Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sicily, I thank you.

Sicily was by far my favorite part of Italy and, for that matter, or Europe. The people, food, and city are simply alive and beautiful. There are no pictures in this blog yet because I failed to steal the files from Berton. Therefore, it is infinitely less skim-friendly and seemingly even more long-winded than my other posts. I advise only the brave to continue :)

Berton and I began our adventure in Catania, a large city on south east coast of Sicily. Our bus from the airport happened to drop us off right outside the daily market, which gave us an awesome introduction to the city. We knew Catania had a sizeable market, but learned from locals that it is considered one of the best, if not the best, markets in the world. The simple amount of stands was incredibly impressive, encompassing multiple blocks. But there was also a great diversity and a high quality of product being sold.

Berton and I decided to make our lunch from the market. We grabbed a sesame bread, which ended up being one of my favorites of Europe, some delicious salami, real mozzarella, and bright red Sicilian tomatoes. We ate our lunch in the Duomo square. Duomo simply means the main Catholic church in Italy. Most cities have one and a pretty square to go along with it, usually with shops, restaurants, and always a few gelato joints. Fun place to people watch and attempt to blend in with the locals!

After lunch, we had about 8 hours to kill before we could head over to our host’s home. One perhaps more complicating factor of coushurfing is organizing the initial meet-up at the host’s residence. We gave our host a call when we got into Catania and learned he was out of town until the evening. However, with reassurance that he would send us his address, Berton and I simply found a hostel to store our bags for the day and began exploring. I don’t know if I was simply ecstatic to finally be in Italy, or if Catania was really as beautiful as I remember. Whatever the case, I’m going to make my reality the later because I have very fond memories of the city.

We stumbled across a beautiful park and then a friendly local who pointed on the map where we could get some good gelato, which was of course our main goal for our first day in Sicily. He sent us to find a really old joint that was obviously really popular with the locals, and for good reason. Gelato was not only good, but reasonably priced with cone-overflowing portions. The only bummer about Catania is that it lacks a beach accessible by foot. Berton and I began walking towards the general direction of the playa, but realized quickly that we weren’t going to be able to walk it. Instead we explored the city streets more and I, of course, began stressing about meeting up with our host that night. After failing to access free interent at McDonalds (warning in Italy you must be an Italian citizen to use the free WiFi there—no idea why), we hunted down an internet cafe. Ottavio, our host, had still failed to email an address, but Berton came up with the idea to just tell him to meet us at the Duomo statue at 8:15, which I thought was risky, but also rather smart.

We put our faith in the meet-up plan and focused on dinner. After a place we looked up online was still closed (didn’t open till 8pm!), a local advised us to go see Igor for Pizza. He kept saying “Igor, Igor” making a shrugging motion and pointing us down the street. When we stumbled across the place, instead of my expectation of a large man Igor at the front, there was a petite and very cute Italian women. They too, had yet to start making pizza yet, Sicilians truly eat the latest of anywhere I’ve been in Europe. She said it would only be a few minutes and proceeded to go yell at some young men in the back kitchen, who could only be her sons, to hurry up. You get to see the whole process of your pizza getting made; the stove oven and workspace are in the front of the shop—so fun! I wouldn’t say it was the best pizza of my life, but you could definitely taste how fresh the ingredients were, probably had been picked up at the market that morning.

As 8:15 rolled around and Berton and I were munching on our pizza in the Duomo square, we finally met our host Ottavio. We found out he was in a bit of a rush to get to his capoeira performance. Capoeira is a form of Brazilian dancing that imitates fighting, but is all about grace, music, community, and connection with nature. He said Berton and I could either tag along and watch, or we could relax at his house. We, of course, opted to join; when else were we going to be taken by a local to his capoeira performance in Sicily?

Funny enough it ended up being practice, not a performance—we had many little misunderstandings with the language barrier, but it was still really fun to watch. Afterward, we went for a drink with the group, giving us a real opportunity to mingle with locals.

The next day, Ottavio had work in the morning, but wanted to show us around in the afternoon. Berton and I were still rather exhausted from Malta, probably the ridiculous day hike of just a couple days before, so we decided to sleep in and make a late lunch from some market purchases. We found more delicious sesame bread, some eggs and ham, zucchini, and red onion. So good—I definitely wouldn’t mind just living in Catania and cooking from the market everyday!

