Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Practice, practice, practice!

I'm at the very end of a three-week long photography class, so I've been trying to practice shooting as much as possible. Unfortunately, the weather has kept me indoors - a lot. But I have been able to sneak out with Eva a few times. She is my main subject, of course...

I have a lot to learn, but am excited because I do see improvement in my images since starting the course - and I actually feel like I've learned how my camera's manual settings work. At least some of them! These are some of my favorite images from the past few weeks. Not perfect, for sure... it's been a great learning experience! My all-time favorites are the ones of Eva hugging her stuffed dog - a Valentine's gift from Daddy. She LOVES it. :) Hope you enjoyed the photos!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Italian Memories

In years to come, when people ask us what we most enjoyed about Italy, I'm sure they'll expect our response to be something about the famous sites and cities that we've been fortunate enough to see. But I know Cole and I would both agree that some of our absolute favorite moments are from days like last Saturday. We really do feel like we're living la dolce vita during these times. It's the moments when we get to experience the true Italian lifestyle that make us greatly appreciate the Italian way of life and culture. We love the times we feel a little bit less like tourists and a little bit more like honorary Italians... even if it's just for a little while.

We joined one of Cole's co-workers, Tony Rosso, and his group of friends for a very traditional lunch of polenta, rabbit, potatoes and of course, molto vino and delicious desserts, too. This was no hour-long lunch. We were there for four hours! Eva did surprisingly well...

We started with salami and prosciutto, as well as bread.

Next we had the delicious polenta - polenta grassa. Basically, it's fat polenta. See all that cheesy, buttery goodness? Mmmm... We knew it was going to be a memorable meal when the restaurant owner was wandering around to check on the tables... We (Tony) asked about the type of cheese used in the polenta and he sort of grinned and shrugged at us and said, "Ehhh." (Insert Italian-looking hand gesture here.) In other words, "Wouldn't you like to know?!" That got us all laughing... never ask the cook his secrets. We later learned that it's basically a locally made cheese - kind of a combination of several types/methods...

We followed up the polenta with a plate of rabbit and fried potatoes... This was our first time to eat rabbit, and it was pretty good. Tastes like chicken. No really, it actually does!

That is a lot of butter! More than I remember. Must have been the wine?

Here's a picture of the entire group at dinner - which was basically served inside a small, rural farmhouse... Getting there was fun and scenic - with gorgeous views around Lake Como.

The front of the restaurant, Rifugio F.I.E. Anna Maria.

As we were leaving, Tony mentioned that the restaurant owner was preparing his next batch of rabbit in the kitchen, which was all pretty open to the restaurant. Tony asked if I could take a photo... Poor bunnies. I think the Italians kind of got a kick out of the fact that rabbits are more like pets in the US. Tony promised me when our plates arrived that they were not cat or dog. Only rabbit!
The group as we were leaving - an awesome view of the mountains was in the background, but somehow
I wasn't able to get the lighting right... You'll have to trust me on that one. ;)
Tony's friend - leaving on his Harley... Brr!
Tony's van... Cole loves this thing - he is determined to find one we can use for camping/tailgating... 
This was the view from the restaurant! :) Not bad at all! 
Here are some pics of Eva in the restaurant. She was SO GOOD considering how long we were at lunch.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bernina Express: The Rest of the Story!

We completely enjoyed riding the Bernina Express from Italy into Switzerland and back. But there's more to this story. We stayed only one night in St. Moritz, a small town with a reputation for being a bit snobby and ritzy. We didn't realize that prior to booking the hotel or we probably would have stayed a little further up the line in Filisur. St. Moritz is a ski town - full of extremely expensive hotels. We also learned (hindsight is 20/20) that the weekend we stayed was probably the busiest of the year. Lots of kids had this Monday and Tuesday off of school because of Carnivale, so many families hit the slopes. This week is also "Settimana Bianca" or White Week. Many students attend school-sponsored trips to the ski slopes for a week of skiing. Sounds fun! So when I booked our stay there, I chose one of the lower priced places. I'm using the term "lower priced" loosely here... very loosely. We can handle anything for one night, right?! Right. So we stayed at Hotel Stille. I booked our stay through, a site we regularly use and trusted.

