Europe Trip: Straßburg

Europe Trip: Straßburg

strassburg

Straßburg, Austria located in the Gurk valley of northern Carinthia situated in the Nock Mountains along a bend in the Gurk River. We found ourselves there by chance after following a road sign that read simply “Schloss” (castle). Intrigued, we followed a road that led along the river until we found an adorable, albeit tiny, alpine village with a grand castle sitting atop one of the highest hills. Straßburg has only about 2300 residents. It is made up of rolling hills with an active logging industry along the river and pastures of grazing horses nestled in the hillsides alongside alpine style houses and large groves of trees. While staring out at the countryside Mat remarked, “You could definitely get your Robin Hood on out there!”

David posing on the side of the road

David posing on the side of the road

Hills of Straßburg

Hills of Straßburg

Posing in front of Schloss Straßburg

Posing in front of Schloss Straßburg

Again in front of the castle

Again in front of the castle

Just outside the castle gates

Just outside the castle gates

Castle gate

Castle gate

Schloss Straßburg sits atop a high, winding hill. It was first constructed as a fortress in the 1100s and was later expanded into a castle where it served as the seat of the Prince-Bishops of Gurk until the 18th century. Today it houses a museum with rotating exhibits. The museum was closed on the day we visited but we were able to tour the exterior of the castle and enjoy the remarkable views of the countryside. While both little boys napped with Dédi in the car, the big boys climbed castle walls and explored trenches, clearly living out the Robin Hood fantasies of their childhood. It was a lovely experience.

The castle walls

The castle walls

More of the walls

More of the walls

Views from inside the castle

Views from inside the castle walls

Views from a different angle

Countryside views from a different angle

Mat posing in front of the scenery

Mat posing in front of the scenery

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for long but we will have very fond memories of Schloss Straßburg. I’m sure that the guys could have explored for hours on end, but we had much more to see and do in Austria.

Exploring the castle walls

Exploring the castle walls

Taking in the views

Taking in the views

Mat and David could have seriously stayed forever

Mat and David could have seriously stayed forever

David protecting the fort

David protecting the fort

Mat waves through a window

Mat waves through a window in the wall

David scaling the walls

David scaling the walls

The guys looked tiny next to the castle walls

The guys looked tiny next to the castle walls

One final shot before leaving the castle

One final shot before leaving the castle

Europe Trip: Pörtschach am Wörthersee

Europe Trip: Pörtschach am Wörthersee

The drive from Northern Italy into Austria is absolutely stunning. The Alps are truly magical and even more gloriously beautiful in person than they are in pictures. As we crossed the border into Austria Mat and David burst into song, “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” they crooned. We stopped at a gas station to fill up on gas and Kinder Chocolate (chocolate specifically for children – and loved by adults – made by Ferrero). If you’re not familiar with Kinder Chocolate, it is one of our favorite confections! The boys get some from Mikulás every December and they savor it for as long as possible (it also usually makes its way into any care package sent from Hungary).  Anyway, it was so beautiful at the gas station that the boys wanted their picture taken and I was more than happy to oblige.

Entering Austria and posing at the gas station

Entering Austria and posing at the gas station

Another gas station shot

Another gas station shot

Our next stop was in Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a town located on Wörthersee (Lake Wörth) in Carinthia, Austria (Carinthia is the southernmost state in Austria). It is a popular tourist destination and the region around the lake has even been deemed “Austria’s Monte Carlo.” The crystal-clear water is a rich turquoise-blue color and during the summer the lake can be as warm as 27 degrees Celsius (that’s 80 Fahrenheit). That’s actually warm enough for me to venture into the water! We were actually just driving by on the highway when we saw the lake and decided that it was too beautiful not to take a closer look. I am so glad we stopped!

