Vignacastrisi – a tiny village of remarkable strength and beauty

I lived in Rome for nearly 6 years, and I visit at least 2 times a year, and hands down, Vignacastrisi has got to be the smallest village I have ever stayed in.  Yet, it was worth the adventure, and something that I am confident I will never forget about, even if my travels don’t take me back to this small town but, instead to new tiny village adventures!

Nites

From what I can tell, there are few B&Bs, and a couple of agriturismos in Vignacastrisi, and one other establishment (but a hotel?) called the Palazzo Guglielmo (http://www.palazzoguglielmo.co.uk/).  I’m not sure how I found the Palazzo, as there is literally nothing to do or see in this tiny village, but it is an absolutely amazing oasis of call and rest in this out of the way village.  The breakfast  is absolutely stunning and the cappuccini (yes, plural, because they were so good that I had 2 each morning like a little piggy) which made for the perfect start to a relaxing day!

palazzo-guglielmo-breakfast-spreadThe Palazzo has a small pool, but not really room for more than 8 people, and not all in the pool all at the same time.  The rooms are large and spacious but quite open to the other guests unless you close the door-windows (I would beg for curtains so that a little light could come in rather than cave-darkness, personally). The ground floor rooms have their own tiny gardens (often shared) where you can continue to relax and read.  (Note to the readers: there are no telephones in the rooms, nor are there TVs, but the WiFi is pretty good so that you can stay connected.)

palazzo-gugliemo-gardenThis really is an oasis because, within the walls of the Palazzo (and the nearly city block that they have assumed) you have all that you want and English is a nearly perfect second language for those who don’t speak Italian. I heard a number of people saying that this is the umpteenth year in a row that they’ve gone to the Palazzo and I get it: it’s an oasis, without   the stress of having to speak Italian, and a gorgeous opportunity to relax and unwind.  (For the record, I never spoke English at any time in the Palazzo or surrounding areas.)

Bites

I’m embarrassed to admit that I ate at the same restaurant 3 times while I stayed in Vignacastrisi.  But my goodness was it worth it!  The Casa dell’Angelo  is part  of the Palazzo with both an entrance from the Palazzo grounds, as well as from the outside, and the chef is an absolute genius!  On my first night, the Palazzo had let the staff now that I was vegetarian and it was amazing.  Oh, and the wine list, was  incredible and the staff so knowledgeable that not only did I have a constant smile on my face from the wines  I tried, but I also have ordered a case of my favourite wine upon returning home!  But back to the food: on subsequent nites, the staff made sure that I didn’t have the same food as previous evenings and suggested new wines to try.  It really was that good!

casa-dellangelo-antipasti casa-dellangelo-primiAs I said, I’m embarrassed  that I ate at the same place every night which is not something that I normally do.  In my defense, I was to eat at the Agriturismo L’Aia (http://www.agriturismolaia.it/index.php/ristorante) which I heard was wonderful but they were closed the night I wanted to go and on the following night, the torrential downpour and 10 minute walk in said downpour played against me.

Neighbors at the Palazzo recommended the Pizzeria La Stua (never found in any of my searches) (https://www.facebook.com/lastuavigna/).  Although they admitted it wasn’t fancy – “it has paper tablecloths” – they said the pizza was fantastic and the pasta, although simple, was delicious.  And it’s very family friendly.  I wish I had known as I would have tried as the mere word “pizzeria” makes my mouth water.

Sites

Truly, there are no sites in Vignacastrisi.  Upon my arrival at the Palazzo, and because I had already broken out in to a sweat – it was HOT and humid – I asked for a map and was given one of Lecce.  So I asked for one of Vignacastrisi and was told that there’s not much in the village but still printed out a Google map so that I didn’t get lost.  In less than 1.5 hours, I had traversed the entire village, and every street.

On a subsequent day, in between rain showers, I walked to Castro, a larger village with a marina and “beaches” a little over 2 km away.  It was a lovely walk, and good to be moving, but there wasn’t that much to do and see in Castro either.

So, why you ask, should you go to Vignacastrisi or any of the surrounding villages?  Because it’s a part of Italy that if you really want to know more about, it is integral to the fabric of this culture, and these people, that I so dearly love.  Italy is more than Milano, Firenze, or Roma but small communities that exist and even thrive on their uniqueness and it is fun!

