Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mondays... aren't so bad!

Xiao and I got monday off since the Cath lab was undergoing some maintenance so we took advantage of our free time to go and see some of the local sights- mainly the fortress palace of Palazzo dei Normanni, once the center of a magnificent medieval court and now the seat of Sicilian parliament (Lonely Planet). Hours are pretty sparse here in Sicily, every place takes a break for lunch (so we had to wait for the place to reopen at 2).

The gorgeous Cappela Palatine inside the fortress, apparently Palermo's finest site. The gold mosiacs (all the pictures were mosiacs!), were very beautiful.

For fun, I saw this statue I really liked. Life imitates art... maybe?After a lazy monday, Xiao and I were treated out by our coworkers from the Cath Lab (RNs, and radiology technician)- LeTizia, Magherita, and Vito. They took us to the most posh and beautiful outdoor bar I've ever been to. We were literally on the ocean and watching the sun set. I was awe-struck, especially after my mojito.
What a hidden secret! We were treated out to a very very nice and expensive dinner by some medical equiptment guy (probably would not fly in America...), but it was a wonderful evening!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Fairytale Taormina

After our exhausting day at Mount Etna, we decided to spend a leisurely Sunday in the touristic town of Taormina (an hours bus ride away). Taormina is "spectacularly located on a terrace of Monte Taura and with dominating views west to Mt Etna" (Lonely Planet). Which was pretty much right! It had spectacular views and famously noteed for its "heavenly" Teatro Greco, basically perched on the mountain, open air, with Mt Etna looming in the stage's back ground. It would been wonderful to see a greek tragedy reenacted here, but alas we missed the night shows!

Teatro Greco
Wouldn't it be ridiculous to watch a performance here? You can see Mt Etna with its tumultous clouds in the background.
Etna looks prettier in the distance. But wow! We climbed close to the top yesterday!
Gorgeous coast lines... We also wandered into some beautiful gardens. There are bright pink flowers and well manicured topiaries all over Taormina, clearly a tourist town. But it left such an impression on our minds that Xiao and I were scoping out expensive hotels as we walked, for when we start making money and could perhaps visit again... in style!Marzipan is BIG in sicily. I wonder why, but you find a lot of these displays everywhere. Marzipan is a confection made of sugar and almond meal, I enjoyed the bite of Xiao's marzipan fig that I had. Its very very sweet, and very similar to my favorite Indian sweet, barfi (trust me, it tastes better than it sounds).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Magmaaaa and Mount Etna

The lovely view from the train, on our way eastward towards Catania.

For our third weekend trip, we decided to venture to the eastmost cities of Sicily and give hiking Mount Etna a go! We took a train (12 ish euros one way, 3 hours) to the city of Catania, our "base" for the weekend. Catania has been described as Sicily's most vibrant city, second largest to Palermo, but generally felt it was a bit sleepy and small until night descends and everyone hits the streets for partying and dinner. Not one of our favorite cities, and our hostel was, as described in the guest comment book, "NOISIEST HOSTEL EVER", I couldn't agree more- we were right above train tracks which Lonely Planet conveniently forgot to mention.

Lets learn a little about Mount Etna! I've always loved the idea of a volcano and got to see some volcanic activity when I visited Hawaii a few years ago, but something about the ancient history of these Mediterranean lava spewers is more intriquing.

Mount Etna- "Sicily's most prominent landmark [yes, but not too impressive when not active] is Europe's largest live volcano and one of the world's most volatile. At 3,323m it towers over the Ionian Coast, dwarfing everything beneath it, its smoking peak is visible from almost everywhere on this side of the island, and is heart-stirring [quite beautiful from coast side cities!]." (Thank you Lonely Planet). Mount Etna has existed since 35,000 years ago [awe inspiring huh?] with a history littered with eruptions, some as recent as September 2007 [I guess we just missed some action, thankfully]. The most devastating eruption was in 1669 and lasted 122 days [wow!], destroying 16 towns and engulfing a good part of Catania.

We took a cheap bus to the base town of Etna, then a crazy expensive funicular, Funivia dell' Etna (27 euros for both ways, eek!), but worth the oppurtunity we got to climb up to the highest point tourists were allowed. Mount Etna is a bit of a tourist trap, they were advertising a 51 euro package to take the funicular, get bused up to the highest point, and have guides, but we were determined to hike up ourselves! It was a pretty short hike (90 minutes going up), but really steep, and lots of cardio got me a bit grumpy hehe. The landscape was completely barren, covered with volcanic ash and rock. Thankfully it was a cloudy day, and we made our way slowly as busloads of tourists passed us on the dusty road.

