Tierra Hermosa de la Sonrisas

Densely forested mountains give way to vast valleys, sparsely populated but heavily farmed. The sun has set but we are sure never to lose our way. Simply find the guiding light, the red-hued clouds painted by the crater deep within Mombacho. Hell, even if you do get lost you’re likely to find a local drunkard who would be happy to show you to your destination – just try to have a little fun with the tipping kerfuffle which is almost certain to ensue!

Having never been to Central America, I had no particular expectations for Nicaragua. Truly, the people we encountered (with the occasional exception) were among the most friendly we have ever met. Lounging in the central square in Granada, we were chatted up by one of the local constables from the National Police.

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He smiled and corrected our butchering of the Spanish language and proudly showed us pictures of his children. Children wove between the legs of strangers, chasing one another with their toys and giggling all the while. When play time was finished, it was on to helping Mom setup the food cart for some of the youth.

While enjoying a late dinner at a popular corner restaurant, we noticed droves of well dressed men and women pouring out of cars, all dressed in yellow. Shortly after the onslaught of sunshine-inspired-style had invaded the street corner, the guest of honor arrived – a young woman celebrating her birthday. Everywhere we looked, families were gathered around one another, whether there was a special event or not.

Food here was fresh and flavorful. The food carts and stands churn out high quality goodies like chicharrones and hand-made tortillas.

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One of our favorite snacks was a rather simple dish known as tostones, nothing more than fried plantains. When done right, they offered a pillowy texture with a very light banana-meets-potato flavor – like a potato and a plantain made love and threw their offspring into a deep fryer. Devilishly delicious. Although we encountered innumerable pigs and piglets wandering the streets and beaches, we sadly found no pork to eat minus the glutenous amount of chicharonnes we devoured. They go down so well with Ron y Coca. Fleur de Cana has changed my wife’s mind when it comes to rum. Super smooth and nearly tasteless (the silver stuff), it was WAY too easy to finish your third and realize, “yup, I’m drunk”. Fear not, for the hearty breakfasts are marked by eggs, fried cheese, starches and coffee. What hangover? Most meals outside of breakfast featured seafood and fried potatoes of some kind. Oh yes, let me not forget to mention the accompaniment to every meal, lots of rice and beans. Oddly enough, we still can’t enough.

One of our favorite evenings began with drunk uncle “helping” us find the building for our cooking class – rather, he accompanied us on the route which we already knew – shortly after the sun set. He demanded a tip. I laughed. The proprietor of the cooking class showed him the door. We quickly forgot about the strange experience and sipped on our Sangria while relishing that we had an entire kitchen to ourselves. It was just the instructor, her helper and a translator. Deciphering the meaning of words through hand gestures and a little common sense was still necessary, if not an enhancement. After we drank enough red stuff to feel nice and warm inside, we learned generations-old recipes from a native. We broke bread, err rice, and sipped on cool beverages while sharing stories over Indio Viejo, a chicken stew with a base of fried corn flour. There is something about preparing food with complete strangers and then enjoying a meal together that is quite humbling and unifying all at once.

Crammed into a converted short bus, flying down a dark road, the anticipation was hardly tolerable. Like moths waiting for the flame to ignite, we couldn’t wait to reach the top of Mombacho. One of several active volcanoes in Nicaragua, Mombacho offers a rare opportunity to hang your head out over the putrid smelling but terribly exciting lava-filled crater. We were only afforded a few minutes at the crater’s edge due to the toxic air quality so we relished every second of this childhood dream to see a real volcano.

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My third grade self would be quite proud to know that I finally graduated from the baking soda and white vinegar paper mache science project. I ALMOST won the blue ribbon at the science fair.

Crashing waves on sandy beaches and a gentle breeze greeted us in Playa Gigante, just Southwest of Granada, for our final days in this beautiful landscape. I had dreams, inspired by my time with a close friend in San Diego, of surfing the Pacific Ocean on the coast of Nicaragua, but laying on the beach and playing in the waves proved eventful enough.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve in this sleepy fishing village of a few hundred, doing our best to avoid the war-zone of fireworks which began at 6pm and continued well into the earliest hours of 2017. New Year’s Day is a National Holiday in Nicaragua and brought thousands of locals to the beach; opening the curtains to our beach front property revealed a beach nearly packed.