Posing in front of Wörthersee - the pictures don't do it justice

Posing in front of Wörthersee – the pictures don’t do it justice

Another group shot

Another group shot

And one more (from my iPhone) because it was so pretty

And one more (from my iPhone) because it was so pretty

After driving and then walking a bit through town we had lunch at the wonderful Joainig Gasthof. Mat and I got to practice our (somewhat limited) German. Mat took German in high school and I studied it in college. Mat definitely retained more and at the very least we were able to remember common pleasantries, which our waitress seemed to appreciate. When lunch arrived we feasted on Austrian specialties like Wiener schnitzel, and stewed meat with spaetzle. Austrian food is extremely similar to traditional Hungarian dishes and since we are all huge fans of Hungarian food, the Austrian cuisine made us all feel right at home. Mat and David enjoyed a sampling of Austrian beers while Dédi, the boys and I all had Apfelschorle (apple juice spritzer – also known as “alma fröccs” in Hungarian). Big Guy and Little Man were very good about remembering to always say “danke” (thank you) and Big Guy surprised us when he worked up the courage to ask our waitress “Wo ist die Toilette, bitte?” (Where is the restroom, please?).

The adorable Joainig Gasthof

The adorable Joainig Gasthof

David and Dédi sitting down for lunch

David and Dédi sitting down for lunch

Our table was in the back corner of the restaurant

Our table was in the back corner of the restaurant

David and Mat enjoying their food

David and Mat enjoying their food

My lunch

My lunch

We were sad that we were only able to enjoy Pörtschach am Wörthersee for such a short time but David and I plan on taking a more thorough trip through Austria on our next visit to Hungary and we will make a point of returning to Carinthia.

On the road in Carinthia

On the road in Carinthia

Europe Trip: Aunt Debby to the Rescue

Europe Trip: Aunt Debby to the Rescue

Someone asked me about our car’s window and how we got it fixed, especially in the middle of a road trip. Well, it’s kind of a funny story. If any of you have ever had to get anything on your car fixed, you’re probably familiar with the concept of needing to order parts and I’m sure that you’re also well aware that said parts usually take two to three days to arrive. This is exactly the sort of thing we were running into in Rome after our window was broken and there was no way that we could stick to our itinerary or our budget if we were going to have to wait around in Rome for three days while the car got fixed (plus, it would have cut out Tuscany and Verona and that was beyond unacceptable). Also… have you ever driven at high speeds on the highway with the window down? That was not exactly something we were looking forward to either.

Anyway, long story short, we were able to find an auto glass repair shop on the outskirts of Rome that was willing to put in a temporary window so that we could continue on our trip (David’s cousin had a glass shop in Budapest that was going to be able to fix it once we made it back). We were super excited. The only drawback was going to be that the window would not roll down so the person sitting behind the driver (me) would have to pay all of the tolls along the way (if you’ve never been to Italy, they have A LOT of toll roads), but that wasn’t really a problem.

Everything started out great. We had a new window, the toll booth workers thought it was hilarious that I had to lean out the back window in order to pay them a toll, we were laughing that we were going to have a great story to tell when we got home. Then it happened. It started out as a little squeaking sound. Then the window started rattling a little and then the rattle became increasingly violent and started to pull away from the car. At the rate we were going, we would lose the window before we made it ten miles. David pulled off at the first gas station we came across and our problem was immediately evident. The temporary window was secured with electrical tape. Like the black kind that you put on the end of your electrical cords when they start to fray. No wonder it wasn’t holding! I can’t get electric tape to stick to my cords half the time, could we really be surprised it wasn’t holding together the car at high velocities? We needed something strong. We needed something durable. We needed duct tape.

Examining the window

Examining the window

We went inside the gas station in search of duct tape but they didn’t have any at all (they did however have a wonderful selection of chocolates and various snack foods that we decided we NEEDED to bring along on our journey). We were waxing poetically about how nice it would be if we only had some duct tape when Mat piped up and said, “You guys are going to think I’m crazy but I think my mom might have packed duct tape in my suitcase. I thought she was a little nuts when she wanted me to throw it in but she kept insisting that you never know when you’re going to need duct tape.”

