For a change we were out relatively early, caught the 10.10am bus to Santa Maria degli Angeli near the train station. This was the site of Porziuncola, a church that was already standing in St Francis’ and St Clare’s time. This was the second church rebuilt by St Francis. The original church was still standing, a tiny sacred stone building with a simple altar and single pews. Over the small church in the 1500s they built the basilica which had many small chapels and ornate decorations. We went into a chapel for prayer, and, as per our experience so far this trip, the chapel filled with people and all of a sudden organ music rang out and we found ourselves participating in a mass. It was quite nice, even though we couldn’t understand any of the Italian.
There was a lot to see at the rest of the cathedral. The various chapels, a rose garden, sculptures of St Francis and a statue of St Clare dedicated by mm’s mum’s school. It was quite moving to see the name of the school so prominently displayed amongst an exhibit showing St Clare’s life. There was also a small cinema and we caught a 10min film about the church and its significance in St Francis’ life. The Porziuncula attracts many pilgrims because St Francis obtained the Indulgence of Pardon, or total forgiveness for all temporal sins, from Jesus here.
Lunch at at nearby café of pizza, pasta and salad. Caught a bus back to near St Francis Basilica so we could visit the Bosco di San Francesco, or St Francis’ Woodlands. This was where he went to pray and experience nature. There was a 1.5km trail to a small church Santa Croce, then another 2.5km roundtrip to Terzo Paradiso (three paradise), an art installation of 3 circles made from an olive grove. The hike was pleasant if quite long. Since the path from the basilica entrance to Santa Croce closed at 4pm we had to return to town via a tarmac road. On the map it looked less than the 1.5km trail but the map didn’t show that it was all uphill. We got back into Assisi proper past 6pm.
Refuelled with water and gelato. Bought tomatoes and peppers from a small greengrocer’s and wandered into a gourmet shop wanting porchetta panini. We got our porchetta sandwiches, the friendly shopkeeper gave us parma ham to try and we ended up buying a few slices which she packed in vacuum. Perfect to bring back for the family. Dinner was late, almost 8pm, in our room. Laundry was dry, suitcases packed for the next leg of our trip. Rome and the Vatican over Easter. I’m excited for the occasion but very wary of the potential crowds. We met a young Father from Michigan here at the retreat house and he says he will be at Easter Sunday mass too and they anticipate 50,000 or more people. Yikes.
We finally found the wifi password at the retreat house and spent the morning catching up, uploading and posting. Also took time to do laundry so it wasn’t until around noon that we set off. The first destination today was Basilica di San Francesco, the largest basilica and the primary attraction of Assisi. The basilica consisted of the lower basilica built in 1230 and the upper basilica built in 1239, together with other buildings dedicated to St Francis, St Clare, St Anthony and many other saints. We waited till after the weekend, hoping for thinner crowds. There were plenty of visitors still, although the complex was big enough for there to be space between groups.
The iconic entrance to the lower basilica through a sloped pavement was like steps taken by pilgrims. The façade of the upper basilica overlooked a lawn with a statue of St Francis on horseback. Both basilicas were extensively painted with frescos and paintings depicting the life of St Francis. The lower basilica led to the tomb of St Francis, a sacred place. There was also an exhibition of Franciscian manuscripts.
While we were at the upper basilica, a group of teenagers and their teacher stood respectfully in front of the altar and broke out into song. Afterwards, we found out that they were a choir group from Minnesota on pilgrimage. The acoustics of the basilica was such that the song seemed to echo and reverberate around all of us who were there at the right place at the right time. Some of the kids were so overcome with emotions that they were in (happy) tears at the end of the spontaneous recital. As a bonus, photography wasn’t allowed inside the basilica, but with the choir singing, everybody took the opportunity to take pictures or videos without being scolded by the staff.
All in all, an interesting and meaningful visit. Almost all of Assisi was full of St Francis or St Clare, it was like we couldn’t turn around and there was another place where they were born / prayed / baptised / lived. Everywhere were stories. Every wall had a dedication. I could see why pilgrims flock here. Am I overwhelmed? Not necessarily by the spirituality, but by the sheer preponderance of everything associated with the saints. It’s like being immersed in saintliness.
Quick late lunch of average pizza at the most unfriendly place this trip—the silver lining was free loo and free wifi. Hiked uphill to rocca maggiore, the highest point of Assisi and a fort located on the remains of defensive walls. We debated whether to shell out the €5.50 entrance fee and since we made all the effort to trek there, seemed a waste just to turn back. What appeared to be old walls made up of piles of rocks turned out to be really interesting. A dark, hidden doorway led via a spiral staircase up one of the towers. The walls were too high for us to see much.
A secret passageway from the first tower ran underneath the walls and came out at to another tower, this one with breathtaking 360º views of Assisi, from the rocca minore furthest east, to San Ruffino Cathedral, Basilica Santa Chiara, almost the entire town and the Basilica San Francesco. It was quite scary as the fence was open, so eventually my fear of heights kicked in.
Like last night, we bought porchetta sandwiches to enjoy in our room while we relax in peace and quiet. Last day tomorrow, still have a lot planned.
The clocks changed overnight, and we thought we would pre-empt by manually setting our iphones but somehow they updated themselves so we woke up way too early at 6.30am. Sat in chapel for a bit then back to our room to wait for 7.30am breakfast. Similar continental food as Florence retreat house. We noticed all (seriously, 100%) of the other guests were American, and the sort who: a) talk loudly even at 7.30am; b) talk loudly about themselves, about their faith, about how even they were the only member of their family who was Catholic, about how coming to Assisi for pilgrimage utterly change their lives; c) were quite demanding to the sisters and staff. Some stereotypes are true.
One of the sisters told us about the events today, Palm Sunday. We headed to the main square at just before 9.30am where a crowd had gathered around baskets of olive branches. We picked out a nice bunch each and waited for the fathers to appear and bless the branches. Mostly olive branches although there were a few palm fronds. After the blessing, there was a procession towards the Cathedral San Ruffino. The choir leader sang us up the hill and into the cathedral. The mass was in Italian and I was able to follow at least the procedures, if not the words. We could follow the Gospel because mm had it on her iphone. Mostly the mass was similar in structure to what we were used to. Afterwards a few nice gentlemen in official looking grey overcoats took pictures with us. We stayed behind after the mass to take pictures of the cathedral.
