Whether under pressure at work, at home or via social expectations of a "new you", a new year can really be bittersweet. "What's your New Year's resolution?" To never ask anyone that question. Okay, I've never been one to make resolutions myself, simply because I consider January 1st an arbitrary day to declare newness. I wonder, did people redefine themselves in March before Julius Caesar's adoption of the solar calendar? Too bad for humanity during that first year in the solar calendar - they had to fail twice within the same "year" at becoming new.
Either way, however jaded I've become in my view of resolutions, maybe I've made a couple for 2010. Here's one: to cross a big-ticket item off my list. Luckily I have a loving wife to support me in my decision to do so. In June I'll travel to Kenya for a month to volunteer teach elephants. Wait, I might see elephants, but I'll actually be teaching children. My mind is in Africa overload. I'll live with a Kenyan family, partake in Kenyan cuisine, and hopefully run with Kenyan...runners.
So maybe resolutions aren't all that bad, even if they sometimes manifest themselves in sweaty, overcrowded gyms and cell-phone-toting treadmill walkers. Other times, people get to go to Africa.
After being holed up in a plane for a bundle of hours, good ole Oakland welcomed us with open arms. Then we immediately left. Sorry, Oakland, you're just a stepping stone to San Francisco.
Maybe out of habit from last summer's trip to Europe, we hit the road on foot to explore The City. Because we stayed in Fisherman's Wharf, we found no shortage of tourist traps. So, after a quick lunch on the water (shrimp sandwich & mussels), we continued our coastal walk toward Ghirardelli Square. Turns out they have respectable chocolate.
That night we Yelp'd to find a decent sushi joint and were pleasantly surprised by Sushi on the North Shore -Katsu. Now we're hooked on Yelp, and its accompanying iPhone app.
The next day I was determined to run over the Golden Gate Bridge, even though we were staying 3.5 miles from it. The approach was magnificent, as the bridge stood half-masked by fog. After traversing the bridge both ways, my return to the coastal trail proved to be a bit tricky as construction workers had barracaded my original path. No problem, add yet another mile and back to the hotel.
Our day's journey took us to Berkelely, where we meandered through UC's campus and had substandard Thai food. No worries, though, Berkeley cuisine would be redeemed on the following day's visit.
After heading back to SF, we decided to stroll through Pier 39 for some sights and smells. Smells being the beautiful scent of hundreds of sea lions basking on their floating docks. It almost rivals the inevitable "who farted?" smell on I-80 in Nebraska. *almost*
Probably the highlight of our time in The City was a restaurant suggestion from Rahul, a friend we'd now like to hire as our west coast travel agent. Green's is an all-vegetarian restaurant located in Fort Mason, right on the water. Our Scottish server was a joy, and the food was out of this world. How could it get any better? Answer: half-prices bottles of wine. 'Nuff said.
Stay tuned for our journey to, arrival in, and subsequent endulgence of Sonoma County.
And we're off! Yes, maybe California is still but a glimmer of hope in our crazy lives, but we are a state closer during our layover in Denver.
This morning Al got home from work at about 1am, and it wasn't until I programmed our coffee maker that I realized I could get 2.5 hours of sleep only if I laid down right then and fell asleep on my descent to the pillow. Our status can be summed up in the photo below.
Oh, and another thing - we'll hopefully be blogging a little more along our journey through San Francisco (or "The City" as our west coast friends call it), and ultimately through wine country. However, we might be blogging solely from my phone. So let this be the first of hopefully many iPosts. And if I misspell a word or twenty, you'll understand why (i.e. not because of the wine...probably).
Well, first of all, Chris and I apologize for being total slackers on the blog. Once we left Spain, it became increasingly hard to find an internet cafe with a reasonable price AND that had a semi-fast computer. Now that we're home, we'll try to fill in the blanks on the second half of our journey. . .
When we arrived in Madrid, both Chris and I were craving something healthy to eat, so we looked in our trusty Rick Steves guidebook for a vegetarian restaurant. Lo and behold, we found one right near our hostel with delicious food. By no means was it "Spanish" food, but this may have been the first time on our trip that we both felt full. After lunch, we decided to take a walk and explore the sites. We walked from Puerta del Sol (the architectural center of the city) to Plaza Mayor (the social and cultural center of the city). Our trip led us to a convent known for its sweet treats. In order to get said desserts, you were supposed to ring the bell, say "dolces!" ("sweets!), and someone would let you in. From there, you walk to a small, covered window above a lazy susan and request the sweet of your choice. Then, like magic, the lazy susan starts spinning, and a treat appears! The lazy susan is there to "hide" the appearance of the nuns so that they never expose their faces to the public. Unfortunately, Chris and I showed up on a day that they were not selling any treats.
