Saturday, April 25, 2015

Pizza and Gelato, Please!

As you can tell from the title, this post is going to be all about the wonderful and delicious food of Italy, and it will be long, because I spent a lot of time researching and trying out the best cheap eats in this culinary capital. Since I consider myself a budget traveller, I always scout out the best places at the lowest prices. Rome has a lot of great, inexpensive eats! Though we didn't engage in any traditional Italian fine dining, with multiple courses and exquisite wine, I would say we definitely were able to eat our way through Rome!

I'll start with pizza, which are the ultimate affordable and filling quick bite in Italy. Pizza is to Italy what Souvlaki is to Greece, in my opinion.

Most neighborhoods will have small nondescript pizza shops, which still offer pizza that is quite superior to your average American pizza. The pizza is all laid out in a counter, in rectangular shapes, and you buy the pizza by the gram. There are a lot of different types of pizza, some without cheese, and with lots of vegetable options like potatoes, onions, and broccoli.

After you tell the person working behind the counter how much you want, they heat the slice up for you so that your pizza is warm and toasty. You can get a decently healthy meal (like this pizza below with tomatoes and bell peppers) for about $5 USD. 

When we were in a hurry we would usually go to the nearest small pizza place, but of course I also wanted to try the best that Rome has to offer. I found that generally the difference between the top pizza shops and the average shops is that the ingredients are more fresh and higher quality, the crust is crispy and light, and the people are friendly and more adept at helping tourists.

We went to several shops that were rated highly on Tripadvisor. One of the first that we tried is called Zizi's Pizza. It is a decent family-owned joint, with a great variety of pizzas. We tried one with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto, and one with broccoli and spinach. I noticed that in Italy, cheese is merely one type of topping on pizza, unlike in the United States, where pizza is nearly always smothered in melted cheese.

The best pizza, hands down, is at Pinsere, a few blocks from the main train station. When I was there, it was rated #2 on Tripadvisor out of about 9,000 restaurants in Rome, which is incredible! If you are in Rome, you've gotta gotta gotta go here! It fully lives up to it's hype.

The place is tiny, and there is only a bit of counter space inside and outside where you can stand and eat. Don't let that deter you - the pizza here is out of this world delicious. The pizza comes in all sorts of creative varieties, in personal pan sizes. The pizza on the counter is partially cooked, and then after you order it is heated in a big oven. On the side, through glass, you can see the workers busily working with fresh dough.

There are all sorts of options, with fresh sliced meats and cheese, vegetables, and even one with nuts and pears. I believe there is a vegan option as well. Each pizza easily feeds one person and is $5-6. 

Below is the two pizzas we chose to split - a potato and onion one, and a ham and cheese one. After it's done baking to perfection, it is drizzled lightly with truffle oil. Yum! After all this talk, you probably won't believe that I'm actually not a huge pizza fan in my normal life, but I will never forget the pizza from Pinsere. Trust me, it's worth a slight detour from your itinerary.

Another way to save money is to cook a few meals yourself if you have kitchen access. I bought and cooked most breakfasts. Usually, I would make some time to run to a local fruit mart or grocery and buy some eggs, cheese, and tomatoes. It's affordable, quick, and healthy!

You can use the money you save on breakfast to buy coffee...and gelato of course! I had gelato almost every afternoon. When in Rome... right? I couldn't help it - there are so many quality, artisanal gelato shops with delectable flavors (Nutella, yogurt, pistachio, rum and raisin....the list goes on).

One famous institution is called Giolliti, and it has been open since 1890. I read somewhere that it is Italy's oldest ice cream shop. It was insanely crowded, packed with tourist groups and school kids, but we managed to fight through to get our gelato! There are dozens of flavors projected on screens above on the walls.

Gelato is deliciously rich and creamy. I found that the chocolate flavors were usually solid, whereas some of the others were too sweet. The sign of good gelato is when the colors are muted and rich, rather than bright and artificial. It shows that the shop does not add additional colorings to the mix.