Early lunch at a sandwich shop next to the cathedral of torta with rocket & ricotta and pancetta & mozzarella. Back to the retreat house to deposit our olive branches and take a rest. The next stop was the long walk (1.5km) to San Damiano, the sanctuary where St Francis heard the voice of Christ and where St Clare established a convent. A crisp cold morning had turned into a glorious blue sky day. The sanctuary was locked when we got there, and we were afraid it was closed. But people kept appearing and sitting patiently outside on benches. It was 1.55pm so we figured it might open at 2pm. Yay, we were right!
It was free to enter and we walked through the chapel, dormitory and cloisters. Supposed to be silence and no photography but people were taking pictures at will and this woman was talking on her phone (thought she got shushed).
A longer walk uphill back to town. Really tired so found a café and ordered a large bottle of water plus snacks of pizza and pasta. Further visits to S. Maria Maggiore and San Pietro churches. The churches were beginning to blend into each other. And it seemed everywhere we turned, it was someplace St Francis stayed at or did something. I guess it’s par for the course.
Souvenir shopping led us to St Francis Basilica. It was getting late and our plan was to visit it tomorrow. Not a huge amount of choices for dinner so we bought porchetta sandwiches and headed back to our room to relax and have an early night.
Checked out of our room after breakfast and left our luggage in their sitting room while we popped outside to the supermarket to get lunch. There was a little time to visit the chapel and lounge in the sitting room. Sister Lucia called a taxi for us, around 10mins to the station. Waited at the concourse for our train to come up on the board. Departure was at 12.09, and it was a semi-fast regional train with no reservation. We snagged a 4-seater and wedged our suitcases in between the seats. There was space near the door but nothing to secure the bags, and too exposed with so many stops. Lunch was mushroom and pepper foccacia from the supermarket, with smoked cheese and a black (squid ink?) foccaccia.
Arrived at Assisi around 2.45pm. The station is 4km from town so taxi seems to be the only option with 2 big suitcases. The retreat house is St Anthony’s run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement and we were greeted by Sister Sue. I think she’s from the US. She showed us to our room and we got settled down then explored the retreat house. Our room is the one at the bottom right with the balcony. This retreat house is different from the one in Florence. Seemed to be slightly more business-like with housekeeping staff. There is a chapel, a multi-level garden and a few more house rules. There were specific rooms we could go, the dining room was locked, whereas in Florence we had the run of the place at all time.
We had a couple of hours of daylight left so we headed to Basilica Santa Chiara or St Clare’s Cathedral. St Clare has an equally important place in Assisi’s history as St Francis and the Basilica was very beautiful especially in the late afternoon sunlight. There was a service inside, we sat and listened for a while then visited the crucifix chapel and the crypt where St Clare was interred. Making our way to the central Piazza del Comune square we passed by Chiesa Nuova, site of St Francis’ paternal home and Santa Maria Dopra Minerva at the square. Assisi is a typical Mediterranean town, narrow hilly cobblestoned streets and stone houses. Very pretty in the evening light.
Dinner was at a touristy deli type place, the sort where the food is reheated and served on paper plates. Pizza margherita, penne arrabiata and grilled vegetables. The pizza was passable, the penne was from the packet and the grilled vegetables more like ratatouille. For a moment there we thought we were in south of France. A large house red was the best bargain. It was almost dark so we made our way back to the retreat house. There didn’t seem to be a supermarket in town, we stopped at a vegetable store and bought some tomatoes. They had wine on tap so I got a 1l plastic bottle of sangiovese for €2 (plus 0.90 for the bottle). Tasted fine.
Had to get used to a new room and new bathroom. This retreat house, aside from having no internet, also had no laundry facilities so we will be handwashing a few items a day. It was a completely clear sky tonight, chilly with lots of stars in the sky. Could see all of Orion.
Rainy day plus a late start due to laundry meant we spent the day in Florence instead of taking a day trip out to Tuscany. It means we only get to go to Siena this trip. I’m a little disappointed although mm preferred to stay in town.
Headed to south of the river to Piazzale Michaelangelo. A long trek up steps brought us to a wide open square with spectacular view of the city. The rain stopped long enough for the sun to peek out to give us even better views.
Quite a lot to see and do over there. There were 2 churches next to the square, a small church associated with a missionary and the basilica San Miniato al Monte which had a spectacular view to the city as well as an extensive cemetery behind the church. In front of the square is a small garden with roses and citrus trees, very pleasant to sit there once the weather cleared up.
Back to San Lorenzo market and Duomo area for last minute shopping. Dinner at our usual restaurant and florentine steak again. Back to the retreat house for our last night, packing and relaxing. We weren’t as agressive as before, taking our time everyday, so it meant we saw fewer sights than how we used to travel. Then again, we didn’t feel as rushed and it was sometimes nice just to sit at a café and watch the world go by.
The retreat house we stayed in Florence is the casa per ferie regina del santo rosario run by Sister Flora, Sister Lucia and others. I can’t recommend it high enough. Yes, it’s fairly basic. There is no TV in the room, no room service and other fancy stuff. I found it very peaceful and pleasant. We spent a little time this morning in the living room with the door to the garden open for fresh air and it was as good as life can get. They are actually on booking.com, the Sister was using the computer the other night.
Train to Assisi tomorrow. From the website, the retreat house at Assisi has no internet. Let’s see how we manage.
Leisurely breakfast. Laundry after breakfast too, the sisters charged us a nominal €1 to use their laundry facilities, there was plenty of room in the garden to hang our clothes to dry.
Walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, the biggest franciscian church in Florence. The entrance fee was €6 and it was worth it, there was a lot to see. Aside from the main area, there were rooms and corridors full of art and artefacts, including many that were ruined by the 1966 flood and carefully restored. The church is also the final resting place for MIchaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and other prominent people.
I enjoyed visiting the church, but got a bit impatient. We would go to a particular spot, an altar, a painting or something interesting. It’d take me a couple of minutes to look at the object and take a picture. Then I’d have to stand there for another 10mins waiting for mm, who seemed to read, look, appreciate and photograph every.single.thing with excruitiating slowness. We definitely have to compromise going forward. Sigh.