It was like the clouds opened up and angels were singing in the sky. Lo and behold, there was a small roll of duct tape in the front pocket of Mat’s suitcase. It was just enough duct tape to secure the window both inside and out. We used every last bit of it to secure the window in place and went about on our merry way. The duct taped window held all the way through Italy, Austria and back to Hungary.

Using duct tape to repair the temporary window

Using duct tape to repair the temporary window

Checking out their tape job.

Checking out their tape job.

Moral of the story? Never leave home without duct tape… and Aunt Debby is kind of a genius.

 

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Almond Butter Cookies with Maldon Salt

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Almond Butter Cookies with Maldon Salt

Someone pointed out that I haven’t done a recipe post in a really long time, so I thought it was about time that I did one. I’m no stranger to dietary restrictions. I’ve mentioned before that both my mom and my brother are gluten free. I have several friends whose children have allergies to everything ranging from tree nuts to soy or corn and I even have a friend who is allergic to avocados. When I’m entertaining or I have people over I hate for anyone to feel left out so I do my best to try and make sure that there is something that everyone can eat. My latest challenge was two-fold. Everyone was congregating at my parents’ house to watch football (Go Broncos!) and I wanted to make a dessert. As both my mom and my brother would be there gluten was already out of the question. Well, my sister-in-law recently gave up dairy because she is nursing and it was adversely affecting my niece. So whatever I made needed to be gluten and dairy free, which was totally doable. I thought I might make some pavlovas or macrons. Then David hit me with a zinger. He has cut out all white sugar.

Now before you tell me that there are a lot of great paleo desserts out there that meet all of these dietary restrictions, let me tell you that I have tried a lot of them. Usually I like them, but I don’t have a big sweet tooth. My husband and my children are a different story. They don’t usually like my “healthy” desserts and rarely tolerate them. Nothing like slaving away in the kitchen only to have a child take one bite and spit it out with a resounding “blech.” I needed something that they weren’t going to think was healthy.

Enter Gwyneth. I’ve made several of Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipes from both of her cookbooks and they’ve all been a hit with my family. Her second book really focuses on clean eating (the first one is pretty clean too) so I flipped immediately to the sweets section. There was a recipe for Almond Butter Cookies with Maldon Salt that I decided to take for a spin. They were extremely easy to throw together and I’m not exaggerating when I say that they were a huge hit. These puppies are gluten-free, dairy free, vegan and sugar free (though unfortunately not calorie free). I’m hoping that these will work like a gateway drug and get everyone on board with healthy (or at least healthier) desserts in the future. These were successful enough that I’ve already successfully worked out my first adaptation! This also makes phenomenal cookie dough, and the best part is that since there are no raw eggs you can eat the dough to your hearts content without ever having to worry about getting salmonella.

Almond Butter Cookies with Maldon Salt

From Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good
Makes about 2-3 dozen cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups gluten-free multi-purpose flour (I used King Arthur for these)
  • ¾ teaspoon xanthan gum
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup natural almond butter (the only ingredient should be almonds)
  • 1 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Maldon sea salt, to taste (the original recipe says ½ teaspoon, but I just sprinkled a little on top of each cookie. You can also sub your favorite coarse sea salt – this is the one I used)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  3. Whisk together the flour, xanthan gum, fine sea salt and baking powder together in a small bowl and set aside.
  4. In another, larger bowl combine almond butter, maple syrup and vanilla extract, mixing until combined.
  5. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, combining thoroughly.
  6. Spoon the dough onto prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart (any amount will work, but I like the cookies best when I used about 1 Tablespoon) and press down on each cookie to flatten it into a small disc (you can wet your fingers if you want, but it isn’t really necessary).
  7. Sprinkle each cookie with a little Maldon salt.
  8. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and allow them to cool before serving.
Pre-baking... the dough is delicious!

Pre-baking… the dough is delicious!

The final product.

The final product.

I’ll be back soon with more from our European adventure!

