Cinque Terre

Aug. 17th – onwards to an Italian highlight for many vacationers, a tourist destination that neither of us had ever been to before! We chose to keep La Spezia as our base, and just travel to the ‘Five Lands’ by train at will. Instead of starting straight away to hit Cinque Terre, we asked our excellent host what she recommended about the area, the best way to get around, what activities to do locally. She pointed out some posted schedules and maps for the bus and boats and train, and then left us to get settled. She came back shortly afterwards to show us a newspaper clipping with an evening photograph of some lights at night festival — Festa della Madonna Bianca in Portovenere. Apparently it was happening THAT evening! There was either a bus or ferry boat to that town (not one of the Cinque Terre), so we decided to go with the €10 ferryboat (getting a special ‘night’ ticket for a return only after 10pm — we found out later, so we got a gelato while we waited ;). By taking the ferry boat, we would be able to see the coastline views along the way. We decided to save Aug. 18th all day for Cinque Terre — best decision we made on the trip. So worth it!

La Spezia and Portovenere:

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Tip #1 – Don’t buy your Cinque Terre pass the morning of your travels! There will be a freaking long line! That was annoying, but eventually we embarked on the train, and had enough time to see all five towns. And worth buying the ticket, because we did get checked by a train conductor at one point. Also a gypsy woman’s child tried to pickpocket inside my handbag when we tried to get back on the train in Riomaggiore — so keep your eye/hand on your valuables in crowded touristy areas.

Tip #2 – Check which hiking trails are open between villages. Weather conditions change the trail closures (and they aren’t as well maintained as you would think considering how famous they are. O Italy.) We were only able to do the two trails that were open, those between Monterosso-Vernazza, and Vernazza-Corniglia. We took the train to the end after checking out the first two villages (Riomaggiore and Manarola) and hiked backwards (southeast) towards La Spezia, so we could end in Corniglia and have dinner there.

In Vernazza, we took a well-deserved break from hiking to rent a canoe (€5/hour/person) and use our arms instead. Tip #2.5 – If you do this, wear your bathing suit, and pack plenty of water and sunscreen (you need both for the hike anyway!).

Tip #3 – When tired/hot/sore, have a glass of wine with your next meal. Does wonders for smoothing over rough edges in every friendship. Trust me.

best lunch: Osteria Da Bartali (Via del Torretto, 64/66, 19121 La Spezia SP, Italy). This might have been one of the best meals we had in Italy. Amber had been dying to order seafood up till this point. We ordered the frutti di mare pasta for our primo, then grilled octopus with olives and stuffed mussels for our secondi. ★★★★★ The focaccia in the bread basket was extra good. The spaghetti with mussels and clams was so fresh and creamy — it tasted like the sea. I love pasta, but my favorite dish turned out to be the stuffed mussels, which were amazing — they tasted like fatty meatballs with a fantastic tomato sauce.  All in all, lovingly made and deliciously flavored, and fresh fresh fresh! Only complaint: if you don’t speak Italian, service treated you second-class. We had to wait extra-long for our table, water and bread, menus, and dishes. Italians who arrived after us were served and gone before us, and this is one of the Slow Food nations.

best dinner: Il Buongustaio Cucina Casalinga (Via Fieschi, 164, 19018 Corniglia SP, Italy). Surprisingly delightful to sit indoors, because the view overlooked the sunset over the sea, bordered by the hillside vineyards of Corniglia. Of course we continued to order seafood, being on the coast, and had the mixed seafood risotto to share, which turned out to be plenty big and excellent. And we indulged in the dessert, a traditional sweet dessert wine (Sciacchetrà) that you dip biscotti (cantuccini) in. We picked this village to dine in out of the five villages, because it was noted as being the least touristy. This unfortunately meant the evening train we had planned to take back home didn’t stop there… but that’s what e-books are for.

