December 18, 2017

Paris, France- Drinking Wine from a Baby Bottle

front-of-the-restaurant

There have been many places that I’ve visited over the last year and a half that have left an impression, but one particular restaurant, down the street from the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris, left me wanting more. Les Refuges du Fondue is one of the few restaurants that I make a point of visiting every time I return to Paris. My parents had originally gone, and they wouldn’t stop talking about it for months, so when my time had finally come to visit this fantastic city, I knew Les Refuges du Fondue had to be one of the first stops. Located at 17 rue des Trois-Freres, this hole in the wall fondue restaurant makes dinner an unforgettable experience.

front of the restaurant1 Paris, France  Drinking Wine from a Baby Bottle

When you initially enter this venue, don’t get discouraged by its size and graffiti filled walls, it’s part of the restaurant’s ambiance. With two wooden tables running the length of the room, on either side, it only leaves enough space down the center for the servers; therefore, diners must wait outside to be seated. Since there are only two tables in the entire restaurant, it is important to note that this is not a romantic, private type of setting; locals and tourists alike come here for the rowdy communal experience. Part of this restaurant’s appeal is the fact that all of the guests are sitting next to one another. And what’s even more fun, is that if you’re against the wall, you have to climb over the table to get to your seat, with the help of the waiter of course.

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Being in such close proximity with people, it’s easy to socialize. The first time I went, my friends and I were seated next to two teachers from Colorado on our left and a group of young French students on our right. Instantly, our table hit it off, and we spent the night laughing, exchanging stories, and taking pictures.

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The restaurant has a set-menu and price. Both times I visited, it was 15 euro for the set menu, and anything extra was an additional cost. The servers start out by bringing over an appetizer filled with olives, cheese, pickles, and different types of sliced meats, as well as a glass of fruity sangria.

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From there you have the choice of a cheese or meat fondue. Unfortunately, on both of my trips I was accompanied by vegetarians, so I have only tried the cheese fondue. But, according to my parents the meat fondue was equally delicious.

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You also have the choice between red or white wine. And one of my favorite things about this restaurant is that it is brought out to you in a baby bottle. I later was told that they use the baby bottles because in such tight quarter’s people’s drinks get knocked over, and the bottles prevent some of the mess. Whether that’s the real reason or not, I think the bottles add a fun comedic factor to the dining experience. There’s only one place in the world you can get drunk, while sucking on a baby bottle and this is it.

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This venue has a young, lively atmosphere, but it doesn’t mean it’s only appealing to the younger generation. Both times I’ve gone, I have seen people of all ages thoroughly enjoying themselves. If you go into it with an open mind and a sense of humor, it can be a ton of fun.

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The owners and waiters are known for being a bit rude, but don’t take it personally. To be honest, I was having such a good time with my friends; I really wasn’t paying any attention to them. I would recommend larger parties to make a reservation ahead of time; otherwise you’ll never get in. Also, it is important to note that this restaurant does NOT take credit cards, so make sure you have enough cash! It is only open at night from 7-12pm, but I highly suggest stopping in; it’s a French experience you don’t want to miss out on!

Sciacca, Italy- The Spa Day from Hell

Sciacca's Bath house

During our six week backpacking trip, my sister and I made it a point to stop in Sicily. When we were younger, our parents had taken us to Italy’s mainland to meet my mother’s family, but we were unable to venture down south, which is where my father’s family is from. Therefore, after visiting Palermo, we made it a point to spend a few days in the small town of Sciacca, where our great grandparents had lived. Amazingly, both my great-grandmother and great-grandfather lived in this small town, never met, immigrated to Massachusetts at different times, and ended up meeting and falling in love in Boston. With a bizarre love story like that, how can you not believe in fate? Anyway, Jenelle and I decided it was time to reconnect with our Sicilian roots, and that’s just what we did.

We had anticipated Sciacca being a small town and community, and with few sightseeing opportunities available we decided to get creative with our time. My sister settled on the idea of going to an old Roman Bath that was still in use. During the Ancient times, Romans would come to southern Italy to relax and bathe in the healing waters, and it is a tradition that the locals continue to uphold today. We left our hotel under the impression that we were going to swim/sit in a cave-like mud bath, based on the pictures we found online; however, what we paid for would be considered a form of punishment in some countries.

