The Berlin Photobook

Rome, Romance, Rosemen (Part 1)

After the semester ended last week, Nick and I embarked on our final adventure of the year: a trip to Rome and Berlin.

I’d never been to Rome before this semester and I was beyond excited. I spent almost two weeks planning the Rome/Berlin trip so that we could see everything we wanted to see without wasting any time in lines: the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, etc.

We arrive in Rome early Saturday afternoon to meet up with Nick’s sister, Nicole, who spent the semester studying in Rome and Greece. We stopped by a pay-by-the-pound pizza place, where they sell portions of huge square blocks of pizza. We checked into our hotel – Hotel Piemonte – and said goodbye to Nicole, who was off that night to explore London.

We rushed off to the Spanish Steps to catch the end of the sunset. The Spanish steps overlook Via di Condotti, a huge shopping street, and the Western portion of Rome.

Sunset over Spanish Steps

It was a touristy area, so we were prepared for pick pocketers, but nobody warned me about the scam artists! We spent no more than a minute or two enjoying the sunset before a South Asian man approached us insisting on selling Nick a charmed talisman to protect me. As soon as Nick chased away that guy, a man with a bouquet of roses insisted that Nick buy me one of his roses and would not take “no” – even a loud, aggrevated “no” – for an answer. There were several more rosemen in the course of ten minutes. It probably isn’t such a problem for small groups or individuals, but they seem to target couples. We still enjoyed the sunset and the view, but the annoyingly persistent salesmen detracted from the experience.

We wandered around a bit as we made our way to the historic portion of the city. Via del Corso, the major shopping street in Rome, was decorated with fun rainbow lights that really gave the city a festive appearance:

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Once we bought a map – I know, I’m old fashioned – we found the Trevi Fountain fairly easily. Via del Corso was crowded, but the Trevi Fountain was absolutely packed. Mid-December is considered “off season” for tourism in Rome, so I can’t even imagine what the crowds are like during the summer. I was glad to be there in the off season, though, because we were able to each flip a coin into the fountain, which according to myth “guarantees” that we will return to Rome.

Trevi Fountain

We had dinner in one of the alleys off one of the main restaurant streets, where Nick had fantastic gnocchi (potato dumpling pasta in a cream sauce), but I got stuck with rather mediocre, limp ravioli. Maybe my astronomically high expectations for Italian food biased my opinion, but  we spent the rest of our meal times in Rome searching for the truly excellent pasta of my imagination. We finally got close to excellent on our last meal in Rome, but I hope I can return and get out of the tourist zone, where I suspect the magnificent food is hiding.

The next morning we had an early tour of the Colosseum. A few weeks ago I called the Colosseum office and booked tickets for their special Colosseum tour which takes people through the underground of the Colosseum and all the way to the top floor. We learned so much from our tour guide, a middle aged Italian woman who specializes in art history; from walking the path that victorious gladiators walked to viewing Rome from the top of the Colosseum, the tour was the best 9 euro I spent in Rome.

We were meant to visit the archaeological excavations underneath the Basilica di San Clemente but accidentally walked in on mass (we didn’t cause a scene or anything, tourists were coming in and out to see the church itself).  Tours underneath the basilica didn’t start for another half hour, so we opted to get a quick bite to eat for lunch first. It was just before noon but we had probably walked several miles already by that point.  We chose a pizza place half a block away from the Basilica.  When we walked in, the restaurant was completely empty except for this ancient Italian woman who pointed at us to sit down.  In the corner of the restaurant, there was a massive brick oven and rolls of fresh pizza dough. A “waiter” – basically a local teen – came to take our order and we chose to split a sausage pizza and foccacia bread as a starter.

Well, I thought foccacia, which is usually served as a loaf of bread in America, would be similar to the bread and butter starter like most restaurants. When 15 minutes had passed without any foccacia, I flagged the waiter and asked as nicely as my Italian could manage if we could please have the foccacia bread at his convenience. He looked a little confused and walked away muttering to himself.

