Author Archives: David Norcott

Second Cities: Porto and Valencia

This is a post by David.

One thing that I’ve learned while traveling is that I really enjoy B-List cities. And by that, I mean cities that are not their country’s capital, may not be extensively covered in guidebooks, but are still cultural, historic, and wonderful places. I don’t like the term “B-List” because that implies that they are not as good, so maybe “second cities” works better.

For instance, in our journey through Asia we really liked Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is the second largest city in Thailand, was once the country’s capital, and is full of wonderful culture, friendly people, and so many things to do. We spent three weeks in Chiang Mai and loved every minute. Compare that to the four days we spent in Bangkok.

Boston is another great example. New York may be the city that America is known for, but Boston is my home. I love that it’s smaller and less hectic, but still has so much to offer.

On this trip we spent time in two great cities that fit this mould. The first was Porto, Portugal. It is the second largest city in Portugal, the “capital of the north”, and the home of port wine. The city has a very authentic feel and fewer tourists than Lisbon. We had a lot of fun there and met some great people.

A traditional boat moored in the river in Porto. Notice the barrels of port that it is transporting!

The other “second city” we visited was Valencia, Spain. I’d go so far as to say that Valencia is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s the third largest city in Spain, but it hardly gets a mention in the guidebooks (as a matter of fact, our guidebook didn’t mention it at all!). With everyone flocking to the metropolis of Madrid, the architecture of Barcelona, or the palaces of Andalucia, they all seemed to overlook this gem on the east coast.

We had intended to spend three days in Valencia, but within the first few hours we were trapped in the city’s charm. We promptly changed our flight and spent a total of nine days in the city which gave name to its famous oranges.

Enjoying an orxata, a Valencian drink made from chufa nuts. It tastes kind of like almond milk

So what makes Valencia such a wonderful place? Well, where shall I start?

First let’s talk about tourists: there aren’t many. This leaves the city delightfully clear of scams, high prices, and giant tour groups (though there are still a few of these). The city feels authentic, people will actually speak to you in Spanish, and you can mingle with the locals who are living their normal lives.

The futuristic Arts and Science City in Valencia

But there are two worthwhile exceptions to this: La Tomatina and Las Falles. The Tomatina is the world-famous tomato fight that happens just outside the Valencia in a town called Buñol. Jenny and I participated this year and we’ll post some pictures once we get the film developed (film?!) from our waterproof camera.

Las Falles is an event that takes place over twenty days in the winter in Valencia. I won’t go into it here, but it’s a really exciting event that causes the city to shut down for three weeks. I had the great fortune of visiting during Las Falles a few years ago and it was amazing.

Valencia’s city hall is a little bit nicer than Boston’s…

But back to Valencia as a city. One of best things about this city is the beautiful park that encircles the historic center. Up until a few decades ago there was a large river running through the city, but after a terrible flood the residents decided that the river needed to go. They diverted it, and it its place they built an amazing, huge linear park. Our hotel was right on the edge of the park and so every day we visited the park to picnic, exercise, and ride bikes.

Speaking of bikes, Valencia has the best bike share program I’ve ever seen. You can pick up a bicycle from any of the 275 locations around the city, ride for a half-hour for free, and then drop the bike off at a different location. Jenny and I got memberships while we were there (big surprise) and we used the bikes at least four times a day. It was a wonderful and effective way to get around.

Jenny riding a bike through Valencia’s park

Then there’s the Cuidad de las Artes y las Ciencias, or the City of Arts and Sciences for my English-speaking friends. It is a huge, futuristic complex of buildings that houses an aquarium, a science museum, a theater, and more. And don’t forget the fountains and gardens.The Ciudad is at one end of the linear park and at the other end is a giant zoo!

The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias just before sunrise

I could go on and on about the charming buildings in the historic center, the beaches within biking distance (free with a bike share membership!), and the food (they invented paella), but you’ll just have to take my word that it’s a great place to visit… and visit again… and stay a little longer…

Sharks swim overhead and all around you at Valencia’s fantastic aquarium

What about you? Are you a second-city person? What overlooked cities do you love? I’m looking for new travel destinations!

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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Europe, Travel


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Il Palio di Siena

This is a post by David.

