Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Vacation Day 2: Three churches and a village

Day 2 (Monday, October 13)

Before coming on this trip, I looked up things to do in and around Annapolis, and what appealed to me more than the city life were the claims of beautiful countryside south of the city, along the Chesapeake Bay. In fact, this countryside played host to an "annual, international, noncompetitive October birding event hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest" called the Big Sit. I ask you, how on earth would bird watching not be noncompetitive? Maybe it's like BINGO--each person gets a card full of bird varieties, and the first person to get five in a row wins. Or maybe it's a competition to see who can see each bird first (or for the longest duration). "I saw it first!" "No, I did!" "Who cares about first. I've been watching it longer than either of you."

Regardless, I did not work the Big Sit into my itinerary, but I did visit one of the three maritime villages advertised on the Visit Annapolis website. I went to Galesville, established in the 1650s, current population around 600. It was a cute little town nestled on the Chesapeake. I parked and wandered around taking pictures of the bay, sailboats, cat crossing signs, and the like. 

Around lunchtime, it started to rain, and fortuitously I was right next to a restaurant (called Thursday's) when that happened. So in I went, and I ordered a crab cake with onion rings and a baked sweet potato. Sadly, the crab cake was disappointing. It boasted no fillers, but it was mealy with only okay flavor. But the sweet potato and onion rings were great! 

From there I headed back toward D.C. The woman I met Sunday at Delia's had recommended a couple churches to visit. And although Wiki Travel had warned me to never even think about driving in D.C. or I would surely get in a wreck, she said I'd be fine, particularly in the part of town where these churches were. So off I went!

The first stop was Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America: An Oasis of Peace, and it was probably my favorite of the three churches I visited Monday. Bordering a section of their grounds were some outdoor corridors (would they be called porticos?) lined with arches. Along the walkways, there were plaques with Ave Maria and the Lord's Prayer in many languages, as well as mosaics of various biblical scenes/stories. Inside the area surrounded by the corridors was a massive rose garden as well as a driveway. Beyond the corridors was a large garden . . . or grounds . . . lots of area to walk and think and pray. They had replicas of various shrines from the Holy Land, statues, ponds, trees, flowers, and generally beautiful things. There weren't a lot of people there besides me, so it was really serene and wonderful.

Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America: An Oasis of Peace

From there I decided to skip the second church my Delia's friend had told me about, in the interest of getting to the Washington National Cathedral (and figuring out parking) in time for the Evensong service. But as I was driving along, I looked over to my right, and there was a massive cathedral that was just too pretty not to explore! Fortuitously, I was in the correct lane to pull right into their parking lot--and lo and behond!--it was the second church my Delia's friend had told me about, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. What's with these long names, Christians of D.C.? 

This was a quicker stop, partly because of the time constraint due to Evensong, and partly because the Basilica didn't have massive, inviting grounds for wandering around. But it was lovely. Coming from a church tradition that doesn't put a lot of focus into creating elaborate sacred spaces, it's always a little awe-inspiring to step into a place that is elaborately ornate and very "other." The ceilings were covered in mosaics, with many of the tiles being gold (or gold-colored), so the ceilings literally sparkled. Fun fact: this basilica is the largest Catholic church in North America and one of the 10 largest in the world. 

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Then I really did go to the National Cathedral, and it, too, was gorgeous! Sadly, though, they weren't having Evensong that night. The choristers each night come from the neighboring Catholic school, and it was Columbus Day and thus a school holiday. But the helpful woman at the information desk promised that they would have Evensong the following evening.

Washington National Cathedral
So I set out in search of 2 Amys, a Neapolitan pizzeria that had come highly recommended by a friend. A perk of traveling alone: even at the most bustling restaurants, you get seated rather quickly and easily when you're a party of one. Since they boast authentic Neapolitan pizza (apparently there are strict guidelines, detailed in their menu and on their website), I decided to go with the simple classic margherita pizza and let these fresh basic ingredients shine. And shone, they did! The pizza they brought me was probably enough for two people, but I definitely at the whole thing. And got a bowl of delicious poached pear sorbet for dessert.

As I was leaving the restaurant, I got a call from a friend, which lasted longer than the two-block walk back to the cathedral parking garage. So I took a seat on one of the benches in the lawn/park surrounding the cathedral while we kept chatting. It had been overcast all day, and the night was foggy and chilly. The cathedral was all lit up, and the tops of the towers were only barely visible through the mist. It looked like something out of a dream.

While wrapping up this post, I'd like to take this moment to say that I successfully drove in D.C. And I did not get in a wreck like Wiki Travel guaranteed I would. Granted, I didn't go all the way to the White House or the mall area, and I did my best to avoid highways during rush hour. But the places I drove weren't nearly as congested as the parts of Atlanta I drive in once a year, and it wasn't as fast-paced as many places in Dallas or any other big city. What was nerve-wracking was that so many of the streets are super narrow, with street parking making them feel narrower. Even with a small rental car, I frequently felt like I was going to sideswipe the parked cars or oncoming traffic. Also there are a lot of pedestrians. So I wouldn't recommend driving in D.C. without Siri or a skilled navigator guiding the way. Between watching for pedestrians, trying not to scrape against parked cars, and trying to go faster than 20 mph so the people behind me wouldn't hate me, I didn't have much focus available to do things like read street signs. I just turned when Siri said to turn, and I was okay. Take that, Wiki Travel!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Vacation Begins

Aside from Christmas travels, it's been a little over two years since I actually went on vacation. So when my job took me to Fairfax, Virginia, for the weekend, I decided to take a few extra days for myself. 