It turns out, the old woman was baking our focaccia and pizza in the oven freshly for us. The focaccia was this wonderful pizza dough type bread with olive old and rosemary. Whoops, I feel bad for bugging the waiter! The pizza was similarly mouth wateringly incredible:

Pizza and focaccia

We did not leave a single crumb. Afterwards, we toured the Basilica di San Clemente where archaeologists have excavated ruins underneath the church dating from the 5th century and then a layer underneath from a 1st century AD Roman house, complete with a fresh natural water spring. We weren’t allowed to take pictures down there because they have preserved amazing frescoes over 1500 years old.

The morning had been lightly raining on and off but when we emerged from the caverns underneath the Basilica the skies were completely blue. We checked out the Roman Forum next, which while beautiful is a bit hard to imagine in its original state as it now looks a bit like massive piles of rocks. Nonetheless, it’s quite picturesque and historic; some of the temples were commissioned by Julius Caesar himself.

We hiked up to Pincio Hill – by this point we had easily put over 10 miles on our legs so the hill was a bit of an effort – but the view was breathtaking. This time, the sky was clear and we must have given the rosemen dirty looks because they left us alone. The hill overlooked the Piazza di Popolo and Vatican in the distance:

Pincio Hill

Pincio Hill 1 Pincio Hill 2

Walking back down the river on our way to the Christmas Market:

View over Roman river

The Piazza di Navona has Rome’s famous Christmas market with hand carved nativity sets, more of the annoying salespeople and fun Christmas foods. The piazza had a fun, festive atmosphere!

Rome Christmas Market

The Christmas market was the end of our two days in Rome. The people trying to sell you things on the street may have been annoying, but the beauty of the city, the incredible art work and the fascinating history still captured my heart!

My next blog post will include more pictures from Rome, a recount of our trip to the Vatican (and that time we thought we were accidentally going to be in the middle of a fistfight) and of course our Christmas Market adventures in Berlin. For now, merry christmas!

Hogwarts. We Went.

Nick and I the other day toured the Leavensden Studios where Warner Brothers built the set and filmed the entire Harry Potter series over ten years. As prolific as the series became, they left the studio with ten years’ worth of  props, costumes, special effects and sets for the public to tour.  Tours book up weeks or months in advance so we were lucky to get two tickets during December when the Hogwarts Christmas decorations are brought out!

We started our tour – the majority of which were adults – in the set for the Great Hall.

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The Great Hall, pictured with the “Christmas Dinner” from one of the earlier movies.  Those floors are real stone from York. The food couldn’t be real though; the tour guide said that crews would start the day of filming using real food, but after several days the food would turn sour and they’d have to replace it with these resin, painted replicas.

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The costumes behind me are from the third movie, I believe.  Gryffindor is leading the House Cup on the right side of the background! Hagrid, right behind me, had to be played by a 6′ 10″ retired rugby player standing on stilts. The player then had to wear a huge, animatronic head that replicated the expressions and facial movements of Hagrid’s actual actor, Robbie Coltrane.  I have no idea how they made it look so realistic:

The animatronic head of Hagrid!

The animatronic head of Hagrid!

Next they had props and costumes from the fourth movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

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From left to right, there’s Harry’s robes, Hermione’s dress, Cho’s oriental dress (?), and Quidditch star Viktor Krum’s red outfit.  It wasn’t until I saw the costumes in real life that I realized: Emma Watson, the actress who played Hermione, is impossibly tiny. The waist on that pink dress was so small and even the costume for the last movie looked like it couldn’t have been more than a size 0.

The Gryffindor common room was perhaps the coolest part of the set.  The set designers knew when they approached the first movie that they would need the common room for the subsequent movies, so the entire common room was built with stone and stocked with real furniture, tapestries and “real” school fliers on the walls.

