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We managed to fit in a trip to Sicily at the end of our European adventure. Sicily or Sicilia in Italian conjures up images of good fellows, heavy Italian food, sun and sea. Well it lived up to the sun and sea part. The food was good and surprisingly light and Mediterranean influenced. I am not sure how much of the mob we actually saw but it seemed like there were plenty of guys who wanted to look like they are connected. Driving down the road in our little rented Fiat Panda I would often see a couple of big new Mercedes approaching at about twice the speed limit flashing their headlights. I quickly pulled into the next lane out of their way. No need to tempt fate.

Sicily - Fiat Panda!

The island is amazing. It is Italian but its own version. As soon as you fly into Palermo airport you can see mountains that drop into the crashing sea. I think this isolation allows the island to be a nation and culture of its own.

We drove first to Taormina. It is known as a playground for the jet set. It lives up to expectations with jaw dropping scenery and many tourist amenities. Our hotel overlooked the Mediterranean and was surrounded by cliffs. The old town is actually up on the cliffs above the motorway. It is easiest the access by bus. I tried to drive up but was turned around after being forced through a maze of one way cobbled streets and such steep grades that I thought we might topple over. Not a parking spot in sight. The food is impressive. We found a restaurant that specialized in slow food. Everything was local and in season. The climate of Sicily lends itself to a variety of food we normally do not get fresh. It is exciting to taste the taste citrus the way it is meant to be fresh from the tree. The blood orange salad was surprising in its simplicity and elegance.
Sicily - Veranda of Hotel
Sicily - Taormina - Greek Theater

Climbing up the hill there is amazing vistas of the ocean a 1000 feet below and the smoking Mt. Etna close by. You can see both from a Greek theater overlooking the city. The little town of Castelmolla seems to be a fairytale capping off the top of a mountain. Certainly the location is secure but it seems impossible for the original owners to have built this in ancient times.

Sicily - Taormina

Sicily - Taormina

I had thought there was rock climbing nearby but found out that it actually was located on the other side of the island. We cut our stay in Taormina short and head south. In an hour we found our selves at the base of a ski area on Mt. Etna. The 10,000 foot mountain seems like it would fit right in the Oregon Cascades. I of course wanted to climb it. It took a few hours but we were able to knock off most of the mountain. I am sure that on a clear day one could see the mainland of Italy. As it was we could see the ocean through the mist. When the staff was not looking we jumped on the gondola for a ride down to the car.
Sicily

From Mt Etna we headed down to Siracusa known as Syracuse in English. I grew up in the city of Syracuse in Upstate NY. I have always intrigued by this city that shared the same name. Siracusa turned out to have an amazing history. It was settled by the Greeks and was a thriving city in 300BC. The old city on the island of Ortigia contains numerous Greek temples and medieval churches. The city felt full of the weight of history. A run through the city allowed us to see the real city curtained behind walled courtyards. In walking distance were the ruins of a Greek Theater and a Roman Amphitheater as well as the quarry where they cut the stone. All of this in the heart of a busy city.

Sicily
Sicily
Sicily
Sicily

A couple days of Siracusa has us longing for some wide open space so we headed west to a town I head read about called San Vito lo Capo. The destination seemed to be predestined since Suzy had a found an Italian guide booking devoted to beaches in the area. The attraction to me was the reports of rock climbing by the ocean- my favorite combination.

On the trip across the island back through Palermo I found it a challenge to keep an eye on the road with the mountainous countryside unrolling along the highway. It is indeed a highway. The autostradas seem to be either elevated on concrete pillars contained in tunnels driven through the mountainsides. I am not sure if it was all necessary but does add of good dose of fahrvergnügen. The little Panda kept pounding around the curves and down the road.

