Vienna and my first Slovakian Wedding

With my new haircut in tow, I left the comfort of the Northern Italian mountains and bused it East to Milan where I had nine hours to kill while awkwardly totting around a stuffed duffel and backpack. What does one do with a long layover while dealing with a couple of heavy, pesky bags? Eat of course! Since I couldn’t wander endlessly with all that added weight, I had to make strategic food/drink stops to kill some time and give my tired arms a break. Picture a Cookie Monster tour around the city. Ok, it wasn’t that bad and there weren’t that many crumbs flying out of my mouth, but I did eat a piadina, a melon/prosciutto salad, three coffees, a giant pizza with bresaola and more arugula, a craft beer and one stracciatella gelato. Time tastily flew by.

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After pacifying my seemingly endless hunger and coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t live in Italy without gaining 100+ pounds, I reluctantly made my way to the station for my overnight bus to Vienna. When you’re in your thirties, taking a 12 hour bus overnight is no longer very appealing, as if it ever were. For reasons I prefer not to dive into on this blog, I pick driving over flying into new countries whenever possible.

And, no, I’m not running from the law.

It was a sweaty, long-ass 12 hours. But then again, maybe I’m being spoiled. I sort of enjoyed waking up to a pile of drool on my puffy jacket, pressed up against the greasy window, seeing quaint country houses dotting the Austrian hills. I liked being the only American on the bus and one of the only non-smokers at the toilet breaks in random highway rest-stops. I had that much more time to throw cold water on my face in the restroom and look at 4 am snack options as the smokers puffed with fervor while keeping a watchful eye on the driver, hopeful to pull in one last drag before the engine started gently humming again.

Arriving in Vienna was anti-climactic, and as I walked the outskirts of the city past rather dismal and uniformly lackluster post WWII buildings, I thought maybe my vision of Wien as a classical composers’ paradise with gold-adorned, fanciful buildings was a bit off from its most recent history. Silly me, I just hadn’t discovered the center of town yet. My spacious Airbnb apartment slowed down my city exploration― I found myself in one of those nesting moods. My mornings were slow and lazy with cup after cup of milky rooibos tea while reading an actual book.

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Vienna actually turned out to be quite beautiful and is full of apparently wonderful museums that I didn’t get around to visiting. I adore Gustav Klimt, a Vienna native, but I didn’t catch his paintings this time, and I suppose that’s ok.  Maybe this is rather embarrassing to admit, but my favorite part of my 3-day visit was this chain bakery, Anker, that had these amazing vegan sandwiches on seeded, whole-grainy, salty bagels with hummus and lots of crunchy fresh veggies. I ate five or six of these puppies in four days, but who’s counting.

Heading into Slovakia, also by bus with my trusty Anker sandwich in hand, felt exciting and somehow new, as I’d never traveled further East in Europe.  The Bratislava bus station became my home for three hours as I waited for two of my friends to pick me up in their VW bus in route from Croatia via Slovenia. While sitting on my bags, and eating a seeded bagel, I soaked up this new world of Slovakia, or at least one sliver of it – a woman with a Santa Monica Days, Los Angeles Nights T-shirt, tons of passionate smokers posted near garbage cans with XL bud receptacles on top (I felt like it was the last day on Earth to smoke), tall blond Slovakian women in very high heels and tight skirts coming and going, a dairy dispensing vending machine with yogurt and cheese, a fresh berry saleswoman, a whole line of taxi drivers idly waiting for customers (and smoking) in acid-washed, tight jeans, and teenagers with overstuffed backpacks heading to/from the woods. My friends felt bad about arriving late, but I loved having a reason to wait in one spot and people watch. Plus, I was starting to get a feel for the place.

What a divine sandwich!

What a divine sandwich!

My view from my post at the bus station in Bratislava.

My view from my post at the bus station in Bratislava.

By the way, the whole purpose of this trip, the haircut and all the bus travel through these random places was to attend the wedding of my dear friend Zuzuna and her husband-to-be Dave. I couldn’t miss this wedding for the life of me, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to be part of such a splendid celebration and the joining of a small-town, but very worldly, Slovak lady and her Southern California husband.