Europe Trip: Verona

Europe Trip: Verona

verona

Northern Italy is far more beautiful than I had imagined with its rolling hills and vineyards. Nestled in the heart of Northern Italy’s Veneto region, astride the Adige River, lies fair Verona which is where our adventure took us next.

verona27

Crossing the Adige River

Crossing the Adige River

Mat shares my love of Shakespeare, so we definitely wanted to see the city made famous by both Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (I had hoped we would have a chance to make a quick stop in Padua – the setting of my favorite Shakespeare play, The Taming of the Shrew – but we’ll have to save that for another trip).  Of course, at the top of our list of places to start was Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s house), an early 14th century home with a courtyard and balcony that claims to be the house of the Capulets from Romeo and Juliet. The courtyard is filled with tradition; many people inscribe their names on the walls of the entrance believing that that it will make their love everlasting, they also place love locks on the gate as a sign of their love. Most famous, though, are the thousands of letters placed in the walls each year. If you are familiar with the film Letters to Juliet (or the book on which it is based), then you know about the Club di Giulietta which is a group of women who have been answering letters addressed to Juliet since the 1930s (according to Wikipedia they get more than 5000 each year).

Juliet's Courtyard

Juliet’s Courtyard, you can see the locks on the gate

The bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard has a shiny chest  because people believe rubbing her breasts bring luck

The bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard has a shiny chest because people believe rubbing her breasts bring luck

The balcony

The balcony

Verona is a lovely city filled with history, art, sidewalk cafés, churches and boutiques. I loved walking through the city gazing at window displays and watching people as they meandered down the pedestrian streets. The boys did some shopping, popping into a soccer shop to stock up on World Cup memorabilia, specifically soccer balls that they could kick around the yard once we returned to Dédi’s village in Hungary.

Just a random lovely courtard

Just a random lovely courtard

How gorgeous are these church doors?

How gorgeous are these church doors?

Some of the lovely streets of Verona

Some of the lovely streets of Verona

Shopping in Verona

Shopping in Verona

One of the most impressive sights in Verona is the Verona Arena. The arena is an ancient Roman amphitheater in Piazza Bra that is still in use today for concerts and large-scale opera performances. Piazza Bra, or just Bra to locals, is the largest piazza in Verona and is home not only to the arena, but also the Verona Town Hall (Palazzo Barbieri), Palazzo della Gran Guardia, and a large garden that is filled statues, fountains and towering cedar trees.

The Verona Arena

The Verona Arena

An actor dressed as a Roman Soldier

An actor dressed as a Roman Soldier

 Piazza Bra

Piazza Bra

The boys in Piazza Bra

The boys in Piazza Bra

Me and David

Me and David

Brotherly love

Brotherly love

Clowning around

Clowning around

Who doesn't want free hugs?

Who doesn’t want free hugs?

Another lovely piazza was Piazza delle Erbe (Market’s square) which used to be the town’s forum during the Roman Empire. Today it is home to souvenir kiosks, restaurants, cafés and a beautiful fountain, the Madonna Verona, which is the square’s most ancient monument.

 Piazza delle Erbe

Piazza delle Erbe

Posing with the Madonna Verona

Posing with the Madonna Verona

Shopping the souvenir kiosks and having a quick snack

Shopping the souvenir kiosks and having a quick snack

Verona, like most of Italy, is home to some beautiful churches. Dédi even attended evening services at one of the cathedrals while the rest of us had a quick snack in a little café (the boys were not in the mood to sit through a Catholic mass, especially since it was in Italian). After the mass we enjoyed our last dinner in Italy before settling in for the night at our hotel in nearby Tregnago.

Sitting down at the restauant

Sitting down at the restauant

Last dinner in Italy

Last dinner in Italy

The hotel, Residence Villa Vinco, is made up of several apartments. We stayed in the Castello apartment, which we had to take several flights of stairs to get to (there were no elevators). Once inside we were impressed by the apartment. It was about 110 square meters (about 1200 square feet) with two bedrooms, one bathroom and a large open concept kitchen and living room area. Little Man was most impressed with the fact that when he stood on the bed in our room he could touch the ceiling (well, he could touch the beams, but that was good enough for him). The hotel didn’t serve breakfast, but since we were in Italy, there was no shortage of great cafés for our morning cappuccinos.