San Vito lo Capo is a good as hoped. It seemed to be an old fishing town cum holiday retreat sent beneath towering cliffs. Based on the German hotel signs few American make it that far but it is reputed to be packing July through September. In April it was just waking up from its winter nap. The gem of the town is a camping area called El Bahira. A camping and RV park with a beautiful pool and million dollar view. In the last four years a few climbers from the UK and Germany have bolted hundreds of rock climbing routes. They are well bolted with stainless steel to avoid corrosion from the sea. This detail was a welcome sight after the ropes that filled in for bolts in Thailand. We were lucky enough to meet the guys who put up the routes as a party held for the climbers. They were good enough to loan us some gear and we were off to do some routes. It was some of the best climbing I can remember. The Sirocco winds from Africa sent perfect temperatures up the cliffs. The limestone was satisfyingly steep and crisp. A perfect cap to the trip.
Sicily San Vito lo Capo
Sicily

Heading back to Palearmo we stopped an amazing temple in Segesta. It is one of the most intact Doric temples around. The unbelievably old the columns seem like they could host a cult’s ceremonies today. The temple and an ancient theater are set in field filled with wildflowers.
Sicily Segesta
Sicily Segesta

It was a bit sad to leave the happy Italian island. I will be back someday for some history, mountains and sea.

Sicily

Amsterdam I love you but it is time we part. May your canals be forever lined with twinkling light and dinging bikes and your rows be forever cute and filled with the ‘normal’ dutch.

We got the chance to visit Norway last weekend. Our old friend Kim and new friends Bjørn and Karel just moved to a little town north of Trondheim called Steinkjer. I think the next train stop is the Arctic Circle. They have an amazing view of fjords that were once the home of marauding Vikings. They showed us the snow covered sights. I even scared up a juvenile moose on a run from the house. They are big and move surprisingly quickly!

Norway Top 10

1. Kim, Bjørn and Karel (ok, that’s 3, but they all tied for #1!)
Norway

2. Fjords!
Norway
3. Red barns everywhere
Norway
4. $30 bowl of soup. Not fancy soup; just soup.

5. Farm tour of Steinkjer and surroundings
Norway
6. Snø

7. Hills, real hills. Mountain hills!
8. Brown cheese
9. Learning Norwegian from a 2 year-old
Norway
10. Churches perched on hills overlooking fjords
11. Reindeer taste better than beef!
12. Moose!
Norway

Last weekend, Evan and I met in Paris. I took the train up from Nürnberg and he drove down through Belgium and northern France. I arrived a few hours earlier, so enjoyed a relaxing afternoon finding our hotel in the Saint Germain district and walking around in the crisp afternoon sunshine.

I was pleased to find that our hotel was in a great area, near many shops, bakeries restaurants and even the local Saint Germain market. We booked through Hotwire, so had no idea what to expect other than a very tiny hotel room – standard for Paris. I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice place with a terrace overlooking the bustling street below. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time enjoying my view from the room since the sun was shining and I wanted to get out and explore.

Paris
My first stop was Notre Dame, a few blocks away. I strolled over along the Siene River, past all the hawkers selling vintage-style postcards and advertisements for French products along the sidewalk. Their wares are all stored in neat little green wooden boxes that line the sidewalk, and which are loaded up and locked each night with all their belongings. Seeing as it was a Friday afternoon in the sunshine, most were already closed, and some were just packing up their stools, hats and gloves as I passed by.

I arrived at Notre Dame just as the afternoon sun sent off shades of amber and honey throughout the city. Windows glinted, and otherwise gray buildings turned to caramel in the fading daylight. On I walked, through the sprawling grounds of the cathedral. I was most impressed by the sense of space and enormity of this structure and the city that beheld it. Coming from compact, gezellig (cozy) Amsterdam, I could immediately sense the spatial difference in Paris and relished in its openness.
Paris
As I was walking, I caught whiffs of melting butter, chocolate and bakery deliciousness in the air. The only other place I’ve had this experience was in Belgium, where the place literally smelled like sweet waffles. Oh those Belgian waffles. I’ll never get over how good they were. It didn’t take me long to walk to the nearest boulangerie and begin my gastronomic tour of Paris. A croissant and piece of quiche later, I found a bench overlooking Boulevard Saint Germain and sat down to enjoy my feast as I watched people head home after work. Nearly everyone carried a bag with a baguette or two poking out the top. Others stopped by the corner florist to pick up a bouquet of flowers, another European ritual I admire.

