus (commemorating the Roman victory over Isreal in 70 AD), the Basilica of Constantine (the large meeting place and courthouse), the Temple of Julius Caesar (where Julius Caesar was burned after his assignation in 44 BC), the Temple of Vesta (Rome's most sacred spot where a fire burned symbolizing the family of Rome), the Vestal Virgins' House (the house of the 6 vestal virgins who served a 30 year term tending the flame in the temple), and of course the Temple of Saturn.

After the Roman Forum and the Pantheon we headed over to the Colosseum. Along the way we walked by the Arch of Constantine. This arch marks the military coo that made Christianity mainstream. In 312 AD Emperor Constantine defeated his rival for control of Rome. The night before the battle he saw a cross in the sky, and attributed his victory to this vision. After he became sole emperor of Rome, he legalized Christianity and built Saint Mark's Basilica. Before this, you could be killed for being a Christian, after this, you could be killed for not being a Christian.

Finally we headed to the Colosseum. A lot of the aw and wonder of the Colosseum is just being there. This structure is huge! We walked around the inside for a while and listened to the audioguide. The floor of the Colosseum has been removed so you can see all the pathways and channels below. There were over 80 elevators that could be used to raise animals, people or stage sets into the arena. This allowed the gladiator to be surprised, since he didn't know where the beast would pop up. In general the games were very barbaric and often involved animals fighting animals, people fighting animals, or people fighting people... to the death.

After the Colosseum we took some time to walk around to some of the smaller sites. We saw Saint Peter-in-Chains Church, walked around Capitol Hill square, and just enjoyed Rome. We tried to see the Mamertine Prison where Saint Peter was held captive, but they've turned it into some type of 3D freak show, and we didn't feel like spending the 10E each to get in. That night we met up with Jeremy's aunt and uncle from the UAE who just happened to be in Rome the same time we were. We had dinner at Pummarola, a good pizza place near the Pantheon.

The next day we headed to the Vatican. Two pieces of advice: first, buy your tickets ahead of time. We did this and it saved us at least an hour. Second, bring a snack. The Vatican is huge, and we were there from 8:30 to 3pm. By the time we left, we were starving and delusional. Also, at least 2 months before you go, book at tour into the Necropolis below Saint Peter's. We did this and it was amazing! Thanks to Dan and Amber for the great advice.

We chose to do the Vatican Museum on our own instead of doing a tour. I think if you were to do a tour, you should leave yourself a full day. After spending about 2 hours in the museum, we headed to the Sistine Chapel. It was beautiful. I thought there was a rule against taking pictures, but no one seemed to care and everyone had their cameras out, so I snapped a few as well. From here we headed to Saint Peter's Basilica.

This really is the grandest church of them all. Wow. This church is actually the second Saint Peter's. The first one is under the floor, where the popes are now buried. This new Saint Peter's was built after the old one was deteriorating and needed major renovation. Instead of doing these renovations, they just built a new one. Though that would never happen today. The altar in Saint Peter's is really the 6th altar that is built on Peter's tomb, each built around or on top of the other one.

From here, our last stop in the Vatican was the Necropolis. The tour lasted about an hour and was really interesting. We walked down under the new Saint Peter's, under the old Saint Peter's, down into the necropolis. The necropolis was built on the hill, now known as the Vatican, long before Christianity was legalized. Here the remains of Saint Peter were buried after he was crucified upside down on the cross. Also buried here are hundreds of families, who were all buried together as one family regardless of religious belief. Just on top of Saint Peter's tomb is a small altar saying "Peter is here." After Constantine became Emperor and decided to build his basilica, he knew he wanted to use this spot. However, since it was a holy ground, he could not destroy it. So he buried the necropolis under dirt and leveled off the hill. He removed the top of Saint Peter's altar and expanded it. This expansion of Saint Peter's tomb continued for generations of building around and over, making it more and more extravagant. On the tour you can see a few of the altars as well as the tomb of Saint Peter and the place where bones were found. These bones may or may not belong to Saint Peter.

After our exhausting day at the Vatican we just relaxed. We had dinner right after the tour, around 5pm, and then walked around town until we couldn't stay awake any longer.

