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first stop: gelato!

my adventures in italy and beyond…

Note: I wrote most of this post last week, after being home for 2 days.  I’m feeling differently now — back to my routine and starting to fantasize about my next trip.  Trans Siberian railroad, anyone?

Wow, thanks for the welcome home, Boston.  It’s just my luck to arrive home in a heat wave.  I got back late on Tuesday, after missing my first flight due to a “fatality on the tracks” en route to Heathrow and narrowly scoring a seat off the standby list. London? Seems random, eh. I had an overnight stopover and took advantage of the opportunity to see an old friend, eat a “full english”, ride a double-decker tour bus, and spot the paparazzi outside of Parliament snapping photos of Murdoch and his goons.

Despite the heat, it is great to be home, although I must admit that I’m a little bit out of it, jetlagged, and feeling slightly anti-social as I cede my infinite alone time and reaclimate to community.  I promise I want to see you, but I might seem a little weird at first! You see, I got used to living pretty anonymously for 3 months. It’s a cool feeling! … for a bit.  Also, I realized after a conversation with my bestie, Lauren Fein, that the best way to reconnect is for you to tell me just as much about your life as I tell you about mine.  “How was your trip?” won’t get you very far.

My 5 Top 5 is a great way for me to process everything I’ve seen, experienced, and learned over the past 3 months as I followed a route that took me into the Middle East and through Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe.  The items are listed  in no particular order. So, inspired by John Cusack, here goes nothing! …

Top 5 Cities, both large and small:

1. Budapest: the baths, the bars, the music, the museums… there is so much to do in Budapest!  I could easily spend weeks there. As it was, I think I spent more time in Budapest than in any other city — about a week in total — with my mom, with Dan, with couchsurfers and by myself.

lots of blue and yellow at the Szechenyi baths

moorish synagogue

2. Sarajevo — Our fabulous couchsurfing host taught Dan and I about “the metaphysics” of the city and brought us to some of his favorite spots.  He talked a lot about the war, about the former Yugoslavia, and about  the current state of political and economic corruption.

papa smurf, UN peacekeeper

bizarro tower and burned out building

3. Olomouc, Czech Republic – Olomouc (pronounced O-low-moats) is a small city in the Moravian region of the Czech Rep.  My Mom and I really loved it, in part because the people were kind of quirky.  I mean, maybe this is normal for firefighters when they get married? We thought it was cute:

A firefighter gets married in Olomouc

4. Ramallah – My new friend, Sa’ed, showed me around his hometown and described the joys and pains of living there.

downtown activity

a Ramallah spread -- so. good.

5. Lucca — as predicted, I loved this little city in northern Italy.  The plaza built on the remains of the Roman amphitheater was my favorite part:

the old amphitheater in lovely lucca (not my photo)

Runners-up:  Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovinia…

fortress yoganastics

…and Bologna, my first love.

Top 5 New Foods:

1. Ćevapi (The Balkans, but we ate a lot of it in Bosnia, in particular): Ćevapi are basically little cyllindrical hamburgers made of beef and/or lamb that are served in a bread that’s like the love child of a pita and an English muffin, a pocket with lots of nooks and crannies, perfect for soaking up the grease from the meat and cream of the kajmak.  Kajmak (pronounced kai-mack) is like the frosting on the cake. At first I thought it was a soft cheese, but it’s really more of a thick cream, so kajmak on cevapi is basically butter on a hamburger.  Heart attack in a sandwich, but D-E-L-C-I-O-U-S.

2. Bramboraky (Czech Republic): Another greasy food, bramboraky are essentially latkes, or — to any gentiles out there (I think I know a few!) — potato pancakes, but the Czechs do something amazing with their potato pancakes: they pile stuff on top of them.  At a local haunt in one of our favorite cities, Olomouc, my mom and I had bramboraky with fried pork bits, spinach, and melted cheese.  I might have a new Hanukkah food!

3. Strawberry cream soup (Hungary)Another treat that I enjoyed with my mom, this cold, fruit soup was divine. I don’t know what they added to it, but it was savory, not dessert-y. I must investigate for next year’s strawberry season.