It was past 2pm by the time we came out of the basilica. I had plans to go to Piazza Michaelangelo across the river, but obviously the plan disappeared. We still had to find lunch. The first place, near palazzo vecchio, was way too touristy for our liking. We found a trattoria slightly off the main squares. It was still touristy, with some locals inside. Their lunch menu was until 3pm, so we took advantage of it. I had chicken liver crostini and mm had grilled vegetables. For mains we had veal scalloppine. Everything was good, the scalloppine was underseasoned, as if the chef forgot salt. Their bread was the best we’ve tasted in all of Italy. They made their own pizza and we noticed they made their own bread too. For dessert we shared a cheesecake with strawberries and cream.
More walking. Had a small gelato (mint and yogurt for me, mint and lemon for mm) and got a few things at the supermarket. Back at the retreat house at around 6pm. Still full from lunch, no need for dinner.
We woke up at 9am, too late for breakfast at the retreat house. Had our coffee and tea at a nearby coffee shop instead. Bought sandwiches from the street market—porchetta and lampredotto (cow stomach).
First stop was at the religious shop near the Duomo, to give the sisters there a cake we bought at Siena. They were so nice. Sister Stefanie invited us to visit their chapel above the shop. So peaceful and blessed.
The rest of the day was quite boring for me. Walked to the bus station to catch the bus for the outlet. The bus was full so we had to wait for the next one. Good timing to have lunch. The outlet had a number of brands—Prada, Ferragamo, Coach, BV, Burberry, Tods, Hogan, EA and the like. Honestly I have no interest in branded stuff, especially since most of the stuff for sale was handbags, shoes and accessories. There were a few wallets that looked alright, and mm as usual was tempted by handbags. I don’t get why anyone will buy wallets for €100-200 or handbags for almost €1000, nice thought they were. We didn’t buy anything at the end.
Walked through the market back at Florence and looked more carefully at things to buy. Came across a couple of stalls where the salesperson wasn’t obnoxious or pushy. Bought two handbags (mm) and two belts (me).
Bought chocolate at lindt then headed for dinner at the taverna near the retreat house. We shared a 1kg florentine shirloin steak on the bone, good taste and well cooked.
When I was doing research for the trip, the dilemma was how to cover Tuscany. My first reaction was to rent a car, then drive around just like what we did at Provence, but mm didn’t want to, so the task was to figure out public transportation. Most of the websites and guidebooks said that if we only had one day and one destination to visit, we should go to Siena because it’s pretty and it’s relatively reachable by bus and train.
We had a leisurely breakfast then walked to the central station. The bus station is next to the train station and we saw a Siena bus leaving at 10.40am. I glanced at the clock and it read 10.39am, eeek. Hurried to the ticket office and sent mm to hold the bus. Thanks to the kind bus driver who wanted for us. Turned out that it was a local bus that stopped at a couple of towns before Siena. We got there around 12.20pm.
Couldn’t see a tourist information office so followed our noses and the crowd. Very beautiful, rustic Tuscan town with narrow cobblestoned streets and typical houses with tiled roofs, shutters and balconies.
Wandered into a small gourmet supermarket and decided to have lunch there. Porchetta sandwich with a little pickled peppers and we shared a whole burrata. Perfect lunch. We followed the signs to San Francesco church and accidentally went inside the university next door. Felt a bit like mature students. Useful since we needed to find a bathroom. The actual San Francesco was large if really empty.
Followed the signs again to Piazza del Campo and the Duomo. The duomo had various combinations of entrance tickets including the main cathedral, the crypt, the tower, the museum next doors. We opted for just the cathedral entrance for €4.
The standout for me was the library, which had a display of illuminated choir books and frescos on the ceiling. There were also many other works of art in the cathedral as well as painted mosiacs on the floor.
On the way back to the bus station, we bought a couple of local cakes for the nuns at the retreat house and the shop. Took photos at the Basilica Cateriniana. We had 20mins to wait for the bus, and in trying to find bathrooms again accidentally came across the small pretty St Andrea chapel. We ended up going into a hotel for bathroom so all was well.
Dinner back at Florence as at the mercato again. Had the local speciality of trippa (tripe), arancini with spinach and spelt salad. Didn’t feel like anything too heavy so the combination was good. I had a chianti reserve with the meal.
Lots of walking again, probably 3-4 miles today. I’m missing running and training but hopefully the walking is keeping me from losing all my fitness. Quite pleased that we managed a whole day’s exploration without a map. Would have been nice to find a tourist information office but it’s okay.
I remember when we were planning our Provence trip in 2012 we debated between Provence and Tuscany. We only had one day in the Tuscan countryside so it’s difficult to compare. Both are beautiful and well worth repeat visits.
Woke up at 7am, mm wanted to go to early morning mass with the nuns. I didn’t go, but I got up anyway. We had breakfast at the dining room of the retreat house—bread roll, cereal, yogurt. We then explored around the house, gardens and chapel, everything was immaculate with a sense of peace. The furniture admittedly were older, made the place even more charming.
The distinctive Duomo was around 15mins away. There were queues for both the dome and the cathedral so we walked on towards San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale. Just the right time for an early lunch. The second floor of the market had about 10-12 artisan food stalls, we opted for a plate of mixed cold cuts & cheese from one and spaghetti pomodoro from another. I had a glass of rosé as it was the same price as coke.
From the market we walked past the train station, Santa Maria Novella church towards Piazza Republica. Checked out the hard rock café and the market nearby. Lots of leather goods and souvenirs, also quite sticky salespeople. Followed the crowd to reach Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of David at the entrance.
Where the crowd was thickest was at Ponte Vecchio. Around the bridge and on the bridge. Not inside the jewellry shops on the bridge though. Across the river we ambled towards Palazzo Pitti and Biboli gardens. Didn’t go inside, we weren’t that interested in the art in the palace and €10 for just the gardens didn’t seem value for money. We were pretty tired so had tea at a small coffee shop opposite the palace. One street over and we were at Santo Spirito church. Free entrance, so we went inside. It was quite nice, the main attraction was Michaelangelo’s wooden crucifix. We walked around the interior that had lots of art (didn’t know how to appreciate though) and sat for a little while.
From south of the river, we walked slowly back towards our retreat house. On the way we stopped at a religious store near Duomo. We were looking at the figures at the window when the sister inside waved us in. The store was run by nuns from a religious order. We were drawn to wood carvings of Mary and baby Jesus that was handmade by one of the sisters at their order. Quite expensive, but after some thought, we decided that they were worth it. Very beautiful pieces. The sisters at the shop were so friendly, we even took pictures together. We won’t forget Sr Stefanie, who spoke English and have travelled around the world, for a long time.
