we pulled into a gravel lot adjoining a bed & breakfast in the small town of chianti in the region of tuscany just as dusk was setting in. we had rented a car in florence and i had eagerly taken to the narrow, winding roads of the italian countryside, whipping our tiny black fiat to and fro, this way and that, far exceeding the speed limits and making my copilot, dave, nervous on more than one occasion. periodically i would feel guilty, but those feelings usually only lasted as long as the next adrenaline rush.
we checked into the bed and breakfast, a charmingly decorated place called the hotel salivolpi. it had a style i could never replicate in my own home even if i had stolen all the furniture and accoutrements straight from the lobby. the woman operating the place appeared to be the owner/operator, and she had a kind but direct and efficient manner about her. i inquired if anyone else happened to be staying at the b&b, aware that it was christmastime, and was semi-disappointed when she informed us there was only one other couple, newlyweds, at the inn. i then laughed to myself when i began to pick up on the fact that she believed that dave and i were some sort of granola-y, bearded gay couple looking for a romantic getaway in quiet tuscany. this amused me, and i did nothing to dispel her assumptions. i don’t think dave had picked up on it, but once we got settled into the single-king-bed room that we were sharing, i told him and we had a good laugh over it. Continue reading sleepwalking from tuscany to rome→
martín had departed and i had strayed away from madrid and down into the marvelous countryside of andalusia. i wasn’t sure what exactly i would be doing but i had 5 days before i needed to be in morocco and i didn’t want to spend that whole time in madrid. just a couple hours on the train rushing by the rolling hillsides and golden fields had been sufficient proof that i had made the right decision, and i knew i was headed where the music was playing.
i pulled into seville and had a brief wander through the confusing streets before locating perhaps the best hostel i would end up staying at my entire trip, a place called “la banda rooftop hostel.” run by four brits who had long been friends and had a dream of running a hostel in a spanish speaking country, i could see almost immediately that they had created one of the best cultures i had ever seen, not just in a hostel, but even amongst work environments. these guys loved what they did, and people loved being there.
after i got settled in, i went up to the rooftop. since it was in the title of the place, i wanted to see what all the fuss was about. what i found was a wonderfully quaint terrace with a modest view of the cathedral and a small garden that lined the railings. it was a perfect place to relax, and there were a few guests who were doing just that, spread out among the patio furniture, reading books or typing away on laptops. i sat down amongst them and tried to soak in a little of the sun’s warmth. a minute later a young man sitting next to me struck up a friendly conversation. he had long black hair, covered up by an aged worn bowler cap, a la old 1930s america. he had sunglasses on and was slightly unshaven, and had an old troubadour look about him that seemed to suggest he liked stories, whether reading about them or experiencing them. either way was fine by me, and i decided he had an old-fashioned kind of bob dylan look about him, which made me snicker and say to myself “of course!” when he introduced himself as dylan only a few seconds later. dylan was from vermont and he had never traveled extensively before, but had always wanted to go to spain, so he had booked a flight for two weeks in spain with no reservations and had skipped down to seville only two days before. he filled me in a little on the area around us and suggested a few favorites before i left him, making plans to meet up again that night.
i went back down into the lobby and conferred with tom, one of the la banda founders. i expressed to him that there were only two important things i needed to experience in seville: good local-style tapas, and flamenco. tom dutifully pulled out a map and started marking spots for me to try out, while i tried intensely to pay attention, knowing all bets were off once i left the hostel and was lost wandering the streets of old sevilla by myself.
when tom was finished marking everything all over the map, i set out into the streets and started to get a feel for sevilla as i popped in and out of four or five different tapas locations, sampling all manner of different dishes and wines. my favorite of all these places was the last place i stopped, in a little spot called “la bodega de santa cruz,” located just up the road from the cathedral of sevilla. in an unassuming and unfancy building on the corner of the cobblestone road, the place was bustling with life as patrons stood packed around tables and the bar, nursing their wines and beers and hungrily devouring their small plates of delicious fare and talking and laughing loudly while the aromas wafted alluringly above the crowd and out into the streets, attracting people in droves. this place was a party, and i had arrived just in time. i shouldered my way up to the bar and waited patiently for someone to make eye contact with me.