Lastly, another dessert that I enjoyed immensely is tiramisu. It's light, creamy, with a dusty of coffee - what's not to like? It usually comes in several flavors like original, pistachio, and hazelnut. 

A popular shop in Rome is called Pompi. It seems to mostly cater towards tourists, but I found it to be very light and tasty. You get a little box for about $4. 

Pistachio tiramisu is also delicious! This one below is from a great little shop in Venice called I Tre Mercanti. They make their tiramisu everyday in the shop, and also sell other specialty local products, like pastas, chocolates, and oils.

As you can, I definitely had my share of terrific eats in Italy (and this is not even mentioning the pastas and panini). These daily indulgences were balanced out by miles and miles of walking. I'm not sure I can ever fully enjoy pizza and ice cream here in the states again.

Roman Holiday

Rome was our first stop in Italy, and let me tell you, it is an absolutely marvelous and not at all overrated destination, in my opinion. Though we spent nine full days there, I felt like there was still so much left to see.

Rome is simply grand. The streets are wide and the buildings are tall and majestic. Almost every building is an architectural masterpiece – every avenue brings a new surprise, a new draw. There are almost 2000 rated attractions on TripAdvisor (Basilicas, cathedrals, fountains, piazzas!), and even the lower rated ones, like churches in non-tourist populated areas, are surprisingly hidden gems.

It's such a fascinating city that covers a wide array of adjectives: romantic, mysterious, historical, artistic. There are many faces of Rome, from the stunning Colosseum, talented street performers, awe-inspiring cathedrals, delicious gelato shops, hidden alleyways...

Rome is just so classically gorgeous. Perhaps during the summertime, when the tourists arrive in hoards and the weather is humid and hot, it is a less pleasant experience, but I really had a good time exploring the city and all of its neighborhoods and nooks and crannies.

It's a city that has something for every type of traveller, whether you are interested in ancient history, religion, Italian leather, gourmet food, or architecture.

One of the disadvantages of the city is that public transport is not the best - buses run most places but the metro only has two lines that don't extend into some of the popular areas. The good thing is that Rome is fascinating to walk around, and you can discover so much by just wandering around, so if you have time you won't need to take the metro as often as you think.

Another general fact: there are so many churches! Each one is more stunning and elaborate than the next. The most well-known ones are St. Peter's (in the Vatican) and San Giovanni in Laterano, but there are countless others, all magnificent and breath-taking, even if you are not religious. A person well-versed in religion and art would probably find these places extremely fascinating and rich in history.

There will be a few upcoming posts about specific sites in Rome that I recommend, as well as one on Italian food (hint: it's wonderful!), and then I'll move on to other places in Italy that I visited on this trip. I'm really excited to share all of my experiences and photos, so stay tuned! 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Monasteries in the Sky

Meteora is such a special place in Greece, and I've never seen anything like in elsewhere in the world. These are a group of centuries-old monasteries perched atop of steep cliffs in the Greek countryside. In the olden days, the monasteries were so secluded and difficult to reach, and the monks had to pull themselves up with rope. Thankfully, there are now carved footpaths and roads that lead up to these wonders.

This is a bit of a more information-heavy post, since I think some of the logistical knowledge is useful both for casual readers who want to get an idea of what Meteora is like, and also those who might be planning on making the trip.

We spent three days here in the last leg of our trip in Greece. There are a few nearby towns to stay in for climbing up to the monasteries. Kastraki and Kalambaka are the two towns directly beneath the mountains, whereas Trikala is about 10 kilometers away and is somewhat of a larger town. You can probably find less touristy and cheaper accommodations in Trikala (as we did), but the commute will be longer, which you should factor into your climbing schedule.