4.  Chestnut Linguini with fresh ricotta (Il Casale, my WWOOFing site, in Italy): They served this for dinner one night and I must’ve had 3 bowls of the stuff. Casale produces the linguini off-site with their own chestnuts and grains and the result is a nutty and subtly sweet pasta which is yummy with the fresh ricotta. Their ricotta is a leftover from the production of the other cheese. Once the primary solids are removed and mixed with rennet for the harder cheeses, the remaining soft curds are removed from the whey and left to drain.  This is the ricotta! So simple. And we ate it constantly.

5. Crema di Cafe (Trietste, Italy): I must learn to make this!  Crema di Cafe is a magical creation of whipped cream, sugar, and coffee but the texture is a cross between mousse, milkshake and coffee with cream.  Sitting at a cafe in Trieste on a hot day, I spied a round of these drinks on a neighboring group’s table.  I pointed at them and told the waiter, “whatever that is, I want it.”

This is called Crema di Cafe, and it is heaven in a glass.

Top 5 Sites of Natural Beauty:

1. Tuscany (click and scroll to the bottom)

2. The Croatian coast, especially the islands of Mljet, Cres, and Losinj

Lubenice Beach, Cres Island

3. Durmitor National Park in Montenegro

Black Lake, Durmitor National Park

4.  Kotor/Mt. Lovcen — Montenegro scores again!

yoga on lovcen

5.  Cinque Terre, especially hiking through the vineyards.

coastline view from the top

To be continued…


After Dan left, I spent a couple more days in Bosnia — in Mostar and Jajce — and then realized that, holy shit, it was getting hot out and all I wanted to do was be near the water. So, I canceled my Belgrade plan, and booked it to the Croatian coast. I make good decisions sometimes!

This is what I’ve been writing on my recent postcards: ‘I’m living the good life on the Croatian Coast. I recommend it! I’ve been spending a lot of time in the water and trying hard not to get sunburnt.’ Seriously though, if you are searching for a sunshiney vacation destination halfway across the world, COME HERE!! For 4 days, I’ve been exploring the Cres/Losinj archipelago in the Kvarner region: white stone beaches; clear, calm water; abandoned, windswept hilltop villages; olive and fig groves; fishing villages with brightly painted houses; nice people; fresh fish and ‘sea fruits’; yachts if you’re rich, ferries if you’re not.  Plus, there’s just something exciting about being on an island and feeling isolated, even though there are ferries (but only one a day!) and the internet (but it’s slow!).

A highlight of my island days was my visit yesterday to Lubenice, a windy village on a rocky crag 300-something meters up from the sea.  At one point, 400 people lived in the town.  Now, there are 11 old people, no stores, banks, post office, etc. and only 2 restaurants set up for tourists during the summer.  My new Croatian friend, Sanja, and I trekked down the hillside to the beach, which is tucked in a cove and, unlike some of the coastline which is full of sharp rock banks, this beach had an expanse of smooth, white stones.  Laying on them is like a hot stone massage.  The water was warm and still.  It was quiet.  Perfect.  Not so perfect was the one and-a-half hour hike back up in the hot sun, but it was totally worth it.

Tomorrow, I go back to Italy… 3 days in Piedmont, a night in London, and then, home!  I get back on Tuesday.  Hard to believe.   To reflect on my trip, I’m preparing  5 Top-5 lists: 5 cities, 5 new foods, 5 places of natural beauty, 5 random encounters with strangers, and 5 bars or cafes.  Stay tuned!


– a guest post by Dan –

I have been traveling now for about a week and a half and it has been wonderful.  It was wonderful seeing Leah again after two months and it has been wonderful for me to return – even for just a little while – to the person I am while traveling.  This is the longest trip I have taken since my seven and-a-half month trip to South America four years ago, and, in the meantime, I have forgotten that truly wonderful feeling of being on the road.  I really like the person I become when traveling – more open, more full of wonder, a little less anxious.  I will try and bring some of these qualities back home with me and live a little more of my “real life” with them.

I was about twelve years old during the war in the Balkans in the early to mid- nineties.  I have very few memories of the war.  I remember thinking that it was just close enough so that it was too close but just far away enough to be confused about the groups involved.  It has been very interesting hearing from people here who lived through the war.

