Wining and dining in Portugal and Venice

One of the true highlights of this trip are its meals.  And not only because the food, the wine, and the atmosphere of so many of them are beyond special.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all times that Lindsey and I get to completely slow down, be together, and just talk about our honeymoon, our wedding, and our future plans.  I’ll try to capture our favorite spots:

Alma by Henrique Sa Pessoa – the small tastes at the start of the meal might have been my favorite, but the sardine and suckling piglet still make my mouth water.  We highly recommend this small Lisbon restaurant.

O Paparico in Porto – knocking on a door to enter into a restaurant that brought us back in time, it almost doesn’t matter how good the food is because the experience starts off so well. The food doesn’t disappoint either.  A couple favorites from here are the terrine and the clams in a pork sauce.

Pedro Lemos – We get the corner table so that we can watch as the restaurant fills up because our 8:30pm reservation is a little on the early side.  The standout dish from PL is the seared tuna with wasabi pearl onions.

DOC by Chef Rui Paula – Sitting right along the Douro river, we split several apps and mains, and this may be the best octopus we’ve ever tasted.

Six Senses – Right at our hotel in the Douro Valley, we have one of the best lamb shoulders we’ve ever had (not sure I’ve ever had one before).  The view isn’t bad either.

Trattoria alla Madonna – We hear this place hasn’t changed in the last 50 years, and decide to try it out on our first night in Venice.  The fish risotto, branzino, and tiramisu can’t be missed!

Osteria Acquastanca – A surprise hole-in-the-wall on the island of Murano.  It was quiet, cool, and the food, especially the gnocchi, is homemade and great.

Antiche Carampane – Super small and Italian and away from the tourists of Venice, this spot had some delicious squid ink tagliatelle followed by some bite-sized soft shell crab cooked perfectly.

Al Covo – A beautifully done Americanized restaurant in Venice.  The excellent service was the most familiar to us, and the food was great with our favorite being a meat rigatoni dish.

Like a Disneyland ride

The pictures tell the story.  This city built with canals as streets, gondolas as its taxis, and a beautifully decaying charm, creates a wonderfully romantic atmosphere.

Murano glassblowing

For as touristy as we know it will be and as it ends up being, the glass blowing demonstration while on Murano Island near Venice is spectacular.  We find ourselves two seats in a hot studio that is somehow much hotter than the very hot day outside.  The actors of the show are a master glassblower and his assistant.  In very little time, the master turns Murano glass pieces into a cup.  All of the colors in Murano glass are not painted, but are of the glass itself; therefore, the color will never fade or wash.  Then in only seconds time, the master glassblower shapes a solid piece of glass into a horse.  The precision, the ease, the teamwork of the master and his assistant, and the design all combine to make a very entertaining demonstration.

Transported back to the Renaissance

I’ve never been much of a history buff. The past already happened, irrelevant beyond memorization for exams. But Venice? Venice captivated.

We arrived by private boat, speeding through the ocean then slowing to the 5mph speed limit to grace the Grand Canal. Our hotel entrance was unabashedly grand, a contrast to our departure by foot where we were greeted by alleys so narrow you could barely see the sky. We both had a fear stricken moment wondering if all of Venice would be this claustrophobic, but then the alley opened to a street with a corner café. We eagerly got lost, taking in the beauty of a crumbling city, covered in salt from the sea. Venice felt special right from the beginning.

The next morning, we navigated the streets, leaving twice as early as Google advised, to meet Lorenza Smith. Our tour guide for the morning was a Venetian, author of Venice: Art & History, and professor in New York – overqualified for our Day in the Life in the Renaissance agenda. The general content of the tour I was sure I’d heard in Latin class long ago, but this was different. This tour brought the city to life for us, the magic we’d sensed served to us in stories of the most opulent and enduring Empire ever built.

It’s comforting to believe that history is in the past, that the terrible or foolish or inane things that happened were because people were unevolved, unsophisticated, animalistic. But in Venice, the likenesses to today were undeniable, right down to the beauty routines. Venetian women would spread their hair out on a wide-brimmed hat, mixing concoctions to lighten it in much the same way as my friends and I used to spray Sun-In into our hair in the summer in the hopes of developing blonde highlights.

Venice was spectacular. It was a living museum full of new life, bodies from around the world, just as it had been in Venice many centuries before.

The road to Porto includes Aveiro

When traveling, all rental cars feel like a red convertible along a palm-tree lined beach road.  Wind in hair, classic rock on the radio, and a glass-bottled Coca-Cola in the cup holder.  A couple of the details are different in our case – the rental car is very compact and white, the music playing is by Portuguese artist Sara Tavares, and the drink is hydrating water, but the free-spirit sentiment remains.