When we arrived, I knew it was going to be interesting, to say the least. Outside was a group of young men, several were drunk and shirtless - wearing shorts in the snow! At the check-in desk, I asked if we were at the hostel, hoping we had accidentally gotten to the wrong check-in desk. Nope. The hostel was across the street - and looked like a major improvement from Hotel Stille. So our room was the only one they had available when I booked - a "family room." Two separate bedrooms with twin beds - really they were cots with futon-like mattresses. Everything was way, way dated, cheap and icky. The place was clean, but definitely felt dingy. I know I sound totally high-maintenance here. But take my word for it. Even Cole wouldn't take off his socks. Hehe!

So that is where we spent our most expensive hotel stay - ever. We had to laugh because what else can you do? We did see four little deer playing and eating just outside our window - the first we've seen in Europe and that made Cole happy.

At check-out the hotel manager offered to lower our price (if he could) before he even asked if we were happy or satisfied with our stay. Evidently booking through sites like actually increases your cost - most of the time. He recommended calling the hotel directly. Because of their contract with (or a European affiliate to we couldn't get a discount at all. He had already paid a significant fee to the website for our booking. Boo. The manager basically told me I paid about twice what I would have otherwise. Talk about sick... I was pretty frustrated - but many of our traveling adventures are "live and learn" types of experiences. We make a few mistakes along the way - I guess that's just part of the adventure... :)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

Chocolates for Cole! :) I was so excited to find this box!  It says, "I love you so much!" 
Our little Valentine - usually happy and absolutely precious. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

All Aboard the Bernina Express

We must have brought snow back from the Alps because it's coming down pretty steadily in Como today. Cole just might even leave work early if the roads start to look bad! From our balcony window, it's just beautiful. Eva loves looking out and she's now just tall enough to tippy-toe and peek over the very edge of the window. Hopefully it stops after a few hours and we can get outside to enjoy the winter wonderland left behind! This will probably be the last snow we see this winter. We are hopeful that the rest of February will be sunny and warm.. but who are we kidding?!

Saturday morning we left Como and drove north along the lake to Tirano to board the Bernina Express, a well-known train that climbs into the Alps from northern Italy. We have been meaning to drive around the lake for awhile, and wow! What a gorgeous drive it was! The day was sunny and Como is simply a beautiful  lake, set at the base of the pre-Alps, known to be one of the deepest lakes in Europe. Tiny, colorful towns dot the shoreline. The entire area makes you feel like you've stepped back fifty years or more. It's interesting geographically, too. There are tropical plants and palm trees all around you, but you can look up and see snow capped mountains in the distance.

We chose a two-hour ride, opting to end at St. Moritz and return Sunday. We knew that would be just about all Eva could handle - first taking a long drive up the lake and then boarding a train for several hours. Unfortunately when we arrived, we were told that the first leg of the train ride, Tirano - Poschiavo, would be a bus trip instead. Ugh! It was a disappointment, but only a small leg of the trip, so it worked out fine. Several months ago, there was a rockslide that left a small portion of the tracks under construction and, obviously unsafe for now.

So we boarded the Bernina Express in Poschiavo. This was a special train-riding experience. The windows of the cars went completely to the top of each car, even curving a little towards the roof. It made all the difference - the views were spectacular and these extra big windows allowed us to see panoramic views of the Alps.

I keep trying to explain to Cole how peaceful it made me feel, but I can't quite find the words. The train was really quiet - even the other passengers were hushed. (Except for Miss Eva... She was very good, but definitely more chattery than everyone else!) You know the incredibly peaceful feeling you get looking at fresh, untouched and sparkly snow? That's kind of how I felt - almost the entire ride. It's like God was saying, "Shh! Look at what I created!" The views were breathtaking. Before Pontresina, our train stopped at Alp Grum and we were able to hop off to take photos there, which was nice. I have no idea how to take good photos through windows - many of my train-riding shots have a ghost-like figure in them... Cole's reflection! So it was nice to be able to get outside for a few shots in the fresh air.

There's MORE to this story... our hotel stay proved to be quite an adventure in St. Moritz. For now, let's just say we stayed at the most expensive "hostel" ever.