This morning I slept in, had a leisurely morning at the hotel, sleeping in and lounging around with the Food Network and a cup of hotel coffee. Then I hopped in my rental car and headed toward Maryland! Because when you live in Texas and are 6 or more hours from any other state border, it's exceedingly exciting to drive for just under an hour and be in another state! 

It was around noon when I checked out of the hotel, so I looked for good restaurants along the route from Fairfax to Annapolis. Urbanspoon recommended Delia's Pizzeria and Grille, which serves Italian, Greek, and Peruvian food. Wait . . . Peruvian? Yep. Why not throw some South American cuisine in with the Mediterranean? I was intrigued, so to Delia's I went! 

It. Was. Delightful. 

I was greeted by Nick/Niko, the uber-friendly restaurant host with a heavy Greek accent, who showed me to a table and checked on me frequently throughout my time there. Since it was my first time at Delia's, Niko also brought me a complimentary appetizer of tzatziki and fresh pita. So nice, and so tasty! One of my dining strategies while traveling is to order things that are most unlike what I could get from the restaurants at home . . . so I went straight to the Peruvian section of the menu and ordered chicharron con yucca, which the menu described as "marinated pieces of fried pork, served with yucca, onions, and green garnish." And just for kicks, I also got a Peruvian drink called chica morada, which is made from purple corn and pineapple, with some cinnamon and cloves thrown in for good measure. 

Everything was so good! The yucca (which I'd never had before) was cubed and fried. It tasted kind of like a cross between a white potato and a plantain--very starchy, with a hint of sweetness. The spices on the pork were just wonderful. The small bowls of green and creamy yellow stuff were sauces for the meat and yucca--a jalapeno/lime/cilantro sauce and a honey-mustard mayo sauce. The chica morada was sweet, yummy, and unlike anything I've ever had before. Corn and pineapple sounds strange, but if you think about it, corn is kinda sweet and creamy, which complements the sweet tanginess of pineapple. The corn-pineapple combo reminded me a bit of eating a corn and pineapple salsa/relish, and the pineapple-cinnamon-clove combo was reminiscent of wassail. 

While I was attempting to eat the vast amount of food before me, a woman sat at the table next to me, and we struck up a conversation and chatted throughout the rest of my meal and all of her meal. She's from the area and suggested some places to visit while I'm in the area--including some restaurants, a basilica, and a monastery. She also told me the story of why there's Peruvian food on Delia's menu. Delia's used to just be Italian and Greek, and there was a Peruvian restaurant next door. Well, I guess the Peruvian restaurant had to close, and Delia's acquired that space and expanded their own restaurant into the former Peruvian restaurant. But they hired several of the Peruvian cooks and added a handful of their dishes to their own menu!

Between the amazing food, the delightful conversation with my dining companion, and the friendly banter with the waitresses and Niko, it was unquestionably my favorite dining experience in a long time.

With a very full belly, I continued on my merry way. The highways there (at least the ones I drove on) were lined with trees that were starting to change colors for fall. So pretty! After getting checked into my hotel in Annapolis, I headed downtown and just walked around, took pictures, and in general looked like an oblivious tourist. The best word I can think of to describe downtown Annapolis is charming. It's preserved a lot of its historic character, many of the buildings are red brick and look so classy, and a number of the streets are cobbled rather than paved. There's apparently a sailboat show going on this weekend, so downtown was bustling. 

I had already picked out a place to eat dinner, but was still really full from lunch. But dinner was really my best bet for going there, and I didn't want to wander around downtown after dark (that whole being alone thing), so I decided to head toward the restaurant and order something small and light. 

On the way, I drove over this wonderfully scenic bridge. While driving over, I thought, "I need to find a place to park so I can come back up onto this bridge and take pictures!" I went back and forth across the bridge a couple times looking for parking on either side, and landed in a great little park right at the base of the bridge. The bridge was breezy and beautiful, stretching over the Severn River which branches off the Chesapeake Bay. The park was serene, with lots of folks out fishing or just sitting quietly.

From there I went to Cantler's Riverside Inn, about which I was excited for two reasons: 1) they're right on the Chesapeake Bay and serve very fresh seafood, and 2) Wiki Travel described them as a family style restaurant "where you sit at park benches and eat shoulder to shoulder with everyone." Now, on my Santa Fe vacation two years ago, my friend L and I ate at a restaurant with a communal table, and it was so much fun--we met people from Austin, Portland, and New Zealand, had a grand old time, and one woman and I were even sampling bites off each other's plates. 

So that was my expectation for Cantler's, but sadly that was not how it went at Cantler's--or at least with my tablemates at Cantler's. My table consisted of a girl attending the Naval Academy, her parents who were visiting her for the weekend, and me. After an awkward interchange where I eagerly sat down with them, then learned very quickly that they had no desire to chat it up with a random stranger during their special night out and their limited time together as a family, I scooted down to the far end of the table and pulled out my iPad to do a little reading. 

I ordered a crab caprese salad because it sounded light and had crab meat in it. But the balsamic dressing really overwhelmed the crab and mozzarella, and the greens and tomatoes were unimpressive. Upon the waitress' recommendation, I tried a bowl of soup--actually a mixture of a tomato-based Maryland crab soup and a cream of crab soup. It was far tastier than the caprese, and much more appropriate fare for sitting outside on the patio in the 63-degree night air.