Dinner was at a taverna near the retreat house—caprese salad, grilled vegetables, pici cacio e pepe. It’s the first time we tried cacio e pepe pasta, and even though it’s a Roman speciality, the one here in Tuscany was very good. I had 250ml carafe red wine that was only €3, which was cheaper than coke. I think I’ll end up drinking a fair amount of house wine in Italy.
Walked a lot today, probably 3-4hrs. Helped burn off all the good food and wine.
Travelling day. Early start, 6.30am alarm and out of the house at 8am. Had to repack at bag drop as our luggage was just a little above the limit. First time we fly easyJet and we can see the nickel and diming at work. Flight was almost 100% full and almost on time arriving at Rome. Picked up our luggage and leisurely made our way to the train station. We had a couple hours to wait for the direct train to Florence. It was fine, we found seats and had sandwiches we made at our friend’s house for lunch.
The train was very nice. When I was booking online, the first class (non-refundable) was the same price as second class (flexible) so I sprang for the first class tickets. For that we got comfrotable seats, a free drink and a small snack.
Florence train station was a big heaving mess. We had the option of taking a taxi or bus, and ended up at the bus stop. The bus arrived a few minutes later and we squeezed in with what seems to be the entire population of florence. I had the fare in my pocket but wasn’t able to figure out how to pay when we were pushed further down the bus. We knew we had 4 stops to go, and were glad the directions were correct.
We found the retreat house with no issue, the only slight problem was pushing our suitcases along the narrow cobblestone streets. We were greeted by Sister Lucia and Sister Flora, both from India. Their warm and friendly welcome was a good sign already. Our room was a good size and basic, with our own bathroom. We took a peek at the breakfast room, sitting room, chapel and garden. More pics tomorrow.
After leaving our bags, we headed out to find dinner. Found the remains of a market at a nearby square selling baked goods, cheese, olive oil and balsamic. I bought some balsamic glaze for mum, as requested. We also found a small supermarket where we stocked up on water.
Dinner was a small café nearby. We both had spaghetti vongole and we shared a plate of grilled vegetables. The spaghetti was good if a little salty; the veg was very good. I also had a small carafe of house red, which was the same price as a large coke. Pretty good. The retreat house has a curfew of 10.30pm, we were back well in time.
Our 5-country trip will become 6-country. The great thing about living in Central Europe is proximity and ease of travel to other countries.
We started the day at a cash-and-carry supermarket, like costco. Had to be very restrained not to buy anything. We ended up getting ingredients for a picnic lunch of herring, smoked eel, smoked salmon and bread rolls. Herring was fatty and fresh, the eel was the star of the meal, could have just had it on its own.
Driving into Belgium was like driving into another state, there was a sign and here we are. We headed first to Antwerp, to Het Steen, a medieval castle where a tyrannical rich man ruled. He charged toll for people and boats passing by and if they didn’t pay, he’d cut their hands off. Such was the life then. Walked to the central square with the cathedral and cobblestoned streets. Stopped for coffee at a nearby coffee shop.
Next stop Brussels. Our friends go there very often and even know where to park without needing to pay. Yes, it’s a 15min walk, which actually was great after sitting in the car for a couple of hours. Brussels was busy, full of locals and tourists. We quickly took in the sights—main square, manneken pis and the all-important chocolate shops.
Dinner was at Mechelen, a town between Brussels and Antwerp. Hadn’t heard of it before and it was a revelation. So pretty! Again the central square with an imposing church and beautiful architecture. It’s off the tourist trail and looks like a place we will like to revisit.
We shared a white asparagus starter made apparaently in the flemish way—with what tasted like hot egg mayonnaise sauce. It’s similar to hollandaise with poached egg. For mains we both opted for the horse steak. Ordered rare, came medium rare. Very, very lean and tasty. There’s a stigma with meat other than beef, lamb, pork—our thinking is that if the locals eat it, it’s good enough for us.
Late start today, relaxed. Left the house at 11am, got the bus to the station to get a train to Amsterdam Centraal. Stopped by the free public piano at the station to watch people playing. Met our friend for lunch near Dam Square, nice café for sandwich and salad. Spent the afternoon walking around town, the first time we visited for almost 20 years. Lots of tourists and things have changed quite a bit.
Took a circular route from Dam Square to Westderkerk, around the canals to Rijksmuseum area—didn’t go in, took some pictures outside. Got some souvenir magnets after exploring the hard rock café shop. Stopped for just a minute at the bloemenmarkt before heading back to Dam Square area to meet our friend after work. Total time walked, around 3hrs.
She treated us to the most creamiest, richest ice cream at the tiny van der linde shop. Caught the train back to the house and I made dinner.
Originally we wanted to make steak or lamb, but we couldn’t decide on the protein. I ended up making chicken & fennel with grilled courgettes and red peppers. For dessert I made a quick apple crumble. I was so happy that we finished everything. Nothing was left. Yay.
I was so tired last night I went to bed at 10pm and woke up at 9am. Still not quite over jetlag, it’ll take a few more days I suspect.
Breakfast was croissants and tea. First stop today was a garden centre, we’re too early to see flowers in bloom in the tulip and flower fields, so our friend took us to the garden centre to look at flowers. Lovely.
The actual destination was beautiful Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve next to the garden centre. It’s a really pretty marshlands with walking trails around a lake area. There are supposed to be deer, ponies and cattle—we saw a herd of something from afar. We did see thousands of birds. In fact the visitor centre has binoculars and bird watching stations.
We had lunch there at café at the visitor centre. I had a ham & cheese omelette that came with bread and salad; mm had ham & cheese toast. Freshly made, we thought it was good value. Worked off the food with a walk around the nature reserve, almost 2hrs we covered around 2-3 miles. Great weather, blue skies and fresh air. It’d be a brilliant place for running.
Went to a supermarket nearby and bought vegetables, snacks, diet coke, stroopwafels and I saw rivella (!!). Haven’t had rivella since Switzerland. I got 2x2l bottles for travelling as well as a 500ml bottle for immediate consumption which, hahaha, got me into a bit of trouble with mm.