Cinque Terre:

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Finally, a couple of panoramas Amber took of me:


The water access of Riomaggiore


Riomaggiore has bird murals along this walk




August 16th – Next stop was the cute little town of Lucca. You can get there from Pisa by bus or train. We took the train for ease, but it was pretty cute too. We missed our train at Pisa S.Rossore by a minute, so we wandered the touristy area outside the Field of Miracles, which was the least fun part. I picked up bug spray and an anti-itch treatment — Italian mosquitoes are the worst, particularly the tiger mosquito (Stegomyia albopicta), which you can’t see, hear, or feel. A handful of African street sellers ran from the local Italian policewoman, but returned to hawking watches and sunglasses after she had moved on. We were starving, so we succumbed to the allures of an Indian stall (weirdly called Halal Food, Via Cammeo Carlo Salomone, 14). We ordered two chai masala and split one samosa. They all were surprisingly better than expected, and we should know — Amber has even been to India. The chai were served in thin white plastic cups that needed a double layer, they were so hot we thought the tea would melt the plastic. Satisfied, we then boarded the train to Lucca.

After we walked ages to our ghetto-looking inn (“just” outside the city walls), we dropped off our things, showered, and ate an awesome Italian lunch. Refreshed, we went to the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro expecting to see more remnants of a Roman amphitheatre. But instead it’s just a perfect oval plaza, now completely turned into a charming space, lined with nicely maintained windows and balconies of homes and cafes.

The special thing about Lucca is that it is an entirely walled city, and you can walk/bike around the inside of this raised wall. It’s quite spacious. The wall interior was a cool place to bike (Rick Steves estimated it takes 30 min. total), but my favorite place to bike inside Lucca was along these narrow canals that were very well-paved. Big cobblestones do not make for smooth sailing on a rental bike. We had an hour rental for €3 per bike – well worth it.

There was also an art exhibit happening around the town — the most moving I found to be “Hoodie” which was done by an American. I took a selfie with it while Amber got a closer look. We had higher expectations from our dinner based on the reviews, but then our waiter recommended the gnocchi (which was good) and his favorite dish, the meatballs (which was more like a dry falafel ball than anything close to the real Italian meatballs I’ve had). After our early dinner though, we were glad to retreat back to our sketch, but clean, apartment.

best lunch: Osteria Baralla (Via Anfiteatro, 5, Lucca LU, Italy). We tried the farro stew noted in Lucca cuisine although it looked like a basic taro-colored bean soup, for our antipasto. Then we had a classic ravioli with bolognese sauce for the primo, the stewed rabbit for the secundo. Naturally we were too full to have dessert! This place was really good though. Highly recommend.

best gelato: Gelateria Momo (Via della Fratta, 11, 55100 Lucca LU, Italy). We needed a sit-down break after biking, and this was pretty nice.

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August 15th – We jumped next to Pisa, because of the Leaning Tower (Torre pendente di Pisa) and its proximity to Florence — easy travel. The Field of Miracles (Campo dei Miracoli) was packed. I felt like such a tourist, but Amber insisted we max out the photo opportunity with as many different poses as we could think of before the heat drove us into the shade. Amber was never afraid to pull out her “Asian grandma” umbrella, to shield us from the sun’s rays. There are four great religious edifices in that walled-in plaza: the Cathedral, the Baptistry, the Campanile (the bell tower), and the Monumental Cemetery.


A lot of businesses were closed in August, so half the places we walked to would end up just being exercise (not a bad idea, burning off all the carbohydrates). But oh, what carbs! One cool foodie discovery: Farinata di ceci (or as I learned it, cecìna), a flattened, fried chickpea food of deliciousness. We couldn’t find it this time, but I had included a photo from a previous visit. I also posted a springtime photo I took of the edible flower buds of the caper bush (caper berries are the ones we usually see garnishing a dish). This visit, I could not find the statue of the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, the twins who were abandoned and would grow to fight over the founding of Rome (you can tell who won by the name).

Best dessert: gelato and granita at Gelateria De’ Coltelli (Lungarno Antonio Pacinotti, 23, 56100 Pisa PI, Italy). Granita is semi-frozen dessert made from sugar, water and fruit flavorings, and tastes like a delicious, fresh slush Italian ice. Mine had Myrtle berry skins in it!

Best dinner: Osteria San Paolo (Via S. Paolo, 16, 56100 Pisa PI, Italy). A bit fancy, just south of the Arno river, but the wild boar stew with polenta was so tasty, and the ravioli hit just the right spot pasta-wise. We both ordered dessert but the winner was clearly the orange ricotta cake.

