Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Walking Boston's Freedom Trail

Old North Church

Boston is by far the most historic U.S. city I have every visited, and I wonder if it's the most historic U.S. city, period. Sure, there's Jamestown and Richmond and Gettysburg, and perhaps you could make a case for Savannah or St. Augustine. But visiting Boston was like walking into my elementary school social studies textbooks. Never have I seen so many historic buildings and sites in a single afternoon.

And it was so easy! The major stops are all along the Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile path marked by a thick red line along the sidewalks and crosswalks. It starts at Boston Common (conveniently just a few blocks from the hotel where we stayed) and ends across a bridge in Charlestown, with a visit to the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill.

I had a map of the Freedom Trail in my pocket, and we even downloaded a Freedom Trail app onto our phones, but neither was absolutely necessary, and both were rarely used. The red marker on the ground was easy to see and follow, and the sites had clear markers explaining their historical significance. The trail does, however have a nice website if you want to learn about the sites before you visit. I'll cover some of the highlights below.

The Massachusetts State House was difficult to miss with its gleaming gold dome. Unfortunately it seemed to be closed for the long holiday weekend, so we didn't get to go inside.

The nearby Granary Burying Ground was beautiful in the morning sun. The cemetery was small, but lots of tourists wandered the trails, stopping especially to see the stones for Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.

Paul Revere's stones

Faneuil Hall was the site of many important meetings (Sugar Act and Stamp Act protests, for example), but now the area seems to draw crowds for the nearby Quincy Market restaurants and stores. The crowds certainly were thick on Black Friday, but I managed to find a Christmas ornament and try a cup of Boston clam chowder.

Also, statues.

We also saw Paul Revere's house, but more interesting was the Old North Church and its famous (though rebuilt) steeple. "One if by land, two if by sea," anyone? The inside of the Episcopal church was nearly as interesting. The pews were arranged in boxes surrounded by shoulder-high white walls to keep out the drafts.

Paul and I both agreed that the Old North Church was our favorite stop of the trip. The Charlestown section of the Freedom Trail was a close second for me. More about that on Friday.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Boston for Thanksgiving

Boston Common

Instead of stuffing myself with turkey and cranberry sauce, my Thanksgiving platter consisted of Malaysian pad thai and a lychee drink. No, Paul and I weren't in Asia, but we also weren't in New York. Instead, we spent the holiday weekend in Boston.

In particular, we spent the evening of Thanksgiving in Boston's Chinatown, one of the few places we knew would have a nice selection of restaurants open when the rest of the city had shut down. After the sun had set, we stumbled out of the cold and into a lovely Malaysian restaurant. We had already had a full day. We left our apartment at 10 a.m. (so I even got to watch the first hour of the Macy's parade at home!) and headed straight for Cambridge, arriving at 2:30 p.m.

There weren't many restaurants open, and even fewer stores (none that I could see), but there were plenty of people on the sidewalk taking in the Harvard views and filling up the few food establishments that were open. We took a look around and grabbed lunch, heading back to our car and finally to Boston proper when the cold got to be too much.

The main thing I wanted to do in Boston was walk the Freedom Trail, but it was far too dark and deserted to do that by the time we checked in Thursday afternoon. (I'll be writing more about the Freedom Trail on this blog on Wednesday and Friday.) In fact, the only other thing we managed to see Thursday was Chinatown. But on Friday and Saturday we fit in a few sites aside from the historical.

Friday evening we went to the Bull & Finch Pub, the model for "Cheers," which then remodeled parts of its own building to better resemble the TV show. We ordered drinks and a big plate of cheesy fries at the upstairs replica bar. Paul got Frasier's corner stool.

The next morning we started the day with a Samuel Adams Brewery Tour. It was 10 a.m., but the tour still had a good 30 people on it -- it's 5 o'clock somewhere, and the free drinks at the end were cheerily sampled.

A "party trolley" runs every 15 minutes between the brewery and Doyle's, a local bar that was the first to sell Sam Adams. The inside of the trolley had benches along the windows, two poles, lights and a fog machine (neither in use) and a small deck in the back. Since we watched Ohio State get beaten up by Michigan at the bar, the trolley was the last jolly thing we experienced for a while.

Traveling anywhere in the Northeast in November is a gamble -- it could be snowy or sunny or both. It was cold on Thanksgiving itself, but the skies were bright and warm, near 60, on both Friday and Saturday. We got the best of both worlds: warm weather and holiday decorations.



Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Bay Ridge, along New York Harbor

Since Pay a Visit won't resume until Monday, you have extra time to add a comment to this post. And in keeping with the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, why not make it about what you're thankful for?

I'll start.

I'm thankful for small-town scenes in a big-city setting, things that remind me of home even with big bridges and bodies of water in the background.