I went to a small grocery store and picked up a few Paris necessities: a nice bottle of Bordeaux, a baguette and some pungent cheese. After spending 15 minutes deciding which cheese to buy, I had a moment of panic: we don’t have a bottle opener for the wine! Should I get a twist-off? And then I remembered: I’m in France. Of course our hotel is going to have a bottle opener for me to borrow. And of course our room has two wine glasses in it, just like any other normal French hotel room would. Now I looked just like any other Parisian – heading home after work with a baguette sticking out of my shopping bag, a bottle of wine and some cheese to enjoy with Evan.
Paris
Our snacks turned out to be dinner, which was followed by a midnight walk through the city. Somehow after a 7-hour train ride from Germany and an equally long drive from the Netherlands, neither of us were tired. Or maybe we were just really excited to be in Paris and didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

We walked again along the Siene River and took in Notre Dame by dark. I was surprised that it wasn’t lit up, since that seems to be standard practice in most European cities to show off their amazing structures. Through the dark grounds, along the river and past a clown who had set up on a nearby bridge. It looked like we just missed his display of fire, water and something to do with a bicycle and umbrellas, but the spectacle of his clean-up process was enough to give us a chuckle.

We then happened upon what we thought at the time was the Louvre – an immense building with the iconic glass triangle entrance. We were pretty impressed with ourselves for finding it at midnight and without a map, and at the same time were a bit disappointed with how average it looked in comparison to the rest of the buildings we’d passed. Somehow we had thought it would be more amazing since everyone who has been to Paris raves about it.

The most interesting thing at this so-called Louvre was the team of novice ice hockey players in the midst of a heated midnight match! Their talents varied widely, but all played like it was the most important game of their lives, decked out in soaking wet acid-washed jeans (due to all their falls), and naturally sans-safety gear. Nearby, we saw a huge peleton of cyclists ride by, all suited up in reflective gear and lights for yet another midnight activity in Paris. I guess that’s just what you do in the City of Lights.

Our midnight tour concluded, we headed back to our hotel for a quick sleep before embarking on the next day’s activities. Our favorite way to see a new place is on foot during a morning run. So we headed out in the bright Saturday sunshine for a run through Paris. Once again, the scent of amazing food brought with it pangs of hunger, but we persevered and made our way west through the city along the bank of the Siene River.

The huge cobblestones lining the river path gave our ankles a good workout as we slowly realized that the structure we had found last night was definitely NOT the Louvre! The real Louvre could never have been disappointing, as it stood immense and grand in the center of the city. We ran through the massive grounds, past the gardens and to the other end. We contemplated continuing to run to the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees, but decided we would return to see those two landmarks later in the day, after a nice breakfast and coffee.

Feeling refreshed and mellow after our amazing run through the city, we headed to the Saint Germain market. We have grown to love the little organic market near our apartment in Amsterdam, but were blown away by the thoughtful presentation, huge variety and quality of food available at this neighborhood market. It made us wish our little hotel room had a kitchen so we could go home with a basket full of produce and make an amazing meal! We settled instead for a savory crepe, washed down with two delicious cups of coffee each to keep up our energy for the long day of walking ahead of us.
Paris
Fromage

Map in hand, we headed out on foot from our little Saint Germain neighborhood with two goals in mind: Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysees. We figured we’d probably take the metro back, but since the sun was out we decided to walk and soak it up. And walk we did! As I have said, Paris is a place with a lot of space, and we covered nearly all of it on foot that day. We soaked up the winter sunshine and shielded ourselves from the crisp wind beneath our hoods and gloves. The cold wasn’t enough to quell our spirit of adventure, so on and on we walked taking in the space and taste of Paris on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Our walk was fueled by fresh pain au chocolate and brioche, along with lots of window shopping the amazing Easter-decorated patisseries on the way. Twelve miles and four tired feet later, we had experienced all the major landmarks of Paris, including the Luxembourg Gardens, Pantheon, Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, the Louve and Notre Dame again.
Eiffel Tower


Arc de Triomphe

Hungry and exhausted, we finally made it back to our hotel and passed out for a few hours. We were given the name of a great restaurant in the area by one of Evan’s co-workers, and promised ourselves that we would wake up and have a nice French meal in Paris. Sleep nearly overtook our plans, but we forced ourselves awake, and our sore feet back into shoes.

