Thursday, June 18, 2009

History, Friendship, Beauty … and so Much More …

To my friend T., whom I love and admire. She never knows where and when to stop. And sometimes that makes for the best memories ...

T. was the driver, so she'd ask, calmly: "What direction do you feel like it's right to go into?". I 'd say "to the left", on a whim of course. And we'll take it from there. Just like life, sometimes, it's a coin toss!

With GPS in hand, and maps, and with an experienced driver behind the wheel, we still got lost at times.

And so, when that happened, we kind of went by our gut feeling, and see where the road would take us next. This is my favorite kind of traveling. I am usually too chicken to try it on my own, though, so I was plenty grateful to have a partner there with me, to accompany me on “the roads less traveled”.

We had a very basic plan this past weekend, my friend T. and I. We were going to drive up to Charlottesville, VA, and visit three main landmarks: the UVA campus (for me), the Monticello Plantation and some wineries on the Virginia Wine Trail (for both). T. was in charge of the hotel and I was in charge of everything else: restaurants, places to visit, addresses to places, and the rest.

A trademark of Charlottesville: The Rotunda, at the University of Virginia

But as good friends go, they don't hold each other to an agreement. They let fate and a little bit of accident come into play, and follow only the hands of the clock, common sense and our own very insightful feminine guts to guide us on our trip. We would listen to the sound of our stomachs to plan for meals, and we would go to bed with the sun, when the day was over.

We started the trip with a detour. We’re on vacation, we kept telling ourselves, we don’t have schedules, or places we need to be in, so why the heck not detour. T. took me on top of this mountain where her family owned a farm when she was growing up. The place is poetic! It looks like a painting (thanks, Aa.), or a fairy-tale landscape (thanks, sis!). It’s eerily peaceful, surrounded like a mythological ring of majestic woods, with almost a perfect round pasture on top. Some of the land is now developed, but the beauty and tranquility of nature is still very much a presence! I can easily see how this is probably the place T. comes to, in her mind, when the storms of life take her away. It reminds me of my mountains. And I can understand mountain language, for sure: the timeless sky and woods, the quiet of the wind through the leaves, the bees in the honey, hot air. The memories of animals and people past!

Then, we were on our way to Charlottesville. More surprises came our way, when we found out our hotel was not on part of the GPS’s digitized map. And after finding it just by following street signs, we found out we have no wireless internet access, and we’d have to share a bed, after all. But we’re on vacation, you see, and we each weigh about 100 lbs each, so … a king bed is not an issue there! And my friend who lives, breathes, and eats on the internet, waved and said with a shrug: “There is probably a good reason why we don’t have wi-fi. God is trying to tell us something. So, that’s fine”. I was shocked, and happy!

Charlottesville surprised us first because of the great food finds. Some of these were the yummy turkey sandwich with Mornay sauce and bacon at West Main, the "Rapture" sushi roll at Rapture in The Mall, which came right next to fish and chips (how’s that for versatility?!) , the very affordable breakfast at The Nook, also in The Mall : The Nook - the place of the best priced loaded breakfast sandwich in the country, probably (only $3.95 for bacon, eggs and cheese on a roll) and also the place of the slowest waitress in the world, too!

The Rapture Sushi roll, at Rapture

You could easily get lost in the selection of wines at Siips - a wine and champagne bar. I tried to figure out what the name means, and just gave up saying it must just be the VA pronunciations of "sips".

Siips wine and champagne bar

Another good find in Charlottesville (although we knew about it from all the C-ville websites) was the Look3 Festival of Photography, which seemed to be taking over at least The Pedestrian Mall area! We didn't spend too much time looking at the exhibits, but you could not help but notice the masterpieces posted anywhere from walls to trees, to the open air screen of the huge amphitheater! It was a delight for the eyes!

A huge surprise for both of us was that Charlottesville resembles Asheville or Boone, NC in the amount of hippies it shelters! Sitting on the patio of Siips one night and people watching, we were shocked by the amount of tattooed skins and tie-dyes we saw! Not to mention beads, hemp skirts and bags, dreadlocks and the likes ... We both were expecting it to be a preppy, stuck up little town! Not so! We were reminded everywhere that youngsters will stay young and colorful will be their signature, even in one of the oldest and most traditional university campuses in the country! To me, this was very refreshing. Unexpected, but refreshing, too. But ... I am the hippy of the duo, so that’s my job …

On Mulberry Row, at Monticello

Another unexpected was that we spent almost a whole day at Monticello ! I had planned for us to see the plantation, and maybe a couple of wineries, too, that day. But once there, we were swallowed by the variety of things to do: documentary, museum, the tour of the gardens, the slave plantation, the kitchens, the house, the graveyard, and so forth. We spent almost a whole day there, loaded up on stories and history, so well worth it! I learned about the polygraph, about Jefferson's huge clock in the receiving room of the house, about his automatic doors, about the boots which back then were interchangeable, not made for one particular foot, about his alcove bed which just looks so ... claustrophobic. Also about Sally, the slave and maybe (most likely, by a 99.99% chance) concubine of The President, and Jupiter, his faithful slave, and all the others that have made history books along with Jefferson himself!