Our last day in Rome we caught a few more of the sites that we had not yet visited. Piazza del Popolo, Spanish Steps (again), Trevi Fountain (again), the Pantheon (awesome), Cappuccin Crypt (highly recommended) and Bocca della Verita (the legendary "Mouth of Truth"). Did you know that the walls at the base of the Pantheon are 20 feet wide? The dome is 142 feet high and wide and is made of volcanic pumice so it is light enough to be supported by that massive base. It is also the most preserved monument from the Roman Empire because it was dedicated to the martyers just after the fall of Rome and has been used ever since then as a place of prayer. From the outside you can see the huge 60 foot tall solid granite columns. You also notice how the Pantheon is sunk below current street level. This is because Rome was built in layers and the original streets were much lower than they are today.

After the Pantheon we headed out of town to the Appian Way and the Catacombs of San Callisto. It was strictly forbidden to bury Christians inside the walls of Rome, so the catacombs were built just outside the city walls and are home to thousands of early Christians. These catacombs are huge, very tall and very long. Without a guide it would be very easy to get lost in here. We also saw a mummified body, which was pretty cool.

We spent our last evening having this amazing dinner at Casa Coppelle, just near the Pantheon.

The next morning we had a driver come pick us up and take us to the airport. This was a nice special treat for us, as we usually would take the train. But I could get used to it.

Italy was amazing. I can't wait to go back and spend a little more time in each city. It would be wonderful to spend a week in Tuscany biking around.

Italy, Part 5 - Pompeii

After Sorrento we headed to Pompeii. We only planed to spend 3-4 hours there, which is what the guide book recommended, however we were there for almost 5 hours and really could have stayed the whole day.

Pompeii was once a thriving commercial port of 20,000 people, and quickly became an important Roman city. Then, around noon on August 24, 79 AD everything changed. Mount Vesuvius blew its top, sending a mushroom cloud of ash, dust, and debris 12 miles into the air. It spewed for 18 hours straight; by the end the city was buried under 30 feet of hot volcanic ash. While most people escaped in time, 2,000 people were frozen in their tracks, and never made it out. Because Pompeii was covered in so much volcanic ash, it was overlooked for centuries, and therefore escaped most of the pilfering that the other Roman cities experienced. In the 1600's Pompeii was rediscovered and excavation work on this massive city continues to this day.

As soon as we entered Pompeii, we were impressed. While nearly all the buildings don't have roofs anymore, a lot of the side walls and columns are still standing. Ironically, the parts that are most ruined are those that were in dismay even before the volcano exploded. They were the areas of town still being rebuilt after an earthquake struck a few years earlier.

While we walked around Pompeii we listened to Rick Steve's audio guide. I would highly recommend downloading this before you go. It was very informative and meant that we didn't have to walk along in a large tour group to learn about the sites.

Some of the most interesting parts were the large forum, the bakeries, the bath houses, and of course, the brothels. Yep, those "pornographic" images you'll see in my photo album later were taken right from the walls of the brothel house. Do you know they had almost as many brothels as bakeries?

It was also interesting to see the chariot tracks that had been worn into the cobblestone streets, and some of the old houses. But the most impressive part was certainly the forum. The forum was Pompeii's commercial, religious, and political center, and typical of most Roman forums of the day. The courthouse was off to one side. When Catholicism was legalized in Rome, many catholic churches were modeled after the courthouse, or basilica.

There's so much more I could write about Pompeii, but in an interest not to bore you, I suggest if you're interested that you pick up a book, or better yet... go visit :) My only disappointment is that we didn't stay longer or get time to go visit the city of Herculaneum, also devastated by this volcano.

After our time in Pompeii we headed up to Rome for our last few days in Italy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Italy, Part 4 - Spoleto & Sorrento

After our time in Tuscany, it was time to head south. The drive from Montalcino to Sorrento was about 5 1/2 hours so I decided we would split it up with a stop in Spoleto to take a look at the massive aquaduct there.

As we drove into Spoleto I could see Jeremy getting nervous. I had him driving through the city, which really is more of a village town with tiny cobblestone streets. He kept wanting to turn around and go a different way, but I explained to him that the only way to the parking area nearest the aquaduct was up this way and he was just going to have to suck it up. He did and the drive through the town was an exciting adventure... at least for one of us. I will say, his driving got quite a bit more daring after that experience.

The massive aquaduct was impressive to view. Since it has a pedestrian bridge on one side, you can cross and reach a bunch of hiking trails on the other side. We didn't know about them before hand, so we weren't prepared to do a long hike, but we did take the main trail around the mountain side. The trail is clearly an exercise trail and they have exercise spots every 100 yards or so. Each spot has a chart of exercises and the necessary equipment. For example, one area is a slalom course (i think it's the trail warmup). So there are 5 or 6 large posts for you to run around and between. I think it's nice and a great way to keep people in shape. It was also really neat to see the aquaduct from the other side of the mountain.