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The river Arno

One panorama: Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, with a Cosimo I Medici statue in front, standing in the Piazza dei Cavalieri, where the first Medici palace stood.




So for half the month of August, I was not posting because I was traveling. Here, I present my photos of food, history, art, architecture, and more.

August 13th – I flew in, and did a little evening shopping, dining, and walking while waiting for Amber, who explored Copenhagen on her layover. Breakfast of the champions? A cappuccino and a cream-filled croissant. Food is such a big feature for us when traveling in Italy, so I indulged in a black truffle pasta. I also love prosciutto, scamorza, mortadella, and stracchino.

We listened to Rick Steves’ Renaissance Walk and Uffizi Gallery audio tour guides, and as always it was both fascinating and enlightening. Many parts of the Uffizi were under renovation (the typical state of things). Did you know there’s a statue of the Duomo’s architect (inventor!), Brunelleschi, south of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore/Il Duomo di Firenze, gazing up at his Cupola masterpiece? He completed the architectural wonder in 1436. We lucked out on the morning we were running for our Uffizi ticket (reservation has a specific time window!), because the Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni) doors were randomly open, and the inside was like gazing upon a golden-walled marvel. Lorenzo Ghiberti created the best bronze relief doors on the octagonal Baptistry.


Inside the Baptistry


I really enjoy the statues of the Italian great inventors, scientists, and philosophers that lined the inner court of the Uffizi. The Birth of Venus (Nascita di Venere) by Botticelli, painted in the 1480s, is arguably the single most famous painting in that “offices” gallery. But my favorite is the painted bird ceiling of one room:


Best lunch: handmade panino at Panini Toscani (Piazza del Duomo, 34R, 50122 Firenze). You get to sample three or four different meats and cheeses before picking which will go on your sandwich (olive, walnut, or plain focaccia), along with three or four toppings (e.g. fresh arugula, grilled peppers, marinated eggplant, dried tomatoes, etc.) SandwiChic for honorable mention.

Best dinner: porcini tagliatelle at Gustoleo (Via del Proconsolo, 8, 50122 Firenze, Italy). Such great aroma and flavor, plus delectable fresh handmade pasta.

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And here are the panoramas, to better appreciate such a view, and the perfect weather we had in Italy. This was taken from the Piazzale Michelangelo, which my college friends also went to ten years ago for a senior spring break (incidentally, we ate at Gustoleo ten years ago!). You can see the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno river, the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, and more. I was exhausted climbing up to this lookout point, but my travel buddy, Amber, insisted. She took a nap while I re-hydrated at a life-saving water fountain on the way (N.B. public water fountains in Italy are amazing; I was sad to find them scarce in France!)



Berry cheesecake galette

Adapted from smitten kitchen

1 pâte brisée (a pastry dough)

125 g blackberries (I used strawberries)
250 g creme fraiche (cream cheese might be preferable)
8 spoonfuls of granulated sugar (feel free to use less)
1 spoonful cornstarch
1 large egg + 1 egg white, lightly beaten
Juice of half a lemon/lime
Pinch of salt
A few scrapings zest from 1/4 lime
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Egg Wash
1 egg yolk, beaten with a splash of water
1 spoonful of turbinado or coarse sugar for sprinkling
1 spoonful chopped pistachios (optional)


IMG_20160923_205209.jpgPreheat the oven to 175°C. Butter a round baking pan.

In a small bowl, mix the berries, 1 spoonful of sugar, citrus, and cornstarch; stir to combine, set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese with the eggs until fluffy. Beat in 7 spoonfuls of sugar, citrus zest, vanilla, salt.

Carefully drape the pastry dough in the prepared pan, letting the edges hang over the sides. Pour in cream cheese batter, then spoon the berry mixture over. Lightly swirl them together. Gently pinch the dough edges into loose creases and loosely lay the creases down over the filling; repeat all around.

Lightly brush egg wash around the edges of the dough. Sprinkle generously with sanding sugar and nuts. Bake until golden brown, 35 minutes. Cool completely, and store in the refrigerator before serving.


