How To: Eat in Bologna

Our next stop was Bologna – the gastronomical capital of Italy. We had two activities planned: Eating and wandering around between eating.

Not ones to miss meals – especially in Italy – we had to come up with a lot of wandering ideas if we didn’t want to leave Bologna at least 10 pounds heavier than when we arrived.

Luckily, Bologna is an accommodating city.

For starters, the historical center is filled with porticos. In fact, no other city in the world has as many as Bologna. And not only are they incredibly helpful in protecting one from the sun and rain, many of them are quite beautiful as well.

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Another well-known site is Piazza Ravegnana, home to the Two Towers of Bologna. The Asinelli and Garisenda towers were built between 1109-1119 and while they are the most famous, at one point, Bologna had up to 180 towers within the city.

Eating as much as we were, we thought long and hard about climbing the higher tower – Asinelli. But we had heard the views were much more rewarding in Florence, where we’d be in a few days. And with the weather as hot as it was – in the 90s, we decided to sit the climb out and save ourselves 498 stairs (one way).

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A more leisurely activity that we decided to take part in was to visit the University Library of Bologna.

Harder to find than one might expect, we accidentally found the modern library first. Quickly pointed in the right direction, we found ourselves in the entryway, being told in Italian to wait 10 minutes for our guide. A little confused, we agreed.

It turns out that local high school students are given rotating jobs every summer and one of them is as a free guide to the library. All we really knew about the library in advance was that the University of Bologna claims to be the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere.

Our guide was much more knowledgeable: It was a private library created in 1712 to house the scientific collections, books, related manuscripts, and collected oriental manuscripts of Luigi Ferdinando Marsili. Forty-three years later, Pope Benedict XIV donated 25,000 printed volumes and then ordered the typographers of Bologna to provide the library with a copy of every work they printed. The following year, he ordered the library to open its doors to the public.

Now home to over 1,250,000 volumes it’s an impressive library indeed. And unlike the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin, we only shared the space with our guide, a fellow reader, and a clerk.

Plus we got some great anecdotal stories from our guide. Including his unsureness about which job was better: His current one, in a beautiful, old library, where his only amusement was random tourists because his boss was a grouchy old woman…or last summer when he had to do manual labor in the sweltering heat – but at least he had his buddies around.

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The only other “site” we went to was the Basilica di Santo Stefano, also known as the Seven Churches. According to tradition, the earliest churches were built in the 4th and 5th centuries, with the latests being built in the 13th century and some reshaping in the 17th century.

The colors of the churches are a beautiful rose red and they have wonderful detailing. The courtyards were a beautiful and serene place to relax.

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Everything else we saw, we came across by wandering. Bologna has a wonderful amount of street art on the metal gates that are pulled down to protect closed shops. Vivid colors and varied designs, they are sure to catch your eye.

We also passed this beautiful staircase every time we went to and from the train station. There’s a lovely park that sits behind it.

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And I’m sure it’s impossible not to wander through Piazza Maggiore, whether you’re there to see Neptune, are in the nearby market for some shopping, or are attending an event at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Our last night in Bologna, they played Pan’s Labryinth and we had a great date night!

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But none of these were the main event. The main event was FOOD. Food was the reason we spent three days in Bologna. We needed enough time to eat a meal at each of the restaurants we researched and planned out.

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A Farewell to Cheese: Thanks, Gruyères

If you caught my other Swiss blogs, you’ve had to read about my love of cheese. So it’s no surprise that Chandler and I decided to spend a day in Gruyères, home to…you guessed it: gruyère cheese.

Sweet, yet salty, I prefer my gruyère aged 18 months.

The trains from Leysin to Gruyères can take as little as two hours, but our second train was delayed and our trip ended up taking three instead. It wasn’t all bad news, however, as we got to take the panoramic scenic train instead (at no extra charge!).

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We arrived at the Gruyères train station at 1:00 pm and walked across the street (convenient, right?) to La Maison du Gruyère – aka the cheese factory.

This was supposed to be a place where dreams come true. I was big time bucket-listing in Switzerland (having gone to The Little Mermaid castle the previous weekend) and this cheese factory was no exception.

We paid our entrance fee and picked up our cheese samples (aged six, eight, and ten months), as well as our audio guides. They were in the process of cutting the curd, so we were told to skip ahead to stations 10-13. My life changed at station 12.

Over my audio guide speaker, I was informed that rennet is added approximately 35-40 minutes before the milk sets and then three large wire cutters slowly slice the curd up into small particles (what we were seeing happen).