The sign outside of our hotel

The sign outside of our hotel

The main lobby

The main lobby

Little Man reaching for the beams and our last Italian cappuccino

Little Man reaching for the beams and our final Italian cappuccino

Europe Trip: Monteriggioni

Europe Trip: Monteriggioni

monteriggionititle

For as, on its round wall, Monteriggioni/ is crowned with towers, so there towered here, above the bank that runs around the pit,/ with half their bulk, the terrifying giants, who still – whenever Jove hurls bolts from heaven – /remember how his thunder shattered them.

 -From The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri as translated by Allen Mandelbaum

The sign that took us on a side adventure

The sign that took us on a side adventure

I mentioned in one of my Florence posts about my son’s love of Assassin’s Creed II and its hero, Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Well, Ezio happened to have a country home that he used as a base of operations in a little place called Monteriggioni. When David and Mat saw the sign for the Comune di Monteriggioni on our drive from Siena to Verona, they seriously geeked out and we had to take a side trip.

Looking out over the walls

Looking out over the walls

With my sweetie enjoying the views

With my sweetie enjoying the views

David next to the huge stone walls

David next to the huge stone walls

David and Mat talking about how cool it would have been to see the fortress in a battle

David and Mat talking about how cool it would have been to see the fortress in a battle

I never imagined that I would be grateful to a video game for anything, but I am really pleased that the influence of Assassins Creed lead us to one of the true gems of our vacation. Monteriggioni is a tiny walled village in the province of Siena that was originally built by the Sienese in the 1200s to be the front line of defense in their war with Florence.

The boys wandering the streets

The boys wandering the streets

And hanging out by the walls

And hanging out by the walls

One of the restaurants lining the main piazza

One of the restaurants lining the main piazza

Dédi and the boys resting outside of one of the shops

Dédi and the boys resting outside of one of the shops

It is absolutely picturesque, filled with renaissance style architecture and surrounded by gorgeous Tuscan countryside. I loved touring the church in the main square and the boys were all enthralled with their armor museum, where they were allowed to touch nearly everything and even try on authentic armor.

The church

The church

The church façade and the interior - seriously small churches are the best!

The church façade and the interior – seriously small churches are the best!

The knights of Monteriggioni

The knights of Monteriggioni

Mat looks like he could have been a real Monteriggioni knight

Mat looks like he could have been a real Monteriggioni knight

The knight and his squires

The knight and his squires

Little guys getting in on the action

Little guys getting in on the action

Little Man loved the full armor suits on display

Little Man loved the full armor suits on display and playing dress up

David liked trying out the weapons

David liked trying out the weapons

David, Mat and I managed to carve out time for shopping at the adorable little shops lining the cobblestone pathways and wine tasting at Fattoria Castillo di Monteriggioni. The tasting was excellent. Not only was the wine delicious, but we got a great education in Italian wines and how they are made. Mat and David each ended up walking away with six bottles of wine (which would make packing to go home interesting down the road) and I bought two Italian cookbooks (that I hope I’ll be able to translate). We’ve really enjoyed the wines and the good news is that they ship to the US!

The main gate and the front of our favorite shop.

The main gate and the front of our favorite shop.

Shopping and wine tasting

Shopping and wine tasting

The wines we tasted

The wines we tasted

David showing off the new additions to his wine collection

David showing off the new additions to his wine collection

Europe Trip: Tuscany – San Lorenzo a Linari

Europe Trip: Tuscany – San Lorenzo a Linari

Views of Tuscany

Views of Tuscany

Bails of hay on the side of the road.

Bales of hay on the side of the road.

