Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Adventures in Italy - Rick Steves Style

So this spring (yes I know it's almost fall), my husband and I went to Italy for the best of culture, art, and architecture in Italy; Rome, Florence and Venice.  And so of course being a faithful PBS viewer I had to take my Rick Steve's Italy book along.  Instead of blogging about our entire trip, I wanted to highlight all of the BEST (in our opinion) aspects of touring with 'Rick'.

Our book, de-binded and ready for travel

So the crazy thing about the Rick Steve's book, is he literally tells you to take it apart. We sliced the binding up right before we left and made compact purse sized travel guides for each city.  Crazy and genius!  There is nothing more 'touristy' than walking around with a giant book, but when I had little bite size booklets I could discreetly figure out where we are going, what we should be eating, and of course where could we find the best gelato.

The other amazing tip we picked up on was that Rick Steve's has free audio guides.  Download the app and you will get detailed histories, including maps of all the best sites in Rome, Florence and Venice. As we walked through the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or the Colosseum in Rome we had Rick's cheery voice in our earbuds guiding us through the best of the best.

Audio Europe

And the last crazy great travel tip we got from Rick Steve's book was to download maps to our phone.  With maps on our phone we could be total insiders as we wandered around lost in Venice, AND these maps download for offline mode, which is essential for us Americans traveling in Europe with limited data.
The one we used was City Maps 2 Go by Ulmon http://www.ulmon.com/#get-the-app

So those are my three amazing tips from Rick Steve, but the actual information in his book is pretty awesome too.  We joked that the only times we had a bad meal in Italy was when we didn't consult his dining guide before we picked a restaurant :)  And since why does anyone go to Italy but to eat (oh and see amazing architecture and art) good dining recommendations are pretty important.  So here were some of our all time favorites out of the Rick Steve's book.

The Collosseum

So when in Rome, eat as the Romans, and that means do NOT eat by the Colosseum! Yeah, if you are starving, you may cave and get an overpriced pizza but the best places to eat are a short walk away in the Monti neighborhood.  We followed Rick's recommendations to Taverna Romana and had an incredible homemade fettucine with boar and the most delicious ricotta cake I ever put in my mouth.  https://www.yelp.com/biz/taverna-romana-roma-4

Another touristy area is Piazza Navona, and yeah we definitely had a spritz and watched people wandering through, but when dinner time came, we went just a little south to 'Cul de Sac'. There we enjoyed duck ravioli and tagliatelle with hare ragout with a lovely abruzzi vino.

So with such dining success we headed north to Florence to sample some of that incredible Tuscan food, oh yeah and see pretty much every piece of Renaiisance art we learned about in Art History Class.
Do I even need to label this one??
The hauntingly beautiful Mary Magdalene by Donatello
Again Rick Steves did not steer us wrong. I think the most amazing meals we had in Italy were in Florence.  One of his suggestions was freely admitted to 'look' like a tourist trap, but it was actually incredibly good food and a really fun atmosphere. Trattoria Za Za on Piazza del Mercato Centrale served us up some seafood pasta and the most delicious beef loin with cream and green peppercorn sauce.  And if you are a true carnivore be sure to try the bistec alla florentine while you are there.

We stayed a little north of downtown so we ended up at this incredible family run restaurant near the Academia called Ristorante Cafiggi.  I loved this place because it had three generations of family working there, and it was obvious they put a lot of love into their meals.  The charmingly grumpy matriarch taught me how to properly order house wine in Italian and helped me with all my pronunciations.  We had a beautiful ravioli with walnut cream sauce, cooked to perfection lamb chops, and peas.  Oh the peas in Italy were like no other pea I have ever tasted.  I think I fell in love....

Lastly we went to Venice.  What to say about Venetian food... very expensive, and many mediocre places and I think Rick Steve's is honest about that as well.  We found a few great meals there; an incredible mushroom risotto, great pizza and some very interesting squid ink fettucines and razor clams, but the tip I will give to you about Venice restaurants is if there is a picture map of their menu outside the establishment, just keep walking.  And in Venice it is fun to keep walking... there are so many great places to get lost in that city.  But really, if you are in Venice, go ahead and splurge on a coffee at the Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco and listen to the orchestra.  It is just an experience that must be had.  and don't rush.... Italy is not for rushing....
San Marco, St Marks Cathedral

Happy Travels!!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Northern Lights in Iceland - All the Details

It seems this is the year to go to Iceland for the Northern Lights...  IcelandAir has been putting out some great deals, the dollar is strong against the Icelandic Kroner, and the northern lights are in an active cycle.  We jumped on the bandwagon and went this November, and since a few other people I know are planning the same I thought I'd share my trip to help others plan and make the best of their stay on this beautiful island.