Around 2pm we headed the rest of the way to Sorrento. Unfortunately this put us right into rush hour traffic and apparently high shopping time. As soon as the highway ended we were on more small roads with shops lining either side. Like everywhere else in Italy, people don't care much about the cars, and it's a long slow process to get through the area. Also we noticed a ridiculous amount of people on scooters. Apparently this is the most popular way of getting around. And I can understand why. Cause these little babies just zigzag through traffic, choosing whichever laws they decide apply to them (usually none). So between the people and the scooters, you are always on the defensive. It took about an hour to get through an area that the gps said would take 10 minutes. But we made it and arrived at our hotel (La Vue D' Or) way up on the hill side. The view from our balcony was amazing. I'm really glad we decided to stay off the town. Plus the hotel had a shuttle that ran on a pretty exact schedule, so it was easy to catch the shuttle into town in the morning for the boat to Capri and then grab the shuttle home again that night.

The next morning we decided to head to the Isle of Capri. I really wanted to take a small boat into the blue grotto, however, much to my dismay, it was raining that day and the seas were pretty rough. Even if it is sunny out, rough seas will stop the boats from entering this tiny little cave on the side of the cliff. The opening is so small that you have to lay down in the boat to get through. But since we were hear we figured we would at least take the big boat from Sorrento over to the Isle of Capri and walk around a while. Even though the small boats weren't running we could hike around the island and take the bus down to the entrance of the blue grotto.

I had decided before we arrived in Italy that I was going to try to swim into the blue grotto. I read that you could swim in anytime the boats weren't running (usually early morning or late afternoon). I also knew that while swimming into the grotto was "strictly forbidden," it was generally accepted and often done by the locals. I informed Jeremy of my plans, but he was none to thrilled with this idea. When we got to the grotto the waves were crashing pretty hard against the entrance. I knew at this point going in would be a bad idea, but I so desperately wanted to go. I also knew that it wouldn't be nearly that amazing on this particluar day becuase of the clouds and the light rain. The awe of the grotto comes from the sun hitting the water on the outside of the cave, and reflecting down into the water and up from below. From inside the grotto the water looks iridescent blue, the brightest blue you've ever seen. So I knew even if I entered the grotto I wouldn't see what I had come to see. As I was finally accepting my disappointment I saw what I considered to be the last straw... jellyfish. Yep, that was it. No way in hell was I getting in that water.

After seeing the grotto and walking along the water for a while, we headed up to the other side of the island to Villa Jovis. Emperor Tiberius spent a decade here, 26-37 A.D., because he was terrified of being assassinated in Rome. This ruined villa is pretty neat to explore and also makes for a lovely hike around the island.

Since the last boat back to Sorrento was at 5:20, we headed back down to the dock and returned to Sorrento for dinner. The next day we headed off to Pompeii and Rome.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Italy, Part 3 - Pisa & Tuscany

After our stay in the Cinque Terre, it was time to rent a car and head to the Tuscany region... with a quick 2 hour stop in Pisa. Renting the car was easy enough (through AutoEurope), however getting said car was a bit more difficult.

To get from Vernazza to the Hertz rental car agency, we first had to get to La Spezia via train, then take the city bus to the Hertz office. At this point we had mastered the trains quite well, so that was easy. However, once we arrived in La Spezia things got interesting. I had a vague idea that we needed to take the L or S bus from the train station toward Lerici, but I had no idea which direction that was. As we were checking out the bus signs on our side of the street, the L bus came, so we quickly hopped on in a frenzy before the bus took off again. There is no time to decide if you want to get on, it stops for about 20 seconds. We tried to explain to the driver in English that we needed to buy a ticket, and he kept saying something in Italian about a ticket, but after a short period of confusion between both of us, he just threw his hands up like "whatever," and speed away.

So we're driving along, not sure at all where the hell we are, but hoping that we will eventually arrive somewhere that looks like something on the map I was holding. About 5 minutes into the journey it was time for the bus driver to take his smoke break. At this point everyone had gotten off the bus except us and the driver was just chillin outside. Hum.. what now. Fortunately at this point, the driver saw us looking at our map and between some combination of hand gestures, broken English, and no Italian, we managed to show him where we wanted to go and he said "I will take you." Perfect, he will take us!

