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A Trip to the Strip

You know that first spring day when the weather breaks and everything feels amazing after a long, hard, snowy winter? We spent one of those days exploring a new part of our new home – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Strip

In the words of our friends at Visit Pittsburgh, the Strip District:

is foodie heaven and as authentic as it is fun. Locals love it for its low, low prices and tremendous selections. The one-half square mile shopping district is chock full of ethnic grocers, produce stands, meat and fish markets and sidewalk vendors. Breathe deep because you won’t want to escape the splendid aromas of fresh-roasted coffee or just-baked bread. Bordering Downtown, this neighborhood is pure Pittsburgh.

Fresh-roasted coffee? Just-baked bread? Count us in!

We walked down the North Shore section of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, crossed one of the many bridges over the Allegheny River, and found ourselves on the Strip (all told, it was about a mile walk).

It was a gorgeous day, so we had plenty of company as we made our way past vendors, stores and stalls selling all kinds of delightful stuff. Fresh vegetables, clothes, shoes, jewelry – it was all there for the perusing.

But we were on a mission. A mission of the best kind: a bread and coffee mission.

We popped into an Italian market for some fresh-baked ciabatta that was lucky to get home without being completely devoured. Next door at Stamooli’s we grabbed some cheese and olives.

With these essential items in hand, we were off to La Prima for some high-quality coffee. Zeke had a mocha latte, I went with the traditional macchiato; both were as fantastic as they look.

Fueled up with caffeine, we made our way back toward home, stopping to grab some fresh strawberries and cherry tomatoes from the vegetable stand and a vendor’s very last, perfectly warm pepperoni roll – which I taste-tested on the spot.

You can probably tell we had a great afternoon. We’ll be back to the Strip (on the Strip?) soon, for sure. It certainly lived up to Visit Pittsburgh’s summary:

Gritty and authentic. Bursting with local flavor. No pretense, no fluff. Just plain good.

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The Best Neighborhood that Used to be in DC

In 1791, when the borders of the District of Columbia (DC) were drawn, the nation’s capital covered both sides of the Potomac River, crossing into today’s Maryland and Virginia state lines. The City of Alexandria and the surrounding area was ceded back to Virginia in 1846, prophetically ending the nation’s capital’s rule over both North and South.  That was more than 150 years ago and the docks that once sold slaves and tobacco now sell art, french fries and ferry rides.

I’ve always felt at home walking around in Old Town, Alexandria; enjoying the city’s low skyline of 18th and 19th century architecture. It’s a town with a mix of mom and pop shops and modern chain stores.  A town that feels miles away from the hustle and ego-driven world across the river; a place where you can easily find a café to sip some good coffee after a long day of boutique shopping.

Shopping aside, you won’t be at a loss for things to do; you can go on a river cruise with the Potomac Riverboat Company.  The fleet of boats, departing from Alexandria with stops at National Harbor, Georgetown, the National Mall (perfect for cherry blossom viewing), or George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. They’re all great options for relaxing or cooling off on a hot summer’s day.

Or you can get artsy at the  The Torpedo Factory Art Center, right on the waterfront.  The converted munitions factory is a great place for watching artists in residence work at their studios, which are open to the public.  The art center is home to more than 165 artists and 80 studios that let you get personal with creative types who will answer your questions and discuss their work, without the pressure to buy (though that is an option). You should always check in advance because the factory hosts many special events throughout the year; there are times when parts of the center are closed to the public.

Hotels are plentiful and range from budget to 5-star, like the Hotel Monaco right in the heart of old town. On the budget side, there’s a Red Roof Inn just outside of the city.  I do suggest you base your decision on location so you can enjoy the restaurants and bars. Try Chart House, located right on the water with stunning views of the Potomac River and the capital on the other side, or take a trip into the past at Gadsby’s Tavern, established in 1785 and a hunt of the original movers and shakers in Washington, including Washington himself.

The City of Alexandria is a perfect place to stay if you visit the DC area with easy access to the city via Metro, allowing you to see all the capital has to offer and still feel like you have a place to unwind at the end of the day.

