Under the Tuscan Sun

Yes, I totally stole that title from a movie, but I’m lacking in creativity today. I am le tired. Probably because my in-laws are about to head home after a whirlwind two weeks visiting us here. And boy, did we have fun!

So, yes, as the title suggests, we just spent a lovely long weekend in Tuscany (gotta love these vacations within vacations that our guests are into, as we get to reap the benefits as well!). Jaro and I had visited Florence(or Firenze as I will call it going forward) last winter thinking it would be our last chance to do a trip in Europe for awhile (at the time, we were thinking we’d be moving out west)! Did that plan get turned on its head or what! Funny how we ended up in the same region exactly one year later.

We flew into Pisa on Friday morning. Dropped the bags at the hotel and scurried out. Did a little walking tour of the city (thanks, Rick Steves) and somehow, weirdly, ended up here:

Of course we had to do a dorky tourist photo in front of the Leaning Tower! Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we? (Wait, is that another stolen line? Whatever.) Even my in-laws got into it. They were so strong, they pushed it upright!

Ah, the magic of photo editing.

Anyway, after a long, hard day of city-walking, gelato-consuming and wine-drinking, we were ready for dinner. Where to go? Our guide book surprisingly had no suggestions for dining in Pisa. For shame, Rick Steves. So we wandered around looking for a place that seemed hoppin’. Finally, we stumbled upon Ristoro di Vecchio Teatro that had one table of people. Good enough. Although the server/owner did not speak a lick of English, we understood that we would keep being served until we were satisfied. What a way to eat! Plates of pesto brushcetta, olive crostinis, orange risotto came pouring out of the kitchen (cooked by the owner’s wife, no doubt). We finally tell him to stop and yet, still he brings a new plate! We were stuffed. Beyond stuffed. But, it was a great experience and really got us into stretching out our stomach lining the Italian eating mode. Traveler Tip: When in Tuscany during the off season, just wandering around for a place to eat is really your best bet. Pisa was pretty quiet, so we took a chance and ended up having a better time than we could have planned. So, what’s next?

The next morning, we got going and headed to Firenze for a day long tour of the Tuscan countryside, mostly in the Chianti region. Stopped in beautiful San Gimignano for lunch. Here we are outside of the city:

Look how cute it is! After a nice afternoon there, we headed to Poggio Amorelli Winery (http://www.vinalita.com/poggio_amorelli.htm) for a Chianti tasting. This small, family run winery was perched on top of rolling Tuscan hills – gorgeous! Little did we know the tasting also included cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and grappa. For those of you that don’t know, grappa is a hard liquor made from grape skins. Like vodka, but not. It actually has a nice grape-y aftertaste. Here are some of the selections we tried (fo free!):

Jaro and I bought a bottle of Chianti and a bottle of Super Tuscan (no joke) wine. Fun Fact about Chianti: Real Chianti from the actual region of Italy has a black rooster logo on the bottle. If it doesn’t have it, it’s not real Chianti. And once you taste the difference between real and fake, you’ll never want the fake stuff again. (I find that this applies to a lot of aspects of life, but moving on!) Of course, a tour of this winery was not complete without a visit from some friends:

It’s the family horse and sheep that are best friends! They go everywhere together. Back off – I’m already writing the children’s book.

After this loooong day touring Tuscany (it’s rough work, I tell ya), we headed into Firenze and went to our favorite restaurant there: Il Quattro Leoni (http://www.4leoni.com/index.php). Jaro and I had discovered this place last year when we visited Italy and it was so fun to go back! It’s a cozy, bustling little bistro that serves up mind-blowing pastas.

No rest for the weary. The next day we hopped on a train to nearby Siena. It’s a cozy little city with lots of character. Fun Fact about Siena (and just Italy in general): Most restaurants close during the winter. We finally found a place that would serve us, called Hostaria Il Carroccio. Supposedly Trudie Styler frequents this place because she and Sting have a villa nearby. Le sigh. Here is a pic of my MIL and I in Siena’s Il Campo:

🙂

After more roaming, more gelato, more Chianti… It was time to head back to Firenze. Again, we went to another restaurant that Jaro and I had enjoyed last year – Cafe ZaZa (http://www.trattoriazaza.it/). With a 10pm dinner reservation on a Sunday night, we were the only people there, but it’s worth it for the roasted artichokes and truffle ravioli.