So we sat on the bus, and watched more people get on, and it get more and more crowded. We also watched as we came back around to the front of the train station again, only this time going the opposite direction. Okay, so now we were definitely going the right way, only problem was, we were now squished between lots of people and could barely even see the driver. What if he forgot about us? Well after getting off the bus a few stops too early, and getting yelled at by the driver to get back on the bus, we finally made it to the rental car office. Renting a car in La Spezia sure is an interesting adventure.

Once we had the car we headed to Pisa. Since we were only staying in Pisa for a few hours, I had booked our tower tickets in advance. I'm glad I did, since there was a 4 hour wait for tickets when we got there. I had also read that it is best to park just outside downtown and take the bus into the city, getting off at the Field of Miracles stop. Of course this involved another bus adventure, similar to the one described above, so I'll spare you the details. Just know, if you do this, pay attention to your surroundings so you know when to get off.

Pisa was interesting. I hadn't realized that the field of miracles was just that, a football sized field of green grass with three white buildings on it, surrounded by a wall on one side and a ton of souvenir tents on the other. We didn't go into the other two buildings, the duomo or the baptistery, but we did climb the tower. It was pretty neat to see how the steps have worn down so much on one side depending where you are in the tower. And you can definitely feel the lean of the tower everywhere you are. Since it was a bright sunny day, we got a good view of Pisa from the top. We also took the obligatory pisa pictures "pushing" the tower straight again.

After Pisa we headed to Tuscany. For two nights we stayed at this little farm house called Poggio Asciutto in the region known as the Chianti Classico Region. The owners were the sweetest people, the room was nice, and the view was amazing. We also had dinner with them the first night at the house. It was great, and probably the only time we had the "full Italian meal" : bread, appetizer, pasta, meat, dessert, wine. During our stay in the Chianti region we visited two wineries, Casaloste & Castello di Verrazzano. I would highly recommend visiting Castello di Verrazzano and scheduling a tour with them. It was very informative, fun, and tasty. Besides the wine cellar, we got to see the place where they make their own prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. Casaloste was also nice, but much smaller, and I didn't care for their wines quite as much.

We also spent time visiting San Galgano, Volopia, and Greve in Chianti. San Galgano was interesting; it is the place of the legendary sword in the stone. The story is that Galgano Guidotti was a knight born to rich parents in 1148. He wanted to renounce the material would and the arts of war, so as a sign to renounce violence, Galgano thrust the sword into the stone, adoring it as the Cross. You can walk up to the abby and see the hilt of the sword in the stone, now protected by glass. Volopia was a cute little town with a few restaurants and a wine tasting room... we bought two bottles. Greve is the town closest to where we stayed, so we decided to head there for dinner one night. Turns out it was the same day as the annual festival celebrated by the town. Each section of town dresses up, chooses a theme, and performs a skit. It was fairly amusing.

After Chianti we headed down to Montalcino. Montalcino is home to the very expensive Brunello wine. As soon as we got there we headed for Enoteca la Foretzza. It's a small enoteca in the downstairs of the fortress at the edge of town. Of course we did a wine tasting, and we also sampled some of the local honey and had this amazing caprese salad. We also climbed the tower and walked around the top of the fortress for a while. The views were quite nice. We spent the rest of the day and part of the next walking around the town and enjoying a little more down time. The funny story from this city came around dinner time.

We had read that there were a bunch of great restaurants in Montalcino, so we took time to check them all out. We finally decided on eating at our hotel Il Giglio. Well as soon as we walked in, we could tell that we didn't really "fit in." First, everything was decorated like a grandmothers house. And after a little while we realized that not only was everything really expensive, but the portions were very small as well. So we ordered our pasta, at the 4 ravioli that came with the dish (at least I can say they were delicious), paid our bill, and then headed to another restaurant. I needed some more food, cause those four little bites just weren't going to cut it. So we found this outdoor cafe and sat down. I ironically the ravioli plate that I got there was almost just as good, and was way bigger. I could barely finish it. For a drink I decided I was going to order this orange cocktail that I had seen people drinking for the last few days. I didn't know the name of it, but I asked the waitress what was the name of the orange drink that was popular. She pointed to the menu, so I said "I'll have that." Yea, turns out what she thought I wanted was orange juice, and that's what she brought me. haha.

After Jeremy explained to me that orange juice would not go well with my ravioli in rabbit sauce, I decided to try again. This time I went to the bar to ask the bartender. Much to my luck there was one sitting there. Perfect. Yea, apparently it's called a "spritz," and lets just say that it's super bitter and not very good. I preferred the orange juice. Oh well, live and learn.