the next day sam & jenna were heading out to france for a little weekend getaway. my time in amsterdam was coming to a close. this was also the end of the scheduled part of my journey. my theory at this point had been to head to germany and then just go from there, but i had made no arrangements and had no real plan of what to do. i had previously reached out to another old college friend named daniela who has been living just outside of hamburg, germany and asked if she’d be interested in meeting up, and she had unexpectedly and excitedly agreed, but the timing wasn’t working out, so I had to make some decisions. It had entered my mind that I could easily jump to paris for a few days and then continue on to germany to meet daniela for a time that would align more easily with her schedule, and the more i thought of it, it just made sense.
i delayed on booking anything, mainly because i wasn’t entirely sure what I actually wanted to do. I had really enjoyed Amsterdam and honestly didn’t want it to be over yet, and sam and jenna had even graciously offered to let me stay in their flat while they were out of town, but i felt sort of awkward accepting someone’s hospitality in their absence. esther-hanna had all but sold me on joining on one of her street food tours of amsterdam, but i was still struggling with the timing, especially if i was going to paris, i wanted to make sure i would be giving paris enough time to appreciate. but then something great happened.
mark, from the expat gathering a few posts before, reached out to me via email and asked if i wanted to hang out over the weekend. I had had such a great time with him previously that it was too good to pass up. i could do the food tour with esther-hanna’s company, Hungry Birds, and then I could hang out with mark the following day. I informed sam & jenna I’d be staying on for another day or two in their absence.
i will spare all the details of the food tour, lest i give up the trade secrets that Hungry Birds has to offer, but if you are planning on visiting amsterdam for any amount of time in the future, i heartily recommend this afternoon food tour (http://www.hungrybirds.nl). it’s about 4 hours long, and starts near the famed albert cuyp market near downtown. we sampled all manner of foods that I had never had the privilege of trying, and the flavors wandered from the spicy to the deliciously sweet, with even some good salty treats thrown in. some of my favorite highlights include sampling the national dish of the dutch, raw herring (definitely not something I would have ever eaten on my own, and also definitely not for the faint of heart. Think of sushi, but without all the window dressing of a roll, and a little more than your basic sashimi. it’s also salty. Do yourself a favor and force yourself to try it!), as well as a fantastic little cookie shop with fresh-out-of-the-oven treats right as we walked in. i also loved the tasty fried snacks “bitterballen” and “kroket.” these things are addictive, and the perfect compliment to a beer while watching the game. i would get fat eating these things if i lived here. but the best of the event was wandering back through an old
antique shop into the back courtyard where the owner served us an authentic private indonesian meal surrounded by a small flower garden. trying getting that experience on your own.
esther-hanna expertly and enthusiastically led us through at least 9 or 10 different destinations with delightful treats at each stop, and by the end of the tour there wasn’t an empty stomach. She brought a personal touch to the tour as well, as not only is she from Amsterdam, she’s also half Indonesian, so she had the background on many of the local spots and would share it with us while we enjoyed the eatables. She is also on a first name basis with all of the purveyors, so if they weren’t busy, the owner would often spend a little time with us to provide a friendly introduction or provide the backstory behind the business. It was both inspiring and charming.
the next day i met up with mark. i braved the bicycle lanes again to ride across town to mark and marije’s flat. a couple other friends of theirs (and sam & jenna’s, of course) were already there: charl and kim. we quickly fell into the same agreeable and fun-loving pace of conversation that had been everpresent in the dinner party the weekend before. charl and kim were also from south Africa (i’m beginning to wonder how many south africans live in amsterdam at this point), and both have a very fun and intelligent nature to them. charl is a very smart guy with a well-informed wit to him and a light sarcasm that is far from lost on me. if i remember correctly, i believe he runs his own dentistry practice, and also is apparently a very talented baker, though i never got to sample any of his confections. meanwhile, kim has a sweet smile and a gentle nature about her. she’s one of those people you can tell just doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body, and when someone is talking, she’s listening. i was immediately comfortable with them both.
that night we had a little barbecue up on the roof of mark & marije’s flat. some tasty burgers mark had prepared, as well as some delicious side dishes that marije had whipped up, we ate well and then the boys again retreated back to the rooftop for mini cigars and whiskey. we talked for awhile about all manner of things, as guys drinking whiskey and smoking cigars are known to do, the topics straying from science, sport, government, and obviously the differences in culture within all these topics.