The Gryffindor common room, built in the greatest of details to be as authentic as possible

The Gryffindor common room, built in the greatest of details to be as authentic as possible

Many of the portraits throughout the entire studio were real oil paintings and some of them were portraits of the people that worked on set. The dormitory, below, was built to the proportions of the child actors before the first movie; by the last scene shot there, the actors’ feet hung off the end of the beds, but the cameras were carefully angled so that wouldn’t show in any of the shots:

Gryffindor boys' dormitory

Gryffindor boys’ dormitory

As soon as we stepped into the set built for Diagon Alley, Nick and I both were absolutely sure it was modeled on York, which we visited last month. The shops feel so similar to The Shambles in York and the set is almost identical to the Victorian street at the York Castle Museum. Interestingly, Diagon Alley doubled as Hogsmeade (the employee said they “tossed some snow on it” and changed the signs and voila, Hogsmeade):

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For more pictures of Diagon Alley, and in fact everything else, see the gallery at the bottom!

They had an entire room dedicated to tiny models of each set, from Olivander’s Wand Shop to Hagrid’s Hut:

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I wish I had gotten a picture of the “concept art” on the walls – they had artists come in, imagine scenes from the books and paint them on canvas. From there, the producers and artistic directors decided which concepts weren’t right and which ones would be created in real life. Some of the paintings could have stood as art in their own right.  The amount of artistic, architectural and engineering talent that went into this series was jaw dropping.

Hogwarts Castle

Hogwarts Castle

And finally, the crown jewel of the studio tour: the 20-something foot scale model of Hogwarts. The filmmakers used this model for the incredible panoramic shots of the school and grounds.  There are little steps carved into the sides of the cliffs, a million little leaves on the trees of the enchanted forest, lanterns that really work and lights behind some of the windows in the castle. Wow.

After three hours, Nick and I were disappointed to leave but did treat ourselves to a chocolate frog – complete with the card on the inside – for the train ride home. I couldn’t rave enough about how neat it was to go behind the scenes on a movie production at this epic a scale!

The gallery: (not even all the pictures I took!)

An Irish Adventure (Part 2)

Day 2 in Ireland (an account of the Irish countryside on Day 1 can be found here) started with a massive storm. I could hear the wind, hail and who knows what else pounding my window through the night and the wind was howling as I put my parka on in the morning. It had stopped raining but in case the rain picked up again I dropped my backpack off at the hotel reception. The little guidebook I checked out from the Boston University library recommended a cafe along the river, so I battled some serious wind to get to the River Liffey (at one of the churches I saw later that day, two of the employees were saying wind gusts were topping 80 miles an hour. I don’t know if the wind was THAT intense but it certainly made for an interesting time).  

I saw some, um, interesting things along the way. Not surprisingly, there are references all around Dublin to the British occupation of Ireland that only ended in the 1920s and continued to be contentious into the 1990s. I passed a bridge pictured below that had the lion and unicorn from the British coat of arms, but instead of roaring, the lion and unicorn appear to be cowering from the Celtic harp that represents Ireland.

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Another shocker on my way to the cafe was an entire building covered in Marxist propaganda advocating the Solidarity movement and early 20th century Irish leader James Connolly. I’ll be honest, I did not expect this:

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It was a reminder that the very warm and welcoming Irish people I had met the day before in the countryside arise out of a violently tumultuous history.  All around Dublin there are statues and monuments to the plight of the Irish people; the most poignant one to me was the reflection pool in remembrance to those who died fighting for independence in the Easter Rising of 1916:

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I didn’t “feel” the struggles of Irish history in the countryside the day before, but Dublin the presence of history is physically ingrained in the city. There was definitely a sense of humor in the city, though.  I passed these signs several times around the city:

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Yes, that sign says “National Smack A Bum Day” and encourages city residents to “Smack That Booty”. I really appreciate the line in smaller print that says “Get Everyone In The Office Involved”.  Maybe I’ve spent a little too much time on this side of the pond but I thought it was pretty entertaining. 

