Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cold beet soup / Aukstā zupa

Never having had a garden large enough for anything more than a few tomato plants, beans, peppers, radish and salad, I wasn’t exactly sure what potato harvesting entailed. From literature I knew they grew from “seed potatoes” which are pieces of the potato, and that harvesting can be labor-intensive.

As I explained in my previous post, our visit to see friends in Chatenet resulted in a potato harvest and a bag of goodies for us to take home. And that is how I came to be in the garden digging potatoes 18 weeks pregnant! It was actually easier than I had imagined, Nigel worked the ground, turning over the roots of the dead plants, and I plucked the potatoes out. Ever year he saves a few potatoes of each variety, chops them up for seed potatoes, and plants them in neat little rows. The importance of the neat rows, and of marking the start and end of each row and variety, became clear in the garden.  The green potato plants are long gone at harvest time; in fact while the plant is still living, the tubers are still growing.




We came home in abundance with the variety that did remarkably well this year, vitelotte. Yesterday I spent quite some time washing them, as well as the beets and carrots that we had been gifted. Then started the beet soup preparation; little did I know what I was in for!

I decided to use the recipe I found online here, partly because I had access to most of the ingredients, but mostly because of all the nice pictures, encouraging me that I’m following instructions correctly if my results look similar to the pictures. To my non-Latvian speaking readers, I’ve translated the recipe down below. However, I ran into quite a few snags including lack of availability of some ingredients (and hence, substitutions), uncertainty on some quantities of ingredients, and fatigue when I still hadn’t finished by 11pm.

The beets cooked exactly as they should, and the skins came off very easily. Then - my first liberty with the recipe, not clear on what 200 grams of cooled beet broth would be, I simply used enough to completely cover the chopped beets. I then skipped the chives, adding only dill and parsley (parsley from my balcony garden, dill from Carrefour, and again, not quite clear on quantities), skipped the milk sausage (any recommendations for substitutes out there?), and because I have yet to find kefir in the stores here, I added crème fraîche épaisse (clotted cream, used in several other cold soups).

With only these minor deviations my bowl looked nothing like the lovely pictures on fotoreceptes.com. I took quick action, adding a little milk and some water in order to make more of a soup than a beet salad. The rest of the recipe I followed to a T, and then Roberts came in for a visual inspection. “Smells right, right color” was the initial verdict.

I should also include the following warnings:
1. My hands are still stained red, two days later.
2. Beet juice will stain wood, plastic utensils and other surfaces, operate with care.
3. The resulting pink color is not easily found in nature, unless pepto bismol qualifies as nature.
4. The recipe results in enough soup for two dinners, so I will be freezing some.


And so, the following night we had beet soup for dinner. Or shall I say, Roberts and Lauris had beet soup for dinner. Final verdict? “Visually:  Perfect color. Professional presentation with the touch of parsley on the side.  Taste and Texture: Slightly larger beet and potato pieces than previously experienced, while the radishes are almost too finely-cut to notice.  Would add some chives. This was the best beet soup ever thank you honey you are the best.”

************

Cold beet soup

* The original recipe did not mention quantities for some ingredients and I took the liberty of including here the measurements I used.

6 beets
4 small cucumbers
kefir
milk sausage (? not sure how to translate….  I skipped this because I’m not a fan)
4 potatoes
4 eggs
a bunch of radish
chives, dill and parsley
mustard
one lemon
pepper, salt and sugar

1. Wash the beets after removing the leaves, put them in a large pot and heat to boiling, then reduce heat and let simmer for about an hour.
2.  To preserve the color and taste, drop the boiled beets into a bowl of cold water.
3. While the beets are cooling, wash four large potatoes and then boil those.
4. When the beets are cool, trim the ends and remove the skin, then cut into small pieces.
5. Take enough of the cooled beet broth to cover the beets and add a teaspoon of salt, two teaspoons sugar and the juice of one lemon, then pour over beets and let sit for two hours  
6. Once the potatoes are ready, peel and cut them into small cubes. They can be added to the beets when done marinating.
7. Finely chop the chives, dill and parsley (note: I used only dill and parsley as I could not find chives) and add to the mix.
8. Chop up the milk sausage and add that as well.
9. Add 1 L of kefir, mix thoroughly.
10. Chop the cucumber, add that.
11. Boil the eggs, peel and chop them (into semi-large pieces) as well before adding.
12. The radish also gets chopped into small pieces before being added.
13. Mix well, then refrigerate overnight.
14. For a little extra sharpness, add some mustard.

Voila!

Monday, August 29, 2011

A week of vinaigrette

Now that I’m almost completely over the morning sickness (why do they call it morning sickness if it lasts all day?) I’ve been able to get back in the kitchen. Although I was able to sneak back my grandmother’s rupjmaizes ieraugs (Latvian rye-bread starter) from Michigan on our last trip overseas (“excuse me ma’am, why didn’t you declare that gelatinous mass in your checked baggage?”), the bread baking is going to have to wait another month or so. Last week was hot here in Clermont-Ferrand, and although it cooled down considerably this weekend, the kitchen still heats up quickly. 