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Jenelle and I walked into the Bath, and quickly found that no one spoke any English. We stupidly had not taken along a phrase book to help guide the conversation, and neither of us knew a word of Italian. After I spent a half an hour trying to do charades so that the woman understood that we simply wanted mud rubbed onto our bodies, another woman took us into a consultation room. She jabbered away in Italian, as Jenelle and I nervously exchanged glances. She proceeded to take our blood pressures, at which point my sister looked at her and said, “Is this dangerouso?” For all the readers out there, a piece of advice: this is not Italian, and if you say it native italians will merely laugh at you, just as this lady laughed at my sister.

After our blood pressure was taken, the woman happily scribbled onto our charts. My sister, looking like someone was about to perform surgery on her, proceeded to ask if she was okay blood pressure-wise. The woman understood, and gave her a thumbs-up. I decided to ask the same question for myself, and the woman literally looked at me, smiled, and then made a so-so sign with her hand. Um, excuse me? What does that mean? Am I about to get roasted and go into cardiac arrest? With the woman happily ignoring my clear paranoia, and Jenelle and I wondering what the hell we just paid money for, we were led through a separate set of doors.

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Now, I’m all for trying things, obviously or I wouldn’t have found myself in this wonderful institution; however, the long hallway reminded me of an insane asylum and although I don’t watch many horror films, I started to feel like I was in one. As soon as we walked through the doors a pungent odor smacked my senses into overdrive. It was a grotesque mix of rotten egg and mold, that instantly made me want to plug my nose. The woman directed Jenelle towards one room and forced me to go into another. Now I know I thought it was going to be a spa treatment in a somewhat clinical setting but the room consisted of a shower, tub, and bed, and with the asylum décor of bare walls and white linens, it made it difficult to relax. I stripped down to my bathing suit, and laid on the bed. As I’m laying there, trying to remain calm, I hear my sister yelling down the hall. I instantly jump up and put my ear to the wall straining to hear what is going on. Thankfully by the sounds of it, she doesn’t seem to be dying, just in a little bit of pain. As I stride towards the hall to go check on her, my room door swings open, and a woman is standing there with a metal barrel on wheels. She starts motioning me back towards the bed, and although I was insistent about going to see my sister, this woman blocked my progress and with her arms flailing and her yelling in Italian it was way more intimidating and domineering than my urge to check on my sister.

I sat there as she flipped the cement-looking mud around in the barrel, and then watched as she plopped a large blob onto my table. I was definitely not prepared for what came next. She reached into the barrel, took another blob of mud, and then slapped it onto my back. To say it was hot would be an understatement, it literally felt like lava on my bare back, and I was thoroughly convinced I would have a burn to prove it. She chuckled as she spread the mixture all over my back, and I just started yelling ‘Muy Caliente, Muy Caliente!’ Yes, I am aware that this is the phrase for ‘very hot’ in Spanish, not Italian, but when your skin is being torched, you just hope they understand, and for the love of God, would stop. Unfortunately, my lady was having too much fun watching me squirm, and proceeded to put blobs onto my feet, my kneecaps, my stomach, and arms, and then pushed me down into the initial blob she had put on the table. I laid there as the mud started to harden and she wrapped me in three different types of heating blankets.

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Twenty five minutes later, I lay cocooned in this heat wrap, no longer feeling my body, just the weight of the cement. I could feel the sweat trickling all the way from my hairline to my toes. Within that half hour I had to of sweat out at least five pounds. By the time the lady came back to me, I felt like I was about to pass out. She unwound me, and then helped me into the shower, which pelted me with jets that shot Sulfer water. So now I not only felt tarred and dehydrated, but I smelled like rotten ass too. She scrubbed the mud off of me, and then helped me into the bath. I had hoped the bath would be better than everything else I had endured, but that was a little optimistic. Once again it was sulfur water, so instead of feeling calm and refreshed, I felt irritable, lightheaded, and nauseous. Once she drained the bath, the woman wrapped me in more heating towels and said I was finished.