Near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

Monday, November 21, 2011

Canstruction Constructions in Lower Manhattan

It's practically an everyday occurrence to hear about some exhibit opening somewhere in town.

There's the museums, of course. But then there are the out-of-the-ordinary exhibits that pop up and take you by surprise, like those revolving around peanut butter or giant balloons.

Canstruction falls into the latter category. It shouldn't have really come out of the blue, however -- this is New York's 19th annual competition to design and create something, anything out of cans. Afterword, nearly 60,000 New Yorkers will be fed by the art supplies.

The 25 creations are deconstructed today, but Paul and I went to the World Financial Center (basically a shopping mall-lite) in Lower Manhattan to take a peek a couple of weekends ago. Here are a few of my favorites.

Friday, November 18, 2011

One World Trade Center Takes Shape

As I exit the subway station a couple of blocks from work, it's extremely common to see a camera or two pointed in my direction. They're not aimed at me, but rather what's over my shoulder: One World Trade Center.

Nowadays it seems that the Ground Zero site is changing on an almost daily basis. It probably always was, except now those changes are easy to see. The glass panels are higher, the footprint is bigger. According to Wikipedia (not my favorite source, but it's hard to beat for up-to-the-minute information), One World Trade Center's "steel has risen to the 90th floor (1,118 ft), with glass panels reaching the 62nd floor, and concrete flooring rising to the 80th floor" as of Sunday. When it's supposedly done in 2013, Wikipedia says it will be the tallest building in the U.S. at 1,776 feet (get it?).

With stats like those, it's hard to miss. And, with Century 21 practically across the street, the Occupy Wall Street gang just a few blocks away and, of course, the new 9/11 Memorial nearby, both New York City tourists and residents have more reasons than ever to visit Lower Manhattan ... and they do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An Afternoon at the Peck Slip Pickle Fest

A Sunday afternoon spent in the company of pickles was a highlight of last fall. So when the days began to get shorter, my mind once again turned toward cucumbers and I found out when the next pickling festival was to be held. That's how we ended up at the New Amsterdam Market on Sunday for the Peck Slip Pickle Fest.

Last year's pickle festival was on the Lower East Side, in the heart of the city's pickle district. This year it was incorporated into the aforementioned New Amsterdam Market, a farmer's market near the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, in the shadow of the old Fulton Fish Market.

The pros: In addition to all the pickled goodies, there was the typical farmer's market fare of vegetables, meats and other treats.

The cons: There was less space for the pickle purveyors, or else they were cramped so closely together it just felt smaller. Some of our favorites from last year didn't seem to be there -- was this because of space constraints, lack of interest or the distance from their brick-and-mortar stores?

Still, we managed to sample enough pickled cucumbers, beets and even carrots to keep me satisfied for at least another year. Not so for Paul. He walked away with his own jar of pickles.

Paul's lunch of a hot dog topped with relish and spicy mustard kept with the pickling theme, but I went to the other side of the market and picked out a cheese-and-onion bialy. Turns out a bialy is just a bagel that's not boiled, topped with condiments where the hole in the middle normally would be. It kind of looked like a cheese danish.

The most interesting item I ate, however, was this: a whole pickled green tomato. You eat it just like an apple, except not even a core remains. It wasn't my favorite thing in the world -- a little too sour for my taste -- but I did feel thoroughly brined after my last bite.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Looking Back at Our Two Weeks in Europe

View from the Pantheon, Paris

It took two months to cover a two-week vacation to Europe in this blog. Or, to put it another way, 19 posts to cover a 15-day trip.

OK, so it took a while to spit everything out. And with more than 1,100 photos, I had a lot to share. But you've finally seen the highlights and read about the lowlights, and I have only a few parting thoughts.

As the time for the trip got ever closer, I frequently speculated that I had gotten in over my head. The trip was a lot of work -- by far the toughest vacation I'd ever planned. Coordinating five flights, places to stay in four cities, and doing at least a modicum of research (and much, much more for Paris and Rome) takes time. I can't even guess how many hours I put into it since our itinerary first began to take shape in February.

For each city we were to visit, I prepared a list of the sights I wanted to see, along with their hours and prices. I determined the best and cheapest ways to get to and from each airport -- and we were in seven airports in all -- and kept track of the exchange rates for four different units of currency. We booked ahead what needed to be booked ahead (tours in Iceland, a visit to the Vatican Museum) and planned day trips we weren't sure we'd ever take (yes to Versailles, no to the Appian Way in Rome).

There were certainly times when I was frustrated, and almost every day I was tired. There were days that were strange. (Sitting in Rome, watching TV programs cover the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in a language we couldn't understand ranks right up there.) But I never thought I was in over my head. It was a priceless experience, and knowing that we pieced together the trip ourselves made it even more memorable.