I've found a few more foods to add to that list I started at the beginning of the year of  foods not easily found here, including corn on the cob (thought of as being animal feed; sweet corn is sold in cans), salad dressings and many of the cheeses I’m used to cooking with (and for those who know of my love for Colby-jack, I’m still searching for anything similar!). Of course I don’t miss the American cheese and cheese whiz so much, but as I haven’t developed a taste for enmetal, which is the commonly used shredded cheese widely available here, I’m still searching for cheeses to use in various recipes. Oh, and kefir. But I had problems finding that in the US.

Lauris and Maksis in Chatenet


As for the salad dressing, we had made do with a pseudo ranch until we returned from the United States with those little ranch dressing mix packets, but I have been craving a change (why is French salad dressing called French if there is no comparable dressing here in France?). I had never made my own salad dressing, but having culinary geniuses among my friends I knew it should be easy and turn out tasty. So, I gave it a go with Emeril’s simple balsamic vinaigrette, and it came out delicious, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t made my own dressing before. And we had a delicious salad dinner.

With the heat wave continuing, I marinated chicken in the dressing, and served it cold over a salad tossed in the same the following night. And the day temperatures were the highest they’d been, a simple pasta salad with the remaining dressing tossed with rotini, red pepper, salami, red onion, and a cheese I’ve been experimenting with that comes in a red casing (don’t remember what it’s called, you could probably substitute provolone).

Lauris and Maksis sharing rocks


The weekend was spent in Chatenet (to read about our first visit, click here), visiting our friends before their long vacation. It turns out this is the ideal time to visit friends; they were busy harvesting the produce from their garden, and what would not keep in the root cellar either had to be eaten or given to visiting friends... As my balcony gardening experiment has completely failed (but that's a whole other post!) I was delighted to lend a hand with harvesting the potatoes, and this eventually resulted in a big bag of potatoes, beets (also called beetroot), carrots, beans, tomatoes, grapes, even a squash accompanying us home to Clermont-Ferrand.

This week will be an adventure in cooking. Not being a big fan of beets I have never prepared any before, but since Roberts's top-ten list of favorite foods includes aukstā zupa (cold beet soup), I have quite a bit of experimenting ahead of me! Wish me luck!

Friday, August 26, 2011

The BIG announcement

You know it's time to announce your pregnancy when...

1. ...sorting vacation pictures to find photos that don't reveal your baby bump becomes a two-week process

2. ...the "decoy drinking" tactic of ordering two glasses of beer when out with friends is resulting in too many calories for your husband

3. ...your realtor congratulates you on the pending addition while touring your apartment for needed repair work

4. ...your toddler likes your new belly button so much he's always trying to see it in public

5. ...you're dying to put one of those pregnancy timelines on your blog

6. ...all your clothes are elastic or the shape of a potato sack

7. ...after four months your husband finally notices you aren't joining him for sushi or a glass of wine anymore (just kidding)

8. ...to those polite inquiries (intended to elicit a confession) of "are you planning to have any more children?” you've begun answering “not once we find out what’s causing this condition"

9. ...you want to share your wonderful news with all your family and friends, as well as give them ample time to come up with nicknames

10. ...you want to post this picture


Due: January 25th, my brother's birthday


The echographie at 14 weeks



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lausanne, Switzerland and Lago Maggiore in Italy

On our way east we stopped at Lago di Garda, in close proximity to Verona, and enjoyed the detour very much. Beautiful scenery that differed from everything we had seen in France as well as Roberts’s love of water influenced our decision to take a different way home from Milan than through Torino, as we had come almost two weeks earlier. Driving north would take us to Lago Maggiore, perhaps the most famous of the Italian lakes.


These lakes in northern Italy are of glacial origin, narrow and long. Lago Maggiore is sheltered by the Alps and has a mild climate which allows for lush vegetation and colorful displays of flowers. We jumped off the main highway near Arona to take the smaller road closer to the lake, and spent the next couple of hours cruising up the west shore of the lower third of the lake, stopping often to admire the scenery and stretch our legs. Near Stressa we explored the option of taking a ferry to Isole Borromee, three islands belonging to the princely Borromeo family since the 16th century. In the 17th, Charles III established a residence on Isola Bella, named after his wife, and this palace is one of the major tourist destinations in Maggiore. Isola Madre is supposedly covered with gardens of flowers and rare/exotic plants, and the third island, Isola Pescatori still has a little fishing village. As Lauris chose this time to take a nap, we did not embark on a ferry journey, but instead decided to capitalize on the nap time of our most vocal passenger and continue north. After all, we had done plenty of the “ferry thing,” now was time for the “mountain thing.”

At the Simplon pass
And wow! Immediately upon entering Switzerland my jaw dropped, the scenery was just WOW! We pulled off at a little rest area at the Simplon pass, to snack and enjoy the mighty Alps surrounding us. Wow.


We ate dinner in Visp, a good meal of fish and potatoes, and for the first time since moving to France, Roberts looked to me for my language skills; I had chosen to study German in high school, and although the German spoken in Switzerland is reportedly not identical to German, I was able to understand enough to converse. This was short lived however, as we upon arrival in Lausanne we found that the proximity to France means French was the language of choice. For the curious, the official languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh (and the currency the Swiss Franc, which we had completely forgotten about having become so used to using euros wherever we go!).