Although only about a three hour drive from Lisbon to Porto, we find a small town along the way that had been recommended by our Vespa tour guide.  Aveiro is Portugal’s version of Italy’s Venice.  There are canals and gondolas and cute cafes and high-arching bridges.  There seems to be a festival going on the day of our visit complete with live music and art installations.  We have a perfectly toasted sandwich each, tour the town to stretch our legs, and then continue onward to Porto.

Rose Bowl Game 2016

Two words sum it all up. Mama mia! And I wasn’t the only one to think that. We were able to watch the game in our hotel room on the last night of our trip with Italian announcers calling the plays. After the one of the highlights, one of the announcers actually said Mama Mia after watching Stanford and Christian McCaffrey running straight through Iowa.  

McCaffrey in Rose Bowl with Italian announcers from Andrew Stein on Vimeo.

(The room we were able to get on our last night in Italy wasn’t too shabby either.  Some left over status from my consulting days got us a a very lucky upgrade.)

New Year’s Eve in Torino

We begin the evening that is to end the year with a dinner at our Airbnb complete with prosciutto, cheese, bread, and wine.  The perfect and simple Italian dinner.  But before it gets too late, we head out to the center of town to the Piazza San Carlo.

New Year's Eve in Torino

There is live music on a large stage at one end of the piazza.  There are people selling silly, light-up, new years themed hats.  A couple of the bars around the piazza are open, but much too crowded to consider entering.  Groups of people are sending up flying lanterns.  The music shifts from folk to pop to opera and back again.  The crowd continues to file into the piazza.  

New Years Eve in Torino from Andrew Stein on Vimeo.

As the midnight hour draws near, people start pulling out their plastic cups and bottles of champagne.  Others prepare their sparklers and fireworks.  And others just keep watch of the time as if the entire crowd isn’t about to countdown from 10.  

The part of this scene that we weren’t quite prepared for was the shock waves sent through the piazza from the fireworks.  It is almost as if bombs are going off all around us.  It might seem safer if the fireworks weren’t being thrown into the air haphazardly by crowd members, but as a result, there is almost a chaos that breaks out at midnight.  Fireworks, sparklers, and music all combine for a crazy finish to New Years.

Fire works in Piazza San Carlo

Skiing the alps

The Alps

Kind of like Disneyland, this day featured Matterhorn as our backdrop.  We start the day early from Torino as we drive our rented Fiat 500 towards Cervinia and the mountains.  As we drive, night turns to dawn, and the mountains along with Roman ruins in their foothills come into view. 

We aren’t entirely sure what we are getting ourselves into.  The mountains are relatively naked of snow, the weather warm, we haven’t really packed a lot of ski stuff (as we both only brought carry-ons), and we’re hoping it’s going to be easy to figure out lift tickets, rentals, and the rest.  We are also hoping that I’m going to be able to manage the narrow, mountains roads in our manual car.  

After a couple false starts like the most convenient rental spot being out of skis, we hit the slopes just as the sun is hitting the entirety of the mountain.  And although they are having to make some of their own snow, our first several chair lift rides to get up the mountain are as spectacular as we imagined they would be.

Alpine Skiing with Matterhorn

Usually while skiing (for the once-every-other-year ski trip I typically take), I enjoy chili in a bread bowl with some grated cheese on top for lunch.  It turns out Cervinia doesn’t have this on the menu.  We grab our trays and enter the line not really knowing what’s going to end up on them by the end.  We immediately grab a pair of rolls (which turned out to be free… we should’ve gotten more) and some nice cheeses.  We continue down the line, skip the prosciutto, reluctantly skip the buffalo mozzarella, and then order some pasta.  The lunch is a delicious reminder that we’re definitely still in Italy.  We eat sitting outside overlooking the Alps.

Lunch while skiing in the Alps

Before the day wraps, we make it to the top of the mountain.  The winds are heavier, the temperatures are a little colder, but all is worth it because the views are even more spectacular.  Surrounded by mountains on every side, I feel at the same time so small and so big.  And as we ski down the last run of the day, the sun slowly slips behind one of these peaks leaving only the tops of other mountains still in light.  Exhausted, we find a local coffee shop on the road back to Torino for a cafe dopio and a chance to flip through the many pictures so we can immediately relive what we just did.  Looking at these pictures kind of feels like looking at the picture of yourself with your hands raised in the white and red carriage of Disneyland’s Matterhorn already feeling nostalgic for the amazing day that isn’t quite yet over.

Chairlift to the top

Us at the top of the mountain

The lights of Torino, Italy

Many streets of this northern Italian city are decorated with thematic sets of lights to celebrate this festive time of year.  There are a series of birds carrying a string.  There are strings of words that make a story.  There are lights in the shapes of constellations.  The colors around Torino make exploring all the more fun!