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The wedding day, night and late night was one of the merriest celebrations I’ve ever attended. This fête was supposed to last until ‘Sunrice,’ a typo on the one English program available. I liked to imagine celebrating the return of the warm sun alongside the bride and groom with my favorite grain and soy sauce, exhausted from so much dancing. Sadly, I didn’t make it that long. I spun more to the jovial beats of the gypsy band than most amusement park rides do all season. I savored the three dinners spread out throughout the evening and middle of the night, my favorite being the giant barbecue with salty, grilled pork, chicken and sausages. I got good at politely accepting shots of the potent Slivovica (plum liquor) and tossing them over my shoulder while my toasting buddy had his head cocked back in passionate consumption. Although I was in bed my 3:30 am, I think I put in a valiant effort, sunrice or not.

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I felt extraordinarily blessed to have a community of incredible international friends around me and cherished the opportunity to connect with my local hosts even with the language barrier. The wedding was the perfect escape from my guiding and a return to the things I’ve been missing most lately while on the road: friends, family and community.

A couple more shots from Slovakia…

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Potato pancakes with fresh cheese, a cucumber, dill and sour cream salad and a cold bear. And all of this after a big bike ride. What could be better?

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I'm a little bit obsessed with stacked wood piles. I loved how many different shapes and sizes were in this one.

I’m a little bit obsessed with stacked wood piles. I loved how many different shapes and sizes were in this one.

Basque Beauty

We launched a new hiking trip this spring in the Basque Country, and despite an exhausting work load to get the trip guest-ready without any noticeable major hiccups, I still found time to fall in love with the countryside. What’s not to like with all the lush, green rolling hills, the happy, free-roaming horses, sheep and cows and the spectacular Atlantic coastline. The New York Times recently published an article about the The French Side of Basque Country and equates it to ‘a little sister who didn’t get invited to the dance.’ It’s true, the Spanish side is much more well known and has some beloved wine to boot, but so much of what makes this rural part of France so alluring is that it’s not overrun with tourists and not overly touristy. Unlike Provence or Paris, it’s not high on the must-see list for a lot of foreigners, and I’m grateful for that.

The Basque people’s charm and sincere hospitality only add to the mystique of the area, and of course the food and wine, like so many places in France and Spain, is outstanding. And did I mention the delicious Gateau Basque à la Cerise? I think I must have eaten three of these buttery, dense cakes filled with ripe cherries one day on the trails. Yum. Of course, French fat-laden pastries work significantly better for endurance (and pleasure) than watery old Gatorade.

After many weeks in a row of working, I had some time off to hike on my own and enjoy the beach, and these are a few of the images I captured.  Plan your trip to this region in the spring or fall when the salt-water-seeking crowds aren’t overwhelming and make sure to bring your rain gear. All those hills don’t stay so green and lush without a significant and steady amount of rain, as much as some parts of Ireland, or so they say.

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Mom & Dad in the Old Country

Ma maman and mon papa came for a highly anticipated visit to Southern France this spring.  To date, my domestic and abroad worlds haven’t mixed nearly as much as I would have hoped when I committed to my life abroad.  For me, it really was a gift to have my parents get a glimpse into my life here in Europe, and for them to feel the comfort and relief of knowing I’m in a really spectacular place that I adore.

Our journey began with a quick and dirty tour of Paris, followed by four days in my father’s family’s homeland of Croatia, catching up with our Croatian and Italian family members over long dinners, homemade lunches, and a hell of a lot of hugs. I can’t believe how lucky we are to still have family in the old country! These amazing people treated us like visiting royalty and nearly broke my heart with all their kindness, hospitality, and ‘love made edible’ in the form of handmade gnocchi followed by crusty apple strudel.

After our heartfelt Croatian visit, we returned to Provence to my familiar stomping grounds. In true tour-guide style, I thoroughly wore out my along-for-the-ride parents showing them all that Provence has to offer with a super jam-packed schedule—quintessential hilltops towns, weekly markets, wineries, perfect seasonal produce, aperitifs in the sunshine, and my favorite small-town eateries and preferred bakeries.

I truly love it here in Europe, and I think my parents totally get it now, even though I know they would still love to have me living in the Chicago suburbs, just down the street, but not before a real French bakery opens up in the heartland. Impossible.