For dinner our friends drove to Lage Vuursche to take us to a pancake restaurant. Posh area, beautiful surroundings and buildings. I had a bacon & mushroom pancake. We shared poffertjes (small, fluffy pancakes with icing sugar) for dessert.
We weren’t too ambitious today, it was nice to take it easy, take a walk and enjoy good food.
Woke up at 7.20am, after sleeping at 11pm and waking up 3 times overnight. Our friend prepared an absolutely delicious breakfast of croissant, roll, soft boiled eggs, cheese and freshly squeezed orange juice. I made tea from the PG I brought with me. We took our time and we left around 10am. Destination was Almere town centre to look at the shops and explore the market. Our love of markets is legendary. Great produce: fruits, vegs, meat, fish, sweets, baked goods and cheap household items. We bought some veg for home cooking. I even bought a pair of sneakers for €35, as the shoes I was wearing had a hole at the bottom. Lunch was unconventional—cake and tea at a tea shop. It was what we felt like.
Originally the plan was to head to the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve but the lateness of the hour plus poor weather meant a change of plans. Instead, our friend took us to nearby Naarden, a village surrounded by a 17th century fort with pretty streets and buildings. We stopped at a whisky shop, sampled different types of genever and 5 millstone whiskies—5 year and rye. I did not like the genever, it tasted like medicine; liked the rye whiskies best.
Rested for tea at a bar café. I had a small bock beer and we all shared a plate of ossenwurst (beef tartare sausage) and bitterballen (like beef croquettes). Back to the house for shower and dinner at home: roast chicken, frites, salad and traditional dutch apple tart. Great to have homemade food.
Travelling day. I set the alarm for 5.15am, showered, last minute packing, I was out at 6.30am to catch the bus to the airport express station. Check-in and everything was straightforward. The flight wasn’t full; the seat between us was empty (I deliberately picked the 2 aisle seats in the middle column).
It was a day flight so I couldn’t really sleep. Watched Imitation Game, Grand Budapest Hotel and Robocop. Enjoyed all of them, especially Imitation Game and Grand Budapest Hotel. There is a Japanese anime cartoon feel to GBH, it was atmospheric and funny.
Food was mainly forgettable airplane food. Decent quality, I only had about an inch of their cab with dinner, sticking with coke zero and soda water at other times.
The route was almost 1 hr longer than it used to be, to avoid Ukraine. Most of the flight was over Russia. We laughed when the map showed that we were almost directly over Amsterdam, and then we carried on to London. Going from T3 to T5 was okay, then it was a long queue at security. Definitely security theatre, they swiped my small flight toiletries ziploc—the same bag and contents have flown with me thousands of miles around the world, so why would T5 need to swipe it today? Hahaha.
There was enough time to sit for a while. We shared a hummous wrap from eat and I had a much needed large cup of tea. Ahhhhh.
The flight to AMS was very short. BA gave us snacks (crisps and biscuits) and drinks (the other businessmen all opted for something alcoholic, I had diet coke). We spent about 15mins around the duty free shop, retrieved our luggage and our friends L&P picked us up. They live in the suburbs, and we picked up chinese takeaway on the way back for dinner.
A long travelling day, the sense of excitement is building. Getting a good night’s sleep then we’re ready for the trip proper.
Task #39 of 101.1001 is to run/walk/bike 1001 miles. I originally put 1001km, then I upped it to miles. I went past 1001km in novembe. The red line shows the growth in mileage lately as I’m building base for marathon training, it looks like a taper for the last datapoint, but bear in mind March is only halfway gone.
I crashed my knee on sunday’s race which scuppered the planned 10 mile weekend long run. I should be resting but I did a fast 5k around the neighbourhood:
I noticed I was only 3 miles from the 1001 milestone and I’m not going to let poxy ITBS stop me from getting there
I don’t know how much time I’ll have to run on the trip, so it’s like a final run before we fly tomorrow
I wanted to stretch the knee out a little
The initial 1km up the hill was uncomfortable, the knee kept wanting to give out. I changed to a flatter route and by the end of the run the knee was sort of okay. I rollered the IT band together with my back and boy, it was painful.
This task is done, but there’s still #40 walk to Mordor, next milestone is 1309 miles from Lothlorien down the Anduin to Rauros Falls. If I can consistently hit 80-100 miles a month, I’ll get there hopefully by June or July.
I ran the beat the banana race in London a few years ago. The idea is to run after a guy dressed as a banana. Definitely a fun run, organised by the World Cancer Research Fund.
Today’s race had around the same people, the course was along the harbourfront. The 5k was billed as an “elite” race; there was nothing elite about it, it was the only 5k during the event. The other races were 3k fun run and 1k kid’s race. There weren’t any people dressed as bananas on the 5k, just on the other two shorter races, which was disappointing.
No chip, and the organisers obviously put more emphasis on fun, family and charity aspect. The course measured 4.83km on my GPS. There were volunteers telling us we’d reached 2km when it was just over 1km. The halfway mark was labelled 3k on the course map. Not “elite” but still sort of fun.
A grotty, foggy, muggy, humid, cloudy morning. I ran the bulk of the race with steam on my glasses, it was that humid. Then at somewhere between 3-4k my knee gave out on me. Sigh. Managed to get to the end. Grabbed the goodie bag, the sponsored banana, a couple of bottles of water and hopped on the bus. Home by 9.30am.
Since we will be in Rome over Easter, we investigated whether it was possible to participate in a mass at the Vatican. Turns out, general audiences and liturgical masses conducted by the Pope are free and open to the public. Over Easter there are special masses:
Thursday 2, Chrism Mass, at 9:30 am, in St Peter’s Basilica
Friday 3, Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, at 17.00, in St Peter’s Basilica
Friday 3, Way of the Cross, at 21.15, in the Coliseum
Saturday 4, Easter Vigil Mass, at 20.30,, in St Peter’s Basilica
Sunday 5, Easter Sunday Mass, at 10.15 am, in St Peter’s Square
The Prefecture of the Papal Household is responsible for administering the tickets. Application involved downloading a form at their website and completing it precisely indicating:
Date of the General audience or Liturgical celebration
Number of tickets required
Name / Group
Telephone and Fax numbers
The form then has to be faxed over. Argh. Printers and faxes, how 1990s. My printer is at my parents’ place so it was straightforward. The problem was faxing. In the past we would have just used the fax at work, but we can’t do that anymore. And who faxes nowadays?!