Lausanne proved to be quite quaint, with its cobblestone streets and big Gothic cathedral in the middle of old town. That was our first stop the next morning, Cathédrale de Notre Dame, built in the 12th and 13th centuries. A walk through the nearby streets revealed a slight hitch in our plans; every street had a steep incline, the altitude change to Lake Geneva must have been 300 meters, and there was no way I was climbing back up, pushing the stroller up, that progressive incline to return to the car! So we drove down, and parked next to the Parc Olympique, located in Lausanne because it is home to the International Olympic Committee.

The Lausanne cathedral
The lakeside district is called Ouchy, and we strolled the boardwalk, enjoyed a pizza, checked out the playground, and spent at least an hour in a hundred-meter long wading pool with various fountains and waterfalls. To a family with a toddler, this pool was Lausanne’s best feature, and were it not for the call of home, we might have stayed longer.

Ouchy!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Top 25 Expat Mom Blogs

Circle of Moms (a major player in the on-line Mom world) informed me yesterday that my blog and interview for the “Top 25 Expat Moms” is featured this month. To read the interview, click here. With your votes, my Femme au Foyer blog reached 4th place in the world. I want to thank each person who voted, your support is valued and appreciated.

I’ve been asked several times what the prize was, and here is the answer: the pink button you now see on my sidebar, and flowers from my husband for the top-5 finish! J But mainly, I ‘met’ and learned from other impressive bloggers* and learned how such contests are organized.  I also discovered that I have some hard-core readers who are willing to click away daily to show support. (Thanks dad!)

Thanks again, and I hope that I can continue to earn your interest with future posts!


* One of the things I learned was how to notify readers by e-mail when a new blog is posted.  If interested, you can sign up to receive this email on the right hand sidebar.

Oh, and almost forgot to mention, my blog was also listed as a resource by EasyExpat.com in their article "Expat Kids- A Baby Abroad." It's kind of cool to find my blog "out there"....

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Top 10 things I learned in Italy

1. When stopping for a quick coffee or sandwich, order at the counter and enjoy the coffee standing; you can get immediate service, soak in the atmosphere and get your order for half price by avoiding the seating fee and rent for prime real estate on those tables out front.

2. Public bathrooms are few and far between, take advantage of the one in the restaurant or café you’ve just eaten at, that way you won’t waste time searching for one ten minutes down the road!

3. In a pinch, you can always stop in a nearby café and order a coffee in order to use the restroom... but beware, this will probably only delay the problem!

4. Speaking of toilets, many Italian public WCs have the stand-up variety. Better to be mentally prepared! 

5. A hotel room without a bidet is like a restaurant without pizza on the menu. And the bidet is the most interesting thing in the hotel room to a 15 month old.

6. In the tourist towns tables can fill quickly around lunchtime, and restaurants can also be expensive. But a pizza can be had quick and cheap, to fill you up until dinner and that pasta seafood dinner you’ve been looking forward to all day!

7. Remember to add a “no” to your bonjour in the mornings.

8. When booking hotels, aim for free parking, wi-fi and breakfast. These are not standard, and will quickly add to your hotel expenses to void that “great rate.”

9. Saldi does not mean the same thing it means in Latvian, “sweet.” It means “sale” and people will look at you funny if you ask to buy the shirts the mannequins are wearing advertising the sales.

10. Always stop at bars/cafés/restaurants that share a name with your husband!


Friday, August 19, 2011

Milano, Italy

With the leisurely wait for the ferry in Venice, we arrived in Milan at dinnertime. Since our hotel was close to the Duomo and city center, we headed in to see what we could see. The Duomo is a marvelous sight in the setting sun, with its belfries, gables and pinnacles. The white marble lets the sun bask it in a different color at different times of day, and at this point in the evening orange tones softened the sharp points, making it look a bit like a fairy castle. The Duomo is the most impressive structure I saw on our entire trip.


The following day using The Michelin Guide: Italy we explored the area surrounding the Duomo. My second favorite part of Milan was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a covered double arcade formed of two glass-vaulted arcades at right angles. It connects the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Scala with its da Vinci statue. The arcade was named after Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of united Italy, and was built in between 1865 and 1877. Both the piazzas and the arcades were filled with too-close-for-comfort vendors illegally hawking toys, bracelets, corn to feed the pigeons (it is a sad irony that the pigeons are mostly responsible for the deterioration of the Duomo!) and other junk. This was a much different feeling compared to Verona, where the vendors had more of a “street artist” feeling, and added to the charm of the city experience.


Headed northeast along via Dante past many of the famous stores, eventually we came to Castello Sforzesco, the 14th century castle that used to be the seat and residence of the Duchy of Milan and now houses several of the city's museums and art collections. Beyond the castle is Parco Sempione, which I now regret we didn’t explore further, but at this point in the day it was very hot, and from our vantage point we saw very little shade in the park.


We arrived at Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, a beautiful church that is mostly famous for its proximity to the Cenacolo, the former refectory of the monastery that houses “The Last Supper”  by Leonardo da Vinci. Although we were not able to see the painting that day, we did visit the church and grounds, and took a short break on the square.