When Ottavio got home, it was decided that Berton and I needed to have some Sicilian sweets. Ottavio treated us to canolli and this strange little green cake called casata, which Berton absolutely loved. If we weren’t sweeted out enough, he then insisted on taking us to try granita. Now, granite, contrary to popular belief, is NOT shaved ice. Even in the north of Italy, they do granita differently than in Sicily and, according to Ottavio, wrong. It instead is a creamier consistency, even though it lacks any dairy. It is iced based, but is incredibly flavorful. Usually you combine two flavors like coffee and almond or chocolate and pistachio and eat it with a brioche—a bready pastry. Now at first I was thrown off by the idea of eating it with a pastry, but once I gave it a try I completely understood. I found it humorous that granita and brioche are actually a common breakfast in Sicily in the summer—so envious! Definitely became one of our favorite treats in Europe.

At this point we were full and a bit tired, but Ottavio was a man of endless energy and insisted he take us to the beach. This time, with a car, the beach was easy to get to and the water was perfect for some swimming! We also got a short capoeira lesson from Ottavio on the beach. After the beach, we went to the train station to pick up one of Ottavio’s friends, a student from Germany who was studying in Sicily, and then all went to Ottavio’s favorite place for dinner. In Catania.

The restaurant was located on a street with tons of BBQ’s billowing with smoke on the sidewalk outside of countless family run restaurants. When we walked into Ottavio’s preferred place, everyone who worked at the restaurant, a big Sicilian family, came to say hello. Even the mom came out of the kitchen in her apron to give Ottavio a kiss on the cheek—such a beautiful community! The food was also just amazing.

First, we began with appetizers whch consisted of seemingly endless options sitting out on a table.. You could have as much as you wanted of whatever you wanted. There was, of course, endless bread and wine and then, the main course, a variety of meats. In Sicily donkey is actually a very popular meat and considered a local specialty, which Ottavio insisted we all try. We also had two different types of bacon wrapped kabobs both filled with copious amounts of cheese and one with whole green onions going straight through. This had to be one of the best meals of my life. Not only was the food superb, but the atmosphere was so spectacular you couldn’t help but feel charmed.

Afterward, we were filled to the brim, remember we had had all those Sicilian sweets that same afternoon—quite the food day. The next morning we were a bit sad that we were leaving. Berton especially seemed to have found a long lost brother in Ottavio. However, we had over a week left in Sicily to look forward to. Our next stop was Syracusa, another beautiful coastal city. The best part of the city is the island of Ortigia. We thought the area was really beautiful, but would probably have stayed longer and enjoyed it a bit more if we had had success finding a place to drop off our bags. After walking around for a few hours, we went to meet our next hosts, a young couple that lived in a small town outside of Syracusa called Solarino.

Alex and Maria were very kind hosts with an awesome house, felt like I was being treated to two nights in a four star hotel. The next day they took Berton and I to their favorite beach in a town called Noto. They definitely took us to a local spot. We went up an unpaved road, over a hill, and came upon this perfect little beach. When we got back that afternoon, Berton and I explored Solarino a bit more and stopped at a gelateria for gelato and brioche; like with granite, they also put gelato in the pastry and it is also unsurprisingly very delicious.

The next morning, we took a train quite a ways up the coast of Sicily to Taormina, an absolutely breathtaking village perched on the side of Monte Tauro. I loved Taormina and our transportation there—it was definitely the same type of train (compartments, fake gold lining everywhere) that you see in the Potter films. I shamelessly took many a picture and pretended I was on my way to Hogwarts.

The first day, we went to the famous Greek theatre of Taormina and then took a lovely hike further up the mountain for an even better look at the town. For dinner, after some research online (necessary since Taormina is a bit touristy), we found an amazing pizzeria, probably one of my favorite pies of Europe. We liked the village so much that we decided to stay another night. The next day, we hiked to another mountain city nearby. Though “nearby” the hike there was super steep. However, our reward was an amazing view of the surrounding mountains and valleys from the very tip of the city. Incredible view for our picnic lunch!

The next day it was time to move on again, this time to another small and quite adorable beach town, Cefalu (pronounced with a “che”, as if chef, sound). I can’t decide if I liked Toarmina or Cefalu more…both were just gorgeous. We didn’t have any hostel options in Cefalu, so we splurged a bit for a beautiful apartment in the hills above the town. We had a fantastic view from a balcony connected to our kitchen window, we felt a bit spoiled. There was a bit of drama which ensued before we entered the apartment, a longer story about waiting 1.5 hours for the owner to show up, but the wait was worth it.