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Otranto – the furtherst point east in all of Italy

Roughly 40 minutes drive – or longer, if you continue to stop and soak in the amazing vistas across the Adriatic to Greece along the coastal road – is the lovely village of Otranto.  It’s smaller than Lecce, which means that it’s smaller than many typically-viewed tourist ventures, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.   In fact, you must go.  Put it on your bucket list!  Otranto has a vibrant centro storico and incredible food too!

Nites

As I wondered around Otranto – more specifically, the centro storico and the immediate surroundings outside the city walls – it became very apparent that whatever sort  of lodging you might be searching for, you will find it: B&Bs, 2-star, 4-star, and even 5-star are all available with just a bit of searching.

I chose to stay at the Basiliani Resort and Spa (http://www.basilianiresort.com/en) which is, in all honestly, about a 10 minute walk from the centro storico.  I was looking for a restful place where I could take some sun, read a lot, and just shut down from the work environment and I found it here.  The staff at the Basiliani were fantastic, and the rooms, although minimalist in décor, were large, each had its own balcony of some sort, and an aesthetic that I have come to expect from Italian beach “resorts”.  And so you know, the pool is huge!  There are, however, a few things to be prepared for before booking: the breakfast is horrible but as long as you don’t depend on that as your only sustenance, you’ll be fine .  (And hint: don’t drink the coffee from the machine but ask the staff for a cappuccino and they’ll make a decent coffee.)  And they tend to “charge” for things that, at least to me, seem like they should have been included but, as long as you are prepared, you’ll be fine.

If you want something closer to the centre, I would try the Hotel Palazzo Papaleo (http://www.hotelpalazzopapaleo.com/).  I seriously considered  this hotel for my trip but because the Basiliani had a pool, and the Palazzo didn’t, well… The hotel looks stunning and it is centrally located within the city walls of the centro storico.  I would go here in the non-sun-worshiper months!

Bites

Oh my god.  The food in Otranto is outstanding and I would have stayed here longer to go back to a few places and to find more!

If I only had one night in Otranto, I would have a very tough time deciding where to dine.  Ultimately, I would choose L’Altro Baffo Ristorante (http://www.laltrobaffo.com/).  Reservations are imperative: they literally have a “velvet rope” preventing people from just walking so that you wait for them to approach you.  But it is worth it!  The wine list is impressive and the pours eye-boggling (and for next to nothing!).  And the food outstanding!   I would say that the food is more along the nouvo Italiano sort but it was still fresh, simple, and so incredibly flavourful: where do we get our tomatoes in the US?!

laltro-baffo-vino laltro-baffo-orecchiette-con-le-cime-di-rapaOn  my second night – because I would stay a second night just to eat here – I would run to Peccato di Vino (http://www.peccatodivino.com/).   I say run for two very important reasons, one  of which is that they don’t take reservations.  I arrived shortly after opening and left over 1.5 hours later, never feeling rushed, especially when, upon leaving, I saw the throngs of people waiting to be seated!  And the other reason to run here, is the food is just that outstanding and the head of the house, or the owner, I’m not sure, was so knowledgeable about wines, and what to try, that I could have stayed there forever if only my liver could have held up (and the people outside wouldn’t have shot me!)  And just in case you really only have 1 night in Otranto, perhaps you could consider lunch at Peccato di Vino and dinner at L’Altro Baffo: you only live once right?!

peccato-di-vino-pastaSites

The sites of Otranto are found in just walking.  Your guidebooks and websites will tell you the things that you must see, but the things that you want to see are those things that you find where your feet take you.  Whatever you do, please don’t miss the Cathedral and the Chiesa San Pietro.  The Cathedral will blow your mind with the mosaic floor, much of which you can’t see up close in order to protect it, but enough of it that you can see how much love and respect went in to its creation.  And the Chiesa di San Pietro, the tiny little church in a tiny little piazza has some of the most stunning byzantine artifacts I have ever seen.  I literally could have stayed there for an hour, if there was room in the little church, looking at every aspect of this wonderful craftsmanship.