Here are some random impressions and thoughts from the trip:

Sarajevo is an amazing and beautiful city.  It is surrounded by green hills and has dozens of minarets dotting its neighborhoods.

The drive from Montenegro to Sarajevo was gorgeous.  The road traces a deep river canyon with a wide turquoise river running through it.

Every place we visited had a great cafe culture.  Cafes line the streets and are constantly full.  We spent many hours drinking espresso and watching the passersby.

The road from the Bay of Kotor to Mt. Lovcen was unbelievably twisty.  There were over 25 hairpin turns.  I almost puked but did not.

You can walk the entire length of the stone walls that surround the old city of Dubrovnik.  The views from the walls were wonderful.

The bottle of Coke I drank at the Podgorica (Montenegro) bus station was  the coldest Coke of my entire trip.

Leah and I hiked for several hours in Durmitor National Park (Montenegro) and were followed by stray dogs from the local town the entire time.

“Yeah I am tongue tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself/What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?”

-The Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

hello! Sorry for the silence over here.  I’ve been too busy!

Dan and I have been in the Balkans for the past week, first in Croatia (Zagreb and Dubrovnik) and now in Kotor, Montenegro, where the mountains are high and, well… black.  Get it? Monte.  Negro.  We just hiked up a fortress outside the old city to get a fabulous view of the bay and the town below.  Earlier today, drove way up into the mountains, around exactly 25 hairpin turns to see this amazing landscape.  Pretty phenomenal stuff!  Tomorrow, we’re off to a national park called Durmitor for some more hiking and then Sarajevo.   Dan will be writing the next post, so I’ll leave the rest of the Balkan reflections to him and backtrack a week and a half to Palestine…

Seeing the occupation up close is an intense experience.  I was in Ramallah and Bethlehem for barely 24 hours, but when I left, my head was spinning with everything that I learned, absorbed, and saw.  I really don’t have the patience or right frame of mind at the moment to do this reflection justice, so I’ll just include a few examples of what I learned and saw: I learned about the bookstore owner in Ramallah who will soon be deported to the US (where he also holds citizenship) for importing anti-Zionist books.  I learned about the black Palestinian water tanks that only fill up 3 days a week, less than the settlers’ white tanks, but more than the tanks in the refugee camps, which only fill up a few times per month.  I saw a house in Bethlehem that’s surrounded by the wall on three sides.   I saw so many examples of how the occupation restricts, narrows and limits Palestinians’ freedom of movement and economic opportunities.  I also had a ton of fun and met some amazing people.

I’ll post the photos when I get home.

Next up… Gelby.

Flavor update_ fresh caught, grilled fish.  And lots of strudel.

Yaeli got married on Tuesday! Yay, Yaeli and Shay!  The bride was lovely; the groom was handsome, and it was a wonderful event all around.  Israeli weddings are different in many ways from American weddings: they rarely start on time, the cocktail hour is before the ceremony (which helps with the whole not-starting-on-time-thing), and they are super casual, which was especially good for me since I’ve been travelling for 2 months. I am proud to say that I packed the perfect, almost wrinkle-free, little black dress for the occasion! Not only was the wedding an opportunity to celebration the partnership of 2 wonderful people, it was also a chance for me to catch up with my bestest friends, the crew that I became close with back in my Young Judaea days.   And one of them has a baby, whom I met for the first time! I think Isaac and I really hit it off. I was a real champ at getting him to giggle!

It’s strange being in Israel. It’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  I remember very little Hebrew, which is fine, since everyone in Tel Aviv speaks English, and I enjoy chowing down on the salads, hummus and ice cream bars that I came to love during my time here, but otherwise, I feel very little connection.  On Monday, I took some time away from the wedding prep to take a “political tour” of Great Jerusalem, with the wonderful Green Olive Tours, with the goal of learning the side of the story that I didn’t learn back in those Young Judaea days that I mentioned before.  Actually, I’ve done some learning or un-learning over the past several years, but I haven’t actually seen the separation barrier, checkpoints, settlements, etc that affect, interrupt and control the daily movement and economic opportunities of Palestinians in the West Bank. One of the first stops on our tour was Mount Scopus, where I lived for 3 months on Year Course. From there, rather than looking west towards the Old City like I used to, we looked East towards the settlement, Ma’ale Adumim, and the Palestinian town of Anata.  Ten years ago, I didn’t even know the names of these places nevermind the politics behind them.