Here is some more logistical info which you can skip unless you plan on making a trip (which you should!). There are six monasteries in total. They have different opening hours depending on the day and the season, and your hotel or hostel should have that information for you.. You can drive up nearly to the top of the monasteries, and merely climb a few stone steps, or you can take the more difficult route and hike up from the base of the mountains from either Kalambaka or Kastraki. The entrances to the paths are a bit hard to find, so you probably will need to ask a local. Once you are on the path, it is fairly easy to follow it all as it winds up through mountain passes. The signage is pretty clear too. It’s a bit difficult in the winter season because there can be snow and ice on the paths.

On the two days of climbing, we decided to do the hike from the bottom of the hill, both for the full experience and because we did not have access to a car. As an inexperienced hiker and moderately fit person, I would say that the climbs are doable, and not extremely difficult in any particular places, but these are day-long excursions and you are constantly hiking, walking, or climbing up steps, so it's something you should prepare for with proper clothing, food, and water. We brought a loaf of fresh bread and some cheese from the town below, which turned out to be excellent hiking fuel! 

We split our adventure into two days in order to fully explore the different monasteries, since they are located on separate parts of cliffs and some are quite difficult to reach or at least take a good amount of time to walk. Unfortunately, some of them were closed or under renovation while we were visiting, but at least we got to see the outside of all six monasteries. 

Now, these are functioning monasteries with monks and nuns, as opposed to old ruins. This makes the visits more interesting in my opinion, but there are also more rules that visitors have to follow in order to enter. 

If you are a female, you will need to put on a long wrap to cover your legs at the entrance to each monastery. There is an admissions fee of 3 euros for each but sometimes if it is almost closing the person at the front will let you in for a quick visit for free. Interestingly enough, there are gift shops that sell homemade soaps, wine, religious icons, and postcards. I bought a jar of delicious fig marmalade and a little bar of olive oil and honey soap.

The views out from the cliffs were stunning, and the rock formations were like something from out of this world. I still get chills thinking about how some monks in the ninth century found these cliffs and decided to live a secluded and ascetic lifestyle atop them. That degree of religious devotion is unbelievable. 

On the second day we visited the Grand Meteora, the largest of the sixth monasteries. It's the central attraction, and the was the only one where I saw larger tour groups. This monastery was a large complex with a chapel, museum, and some rooms that were preserved to look like they did in the past.

There was one strange little room full of skulls, which you could see through a little window in the door.

We weren't allowed to take photos inside the churches of any of the monasteries, but they were so ornately decorated and full of religious artwork. There was a devout, solemn, and spiritual air throughout the whole space.

Hiking up to these monasteries was a really tiring but unforgettable experience. We were deciding between spending a few days here or flying out the one of the Greek islands, but ultimately decided that late February was hiking weather more so than beach weather. If you are in Greece, don't miss out on Meteora!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Nafplio, Greece

We didn't have too much time in Athens, but we wanted to make a day trip out to visit a small coastal town, especially since we were not going to be able to squeeze a Greek island into our itinerary. The consensus from friends and online sources was to visit Nafplio, a picturesque coastal town two hours from Athens that combines small town charm and stunning natural beauty. 

There are daily buses that go between a bus terminal in Athens and the town of Nafplio. We were lucky to get there on a beautiful and clear day at the end of February, at a lull in the tourist season. 

Everything about this little town was absolutely gorgeous. I wanted to explore all the narrow alleys and local shops. The buildings were painted in such vibrant, bright colors that appeal to the eye and create a stunning contrast with the cerulean sky.  

The town is fairly small, bordered by coast on two sides and a mountain with a fortress on the third side. With about a ten minutes leisurely walk, we made it to the sea. I don't think I have seen such brilliantly blue waters in my life before. If it had been warmer, I might have been tempted to jump in!

The town is mostly pedestrian, and is full of small businesses owned by the locals. Though the town is largely supported by the travel industry, it didn't feel too contrived or touristy. I'm not sure if this was because it was the low season, or perhaps I was just so enchanted by the charm that I couldn't tell the difference.