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Zadar, Croatia

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Zadar, Croatia

Enjoying their first Croatian beer in Croatia!

Enjoying their first Croatian beer in Croatia!

A delicious rendition of Baccalà!!

A delicious rendition of Baccalà!!

Opatija

Opatija, Croatia

Dad's Birthday in Opatija

Dad’s Birthday in Opatija

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Family Graves in Vranja, Croatia.

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Back in France...

Back in France…

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Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence. It's one of my absolute favorite places in Provence.

Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence. It’s one of my absolute favorite places in Provence.

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Family Fun Times in Florida

The last three winters, I’ve been hanging out with my parents in Florida instead of the frigid tundra of the Chicagoland area, and this Snowbird thing is really starting to make sense. Retirement is blissful, especially when combined with walks on the beach and shuffleboard with friends. My sister, Jenny, flew in from Denmark, and with me flying in from South Africa, it was quite a spectacular family reunion from all corners of the globe. I have the best family in the whole world, and I loved seeing them in the sunshine for a few weeks to catch up and lay low together poolside.

Furthermore, Eastern Florida is home to the world’s greatest dive bar, Archies Seabreeze, with its handsome, pirate lookalike bartenders and finger-lickin’ good, deep-fried chicken wings and Old Bay covered shrimp. Combine those tasty treats with dollar, happy hour beers—yes, you heard me right, d-o-l-l-a-r happy hour beers—and you’ve got a recipe for one hell of evening!

Thanks for embracing me Florida, even though I don’t have a head full of grey hair, at least not yet.

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My sister spotted a manatee! What a drama queen! This is a joke, people. 🙂

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TMB: Day 4. The Highest of Heights, Beef Jerky and Dolly Parton.

Oh Italy. I love you. Not surprisingly, I got a late start today while lingering over my cappuccino and biscotti. My clients and I frequent Courmayeur throughout the summer, so I thought today was going to be rather anti-climactic as I’ve covered this part of the TMB numerous times during day hikes.

Boy was I wrong!

After the arduous but satisfying ascent to Refugio Bertone, I decided to take an alternate high-route to Refugio Bonatti along Mont de la Saxe up to Tête Bernada and Tête de la Tronche.

The photo barely captures the beauty of this trail.

The trail snakes along the top of the ridge.

I reached a point where I got pretty exhausted and a tiny bit cranky and stopped for a snack and a quick writing session in my journal. This is what is wrote:

I’m well above the soaring heights of birds of prey experiencing what might possibly be the most gorgeous and spectacular day of crisp, sunny weather that I’ve ever witnessed in the Alps. Today, I took a variant route between Bertone and Bonatti and am totally blown away. It might just be the best bit of trail yet. I also just had a breakdown moment that was, of course, directly related to my hunger and energy level. I should know that when I start asking myself foreboding questions like: ‘Am I lost?,’ ‘Will I make it to my refuge before dark?,’ ‘Am I almost out of water?,’ that I just need to chill for a moment, soak up the scenery and snack. After a handful of Teriaki beef jerky and three squares of chocolate (a girl’s got to ration), I’m starting to feel human again. My Ipod’s stumbled upon a seemingly semi-religious and rather catchy Dolly Parton song called ‘The Seeker’ (where did this song come from?), and my feet are tapping to the beat in my makeshift church in the heights where Mont Blanc and beef jerky reign on high.

A perfectly framed post-card perfect view of the mountains.

A perfectly framed post-card view of the mountains.

Thanks beef jerky! You saved my crabby soul.

Thanks beef jerky! You saved my crabby soul.

On my way from Bonatti to Refugio Elena.

On my way from Bonatti to Refugio Elena.

The sun was setting as I reached the refuge.

The sun was setting as I reached the refuge.

I reached Rifugio Elena as the sun was disappearing in the valley. The hospitality in the Italian Refugios is really second to none, and tonight’s dinner table was made up of the most charismatic and lovely French and German families. We laughed and shared stories over big bowls of spaghetti and glasses of red wine.

I really couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.

Day 4 recap:
Hotel in Dolonne to Refugio Elena
Walking 8 hrs
Refuge: Refugio Elena

TMB: Day 6. My Return to France, Myrtilles, and the Witch at Col de Balme!