Our next stop was Teatro alla Scala, maybe the most famous opera house in the world. From the outside it is pretty plain and unassuming, which is a complete opposite to the interior. From the magnificently plush auditorium (that seats 2,000) to the grand halls, one could imagine the reverberations brought by operas, and luminaries such as Toscanini and Verdi, an appearance by Maria Callas or Pavarotti.

A last tour through and around the Duomo enabled us to see the amazing pillars lining the nave and aisles, as well as get a different perspective of the Gothic cathedral. It was also refreshing to see officials enforcing the dress code for prospective visitors at the entrance, keeping all tank tops, short shorts, etc. outside. If only they would enforce the well-posted no-picture policy inside the church, maybe the absence of all those flashes going off could help preserve the art and interior.

The pigeons didn't expect competition
Our final stop the next morning was Giardini Pubblici, the “urban historical park” right next to our hotel. As we wandered through looking for a playground, we passed pony and carnival rides, ponds with carp larger than my head, and interesting tree species such as redwoods and other American natives. Finally, a playground, and once again Lauris finally got to roam free after a few days of focused tourism.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Venice and Lido, Italy

Lord Byron's "fairy city of the heart" may be slowly sinking, but the band is staying with the ship! From the accordionists serenading diners in canal-side restaurants to the church bells ringing from every corner of the island, the city is alive and kicking, determined to have a great time.

Out of the way canals were just as romantic as the historic ones!
There are many options on island access and accommodations, and we chose to stay on Lido Island, a resort island to the east of Venice, and to bring our car along. The adventure started with a drive over the Ponte della Liberta bridge, taking us from mainland to the island of Venice. From there we crossed to the Isola del Tronchetto, where we caught the ferry-boat to Lido. Roberts has previously been to Venice, but my first impressions were formed while cruising the Canale della Giudecca past the Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco and seeing the masses of people among the canals, bridges and stately water’s-edge houses lining the shores.


There was also a great view of the passing cruise ships


Because of our afternoon arrival we did not make the ferry trip back that day to Venice, but a visit to the Lido beach before dinner was a refreshing after the car trip and boat voyage. Lauris giggled and stomped, running in and out of the surf, at first with clothes, then in diaper, finally like other kids in his birthday attire.


In any other city you have a public transportation system of buses and trains; for Venice, it is ferries and fast boats. After breakfast we bought a 12-hour pass; this was a great decision, because it allowed us freedom in our wanderings. One adult ticket cost 6.50 euro, one 12-hour pass, 16. Three rides made up for the difference, and I believe we took at least five. They run very regularly, it is relatively easy to understand the routes, and they have a back (outside, but covered) deck with seats that allows for the ultimate lazy sightseeing of the action in and next to the canal – we went straight to the back each time we boarded.  


A ferry back deck view

Venice is split into two by the Canal Grande, a north and a south. The canal makes a big backwards "S" which allows the S. Polo quarter to be encompassed by the south half, despite being north of the S. Marco district, and this was our first destination. We explored the I Frari Franciscan church, then the streets leading to Ponte di Realto, the famous bridge that was first built in 1591 but is currently traversable in its sixth incarnation.

Lauris waving to the ferry boat from the Realto bridge
Then it was on to Piazza San Marco, the heart of Venice. We fed pigeons near the Basilica and Palazzo Ducale, then went looking for the Ponte dei Sospiri. The 16th century "Bridge of Sighs" connects the Palace with the prisons, and owes its name to the romantic notion that held that the prisoners would suffer their final torment at the view of Venice from the window. However, we were not to have our view of the bridge; currently under restoration, and only part of the facade was visible.

Obligatory picture of feeding the pigeons
After a quick cafe stop while Lauris slept we hopped back on the ferry to do some back deck sightseeing. We took the #2 boat all the way to the end of the line past the train station, and then jumped on a return ferry to get to Ca’ d’Oro. The best view of Ca’d’Oro is from the water, and rather than enter the palace to view the art collection, we followed signs leading the way to “Kristaps Ģelzis ‘Artificial Peace’ contemporary landscape” art exhibit. There must have been some internationally-themed art focus during our visit, as we later saw signs leading to the exhibits of other countries, but for us Latvia’s exhibit was enough. The signs took us down the back streets, past an under-reconstruction, drained canal, to Palazzo Albrizzi, where we viewed the exhibit, signed the guestbook, and continued on our way east. We passed a handful of beautiful churches, stopped for one or two coffees, shopped in at least two little shops (we did not make the trip to glassmaking island Murano, but did find some Murano glass to purchase as a souvenir) and finally came to the gates of the Arsenal. Closed to the public, it is a modern naval base, a depository for arms, as well as a shipyard that was the reason for Venice’s maritime power many years ago.

Lauris with Pinocchio, who is from a small Italian village
Another ferry trip later we found ourselves on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute, the basilica built to mark the end of the Plague epidemic of 1630. In this corner of the Dorsoduro district there were few tourists, and many beautiful little side streets. Here we also found a good restaurant for dinner; we sat outside overlooking the Canale Della Giudecca while the sun set, eating our fresh pasta and seafood, sipping a glass of wine, being serenaded by a passing accordionist. It was a delicious end to a wonderful day.