Some of these little street facades looked straight out of a movie or theater set! They were so perfect, with the delicate flowers spilling out of iron balconies, bright shutters, clothes neatly hanging out to dry, and lovingly hand-painted signs. Nafplio definitely knows how to showcase that classic small town charm.

If you go to the harbor and around, you will find a path that leads around the curve of the town to the sea. I highly recommend that you walk this path - ask any local and they'll be able to point you to this seaside walk. We were lucky - at this time of day and of the year, there was no one in sight. I felt like I had this entire stunning landscape all to myself.

Once you get around a corner, you'll be able to see Palamidi Fort on top of the mountain. There is a footpath up to the fort, which we obviously had to climb to see the views of the town from above.

We had a bit of trouble getting up to the fort. There is a 20-30 minute climb on stone steps that leads to the top from the bottom of the hill, but there was a sign that said the path was closed. After confirming with some locals, we learned that it was actually okay to climb, but the fort itself was closed.

It's not too difficult of a climb, just a ton of steps. The good thing is that there are beautiful views all the way up, so you can feel free to take a rest break whenever and admire. 

Nafplio is a great way to both see a small town and the coast. It's wonderfully charming, highly walkable, and such a nice break from the big city of Athens. I definitely would recommend a day there to walk around the town center, the coast, and climb up to the fort if you are up for a bit of exercise. I'm sure it gets busier during the nicer parts of the year, but then again more of the businesses and restaurants might be open; it's always a trade-off!  

I'm pretty sure I said at several points of the day that I would love to live here. Who wouldn't want to see these beautiful views and breathe in this crisp ocean air on their daily morning walk? Well, one can dream...

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Acropolis and Agora

The main historical site in Athens is the Acropolis, several ancient buildings preserved upon a tall hill in the center of the city. Some of these buildings date back to the 5th century B.C., so it is incredible to walk amongst the ruins and imagine what the scene would have looked like so long ago. 

There is an admission fee to gain access to the hill. We got a unified pass, which allowed entrance to multiple historic sites for 12 euros over 4 days. If you are interested in the specific archaeological details of the Acropolis, you should visit the Acropolis Museum, located at the base of the hill. The museum is extremely well-curated and actually stands atop of some old ruins, which you can see through parts of the floor made of glass. 

As we made our way up to the Parthenon at the top of the Acropolis, we passed by this beautiful site called the Theater of Dionysus. It was lovely to see the city extending out in the background beyond the ruins.

At the top of the hill lay the Parthenon. It was undergoing some renovation, which is to be expected in the low tourist season, but at least there were not crowds of people everywhere. That's the trade-off for coming in the winter. 

There was a big gate, or propylaia, at the western entrance to the top. 

The Parthenon itself was enormous. It was amazing to go and look at the intricate construction of the massive columns, so heavy yet seemingly so delicately built at the same time. This temple dates back to around 400 B.C., so it obviously has weathered relatively well. 

Just at the base of the Acropolis is a large, sloping area called the Agora, which contains the ruins of the center of life in ancient Athens. Here were the libraries, businesses, offices, and courts that the Athenians used on a daily basis.

The Agora was in use for over a thousand years, so there are so many layers of history here that are difficult for a casual visitor like me to understand. I liked that visitors were allowed to roam around the area at our leisure, and even stray off the path if we wanted to. There were even people sitting on some old stones and having a picnic!  

The Agora is quite large, with several buildings and temples to see, so it would be wise to dedicate at least 1-2 hours to roam the place. Fortunately for us, it was a beautiful and sunny day, perfect for exploring this ancient site.

Seeing both the Acropolis and the Agora in one day is possible, but I would recommend splitting up the trip into two days in order to fully appreciate each site without getting tired out. Right outside the Acropolis is the lovely neighborhood of Monastiraki, with lots of shops and a big flea market on Sundays, if you need to take a break from looking at all these ancient sites!