I know tons of people that love having spa days, I’m one of them, but the Italians have a skewed sense of what is considered ‘relaxing’. After I gathered myself together and stumbled down the hall, the funniest part of this experience was my sister’s expression when she opened the door. With sweat marks down her neck, her bangs doing a major cowlick to the right, her mascara making massive rings under her eyes, and her looking at me all doe-eyed, I couldn’t help but laugh. All she said to me was, ‘What the hell just happened?’ and my response: ‘No idea.’ Although we were starving and parched, we refused to sit in a café smelling and looking the way we did. So instead we sprinted home so that we could shower. It literally took us a week to get the stench out of our clothes, and I don’t think either of us will ever recover from that day in Sciacca, but it’s definitely an experience we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Perugia, Italy- Every Chocoholics Dream

City of Perugia

Have you ever wished for a day solely revolved around eating chocolate? Or that all your favorite sweets could be found in one place? Well you can stop dreaming, because it’s actually a reality in the Umbria region of Italy. Every October, the Eurochocolate festival is held in the small town of Perugia, attracting thousands of tourists and chocolate lovers for an entire week (this past year it was from the 14th-23rd).

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Fortunately, I had been living in Gaeta, Italy when a friend had first mentioned it. I had been to several different types of food festivals to date, but had never heard of one consisting mainly of chocolate. Once I started doing some research, I realized it was an Italian tradition that I just couldn’t pass up. So, I decided to pack my little red carry-on and make a two week trip out of travelling northern Italy, starting with Perugia.

After a four and a half hour train ride of propping myself between the bathroom and the exit, with people climbing over me to board the train, I had finally made it to the chocolate city. That was also the first and last time I was too frugal to reserve a seat on a train. After I left the station, I hopped onto a bus, which took me up the hill, and dropped me right into the center of the festival. Between the stunning countryside, beautiful architecture, and hilly landscape Perugia embodies quintessential Tuscany.

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Luckily, I was able to book a hostel down the street from San Lorenzo Cathedral, which stands next to the Fontana Maggiore, and is virtually at one end of the festival. With so many visitors bombarding the city at once, I was lucky to have found a room at all. If this festival is of interest, I highly recommend booking a room far enough in advance to avoid difficulty later.

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With hundreds of tents lining the streets promoting both local and regional chocolate producers, I initially felt a bit overwhelmed. Luckily, I had met some girls staying at the same hostel as me and we decided to wander the festival together. We had been told to go buy an exclusive pass that would enable us to purchase several different types of chocolate at a discounted price. In my honest opinion, I wouldn’t waste your time or money on this ‘deal’, unless you planned on buying in bulk. Many stands hand out free samples, and for the most part you can buy pieces of chocolate along the way for very cheap. I’m not one that can consume an extreme amount of sweets in a short period of time, so it was great to buy a piece here and there for less than a euro, and snack until I reached another tent of interest.

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In addition to the outdoor sampling tents, there is also an education section dedicated to the history of chocolate and the cocoa bean located underneath the City Hall building. Here I learned about the production of cocoa in third world nations, and how it is picked, traded, and cultivated into chocolate. With demonstrations and exhibitions on cocoa beans from all over the world, it was interesting to learn about the process and the nutritional benefits. I was even allowed to try a cocoa bean from Brazil, but I would recommend my readers to break off the shell first because I stupidly didn’t, and man was it bitter.

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As you walk through the underground maze, you will also find several booths selling an array of breads, cheeses, oils, meats, and liquors. Although this particular section of the festival is small and does not revolve around chocolate, it acts as a nice break from all the sweets.

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Between the chocolate demonstrations, classes, and competitions this festival exerts a highly energetic environment, perfect for any age group.

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At different tents you can find every kind of white, dark, and milk chocolate. They offer fudge, chocolate dipped cookies, truffles, flavored fudge sticks, cakes, hot chocolate (flavored or spiked), and they even sell exotic chocolate flavors like lemoncello and Sambuca. Anything chocolate you can think of, they have it.

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They even go as far as selling chocolate pizzas, chocolate flavored grappa, and chocolate flavored pasta (I know it sounds bizarre, but apparently you eat it with a mascarpone cheese sauce).

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Every piece of chocolate I tried was different from the next. But without a doubt, my favorite stop was the tent with the chocolate kebab. Yes, you read correctly, it is in fact a kebab swirled with white and milk chocolate. The chef shaves some of the kebab into a crepe, drizzles some caramel and chocolate sauce, and then tops it off with some whipped cream. It is absolutely to die for, and surprisingly is not overly sweet.