My regrets were few and revolved mostly around food -- couldn't I have had one more croque monsieur? One more chocolate pastry? My biggest regret, however, is that I barely had time to digest a city before darting off to the next one. But that's hardly a real problem. Really, it's a problem I was lucky to have had at all.

In case you missed any of them, below is a complete list of the blog posts about our trip. Thanks for playing along.

The Overview
Two Wonderful Weeks Exploring Europe

Paris, Sept. 4-8
View of Paris from the Top ... of Everything
Museum Hopping in Paris
Adventures at the Eiffel Tower
A Day Trip to Versailles
A Look Back on Paris

Rome, Sept. 8-12
Uncovering Ancient Rome: The Colosseum & Forum
The Religious Must-Sees of Vatican City & Rome
Piazzas and People-Watching in Rome
Reflections on Rome

Copenhagen & Malmö, Sweden, Sept. 12-14
Morning in Denmark; Evening in Sweden
Copenhagen: Tivoli & Other First Impressions

Reykjavik, Sept. 14-17
A Day at Iceland's Blue Lagoon
Iceland's Golden Circle: Sites & Scenery
Roaming 'Round Reykjavik, Iceland

Food & Fun
Eating Our Way Through Europe
The Hot Dogs of Scandinavia
Paul Presents Our Vacation

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Hot Dogs of Scandinavia

By the end of our two week trip to Europe, we were tired of eating what we were "supposed" to eat -- those regional specialties that just aren't the same anywhere else -- and just wanted to eat whatever we wanted to eat. Luckily, hot dogs fit under both categories in Scandinavia.

As I was sorting my photos, I realized I had an awful lot of pictures of hot dog. Here's a few, with Paul's reviews.

Hot Dog #1: Copenhagen, Cart

Copenhagen seems to rival New York for the highest number of hot dog stands, and a French-style hot dog from just one of these carts was our first meal in Denmark. The person behind the counter took a tube-shaped bun, open on one end, and squirted mayonnaise into the bottom. When the hot dog was inserted into the bun, the mayonnaise squirted up clear to the top.

Paul's review: Good, but a little less mayo would've made it even better.

Hot Dog #2: Copenhagen, Tivoli

A few days later at Tivoli, Paul tried what we were told was a Swedish-style hot dog, recognizable by its bright red color. It was served with a much shorter bun on the side, mustard and what our friends in Sweden had told us is generally called American sauce. Paul said it tasted like ketchup mixed with marinara sauce

Paul's review: And I quote, "It was the plainest thing I ever ate. The only way I knew I was eating anything was because I could feel something in my mouth."

Hot Dog #3: Reykjavik

In Iceland, we actually stopped at a tourist desk on our last day in Reykjavik so Paul could ask where the famous hot dogs were located. The woman pointed us in the right direction, and a few turns later we were in line at the same place Bill Clinton sampled a hot dog during a visit to Iceland. It was served with mustard, mayonnaise and dried onions.

Paul's review: Tasty. The added crunchiness of the onions was a bonus.

Paul said the hot dog in Iceland was his favorite, followed by the French-style dog in Copenhagen. But even the red Swedish hot dog, he said, was better than any you'll find on New York's streets.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Eating Our Way Through Europe

My biggest regret during our European vacation is that I didn't eat enough desserts. Paul's was probably that we simply didn't eat enough.

We both make fair points. I was surprisingly lax in my French pastry intake, and we did tend to eat small, late lunches so we (read: I) could cram in all of the sights that we (read: I) wanted to see. But all in all, we tried some delicious food and some interesting food, although they weren't always one and the same.

In Paris, our fall back was either cold meats in crusty breads if we were out and about and near a park, or crepes if we were in the neighborhood where we stayed. I managed to squeeze in a chocolate croissant (which tastes surprisingly like the ones at Panera!), a chocolate tart (smooth, rich and creamy) and a macaron (not my favorite dessert, but can you really go to Paris without trying one?).

My absolute favorite meal was a croque monsieur -- think of a grilled cheese sandwich, only the cheese is on top and there's ham between the two slices of bread. When we looked up recipes at home, we realized there's also a layer of bechamel sauce between the top slice of bread and the cheese. Forget meatloaf -- this is the perfect comfort food.

Paul ordered his most interesting meal on our last night in Paris -- escargot as an appetizer, followed by beef tartare. I think even the waitress was surprised he ordered it, and his stomach was none too pleased with the raw meat either. He finished the dish, although I declined a taste.