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Tarpon Springs: Greek Town

When you travel to major cities in the United States and Canada, cities that have seen a lot of immigrants settle in them over the years, you tend to find places with heavy concentration of one ethnic group or another. These enclaves have names such as Chinatown in San Francisco, Greek Town in Chicago and Little Italy in New York. But if you travel to the west coast of Florida you can find the same thing. But it’s not a town within a town; it’s a whole separate town, a Greek town, called Tarpon Springs.

The first Greeks came to the area in 1880s and were hired to work in the town’s growing natural sponge harvesting industry. A Greek businessman named John Cocoris brought a new sponge diving technique to the area. Divers tossed themselves into the sea with weights tied to them so they could drop to the bottom quickly. Divers would cut sponges loose from the bottom and put them in a net to be pulled up into their boats. The divers could often stay at a depth of 100 feet for up to 5 minutes simply by holding their breath. Cocoris encouraged Greeks from the eastern islands of Greece to immigrate to Florida in droves in and by the 1930s the sponge industry was generating millions of dollars a year.

A Tarpon Springs sponge.

A Tarpon Springs sponge.

A toxic algae bloom wiped out much of the sponge industry in the late 40s, forcing most of the divers to switch to careers in the boats and not under them, working as shrimpers and fishermen.

Tarpon Springs still calls itself the “Sponge Capital of the World” but no longer relies on the harvest to sustain its economy. The heavily Greek community only an hour north of St. Petersburg is surrounded by dozens of white sandy beaches and has converted much of its water front, that used to house the sponge warehouses, into shops, galleries and of course restaurants.

Papa and Mama Changuris just returned from a visit to the area and recommend the following restaurants if you’re planning a trip:

Momma Maria’s on Rt 19A – it had authentic Greek food. Big selection. Generous portions. Casual atmosphere. It was full and busy at suppertime. We liked the avgolemono and lentil soup, particularly because they included vegetables in with the lentils. Mama also had a vegetarian gyro. The dolmades were good; I think they used dill. Abundant bread. They had Mythos. I would go back.

Mykonos in the town center – a traditional dinner. We had saganaki with the traditional oopa! I had avgolemono soup and pork souvlaki. It was tomato-based. It too was crowded at suppertime.

Dimitris - also in town center but with a water view and good service. Saganaki was good with the oopa! Big salad and I thought the grouper broiled with lemon was excellent. Mama had lentil soup (just lentils, no vegetables) and spanakopita. It had a lot of filo.

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The Blossom and the Tourist

The District of Columbia isn’t short on tourist attractions. The Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, the museums of the Smithsonian Institution… they definitely needed one more reason — or should I say 3,700 more reasons — the cherry trees of the tidal basin.  The original 3,020 cherry trees were a gift of friendship from the Empire of Japan in 1912. The trees were also several different verities, such as  1,800 somei-yoshino, 100 ari ake, 120 fugen-zo, 50 fuku-roku-ju and 20 gyo-i-ko.

A photojournalist's view of the tidal basin.

A photojournalist’s view of the tidal basin.

I will admit that the when the trees bloom they are pretty, they look like little white and pink clouds settling along the tidal basin and almost make me forget the torturous task of actually picking cherries at in my parents’ orchard. But as they bloom my allergies start to go nuts and so does the city (and the 1.5 million visitors), where the most picturesque trees surround the Jefferson Memorial. The peak of the bloom, a point at which 70% of the blooms are open, will be April 4th according to the National Park Service.  This date isn’t a secret, the NPS tells everyone, so this will also be the time when the bulk of the 1.5 million visitors come to town. The basin will be crowded, the traffic will be bad.  I tend to avoid these areas of DC at all costs because I have to drive everywhere.

I’ll say it, the Park Service will say it, the city will say it: Take. Metro. The capital has an extensive underground transit system that will get you into the city from the ample parking in the suburbs.  You can start and ride your way out in Shady Grove, Springfield, Largo, or Vienna and zip in to Smithsonian Station, the closest stop to the tidal basin.