The next morning after breakfast we headed to the beaches on Lido, taking turns playing in the surf. Once we’d had our fill of the sun it was on to catch the vaporetto that would take us back to the mainland dock and the bridge to the rest of Italy. All three of us sat on deck, watching the palaces and churches of Venice slip past one more time while thinking of all we had seen and done in the past two days.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Verona, Italy and Lago di Garda

Another two hours east of Torino is Verona, but west of Verona is Lago di Garda, the largest lake in Italy. Getting there in August takes patience, as the tiny roads were jammed with RVs, scooters, pedestrians, bicycles and cars. But we made it to Bardolino, on the southeast shore. The south end of the lake has beaches, while the west bank is all steep slopes, and although the east shore has interspersed beaches, the banks are mostly steep as well, due to Monte Baldo and the mountains to the east.

We ate our picnic lunch on a bench with a view over the lake, wishing for a breeze but staying sticky. I read later that the Dolomites to the north shelter the lake from any north winds, and although this provides a very mild climate, the south end of the lake was hot! After a little encounter with a restaurant owner barking at us in German (as we entered the internal portion of a restaurant that appeared to be a welcoming café but was in fact closed, a loud “wo gehen sie?” at a couple with a baby), we drove farther north to Malcesine searching for the cable car that would take us to the summit of Mount Baldo. We found it, but were warned that the view was cloudy (the sales desk selling the tickets provides a live video feed from the summit to aid your purchase decision), and opted to only go up only halfway. The view was impressive, but on our drive up the curving road that hugged the shore of the lake we had many beautiful views. We reached the town of Torbole, on the very north tip of the lake, then turned east through the mountains to reach the highway and Verona. The traffic in the opposite direction was backed-up at least two hours entering Torbole; we were glad to be heading on the outbound lane!

The view from Mount Baldi
A center of art, Verona is best known by tourists for the Shakesperean legacy of Romeo and Juliet. Based on the Verona of 1302 which was consumed by political conflict, the tragic couple belonged to rival families: Romeo to the Montechi (Montagues) and Juliet to the Capuleti (Capulets). The Verona we saw had this romantic aspect, but was also the most tourist-filled city on our trip so far, with everyone from Roman legionnaires to Zena, the Warrior Princess actively seeking to pose for pictures in return for a euro or two.

The gates leading into Piazza Bra
We started in Piazza Bra and the Arena in the city center, then wandered side streets to Casa Giulietta, where one can enter the courtyard to see the famous balcony (from which the storied Juliet spoke ‘O Romeo, Romeo…’) for free, but can ascend the stairs and stand on said balcony for a fee. It was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded, and so we headed on to Piazza Herbe, which was also crowded with its tourist market and cafes. (tip: take a right turn out of Juliet’s courtyard and enter the gelato place on the right; cones-to-go for - 1.50 euros each.) The Piazza dei Sigmori was less crowded, and we caught our breaths and admired the Venetian-Renaissance buildings surrounding the square before continuing to the river.

"O Romeo, Romeo! whereforth art thou Romeo?"
It is possible to cross the bridge on the north side of the peninsula and climb the stairs of the Teatro Romano to the terraces, which offer great views of Verona. However, although some of the stairs are stroller friendly, Roberts had quite a carry up the rest. With Lauris growing, the stroller is increasingly a better city-tour choice, even with the stroller-carrying stair-climbs that would be much easier with a baby backpack.

One tired mom and toddler after the climb to the terraces
With stops for snacks and coffee we eventually ended up at Castelvecchio and Ponte Scaligero, a castle complete with stone bridge over the Adige. The art museum is on one side, but we opted to cross the bridge and enjoy the views. Roberts was the first to notice a family furtively looking around with GPS in hand, and after watching them circle for at least twenty minutes I couldn't resist thinking of the times that I had been geocaching in similar circumstances. After they finally left, we made the find for ourselves, then backtracked to a restaurant we had seen on our walk in. After a last look at the ampitheatre in the fading daylight (which was now filling up for an opera), it was back to the hotel and a good night's sleep for this Romeo, Juliet and Lauris.

A delicious dinner
PS. Today in France is a public holiday, feast day of Assumption of Mary. Wishing everyone bon fête!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Torino, Italy and Sacra di San Michele

Just as the French love their roundabouts, the Italians love their toll roads; our welcome to the country was a 36-euro toll for the use of the 13-km Tunnel du Fréjus that took us under the mountains. This was followed in succession by at least four more tolls, ranging from 5 to 15 euro each. We were prepared for this, as the Michelin trip planner calculated our tolls before the trip, but it still came as a shock to fork over money in such a short time.