In Rome, the highlight for me was by far the gelato. We stumbled across a gelateria near Piazza Navona that served a chocolate fondant gelato that was so good that I dragged Paul there a second time during our short stay in the city. It was like a cold, smooth, fudgy brownie. Everyone gets at least two scoops of gelato in their cones, so one of fondant combined with a dark, dark purple scoop of a flavor I believe was blackberry was not only delicious, but pretty. Paul wasn't as lucky with one of his combinations at a different gelateria: banana and licorice.

Maybe the most delicious thing I've ever eaten.

As for the food and drink, we tried to choose Italian classics. Wine, lots of house wine. A couple of pizzas we had on our last night stand out -- my marinara, and Paul's topped with asparagus and squash blossoms. On our first night, my gnocci was good, but the location was even better -- right in the shadow of a lit-up church.

We ate on the left, nearest the church.

Our culinary experience in Copenhagen mostly revolved around beer with friends. I tried an unexciting Danish meatball open-face sandwich. Paul's Danish food highlights centered on hot dogs (more about that on Friday). I did manage to sneak in a dessert or two -- not a danish, but this chokoladeschnitte, which was a combination of a chocolate cake, a ganache or mousse, marzipan, and some kind of clear jelly that I've read was apple jam, all covered in a chocolate shell. Rich and delicious.

I didn't have my favorite food in Iceland, but I had the most exciting. When we returned to Reykjavik from the Blue Lagoon, we chose a restaurant that served a sampler platter of classic Icelandic foods -- herring marinated in beet root juice, fish jerky (more like fishy pieces of paper), lamb terrine, smoked lamb and, finally, a couple of small squares of fermented shark with a shot of the aptly-named Black Death. We also ordered a small jar of puffin (alive, they look very similar to penguins), langoustine (a type of lobster, which I didn't know) and raisins on mashed potatoes. It was seasoned so robustly that I immediately said it tasted like Christmas.

Sampler platter.

Fermented shark with a shot of Black Death

Puffin 'n' stuff

A pleasant surprise was how much I loved an Icelandic yogurt called Skyr. It's creamier than your typical Yoplait -- almost mousse-like. And it comes with an adorable little foldable spoon in the lid, which makes it a very convenient snack for a traveler without eating utensils. I recently found out that it's sold at many Whole Foods stores (in New York, but not in Ohio!), so I'll definitely be checking that out.

Skyr and a kleina, an Icelandic donut

We had a few bad meals -- a pizza in Vatican City comes particularly to mind -- but even the worst meal in the world is made average in such surroundings.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Venezuelan in NY: Caracas Arepa Bar

Paul and I have gotten into a food rut.

When we first moved to New York, I made it a point to try a different restaurant almost every weekend. And not just a different restaurant, but a different country's food. We made the rounds, quickly sampling the best of Thailand, Korea, Afghanistan, Mongolia and more.

But now we have our favorites, our go-to spots that we often get in the mood for: East Japanese for sushi. Woorijip for Korean. Grand Sichuan for Chinese. My Thai for Thai. The list goes on and on.

But what we haven't tried too much of in New York is South American food. So last month it was time to check off a Venezuelan restaurant that's been on my list almost as long as we've been here: Caracas Arepa Bar in the East Village.

I'll be honest -- I didn't have a very good understanding of what arepas even were. Turns out they're corn cakes stuffed with tasty fillings. We ordered a sampler platter with three traditional areaps -- split open, they resembled crammed pitas.

Our favorite was La de Pabellón, a mixture of shredded beef, black beans and cheese, along with plantains, which gave the whole thing a sweet kick. La Reina Pepiada -- an arepa with a chicken and avocado stuffing -- was surprisingly bland, but La Mulata was a delicious and slightly spicy arepa of cheese, jalepeños, red peppers, black beans and those yummy plantains.

Caracas is in an area of town we visit pretty regularly, so we've often walked by and have seen the huge crowds outdoors waiting for a table inside. It's easy to see why -- the food is as tasty as the dining room is tiny. The whole space couldn't have fit more than about 30 people, all sitting elbow to elbow. Caracas also has a takeout-only location a couple of doors down. On a nice summer evening, I can see getting a De Pabellón to eat in nearby Tompkins Square Park.

So anyway: Venezuelan, check. Only about 10 more South American countries to go.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Paul Presents Our Vacation

Today, photos of Paul doing his best impression of Barker's beauties.

It was hard not to think of "The Price is Right" or "Wheel of Fortune" as Paul's outstretched hands presented ...







I have only these six photos of Paul presenting our vacation, but I'm sure he did it at least three times as often. Most of the photos come toward the end of our trip, when our to-do list wasn't as long, we were more relaxed and I was in more of a humor to humor him. Now I wish I would've gotten more photos. Paul could've been my very own version of Travelocity's Roaming Gnome.


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