chiesa-san-pietro-02Otranto may not be for everyone as there really isn’t a lot to do other than to go to the beach or rest at a pool until night falls and you begin your evening with a passeggiata, and perhaps a drink at any of the many cocktail bars popping up around Puglia, and  then dinner, and another post-meal stroll.  It’s the way life should be, if you ask me: relaxing, with friends, and good food, and good wine, and a true respect for that which has preceded us.  I’ll be back… I’ll hope you’ll follow.

strada

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Lecce – The so-called Florence of the south

Halfway down the heel that is the book of Italy, you’ll find the most charming, and welcoming, city of Lecce.  It’s been years since I’ve been to Lecce and upon my return, fond memories flooded back as if only a few months had passed.  Often referred to as “the Florence of the south”, I think it has more to offer and is a monument of civic pride, and beauty, all unto itself.

Nites

There are quite a few options in Lecce for where to stay: from the quaint bed and breakfast to the 5-star hotels in and around the city.  But honestly, because it’s so far south and I’m still uncertain how much tourism there is – or sadly, perhaps tourism is down because of last month’s horrific earthquake in central Italy – your euro will go quite far so think outside the box.

The Risorgimento Resort (http://www.risorgimentoresort.com/) could only have been better located if  it is within the Roman Amphitheatre!  The location alone  is what makes this hotel a charmer but I’m still not sure they quite deserve a 5-star notation: the hotel is great, but it’s tired, it needs some maintenance, and this is probably the first 5-star I’ve been to without luxury toiletries (which I was hoping for, to be honest).   But the breakfast was great, the staff outstanding, and the beds were divine.  And the bathroom!  I’ve seen apartments in NY and Paris that are smaller than the bathroom!

If the Risorgimento Resort is a bit too outside your price range, I had a one-night stay at a funky hotel just outside the city walls called Hotel 8Piu (http://www.8piuhotel.com/en).  But readers be warned: the hotel photos don’t show just quite how outside the city centre the hotel is, nor that they are across the street from car dealerships and next to the strada provinciale (neither of which you can hear).  But that said, the staff are amazing, the rooms quiet, and incredibly comfortable.  I had read things that said, even when the lights are off, there are remnants of the funky “colour therapy” that they have in the rooms, but that wasn’t true for me.   And if you stay here, be sure  to ask for a room looking on to the park/gardens behind the hotel (I was in room 131).

And if money is no object, and you have a rental car (only if you want to leave either destination and go in to Lecce… which I’m not sure I would want to leave) you have to wonderful options: the Masseria Trapana (http://www.trapana.com/en/) and La Fiermontina (http://www.lafiermontina.com/).  I have not had the pleasure of staying at either, but they are both definitely on my bucket list as they look stunning!  And it doesn’t hurt that they’ve been getting a lot of press, arguably the most  visible being in Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine (read more here: http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2015-11-12/lecce-italian-vacation)

Bites

Puglia is known as the home of burrata and my goodness, it is better than any other place that I have ever eater this Italian wonder!  Fresh, and oozy, and flavourful, and yes, my mouth is watering as I write!

If I only had one night in Lecce, I would eat at Ristorante Il Vico del Gusto (http://www.ilvicodelgusto.it/).  With absolutely no exaggeration, I knew as my antipasto arrived that I wanted to return immediately.  Slightly off the beaten path, which means that it’s not totally overrun with tourists, Il Vico is a proper restaurant with succulent food, accommodating staff and a chef for this vegetarian, and an absolutely wonderful wine list.  This may be the sort of food that one could call “Nouvo Italiano” but that doesn’t matter because it was just that good! There were a few tables  outside but, given the dry heat, I opted to sit inside and never wanted to leave!  (Why did I?!)

il-vico-del-gustoil-vico-del-gusto-burratail-vico-del-gusto-pasta-with-tomatoes-olives-and-oil il-vico-del-gusto-tiramisuMy final night in Lecce was meant to be at Trattoria Cucina Casareccia – Le Zie (http://www.lezie.it/) but, sadly, they called the night before to let me know that there was a death in the family and they would be closed.  Although I am sad for the family, this just gives me another reason to return.  And, sadly, I did not listen to my gut and return to Il Vico del Gusto but, instead, went to another restaurant that isn’t worth acknowledging (despite what some of those travel sites will tell you!)