Not three hours later we arrived at Sacra di San Michele. To reach it we took an exit before Torino, then a small winding road that took us up to the mountaintop where the Benedictine abbey was built at the end of the tenth century by Hughes de Montboissier from the Auvergne. The views of the Alps were a bit hazy, but still impressive, as the abbey is perched on a rocky spur with views in all directions. A 12th century sculpture by Nicolò framing the "Zodiac Doorway" was beautifully intricate, and the flying buttresses over the ascent to the church were especially impressive. Lauris had an applesauce snack on a terrace overlooking the valley, and a bit later mom had a coffee "snack" at the local café.
 

Sacra di San Michele

After arriving in Torino, we checked in then headed to Piazza Carlo Alberto, right smack-dab in the center of the city, for dinner. The hotel concierge recommended a restaurant right on the piazza, and we learned our lesson; delicious food, prices reflecting the prime people-watching, but VERY small portions. However the piazza with its view of San Carlo and San Cristina churches was a terrific first impression of a city best known for the automobile factories.

We began our sightseeing in the same piazza the next morning, and headed north past the Museo Egizio, which supposedly houses one of the richest Egyptian collections outside of Cairo, and through the courtyard of the Museo Nazionale before arriving in Piazza Castello, bordered by the Royal Palace and Teatro Regio. We chose not to visit the Shroud of Turin in the Duomo, in which Christ had been rumored to have been wrapped after the Descent from the Cross, but admired the Duomo from the outside, as well as the 2nd century Roman ruins across the street.

I loved the auseklīts accents in the courtyard of the Museo Nazionale
Eventually we found ourselves on Via Po, created between the 17th and 18th centuries to connect the historic centre to the River Po, with its palaces and arcades. The arcades are really a beautiful part of Torino, and they serve a very functional purpose as well; we could have spent the entire day walking and never had to emerge into the hot sun except to cross the occasional street, but even most streets had covered pedestrian walkways. I admired the frescoes on the arcades while walking, it seemed like no two buildings had the same designs. A two hour coffee break while Lauris napped refueled the parents as well, and we emerged on Piazza Vittorio Veneto, according to the hotel receptionist the largest piazza in Europe, ready for more walking. From the piazza there was a good view of the surrounding hills and the church on nearby Monte dei Cappuccini.

Does it still count as the largest piazza in Europe if there is a road running through it?
Back near the hotel we found a playground with a perfect combination of children, shade and playground equipment Lauris's size, and stayed until a thunderstorm threatened. After the storm we zigzagged the streets nearby, searching for a restaurant to satisfy our appetites. Our find, Ristorante Sorriso was perfect; great pasta (even if a little salty), attentive waitstaff, and an owner that chatted with Lauris and personally brought him a book in Italian, although Lauris wouldn't let him read it aloud, he wanted to read it himself. And we all know who is in charge, which is why the following morning we made one more stop before hitting the road: the playground.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Annecy and the Gorges du Fier

The first stop on our northern Italy road trip? Annecy, France! We were looking to break up the first leg of the trip into a more manageable driving chunk, but Annecy turned out to be worth the stop! Only three and a half hours from Clermont-Ferrand with scenic viewpoints the whole way: sunflower fields mixed with mountains, forests and little towns. The Alps were visible in the distance almost from Lyon, and when we turned north into the valley that led to Lake Annecy we were in the mountains.

My first impression of Annecy wasn't the most positive, as we drove through an industrial area to get to the city centre (my impression was later completely reversed). After checking into the hotel we immediately set out again, hoping to make it to nearby Gorges du Fier before it closed. A gorge caused by water eroding deep into a sandstone bed, we made it to the ticket booth minutes before last entry. With Lauris in the baby backpack we set out over a bridge before turning into a narrow walkway that led into the gorge.  The catwalk hugged the cliff wall, and Roberts had to be vigilant that he didn't bump Lauris's head on all the rocks jutting out from the cliff face. The gorge was impressive, worth the hurry to get in on time and the entry fee with its steep twists and turns, colorful walls and swiftly flowing water 25m below. I only wish there had been a good vantage point of the river entering the gorge, that would have been icing on the cake.


It was soon after our return to Annecy and downtown that my impressions were reversed. We walked a few short blocks into the old town and were in a different world than the one we drove into. Known as the "Venice of France" due to its many canals and access to buildings from the water, the pedestrian alleys are narrow with flowers cascading from balconies and ice cream vendors and cafes doors open for business. We ate outside, tourists watching tourists stroll by, then headed deeper into the city.

The main old town district is situated on a peninsula jutting out into the lake with the European Gardens on the tip. From the park there were wonderful views of the mountains and across the lake, as well as plenty of space for Lauris to run around after a long day in carseats, strollers and the backpack.


Our wanderings through the city the next day took us past Palais de l'Isle, a castle on an island in the middle of a canal, and near Cathedrale St. Pierre of the early 16th century. We did not climb up the hill to Château d'Annecy, but did admire the views from the bottom while eating ice cream cones. Our check-out time came, as usual, too quickly, but we packed up the car and headed for Italy, ready for pasta, gelato and una bella vacanza.

Monday, August 8, 2011

England Part III: Stonehenge and London

We woke early Sunday morning, kidnapped Alnis from his Čikāgas Piecīši responsibilities (see previous London post), piled into the rental car and headed south. Destination, Stonehenge. We made it from Rugby in under two hours thanks to Roberts's left-side-of-the-road driving skills, my navigation and the rest of the passengers catering to Lauris's whims in the back.