I love the visuals in movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Stealing Beauty so when it came time for our stay in Tuscany, I really wanted to go native (or at least have an experience that was akin to what I was seeing in the movies). I wanted something in the countryside that felt like an authentic Italian inn or bed and breakfast as opposed to a corporate hotel that is a perfect facsimile of a hundred other hotels around the world. Part of the adventure is staying somewhere is that it feels genuine, even if that means that some of the amenities are not as up to date as they would be at a large chain. David and I did a lot of research and the cool thing about staying somewhere in Tuscany is that there is an abundance of old stately homes and estates that have been converted into small inns and B&Bs. For our stay, we found a great little place in the winding hills just outside of Siena.

The sign leading up to San Lorenzo a Linari

The sign leading up to San Lorenzo a Linari

The front of the establishment

The front of the establishment

courtyard

The main courtyard

David looking pleased with himself for making another stellar reservation

David looking pleased with himself for making another stellar reservation

The courtyard leading to our apartment

The courtyard leading to our apartment

One of the many picnic areas

One of the many picnic areas

One of the gardens

One of the gardens (that’s me with the camera)

San Lorenzo a Linari was once a medieval monastery for an order of Nuns (first built in the 1100s) located just five miles from Siena. Around 1735 it was converted into a noble country residence and in 1975 restoration started so that it could be converted into the guest house that it is today. It now boasts amenities such as tennis courts, pools, gardens, barbecue and picnic areas and a health spa among others. They have apartments large enough to accommodate 2-8 people and each morning they have a delicious Tuscan style breakfast complete with freshly baked croissants and pastries, five minute eggs, freshly squeezed juice and the best cappuccino we had in all of Italy (they used fresh milk – like from a freshly milked cow).

The Tuscan breakfast

The Tuscan breakfast

The view from our room.

The view from our room.

More views from our window

More views from our window

Mat relaxes in one of the gardens

Mat relaxes in one of the gardens

This was by far my favorite place that we stayed in Italy and I would love to go back and stay for a longer period of time. There aren’t a lot of restaurants or stores in the immediate vicinity, but since you are not far from Siena, it doesn’t take too long to get to large grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants. We actually had a bit of a scare when, after driving into town to stock up on supplies, we were headed back on a long winding road to our lodgings. We heard sirens approaching so David pulled over and we were passed by a large fire truck. We followed the fire truck for several miles and David was getting more and more concerned the longer we followed it and even said, “What if the hotel burned down with all of our luggage inside?” Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. There was just a small roadside fire about a mile from where we were staying (an outdoor trash receptacle had caught on fire) and the firefighters were able to put it out quickly. No one was hurt and, aside from the garbage container, no property was damaged.

The fire

The fire

Relaxing poolside

Relaxing poolside

Ping-pong

Ping-pong

playing by the pool

playing by the pool

David and I were there too!

David and I were there too!

Dédi enjoying the sunset

Dédi enjoying the sunset

The rest of our stay was relatively low key. We had a nice dinner of charcuterie, veggies, fruit and fresh bread before heading down for a relaxing late afternoon dip in the pool and a game of ping-pong while watching the sun set. The boys would have been perfectly content to never leave the property for the rest of our trip. If you like a vacation where you’re away from the hustle and bustle of things, then San Lorenzo a Linari might be just the place for you. They will actually arrange wine tasting tours, tours of the region and horseback riding if you’d like, so you can be as busy or as relaxed as you would like to be.

Late afternoon view of the countryside from one of the gardens

Late afternoon view of the countryside from one of the gardens

Inside the garden walls as the sun was setting

Inside the garden walls as the sun was setting

Things I Love: October Picks

Things I Love: October Picks

I’m late getting to this post, but we still have a lot of October left! So, without further ado, here are just some of the things I’m loving in October.

october picks

1. Gilmore Girls: Watching the many adventures of Lorelei and Rory Gilmore and the rest of the Stars Hollow gang  is one of my favorite pastimes and since Netflix added Gilmore Girls to its streaming content on October first, I am able to binge watch to my heart’s content. No more searching for the right DVD or trying to remember which episode I left off on! Between this and season three of Hart of Dixie, I’m going to be in Netflix heaven!