I first came to Siena, Italy years ago on a whim. I was studying in Venice with a few friends and we decided we wanted to visit Tuscany for the weekend. We picked Siena for no particular reason. We arrived to find people marching through the streets, waving strange flags, beating drums, and singing songs. The reverie went on throughout the night and into the next morning. We asked about the cause of the celebration and we were told “Il Palio was last week!” At that moment I decided that some day I’d be back to Siena to see Il Palio. And that day came on Thursday.

Parades morning, noon, and night in Siena. We were with this contrada for a couple hours. Parading is not a spectator sport.

The Palio of Siena is a famous horse race that has been run every year for centuries. The basic gist of the race is this: ten of Siena’s seventeen neighborhoods (called contrade) enter a horse and jockey into the race. The ten contrade change each year. Then for a week leading up to the race, the contrade parade through the streets, hold feasts, and generally party all the time. On the day of the race, thousands of people crowd into the tiny town square, called il campo. After much fanfare the Palio gets under way. It is a no-holds-barred race around il campo three times. The whole thing takes about a minute. Crashes are so common that a horse can still win the race without its rider. Then the crowd goes wild and the winning contrada parades through the town, ceaselessly.

Those are the facts, but it is impossible to explain how absolutely crazy the town is during this time. What follows is a account of our experience with the Palio last week. You’ll have to forgive me for being long-winded, as I’m waiting for a bus that won’t come for two hours and I feel like getting poetic.

Siena, as seen from a nearby church. The campo is the square under that tower.

We stayed in Siena for four days leading up to the Palio. There was constant partying, drums could be heard at all hours of the day and night, flags were on every lamp post and every person’s shoulders. We witnessed two of the trial races leading up to the big one. The excitement built every day. We were swept up in several parades because in the narrow streets, if a parade comes by you don’t have much of a choice but to march along as they go around the city taunting their neighbors with rude songs.

Throwing flags is a thing to do when you are parading around in medieval clothing

We couldn’t stay in Siena on the day of il Palio because all the hotels had been booked months in advance. So we traveled to Certaldo, a neighboring town in Tuscany, and then took a train back to Siena to watch il Palio.

We arrived in Siena about an hour before the race was to start. We knew we wouldn’t get a good spot but we had already seen the trial race twice so we didn’t mind. It was brutally hot in the sun and we didn’t want to stand around for hours to save a good spot.

You can’t turn a corner without running into a horse and a bunch of singing men

Unfortunately, the campo was pretty much full by this time so we couldn’t get into the square to see the race. So we went to a bar just around the corner and settled in with the locals. The excitement kept building as more people came into the streets. Finally, after several minutes spent moving the horses into position, the race started. And what a race it was! Six horses went down on the first corner and one jockey got pinned against the wall. The four remaining horses and riders went around the square at a breakneck pace. Several of the fallen horses got up and continued the race without riders, but they were shortly rounded up. In under a minute the race was over and the Valdimontone contrada claimed their first victory in twenty years.

And that’s when things got weird.

The trial race on the day before the real race

Immediately after the first horse put his foot over the finish line, several of the Sienese in our bar jumped up with a look of terror on their faces and ran at full sprint out the door. A few people from the Valdimontone contrada let out a gasp of joy (you can tell who’s who by what flag they wear on their shoulders), but really the celebration was rather restrained. We turned to the street and saw people running as fast as they could in different directions, never looking left or right, just anxiously running straight to their destination. Frankly, it was a bit scary at first. It was as if some great tragedy like an earthquake had occurred and people were hurrying to find their loved ones.

In a matter of seconds the streets had cleared and people were pressed up against the stone walls that line the cobblestone roads. Then the horses from the defeated contrade were lead down the street in silence. Behind each horse were the men from that contrada briskly, silently marching off to their neighborhood. I put my camera down because it was clear that these people were, quite frankly, very pissed off. The only noise was the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves and the muffled sobbing of grown men crying.

At this point we were pretty uncomfortable and decided to go into the campo. The scene there could not be more different.

The Valdimontone contrada was parading around the square in full swing. They were singing songs, waving flags, and beating drums. Yes, there was plenty of crying but this time it was tears of joy. People were on their knees sobbing, others were red-faced, kissing and hugging. The campo was packed and energy was at an all-time high. Eventually this poured out of the campo and the streets were once again overtaken by jubilation.