A jaunt through the jungle landed us at a private beach, along with a HUGE spider on my pack to boot; my wife’s sheer look of terror tipped me off that something was about to eat my face, when I realized it was on my shoulder strap. Once the arachnid had dismounted, I couldn’t resist the photo opp – my wife bewildered that I was interested to get a closer look at this thing that was sure to have nearly killed me a moment ago.

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I suppose that’s one of the great thrills of travel: what others find to be scary, disgusting or a no-go can become the most memorable and empowering experiences.

 

 

The Aroma of Roma…(and Florence)

As we disembarked from of our last 10+ hour plane journey, we were thrilled to arrive in a country where we may know a bit more of the customs and culture. Italy is a country I have been to, so I was thrilled to be back and have a considerable amount of time in the two cities I loved after I first visited. This journey with my husband has been vastly different than any other travel. First and foremost, I am not travelling alone and I am also not guided by a tour group. My partner in crime and I have to plan every step, read every map and (try to) learn every language in a short amount of time in order just to eat and drink! We are grateful for our teamwork coming into this travel, and knew it would present new challenges but we weren’t concerned.

We spent three nights and four days enjoying the lovely sights, sounds and wonder that is Roma. We stopped and stared at the historical structures with what seemed like every turn. We had very specific plans in Rome including seeing a champions league soccer match (Nick will be posting later about his dream story regarding our Champions League game), tour the Coliseum, visit the Trevi Fountain, and of course see the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. All of which we accomplished with both of our dreams becoming reality. For me, the Coliseum and the history around the building was a piece of our visit for which I couldn’t wait. This was a major factor in my wanting to return to this city and it really didn’t disappoint. I was also thrilled to make time to tour the Trevi Fountain not only in daylight, but again at night. Many of you know that my personal passion is photography and I have a particular eye for night photography. Thankfully, I have married someone who is interested in watching me pursue my passions, so our second visit to the fountain at night was exactly what my photographers’ heart needed. I feel so much more passion when something is lit at night. I feel as though certain objects are best served when photographed at night – it gives the viewer a better understanding of its strength, depth and it offers more emotion than daylight.

Nick and I have always loved getting in a car to take a drive. We love to view our surroundings by wheels so when it was time to plan our travels, Nick was insistent on renting a car in Italy. We chose to rent our car leaving Rome headed North to Florence and drive the countryside to hopefully visit a winery….or four. We requested an Alfa Romeo, and couldn’t wait to drive an Italian car in Italy. To our dismay, when we arrived at the rental car company we saw a bright orange Jeep Renegade waiting for us. Seriously?! If this was the car, couldn’t we just drive our real SUV back at home? We sucked it up and realized we were happy to have our own transportation for the first time in weeks and were ready to jump on the road.  Now, some of you may be thinking, renting a car in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language or understand ANY of the road signs, are you crazy? The answer is yes, yes we are. However, we are also very strong minded and knew that we could make it happen. Now this is where the teamwork comes back into play: Nick in the driver’s seat and of course me as his co-pi (co-pilot for those of you unfamiliar). We had the pleasure of discovering one of the most picturesque towns in Italy, Cortona, by accident. I wanted to visit a Tuscan winery on our way to Florence and heard about this town where there could be a winery we could drop into. We placed the City Center on our GPS and headed that way. On the drive out, we had not realized the town we were photographing out in the distance, was in fact the town of Cortona. It was as if we landed ourselves on a movie set. We only had a little bit of time in town as we were headed to Florence and were meeting with our AirB&B host. But, it was such a pleasure discovering a gorgeous place with no intentions prior to plugging it into our GPS.

On to Florence. As mentioned, Renegade was outfitted with a GPS, but it of course did not know the intricacies of the Historical District, which was the neighborhood we were to stay. So, I had the paper map in-hand to direct Nick’s every move as he tried to not hit the tourists, other cars, or the lovely mopeds who didn’t play by the rules of the road. It was extremely stressful leaving and returning to our apartment, but we came out every time safe and high-fived one another for not killing one another, or someone on the street.