Before leaving for Sorrento the next morning, we stopped by the Sant’Antimo Abbey to hear the monks chant. I highly recommend you do this if you are in the area. There is a schedule of the hours that they chant and when you can go into the church to hear them. It was very moving and a nice 15 minute pause in our otherwise busy day.

Next, off to Sorrento with a stop first in Spoleto.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Italy, Part 2 - Cinque Terre

After starting our trip in Venice, we headed off to the Cinque Terre. For those of you that don't know, the Cinque Terre is a series of five villages along the western cost of Italy just above Pisa. These villages are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore (from north to south), and are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and are connected by ferry, train, or trail. The whole trail is about 10km long and takes about 5 hours to walk from one end to the other. The most difficult parts are the section from Monterosso al Mar to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Corniglia. The section of the trail connecting Manarola and Riomaggiore is called the Via Dell'Amore (Trail of Love). But more on this later.

We left Venice around noon on Wednesday and took the train to into Vernazza, arriving around 5:30pm. We chose to stay in Vernazza because it is the most beautiful of all the villages, though they each have their own charm. Plus it is centrally located and has lots of options when it comes to finding a place to say.

Before we left, we did some research and chose to stay at Camere Rosa. Rosa owns two apartments right on the main street in the village. One on the third floor and a beautiful one on the fourth floor with a balcony. That's where we stayed, on the fourth floor. Since the weather was amazing while we were there, we really enjoyed the balcony, and the apartment was very spacious... just as long as you didn't mind the 46 very steep and narrow steps leading up to the fourth floor. But hey, if you are visiting the Cinque Terre and planning to hike the trail, then the steps into the apartment really isn't a big deal.

It is really hard to understand the Cinque Terre without looking at some pictures, but understand that each village isn't very big (usually only one main street and a few side streets leading up the hillsides with many steps) and at this point it caters a lot to tourists, though it is not overly "touristy," like Rome or Venice. The first night we ate in Vernazza at a waterfront restaurant called Il Gambero Rosso. The food was delicious especially the troffie al pesto and the mixed seafood appetizer, which consisted of squid, scallops, tuna, and accuighe (anchovies). We finished the dinner off with torta della nonna (a dry cake) and some Sciacchetrà, the sweet wine of the area. The idea is that you dip the dried cake into the wine and then eat it. It wasn't bad, but I didn't care for the Sciacchetrà that much.

Now, I know what you're thinking... and yes, I really did eat anchovies. But they are nothing like they are here in the states. Here in the states anchovies are these gross salt covered smelly little fish. But over in the Cinque Terre, they are basically just fresh little fish served the day they are caught and covered with a little lemon. I'm starting to surprise myself at what I'll eat these days.

That night Jeremy bought some wine and candles and we had a nice evening on the balcony overlooking the lights from the town below and the stars above.

The next morning we walked up to Il Pirata, a wonderful bakery (and evening restaurant) just north of the train station. Two brothers own the restaurant and are both super friendly and very proud of their long writeup in the Rick Steves guidebook. We wound up having breakfast here each morning. Their Sicilian style pastries are so delicious, I really want to learn how to make them.

After stuffing our face with one of everything, we headed to the trail. Of the two trails that connect the villages of the Cinque Terre, the most popular is the lower trail along the water. The upper trail is much more difficult and is much longer. Also know that the trails are protected by the National Park and require a daily pass to use them. It cost us about 5 Euro for a two day pass, and they can be purchased at the first booth that you come to along the trail.

The first village we explored was Corniglia. Corniglia is the only village not "on the water." That is to say that they have no marine access and no beach... and about 400 steps leading up from the train station to the high village. It's also probably the smallest of the five villages. We only spent a limited time here, but we did check out a small enoteca called Il Pirun. I had read about this place online and was excited to have fun drinking from the pirun. At this point I should mention that the Cinque Terre is known for its white wine and the hillsides are littered with vineyards. We had several glasses during our time there and in my opinion the wine is okay, and though I'm not a huge white wine fan, it was nice to have a wine that was locally produced.

You're probably wondering what a pirun is. Well it's basically a small decanter that you fill with a glass of wine (I'd recommend white), hold above your head, tilt, and pour. Notice I recommended white wine, cause if you aren't careful it will go everywhere and you'll be left with red wine stains on your clothing. As the wine comes out of the pirun it aerates and releases the flavors. Basically you'll have so much fun with it that you'll wind up "bonging" your glass of wine. Before you know it, it's 5 minutes later and you've already finished two glasses of wine. Yea, dangerously fun. After this we grabbed a focaccia sandwich with mozzarella, prosciutto, and tomato to share and help balance out all that wine.