We were set on making dinner in our kitchen that night, but first explored Cefalu and then watched the sunset at the beach; I know rather romantic. I somehow put together a rather delicious chicken soup. I had decided a few cities before to start carrying rice and chicken stock with me for quick dinner. We simply added some mushrooms, onions, and arugula and found ourselves with a pretty yummy dinner.

We bummed around Cefalu the next day, had probably the best sesame baguette I will ever have from this small bakery, where we had found some delicious fig pastries the day before, and then caught a train to Palermo in the early evening. By the time we got to our hostel in Palermo, it was hitting night time. After some minor exploring, we called it a night. The next morning, we wandered back to a random spot we had found the night before that had free public wifi. We spent quite a bit of time there, since we hadn’t had internet access for a few days and had no place to stay that night. We ended up finding a bed and breakfast that was cheaper than some of the hostels we were considering.

Once we got to the place in the afternoon, we were stoked.; it had to be my favorite accommodation of the trip. The B&B was run by a tres gentil man who had fixed the place up with his wife. Super small, only about five rooms, but absolutely adorable. Our room had, as had become a trend in our Sicilian accommodations, a fabulous view. It was also just a treat to have breakfast in the morning waiting for us.

Palermo is the capital of Sicily. We spent our first day exploring the nearby neighborhoods. Our favorite find, having of course to do with food, was a local place serving up delicious and ridiculously cheap grub. Outside the restaurant there was a man making the local specialty, a panini with spleen, lemon, and a bit of cheese, like a professional, furiously making his way through the ridiculous queue. When we went inside the place, we saw his picture, from probably 25 years ago, at the same stand making the same sandwich Berton tried the sandwich and fell in love with it, making it necessary to return later to try out their pasta and other local fare.
The next day was our second to last day together in Sicily, so we decided to spend it at the beach. Definitely not the nicest beach of our trip, a few too many hormonal teenagers flocking about, but it is hard not to enjoy yourself when laying on a beautiful beach in Sicily.

The next morning, it was time to make our last transfer, to Trapani where we would fly out the next morning. At this point, Berton and I were simply fatigued. Once we got into our hostel, I don’t think either of us really had a desire to tour around, but forced ourselves to check out the city a bit. We ended up having dinner in and relaxing. The next morning we had a bus to catch at 5:30am to get Berton to the airport in time to make his flight around seven to Paris. After he departed, I waited a bit for my later flight to Venice to meet up with my family. The family reunion in non-Sicily Italy will be detailed in, as this blog, way too much length in my next installment!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Next Up: Marseille and Malta

After running around Paris for four days with Berton and his parents, it was time for me to say goodbye to my apartment and most of my things. I left my suitcase and laptop with a friend in Paris and, with the help of Jackie who had already been backpacking, packed just enough clothes and toiletries to get my through the next two months.

Berton and I began our trip in Marseille, the second largest city of France. Many have characterized Marseille as rough and dirty. Although definitely not as shiny as center Paris, I thought the city had a lot to offer.



The old harbor is really beautiful and is visible from the hills of the Panier, or historic neighborhood, which had charming old homes and kids everywhere playing soccer.



We also hiked up to the main church that you can see in the distance in the harbor picture, which gave us a spectacular view of the city.




Marseille also specializes in a special cookie called navettes which are flavored with orange blossom, apparently the method is still a secret. The first navettes we had were quite disappointing, no detection of orange, but perhaps the sweet lady at the boulangerie giving us one each for free made us imagine that it tasted like orange. It wasn’t until we passed by an old building with a sign explaining that this was not only the first bakery in Marseille, but the oven from where the first navettes came from, that we got a taste of the real deal.



Quite delicious, really reminded me of what Ici in Berkeley does with their rose flavored ice cream.

We only spent one day in Marseille. Berton and I had decided to take the opportunity to couchsurf with a couple that lived near a small village called Fuveau outside Marseille.



Eugenie met us at the bus stop so she could guide us to her place. She and her husband live in the attack of the cutest country home fifteen minutes from Fuveau which they rent from a Parisian family who only spend weekends and parts of summer there.



From Fuveau and their house you have a fantastic view of the mountain range Sante Victoire, better known as the Picasso Mountain.



When we arrived in the evening, they had already prepared dinner for us, a delicious potato and cream concoction followed by a fresh apple crisp pie. Berton and I felt lucky the entire time we were there. Such great hosts and amazing people. Both are nurses who recently returned from a year abroad where they spent time working in Africa and traveling around India.