We had a few day trips out of Florence (hence the car rental) to Cinque Terre and Modena. I had heard countless times that Cinque Terre was a beautiful grouping of coastal villages not to be missed and my tour book had also suggested a hike between the five villages. We didn’t realize until we arrived that two-thirds of the hike was closed and the rest of the hike was rather poorly marked. We were quite surprised with the lack of information available to tourists, given it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even in the face of some unhelpful locals and the poorly marked signage, we still enjoyed our cliff drive through three of the villages and had an ocean-side picnic lunch. It couldn’t have been deemed a bad day with those two pieces, just a different day than anticipated. Modena was our next day trip, just north of Florence; the car buffs probably already know why we headed here but for those who don’t, this is where Ferrari and Maserati were born. Nick’s favorite car manufacture since childhood has been Ferrari, so this was a no-brainer when planning our Italian adventure.  Having this part of the trip was to be another one of Nick’s dreams coming true. He will be posting later about this.

We rented our first AirB&B apartment and really tried to use all of it. Even the 2×2′ kitchen provided! We really made ourselves at home, grocery shopping, eating in and enjoying our open windows and hanging out. It was nice to make a place feel like a home. We were in desperate need of some normalcy and I think we found it during our five night stay in Florence.

Given that Nick and I have a love for cooking, I knew that while traveling through these countries rich in food traditions, we needed to jump at the chance to learn the authentic ways. So, what better way than to sign up for a pasta making class! We had a great time, learning how to make three different pastas and three different sauces.  Our chef was a young gentleman who did a great job of explaining and giving us hidden tips throughout our evening. Nick was slightly disappointed that the company we chose, Mama Florence, didn’t in fact have Mama Florence as our teacher – whom he had imagined as an old timer who had been in the kitchen all her life \, showing us her home town traditions… and maybe even a little sassy to boot. Regardless of age or gender, the chef left us excited to make pasta, so long as we can import that to-die-for Italian Chianti Classico. Who would like an invite to our next Italian party?

Some are probably wondering of our post title:
Of my short time visiting Italy in 2009, I really thought this could be a place I could see myself living. After this most recent trip, realizing that every other breath from an Italian must include a pull off a cigarette, there is no possible way we could live there. It was an awful smell and very confusing to see such a developed country with blatant disregard for their own personal health, let alone other people or even their very own children standing next to them. We come from such a progressive area in the U.S. with tobacco laws in place which are in stark contrast to our experience in Italy. However, everyone smokes, so it really shouldn’t bother anyone, right?! It’s only everyone’s health…no big deal.

Enjoy the pics, we finally have some decent wi-fi and know that we haven’t been posting as much as we would like! Hopefully this fills your travel dreams.

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Palatine Hill Royal Gardens
Palatine Hill Royal Gardens
Roman Forum
Roman Forum
Vatican Museums, Hall of Geography
Vatican Museums, Hall of Geography
The Vatican!
The Vatican!
The Vatican!
The Vatican!

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Trevi love
Trevi love
Making dream reality!
Making dream reality!

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Cortona, in the hills
Cortona, in the hills
Cortona movie scene #1
Cortona movie scene #1
Cortona movie scene #2
Cortona movie scene #2
Cortona movie scene #3
Cortona movie scene #3
View from Cortona
View from Cortona
Rules? No, not for Italians.
Rules? No, not for Italians.
My man cooking me an Italian dinner, in Italy!
My man cooking me an Italian dinner, in Italy!

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Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre

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True passion to wine making on these hills
True passion to wine making on these hills

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ocean-side lunch
ocean-side lunch
We be learnin'
We be learnin’
We be stuffin'
We be stuffin’
We be drinkin'
We be drinkin’

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Our apartment Street
Our apartment Street

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The Pope was in Florence for the first time since the 60s visiting this basilica on the morning of this shot, we watched him zoom through the streets in his Pope Mobile.
The Pope was in Florence for the first time since the 60s visiting this basilica on the morning of this shot, we watched him zoom through the streets in his Pope Mobile.

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Santa María del Fiore Bell Tower
Santa María del Fiore Bell Tower
Santa María del Fiore, at night of course.
Santa María del Fiore, at night of course.