Monday. Our last day. We decided to really make the most of it, so headed to Lucca before flying out that night. Lucca is a small Tuscan town that was completely untouched by war. It still has the medieval wall encircling it. Cool! We had been warned that Lucca is all closed up on Monday mornings, and boy, they weren’t kidding. Unfortunately, we messed up the trains, and didn’t arrive in Lucca until 2pm. Remember what I said about things being closed during the off season? This also happens daily between 2 and 7. After three unsuccessful tries, we ended up having pizza (northern Italy is not known for great pizza) and foccacia bread. What are you going to do? Another shot of grappa eased the disappointment. …Followed by a bottle of grappa and it’s consumption it in alleys so as not to be seen. #badkids:

No faces in that photo as to protect the guilty. Ha!

Overall, it was a really great trip! Seeing a place during it’s low season allows you to explore unbothered and at your own easy pace. There is no tourist hype to get caught up in. Just be prepared for some restaurants and attractions to be closed.

xxx

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Bezoekers do Belgium

How many of you have looked up what Bezoekers means? Well, if you are that uninterested lazy, I’ll tell you anyway. It’s Dutch for visitors, but SO much more fun to say, am I right?! Moving on, our fearsome foursome (J+J and M&M) took a road trip around Belgium. I have realized that there are certain people you can travel with and certain people you can’t. Fortunately, M&M depict the former. They were some of the best travel companions we could ask for since they were just as fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants and go-where-the-wind-blows-us as myself and Jaro. Basically, it was a blast. We made for a good team!

The first stop was Antwerp. I have heard good things and I guess I need to follow up about those “good things” because compared to some of our other travel, it was a bore. Lots of generic shopping and the train station, while beautiful, was the #1 Thing To Do on tripadvisor. So, here we are, marveling at the #1 attraction in Antwerp:

Don’t we look awe-struck?

Anywho, after strolling through town, we did have a really great lunch at a restaurant called De Foyer (http://www.bourlaschouwburg.be/), situated in a historic old art museum. While the service was terrible, the interior was lovely and the food was good. Here is the really casual room we ate in:

Fancy!

After an afternoon wandering around Antwerp (which, if you aren’t doing any museums, is plenty), we piled back in the car and headed to Bruges. Picture the small town from Beauty and the Beast where Belle is from (you all know it), and that’s Bruges. Charming, quaint, even spell-binding, we were all in love. The men too! Twisty little canals and well-preserved medieval buildings create the peaceful scene. The first night, we enjoyed local beers at a still-open Christmas market (These Euros keep celebrating after the holiday, unlike consumeristic/gift-focused average Americans) and wandered around the city looking for food. We finally settled upon a place in the main square (as authentic travelers, we usually avoid tourist traps), and agreed to split a mussel pot as an appetizer. De Vier Winden (no website…tellingly) was, in a word, bad. Why? Well, to start with, we were lured in by the obnoxious host (telling us their mussels were better and cheaper than the rest in the square- a lie) and then treated rather rudely. Example A: The waiter even removed M’s cloth napkin from her lap to replace with a paper one! Pulled it off her lap! We all joked about it, but honestly, what terrible service. #neveragain Traveler Tip: Don’t fall for those main square gimmicks! Head off the square for a more local, more genuine meal.

Cue let’s-turn-this-night-around bar selection: ‘T Brugs Beertje (http://www.brugsbeertje.be/index_en.htm), aka: The Bruges Bear, aka: Some of the most honest fun you’ll have in awhile. It’s a little hole in the wall cozy pub on a tiny, dark street in Bruges and was the saving grace that night. After 10 too many rounds of Avec les bons voeux (9.5% alcohol, hello!), we stumbled to a “nightshop” where I bought a kilo of fries as a late night snack. While you may stuff a burrito or white castle burgers down the throat to coat the bowels, I made it my business (and I was serious) to shove 2.2 pounds of fries (with mayo of course) in my belly. Hey, for all the exercise I do now, I’m not ashamed to admit it. In fact, here is photographic evidence:

Guess how I felt the next day?