I googled and found a few free online fax services. Some limit the number of pages; others only send to certain countries. I ended up using myfax which offered one free fax to 41 countries per 24hr period. We wanted to apply for all the masses so I split the applications into 2 faxes over 2 days.
That was about 3 weeks ago. We aren’t sure how we’d know if we are successful. The website said tickets are to be collected the day before at the Prefecture office but does it mean we automatically get tickets? There was nowhere to put our email and we’re sure if we called or faxed to enquire, no one will be able to help us (imagine thousands of people calling up to ask about the status of their application). Our plan is to go to the office once we get to Rome and hope that they have our names on a list or something like that.
Imagine my surprise when I received a letter in the post. I recognised the stamps—one had Pope Francis on it. A paper letter. Can’t remember the last time I got one. The first paragraph:
Perfect timing. This is an absolute blessing indeed.
We’ve seen the Pope’s Easter and Christmas masses and address on the news. This year, we’ll be there in person. How cool is that?
It finally happened. The touchscreen on the iphone, or rather the left hand corner of the touchscreen, stopped working. I can’t type the letters e, s and merely touching a gives me a bunch of letters in the vicinity. Apps kept opening by themselves. The keypad doesn’t register, so at times I can’t unlock the phone. I left it overnight and it worked for about 1 minute before going haywire again.
It’s time to get a new iphone. I wasn’t planning on getting it this cycle, was hoping for another year or two. C’est la vie. I guess 4 years of constant use, being dropped multiple times and exposure to the elements are factors that led to the failure.
Debated between 6 or 6 plus. The 6 plus was too big to fit comfortably in pockets so 6 it is. I’m struck by the comparison in size between the 4 and 6.
Went to the messy computer mall to get screen protector and case. App and data transfer was easy, just restored from icloud. For some reason the camera roll didn’t transfer so I took the opportunity to clean it up by selectively restoring from dropbox. Spent 3 hours on software update though, a combination of slow internet and slow itunes.
How often does someone give you something you’ve always wanted but thought you’d never get a chance to have? Hardly ever. And when it happens, it is a very special moment indeed.
Sis went to a small Swedish shop with her friend, a Swedish mom whose daughter is my niece’s best friend. They were there to look for chocolate and biscuits. She spotted an unusual bottle of whisky that she hadn’t seen before, and because it’s my birthday coming up, bought it for me.
She didn’t know Sweden had whisky and hadn’t heard of Mackmyra before. Little did she know it’s one of the whiskies on my list that I’ve wanted to try. I first came across it in 101 whiskies to try before you die, and saw a bottle at Stockholm airport—I couldn’t buy it because it was only available for purchase for travellers going to non-EU destinations. The best chance of trying would have been at a whisky bar or tasting.
Mackmyra is Sweden’s first single malt whisky, and the comments are positive. This bottle is a first edition, ie the distillery’s first product. NAS, and from what I can gather, is light and smooth. Now that I know where I can get it, I’m tempted to get another bottle to open and drink.
I’m so so so grateful that Sis saw this whisky, and thought of getting it for me.
Sis and niece took me to pre-birthday dinner. The restaurant we wanted to go to had a private function so we ended up at motorino’s. Ordered two pizzas to share: brussels sprouts with pancetta and four cheeses. Both really really good. I like the sprouts one better, it was light and the veg was just charred giving them a crunchy texture. Sis was surprised we ordered two white pizzas (no tomato sauce); I wasn’t bothered, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to have tomato sauce on a pizza. I remember in Rome, having this most delicious pizza with potato and a little cheese. Simple.
At her place she opened a bottle of veneto rosso wine. First time I tried it, apparently not expensive. I like it. Will keep in mind for italy trip.
Excuse me while I have a fit. I was getting my haircut and happily exchanging stickers with mm when the iphone started acting stupid. Apps kept opening, I couldn’t bring up the keyboard and when I did, I couldn’t type. At one point, the keypad wasn’t working so I wasn’t even able to unlock the phone. I’d press one number but it either didn’t register or it’d register as 1. All in all, a complete mess.
I do not need this just a few days before the trip. I went to the phone shop and was this close to getting a new phone. The customer service person said may be it’s the screen protector. I took it off and it seemed to behave for a little bit. Will test for a couple of days.
I ran 10 miles yesterday and felt fine. Drank 500ml of energy drink, munched on a few biscuits, took a shower and I was okay. Slept a bit earlier so it helped.
Walked a mile to the local market today to run some errands and I’m knackered. My knee hurts, my back hurts, I sat at my desk and fell asleep.
I guess it’s not the mile-long walk, it’s recovery from the long run. That said, I’m quite happy with training progress. Slow and steady with, touch wood, no major injuries. Knee pain and back pain are to be expected, and at the moment they are both manageable. I’m a little worried about the month-long holiday, I definitely will not get the chance to follow the training program.
It’s International Women’s Day. There are articles where writers talk about the women who have most influenced their lives. Top of the list, their mums and grandmothers.
I must say I don’t feel influenced by Mum or either of my Grandmas. [Caveat: I don’t feel terribly influenced by anyone specifically so it’s nothing against Mum or Grandmothers.] I don’t think there’s any legacy they will pass to me. People who are chefs or go on cookery competition shows always say that their greatest cooking influence is their family. “I cooked at my grandmother’s knees” is a common sentiment.
I don’t have any family recipes passed down from the older generation. None of my grandparents cooked. Mum is an okay cook, but she is a better appreciater of food. My dad is the best cook in this group, and like me, he’s not the best at presentation.
I learned cooking from tv and reading recipes. Now I cook so I can share with my family. I wish I had a chance to cook for my grandmothers.
Task #3 of 101.1001 is to become proficient in evernote.
As a nano winner, I got 3 months of evernote premium, which just ended. I’ve been using EN for a while, and now have over 250 notes. I know, I know, proficiency isn’t measured by quantity. However I think that I can claim to have at least basic proficiency. Like many tech services, I signed up for an account ages ago but never got round to using it until later. When I did get started it was just playing around with to-do lists. I read up on how other people use it and I really appreciated its power and functionality when i started using it to organise travel. And then I started using it more. The rest of this post is how I currently use EN. Warning: may be boring for some, not everyone is into organising their lives in such detail.
travel planning and research
I started using EN to plan the cruise to eastern Mediterranean. There were too many new places and too many important places to see on that trip that organised research was necessary. The 201302 cruise notebook has 6 notes: 1 for itinerary, maps and general information, and then one for each stop. Each one had information about docking and all-aboard times, sights to see, transportation, places to eat and anything else interesting. The whole notebook printed out to a 9-page doc which proved invaluable during the trip.