I felt overwhelmed by the severity of the facts that happened on those grounds, belittled by the grandeur of the historic times past. If only those walls could talk and tell us the real story! Or the hardwoods and maple trees on Mulberry Row! Or the silent and cold columns at The Rotunda in UVA. I felt once again blessed to be part of this country, and learn about the roots of its main cultures: that of freedom and of the pursuit of happiness. I cried when I realized once more I have seen my dream of freedom with my own eyes in the one nation in the world that taught it to the rest of the planet!

The home at Monticello

On the way back home, we had somewhere North of 15 wineries to choose from. I am not sure how we picked them, but I think it’s safe to say it was a mixture of planning and chance. We're both wine lovers, and faithful goers to the Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival every year. To say the least, tasting wine is one of our favorite past times.

The search for good wine started with Kluge Winery from the Wine Trail map, and the road pretty much carried us on from there: Blenheim Vineyards was on the same road as Kluge - so chance brought us there. This ended up being my favorite, because of the Dutch barn and the all-wood-and-glass winery building. It was so airy and so open to the vistas below! The wine "coaches", I call them, were two hip and chatty gals, and we ended up having a great time there. Upon returning home, I also found out that Blenheim Vineyards has been in fact designed and is owned by Dave Matthews, as in from Dave Matthews' Band (thank you, Mary!). Now, that is such a lucky accidental find! I love Dave’s Band (not many people hate it), and now the bottle of rose will be extra special. Another interesting thing is all their wines come in screw top bottles. Now, some wine snobs out there will always tell you that's not a real wine, in a screw top, but I can tell you: these were some seriously good, and sophisticated wines! And the wine girls said that screw tops are actually better, for allowing a better air flow into the bottle - allowing it to breathe right. I don’t know all about that, but I am all for an easy to open bottle! Especially after a few glasses.

I liked Kluge for the very unique garden setting and for their interesting wine tasting flight. Although, I have to tell you: when all the wineries in the area ask for $5 for tasting, and they ask for $10.95, it makes you wonder if it's worth it. I guess the setting is!

First Colony boasted "pure wines", no blends of grapes. Also an adorable orange tabby named Fritz! Virginia Wineworks were a tad remote and somewhat scary, at first glance, but the host was welcoming and so incredibly generous with the tasting portions!

I loved the wine tour! It made me want to watch Sideways again (good friends in search of good wine!), and it reminded me of one of my midlife crisis dreams: to move to Napa and pour wine for a living. Seeing how much fun these folks are having just chatting and smelling grapes all day, it's very tempting! Most of the wines we had were dry, and we all know I am a sweet wine consumer. But I did pick up a couple of bottles: the above mentioned, smooth rose at Blenheim and "The Sweet Shanando" at First Colony.

In the unpredictable sort of vibe this trip was driven, we skipped visiting the Natural Bridge on Sunday night, and we stopped for lunch in Staunton (be careful not to mispronounce here!), instead. Here, I was treated to the best croissant sandwich ever! Usually, I am not picky what you put on a croissant: it's all good. But this one, at Byers St. Bistro , had roasted turkey, bacon and ... warm crab dip on it! Oh, my God, was it divine!! Staunton seemed sleepy. But maybe it was the Sunday siesta people were into.

OK, maybe Priceline lied about the wireless internet and the type of bed(s) we were going to get. And maybe the GPS was rusty at times, or just gave up on us winding around aimlessly, but the surprise factor made all the difference in this trip! The little “big” bonuses like the hippies, the lessons learned of what we can let go of and still be happy, and the Dave Matthews wine, the history lessons, and journey back into our own past, were what will make this trip unique!

We ended up not only with good memories, with a whole new city we have learned and are looking forward to be returning to, but also with new lessons about each other. We both discovered that when truly on vacation mode, we are less the driven women we usually are, and we can sleep in very comfortably late, and that we're both cheap when it comes to parking spaces! We also realized we can both survive on just two main meals a day when we travel! And we also re-affirmed the trust that we will always have each other, for trips, wine, girl talk or political gossip! All in all, it was a priceless weekend!

Thank you, Ms. T., and looking very much forward to the next adventure! You are a blessing and a treat!!! Love you, always!