I made my way over to Dublin Castle on the suggestion of both Nick – who went to Dublin on his own a couple weeks ago – and the guidebook. I didn’t read the guidebook very carefully, though, so I got lost on my way to the castle. Why? Because I was looking for a…castle. Turns out, Dublin Castle is definitely not a castle! It’s a modern administrative-looking building set on the underground ruins of the ancient Dublin Castle. 

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See the castle? I didn’t either…

I took a (free!) tour of the underground archaeological dig underneath the administrative building. I didn’t get any pictures of the underground portion because the tour guide was fascinating, telling the history of Dublin from a Viking village to the modern city! I even got to hear another tour group, whose tour was conducted entirely in Gaelic. The part of me that loves linguistics got irrationally excited to hear Gaelic spoken by native speakers.

The tour staff recommended to me a cafe called the Queen of Tarts that had the “best scones in Ireland”. It was. Scones and tea at the Queen of Tarts could not have been better:

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With a warm apple cinnamon scone and peppermint tea as fuel for the afternoon, the next stop was Christchurch Cathedral across the street. Nothing in the interior of the church was particularly inspiring – honestly European cathedrals start to look a bit the same after a semester – but on a whim I nipped down to the crypt. WOAH. 

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The crypt was massive and completely deserted. A lone voice played over a recording from some unknown corner of the crypt repeating the history of the church under English rule. The only lighting came from creepy Christmas decorations, throwing long shadows across the empty eyes of aged stone busts. Casually leaning against the wall (pictured above) there was a stone coat of arms of the British monarchy what must have been the period of British rule! The church had so many pieces of history from different time periods, they didn’t seem to know what to do with them all. 

Another neat aspect of the crypt was a set of empty costumes (again, the experience was creepy) from The Tudors, which was on Showtime for several season recreating Henry the Eight’s rule of England. They apparently filmed in Ireland and used Christchurch Cathedral for scenes depicting weddings, coronations, etc. 

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I wandered for much of the rest of the day since my flight wasn’t until almost 8 pm that night. Other adventures for the day included St. Stephen’s Green:

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And some of the famous shopping streets, which were decorated for Christmas:

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(Yep, the sign is in Gaelic.)

I ducked into the national history museum when it started raining and got to see replicas of what Dublin looked like as a Viking trading post. Nick was particularly taken with Dublin’s Viking history when he visited, so I did my best to see as much of the museum as I could. There were artifacts over 2000 years old!

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And finally, my favourite bit of the city was on one of the bridges over the River Liffey:

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That was the end to my two day, jam packed tour of Dublin and the surrounding countryside. I hope to explore more of the countryside and I was quite taken with the people; those who I interacted with were exceptionally warm and pleasant. 

Though I only have a week left in London, it’s Christmas Market season, so my next post will include some of London’s best Christmas offerings! Of course I have a final this week, and next Saturday Nick and I are off on a six day adventure to Rome and Berlin before returning to Texas – basically, there is a ton packed into the time I have left here! Stay tuned. 

An Irish Adventure Alone: Horses, Castles and Countryside

A couple weeks ago, I decided to make a solo trip to Ireland. Most of my travels this semester, and in fact in general, have been with other people. I like travelling with others; there’s no colour in life without sharing memories and adventures! 

(Gallery of pictures at the bottom!)

But I opted to go this trip alone because I wanted to go horseback riding through the countryside, something I couldn’t do with my non-horsey friends.  My internship is finished, but finals aren’t until next week so I took advantage of the ridiculously low Ryanair weekday rates and booked a two day, one night adventure to Dublin. I checked out a guidebook from the BU library and bam, trip planning done.

I woke up at 6 something am on Wednesday after pretty much no sleep and as I walked to the tube stop in the dark, I was hit was an overwhelming sense of deja vu. I didn’t realize I had unintentionally fallen into what used to be my “pre-race” routine.  As a competitor in Endurance Riding, I developed a unique set of preparations executed in a certain order, with a slightly adrenaline-infused, sleep deprived silence. First, I french braid my hair. Tights, under armor and boot socks follow. Next, I double check the charge on my phone and wrap it in a plastic bag to protect it from rain. Well, there I was at the tube station, french braided hair, protected phone and carefully tucked socks in that familiar, damp pre-dawn air. Old habits die hard.