Celebration in il campo

We took all this in for a half hour as we tried to make our way through the throngs and outside of Siena’s historic center. We walked through several contrade on our way to the train station and at one point we stopped to watch a replay of the race on a nearby television. As the six horses made their fateful miss-step and collapsed on the corner, a man from the porcupine contrada put his hand on my shoulder to offer conciliation. The italians are very emotional people.

We spent the train ride home trying to dissect what in the world had happened in our few days in Siena.

Here’s a video of the race that we saw:

Here is a really good video about a previous year’s Palio. Skip to 9:00 to see the race and the craziness after it:

Note: if you can’t see these videos in your email, please visit the blog.


In many corners of the world, old traditions are dying off and (hopefully) making room for new ones. In Thailand and Cambodia, you can take day trips to see “traditional hill tribes living a traditional life”, but really they change out of their robes and into jeans when the tourists leave in the afternoon. In Portugal you can go to a fado concert put on for tourists because, honestly, not many Portuguese care about fado music anymore.

That is not the case with the Palio di Siena. Tourists are tolerated, but it is telling that at times the only camera I could see was mine. I tried to keep it tucked away as much as I could.

The tradition dates back over five hundred years and it is still going strong. Young men lead the singing and parading. They can be seen practicing their flag-throwing in the alleys while their little brothers watch on, looking forward to the day that they can lead the parades.

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Posted by on August 21, 2012 in Europe, Travel



Expense Report

Before we parted ways in Portugal, Lisa and Jared gave us €40 and said we should spend it on a nice dinner. Well, that’s exactly what we did and so we decided to create an “expense report” for them. In this report, their company is referred to as “Pine View Acres” (a story for a different time). This report was compiled by David.

Date: August 7, 2012
To: Pine View Acres
From: Jenny and David
Amount: 40 Euros

To the Financial Officers of Pine View Acres:

This report is to inform you of the utilization of €40 provided to Jenny and David on July 20, 2012. The purpose of the expenditure was to maximize deliciousness of one meal on the part of Jenny and David, granted by Lisa and Jared. Overall, the expenditure was a success.

Description of Deliciousness:

Acting on a hot tip, we visited Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre (“The Pirate of the Five Lands”) in Vernazza, Italy. We were greeted by brothers Massimo and Gian Lucca, the proprietors of said establishment. They recommended the seafood plate to start, and we judiciously decided to follow their counsel.

Mixed Seafood Plate

As you can see from the provided photograph, the seafood plate was comprised of at least seven aquatic creatures, including but not limited to octopus, anchovy, tuna, shrimp, and salmon. Each oceanic delicacy was paired with a different type of berry and sauce. In this editor’s humble opinion, this may have been one of the tastiest dishes I’ve ever eaten. But the scruptitude was not going to stop there.

Next came prosciutto and melon, a classic pairing. The Italians have a knack for taking minimal but incredibly fresh ingredients and combining them in a way to make the sum greater than the parts. In this dish, the melon was perfectly sweet and soft at the peak of ripeness, and the prosciutto was thin, tender, and spicy. Another triumph for Il Pirata.

Prosciutto and Melon

We were beginning to get full by the time the main dish arrived, but it took little coaxing to dive into a plate of eggplant parmigiana. The melanzane, as the Italians call it, was prepared in a unique way. It was baked, rather than fried, but still smothered in a rich tomato sauce. Five stars.

Eggplant Parmigiana

And finally desert was brought to the table. It was Gian Lucca’s signature summer desert: panna cotta with berries. This dairy delicacy is a sort of custard covered in whipped cream and fresh blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries. Again, the choice, ripe berries brought this dish to the next level.

Panna Cotta with Berries

Including a bottle of wine this feast came to €42, only slightly over the €40 allocated to the endeavor. We hope that Pine View Acres will excuse this oversight in light of the high level of delectitude in the meal.

Alas, we only found Il Pirata on our last evening in Vernazza. Still we managed to make three trips to the restaurant: once for dinner, once for un cannolo (that’s the singular of cannoli), and once for breakfast.

“The Cannolli Brothers” earned their nickname the hard way: by producing the greatest cannoli under the sun (or so we’ve heard). Stopping by for one of these confectionary wonders was nothing short of sending your tastebuds on a journey to enlightenment.