I have similar notebooks for the alaskan cruise and trips to hokkaido, tokyo and seoul. A simple illustration is my tokyo notebook with 4 notes: hotel, things to do, day trips, food&drink. What I like is how I can keep the notebook and pdf in my files for another time. I didn’t do one for the big US trip last summer, mainly because it was too long, and we weren’t really planning a particular route.
Here is where EN is so easy to use, especially cross platform. I keep all sorts of lists: grocery shopping list, presents for people, wishlists, important information like phone numbers and scanned copies of documents. I also have my running PR (although I haven’t transferred the master running spreadsheet from google docs yet), my whisky inventory, restaurants worth remembering as well as other random lists I keep for myself.
goal setting / challenges
I keep track of challenges in EN. For example I can know with one click that I’m 65 tasks into 101.10001, with 36 left. I can keep track of my progress for tasks that are cumulative, like walking to mordor, or reading 101 books. If I’m doing a 30 day challenge, I’m constantly referring to the list throughout the month. Each completed task has a link to the writeup.
Whilst I don’t think EN is a good writing tool because its text editing functionality is poor, it combines well with scrivener. Do the research and store information on EN, then do the writing itself in scrivener. It’s also a depository for my list of ideas, random writing and other useful links. I started to use EN more when I was writing PP for nano.
EN is also useful to store photography too, even though obviously the main bulk of my photography is at flickr. I have a scanned copy of the Oldie magazine article, the one where I got £60 for my picture of Wheelers in Whitstable.
reading: combining feedly, instapaper, evernote
It took a while, but I finally transferred all my instapaper and pocket links to evernote.
Way back when, at the beginning of the internet, when we found a page we were interested in, we bookmarked it. Those of us who were a little more OCD organised our bookmarks in folders. But the web grew and amount of content grew. It wasn’t just blindly clicking on links to search for stuff to read. Blogging became popular and the de rigeur thing to do. With blogging software came RSS feeds. Enter bloglines.
Google entered the fray and gave us the wonderful google reader. It killed bloglines but was then killed off a couple of years ago for no good reason. I moved to feedly.
There is now so much content that if I don’t look at my feedly for a few days, thousands of posts accumulate. Feedly isn’t my only source of discovery, I use digg, flipboard, reddit, metafilter, twitter and others. As a result of this huge volume, read later apps were developed to let us clip pages we want to read later. Pocket (which used to be called, literally, readitlater), instapaper, readability, tumblr and pinterest can be used to store and sort posts.
Even though EN developed a web clipper for reading later, like others I don’t use it as my read later app. I’ve settled on a workflow that works for me, h/t to jamie todd rubin for diagram format.
I use instapaper as triage. Once in a while I review instapaper and move articles to EN using clearly. Yes, it’s time consuming and I could use an IFTTT recipe to save directly to EN. I do this because: a) if an article is still interesting after a couple of reviews, then it’s worth keeping and b) I sometimes want to save the full post rather than just a link.
An aside about EN Clearly. With just one click it converts a page to a clutterfree format for easy reading. No ads, no headers & footers, no sidebars. The example above, of a random guardian article. The one on the left is the regular page—I have ABP, otherwise there would have been ads too; the one on the left is on Clearly. It’s clearly spectacular, pun intended.
tags vs notebooks
Initially I only used the notebook filing system. 3-tiers that went from stacks to notebooks to notes, examples:
travel > 201408 tokyo > things to do
food&drink > whisky > whisky tasted
Then I read Michael Hyatt’s article that advocated using both notebook filing and tagging to make cross-referencing better. I started tagging, blatantly coping his nested tag scheme. It seems to work fine.
There are other functionalities I don’t use. I don’t use scheduling because I don’t keep a diary. When I was at work, I just used Outlook (or Lotus Notes, ugh) to keep calendar invites. I hardly blocked off timeslots or budget my time. I remember personal schedules in my head, or write them on my trusty wall calendar.
I don’t use contacts either, so EN’s OCR ability to store business cards is wasted on me. This is related to my not being very contactable and not having a wide network.
For the same reason I’ve always been inbox zero (even at work when I get hundreds of email), I don’t need the integration with email.
I wish I’m one of those talented people who can sketch on their cool moleskin notebook and transfer to EN. But alas I can’t draw. I ogle at the pics on the moleskin fb page though. Anyway, moleskines are expensive.
get even better
Yes, I have a 4 drawer filing cabinet at home that is very full. I have been quite good at going paperless though, switching to e-statements whenever possible. I’d like to scan more physical documents and EN seems to be a natural repository. May be not super confidential documents but definitely receipts, instructions and bits of paper. I was excited when EN released its own scanning app, and was disappointed when I saw that it’s ios 8 and above. I’ll keep with scanner pro for the time being.
I’m continually trying to streamline my workflow. Getting feedly, instapaper/pocket and EN to work together is an achievement. There are other IFTTT EN recipes to explore, like saving tweets, crossposting from instagram, iphone camera integration, even fb status integration. Not that I’m that keen to store my fb statuses, although twitter integration will be useful—instead of saving to google docs like right now, tweets can go to EN. Then again, its text and table handling need to get better first. We all have room for improvement, EN included.
My nano-sponsored premium account just expired. Will I start paying for a premium account? Right now the answer is no. The feature I appreciated most was additional bandwidth, I barely used the other premium features. I don’t use EN so much that I’m in danger of exceeding my quota, I’ll continue with the free account and monitor my usage.