Bun Chay

Bún Chay (Vietnamese Noodle Salad). Adapted from smitten kitchen and Cooking with a Wallflower

4-8 ounces dried rice sticks or vermicelli
12-18 large shrimp
peanut oil

1 lime, the juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
6 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons water
4 cloves garlic, minced
ginger, finely grated
6 tablespoons natural unsalted peanut butter
Chili pepper/chili paste, miso, Asian fish sauce, mirin (rice vinegar, if you can find it)

mixed greens
1 small carrot, thinly sliced
2 small cucumbers, thinly sliced
handful of mixed herbs, coarsely chopped or torn (basil, mint, cilantro)

2 tablespoons peanuts, roasted and chopped
Small Thai or Serrano chiles, thinly sliced, to taste
toasted sesame oil
Lime wedges (to serve)

Make the dipping sauce: Whisk ingredients in a small serving bowl, dissolve the sugar. Leave for 15 minutes. Refrigerate extras and use within a few days.

Cook the noodles: Bring a large pot of water to the boil, then turn off the heat. Add the rice vermicelli and soak for 7 to 8 minutes. (Package directions may vary; check for doneness by tasting.) Drain when noodles are al dente, and cool under running water. Fluff and leave in strainer to drain well.

Toss vegetables with 1 spoon dipping sauce in a small bowl. Divide the cooked noodles among 4 – 6 bowls. Top each bowl equally with vegetable mixture and chopped marinated protein. Toss each bowl with 2 teaspoons of each the dipping sauce and dressing, or more to taste. Add the herbs, peanuts and scallions to each bowl and serve with additional dressing and dipping sauce on the side.

What I have learned about Germany

Let’s start with an amusing liberal 5 minute German video in English (some NSFW language):

Now that that has realigned your impressions of Germans… =)

I have been told that the north and south differ significantly, but this is not unlike other countries around the world, including the U.S. (P.S. Berliners and Bavarians aren’t “German” either.) Roughly speaking, southern Germans are more likely to be Catholic, conservative, and have a distinct dialect and/or accent. Northern Germany is more Protestant and liberal, and speak closer to what “Hochdeutsch” is meant to be (the ideal German is spoken from the region around Köln). After four years of living in Baden-Württemberg, I have noted the following cultural quirks about southern Germans:

  1. Big Sunday brunch — breads, spreads, etc.
  2. Have insurance — health, auto, personal liability, apartment contents, etc.
  3. Outdoor clothing — my kind of fashion!
  4. The outdoors (sailing, swimming, kayaking, hiking, biking, climbing, etc…)
  5. Respect the academic degree. 🙂
  6. Carbonate their beverages — water, wine, juice, etc.
  7. Open a beer bottle with anything but a bottle opener. 😛
  8. Punctuality and efficiency (celebrate the Deutsche Bahn, Autobahn).
  9. Bureaucracy — paper, paper, paper.
  10. Environmental (pretty clean, elaborate garbage rules, renewable energy sources).
  11. Love the car — clean it, tune it up, buy German.
  12. They’ve never seen “The Sound of Music”.
  13. They’re reserved, not cold. There’s a difference.
  14. Nudity is ok.
  15. Closed on Sundays. Everything. Sunday is for resting, except for the…
  16. Sunday walk. Exercise is healthy. If the sun shines, Germans are outside.
  17. Hate Bavaria, unless you’re Bavarian. They’re the richest state, responsible for Oktoberfest, and they greet with “Gott”.

As the stereotype goes, the main cuisine consists of: beer, bread, sausages, sauerkraut, and döner kebab. But the dairy and chocolate products here are excellent (although I find the chocolate pudding to be weak). Produce tends to be fresher and groceries stock more of what’s in season, there’s respect for locally-sourced foods (shop at your farmer’s markets and roadside stalls), and supermarkets label from where everything is produced.

The perfect quote to describe the people: “Serious people are funny in their need to be serious all the time” — Germans will self-critique endlessly, but do not like to be poked fun of by outsiders. It’s a pretty significant observation, along with that of Germans being non-friendly. They’re not the warmest, but if you need help, ask a German. Don’t imply, don’t wait for it, don’t assume anything — just ask. I was told this is out of a respect for not interfering in others’ business, and for everything to be perfectly clear and direct. Never assume!

Finally, I agree with Confessed Travelholic on the romance (or lack thereof) department. And finally, Berlin is my favorite city of all.