By the time we woke up the next morning (Tuesday), we were all starving and needed to find breakfast. Immediately. We got two recommendations from our hotel and headed out. Both. Were. Closed. <Insert hangry commentary here> (For those of you that don’t know, “Hangry” is the official term for being so hungry, you’re angry.) So, we stomped into an Italian sandwich shop for soggy Belgian waffles. I’m still cringing as I type that. Traveler Tip: Going to Bruges in “slow season” is one thing (cheaper hotel rooms, exploring without other tourists stepping on our feet), but going on a Tuesday is actually not a good idea. Much of the city is closed. And that goes for summer too!

Despite the constant downpour of rain, we walked all over the city and even did two tours that day: The Chocolate Museum (http://www.choco-story.be/ENG/) (Traveler Tip: DON’T GO. Unless you like to read about ancient Mayans #yawn, not really learn how chocolate is made, or have a penchant for dioramas made with legos) and the Half Moon Brewery Tour (http://www.halvemaan.be/). THIS was worth a visit! Really cool family-run brewery in Bruges, with a decent tour and, of course, a free beer at the end. There really is nothing like Belgian beer.

After some more beers at ‘t Brugs Beertje, we came across the Christmas market again and it was completely deserted. However, some sweet jams were playing at the bumper cars so we walked up and thought – Hm, wouldn’t it be so great if someone was here to turn this on so we could all play with the bumper cars? Sure enough:

That’s right. We convinced the kid to turn it on so we could go for a spin. #winning

We all agreed we needed to step it up for dinner that night after having such a fun day. And boy, did we deliver. Got another recommendation from our hotel (crossing our fingers that it’d be open this time) and BINGO! it was. We walked into Poules Moules (http://www.poulesmoules.be/) and knew we were going to have a good time. Good drinks, great mussels and service, overall we had a blast. Even if we were the only ones in there (hey, it’s still slow season after all). Here is a picture of our delicious goat cheese appetizer:

Yumm.

Unfortunately, I was in too much of a hunger panic to take pictures of the mussels before they were completely gone. Oops! They were good though.

The next morning, we woke up with renewed energy excitement to try the breakfast places we had been recommended. The first one was packed as we walked into it (not hard when there were only 5 tables) and it didn’t look like anyone was moving. So, we headed to spot #2, Le Pain Quotidien (http://www.lepainquotidien.be/) and couldn’t have been more disappointed. 1) They were out of coffee 2) Portions were leprechaun-sized 4) Service could not have been ruder (Or more rude? Whatever.) and 3) Jaro’s was the most expensive (a bread basket) which we all accidentally shared so he didn’t really have much of anything. Hah! Again, we laughed it off, but come on now.

Time to pile into the car again and head to Gent for lunch. We had read a review of this place in the heart of the city, Groot Vleeshuis (http://www.grootvleeshuis.be/nl/), so decided to try it out. Other than the fact that it was in a old building, it was so awkward. From the fish tank restaurant (literally you are in a glass-enclosed container inside the building) to the mediocre food, we were not impressed. Here it is:

At least we got to walk around Gent! Such a pretty city, filled with medieval architecture. Would like to go back.

Onto our final destination (no, not the kind that kills you): Brussels. I had been here once before (Thanks to a 12 hour layover a few years ago), but was excited to have more time to explore this city. We arrived in the early evening and since we were only staying one night, we got right to the exploration. Heading into the Grand Place square, we found our dinner spot, ‘t Kelderke (http://www.restaurant-het-kelderke.be/en/welcome/). Surprisingly (as you all know by now, I try to avoid tourist traps in the middle of popular squares), this choice was excellent. Just the fussy French bistro we were looking for. Appropriately stand-offish without being rude, it was perfect. And not touristy whatsoever. We enjoyed frog legs (well, Meg didn’t), croquettes, and, of course, a big steaming pot of mussels. Mussels in Brussels! So delicious and fun. Add beer to that and we had a pretty excellent evening. I remembered to take a picture of the food this time (however blurry):

The next morning, we awoke to another rainy day in Belgium. Like I don’t get enough of it in the Netherlands. But, we were determined to get out and see as much of the sights as possible. We took the Rick Steve’s self-guided tour and learned a bit about some of the history around Brussels. We had fun. Look at us having fun:

Can you tell Jaro was the photographer this trip? Poor guy, here is a picture of him:

Haha. I’m sure he’ll be happy about this one being shared. Especially because he’s in front of Brussels famous baby – Mannekin Pis! Love you, darling.