Now, I had heard of rennet before – vaguely – and knew it was something I didn’t want to know more about, but I thought it referred to the rinds of certain kinds of cheese. I was wrong.

The Gruyère cheese factory was more than happy to educate me on the origin of rennet: a natural enzyme extracted from the stomach of calves. Butchered calves. As in, no longer living calves.

The enzymes (rennet) are then mixed into the milk and cause it to coagulate.

Mind and heart blown – simultaneously. Every time I eat cheese, I’m eating calf stomach. And I call myself a vegetarian. Needless to say, my stomach started rumbling from my cheese samples (the mind is a powerful thing!) and I quickly began to realize what I would be giving up.

Now, luckily, not all cheese is made with animal rennet. Mozarella is usually safe to eat. So is ricotta, paneer, halloumi, and cottage cheese. Many companies have switched from using animal rennet to using rennet made from plants, fungi, or microbes. In fact, due to a meat scare in the 1970s, 90% of cheese from the UK is vegetarian. And tons of American brands have vegetarian-friendly cheese as well.

The problem is, many European cheeses are protected aka they’ve remained old school. Which means, according to European Union law, parmesan must contain animal rennet in order to be called Parmigiano-Reggiano. And many other cheeses follow suit: manchego, emmenthaler, pecorino romano, gorgonzola, mimolette, and camembert, to name a few.

If we lived in the United States, this knowledge would be heartbreaking, but manageable. Many grocery stores, like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and even Aldi are specific when labeling their cheeses and are careful to differentiate between the different types of rennet.

I can only hope we have some luck with that when we return to Accra in August.

For those in the states, I’ve had some luck finding vegetarian cheese brands on this site.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to gruyère cheese and many others.

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Luckily, however, that wasn’t the end of our day. We still had four hours left to explore the town of Gruyères itself.

A traditional medieval town, with a population of just over 2,000, it made a valiant attempt to distract me from my previous disappointments. After a lunch overlooking the hillside – with frequent interruptions by local alpine horn players – we were ready to see what else the town had to offer.

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Going Vegan in Berlin

We might have known that Berlin is a great place to immerse yourself in the arts, but we had no idea how incredible – and how cheap – their food scene is.

Known for the obvious: bratwurst, pretzels, and beer, we were unaware of the variety of markets, fresh produce, and unique restaurants.

Not ones to leave food up to chance – it’s hard to be foodies in Accra – Chandler made a list of restaurants we might want to check out during our week in Berlin. That, along with some great tips (and meals) from our host, Alise, made the food scene in Berlin unforgettable.

I’d like to break these restaurants down by neighborhood, but Chandler’s the one who’s good with maps, and now that we’re in Leysin for the summer, he’s a bit busy with his grad school classes. I’ll do my best : )

Berlin, honestly, is an incredibly accessible city. For only 30 euros, you can access all public transportation in Berlin for seven days. Which meant it didn’t really matter where the restaurants were located, because we were able to hop on the S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses, and trams and nothing was ever more than 20 minutes away (which in both Accra or Dallas-Fort Worth time, is amazing).

To narrow our list from the crazy amount of well-reviewed restaurants in Berlin, Chandler only looked up vegan/vegetarian restaurants. Of course, though we can usually find something to eat on any menu, it was amazing be able to eat anything on the menu. And those “anythings” were incredible:

Our first meal out (and one of the highlights of the trip), was dumplings at Momos. With six speciality dumplings to choose from (four vegan, two vegetarian), we couldn’t decide and so we sampled a little bit of everything – some steamed and some fried. The fresh cheese-potato and pumpkin-chickpeas dumplings were the stars.

We also went to Daluma and drank some of the best juice I have encountered in my entire life: The Equalizer with passion fruit, basil, active water kefir, caju, agave, and lemon. The food was equally fresh and impressive. While my Oriental Study was fun, Chandler’s Green See Ramen with vegetable-kelp-dashi, baby pak choi, edamame, corn, spring onions, ginger, sesame, soy sprouts, and noodles stole the show.

Another memorable meal was at The Bowl, an incredible vegetarian restaurant located upstairs from Veganz (the first vegan supermarket chain in Europe) – we did some grocery shopping afterward : ) The blueberry lemonade I could do without – Berlin in general likes to make their lemonade sparkling, but the food was delicious. Mine was a little pretentious, they called french fries & sweet potato fries, “roasted root vegetables,” but it was amazing to be able to eat a caesar salad without anchovies in the sauce! And Chandler’s raw watermelon salad looked incredibly fresh.