We stepped into the tiny restaurant and were so glad we persevered. As we waited for our table, the host sang while pouring glasses of rosé for each eager customer lining the stairwell, entryway and any other available space that could be filled while waiting to be seated for a delicious meal. The restaurant was small and had two levels. The kitchen was downstairs, and the one and only waiter upstairs. So, orders were yelled down, and food was sent up via the tall French host singing and pouring wine for waiting customers. Frequent shouts of “garcon!”, lots of impatient yelling, coupled with whistling and singing definitely made for a lively atmosphere, and an unforgettable French mealtime experience. Oh, and the food was amazing too.
Panthéon
Our ‘Tour of Paris’ boxes checked for the most part, it was time to head north the following day, back to Amsterdam. Before we left, we headed out on one last run through the Luxembourg gardens. On our way there, we saw some other runners and were surprised to find that the Gardens are one of the main areas for runners in this area of Paris. Around the perimeter of the Gardens is a well-worn running path and a standard counter-clockwise direction for one’s daily run. We observed our French running counterparts and followed their lead through the Gardens, around and around three times, passing the same people, checking our pace and seeing who was going faster or slower than we were. As we headed out of the gardens, we saw one of our fellow runners who had just completed his last lap running home with two fresh baguettes in hand. Classic.
Jardin du Luxembourg
Another gorgeous morning of sunshine and crisp air made us reluctant to pack up the car and leave. So, we walked up the hill from our hotel, past the Pantheon again, and found another little market where we grabbed breakfast and some snacks for the long ride home. When it was clear we could stall no longer, we packed up the car and headed toward Versailles. The palace was somewhat on the way back to Amsterdam and we figured we couldn’t just leave France and not see Versailles.

Our trusty in-dash navigation system got us right to the palace before hordes of other tourists arrived. And it was our lucky day! The first Sunday of the month is free museum day in Paris and surrounding areas, so we enjoyed our free pass to the immense and massive grounds at Versailles. While the structure itself was impressive, we were more amazed at the finely manicured grounds that stretched on as far as you could see: lakes, fountains, angular-shaped bushes and trees forever in each direction. And runners! More runners than we had seen anywhere in all of Paris! Apparently they must come when it is free day at Versailles too, because the grounds were literally covered with runners going every which direction, through the gardens, along the lake shore, through the grass, effortlessly swishing past slow-moving tourists. I had a pang of jealousy, but knew there wasn’t enough time for a second run today.

Versailles

So, we walked as much of the grounds as we could before we realized that the actual palace entry was free as well. We hadn’t planned on spending hours at Versailles, but we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to experience the history and grandeur of this landmark. The photos will do more justice to the place than my words. Amazing, immense, beautiful, grand just don’t capture the essence of Versailles.
Versailles Palace
The drive home to Amsterdam was gorgeous in the afternoon sunlight with farms on either side, rolling hills and quaint towns along the way. We took a detour in Lille, France, just before the Belgian border, to stretch our legs. We happened upon a town festival, so lingered a bit longer to hear some live music and partake in the festivities. Then we walked into the historic center to see if we could find my only remaining gastronomic wish: another authentic Belgian waffle. I was not disappointed, and was ecstatic to find freshly-ironed waffles on every corner. I settled on the one that offered the sweet cinnamon waffles. Heaven. From there, we continued our drive north through Gent, Antwerp, Rotterdam and eventually back home to ‘gezellig’ little Amsterdam.

I picked up some tickets to the USA vs Netherlands game last night. It was a “friendly” game in preparation for the World Cup in June. I figured I had to go support the USA and see my first European football match. After the Olympics I knew that Dutch sports fans were pretty crazy. I did not quite realize how crazy. I arrived to see a sea of Dutch orange (Oranje) entering the stadium. The orange hats, jackets, face paint, flags and even the occasional full orange lion suit was a bit intimidating. I am glad I left my stars and strips jump suit at home.
The swoosh did a great job of painting the stadium red and selling red shoelaces to support the Red campaign.
Amsterdam arena-USA vs Netherlands

The match was good but overshadowed by the intensity of the Dutch fans who did not miss a chance to wave their flags or do the wave.
Check out the video…
http://www.flickr.com/photos/geisthaus/4405140208/

Final Score
USA: 0
Neth: 2

Plenty of time to tune up before June.

Lots of updates on past posts this time around:

GROUND:
I am pleased to report that our San Francisco Ritual Coffee Beans have been transformed into life-giving grounds that we savor on a daily basis. Thumbs up to Evan for finding our local Natuurwinkel and sneakily grinding our beans there.