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Whether you’re a chocoholic or merely visiting the festival to see what all the hype is about, I recommend making a day of it. It is entertaining to walk the streets and see what crazy creations they could invent next. As a broke backpacker it is the perfect place to meet people and spend little money. Furthermore, although the chocolate is the main attraction, there are other sections of the town that have markets selling purses, hats, clothes, and souvenirs. Just a warning, keep track of time, because the trains will be shut down once they get too crowded; I was forced to reroute and take a bus out of the city my last night there.  And finally the most obvious piece of advice is to pace yourself; it may not look like you’re eating a lot, but if you’re not careful, your stomach will feel it later. Bon Appetit!

Budapest, Hungary- I Just Can’t Stop Eating

Ruben's

Everyone that knows me or has followed my blog knows that I’m an avid eater. My attitude is you only live once and if you have to buy bigger pants from time to time so be it. After living abroad for a year and a half and not stepping on a scale once that entire time, I’ve decided I’m okay with stuffing my face. I’m not looking to be unhealthy or gluttonous, but sometimes you just need to indulge to hit the spot. I find that when I’m traveling I indulge a lot more than when I’m home, but I kind of reason it out with the fact that I’m walking my ass off and that I’m entitled. If I had to pick between accommodation and cuisine, I’d pick traditional food every time; I’m okay with staying in a hostel rather than a ritzy hotel, as long as my stomach is full and happy. Not every traveler would agree, but that’s the beauty of it; I’m not like everyone else.

After I graduated with my Masters in the UK, my mother and I ventured over to Budapest. I definitely get my love for food from her, which makes for tasty travels together.The first night we were advised to eat at a place called Rueben’s, around the corner from our hotel. The staff explained that they ate there frequently, and that we should give it a shot. I’m so happy we listened to them, because it was one of the best meals I had had in a long time. With the restaurant being a lovely mix of modern and classic décor, it made it easy to relax and enjoy the meal. Starting out with a bowl of traditional Goulash soup, I barely came up for air, as I shoveled the delicious chili-like stew into my mouth.

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For the next course, we decided to ask the waiter for his favorite dish. Sometimes the waiters are taken aback and other times they’re full of recommendations, but I love doing it regardless, because it means I’m getting a real traditional dish. He decided to steer us towards a dish that had chicken, pesto, spinach and gnocchi in a white wine sauce. Its mix of flavors and herbs left my taste buds wanting more. Mom and I were happily grunting through the entire meal.

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Hungarian food mainly consists of ground beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and vegetables; with rice, dumplings, and potatoes as side dishes. The stews/ soups are extremely popular, we found Goulash to be on every menu, and although meat and potatoes are known as being a ‘hearty’ meal we didn’t find the food to be overly heavy. I noticed while I was there, that many of the foods had a spicy kick to them. Normally, I’m not one to jump at a ‘hot’ dish; I usually have to have a large glass of water next to me and a napkin to wipe my eyes, but in Budapest I loved every dish I tried, hot and mild.

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We only spent a few nights in Budapest, and on the last night I decided to really jump out of my comfort zone, and try frog’s legs. I had wanted to for a while, and my friends that had tried them said they tasted like chicken. And yet, when I stared at the plate in front of me, I struggled to wrap my head around what I was about to do. It looked like the frog had just been cut in half, breaded and fried, and all I kept thinking was ‘I’m actually about to eat Kermit’. After a long internal debate, I decided to give it a try. It did in fact taste like chicken and actually was very delicious, so for all you doubter’s out there, you can do it too.

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I think it is important to note that on this trip, my mother and I also visited Prague and Austria, and Budapest by far had the best dessert of all three. With a wide variety of tortes, cakes, and pastries, who wouldn’t have a constant sweet tooth? Between the chocolate hazelnut sponge cake drenched in hot fudge and the Crème Brule with chocolate covered cherries I felt like I was a bite away from heaven. Although they were absolutely delicious, the best part was that they were light and easy to eat. I definitely have to give credit where credit is due, and Budapest, you deserve an award for your sweets.

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