Unfortunately, it would be a few hours before I got to ride. Low budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet fly out of small airports way out of the city centre as a cost-saving measure. It was a long day of non-stop transit from 7 am to 2:30 pm, involving two underground tube trains, a long overground train, a flight, an airlink bus, a Dublin city bus and a taxi up a mountain. But I finally found myself a Paddocks Riding Stable in Dundurm, Ireland that looked a bit like this:

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A wonderful woman named Liev (Irish name, no idea how to spell it but it was pronounced “leave”) took me out on a one of the stable horses, Savannah:

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Savannah was quite a lovely, smooth ride.  We spent a little over two hours up and down the big hill/mountain-ish and were rewarded with incredible views of the city of Dublin and the Irish Sea!!! (See the photo gallery for more amazing views)

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We got so incredibly lucky to have the sun shining that afternoon.  Seriously, sunny days are so hard to come by in December in this neck of the woods. Towards the end of the ride, the sun set as we came down the mountain and it looked something like this:

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We kept the scenic portions of the ride to a walk so I could soak it all in, but as soon as we got into the woods we snuck in some trots/canters and a even a quick gallop. The trails were more technical than I thought they’d be – there was shoe-sucking mud, nasty rocks (nasty in the Endurance sense, they were quite pretty to look at), and some serious climbs/descents. I’ve ridden many horses over a whole lot of trail, and I was quite impressed with Savannah’s ability to pick through the rocks, branches and mud at a high speed. She had great manners and smooth gaits, too…basically a huge nod to the Paddocks Stables for such a nice mount.

When we came back, I called the Jamaican cabbie who swore Hillary Clinton will win the next election (I swear, as soon as foreign cabbies hear you’re American, they immediately come up with the weirdest “facts” about America…).  He swore he’d be at the stables in 15 minutes to take me down the mountain to the bus stop. I made the mistake of not bundling up immediately and got cold quickly. It was 19 degrees with the wind chill, and the cabbie kept calling me to say he’d be there in another 5 minutes. Well, I was eventually wise enough to realise A) the cabbie wasn’t coming, and B) I was too cold. After more than an hour waiting on the side of a dark, cold mountain, I finally managed with the help of Liev to get another cab to come pick me up.

My original plan was to go into the Dublin city centre, eat dinner in the famous Temple Bar district and call it a night.  However, by the time I got a cab, the traffic was too thick to go back to Dublin, and I was miserably shivering. He instead took me to the Dundurm town mall (while telling me the American government is brainwashing the American people… again, the weirdest stuff). The town mall turned out to be the biggest shopping centre in all of Ireland, so I ate at a chain pizza place since my taste buds were too frozen to care and caught cab back.

The picture gallery, as promised!

I’ll write about the second half – the sightseeing part – of my Dublin trip in my next post. Spoilers: it includes Dublin Castle, more on foreign cabbies, and of course more pictures.

A Foodie Experience in London (Part 2)

My first blog on culinary experiences in London a few weeks ago was so popular a friend of mine asked me to do a follow up. The United Kingdom is stereotyped for bad food. Not just mediocre food, but people warned me before I moved here the food would be “tasteless”, “unappealing” and extremely expensive.

Well, they were right on one account: it’s expensive! But I’ve found ironically that the best food in London is actually at some of the cheapest restaurants. It’s not always British food, but with such a diverse population, why would one restrict one’s self to only one type of food?

Here are my favourite London food experiences so far (leaving out drinks, because I wrote a whole post about British drinks):

5. Truffle Gouda Cheese at Harrod’s

(Thank you internet)

My friend Lauren turned me on to truffle in cheese.  I had never tasted nor desired a truffle (insert mental image of French people clawing through the earth for weeks to find a handful of truffles).  But when we saw Truffle Gouda Cheese at Harrod’s in September, I was emboldened by Lauren’s endorsement and bought a tiny silver.