I had to cut short my time here in I/P, since my original flight with the stupid Aeroflot got cancelled, forcing me to reschedule my return to Budapest for early Monday morning, so besides a quick visit with a very sweet friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend in Ramallah on Sunday, I’m not able to do much else in the West Bank, unfortunately. The next time I write, I’ll probably be on my Balkan adventure with Dan. Can’t wait!

… Budapest had it all! My mom and I saw some amazing music during our two weeks together, especially in Budapest where we stumbled across a “Judafest”, literally “Jewishfest” which featured the Budapest Klezmer Band; went to the Barber of Seville at the gorgeous Hungarian State Opera house; and checked out the dance music at the Atha Sam!/We are Here!, Roma Music Festival.  Seeing the various venues was also part of the fun. Like I said, the opera house in Budapest was great, but I think I was most excited about the Art Nouveau concert hall in Prague, with paintings by Alfons Mucha and gold metalwork in a peacock motif — so fanciful and fun! I became a bit of an architechture junkie in Central Europe.  Now, I’m in Tel Aviv, which rocks the Bauhaus style.

The primary reason for this leg of the trip is the wedding of my dear friend, Yaeli. Mazal tov, Yaeli and Shay! I get to see other friends too. And meet their babies! It’s hot, but not unbearable.  After travelling in totally unfamiliar places for 6 weeks, it’s also nice to be somewhere that’s not totally foreign.  (This is my 4th time in Israel.)

Thanks to my guest blogger, Doris Madsen, for being a great travel companion for 2 weeks. Dan, she set a high standard! Mom was a real trooper. Other 20-something travellers couldn’t quite believe that a mom would be with her daughter at a hostel and out at bars.

I really want to get some current photos up, but this computer is not recognizing my camera for some reason and I don’t have the technological know-how to figure it out.  Here are some oldies:

flavor update: not much to report.  I’m eating a lot of humus now.  We drank Palinka, a brandy that comes in dozens of fruit flavors, in Budapest, and tried some Hungarian wine too.

For a change of pace here on “First Stop: Gelato!”, I’m introducing a guest blogger today: Doris Madsen.  Also, I’m removing the feature, gelato flavor update, now that we’re not in Italy anymore,  and replacing it with a flavor update.  Now, Doris Madsen:

I arrived safely about a week ago and Leah and I hit the ground running.  Leah’s a good travelling companion.  She does all the navigating! We’re in Budapest now, but spent the first week in the Czech Republic, first in Prague and then in Olomouc (Oh-low-moats) which is in Moravia.  We received a great introduction to Czech history while we were in Prague. Our tour guide talked about her Czech  mother-in-law who lived in 8 countries even though she never left Prague.  There are reminders of the Soviet era everywhere – lots of ugly buildings mixed in around the Art Noveau and Cubist ones.   In Olomouc, they replaced the rotating disciples on the astronomical clock with figures of workers.  We found Leah’s name day on the socialist clock!

Olomouc has old city walls, narrow cobbled streets, plazas,  interesting fountains and it’s surrounded by beautiful countryside.   We’ve been eating a lot, of course — pig’s knee in Prague, garlic soup in Olomouc, strawberry cream soup in Budapest — and lots of beer, huge mugs of it.   The food is hearty and filling.

Budapest is “shabby chic”, cosmopolitan, arty and fun.  Music everywhere and interesting cafes and restaurants. We checked out the Budapest Klezmer Band at the “Judafest” yesterday and are thinking of going to an opera tomorrow.

Flavor update: see above, plus cottage cheese pancakes; potato dumplings with pork and kraut; potato pancakes; mushroom stew; cake with apple, nuts and poppy seeds; and fried cheese.


I arrived in Prague today, so no more gelato for now.  Ironically, besides one chinese place and obviously all of the traditional czech restaurants, the only other cuisine that I saw on my first walk around the city was Italian.  Italy is following me! I don’t think I’ll bother with the pizza here, though.