Our last stop of the trip was the most decadent – Pierre Marcolini Chocolatiers (http://www.marcolini.be/#/en). Basically, it’s like the Chanel of chocolate shops. So luxurious and … expensive. But totally worth it! We picked up some incredible macaroons and chocolate gifts. Score.

Overall, we had a great time with some great friends. Truly, it was the company that made it so wonderful. We’re already missing our Bezoekers M&M so hard.

xxx

Going Bezoekers for M&M

Hi all. Trying to get everyone up to speed with our recent happenings here in the Dam. Over the holiday, we enjoyed the company of our first visitors from Chicago: M&M! They arrived the day after Christmas and stayed for 2 weeks. We had a blast. When visitors stay longer than a week, they really have a chance to enjoy the city, get to know their way around, and not rush all the touristy things that they have to do while they’re here. Bonus: We even took a road trip to Belgium for three days in the middle of their stay. But more on that later.

We started it off right with homecooked food for the first day and a walk around the neighborhood (which turned into a walk around half the city). They were troopers and just took a short nap and were right on our schedule.

The best part about having visitors is showing them around our beautiful city. Some highlights include:

– A delicious dinner at Cafe de Jaren (http://www.diningcity.nl/cafedejaren/), filled with boar meat pies, eggplant lasagna, and thai chicken soup

– Strolling around the City Center, pausing for some romance at the Skinny Bridge (properly known as Magere Brug):

– Some shopping in the markets where we get all our produce (Albert Cuyp Market):

…And fish (Cuyp):

One night it was crab claws, baby squids, red snapper and mussels. Note: Fish eyes are not meant to be eaten and I just learned (which I can’t believe btw) that to check for edibility of mussels, you tap on their shell and if they close, they are good for eatin’. 

…And more fish (again at Cuyp):

This time it was tuna steaks, scallops, and prawns. So delicious!

…And hot meat (this is at Lindengrachtmarkt, only on Saturdays):

– Enjoying a dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, De Duvel (http://www.deduvel.nl/), which is right here in De Pijp. We chowed down on black truffle risotto, fish and duck.

– Concocting other feasts in our kitchen like this to-die-for French Onion Soup:

– And finally, throwing a massive rager for NYE in our sweet apartment with all our friends here in Amsterdam:

There is Jaro on our roof in the middle of the party. #whatablur

We really love our city and sharing it with our friends and family!

Moving right along, one of the great things about the timing of their visit was that Jaro could take a few days off since it was around the holiday. One day, we took a roadtrip of the Netherlands! Since the country is so small, you can pretty much get around most of it in a day. We went to Den Haag where we had coffee in a department store (yep):

Traveler Tip: Don’t go to Den Haag on a rainy day. There was virtually nothing to do except go to the one museum that seemed interesting, Mauritshuis, and we didn’t even go. I’ve heard that it’s a great city to bike ride around, so I’ll go back when the weather cooperates.

We then went to Delft, home of the famous Dutch white & blue porcelain. Here’s me and 9po on a cute bridge in Delft:

And M&M:

And me just dealing with nature:

#typical

We had lunch there in a cute restaurant right on the square, called De Waag (http://www.de-waag.nl/):

#tourists

Also went into the “New” Church in Delft, which was built between 1383 and 1510, where we saw this chill guy:

And wrapped it up by visiting the Royal Delft Museum (Koninklijke Porcelyne Fles), where we snatched up some blue and white souvenirs.

Hopped back into the car to finish the day at Gouda. By the time we arrived, it was a terrible thunderstorm. And the Netherlands don’t get thunderstorms (just calm, steady rain), so you can imagine how the rest of the night went. (i.e. we pretty much drowned… in wine and beer). But, we made the best of it and had fun!

More on M&M’s visit when we roadtrip to Belgium in the next post…

xxx