One of the biggest questions I had was what to pack.... I'm from Colorado so I am used to some cold winter temps but NOT used to the bone chilling humidity and wind that comes from such a wet island. The kind that freezes through your jeans and makes your toes and fingers go numb.  So packing list item #1 is Thermals.   Item #2 is a good pair of hiking boots.  The key is getting something that is waterproof and has good tread. There is a lot of ice and wet and so those fuzzy fashion Ugg boots will just not work well.
Item #3 is a waterproof/windproof jacket and Item #4 is a good pair of gloves and hat. Of course if you forget the hat and gloves you can pick up a lovely hand knit icelandic wool set from just about every single store in Reykjavik..... Oh and last but not least, pack your sunglasses.  It's not always sunny there but the sun is low in the winter so when it is sunny, it is right smack in your eyes.
My dress code for November in Iceland

So now you've packed your bag, what to do when you get there?

We were there for only four days but we still packed a lot into the trip.
First off, I'd recommend you have a ride to your hotel from the Keflavik airport booked before you arrive.
I booked our transfer on FlyBus+ and paid the extra little cost to go right to our hotel. Well worth it!   Flybus - Reykjavik Excursions
Grayline is another bus transfer provider that seemed to be a good option and had shorter lines.
Here's my little tip though... know the name of your hotel and know how to pronounce it properly.  Iceland is full of very organized people and their transportation system is fantastic but not if you don't know your own hotel (yes I sadly saw some Americans who couldn't communicate this simple piece of information to their bus drivers)

When we arrived at our hotel (Hotel Klettur which I would highly recommend as a good budget friendly hotel) it was only 8 am so we couldn't check in... Not to worry they had a room to store our bags and off we went to explore the town.  My very few thoughts on Reykjavik

1. There are two main shopping streets, Laugavegur which runs sort of east/west, and Skolavordustigur, which runs from the Hallgrimskrkja (the really big church) and intersects Laugavegur. Everything you ever wanted to buy from Iceland are on these streets.
2. Old Reykjavik, the Old Harbour and the Tjornin Lake are also a must visit; especially watching the swans in the Tjornin, or if it is frozen over there is ice skating.
3. We got the city card which if you like to visit museums I would recommend as almost all the museums are free with the card, plus free bus transportation.  Our favorite museum was the National Museum, but also make sure to stop and visit Hallgrimka and Harpa concert hall if you are into architecture.
4. The Icelandic language is pretty hard to pronounce, and everyone speaks english but try and learn at least how to say good morning - Góðan daginn. (Goh-than da-yin.) and Thank you - Takk. (Tahk. or Tahk Fyrir)
Laugavegur at night, or should I say at 4 pm

The one interesting thing to note about Icelandic dining is that you don't request the check at restaurants. When you are done eating you just go up to the register and pay. I think it is a security thing and it makes A LOT of sense.  This was the case even at nice restaurants.  And there's no tipping or tax added on to cost in the menu, it is all inclusive. And definitely bring your chip card, as that is the only way to pay there.

Our Favorite dining spots were
1. Breakfast: Grai Kotturinn (I think it is the Grey Cat in english)  A really good place to get a proper eggs, bacon potato breakfast.  It's on Hverfisgata St and takes a little finding but is worth it after a long overnight flight
2. Lunch:  Honestly we didn't have many great lunches in Reykjavik. All the sandwiches were too mayonaisse-y for our tastes.  Our favorite lunch was a nice meat soup and some fresh bread we had during the golden circle tour so I would recommend meat soup if you can find it
3. Dinner: Our favorite dinner hands down was Hofnin Restaurant at the Old Harbour. Very reasonable for excellent seafood. If you can get online and make a reservation they will seat you at the table by the window which was quite lovely.
The lamb, the seafood and the beer are the real treats in Iceland.  All are excellent! They are also very proud of their skyr (yogurt)

Last but not least, our excursions.

Most of them were pre-booked with our IcelandAir trip and they were all very enjoyable.
1. Northern Lights boat trip by Special Tours - They have very warm suits to put on and they boat you out past the city lights where you can watch the northern lights, provided it is a clear night.  If you want to get a photo of the lights, be sure to bring the right kind of camera... we did not have one so had to rely on the photos that the tour group put up on Facebook
Photo from Special Tours Northern Lights trip

2. Blue Lagoon - We went on this as part of a package deal from Reykjavik excursion.  The Lagoon is almost an hour drive from Reykjavik but was really well worth it.
The Blue Lagoon
3. The Golden Circle Tour - I arranged this separately from our IcelandAir package and it was probably the highlight of the trip.  We took our trip through Iceland Horizons because they have smaller busses and we had a great guide. It takes you to Thingvellir National Park (where two continental plates meet), the Gulfoss Waterfall, and Geyser (where there are of course lots of geysers)
Gulfoss Waterfall 

And well I guess that's about all you can fit in a long weekend.  We really enjoyed the people and the beauty of Iceland and hope to get back there soon for a nice summer adventure.