The first morning, Eugenie took us on a tour of Fuveau, which couldn’t have taken more than twenty minutes. Definitely a charming town though! Two boulangeries that trade off opening days, one little grocery store, and, of course, a church on the top of the hill that had a perfect view of Sainte Victorie!



Berton and I spent the afternoon in the biggest city nearby, Aix-en-Provence. Funnily, the city is known for the number of elaborate fountains randomly placed throughout the city, which led Berton and I to attempt to see every single one.




It was also home to the artist C├ęzanne. Well, sort of home. It took us at least 20 minutes to walk further up the hill to where his home and grounds use to be.

The next day, we had grand plans to bike out to Picasso Mountain, but our mobility was destroyed by some intense rain. However, it might have been a blessing since Berton and I hadn’t really gotten a chance to plan out the rest of our trip. We spent the day booking some hostels and sending out mass numbers of couchreqests. We also got to cook dinner with our hosts and spend a beautiful evening chatting and relaxing.

The next morning was still characterized by sudden downpours, one which started as we attempted to walk to the bus stop with our backpacks. We took cover under an old shed where we made friends with a kitten who was using the opportunity to catch some fresh water.



Thankfully, a young man say us ducking cover and offered us a lift to the stop. We had a bit of time before our bus to the airport, so we decided to take a bus to another small town nearby as the rain had cleared up. Ended up being a failure as the rain began pouring again in such force that it literally looked like sheets of water were continuously covering the windows of our bus. However, for the moments it was clear, we got some beautiful views of the countryside, so not all was lost!

Before heading to the airport, we grabbed some tabule and sausage from a grocery store for a makeshift dinner. It may sound like I am exaggerating, but it was incredibly delicious, which is why I am bothering to mention it. Berton will back me up on this. We got incredibly soaked transferring to our airport bus, but it gave us an excuse to get hot chocolate in the terminal.



We took our first Ryanair flight into Malta. The budget airline terminal in Marseille was a former airport hangar, which gave it kind of the feel of a Costco warehouse. The roof also had a slight leaking issue, leaving puddles randomly in the waiting area. I found the whole thing quite humorous. Despite horror stories of Ryanair, we had an easy flight. Berton made friends with the cute kid in the seat next to us as did the pilot and flight crew who let the little boy up front and then gave him his very own Ryanair plane toy—we were jealous.

Malta is one of the smallest countries in the world and probably the most forgotten member of the EU. It also has quite an interesting history which you should wiki like Berton and I did :) It is comprised of three islands. The main, called Malta, a tiny one, Comino, and Gozo.

Malta is simply not what you would expect from an “EU” country. It is kind of falling apart in places and, on a tangent, has one of the most dysfunctional (and frightening) bus systems I have ever been on. It costs an odd number of 47cents a ride and, in addition, you pay the driver as you get on. This often meant the driver was driving and drying to count out pennies of change at the same time. Usually he was also on his cell phone and or smoking too. Fun stuff let me tell you. I ended up taking motion sickness pills when I knew we would be taking the buses more because of the drivers than the slightly windy paths around the island.



Moving on, Valetta, the capital, is a very ancient and completely walled city. We began our visit by walking on the outside of the fortifications and along the coast, which gave us some spectacular views.





We then wondered through the main city that was full of ancient staircases, like where we found this cute puppy, and some really beautiful squares and parks.



That night, we also discovered that Malta has quite a rambunctious club scene which Berton and I quickly walked through and observed. Both of us enjoyed the capital Valetta, but I think we were both happy that we were heading to the less-inhabited and, as we discovered, infinitely more beautiful island of Gozo the next day.

After a frightening bus ride to a ferry, we made our way to Gozo and to our next amazing host, an older man named Mario.



We had tea with our host and Robert, a young British man he was also hosting. We would later learn what an all-star host Mario really is, not only in his treatment to us, but in his history of hosting. He’s had people pretty consistently visit his home for the past 25 years, before CSing even existed. He has two guest books completely filled, we helped fill up the third on our last day.

Mario suggested we walk down to the beach before coming back for dinner, which he had already prepared—couchsurfers are really just too nice it makes you feel guilty. The beach was only a 15 minute walk from Mario’s house and was absolutely gorgeous, the first shot was as we made our way down the hill from his town.



The red beach gets its name from the color of the sand in the afternoon as showcased beautifully by Berton's magnificent sandcastle. The second picture also gives you an idea of how clear the water was, just amazing!