After Corniglia we hiked over to Manarola. This hike is pretty easy and the view of the water is incredible. The water is so blue and so clear! Manarola has a lot of deep water access for swimming, although we never did find time to get in the water. We did, however, take time to walk around the village and to do the Manarola Vineyard Walk which runs just above the town. Really beautiful views up here. It also drops you off into the local cemetery. It was really interesting to see the different burial methods based on family wealth. For lunch we grabbed some farinata from Il Discovolo Pizzeria and Focacceria. Farinata is a fried bread snack, made from chickpea meal, water, oil, and pepper, and baked on a copper tray in a wood-burning stove. Ours came with mozzarella and S&P. Not bad.

We then walked to Riomaggiore along the Via Dell'Amore (about 20 minute walk on a paved and lite section of trail). To me this was the most disappointing part of the Cinque Terre trail. Yea, I know it's the "trail of love," and if it weren't for all the graffiti all over the rocks, benches, sidewalk, it would be quite lovely. But somehow that just killed it for me. It is also the easiest part of the trail, so don't be fooled into thinking the whole Cinque Terre trail is just like this tiny little section.

Riomaggiore is a nice village, but very steeply built into the hillside. The only way to move around is by means of steep roads or stairs. We spent some time here this day and the next walking around and seeing the village from the highest points and sicking our feet in the water down by the rocky beach... oh and sampling some of the regions Limoncelo, mmmmm tasty. We also started to hike this trail that runs high along the cliff by the water with a not so reliable hand railing. It runs quite far and we wanted to spend some more time in the other villages so we didn't finish it, but we will next time we come back. We also took a few moments and had a nice break at Encoteca & Ristorante Dau Cila; a small hideaway down by the water with some mellow jazz. It was quite lovely.

To get back to Vernazza we took the ferry. I would recommend doing this at least once. It was really cool to see the towns from the sea.

At this point it was about 7pm and we knew we wanted to go over to Monterosso al Mare for dinner. This is where story 1 of 2 from that night begins...

I convinced Jeremy that we should hike to Monterosso from Vernazza so we could say that we did the whole Cinque Terre trail in one day. Of course he was a bit nervous because this was the hardest section of trail, 1.5 hours long, and it was already getting dusk. Somehow I managed to convince him to do this and we took off, starting around 7:15. Well about 10 minutes up the north side towards Monterosso you get the most wonderful view of Vernazza. It's just beautiful at dusk and easy to see why it is considered the most picturesque village. So of course I wanted to spend about 10 minutes there taking pictures, to which Jeremy, somewhat unwillingly, agreed to. So really by the time we started our journey it was 7:30.

It probably doesn't take much for you to realize that a 1.5 hour hike would put you at your destination at 9pm, and that 9pm is pretty late in the beginning of September, and that it probably isn't very light at 9pm in the beginning of September. Well you'd be right. Around 8:30 it got pretty darn dark on that hillside. And this trail is deceiving, because after about 30 minutes you can see Monterosso pretty clearly, but yet it is still really far away due to the curvature of the mountain. It is also the most challenging (and awesome) section of trail. The last 30 minutes we did in darkness guided only occasionally by the little key chain light Jeremy was carrying. It was an awesome adventure and we decided right then that we had to go back and do the hike again the next day... in the light.