We made it to the top! Pretty tired, but check out the ridge on one or Etna's craters. We climbed up.
Lots of vapor, no magmaaa, but interesting nonetheless.
The earth and stones were warm! Neato! Xiao and Dan warm their hands, did I mention it was freezing up at the top? brrrr.
Finally, some color on the crater's edge.
Go team! We descended very quickly back down and wasted a few hours in the cafe and tourist village. We were lucky because right after we descended the weather got horrible and no one else was allowed up.
Tired, but ash-free after showering, we hit up Catania nightlife and absolutely loved this local, packed restaurant near the Piazza Diumo. We ate a ton and then Dan convinced us to try grappa for the first time. Strong stuff, eckk! But fun ensued.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pasta, Vino- Va Bene!

We've been getting a good amount of exercise each day by walking to and from the hospital- about a 50 minute walk/saunter each way (apparently you burn 100 calories per mile, our route is about 2.5 miles), so not bad. We pass this awesome discount supermarket which is close to the hospital and we've been eyeing the 2 euro wine for awhile but didn't want to walk back home with gallons of liquid. Taking matters into our own hands and armed with bus passes, we brough duffel bags to work one day, loaded up on wine and food after work, then took the bus home. It was a brilliant.
We got all this for 20 Euros! We totally could have loaded up more. We made eggplant parm that night (work of master chef Dan) and enjoyed a bottle of white wine. Along those lines, we've begun rating all the bottles of wine we've had so far and placing them next to each other-the collection is rapidly growing and I will take a picture of the finished line up at the end of the summer.

We took a walk to a park we've heard about near the ocean in palermo. You can see the port/cruise ships in the distance. It was a nice green grassy area, kind of rare in Sicily, surprisingly. There were also quite a few joggers, also a rare breed in Sicily.One night, Dan's friend, a young gastroenterolist fellow Gabe, took us out with his visiting physician friends from Florence. They were a really fun bunch and we went to a trattoria where Xiao tried the local Palermo special- Pasta with Anchovies! We had strawberry and white wines as a group and enjoyed the cultural exchange :).
Our new Italian friends!

Ah, and what does "Va Bene" mean? It basically means "it's all good" and people say that a lot here. Life is wonderful, summer is great! Va Bene!

Favignana- swimming in the Terranean Sea!


Sunday morning we take a ferry to the nearby island of Favignana. There are many small islands around the western coast, but our coworkers suggested this one as perfect for an outing and some bike riding. Ive never noticed this on the east coast, but when you look out onto the ocean in Sicily, the sky and water blend into a hazy blue in the horizon, you cant tell when one stops and the other one starts- its really beautiful. Favignana was one of those islands in the hazy blue distance we could see from Trapani, and we were happy to arrive to a small but navigatable island when we jumped off the ferry.

Didnt I tell you the water is unreal? Xiao showed me how to use the Vibrant Blue setting on my camera, but even then it still doesnt do the colors justice!

We rented bikes for about 5 euros for the day. It was a good workout to go all around the island, which is not entirely flat, and basically coast right next to the ocean.

Some pics of Xiao and Dan with their bikes. Behind Dan is the castle on the island.

After about 2 hours or so of biking (unfortunately, Dan got a flat and had to exchange his bike) we decided to cool off in the sea! It was so refreshing just to jump in and the waters are surprisingly shallow. We got some gelato, jumped on the ferry back, then headed back to Palermo via train. It was a great first weekend exploring Sicily!

Medieval Fortresses and endless sea...

For our first weekend trip, we decided to visited the western side of Sicily- to the small town on a peninsula (Trapani), the medieval fortress town on the mountain above (Erice), and the butterfly shaped island nearby (Favignana)- pretty ambitious, but in the end we enjoyed it all at a leisurely pace! (such is the way things go in Sicily :))

We took the train for some euros and enjoyed the seaside view as we snaked westward along the northern coast. It was a pleasant ride, though the train stopped often and it took us about 3.5 hours to get there (2 hour bus ride is the other option). We arrived to the quiet, empty (not high tourist season yet), a bit rundown, but scenic town of Trapani early in the afternoon. Its such a narrow town that you can walk down the middle and look both ways and see the ocean. We wandered a bit because Dan was in great need of a fried fish sandwich, we eventually came upon a small local deli and Dan and Xiao satisfied their seafood craving with smoked tuna sandwiches and I got my fix with a local cheese sandwich! We sat by the water, which was an aquamarine color, and ate our lunch happily in the calm sea breeze.


Next, we made our way to the funicular (gondola), which was to take us all the way up the nearby mountain to the medieval town of Erice. Here we all are before our funicular ride- about 5 euros, pretty steep... in ascent and in price.

Beautiful view from Erice of the Sicilian countryside.