Current musicals in London that I am interested in, and today’s availability at the “half-price” tkts booth at Leicester Square:
book of mormon at the prince of wales — not sold at tkts, there are more expensive seats available direct at the theatre
charlie and the chocolate factory at the theatre royal drury lane — £18.50-50.50 no discount
let it be at the garrick — £32.50 with discount
matilda at the cambridge — £36 no discount, I saw this in 2012, I definitely want to see it again and definitely think mm will like it
miss saigon at the prince edward — £28.50-38.50 no discount, saw it when it first came out (lea salonga!!), will be interesting to see it again
sweeney todd at the london coliseum — not at tkts, limited run closing on 12-apr; cheapest tickets are £86, I love Emma Thompson but…gulp
women on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the playhouse — £22.50-39.50 with discount
There are others playing I’m less interested in, like Beautiful, the Commitments, Gypsy, Jersey Boys, Lion King, Molly Wobbly, Once, Seven Brides; others I’ve seen already like Billy Elliot, Cats, Les Miz, Mamma Mia, Phantom, Wicked. The two I do want to see, Kinky Boots and Damon Albarn’s Wonder.land, are not on yet.
My personal preferences: the Book of Mormon, Matilda, Women on the Verge. The ticket booth doesn’t have tickets or offer discounts for the more popular musicals, not even on the day. Disappointing. I’ve always thought of the booth as a tourist attraction anyway, and now even more so with the new look booth and the twee phone box next to it. Seriously, apart from escort services, who uses phone boxes?.
Anyway, I think we’ll probably end up seeing Matilda, if we were to go to the West End. Which is more than fine with me.
I set a task in 30.30 that was a play on the keep calm and carry on posters that were a hit once upon a time. The idea was to take some time during our holiday to get into a peaceful state of mind.
I find, though, that I needed to remind myself to keep calm and not get too stressed out the past few days. The reason I’m stressed out? I’m doing all the bookings and planning for our trip.
To give a scale of the amount of work done:
7 flights on 4 different airlines — interesting to note the difference between carriers like BA/CX who behave normally and EI/EZ (Aer Lingus, easyjet) who nickel and dime everything, £16 for luggage, £5 to select seats, admin fee, online fee…but are still cheaper than the regular airlines — it’s something that has been around for a while in US domestic airlines and budget European airlines, I guess I’ve just been shielded from the madness
1 long distance train journey + seat reservation — top tip, use italiarail rather than the official trenitalia because a) english; b) ease of navigation
2 regional train journeys that I have not booked, but have gotten times and details
1 car rental — as usual, go to the UK site, avis UK gave me a 15% discount
heathrow express — duo express return saves £20 for 2 people if booked online
3 convent stays — monastery stays booked everything and sent a comprehensive package that included an introductory letter in italian for each convent, list of amenties and travel directions; very impressed with the service and promptness (I booked on saturday, got everything on tuesday which basically meant a 24-hr turnaround)
4 hotel bookings — top tip: browse on hotels.com or bookings.com but check out individual hotel websites for offers like free wifi or further discount if booked on their site, I also paid attention to reviews and took posted pictures with a grain of salt
1 airbnb booking (another one was unexpectedly unavailable so had to switch to hotel) — we specifically didn’t want Central London and went through around 10 potential choices, the flat we booked is 2 stops away from where I used to live, quite happy about our choice
1 restaurant booking — for our birthday dinner I chose butcher grill, I visited in 2012 and said it’s worth returning, they have a special offer of côte de bœuf for two at €45 on mondays and tuesdays
maps and directions for airports, train stations and accommodation
8 notes in evernote for each city / region we plan to visit with research on sights, transportation, food & drink – I’m quietly amassing lots of EN notes on travelling
expenses spreadsheet — because there will always be a spreadsheet, especially for a trip this long and this complicated
I haven’t even started the packing list. There is still stuff to do, like get EUR, arrange travel insurance, take passport photos, book appointment at passport office, get haircut, pay/pre-pay bills.
Task #20 of 101.1001 is to reach 1001 instagram/vine/snapchat total. I tried vine and it was fine, but instagram offered similar videoing functionality and I’m used to using instagram, so my vine count is still under 10. I never got round to using snapchat.
Without me noticing it, I reached 1001 instagrams a couple of weeks ago. This was taken when mm and I drove out to South Bay on a nice cool evening and the place was empty. The lifeguard towers looked sad and forlorn on the beach.
My niece, bless her, got all top marks in her school report. So as a reward, sis and I got her some minecraft lego figures we spotted when we went to the computer place. They’re not proper lego, they look like lego but don’t have the branding. The figures are really cute though, my niece put them together and they are lined up on her windowsill.
Mum felt like onion soup so she bought a ton of onions. I don’t like onions so I usually relegate it to a flavouring as a component in mirepoix. Although IIRC I never made onion soup, I don’t think it’s something that requires a recipe. I mean, cook the onions, add liquid and simmer, right?
There’s a good discussion about the various methods for making onion soup. The type of onions to use, how long to caramelise the onions (from Michel Roux Jr’s 30-40mins to Thomas Keller’s 5 hours), the type of stock, additional seasoning (balsamic) and even what alcohol to add (cider, brandy).
Here’s what I did. I chopped 6 large onions and cooked them in butter for about 1.5hrs. I stirred like crazy towards the end, and left the lid off to reduce the liquid and break down the onion further. Most recipes call for beef stock which I didn’t have, I compromised by adding about 100g total of cubed beef with the onions.
After 1.5hrs the onions were soft and mushy and turned a nice medium brown. I then added vegetable stock I had in the freezer. Brought the whole lot to a boil and kept at a rolling boil for 20mins. Seasoned with s&p, thyme, worcestershire sauce, a dash of balsamic and soy sauce. Recipes tend not to include worcestershire or soy sauce, but they are my secret ingredients for adding umami to soups.
The cheese toast was made from baguette and shredded cheese. Proper cheeses like gruyere or comteé are simply too expensive and difficult to find so I used processed, sigh. I toasted the croutons on both sides before melting the cheese on top. Sprinkled more cheese onto the soup.
I was fairly pleased with the results. A tad too watery, I could have done with another 10-15mins reduction at the end, or taken half the soup and blitzed it. Still not a fan of onions.
My friend R asked if I wanted to do another challenge or take a break; it’d be 3 months in a row. The Europe trip starts the second half of the month and doing challenges on holiday can be, well, challenging. But that’s why they are called challenges, right? (I’m thinking an editor will frown at this paragraph, with so many instances of challenges, snerk.)
Switching to the 30.30 format. I am fully aware that march has 31 days, but I’m keeping the tag as 30.30, and given myself one day with no required task. I’ve listed more photography challenges than usual because: a) I find I’m doing photo-a-day type challenges anyway; b) I’ll have more opportunities to take pictures.