The next day we took Mario’s suggestion and embarked on a day hike through Malta. We left around 11am. I was expecting to get home around 5pm. We ended up not getting back till right before 8pm. We only took one real break for lunch. It was quite a day, but incredibly worth it because we got to see SO much of Malta.
One of my favorite parts was by the spectacular cove where we stopped for lunch.



Lunch was also pretty delicious, we had stocked up on salami, cheese, bread, honey rings, and Kinnie (the Maltese soft drink). Honey rings are the cake looking things in the back. If you ever go to Malta, and if I ever go back, this should be your first purchase at the grocery store.



Malta, as I mentioned earlier, is fairly undeveloped. Most of what we walked through were paths looking down at the valley of farmland or through the rocky coast. Fantastic island.







Towards the end of our trip, we met a farmer, originally from Australia. After a long conversation, he was quite talkative, he insisted on giving us some of his freshly picked fruit. He also told us we were no more than 40 minutes away from our host’s town. With fruit in hand and a countdown, we felt quite invigorated. It wasn’t until about 30 minutes later and knowing we weren’t even half way there that we realized his estimate was a bit off. It ended up being another 1.5 hours before we finally arrived! Thankfully our allstar host Mario already had a dinner of pasta cooking when we arrived and plenty of wine to numb the pain in our feet!

We were sad to leave Gozo the next day. We went back down to the beach from the first day for a few hours before making our way back to the ferry for mainland Malta. We stayed the last night in Malta in a hostel that was in a small town nearby the airport. Unfortunately, by the time we got into the city everything was pretty much closing and our hostel was nearly impossible to find. It literally had no address but “main street” and the directions it gave from the bus stop were ridiculously unhelpful.

I’m not sure how, but we eventually stumbled across the building. I was feeling a bit ill, so Berton was left with the task of tracking down a local with a cell phone since the reception at the hostel was closed. Thankfully he found a nice lady with some cute puppies that let us use her phone.

As I said, most stores were closed already, so Berton and I made dinner from one of the Pastisseries, the Maltese take on pastry shops. The most popular and traditional Maltese pastry is actually filled with spiced mashed peas. Sounds a bit odd. Berton definitely didn’t like it, but I found it pretty delicious. Anywho, I had a giant mashed pea pastry and some cashews while Berton had some pizza and a yummy chicken wrap thing. Not the best meal we would have, especially once we got to Sicily, but for some reason it is one of my favorite meal memories.

The next morning, we took the first bus to the airport around 6am and made our way towards Sicily, which I will explore in my next blog!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Biking Through the Netherlands

Ten days, two daring women, two one gear bikes, and one amazing county, The Netherlands. One of my good friends Jackie and I decided one day to book trains in and out of The Netherlands, leaving us ten days to bike around the country. When we formulated the idea, we didn't really have a clue about how we were going to do it, but the rash decision turned into one of the best weeks of my life.

We began our trip in Amsterdam with another friend, Mohit. I really loved Amsterdam mainly for the city landscape.



The canals and house-fronts are just absolutely beautiful, highlighted by random street art and plenty of Space Invaders which I had already become obsessed with collecting in Paris: (http://www.space-invaders.com/).



I think our tourguide of Amsterdam characterized the city best, as a place where everyone is allowed to have their own opinions and lifestyle--leaving everything to the individual's choice. Definitely a free spirited city. On a more political note, it was also interesting to learn that a more conservative Holland government is attempting to really regulate the coffee shops and red light district. If you are intrigued, I suggest you google for some interesting articles :)

On our last day in Amsterdam Jack Jack and I rented our bikes, which soon became our best friends. We both went for the cheapest option, 1 gear. We figure, the Netherlands was flat anyway so why not? We also requested helmets, which sent the man at the shop into fits of giggles--NO adults in Holland wear helmets. He said it took him a while to find ones that didn't have Mickey or Winnie the Pooh on them, he even asked to take our picture in them haha.



He asked us where we were planning to take the bikes. We answered honestly that our first destination was Haarlem, a city only about 25km from Amsterdam. He proceeded to laugh at us again and asked us to please let him know if we ended up making it. We didn't dare tell him we were actually planning to take these bikes cross-country.

After renting, Jackie and I set off without a map and without repair equipment to Haarlem. One of our hosts kept calling us brave, but looking back I can't help to feel that it might have been more appropriate to call us foolish :). I say "host" because Jackie and I couchsurfed the entire time we were in the Netherlands. Briefly, if you haven't heard of it, CS is a website, quite a lot like facebook, where you can create a profile and either host travelers at your home or stay at another CS house. I was definitely skeptical at first, but there are definitely was to ensure that your experience is not only safe, but really awesome. If you have any questions about it, or are considering doing it yourself, pleaseee send me an email, I love talking about it!