A tired day on the trail is always followed by a really strong one, and I felt like a rock on Day 6. I left Champex bright and early and opted out of the challenging variant to Fenêtre d’Arpette with no regret. I had an amazing climb up to Bovine where I was greeted by a field a gorgeous black cows and sat sipping a hot chocolate looking at the views of Martigny in the valley below.

What beauties!

What beauties I found along the morning trail!

A Swiss Pain au Raisin and an almond cookie.

A Swiss Pain au Raisin and an almond cookie.

Along the trail, I decided to do some research for a future book called "How to Hike 20-30k a Day and Still Gain Weight", and decided that Swiss pastries just don't make the cut. Switzerland, it's time to send your bakers across the border to France.

Happy Swiss Cows make happy cheese.

Happy Swiss Cows make happy cheese.

I had another morning where I hiked too long and too far before finding something to eat for lunch. On the map, I thought a place called Peuty was going to be a lively town, but malheureusement it was a ghost town, and luckily I had the nerve to enter a old, unwelcoming-looking hotel that I thought was closed. There were three other men inside drinking beer and eating lunch, and I gratefully took a seat at a table with another hiker and had the best darn 20 Swiss Franc (20+ USD) salad complete with fresh goat cheese, prosciutto, beets, cucumbers, and crisp lettuce! I even had a beer to blend in so that the gentlemen around me wouldn’t be startled by my foreign presence.

I had no idea I was going to find such a delicious meal in such an unassuming location.

I had no idea I was going to find such a delicious meal in such an unassuming location.

I ascended swiftly to the Col de Balme after lunch with a spring in my step and made the mistake of going into the refuge at the tippy top to ask for some potable water (I was almost out). The ancient, inhospitable woman inside glared at me with glacial eyes and chased me away (I swear she was a real witch in her uninviting creaky refuge on top of the desolate, windy pass). The wind and chill up there was the worst I had experienced all week, and I literally ran down the pass to find save haven back in France, far away from mediocre baked goods and disintegrating Swiss she-devils (Sorry, you know I’m super nice most of the time, but I really think she was a witch!).

I spent the night in my favorite refuge yet called the Chalet Alpin du Tour where I met two adorable, charismatic Spanish brothers who were mountain biking the trail, and we shared stories about of week over pints of cold beer. The refuge served organic food and even had natural peanut butter on the table in the morning. This is a WOW for France. My Spanish friends were equally impressed and decided to spend an extra night there (They sent me a picture of them eating peanut butter with their new American glow the following day).

This place comes highly recommended. Small rooms (5 beds), great showers, amazing food, incredible staff...

This place comes highly recommended. Small rooms (5 beds), great showers, amazing food, incredible staff…

Again, another perfect day.

Tomorrow I planned to finish up the TMB, or at least get an hour or two from my starting point depending if I could catch the cog train back to le Fayet in the late afternoon. If the witch weren’t guarding the pass, I might have just turned back around and started again, but work was imminent, and I really couldn’t go back up in the dark if it meant missing peanut butter.

OOOooooooOOOOOoooooooo (This is the sound of a ghost to add to my scary tale!)

Recap Day 6:
Champex Lake, Switzerland to le Tour, France
7 hrs hiking
refuge: Chalet Alpin du Tour

Tortellini Freschi

To all you Italian craftswomen and men out there who spend hours a day meticulously stuffing and folding tortellini; grazie mille. Your work does not go unappreciated. Really. Look at these things! Sensual lines. Warm amber color. Flawlessly stuffed with subtly sweet pumpkin and creamy ricotta. Delicately packed and dusted with flour for transport home. Why can’t all food be this fussed-over and celebrated?

I regret not asking the name of the charming, middle-aged woman who made these stunning fresh tortellini, or at least taking note of the name of the small pasta shop, so you could support her efforts next time you find yourself in Bologna. (I do remember that it was on Via Sant’Isaia somewhere between Via Pietralata and Via di Marchi).

After a three minute bath in boiling water, a bit of fresh butter melted atop, I sat down with a fellow Italian student /Scottish friend over a good bottle of Sangiovese and honored them as best I could with all my “Ooh’s and Aah’s” of culinary gratitude. Yum. Grazie mille.

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