Happy Travels!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Making Homespun Yarn for knitting - A beginner's adventure

One of my great personal accomplishments of the year was something that people have been doing for thousands of years, making homespun yarn.

If you have read any of my posts, I wrote last summer on how I processed the wool, cleaning it, sorting it, pulling it, dying it and finally carding it into fluffy batts ready for spinning.

The final step, which took much longer than it should have, was spinning the batts into yarn. 
I had a friend who taught me the ropes of hand spinning, even gave me a hand spindle, but she also gave me a great book which was an invaluable tool for reference when she wasn't around. 
It is called "Spin Dye Stitch - How to create and use your own yarn" by Jennifer Claydon  and I would highly recommend it if you want to start your own adventure of making yarn. Here is a link to it on Amazon.

So I am one of those people who just dive in and try something out, trying to learn it myself. I am sure there are also great classes out there at your local knitting store, but I really think we shouldn't be afraid to try something on our own. I mean maybe you make a huge mess, who cares? that is half the fun!  And we learn so much more by our failures then when we get something on the first try.

The book I recommended starts off with instructions on how to spin with a drop spindle or a wheel.  I used a drop spindle. You have to start with carded or combed fiber; I was lucky enough to have wool from my sister's sheep that I had processed and carded, but you could easily pick up some fun fiber at your local yarn shop. 
I learned to spin using the park and draft technique.  Spinning has two parts, the twist and the pull. 
The pull or draft is what makes your yarn thin, the twist is what keeps the fibers together. The park and draft helps separate the two processes and I found was really great for a beginner.  Basically, you put lots of twist in a short piece of yarn, and then release that twist as you pull your fiber. I am sure I am doing a terrible job explaining it, but I bet there's at least two dozen youtube videos about it.

Once you spin some yarn, you have to take it off your spindle, to spin MORE yarn.  My friend gave me the great idea of buying those little plastic practice golf balls with the holes in them.  You slip the end of your spun yarn into the hole and then unroll your yarn onto the ball. And then spin out more fiber.

Now that you have all these golf balls of yarn, you will have to ply your yarn.  I guess you don't have to make two ply yarn, but I think it makes for a better and more stable yarn for knitting

The book I recommended gives great  instructions on plying the yarn.  I thought the most useful tip was to use coffee mugs to hold your balls in. Trust me, if you don't keep your yarn balls contained, things can get tangled up pretty quickly!  And make sure you have time when you sit down and do this. It is not something that you can put down and come back to later. And remember, whichever direction you spun your yarn, you have to go the opposite direction to ply. If you spun clockwise, ply counterclockwise.

After you have plied your yarn, it has to get put onto a niddy noddy to make a skein. What a cool name for such a strange thing!  I have heard they are expensive, but you can easily make one yourself for a few dollars getting pvc from the hardware store.  The book explains how to use one, but I confess I always get mixed up and have to look it up online too.  Here's a good site I found that explains how to make and use a niddy noddy 

Here is my yarn all wound out onto the niddy noddy.

Once you have made your skein, you have to wash it in warm water and then let it dry so that it will 'stabilize'  Be careful when washing it, you don't want to agitate it or it will felt.  What I did was use a Tupperware with a small amount of soap meant for wool washing. Shampoo works pretty well too.  After the water has been filled, put your skein in.  Make sure you have tied 4 bits of string around your skein to keep it from tangling up.  Let it soak for ten minutes, then pull it out. Fill the Tupperware with warm water; let it rinse, then dry it by rolling it carefully into a towel.  I then hang mine over a plastic hanger, and weight it with 3 plastic hangers (the weight is very important) and let it dry for a day.

And you have a skein of yarn.  The last step, is to put your skein into a ball. If you have ever bought a skein of yarn at the store, you know how important this step is. If you try to knit from a skein you will soon have a tangled mess.
I used a yarn ball winder from Knit Picks and my husband who had the great joy of holding my yarn.
They are a great resource for all things knitting http://www.knitpicks.com/ 
Here is the winder and my finished yarn. 


Now the fun part comes, knitting a sweater for my niece from home spun yarn that came from her family's sheep. What a great feeling and a great connection to our roots.

Happy Knitting!