one really cool thing we talked about was wine. i’ve always loved wine, but I’ve never known much officially about regions or aging, or specific grapes or processes, etc. i just know what i like. mark was a little more educated than I was on the subject and shared some of his knowledge, particularly with spanish wine, which is something i’ve always been curious about. i know a little about california and south america, as well as australia and new zealand, but the european wines are a little more daunting, so i’ve never ventured into those regions. mark had mentioned he knew a little about this because one of his companies was doing some work with a vineyard in the region of priorat with a pretty prestigious wine, so he necessarily learned a little about it both by preparation and exposure.
charl had just returned from a long trip to canada, so he was a little exhausted and ended up falling asleep. after mark and I joked briefly about messing with him a little, we did the respectful thing and layed a blanket on him so he wouldn’t catch a cold in the night air. then mark opened up a really nice bottle of wine from the vineyard in priorat he had been talking about and poured me a glass. I was shocked, but didn’t want to make a big deal out of it since he was offering (plus, i mean, i definitely wanted to try it). it was fantastic. i wish i could remember what it was, and if i am able to figure it out, i will update this post with the name. but suffice it to say that the wine was perfect for the occasion and mark and i stayed up til 4am finishing the bottle and going back and forth with funny stories and experiences of things we’ve learned. it was a great conversation, and i really valued it. mark is a wealth of old-world wisdom that you just can’t find in a book and you definitely won’t find it on a tv show or a facebook post. you have to go through things the hard way to get this kind of experience and wisdom, and i endlessly and curiously pestered him with questions about all kinds of things, seeking answers to what? i don’t know, but you don’t come across people like that very often and i refused to let the opportunity be wasted.
when all was said and done, mark offered me one of their guest bedrooms, as it was simply too late to try and find my way back to sam & jenna’s place. i graciously accepted.
the next day i was the last to rise. everyone was ready to go, but to where? i wasn’t sure. marije and kim hopped on bikes and disappeared, while mark, charl, and I got into a car and headed for the dutch countryside. we escaped amsterdam and sped down windy roads through green fields filled with happy cows, freely grazing without a care in the world. It was another beautiful day in the netherlands.
we eventually found our way to a really cool barn-like structure where a small market was called lindenhoff. the main room had farmers market quality vegetables everywhere. the back room was filled with designer cheeses and wines. And finally, the side room was a giant walk-in freezer room, where whole cow and pig carcasses had been butchered and prepared for sale. i’m not talking in such a fashion where you go to your grocery and see the packaged rib-eye cut in a cellophane parcel for you to take home. i mean, the animal’s body was hanging from a transparent, well lit locker. you point to what part of the animal you want to take home and feast on, and they cut that part off and prepare it and wrap it for to take home and feast. i felt like i was in a scene from Dexter, the show. this place was a lab and the butchers were all very friendly, excitable dutch people who expeditiously and efficiently used their massive torture instruments to expertly cut enormous pieces of choice meat for customers. mark looked at me and said “what should we get?”
i’m no expert on meat. but I can eat a steak. i pointed at the largest, reddest, best marbled cut I could see. It was easily enough steak for like 10 people. mark didn’t even hesitate, and neither did the quirky dutchman behind the counter with the massive blade of death in his hand.
That night we ate like royalty. corn on the cob, fresh vegetables, bread (europeans love bread. I can’t even try to describe it), good wine, and the biggest, juiciest, farm-fresh steak ever. i went to bed extremely happy, both for the food i had consumed and the company i’d had the pleasure of keeping over the last 48 hours. i could only pray that the next couple months could even be half as engaging as amsterdam had been. the next day I said goodbye to amsterdam and sam & jenna (after they returned from dijon, france), and hopped on a train bound for paris.
today’s song is stuck in my head and won’t get out. i blasted this at full volume a lot when i was driving in iceland, on multiple occasions i almost crashed because i was rocking out so hard. it’s an infectious electro dance beat from aussies “the griswolds,” and if this song is any indication of there talent, these guys could be in for a successful career. give a listen and i dare you to not dance. not possible. enjoy…