2. Karuna Hydrating Treatment Masks: I had one of these show up in my monthly Birchbox subscription last year and I immediately became obsessed. They make my skin feel absolutely glorious! I try to do one at least a couple of times per month and lately I’ve been trying several of Karuna’s other masks and have yet to be disappointed.

3. Peyton Manning Ornament: Every year I say that I’m not going to buy a bunch of Christmas ornaments that I don’t need and then Hallmark goes and comes out with a whole bunch of ornaments that I totally need want. This year their pièce de résistance is a Peyton Manning ornament! What Christmas tree would be complete without a miniature Peyton Manning, especially if said Peyton Manning is in a Broncos jersey? It is too cute!

4. The Judge: David and I were invited to an advanced screening of this film a while back and I was blown away by the actors’ performances. Seriously, everyone was incredible. Who doesn’t love Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall? The movie was not what I expected – it was slower paced than the preview makes it seem – but it was great, although sometimes hard to watch. Vincent D’Onofrio might just be the most underrated actor of all-time and his performance in this is exquisite (really, the entire cast is awesome).

5. King Arthur Gluten Free Chocolate Cake Mix: I have tried every gluten-free cake mix I can get my hands on but none of them were up to my standards. Until now. King Arthur Flour has formulated what is hands down the best gluten-free cake mix on the market. It is rich, moist and beyond delicious. I am a big “from scratch” girl, but I am hard pressed to find a gluten-free cake recipe that I like better than this one. It’s also super easy to make so I can’t keep them around the house or I’ll get myself into trouble. Seriously, this is better than any non gluten-free cake mix you’ll find in the super-market aisle.

Europe Trip: Siena

Europe Trip: Siena

Siena

The day we visited Siena, it was so hot and humid outside that the air felt like you could cut it with a knife. We weren’t about to let it ruin our day, though. The famous medieval cityscape is brimming with Italian culture, art, history and cuisine. Siena is a walled city and very little traffic is permitted inside the city gates. The absence of vehicles makes it feel as though you have transported to a different time. We enjoyed walking through the city and seeing the various churches and landmarks (and some interesting graffiti).

Rock 'N' Rool!

Rock ‘N’ Rool!

Fountains of Siena

Fountains of Siena

 

Streets of Siena

Streets of Siena

Streets of Siena (Big Guy helped his great-grandmother walk down a steep hill).

Streets of Siena (Big Guy helped his great-grandmother walk down a steep hill).

The most prominent landmark in Siena is the Palazzo Pubblico (town square) located in Piazza del Campo, but the most famous part of Siena is the Piazza itself which is considered to be one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo and Palazzo Pubblico

Piazza del Campo and Palazzo Pubblico

Fonte Gaia (fountain of joy) in Piazza del Campo

Fonte Gaia (fountain of joy) in Piazza del Campo

Siena is also filled with gorgeous churches and cathedrals, the most noted of which is the Duomo di Siena (Siena Cathedral).

Siena Cathedral

Siena Cathedral

Resting near the cathedral

Resting near the cathedral

For lunch, we sat down at one of the cafés lining the Piazza del Campo. We were all commenting on how hot we were when Little Man piped up saying that he was cold. Touching his forehead, I realized that we had a problem. He was burning up.

Enjoying Coke at lunch (I don't often let Big Guy drink soda so this was a big deal)

Enjoying Coke at lunch (I don’t often let Big Guy drink soda so this was a big deal)

Waiting for our food.

Waiting for our food.

"Mommy, I'm cold."

“Mommy, I’m cold.”