FOUND + GROUND:
This lovely Natuurwinkel has also been the source of much happiness on my part. Oh yes: I have discovered Zonnenbloempasta – sunflower seeds ground into lovely, smooth, salty-sweet butter! (Thanks, Joanna, for the suggestion!) Just in time too, as my pindakaas addiction was seriously spiraling out of control. Another week, another empty jar. Oh yes, I am not kidding about this addiction.

FOUND:
BBC2 has come through as our in-home Olympics coverage! Evan discovered this at work, inquiring about where we can view the Olympics since our Sky TV subscription lacks all sports channels. How about that Skier-Cross?! Insane.

NEWFOUND GROUND:
Westerpark, our new favorite running route! Our upstairs neighbor (who ironically hails from none other than Lake Oswego, Oregon) told us about Westerpark when we first moved in. We dismissed her suggestion, as the park looks so small on the maps we’ve seen.

After some frustratingly traffic-laden, angry-bike-bell-ringing runs down the Amstel River and back, we finally decided to try another route last weekend. We headed out from our house, down Haarlemerstraat, our new favorite street (Natuurwinkel located here!). Past cute restaurants, cafes with free wi-fi, fashion stores and tempting bakeries through an arch and there it is: Westerpark with its miles of paved running and cycling paths! Right in the middle of the park are barns, ponies, little garden houses for people to tend garden in the summer, fields of dormant tulips and some open space – a rare commodity in Amsterdam.

FOUND:
Saturday organic food market, just blocks from our house! We had been to the Albert Cuyp market the weekend previous, feasting on fresh, gooey, caramely stroopwaffels. Sadly, there is no photo of this experience, as we ate them too fast and could not be bothered to interrupt our enjoyment for a photo opportunity. The organic market was a completely different (and much healthier) experience with fresh organic breads, meats, cheeses and eggs with feathers still attached. Cheese samples abounded and we took advantage, tasting goat cheeses, sheep cheeses and just regular old (amazing) Dutch cheeses. I am going to miss the lovely round Dutch cheeses when I’m gone.

OLD GROUND:
We just booked our tickets to a very old, inspiring place: Sicily. We’ll head there after we wrap up our work here in Amsterdam and Germany. We’re looking forward to visiting some ancient temples (750 BC), hiking near Mt. Etna if it’s not erupting, tasting some wine from old vines, and seeing life as lived by the Corleones.

Converted church. Three levels. Wrap-around balconies. Standing room. Seats. Great acoustics. Bar. Spoon + White Rabbits on a weeknight.

As a vertically-challenged person, it is even better. Dutch people are tall. I am not. There are enough seats for the tall people so that I could stand behind them and see Spoon play an incredible set on the main stage.

One thing we learned: when your ticket says that the concert is at 8pm, it really IS at 8pm. None of this opening band starts at 9pm, main act comes on around 11pm stuff. Nope. We got there at 9pm and completely missed the opening act (White Rabbits), and came in on Spoon’s third song.

I could get used to this.

Spoon - Paradiso

Well, this is embarrassing. Last weekend we received two BEAUTIFUL pounds of fresh-roasted coffee beans direct from San Francisco. We were elated.

We would be even more elated if we could figure out how to turn these beans into a powdery substance suitable for brewing.

You see, coffee grinders are not something that are easy to come by here in Amsterdam. Or perhaps we’re missing something?

Four store checks in Amsterdam. No luck.

Three store checks in Hilversum, where we distinctly remember seeing an in-store coffee grinder. Our minds played tricks on us and that distinct coffee grinder is in fact a coffee maker.

Thus deflated and desperate, I am contemplating a mercy visit to Amsterdam’s only Starbucks.

They’ll understand my plight, being from the NW and all, right? They’ll be willing to grind my beautiful beans and turn them into precious granules capable of creating of dawn’s awakening serum, no?

Oh Michelle and Caspian – thank you for the beans. We can’t wait to tell you how much we’re savoring every drop they brew in our bright yellow espresso maker.

When we rented our apartment, the broker was so excited to tell us that it came with Sky TV – the premier English television service. Being the non-TV watchers that we are, we weren’t that interested.

Now the Olympics are on and we finally have something worthwhile to watch. To our great disappointment, we came to find that our Sky TV subscription includes everything BUT sports stations! 500 stations and not even EuroSport? I guess that means a trip to the local sports pub to catch up on all things Olympic. Know any good sports bars in the Jordaan?

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