With low expectations due to Lonely Planet's description of "a ring of stones, ringed by barbed wire in a field next to a noisy main road," initial impressions were predictable. It was indeed very close to a busy road, and we joined the tourist hordes in the queue to purchase tickets. At £7.50 for adults admission could have been more expensive, but it included an audio tour gadget and brochure. The line wound around, through the tunnel under the road, and then all the way around the legendary stones. Clutching our cameras we first stared at the amount of people, but quickly diverted our attention to Stonehenge, which in reality was smaller even than it looked from the road.

A rare tourist sighted on the Stonehenge side of the rope
We knew we would not be able to approach the stones, but were surprised to get as close as we did. The imposing string of rope with small signs behind it turned out to be a blessing; it was possible to gt pictures of the stone monument without the hundreds of people visible behind. I've decided that if I ever get a chance to return to this area, I will try to book an early morning or late evening Stone Circle Access Visit when only 26 visitors are allowed to wander among the stones.

After a pit stop we hurried east, to get Alnis to the Polish house POSK back in London, on time for his rehearsal. Then we returned to the Daugavas Vanagu Fonda Londonas Nams to catch our breath before heading out to visit the Princess Diana Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. I shouldn't have been surprised to see the queue of parents with strollers waiting to get in! Thankfully by the time Daina ordered and got ice cream cones for all the kids (and me) from the nearby cafe we were at the front of the line and strolled right in. Now I will say it; this park was the highlight of our trip.

Lauris with the crew
An enormous pirate ship, elf cabins, a "sensory trail" and even a beach area with fountains and running water, we could have spent days there. A top recommendation for any family with children, although I would try to avoid peak tourist times as we did have to wait in line. However, there was plenty of stuff to do for everyone, from Annelī (11) to Lauris (1), and we left only in search of food, the kids satisfied and pleasantly exhausted.

Dinner was another delicious affair, with fish and chips for the majority of our party. I will say, I made the most of English cuisine; between the "Codfather," normal fish and chips, vinegar on my fries, a meat pie (steak and ale), and jacket potatoes, I only lacked bangers and mash, and due to my avoidance of anything gravy-related this will have to wait. (High tea and scones with cream didn't make the menu this time either, but this is on my short list of reasons to return!)

Always room for ice cream
Back at the guest house a few postcards were written, a few games of cards played, a few kids put to bed, a few more conversations had and then it was bedtime, for everyone had early flights the next morning. Surprised at the amount of sightseeing we were able to cram into so little time, happy Lauris got to spend more time with Edgars, Andis and Annelī, and not quite ready to head back home I drifted off to sleep and dreams of big red buses...

Friday, August 5, 2011

A summer-ly post

Natalia over at Ma Nouvelle Mode is hosting a photo contest, and so although this picture has already made its appearance on my blog, I am reposting it along with a few words...


Sometimes you remove the seeds. Other times, you eat them first.



Wednesday, August 3, 2011

England Part II: Straumēni and Rugby

For English, please scroll down

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Iemesls, kamdēļ lidojām uz Angliju bija lai satikt Cerus, un iemesls kamdēļ viņi tur lidoja, bija jo Alnis tur koncertēja ar „Čikāgas piecīšiem.” Un tā varētu arī teikt, ka mēs lidojām uz Londonu lai redzētu „Piecīšus.”

„Čikāgas piecīši” šogad svin savu zelta jubilēju. Jaunākais CD „Visiem latvju bērniem” ieskaita dziesmas no gaidu un skautu Lielām nometnēm, kā arī populārās „Mazais letiņš” un „Sarauj’ Latvija.” Pēdejo reizi Anglijā tie spēlēja 1974. gadā, un šoreiz tie piestājās ceļā uz Latviju savā „Beidzot 50!” tūrē. Sestdien, 30. jūlijā bija pirmais tūres koncerts DVF Straumēnos, kas ir tuvu Rugby pilsētiņai, un tā piektdienas vakarā jau sakāpām īres mašīnā un braucām uz ziemeļiem no Londonas.


Sestdien vispirms aizbraucām izpētīt Straumēnus. Tur ir skaista 19.g.s. lauku muiža, 22 akru parks, baznīca, skaisti puķu dārzi un vēl dīķītis. To 1975. gadā sāka apsaimniekot Anglijas Daugavas Vanagu Fonds, un šodien to lieto „netikai latviešu draudzes un latviešu organizācijas, bet arī vietejā angļu sabiedrība, ieskaitot profesionālas grupas, labdarības organizācijas un privātas personas dažādiem komerciāliem, sabiedriskiem un atpūtas pasākumiem.” Piecīši jau mēģināja savu programmu Vecā zālē, un krēsli bija salikti tur un blakus zviedru zālē. Drīz uznāca ēstgriba, un braucām tālāk pa laukiem uz Rugby, piestājoties mazā Clifton Upon Dunsmore miestiņā uz pusdienām.