Sometimes, you don’t want your meal to try so hard, and we got an amazing halloumi burger at Kreuzburger – though I don’t recommend the regular veggie burger, that was a little mushy.

We also had some delicious phở at Monsieur Vuong (try the mango/coconut milk smoothie!). And fresh bibimbap at Wawa. Vaust, a vegan wine bar, had the most unusual menu we came across, but we loved their specials! At Hammers Weinkostbar we got to sample some German white wines (the Riesling Mosel being my favorite) and some new cheeses (Beaufort and Tome des Bauges – both French).

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And while each of these places had lovely atmospheres – especially The Bowl – we found some other venues to love for their ambience.

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24 Hours Camping in Wadi Rum

There’s a surprising number of options for overnighting in Wadi Rum. Everything from sleeping directly under the stars to keeping that view of the sky, but tucked up nicely in your own bubble tent, complete with indoor plumbing.

We fell in between. While no longer backpackers (and definitely never campers), we also realized that we had been chopping money on our three-week vacation through Egypt and Jordan. So we forwent the bubbles and booked our overnight with Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp. Around for 10 years, the camp offered well-reviewed jeep tours and an overnight in their private tents:

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But lets rewind seven hours. We’d been up since 5:45 am and had already spent nearly two hours on a bus. There are other ways to get from Petra (Wadi Musa) to Wadi Rum, but this was the cheapest option at 7 JD/person (heads up, when the bus isn’t full, tickets go up to 10 JD).

Then we had to pay another 5 JD/person to enter Wadi Rum – in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also a protected area. That means that even if you have a private car, you still need to rent a tour with the Bedouins, as they’re the only ones legally allowed to drive in Wadi Rum (and you’ll have to pay to park your car in the meantime).

We hopped off our bus at the Rest House and met our organizer, Mohammad. We collected another group – a French family of four – and made our way to Mohammad’s house so he could offer us a traditional cup of tea while our lunch supplies were gathered. After that, we were left in the charge of Mohammad’s university-aged nephew.

This kid served as driver, guide, and chef, all rolled into one.

Our first stop was the Lawrence’s Spring – an unassuming place named after Lawrence of Arabia. Only animals are allowed to drink from the spring now and there are Nabatean inscriptions on some of the rock face. But a short hike can take you to the start of the spring and, of course, the views of the desert are beautiful no matter where you stop.

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We quickly saw that our truck accommodations could have been much worse (see previous photo). And we happily drove off in our Mitsubishi for our next stop: Khasali Canyon.

Our guide claimed that the Nabatean carvings were 1,700 years old and the Muslim inscriptions could be dated back 500 years. But what struck me was the rock itself. The canyon looked like melted wax dripping down from a candle.

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Just like that, we were on the “road” again. It was starting to feel a bit odd. Drive, stop, photograph, repeat. But with the gorgeous desert all around us, it was hard to argue. And luckily, our next stop involved a wee bit of climbing.

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The Best Way to Cruise the Nile: Part 1

Let’s rewind to spring 2014: Chandler and I wanted to travel somewhere for spring break…but we needed to be thrifty (upcoming wedding in July & our move to Accra just a few weeks after). However, we didn’t do much advanced planning and the only thing that really fit our budget was a Caribbean cruise.

And…I hated it.

I tried to keep an open mind, but it just wasn’t for me. The stops were interesting (Chichen Itza was incredible!), but the sea sickness, lack of space, and absence of decent vegetarian food made the trip less than spectacular.

So when Chandler mentioned a cruise on the Nile, I was even more skeptical. Which, of course, he had already taken into consideration. He had done his research and National Geographic had recently listed the 21 Best Cruises in the World and, wouldn’t you know, they had one on the list that took you up the Nile River in Egypt.

The photographs were stunning and we couldn’t find a bad review about the company: Nour El Nil. Despite it being pricier than our average vacation (plus we still had to pay for a week in Cairo and a week in Jordan!), we decided to book a week-long cruise on their most affordable boat – the Assouan.

At 1,100 euros a person, it was hard to deem it “affordable,” but after our last cruise, I wasn’t going to save a few hundred on a cruise that had likewise cut corners to save a few bucks as well.

Plus, the Assouan had something no other boat on the Nile could offer: intimacy. With only eight rooms onboard, we’d be sharing the space with a maximum of 14 other guests.

We were picked up at our hotel in Luxor on Monday, December 18th. As soon as we saw the boats, we knew we were not going to be let down:

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We’d been upgraded to the slightly larger El Nil, which holds up to 18 passengers, but were pleasantly surprised to find out we’d be sharing it with just six other people: An American couple from Seattle, a French & British couple from London, and Tunisian sisters from Paris.