Anywho, Stop One: Haarlem
I do believe that the Netherlands is the only country Jackie and I could have gotten away with cross-country biking with so little planning or preperation. Firstly, the Netherlands is small and flat. Makes biking from destination to destination much less intimidating. Second, the Dutch speak really great Enlgish (which I like to attribute to the fact that they subtitle like Germany does and don't "dub" over American TV and films like France and other countries). Third, The Netherlands is covered in bike paths that literally connect every city. A guy we connected with on CS gave us a website for the Dutch bike routes. By simply typing in your location and your destination, it will produce a list of bike routes for you to follow that are marked on the bike paths. The night before our next leg, Jackie and I would simply write down the numbers of the paths to be taken and it would, eventually lead us there.

However, not always without difficulty. Usually the problem was construction that the website didn't know about. Our first day on the way to Haarlem, our path dead ended at about a mile long and super high dirt man-made mountain. This led Jackie and I to make our best guess at how to get around it. However, we succeed and made it to Haarlem, and saw amazing countryside, the case with every ride, along the way.



Definitely a very cute city! Much like Amsterdam, but with fewer male American and Australian accents, a ton smaller, and definitely more tame. We stayed with a lovely German student who had chosen to study in Holland (there is a ton of country switching in Europe for studying as it turns out, especially for Sweden which pays its students 900euros a month, or so I'm told, to go to school, but again that is an entirely different conversation ha). The night we were there she took us to an international student party, where we got to mingle for a few hours and get some free food!

Stop Two: Den Haag
The next morning, Jackie and I were headed to another big city Den Haag or, in English, The Hague. After grabbing grub for our backpacks and some Dutch mini pancakes called poffertjes, we headed out on what would be one of our longer legs, about 60-70km. Now, this isn't such a great distance, but when you are on a one gear child's bike like I was, it seems quite far haha. The route we took was absolutely gorgeous, almost entirely through a national park. However, the national park also consisted of sand dunes which made the "flat" country actually rather hilly (relatively anyway). The bike ride was made a bit tougher also because our buts were in terrible discomfort. Apparently the cheap bikes also come with no seat padding :)



Alright complaining over haha. We did end up making it to Den Haag and again, what a beautiful city! We also had an incredible host, Albert, who is kind of the king of couchsurfing in his area. He normally has anywhere from 1-12 CSers living in his attack. The night we got in, he was already preparing dinner for us (much to our exhausted delight). It is hosts like Albert that make you want to be a host yourself, it was such a relief to have a comfortable and welcoming place to stay after 6 or more hours on a bike.

Den Haag is a fun town. Its historic area reminded me much of Philiadelphia's. It is also The Netherland's capital and has a gorgeous parliament building, set directly on the water--I'd say it rivals the one in London :). In addition, Den Haag is an international diplomacy hub, Jackie and I went to the International Court of Justice, which is in a beautiful old palace. It is also a beach town, about a twenty minute bike ride from our host's house to the shore where Jackie and I did some seashell collecting.



In addition, it has a fabulous Turkish market where Jackie and I had lunch on our first day. Basically, it is a really fun city with a bit of everything. Definitely thought to myself many times that I could live there.

One of my favorite parts of our time in Den Haag was dinner on our last night with Albert and the three other couchsurfers that were there at the time, a women from San Diego and two French students. We all cooked part of the meal, shared some wine, and just had a lovely evening. After two good nights of sleep, Jackie and I felt ready for our next ride out to the small town of Gouda. Before leaving in the morning, we first stopped by Den Haags botanical and Japanese gardens which were absolutely beautiful.



Unfortunately, at some point during the botanical gardens a tricky bug found its way into my camera lens. So please, for the rest of my pictures, ignore my little winged friend in my pictures :)

Stop Three: Gouda
Gouda, pronounced "Howda" is indeed where Gouda cheese was created. Which all I can say to that is thank you. Gouda is one of my favorite cheeses, especiallyyyy when it is aged with a bit of cumin mixed in...delicious. I think Gouda cheese and bread was the staple of Jackie and my bike diet, and happily so haha.