I’ve been to several different places since Rome, so I’m going to write this post in stages, like the long letters I used to write my pen pal when I was 12:

May 23 (Mantua):

Not much to say about Florence, since I was there only briefly.  I climbed the dome of the famous duomo and finito — done with Florence and on to lovely Lucca!  I jumped on a bike as soon as I arrived and rode along the walls of the old city before meeting up with a most hospitable last-minute couch surfer.  We wined and dined and talked politics.  Did you know that Berlusconi owns 3 of the 7  national TV stations??

on the duomo in florence

After Lucca, I went to the famous Cinque Terre, a series of quaint villages on the Ligurian coast, connected by national park trails.  I met a great crew of San Fransiscans at the hostel, which wasn’t really a hostel at all, but more like an apartment converted into a crash pad.  It was ‘intimate’ to say the least, especially the night when the owners overbooked and we had an extra guy (from Boston no less!) crash on the floor.  I’m really glad that I liked everyone.  We cooked together a bunch, which was a nice change of pace.   I made a dessert one night with biscotti, strawberries and sweet lemony ricotta which made me feel a little less jealous of anyone who’s eating strawberry shortcake right now.   As for 5 Terre itself, I did a whole lot of walking and hiking! That’s the thing to do there.  My calves got a workout on all the hills, but it was totally worth it.  The views are spectacular and the towns are impossibly cute.

pretty 5 terre

May 25 (Padua)

Yesterday, I took it pretty easy in Mantua.  I wasn’t feeling great, so I slept late, moved slowly and ate boring food.  I did make it out to Palazzo Te, one of the palaces of the ruling Gonzaga clan of Mantua from the 16th century.  And now I’m in the other city that ends in ‘ova’ or ‘ua’ depending on your language.  (Mantua/Mantova and Padua/Padova.)  I went to Piazza del Santo, the Santo being St. Anthony, where pilgrims flock to make their prayers and buy really expensive statues in the gift shop, and Scrovegni’s Chapel, which is famous for the Giotto frescoes that include an incredible inferno scene, complete with demons eating babies.

— ok, back to the present for a moment —

I’m not done catching you up, but I have reliable computer access here in Prague, so I’ll post again before leaving.  Mom’s coming tomorrow! But before I leave, here are some of the Casale photos I promised you:

  • eat the best pizza in the world
  • see a lot of old stuff
  • get sore feet

To be honest, I arrived in Rome with low expectations.  I had heard that it was a tough city, with a lasting imperial ego, and miserably thick swarms of tourists.  But, I was surprised — I loved it! I loved the hustle and bustle of the city, the old mixed with the new, and I was mostly able to weave my way through the tour groups with their matching caps and find a quiet(er) place to imagine bloody battles at the Colloseum, daily life at the Roman Forums, etc…

It also helped that I had two awesome couchsurfing hosts, both named Allesandro. The first was Alex from Naples who taught me about the Napoletanos’ intense love for the Argentinian soccer God, Maradona, who played for Napoli.  Here’s a great video of Napoletano soccer fans arriving in Rome for a match. Their chants loosely translate to mean ‘down with the roman bastards’.  The second Alex, or Ale, was proudly Roman.  He zoomed me around on the back of his scooter to show me the best pizza and the best tiramisu in Rome.  Both are lovely, lovely people and I thank them for sharing their world with me for a few days.  Couchsurfing is a wonderful thing…

I packed a lot into my days, hence the sore feet. If they could tolerate sweaty tourist feet, someone would really make a fortune with foot massage outposts around the city!  Day one was mostly ancient sites: the Colloseum, Emperors’ Palaces (Palatino) and Roman Forums.  Day two was a mix: Capitolini museums, the Pantheon, and several plazas and fountains.  Day three was the Vatican: the Sistine chapel, St. Peter’s Square and the post office where I mailed a few postcards from the smallest sovereign state in the world… neato.  I don’t know what Grandpa Robert thought of the Pope, but as a former postmaster, I think he’d be proud.