Holy. Cow. Cheese will never be the same. Gouda has a soft, mellow taste and almost butter feel on your tongue, which serves as a wonderful background to really allow the poignant, slightly spicy truffle to shine. It breaks my “cheap as possible” rule that guides most of my food choices, but you need so little of it to enjoy I couldn’t leave it off the list.

4. Mini Dutch Pancakes at Portobello Market/Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland

I discovered these with a friend in a back alley of Portobello Market. Back alley food stands are always an adventurous time, sometimes not in the best way, so I would have passed these babies up if my friend hadn’t insisted.

Mini Dutch Pancakes are these pancakes about the size of a quarter with a soft, fluffy inside.  On top, you can drizzle layers of chocolaty nutella, shake on powdered sugar, toss on some fresh fruit slices, or do any combination of the above. I even had them with an apple sauce/cinnamon sugar combination that melted in my mouth last night at Hyde Park. What’s even better is you can makes these at home *really* simply.  You can find the recipe here:

http://allrecipes.com.au/recipe/21953/mini-dutch-pancakes–poffertjes-.aspx

This will be happening on my Sunday mornings. As soon as I have my own kitchen again.

3. The Superfood Salad (Try the one at Belushi’s Burgers in Covent Garden)

Yep, it’s the stereotypical date: the guy orders a large burger, the girl orders a salad. I am almost never the girl who orders a salad. Life is short. Why not enjoy with something other than bunny food?

Except that this trend of superfood salads that are actually delicious has taken hold of London. And these salads are phenomenal. I found my first truly exceptional salad (I’m rolling my eyes at myself right now) at Belushi’s Burgers in Covent Garden on a date with Nick. Their salad comes with sweet potato, beetroot, couscous, Feta cheese and pumpkin seed; obviously the picture above is not this precise salad, but you get the idea. Some of my other favourite superfood salads around town also have avocado. Yum.

2. Sausage and Mash (in every pub in England)

This one makes a close run for first. I discovered this on a trip to Coventry in September, and since then, “Bangers and Mash” (as it is so called by locals) has become a staple of my British diet.

The key is the gravy. There’s none of this creamy, white stuff you see in the states.  British gravy is a wonderfully sweet, onion-based concoction that compliments spicy sausage and rich mashed potatoes beautifully. I’ve pretty much come to the point where I refuse to order other British food because my experiences with Fish & Chips, Yorkshire Pudding, and the famous British pies have gone very badly. Bangers and mash is reliably good, almost impossible to mess up, easy to find at most pubs, and has a warm, filling experience one can only associate with home.

1. Zizzi’s Restaurant in Earl’s Court

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This picture does not do this meal justice. My friend and I were out one night and we opted to try this little Italian place in Earl’s Court rather than the traditional bangers and mash. I’ll be honest, I was a little sad to miss out on my bangers and mash, but this restaurant was so worth it.

We started with their garlic bread.  It consisted of steaming hot, pita-like bread with fresh garlic, rich mozzarella and caramelized onions underneath the cheese.  I would have never thought to put caramelized onions in garlic bread but it was fantastic!

I ordered the spinach and goat’s cheese ravioli after reassurances from the waiter that the goat cheese wouldn’t overwhelm the spinach.  He was right – the tender ravioli contained wonderful pockets of slightly sharp cheese combined with a salty spinach.

This is a picture of one of their desserts I found on Google because I couldn’t put down my spoon quick enough to get a picture. I had the most incredible apple cinnamon crumble with creamy gelato on top.  The hot apple crumble and cold gelato in one spoon could not have been beat, though the mini chocolate cake with a dark filling that my friend had was close.

Hands down the best meal in London. Probably the best of my life, so far. I already know I want to go back with Nick on our last night in London because I’m dying to try absolutely anything their chefs prepare.