Because Jackie and I both suffer from bad knees (which again makes our bike trip such a wise decision :)), we decided to take up some advice a couchsurfer gave us at a CS meetup we tagged along with our host to in Den Haag. He told us on the weekends bikers are allowed, for free, to take the tram; this would get us at least 15-20km closer to Gouda. Unfortunately, as we found out from the public transport control officer, he was wrong. Fortunately, the officer believed that we were just silly tourists and let us off the hook!

What was suppose to be a short ride from the end of the tram to Gouda turned into much longer by me getting us a bit lost (sorry again Jackie haha). It was still an absolutely spectacular ride.



Once we arrived, we were both excited to discover that it was also market day in Gouda. After meeting and dropping our bags off at our next hosts, an awesome couple, we walked around the main square. We saw men marching around playing bagpipes, a high school band, little kids having a musical performance, and, of course, CHEESE.



We had a delicious lunch of fresh tomatoes, bread, and Gouda cheese bought from the market. For dessert, Jackie and I were set on trying fresh stroopwaffles. Jackie and I had discovered packaged stroopwaffles in Amsterdam, which are truly now one of my favorite sweets. Basically they are waffle crisps that are glued together by a delicious carmelesque syrup called stroop. We also had to have the ones made fresh at stands to make Mohit, who also fell in love with them in Amsterdam, jealous :)



Gouda, despite being a small town, is rather lovely. It has a beautiful old harbor, and all the charm of canals and pretty house-fronts as Amsterdam and Haarlem. Jackie and I also had fun going into one of the many windmills in the town. The one we entered is literally on top of a family's home. They simply let people go up and take a look. MUCH bigger inside then I was expecting, we must have gone up seven or eight flights of stairs to reach the top. So interesting and quite beautiful! I bought one of their postcards to send to my nieces :)



That evening, we made another delicious dinner with one of our hosts. He also offered to take us out to some of the towns popular youth night spots, but Jackie and I, being quite tired, opted for his second suggestion, to watch Gnomeo and Juliet--definitely the better choice :)

Stop Four: Utrecht (oh my this blog is getting long!)
With Gouda cheese and bread it our packs, Jackie and I headed to Utrecht. At this point, I was pretty proud of us. I was sure that we weren't going to make it this far. We had talked a few days prior about returning the bikes to Amsterdam before Utrecht because our knees and our butts weren't so happy. However, I think that after Gouda our bodies had adjusted to what we were asking from it. We made it to Utrecht in quite good time, much faster than we were expecting. We also had the most gorgeous setting at our stop for lunch.



Just like we had been lucky with the Gouda market, we happened to show up to Utrecht during a music festival which our hosts were volunteering for. We tagged along for a bit and got to sit in on a instrumental performance in an old church. It felt incredibly therapeutic to sit there and soak in the music after a long day of biking. We also went to dinner with a random couchsurfer our host introduced us to which was really nice. We found a delicious and, most importantly, super cheap rice bowl place. I hadn't had much Chinese food in Paris, so I was definitely in a happy place :) Jackie and I also went for a beer at one of their famous bars that keeps something ridiculous like 50 beers on tap. I, having not gone to Italy or Ireland yet, had not cultivated a taste for beer (well more hadn't been forced to try much of it). Therefore, I ordered a super sweet apple beer, while Jackie ordered a super dark legit beer haha (I felt a bit ridiculous).

Utrecht also has an interesting red light district, it is entirely on house boats and causes quite the traffic jam at night.



Interestingly, even small cities in The Netherlands have a 'red light' area which surprised me, I always thought it was just Amsterdam. For most cities, especially the smaller ones, it is a much less flashy affair. Many cities just have houses where, like any business, the customer can go.

I think Jackie's favorite part of our second day in Utrecht was a random art exhibition that was part of the festival that we came across. It was called "Anyway the Wind Blows" and was basically a tarp attached to a mechanical arm that blew in the wind. It was actually quite lovely. They had mats for people so you could lay directly underneath the swaying tarp. I'm pretty sure we stayed for over an hour haha.



Utrecht is another city where I felt myself saying, I could live here. It's a college town, so there are cafe's, street art, galleries, and fun bars everywhere. It also has the same stunning landscape of canals and arch bridges as the other cities.



Too tired to do much on our second night, we lucked out that our host was quite the Disney movie fan. When Jackie and I got back in the early evening, she was home from work. We ended up cooking dinner together and watching two Disney movies (Tangled and Princess and the Frog), while eating ice cream with stroopwaffle bits. Perfect night.