Jenny and uno Cannolo

But still, the brothers emphasized that the summer heat causes undue stress to the native cows that produce the cream for Il Pirata’s cannoli, and that if we truly want the highest quality product, we should return in the winter months. Their attention to the quality of ingredients is second to none.

Il Pirata!

As a side note, Il Pirata was all but wiped out by the mudslides that nearly erased Vernazza on October 25th, 2011. After several months of rebuilding, most businesses are now open again. Massimo and Gian Lucca had to pump twelve feet of mud out of their restaurant. They renovated and reopened just a few weeks ago.

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Posted by on August 16, 2012 in Europe, Travel


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This is a post by David.

After a week of good food and good times in the Azores, we traded the grassy hills and volcanic lakes of São Miguel for the hustle and bustle of Lisbon, Portugal’s capital.

Lisbon is the quintessential European big city, not unlike Madrid. There are plenty of restaurants, museums, hotels, and shops along its cobblestone streets. We stayed in a friendly hostel, took a couple walking tours, and hunted out the best pastries and ginjinha (a local cherry liquor).

The Tall Ships were in Lisbon during this time, which is pretty funny since they were in Boston when we flew out. We decided to swing by the river Tejo to check them out, and we’re glad we did. We thought the Tall Ships were cool in Boston, but they were awesome here. Here’s a little comparison:


  • 5 tall ships
  • Boats close at 8pm
  • Navy SEALs parachute into a park
  • Blue Angels flyover
  • A tugboat pulls the USS Constitution out into the harbor and back
  • No alcohol allowed


  • 40 tall ships
  • Boats close at midnight, the but party doesn’t stop
  • Block party with rock bands playing all night
  • Sailor’s Parade where all the crews march through the city singing songs and waving banners
  • All the ships raise their sails and sail down the river together
  • Beer for €1

Don’t get me wrong, the Boston Tall Ships were pretty cool, but the fact is that Europeans know how to party.

Tall ships at sunset

A mermaid at the sailor’s parade

We took two day trips to nearby cities. The first was Sintra, possibly one of the most beautiful towns in Portugal (which Jenny already wrote about).

The other town we visited was Belém, just a half hour outside Lisbon. It was from Belém that so many famous voyages were made during Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Think back to middle school history: Vasco da Gama, Prince Henry the Navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, Bartolomeu Dias. All those guys were Portuguese and many started their voyage here, and the town is certainly proud of that fact. There is a huge monument to the explorers, a gigantic maritime museum, and an enormous church and monastery in tribute/thanks to the explorers.

Jenny posing with an explorer at the HUGE maritime museum

Tomb of Vasco da Gama

Overall, Lisbon was a pretty solid city. After leaving there we went south to the Algarve region…

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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Europe, Travel



Back to School


Course materials for the next few weeks. Mostly from the library.

This is a post by David.

Continued learning has always been incredibly important to me. Anyone who knows me is aware of my penchant for picking up random skills (Indian vegetarian cooking, anyone? rock climbing? Kettlebell strength training?). It must come from my mother, who certainly is a Jill-of-all-trades.

I just finished my most recent iPhone app for a client so now I have a few weeks off before we go to Europe. My only responsibility for the next month is to plan our next trip, and while that will be a lot of work, it should hardly fill my schedule (I hope).

So since I have a little free time, I decided to go back to school.

Now I doubt that any self-respecting university would let me through its doors, so I’ve designed my own curriculum based on the skills I want to learn and the time that I have before our trip. One thing that I liked about college was having a structure for learning and defined goals, so I’ve tried to recreate this by coming up with a class schedule for myself. It looks something like this:

  • 7:30-9:00 exercise, breakfast, shower
  • 9:00-9:50 Italian lessons
  • 10:00-10:50 trip planning
  • 11:00-11:50 new iOS features, 2D graphics
  • 12:00-1:00 lunch, go for a walk, check email
  • 1:00-5:00 work study
  • 5:00-10:00 (Monday and Wednesday) sailing, (Tuesday and Thursday) harmonica, dinner, study, homework

In addition to a schedule, I’ve sort of created a syllabus for each class. I tried to identify what I want to learn and how I plan on learning it:


I studied Italian in college and spent a few months in Venice, but I’ve hardly practiced the language since I graduated. First I’d like to go through the old material that I have and “reawaken” the things that I should already know.