When we left Siena soon after our late lunch, we went in search of a pharmacy where I would have my greatest test in the Italian language to date. I dug deep into my language skills (thank goodness I knew my Italian numbers and was able to use my phone to convert his weight in pounds into kilograms). I explained that I had a little boy (I actually think I said bambino which is baby – haha) that was four years old and then I grabbed my forehead and said “malato e caldo” which (I think) means “sick and hot.” He replied, “Ah, febbre” (fever) and went in the back room. When he returned he asked, “Fragola o arancia?” and I picked fragola (strawberry) because that is my son’s favorite gelato flavor and he handed me the Italian equivalent of Children’s Motrin instructing me on the proper dose based on his age and weight. When it actually came time to administer the medicine, David was able to use his Spanish to translate the instructions and double check that I had understood the pharmacist properly (I had). Thankfully it brought his fever down immediately and we were able to enjoy the rest of our trip.

The city gates and walking down the streets of Siena

The city gates and walking down the streets of Siena

Europe Trip: Paradise Beach

Europe Trip: Paradise Beach

paradise beach feat

Being a California girl, going to the beach is something that I tend to take for granted. We can go pretty much any time and just plop our towel down in the sand, throw on some sunscreen and we’re ready to go. Not so in Italy. The Italians have a much more involved process for going to the beach. First of all, the California notion of free beach access is pretty much nonexistent. Most of the Italian beach front is divided up into private beach clubs where you pay for beach access and then you have the option to rent a chair, umbrella or other beach accessories. Your entry fee also gains you access to bathrooms, changing rooms, showers and a café (and sometimes a restaurant).

Me and David inside of the Paradise Beach cafe

Me and David inside of the Paradise Beach cafe

After our long day at the Vatican, we decided that the boys needed a break and there is no better way to decompress than taking a daytrip to the beach. After doing some research online, David found a beach not too far outside of Rome called Paradise Beach in Maccarese.

The sign at Paradise Beach

The sign at Paradise Beach

Located at the very end of the road in Maccarese, Paradise Beach would be difficult to reach without a car, which means that it is very light on tourists but also that most people don’t speak much English (although one of the ladies that worked there was originally from Romania and had Hungarian grandparents so she was able to converse with David and Dédi in Hungarian). The Italians don’t look too kindly upon children digging in the sand or building sand castles, but because the water is fairly shallow with little to no waves (and quite warm) the kids are perfectly happy to splash around. Another huge difference between California beaches and Roman beaches are the beach vendors. There are a ton of merchants raveling all up and down the beach selling everything from sunglasses and towels to kites and even bikinis (people actually try them on right there at the beach). Some of the peddlers are more aggressive than others, but a firm “No” will usually get them to leave you alone (and its kind of nice to know that your day won’t be ruined because you accidentally left something at home).

Posing in front of the water and the view from the club house

Posing in front of the water and the view from the club house

When it came time to eat, we had a wonderful lunch of spaghetti with clams, fried calamari, and grilled fish  at their lovely seaside restaurant (the tables and chairs are actually in the sand!). Ordering our food was interesting because they didn’t have a menu (the menu changes daily based on what has been caught fresh and what produce is in season) and they didn’t speak any English. This was another one of those times we were thankful for the little bit of Italian that we know! We must not have failed too badly at communicating because everyone got what they wanted. Later in the afternoon we enjoyed espressos with apple strudel (Paradise Beach is known for its delicious strudel and it sells out fast) and popsicles for the boys in their little café that is both adorable and extremely comfortable.

Getting lunch

Getting lunch at the restaurant

Ordering afternoon snacks inside the cafe

Ordering afternoon snacks inside the cafe

On our way back into Rome, traveling along the main road from Maccarese, there are four fruit stands along the way. We had read in one of the guides that all of the stands sell fantastic fruit and we were not disappointed. We returned to our hotel loaded up with some of the best tomatoes and cherries we have ever tasted!

The fruit stand where we stopped

The produce stand where we decided to stop

Picking out our produce

Picking out our produce

Thanking the stand owners for their help (they were all super friendly)

Thanking one of the stand owners for her help (they were all super friendly)

It was a great day and if you are in Rome with access to a car and a desire to spend the day at the beach, Paradise Beach is the place to go.

David looking out of the broken window of our car

David looking out of the broken window of our car