We got a pass to see all the churches and towers in Erice. Here is their most famous church. We walked in, the church was majestic with white carved ceilings, and monks were singing, a very spiritual experience.

More views of Erice.

We climbed to a more secluded road and were blown away by the view we saw. Check out this background!

Very fortress-y, very steep medieval cobblestone roads!

We opted to have a nice dinner up in Erice rather than returning down to Trapani. We decided to try some Trapenese specialities. I got Pesto Alla Trapanese, a wonderful dish with an almond sweetness I didnt expect and Xiao got the famous cous cous dish, below. All in all a wonderful Saturday!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Nightlife and Pastries-

Some miscellaneous but fun pictures of our time so far here.
Nightlife in Italy happens mainly around the weekend, but we've found that Wednesday (hump day) is quite the happening time as well. We basically take a walk into the city every night- the weather's perfect, and we don't have to walk too far from our apartment to hit some excitement.

Teatro Massimo: A pretty opulent theater that hosts operas, ballets, and symphonies. Prices are steep- maybe we'll try getting a student discount here... currently playing is an opera by mozart.
Here we are on one of our nightly walks. We decided to try Spinnato's, a famous patisserie and bakery of Palermo, the Finale's of Boston if you will. We heard their tiramisu and cannolis were not to be missed so we split them between all of us. Cannoli = A (sickenly sweet ricotta filling, mmm), Tiramisu = C (too bitter, too sour (is this what the real thing is like?) didn't enjoy it at all)

Our first Italian cappucino! Every morning.. on our 1 hour walk to work (we like trekking it, since we're such an ambitiously fit bunch) we pass by this "sweet old man" according to Dan who first discovered his pastry shop. He made friends with the owner and we stop by almost everyday on our walk to work. Today we tried cappucinos for the first time! I really enjoyed it and had a ricotta conetta (croissant) as well. Sugaroverloaddddd...

With our cappucinos and conettas, by 8:30 in the morning, it's already getting pretty hot in Palermo.A little treat of a picture- we got bored on our way to an English conversation dinner gathering, so we stopped in a pretty little park. We started talking about asian squatting, and Xiao taught us the "right way" to do it (she's got the most compact, perfect technique). This was mainly a rite of passage for Dan, but I had to relearn how to balance for the perfect asian squat. Basically we looked ridiculous for 20 minutes squatting up and down. It was great, I love summer days.

Gnocchi- gone horribly awry

Gnocchi (pronounced [ˈnɒki] or in Italian /ɲɔkːi/; singular gnocco) is the Italian name for a variety of thick, soft noodle or dumpling. They may be made from semolina, ordinary wheat flour, potato, bread crumbs, or similar ingredients. (thank you wiki)
We attempted gnocchi one day, with no previous experience, and after an exhausting walk from IsMett <-- BAD IDEA
Does this look edible? We didn't think so, but it's our gnocchi. And I'm loyal to my creations so I ate it.

How did this monstrosity come about? We began with 2 lbs of patatas (potatoes, but too much we think), mixed in 2 egg yolks and 2 cups flour. We followed a recipe, mind you!

Trouble ensued. The dough didn't look like dough, it looked like a mashed potato mess, which is what it was. Oh my... We had to call Dan in to douse us with flour so we could extract ourselves from the lumps.

Xiao and Dan couldn't stomach the dish. Not happy campers... but I was fulfilled. hahaha. We're never trying this again.

Gelo di mellone- dessert extraordinare?

Our wonderful Pitt med mentor and IsMeTT advocate, Dr. H visited us (he's performing some surgeries at IsMeTT as well) and invited us out to a wonderful dinner. We went to Focacceria San Francesco, a restaurant since 1934 that's tucked in a little square near Cattolica's Princes Chapel. We, of course (certamente, I love injecting vocab into my writing whenever I can), ate outside on the warm night. We were really spoiled with getting an antipasto, primo, secondo, and dessert- which is pure gluttony and way too much food in my opinion! I had an antipasto rustic, eggplant and tomato spaghetti, and eggplant roulades with pine nuts and raisins stuffed inside. It was wonderful with our white house wine and we learned a lot about Dr. H's past travels! Dessert was quite the experience and has led to Xiao and Dan making fun of me whenever I have to chose desserts. Read about my poor decision making here, under the title Sicilian Food.

dan, Xiao, Me, and Dr. H during out secondo course!
My eggplant (melanzana) roulade dish. I took most of my dishes home by doggie bag- a total foreign concept to Italians.
Me with gelo de mellone- a special watermelon dessert to Palermo. It tasted pretty much exactly as I expected. The experience was enhanced by hysterical laughter from Xiao.
By popular demand. Christmas elf gear. What I wear to work everyday, here I am in the room right next to the Cardiology office! We get to see procedures going on here everyday- cool!