Like I said, I loved Rome, but I need to complain about a few things:

  • bathrooms with no toilet paper and/or toilet seat… in world famous museums!
  • I was in a church, admiring a series of three fabulous Carravagio paintings, when, all of a sudden, the lights went off.  I thought that someone had bumped up against the switch by accident.  But no, it turns out that you have to PAY to keep the lights on!!! The Pope lives in Rome and they can’t keep the lights on?!?  Also, this was the same church where an attendent screamed ‘SSSHHHHHHHH!’ into a microphone every 2 minutes.
  •  The mark-up on a shot of espresso from .70 cents to 4.50 € because it comes with a good view.  That’s roughly 6 dollars.  Most expensive espresso of my life!

So that was Rome, my first stop after leaving Casale.  I was ready to leave the farm and see new places, but it was still sad to say goodbye to the folks at Casale and to the daily heaps of fresh ricotta at breakfast.  If you have time to wwoof, DO IT! I met some wonderful people and had a great time.

I’m in Florence now, for a brief pitstop before continuing on to Lucca (yes, Shani!) and Cinque Terre. will try to write again soon.

lots of love.

major gelato update:  torrone nougat, fiordilatte, orange chocolate, hazelnut chocolate, ginger and cinnamon, vanilla bourbon, dark chocolate, and pastiere napoletane (ricotta with fruit and cookie)

I’m back!  I’m actually in Siena now, enjoying a some time off from the farm, but I wrote this post in my journal a couple of days ago:

I’ve been wwoffing on Podere Il Casale for the last week and a half.  So, what’s life like here? . . .

I wake up around 8am, eat a breakfast of fresh ricotta, jams and homemade bread, work for 4-5 hours, eat a big lunch, collapse with a food coma for a bit, work for another few hours, watch the sunset, and eat dinner around 9.  It’s a good life! 

I’ve done a variety of jobs on the farm.  I help in the kitchen and in the restaurant, putting my waitressing skills to use! The tourists are all fascinated by how an American like me ended up on a farm like this.  ‘ Have you heard of wwoofing?’ I say and they give me a funny look. ‘What??’ and then… ‘oh, neat. What a wonderful thing to do!’  Many of the visitors are school children who come to learn about farms and understand where their food comes from.  I work in the garden too.  Before putting anything in the ground, we first have to attack the soil with a hoe to remove the hard clumps of clay.  This area is famous for ‘le crete senese’ – Sienese Clay, and it’s a pain in the ass! I’ve planted beans from seed and transplanted chard and cabbage.  The season is about one month ahead of home.  The strawberries are already ready to pick!  Unfortunately, though, we only have a few plants, not a whole bed, so y’all better eat some strawberry shortcake on my behalf.    Today, I worked in the vineyard for the first time, sadly only for 20 minutes, though, because my colleague called in sick and maybe woofers cant work in the vineyards alone (?).  I hope to work there again.   The task at this point in the season is to prune the vines back so that each node on the fine has only two stems, so that more energy can go towards the grapes.  After leaving the vineyard, I spent a couple of hours sticking labels on spice packets, one of the many products made offsite with their crops.  I’d bring you some if I were headed straight home, but I can’t deal with the extra weight in my bag.  Sorry!

We eat well here — nothing fancy, but good, simple food.  We eat Casale pasta with every meal, often with fresh ricotta.  My favorite Casale pasta is the chestnut fetuccini — so good! We eat a lot of salad and vegetables — eggplant, zucchini, chard, artichoke and tomatoes — and occassionally meat — wild boar, rabbit, and a variety of sausages, pancetta and proscuitto.  And of course cheese! Cheese is their main product here, from the sheep and goat milk. 

The landscape is stunning.  I can’t post photos at the moment but a google image search of Val d’orcia gives you a sense of what I wake up to every morning.     It’s a 180 degree view from Casale, and I soak it in every day!

Like I said before, I’m in Siena right now, seeing the sights, learning about the crazy annual horse race and the various city wards with their funny animal mascots (snail, turtle, goose, eagle…) and eating well — last night’s dinner: bruschetta with pear, gorgonzola and honey and then tagliatelli with porcini.  And I’ll stop by a small town called Montalcino on my way back to the farm, where I’ll be until Sunday.  Then, to Rome!  Ciao for now.

Gelato update: salted caramel, strawberry.