That night we had a wonderful dinner in Monterosso at Ristorante Moretto (lemon anchovies, seafood ravioli, tiramisu), walked around the old part of the town a bit, then decided to head back. The next day we would explore the rest of the village, which is divided into two sections, the new and the old. Monterosso al Mare is the most touristy of all the villages and it has really become a resort town. There are high end boutique shops and expensive hotels (not rooms like the other towns, but hotels). They also have a large beach which the white sand is trekked in for each season. But the old town is pretty cute and the hike makes it worth coming here. Interestingly enough, the next day we hiked the opposite direction (from Monterosso back to Vernazza) and we saw a man who had fallen on one of the 1200 steps and cracked his head open. When we got there the medics were already there and the man was in a c-collar but apparently had refused to get on the backboard. So he was just up, walking around, talking on his cell phone, wearing the neck brace. Also flying around was life flight. Since the trail is difficult to get to (and in and out of) the only way to get him out was life flight, which it appeared he wanted no part of. We were stuck there for about 30 minutes, but it was cool to watch life flight drop the rescuers and equipment down. We never found out what happened with that, because they finally let us pass by.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself. Back to that night. After dinner it was about midnight and we decided the only way we were getting back was by train. So we walked up to the train station and went to purchase some train tickets. Obviously the window was closed at this point but we'd been told there was an automatic machine that we could use to get our tickets. This was only a partial lie. There was a machine, but it was broken and the insides were missing. Why on earth would you steal the inside of a ticket machine? Seems so silly. Maybe they needed tickets really badly. Anyway, there we were, wondering what the heck we were gonna do. Really the only choice was to get on the train. There was only one more coming that night and I was determined to get on it. So Jeremy and I came up with a plan to ride the train "outlaw" style and to outrun the conductor should we see him. It was only a 3 minute ride between the stations, but I think it was the longest 3 minutes of Jeremy's life. I was amused to see him so stressed out. In the end we did not meet a conductor that night, but we did the next day... when we fortunately had our tickets. We learned that it is always good to have a ticket handy, especially when they only cost 1,40 Euro each.

That was our exciting trip to the Cinque Terre. I highly recommend that everyone go here at some point in their life. It is beautiful, and one of my favorite "cities" in Italy!

Next, off to Pisa and Tuscany.

Italy, Part 1 - Venice

16 days : 5 flights : 800+ car miles : 6 bus trips : 5 train rides : 3 ferries : 7 cities : 2170 photos

Italy was Awesome!

Jeremy and I just returned from our vacation to Italy. The planning started much like it had last year. "How many days should we go for?" "10 should be good." "Maybe 12" "Okay, 14 at the most." "Yep, 16 sounds good." 16 it was.

Why 16? Well besides there being enough there to do for several years, I figured out that taking the trip over labor day and including the weekends on both sides, it would only cost me 9 vacation days on a 16 day trip. I liked that math.

We started the trip in Venice. Since the trip to Venice was tacked on at the end, we only had about one and a half days to spend there. Better some time than none, and we got to see and do almost everything we wanted.

After flying from Houston -> Chicago -> Dusseldorf -> Venice, we landed around noon the "next day." Surprisingly we even managed to keep ourselves up until 10pm that night, so we weren't too effected by jetlag. There are several ways to get onto the island of Venice, but for simplicity (and time savings) we chose to use the ATVO bus. The boat would have been nice, but it was fairly overcast when we landed and we were already tired of travel and just wanted to get to the hotel. The most important thing we learned about travel in Italy is to "stamp and validate." Whatever mode of transportation you are using, you almost always have to get a ticket and then stamp and validate it. I think this is because you can buy as many tickets as you want and just hold onto them until you are ready to use them. Then you have usually around an hour or more on that ticket once validated.

In Venice we stayed at the Carlton Capri Hotel. It was just on the other side of the canal from the train station and the bus terminal, and the walk across the island to Piazza San Marco was only about 30 minutes. It was nice because we didn't have to schlep our luggage across the island and over all the bridges. The hotel itself was also very nice and there was always a doorman. The room was small, but standard size for Venice, and the breakfast was actually quite wonderful. The only time on our trip when we had a hot breakfast. I would recommend staying here.

Our time in Venice was spent walking around and just enjoying the city. We had our first meal at a nice outdoor cafe on a small side street called Trattoria Pizzeria Antico Gafaro. The pizza was so delicious that we wound up going back there the next night for dinner. Both times I ordered a pizza with prosciutto and sweet corn. It was delicious. We also took the advice from a friend of ours and ordered the house wine mostly everywhere we went. It is always good and almost always the cheapest wine on the menu.

While Venice has a lot of beautiful "tourist sites" to visit, the most amazing part about Venice for me is just walking along the streets and allowing yourself to get lost. The island isn't that big and eventually you'll figure out where you are. We spent most of our day on Tuesday doing this. We also hopped on the water taxi and took it all the way down the Grand Canal. While doing this we listened to an audio guide by Rick Steves that we had downloaded (for free) before leaving for Italy.

As a side note here, I'll mention the Rick Steve's Italy Book as well as his free downloadable audio guides. These were great and we used them for everything from a tour of Venice, to Pompeii, to sites in Rome. They are perfect 45 minute tours and very informative. Did I mention they are free? Ah, at last, something to do in Italy that doesn't cost money. Oh wait, it did cost 6 Euro each to ride the water taxi. Damn.