If you’re coming to the city, please, please abide by the crosswalks and do not cross against the lights. Those of us that drive, including city busses will honk, yell, and make you feel very unwelcome.  Third, keep track of your stuff. If you leave your bag, cooler, or diaper bag somewhere as the anonymous lady over the airport loud speaker says, your baggage will be subject to “search, seizure and destruction” as well as have half the tidal basin evacuated and traffic shut down as the police investigate a suspicious package. You will ruin everyone’s day — including mine as I will have to likely skip lunch and watch the police send a robot to blow up your purse, diaper bag, or cooler.

If you’re interested in attending the this year’s festival and its events you really need to check out the National Cherry Blossom Festival website for all the events and activities they have to offer. Plan your trip carefully and keep in mind not all of the events are free and some have a limited number of tickets available.

The best free organized event is the Cherry Blossom Parade, scheduled for Saturday, April 12th along Constitution Avenue between 7th and 17th streets.  The festival committee has never said this openly, but after attending the parade several times in the last several years I’m pretty sure I know their goal: to be to spring what Macy’s is to Thanksgiving and the Rose Parade is to New Year’s. The parade starts at 10am rain or shine and will feature bands, balloons, floats and dance numbers held right in front of the National Archives, the home to the Constitution and the freedom of expression it asserts.

I would easily say the best free show is the blossoms themselves, the only thing it will cost you to see them is time and patience and, in my case, allergy medication.

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Seeing RED in a Sea of Black and Gold

You may change your city but you never change your team.

That’s a motto we tend to live by in the Changuris household.  So when you move to a town (a town that happens to be the home of your most hated hockey rival) what else would you do but dress in red and stand out in the sea of black and gold?

The Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the Washington Capitals March 11th and we were there, shouting our hearts out.  I have to start with a big thank you to Mother Nature for the warm weather since we decided to walk the 1.2 mile trip through town to the Consol Energy Center. The Center is also only three blocks west of the Steel Plaza station on the city’s subway line (yes, I know, Pittsburgh has a subway! It’s a topic we’ll visit in a later post). The walk was pretty direct and getting in the door of the arena didn’t even require standing in line.

The modern sporting arena, which opened its doors in August of 2010, is clean and easy to navigate from entrance to seat with easy-to-read signage. The building was also built to LEED environmental design specifications, which means it’s considered a Green Building.  You can see some of the tell tale signs of that by all of the windows letting natural light into the building.  The seats we had were in the 200s (on the upper level) and they were perfect.  I did take a good look around the arena and don’t think there was a bad seat in the house.

We struck up some friendly conversation with locals, who of course were Penguin fans, and talked about the teams and our love of hockey.  I felt like we were welcomed as fellow hockey fans all night.  Yeah, there was the classic jawing; my guy can beat up your guy (which is not hyperbole in hockey), but we — or should I say Amanda? — gave it right back with a smile and a chuckle.  I think that’s the key when you’re from out of town, you are a guest and should act like it.  You eventually get an instinct for who to engage and who to avoid. If you need an outlet for dealing with the drunken guy in the seats behind you, that’s what Twitter is for:

#Sticktaps to @stopthehats for reading Amanda's mind.

Stick-taps to @stopthehats for reading Amanda’s mind.

The game itself was a bit of a disappointment.  We didn’t see any of our big stars score and the new guy was in goal instead of our favorite goalie, Braden Holtby. The Caps lost and the Penguins completed a season sweep of our favorite team. I’m not sure Washington is going to get in the playoffs, and that’s a heartbreaker.  We’ve done well the last few years, we just didn’t seem to have it this season.

The tickets were $99.00, which wasn’t bad. The biggest sticker shock was the price of food at the burger place in Consol, Burgatory. The hamburgers were good, even for someone who hardly eats red meat. My problem was that the burgers were premade, with the works. I mean it, if you want condiments on your burger do it yourself. Not everyone is going to like your Special Sauce.  The burgers came with a side of chips, and after adding a drink, or beer, the total came to $40 for two people. I mean dude that is outrageous even for a stadium.