At this point in our trip, we had one destination left, Rotterdam, where I also had my train ticket back to Paris booked from. Unfortunately, the preliminary research that we had done before leaving for Amsterdam was wrong. We were under the false impression that we would be able to rent bikes in Amsterdam and return them in Rotterdam. This meant that we had to bike back, or train up, to Amsterdam in time to make my Rotterdam train on the last day. We decided it was best to return our bikes before getting to Rotterdam. Our hosts told us that the bike trip from Utrecht to Amsterdam was "easy" and that we would be fine even if we were tired.

We aren't quite sure if "easy" was the right word to describe it. It was a bit long, 60km, but our hosts were indeed right that it was completely flat. What we weren't planning on, was the INTENSE head wind that we would face. I swear that not even the pigeons could fly in it, I saw many try and fail.

That day definitely tested our determination and friendship. Happy to say that Jackie and I never fought once on the trip, I think she is one of the only people I could have done this type of traveling with. Living out of a small backpack, moving from host to host, eating on the fly and on the cheap. It was AWESOME, but could have been quite a disaster if we didn't get along :)

At one point, Jackie and I took a wrong turn down a port canal. The wind was unbearable and it became clear it probably wasn't the right path either. Funny time to take a picture, but I did.



We finally came across a biker to ask for help. We ended up having to turn around an take a bridge over the canal. However, getting to that bridge also required us to scale up a hill with our bikes...oi!

But of course, we made it! We felt so proud of ourselves to return the bikes to the shop where the man, the first day, had laughed at us for wanting to go to Haarlem. After, we both were craving corn on the cobb, which we had had from a street market the week before when we began in Amsterdam. Jackie sat down at a bar for a beer and I brought over the corn. After, we went to the grocery store to buy a bar of dark chocolate and a package of stroopwaffles for the train ride to Rotterdam, what a feast.

Stop Five: Rotterdam
Jackie and I had the most adorable couple host in Rotterdam. They were both about our age and lived in the cutest apartment near the train station, complete with a little garden in the back. We were treated immediately with a dinner of homemade tomato soup and fresh bread that Tessa had made, so good! They also took us on a night walk around the city and treated us to their favorite ice cream place, such nice people!

The next day, Jackie and I explored the city. Rotterdam is very different from the cities and countryside we had seen so far. It is much more modern, skyscrapers everywhere. This is largely because of it being heavily hit in the WWII and the need for reconstruction. However, it does still have much of the older buildings still in tact, so it becomes a beautiful mix.



It is an urban city, but very hipster. Tonnnss of museums, art galleries, book shops, fun themed restaurants, etc. Simply, I really liked Rotterdam. We were lucky to be there on a free day for one of their bigger museums which had some modern exhibitions on display. The reason I wanted to go in particular was to see, and I kid you not, a peanut butter floor exhibit. Really, it was just a floor of peanut butter. Smelled quite good in there!



Rotterdam is also home to some very unique architecture. My favorite was the cube apartments, which are literally in the shape of a cube standing on a point. There are three floors that cut across.



It is a bit difficult to explain, even I didn't really get it until Jackie and I pretended to be staying in one of the hostels that is in one of the cubes.



Jackie and I did a lot of walking that day. Checked out the main park, when to the "China" houseboat, which had an awesome Asian market. Basically spent our day enjoying not being on a bike! One of my favorite views was of this bridge that connects an island business center of Rotterdam.



That night, our hosts had a concert to go to, so Jackie and I had the house to ourselves. We made dinner, watched a movie, and basically crashed. The next morning was our last day in the Netherlands, our train was out of Rotterdam around 4pm. We spent most of the morning with our host Tessa eating a leisurely breakfast of bread and delicious spreads. Some of my favorite dutch spreads were chocolate sprinkles (which they usually put on toast with butter), and this quite odd looking dark apple and stroop syrup concoction. Quite yummy! To kill time before our train, Jackie and I hung out in a book store for a bit and then went to the supermarket so Jackie could pick up stroopwaffles to take home :).

Stop Six: Back in Paris
I was quite sad that our trip was over, it was quite an amazing experience to navigate on bike through a country. We got to pass through gorgeous country side, charming towns, and met some amazing people along the way. Definitely a trip I would suggest to anyone, but perhaps opt to pay a little more for at least a four gear bike!

Once pack in Paris, I had about five days until my lease was up and I had to be packed and out of my apartment. I also had tons to look forward to: Jackie had decided to spend some days recovering at my place in Paris as most of my housemates had already moved out, and my partner Berton and his family were due in Paris the next day. Tales of Berton and my travels to Marseille, AIX Provence, Malta, and Sicily to come!