Pēc garšīgas „jacket potato” maltītes (tā Anglijā sauc ceptu kartupeli ar sieru un citiem ēdieniem iekšā) turpinājām uz Rugby, kur pirmo reizi spēlēja „rugby” sportu 1823. gadā. Pastaigājām par pilsētiņu, izskatijām „rugby” muzēju, piestājām tūristu birojā nopirkt kādu pastkartiņu, un beidzot nonācām skaistā „Caldecott” parkā kur visi bērni (un dūšā jaunie) kārtīgi izskrējās.

Rokzvaigznes Alberts Vītols, Alberts Legzdiņš un Alnis Cers
Tad bija laiks doties atpakaļ uz Straumēniem uz koncertu! Kaut zāles nebija ideālas šim tipa uzvedumam, un Zviedru zālē bija grūtāk dzirdēt, koncerts iznāca pavisam labs. Vispirms uzstājās Fišeru ģimene, un drīz jau „Piecīši” uznāca skatuvē. Skanēja pazīstamas dziesmas visu nakti, ieskaitot „Pazudušais dēls” un „Latvijai.” Otrā pusē „Man garšo alus” klausītājus visus tā sajūsmināja, ka skatītāji izskatijās kā vilnis šūpojoties līdzi, un piedziedājumu visi dziedāja. Mana mīļāka dziesma kuŗu uzveda bija „Hei Lailī,” pie koncerta beigām, kuŗai atkal bija komponēti ļoti piemēroti un jocīgi pantiņi.

Ar pilnu mašīnu nogurušiem bērniem braucām atpakaļ uz hoteli lai izgulētos nākamās dienas piedzīvojumiem - Stonehenge un Londona!

* Kaut mums neiznāca nākamā vakarā tikt uz koncertu Poļu namā Posk, Londonā, tur piestājām pirms koncerta apskatīt zāli un noklausīties īsu daļiņu no mēģinājuma. Zāle bija skaista, akustika varena, un nožēloju, ka nevarēju tikt uz abiem koncertiem. Pieņemu, ka otrais koncerts bija tik pat lustīgs, ja ne vairāk, kā pirmais! Novēlu „Čikāgas piecīšiem” visu labāko savos turpmākajos koncertos Latvijā! Tiem kuŗiem interesē redzēt šo vēsturisko grupu, tā tūrēs sekojošās pilsētas;
5. augustā Siguldas pilsdrupās
7. augustā Uzvaras parkā Jelgavā
13. augustā Alūksnes pilssalas estrādē
14. augustā Bauskas pilskalna estrādē
18. augustā Valmieras pilsētas estrādē
19. augustā Latvijas Nacionālā teātrī, Rīgā

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Our reason for the recent trip to England was to meet with my aunt and her family. The reason for their trip was Alnis’s band, Čikāgas Piecīši (which translates as „The Chicago Five” representing the original five members) is on tour to commemorate their 50th anniversary. The group has had almost thirty people participating over the years, although the core remains the same. Alnis joined in the mid-1980s, and their last concert in England was in 1974. This time they played two concerts in England before heading to Latvija on their Beidzot 50! (Finally 50!) tour. We headed out Friday night to Rugby, en route to their Saturday concert in Straumēni.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we stayed at the Daugavas Vanagu Fonda Londonas Nams in London. The Daugavas Vanagu Fonds is a Latvian welfare organization that manages the guesthouse on the side. They also manage Straumēni, a twenty-two acre estate with a 19th century manor, church, banquet halls, bar, English gardens and a pond. Used for all sorts of Latvian events, it is also popular with the English as a wedding, conference and meeting venue. This was our first stop Saturday morning, and as the band practiced we explored the beautiful grounds and gardens – Roberts remarked that they reminded him of the famous Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia.


Our next stop was the nearby village of Clifton Upon Dunsmore, for a delicious meal of “jacket potatoes” (a baked potato loaded with toppings of your choosing) and fish and chips. Then we hopped back into the rental car and headed back to Rugby, whose claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of rugby football. Rugby was first played there in the local school in 1823, and after a quick stop at the rugby museum we purchased Lauris his very first rugby ball, made by the authentic Webb Ellis manufacturers. Our final stop in Rugby was Caldecott park, that had very cool playground equipment including a zip line and a skateboard ramp simulator. Then it was time to head back to Straumēni for the concert.

The Ellis statue and the Rugby school where it all started
The opening band was the Fisher family, with a cool Latvian zydeco style. Then to much applause, Čikāgas Piecīši took the stage. Playing all the old favorites that I grew up with, the audience often sang along and swayed with the music. It was late when the rental car full of tired kids headed back to the hotel, to get some rest for the next day’s adventures in Stonehenge and London.

* Although we didn’t make it to their next concert in the Polish house Posk in London, we did stop by before the show to check out the venue and listen to some of rehearsal. The hall was very nice, with great acoustics, and I assume that the second concert went just as well, if not better than the first. Wishing Čikāgas Piecīši all the best during the rest of their tour in Latvija! If anyone in the area is interested in seeing this historical band, they will be playing on the following dates;
August 5th in Sigulda
August 7th in Uzvaras park in Jelgava
August 13th in Alūksne
August 14th in Bauska
August 18th in Valmiera
August 19th at the National Theatre in Rīgā
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