After walking a little bit more, we ended up in front of the Palacio Real, or Royal Palace. This is the official residence of the Royal Family of Spain, but the current royal family has actually chosen to live in a smaller palace (how modest!). Nonetheless, this Palace is still used for royal functions (meetings, dinners, etc.). There were even red carpets rolled up along the sides of the rooms that could easily be unrolled when a royal event was to take place. The inside was immense, gilded from top to bottom. There were rooms for everything: one for the china and another for the silverwear.
After our walk, we headed back to our hostel for a little siesta. That evening, we decided to have an unconventional dinner: the tapas crawl. We headed to our first bar for a tapas (olives) and glass of wine. At our next stop, we dined on grilled peppers, and for our final stop--pigs' ears and chorizo. The next logical things for me to talk about were those pigs' ears. Lets just say this might have been the only dish on our European adventure that did not get finished.
The next morning, was spent holed up in a laundromat/internet cafe. At this point in our trip (about the halfway mark), we really needed a real washing machine to get the stink out. We also needed a dryer to shrink our clothes back to size as well. Up until this point, we had hand-washed all of our clothes. I think we had a little skip in our step carrying that backpack full of clean clothes back to our hostel.
We spent the afternoon at the Museo del Prado, quite possibly the finest collection of European art anywhere. We rented an audioguide to help us along to make sure we got the most out of our experience. We saw El Greco's, Goya's, Ruben's, Titian's, Rembrandt's and Boticelli's among others. I think that the highlight for both of us was seeing Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas:
Besides the fact that it is an unbelievable picture with a great story, this was also meaningful to us because we had already seen Picasso's interpretation of this painting when we were in Barcelona:
Anyway, we spent over four hours in the museum, only seeing about 60% of the art. To say it was overwhelming would be an understatement.
Since we were so (mentally) exhausted from the Prado, that evening we decided to have another picnic in our hostel. We did our usual picnic meal: wine, a baguette, jamon and cheese.
The next morning, we went on a day trip to Toledo, the former capitol of Spain. Another Spanish city with a lot of Moorish/Muslim influence, the first thing we noticed when we arrived was the wall surrounding the entire city. We first visited the Cathedral, impressive for it's atypical skylight, El Transparente. Back in the day, the parishioners of the church decided that the church itself was too dark inside. To solve the problem, a giant hole was torn through the ceiling, and a cascading mural of marble and stucco was built around it to soften the appearance. What resulted was a stunning 3D masterpiece of angels, prophets heralding in the natural sunlight.
After the cathedral, we walked around town, grabbed a bite to eat (venison and apricot skewers and a Mediterranean sandwich) and then topped it off with Toledo's famous marzipan candies. We then caught the next bus back to Madrid. Our last evening in Madrid (and Spain) was spent over a nice dinner of artichokes, swordfish, shrimp and wine. We mentally prepared ourselves for the next leg of our trip, Italy. The next morning, we travelled to the Madrid airport and boarded a plane to Venice, Italy!
Also, there are more pictures from Madrid and Toledo in the post below!
Okay, I'm not really going to write about all of those (in detail) here, but that's where we've been since we last posted. Here they are in a nutshell, though:
Madrid Busy metropolis of hard-core city-lovers (most of whom smoke), and quite the array of "ladies of the night". That being said, the Prado Museum was absolutely amazing - we spent an exhausting 4 hours there, but saw arguably some of the greatest artwork of all time.
Toledo Rich in history and hills, this day trip from Madrid was a nice retreat from the city. As the former capitol of Spain, its fortress-style city walls still house 10% of the city's population.
Venice This picturesque and charming city, though swarming with tourists, has a way of capturing the heart. Their public transportation system floats tourists and residents around town via an abundant system of canals. St. Mark's Basilica was a gem, and our live demo of glass blowing proved to us that a glass lemon can, indeed, be quickly melted and shaped into a cat...crazy!!
Cinque Terre These five villages sit quietly along the Italian Riviera and serve as popular vacation spots for Italians. We racked up quite a few miles on the shoes with our hikes between the towns. Though sometimes a bit dangerous, they were worth the rewards of phenomenal views. Ordering anything but seafood in these towns is slightly criminal.
Lucca Ahh, the family homeland to the Ramacciottis. Our trip there today was slightly disappointing due to the fact that today is the Italian independence day, and city offices are closed. With hopes of looking up the family name, we'll return via train sometime in the next couple days.
Florence We're here!! This city is beautiful and is somewhat of an citywide sculpture exhibit. More to come, and hopefully we'll expand these blurbs soon with pictures (we currently have over 1500).