Oh, and one more bonus fact, Consol Energy Center is the only major sports venue that doesn’t serve Coke or Pepsi. The Dr. Pepper/ Snapple Group holds the contract, so if you go to a Pens game you better like RC Cola, Sunkist, Dr. Pepper, A&W Root Beer, or Snapple.

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Memories of Africa, A Year Later

A year ago we went on the adventure of a lifetime.  I know that for a couple whose goal in life is to travel the world, the adventure of a lifetime, title is a little much.  But this time last year we journeyed to Tanzania for our photo safari and are still amazed when we look back at what we saw.

The enormity of the animals such as elephants…

Tarangire National Park

Tarangire National Park

seemed only to be put in to perspective by the landscape that seemed to go on forever.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a conservation area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 180 km west of Arusha in the Crater Highlands area of Tanzania.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a conservation area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 180 km west of Arusha in the Crater Highlands area of Tanzania.

Tarangire National Park is the sixth largest national park in Tanzania after Ruaha, Serengeti, Mikumi, Katavi and Mkomazi. The national park is located in Manyara Region.

Tarangire National Park is the sixth largest national park in Tanzania after Ruaha, Serengeti, Mikumi, Katavi and Mkomazi. The national park is located in Manyara Region.

We laughed at the silliness of the warthog as they would run with their tails in the air and shortly forget why they were running just like Pumba in the The Lion King.

I remember being moved by the by the beauty in the face of a lion.

A Lion's Golden Eyes

The chance to see one of the rarest creatures on earth in the wild.

Black Rhinoceros are Endangered with only 4,880 left in the wild.

Black Rhinoceros are Endangered with only 4,880 left in the wild.

The biggest and most amazing thing I remember is the amazing opportunity to have such an experience with my family.

Serengeti National Park

Serengeti National Park

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The Church Brew Works

Oh yeah, you read that right. This onetime Catholic church in Pittsburgh has been transformed into a restaurant and brewery, with the brewing equipment appropriately placed where the altar once stood.

The Church Brew Works caught our attention as soon as we knew we’d be relocating to Pittsburgh. Friends with connections to the area were quick to recommend it and a quick glance at the website shot it straight to the top of our must see list.

Ideally we’d be introduced to this rather unique restaurant together, but circumstances beyond our control have Zeke back in Maryland this weekend. Amanda’s good friend (and director when she was on the TV news anchor desk) Matt and his wife were kind enough to take her along for dinner.

Celestial Gold and Pious Monk Dunkel

Celestial Gold and Pious Monk Dunkel

Let’s start with the beer available on draft. Celestial Gold is described as “golden in color with a light bubbly effervescence… fine hop aroma and a light malt taste”. Pipe Organ Pale Ale is “a medium bodied dry hopped ale with a malt sweetness from the use of caramel malts”. Amanda selected the Pious Monk Dunkel, “a dark style lager was first brewed in Munich Germany over 150 years ago… wonderful clean and roasty aroma and finishes crisp and clean as a lager should.”

Yes, they offer samplers for true beer-lovers. We’ll save that for another visit.

The beer was good, the food also did not disappoint.

We started out with the traditional pierogies, a Pittsburgh staple (Maryland has crab, Pittsburgh has pierogies). For the entree, Amanda took the waiter’s recommendation and tried the chicken sausage with apple sweet potato hash. It was very flavorful; the chicken sausage’s spicy kick was balanced by the smooth apple. We even had dessert, a specialty they called Brewmisu:

Lady Fingers are dipped into a coffee-wort reduction and layered with fresh Mascarpone cheese. Dusted with Dutch cocoa and served with a bittersweet chocolate fudge sauce.

We’d include a photo, but Amanda was too busy enjoying it to bother snapping a picture. Besides, you probably shouldn’t lick your screen. Be sure to save room for this delicious dessert!

What’s better than good beer and a good meal? Great company. We’re fortunate to have friends who are eager to introduce us to the best our new home has to offer.


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