After that, I’ll take out some books and DVDs from the library. I might also try some podcasts and courses from iTunes U. And finally, perhaps most importantly, I’ll practice with speakers who are better than me, such as the folks at the Boston Italian Language Meetup.

Trip planning

This isn’t exactly a course per se, but it’s similar to what we called “PQP” at WPI (my alma mater). PQP is “Preparation for a Qualifying Project” and in many cases, it’s more work than the project itself!

Planning a two month journey through Europe will be no small task. I’ll need to figure out what cities to visit, how we are going to get there, and where we will stay when we arrive. I’ll need to look at flights, talk to the fine customer service reps at various airlines, and schedule reward flights to mainland Portugal and from Italy (I think) to the US. I’ll be looking into workshare opportunities, WWOOFing, and I’ll be contacting friends and friends-of-friends (and friends-of-friends-of-friends) that are in Europe. And let’s not forget new gear, travel insurance, and everything else we’ll need.

iOS and 2D graphics

Well, I have to take an in-major course! There are two primary areas that I’d like to study. First: the latest features in iOS. As I type this, Apple’s developer conference (WWDC) is happening and they are announcing all the new features available to us. Once the conference videos become available online I’ll watch them and join the discussion online to learn the new technologies. Also, I’m a bit behind and I know there are still several concepts that I missed from last year’s WWDC so I’ll be following up on that stuff.

The other area I’d like to take a look at is 2D graphics. And what are 2D graphics good for? Making games, of course! I’ve never done any significant work in this area and I’d really love to learn about it. A good starting point will be the tutorials at Ray Wenderlich’s site.

Work Study

What’s the difference between having an idea for an iPhone app, and making money off an iPhone app? Actually doing the work! I plan to spend half the day working on software that I have bouncing around my brain.

I blocked out the afternoon for this because I’ve found that my most productive hours (at least for coding) are from about 2:00 – 5:00 pm.

Extracurricular Activities

Sailing – I joined Community Boating here it Boston. It’s a great program that teaches adults and children alike how to sail by starting on the Charles River and taking trips out the Boston Harbor.

Harmonica – I’ve owned a harmonica for a while now and I have yet to make any good sounds come out of it. So I recently picked up a couple instructional DVDs and I’m giving it another go. Ideally I should be taking lessons or practicing with players who are better than I am. We’ll see how far I get.

Photography – Photography has been an interest of mine for years and I realize that I still have a lot to learn. I recently bought a new camera and I’d like to upgrade my skills before our trip. If I have time, I plan on attending a photography meetup in Boston so I can learn from more experienced photographers.

And now a question to you, dear readers. If you went back to school (either in the literal sense, or in the figurative sense like me) what would you study? What if you could take a month off of work? Are you already furthering your education in the evenings and weekends?


Posted by on June 12, 2012 in Opportunity


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The Epic Asian Video Montage

Here’s a video wrap-up of our trip. We had to leave some things out, such as snorkeling, horseback riding, longtail boat trips, and all of the delicious food we ate.  If we included everything, the video would be 9 weeks long. =)

The catchy song is “Do-Ther-Tum” by Job 2 Do, a Thai reggae group that is very popular out there.

I hope that this inspires everyone to take an adventure of their own. Enjoy!

PS If you’re having trouble viewing the movie here, try viewing it in YouTube instead:


Posted by on April 11, 2012 in Asia



This is a post by David

The coolest app I have on my iPhone is called 360 Panorama by Occipital. As you can imagine, it takes 360-degree panorama photos. And it is awesome. These all-around panoramas really help to give a sense of space.

I took a lot of panoramas while we were in Asia but I can’t embed them on this blog (wordpress has trouble with them), so you’ll have to go look at my page on Occipital’s website. For best results, click on the panoramas and they’ll go into a full-screen 360 mode. If the picture looks fuzzy, give it a minute to come into focus and then you can scroll around with your mouse.

Because of the way the pictures are captured, and because of environmental factors and things around me, some of the panoramas are cropped or people are clipped. Oh well, it makes for a more interesting photo!

Anyway, without further ado, check out the panoramas here.

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Posted by on April 5, 2012 in Asia