Also in Venice we spent some time picking out our halloween costumes for this year, awing over Murano glass, listening to music at night in Piazza San Marco, taking pictures on the Rialto Bridge, and checking out the fresh fish market. Yea, that was interesting. We also took a gondola ride. Okay, well sort of. Since there are only a few bridges crossing the Grand Canal, there are several spots where you can take a traghetto (gondola) ride from one side to the other. The cost is only 0,50 Euros and it's only about 1 minute long. But it was pretty cool, and if you want to act like a local then you'd best stand, as only the tourists sit down. Plus, it is way cheaper than the 100 Euro real gondola rides.

After Venice it was time to head off to the Cinque Terre.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Engagement Party

Last weekend Jeremy and I had our engagement party in Houston. Of course I spent all day getting ready and of course I went overboard on the food. Not so much on the quantity of food, but the preparation effort. Which is fine, because I LOVE cooking, especially for other people.

The week before the party I started to think about what I wanted to prepare. Cakeballs, of course, and some tuxedo strawberries, oh and some caprese salad, and some mango salsa, oooh and meatballs, oh and...

Yea, you can see how it quickly escalated out of control. Thank goodness Jeremy is very understanding of my ambitiousness and he's such a wonderful help in the kitchen, especially the last few hours before the party when there's still like 4 dishes to make.

But I did finally settle on a menu, and now I will share it with you. (click on each photo to see a larger version)

1. Caprese Salad

I loved the presentation here, but when I do it again, I will use roma tomatoes instead of vine tomatoes. I think they'll fit better on the pieces of bread. I'd also like to make my own bread and mozzarella so I have full control over the sizes.

2. Chipotle Cornbread Cups with Southwest Chicken

These were a party favorite and went pretty quick. The chipotle in the cornbread was a really nice touch.

3. Mango Salsa Tortilla Cups

To make these I brushed a tortilla on both sides with olive oil. I then cut it in quarters and placed each one in a mini-muffin tin. Bake for 10+ minutes at 400 until they get crisp and golden. The mango salsa is a recipe that I got from a cooking class at whole foods. It includes mango, pineapple, cilantro, jalapeno, red onion, red pepper, tomato, and lime juice.

4. Cucumber Sandwiches

This was my first attempt at these and they turned out pretty well. The only thing I would do different next time is to add more cucumber and less other "stuff." They were a tad runny. Oh yea, and Jeremy says that he'd use wheat bread instead of white bread.

5. Swedish Meatballs

Okay, I failed to take a picture of these, but they're super easy, and if you cut the meatballs in half they make great one-bite snacks. Plus I got to serve them in my newish Le Creuset bake pan. Oooh fancy.

6. Roasted Eggplant Dip

No pictures of this one either, but it also was a new recipe for me. Jeremy actually handled this one and besides the massive amount of garlic it turned out quite tasty. Kinda like hummus but without the gritty texture. I really enjoy the roasted eggplant flavor, and now that we're growing eggplants in the garden (2 have started to grow!), we can make this dip again sometime in the near future. I will point out that this recipe uses the long skinny eggplants, Japanese eggplant, instead of the large fat ones. The large fat eggplants tend to be a little more bitter.

7. Tuxedo Strawberries

This was my first time making these guys, and I will admit that I was a little rushed at the end. But they turned out better than I though they would. I think with a little more time, the detail on the buttons/bowtie could be much cleaner. To make them you dip them first in white chocolate, let cool, then dip each side in milk (or dark) chocolate. Then, using a piping bag and small tip ("0" worked best for me), pipe on the buttons and bowtie.

8. Cakeballs

I wanted to something very special and elegant with these for this party. So I went down to Michael's crafts and picked up some white ribbon to make bows. While I was there, I found these little heart charms in the wedding isle. I formed each bow out of ribbon and attached the charms using hot glue. I suppose you could use pre-made bows, but I hadn't thought of that until I got home and was halfway through this process. I also affixed the bows to the sticks before sticking them in the cakeball. You don't want any chance of getting hot glue in your chocolate or cake, so all this prep was done the night before. The cakeball was made from banana cake and honey/cinnamon icing and was then dipped in white chocolate. I used just a touch of vegetable shortening to thin down the white chocolate, and then sprinkled each one with cake glitter (click to enlarge second picture). While you can't see it much in the picture, it gave it a nice elegant feel. I'm so happy with the way these turned out, and people really loved them. I even made them wait until then of the night to eat them. Yea, I'm mean.

Finally here are two pictures of the full spread. And the rest you can check out HERE if you so desire.