And, for once in our lives, we were the least traveled people in the group! That alone made the trip worthwhile – hearing everyone’s stories and adding more trips to our bucket list. Many dinners were followed late into the night with wine, memories, and plans for future adventures.

Most days involved a stop at a historical temple or tomb, but even the scenery as we sailed our way up the Nile was spectacular. We had foolishly believed that so much of the river would be industrialized, but due to the Nile’s unpredictable flooding, very little was built within a mile of its shores.

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And what was built, usually added to the ambience. Whether it was ancient tombs or the more practical floating petrol stations:

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It was never too much time on the boat (which, anyway, is probably the most relaxing place I have ever been). Even on full sail days, we still stopped for some fun in the sun & Nile:

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On How to be Swiss in Zurich

I can’t believe how far behind I’ve gotten on these summer posts! It seems like once again school starts and everything else falls to the wayside. Perhaps my next few posts should be less chatty and more photo-filled. We all know a picture’s worth…

A few weeks into our time in Leysin we popped up to Zurich for a fast weekend. We didn’t have much time…Chandler had classes until early evening on Friday and had to be back by 8:30 am Monday morning.

But we already had our Eurail passes and I had a friend from high school living there whom I hadn’t seen in four years – our last sighting being happenstance when we were both vacationing in Rome, summer of 2013.

We made it to Zurich shortly before sunset and my friend’s incredibly kind husband met us at the train station and took us up to a viewpoint:

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It was a great introduction to the surprisingly small city and then we went for drinks, walking through Old Town along the way.

Instead of an up at ’em Saturday morning, we did something we hadn’t done since we started our European adventure: we slept in. And it was glorious.

My friend offered to walk us around the city, and after a quick train ride, our tour began. We saw more viewpoints (these ones filled with ingenuitive pigeons):

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And wandered along the banks of the river:

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Past churches with amusement parks set up right outside their front doors:

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And all the way down to the lake:

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We picked up some especially good chocolate along the way and ate it while soaking up the view (and the fresh air that we still couldn’t get enough of).

The whole day we had been contemplating a swim. The day was a bit warm by Swiss standards (though not nearly as hot as it had been in Paris), but we also had a time limit. Krystle had to get back for a performance that evening and Chandler and I had dinner plans at Hitl, supposedly the oldest vegetarian restaurant, open since 1898.

But, when you’re in Switzerland…

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Vegetarians eat ham, right?

Moving on from Paris, we made our way to Leysin via train. Now I have to say, trains are my favorite way to travel…to most places. We did take a pretty terrifying sleeper train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi back in 2014 on our way to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam. I’m pretty sure I shared a bunk with a rat – a top bunk that I somehow got placed in even after paying the upgrade for the bottom bunk. So that train sucked.

But European trains are incredible. Especially when traveling first class, something we were forced to do when purchasing our Eurail passes. At the time, we thought the train passes were a little pricey – $812 for both of us to take trains on 5 separate days anywhere in France, Switzerland, and Italy (next year it will be $900, because I’ll be 28 and no longer considered a European “youth”).

After that initial fee, anytime you travel between countries you have to pay a reservation fee of $20-$50, it was starting to feel ridiculous. Until we traveled round-trip from Leysin to Zurich and learned that those tickets alone would have cost almost $800. That was when we realized that Eurail is actually quite reasonable! But more on that in my next post.

First things first, we settled into life in Leysin. Chandler had grad school classes Monday-Friday, usually from 8:30-5:00, with homework half the nights during the week. Needless to say, we didn’t see a lot of each other.

While he was gone, I was in my Swiss paradise. An Airbnb that was nice & cozy with a great view of the mountains.

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But as lovely as the apartment was, I didn’t want to spend all of my time there. Our first full weekend in Leysin (after Chandler’s first week of classes), a colleague from our school in Accra was in town on her way to the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Another colleague from Accra was also in the program with Chandler and so the four of us set off on a morning hike.

Lazy things that we are, we took the cable car to the mountain peak and planned a hike that wound around and back down. I should also probably admit that the route was chosen very specifically because it passed a fromagerie that we had every intention of stopping in when we came across it.

The views from the top were stunning, but a bit limited due to the fog/clouds that surrounded us during our hike. That said, it made the temperature quite enjoyable for the four hours we spent strolling along.

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We finally made it to the fromagerie about two hours in and were pretty hungry. We looked at their chalkboard menu and one thing stood out: Fondue. But no matter what we said, they wouldn’t serve it to us.

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