Please visit The Wander World Picture Site for a complete set of pictures.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Surprisingly Good Culinary Find

My relationship with tapas has been strange over the years. I love food! Anyone who knows me, or knows my family, knows I am all about food. I love textures, and smells, and “weird” stuff, and experimenting. But when I had tapas, a few times before, I have always been disappointed. You know: like finally meeting the movie star you dreamed of always marrying, but then you discover he farts over dinner, and writes “their” instead of “there” all the time! Just … pretty, and painfully disappointing at the same time.

So, every time someone suggests tapas to me, I cringe! I am going: “Great! Another place that sells grass and a mushroom with a squirt of ketchup for $10 a plate!”. I am always meeting that invite with “Thanks, but can we go to this burger joint instead, please?!”.

So, tapas have always been something I could easily pass up, until tonight. Thanks to a dear friend, I had some gift certificates to Rim Tapas, in downtown Greensboro. The place boasts to be also a wine bar, so I invited my wine friends to share the experience with me, and what an experience it was!

We all went in thinking the food will be insufficient and pretentious, and the wine overpriced and crappy. But we had a blast! A blast of a time, and a blast of flavor in our mouths, as well!

We took advantage of the “two for $10 by 6:30PM” special, and we ordered 4 appetizers for just $20. Our orders were: Savannah Crab and Artichoke Dip with Pecorino, NC Mountain Trout With Blue Corn Crust, Soy Ginger Chicken and Sweet Chili Shrimp on Crispy Peanut Noodle Cake. We also split a bottle of German Riesling, which is usually our wine of choice: a “lighter style white”, as it’s listed in the menu.

Everything was amazing! Every dish had a sophistication and a richness about it that is hard to explain! Every dish had more than one texture, and more than one flavor: soft, and gooey, and sweet and spicy and tart all mixed into one bite!

I felt like my mouth was traveling from the NC mountains to Japan, and China, Thailand, and through Mexico in-between … with a stop in the Louisiana swamps. And the sizes of these tapas were not your usual “two leaves and a mushroom” fair, either. They were decent size appetizers, to say the least! The trout was almost an inch thick fillet, with a whole fried egg on top of. The dip was in an honest-to-God dip dish, not some ramekin pulled out from Lilliput! Surrounded by a couple of handfuls of chips – not some kind on miniature nuggets!

We declared in the end than a couple of appetizers per person with a glass of wine once in a while might just be what the doctor ordered for unwinding after a long day.

And I didn’t say anything about the owners’ hospitality skills, but they were great! Not bothersome, and you got just enough attention to feel like they wanted you there, and they wanted you happy. The wait staff was still rusty, but I’ll be forgiving, and allow them time … to grow! But, honestly, who needs a friendly waitress, when you’ve got an artist and a taste demigod for a chef?!

It was truly a unique and very rewarding experience! I will not sneeze at tapas anymore, and that’s a promise! I will just pick them more carefully from now on. But I do know that Rim (under new management!) is one place I will be returning to! If not for the tapas (try to twist my arm), then for being the only restaurant in Greensboro that I know of that has Moscato on their wine list! Sure, it’s $14 for half of a bottle, but you can never pay too much for The Nectar of The Gods, can you?! And every once in a while a gal is entitled to some nectar!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Unwanted Party, Part II

With pictures this time …

As much as I hate heat, typically (I know, I live in the wrong state!), I hate a rainy summer more! I hate it when you want to hike or walk in the park, shoot butterflies and hibiscus plants, but you get a 50% chance of rain every single day of the week. And after a couple of weeks of this forecast being accurate, you pretty much give up: it’s in the forecast, you get the picture and tuck in for the night! It gets old!

Anyway, this is the type of summer we seem to be having so far. Quite the opposite of the one last year, when everything was dry, and draughty! And we could not even water our plants, because of the water shortage!

This year, my plants would look great, if it were not for all the slugs rain brings with it which eat them! I swear these gross (and to me totally useless) creatures must be made of water! The minute it rains, my patio is again full of them. The more it rains (like the recent flood we had only yesterday in Greensboro), the bigger and fatter and grosser they are!

For the curious folks before, who asked for pictures,
this is my latest visitor, in actual size. It was about twice as
thick as my pinkie. And, yes: that's a baby! Got chills? I do!

And yes, salt works (thanks C., and mom!), but rain washes off the salt! So, they’re … back!!! And I am about tired of the slimey visitors and their traces - left, right, up and down and every direction imaginable in the front of my home, and tired of looking at the puny looking pansies in the planters!

So, we’re going to plan B this weekend: time for a different plant, other than pansies! Anything in purple will do! We’ll experience another pest, I am sure, but at least the new one maybe won’t leave mucus traces all over the patio!

If they are indeed made of water, and more rain will make more of these things … maybe they’ll show up where they won’t have anything yummy to eat, like purple pansies! Maybe on someone else’s patio that provides that meal. There is no sin in hoping, anyway!