A year in traveling: rewind (Part Un - Welcome to Belgium)

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It has been a little over a year since we moved to the land of beer, chocolate, mussels, and well, more beer (more on that later). 

Let's do a quick rewind back to 01.01.2011.

01.01.2011:  Let me give you a quick mental picture.  A little foggy, due to the prior night's festivities,  a group of us decide to do the annual "Polar Bear Plunge."  Normally I wouldn't subject myself to this sort of pain, but it being our "last" New Years festivities in Wisconsin for a while (and a lot of peer pressure) I agreed to jumping into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan, while the temperature was well below freezing (if only a photo could show temperature).... and it was worth it.  Best. New. Years. Day. Ever.

New Years Resolution: Travel as much as possible.

01.03.2011: Board plane to the land of beer and chocolate, AKA Belgium. Brussels, specifically.

Sometime in 02.2011:  We took our first out of country trip, to Riga, Latvia, where it was, well, cold.  You can see it on Paul's face. 

 It was also a beautiful city, in spite of the ice cold temps.  This is the view of Snowy Riga from the St. Peter Church Tower.  I would recommend a trip up here, but maybe not in the dead of winter.  
Good thing we found this amazing fire in the city center to warm up and enjoy some mulled wine (hot wine), common in winter in Europe.
Other things to do in Riga (that we did):

1.) Go to a ballet or opera!  We went to the Sandman ballet for quite a reasonable price at the beautiful Latvian Opera House.  It was our first ballet and won't be our last!

2.) Do the free tour.  You get to see a side of Riga that you wouldn't normally see. One stop is at the Central Market, where you find that Latvians pickle anything and everything.  My nostrils were burning.... but it smelled better than the fish section. 

3.) Check out the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.  Not the most aesthetically pleasing museum, but it sets the tone for what you will find inside.  The museum gives you an insight on what life was like in Latvia under the Nazi & then Soviet rule. 

Oh and the Dalai Lama stayed at the same hotel we did when he was in Riga!  

Early 03.2011: Roadtrip #1 (we like road trips, something about being free to go as you please on the European motor ways, it just feels right!):  Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Siena, San Gimgiano, Chianti Wine Region.

After a day of driving, and walking up hill both ways (literally) with our luggage, we arrived to the picturesque village of Manarola (tip: pack light!).

Worth. the. walk.  I think we stayed in one of the tiny yellow apartments on the second layer.   It was the most beautiful village I ever saw, and this is one of five, hence cinque terre (5 villages).  They are connected by a trail along the cliffs on the edge of the ocean called "via dell'Amore."  Amahzing.   We did some walking along the paths the next day. 
Here's Paul and I on the Via dell'Amore, on our way from Manarola to Riomaggiore.
On the way back, this was the first sight of Manarola.  Pretty sweet.  But after hiking the regular tourist trail, we wanted more.

Some of the trails were closed due to the time of year and some rain, but we found an open trail that would lead us from Manarola to Vernazza.  It wasn't the normal trial that follows the coast, but a little higher level hiking path with some coast line.  We thought, we are two young, in-shape individuals, we can handle this.  So we went hopped on the trail. 
The view of Manarola after about a half hour on the trail.  
The trail wasn't bad with the exception of a few steep uphill spots, some rocky areas, and some narrow coast line edges blocked only with a chicken wire fence (which made me a little uneasy).  Overall, it was nothing two young, in shape individuals couldn't handle.  Then after about an hour the sun started to set.
We got a little nervous because we didn't know how much further Vernazza was and this path would prove to be a little more difficult in the dark.   We carried on and picked up the pace.  I could actually sense Paul's nervousness (which he still denies to this day).  I'll admit it I was on the verge of a freak out.  But, after about a half hour of strategically placed footing in order to avoid falling on our faces, of course, we saw it.  One of the most breathtaking sights to this day.  Vernazza at dusk. 
We made our way down the footpath and into the village.  It was about dinner time and we could sense people settling in for the evening.  It was serene and peaceful, especially since most of the tourists had gone home for the day.  We stopped in a small wine bar and had the Cinque Terre wine (which was one of my favorites on the Italy trip), then took a short walk along Vernazza's coast.  After taking in the city at night, we decided it would be best to take the train back to Manarola, where we had the most delicious pesto lasagna for dinner.  Check out my Cinque Terre Inspired version here.

 **Unfortunately, on October 25, Cinque Terre was hit with Torrential rains, which claimed the lives of three people.  For more information or to help go to savevernazza.com.

Next Stop: Pisa.... We saw it.  It leans. So, we got some pizza and moved on.

Firenze: The capital of Tuscany

We took a few days to explore the beauty of Florence.
Highlights included, but were not limited to:

Taking in the view from the Piazzale Michelangelo:
More of the view:
Seeing the original Statue of David In the Galleria dell'Academia.  The statue is larger than life and one of the most magnificent pieces of art work I have ever seen, a must see in Florence.
Not the original, as you cannot photograph it.  One of many replications found around the city.

We took a cooking class (I think this is where I realized cooking isn't that scary (besides touching raw chicken) and can actually be enjoyable).  

To start the class we took a trip to the main market in Florence (which was one of my favorites!).
After buying fresh market ingredients we headed to the kitchen. 

Paul helped make the fresh pasta.  

We ate bruschetta, eggplant panini, spaghetti (homemade noodles and sauce), followed by a perfect tiramisu, and of course, drank our weight in wine.  Don't worry I will share some tips in future posts.
Still need to get a rolling pin
And of course we enjoyed countless Gelatos... Pistachio... buonissimo!
Tip: Watch the price on the Gelati, specifically the tourist areas of Florence, or you could be stuck paying 9 euro for a cone.  It happened last time I was in Florence with my friend, Jen.  It made for a very. sad. day. And we were just poor college students at the time.

Next up: Chianti wine region with side trips to Siena & San Gimgiano. We stayed in Cortine, a teeny tiny village in  the Chianti Region.

We took a winery tour at Castella della Paneretta, a beautiful old castle turned winery.  Their story can be found here:  Castella della Paneretta.

We enjoyed a private tasting.  Red, White & Rose, paired with meats, cheeses and fresh bread.
I would highly recommend a trip to this vineyard if you are in the area. 
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jLynn said...
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jLynn said...

Loved the pics in this one- especially snowy Riga- it looks like a snow globe!
Oh and who's that hot babe in the striped suit ;)