If you have a third night in Lecce, I would suggest seeking out Trattoria di Nonna Tetti.  It’s  an interesting little restaurant, off a side street in Lecce, with absolutely wonderful food and a nice selection of wine.  My warning to readers is that 1, if you’re there when it is warm, be forewarned that despite having AC, it doesn’t work very well and you know, when you eat hot food, we get hot and…, alas, everyone was sweating quite a bit in this little restaurant with great food.  The other thing to be prepared for is that they don’t have a lot of wait staff.  I think this is, in part, because the place is so small and the kitchen is downstairs and there is a lot of running up and down the stairs, so service can be slow but it is worth it so, as long as you are prepared, you’ll have a wonderful evening.

Sites

Other than what your travel guide or website tells you, there really are no secret gems in Lecce.  It’s an amazing place to wonder around, and simply get lost.  And if you’re in to it, as I am, check out the various churches that seem to be around every corner.  Talk about stunning!  And when you look at the native stone that this city was built of, and you see how it has, slowly, begun to weather, you can’t help but appreciate the craftsmanship and love that the inhabitants of Lecce have put in to this city.

It’s a wonderful place, this city called Lecce, and I encourage everyone to visit and to use it as a starting point for your adventures south in to the Puglia (or Apulia) region.  The food is divine, the vistas breathtaking, and with a good GPS, and stern conviction, you can find an amazing part of Italy that really is different from the more tourist trodden areas that we all (at least me) have come to know and love.

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Vancouver BC – Truly, what a stunning city! And one that I want to return to to investigate, and wonder around, and get lost within. And although my time here was short, I have no qualms in recommending some great hotels and restaurants! Head north and enjoy!

Nites

I typically try to avoid chain hotels if I can but on my first visit, because it was for a conference, I stayed at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver (http://vancouver.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html) which was lovely, centrally located to the convention center and shopping, and the staff sincerely went out of their way to help any time it was needed.

The Fairmont Pacific Rim (http://www.fairmont.com/pacific-rim-vancouver/) is absolutely stunning and I will be staying here on my next visit.  I was fortunate enough to see a room – with a water view and it was outstanding! – and it looks pretty close to spectacular.

And if money is no object, The Loden (http://theloden.com/) is your place to go!   It ain’t cheap, and I couldn’t justify the expense, but the pictures on their website make me drool and want to stay here.

Bites

The restaurant scene in Vancouver is hopping and I definitely need more time so that I can share more finds.  But if your time is short, these few options should hold you over.

The Royal Dinette (http://royaldinette.ca/) was probably my second favourite restaurant and if I had two nights in Vancouver, this would definitely be on my return list.  The drinks were phenomenal, the wine list outstanding, and the food exquisite!   And as a farm to table restaurant, I couldn’t help but fall in love.

So why, you ask, did I start with my second favourite and not my favourite restaurant?   My favourite restaurant was a vegetarian restaurant that is not in the center of the city so it might not be the easiest to reach (you need a taxi) nor the most appealing for everyone.  The Acorn (http://www.theacornrestaurant.ca/) was outstanding and I sit here drooling just thinking of the food.  The restaurant is small, and the bar even smaller, but the food was out of this world and the staff were so gracious and kind that I didn’t want to leave!  The food is seasonal, as it should be, so be sure to put this on your agenda.  But reader beware: the Acorn doesn’t take reservations – something troubling to this traveler who doesn’t queue for anything – but the wait was short and the old fashioned that I sipped a little too quickly as we waited made up for everything.

I’m also going to add the Wallflower (http://www.thewallflowermoderndiner.com/) to my list even though I didn’t have the time to go here.  I’ve read a lot about it and it sounds scrumptious so I’m adding this to my list!

And last but certainly not least is Preston’s (http://www.prestonsrestaurant.ca/vancouver/), a short walk from the convention center if you’re in that neighborhood.  I went here once for lunch and then again for dinner and really enjoyed it.  The food was fairly traditional and certainly not overpriced and the drinks were affordable so it’s definitely worth a try!

And for you breakfast buffs, you must go to De Dutch (http://dedutch.com/). It’s unpretentious and wonderful food to start your day!  I had breakfast here and didn’t need to eat again until dinner!

Sites

Sadly, I didn’t have time to see anything except the inside of the convention center (stunning, as far as convention centers go!) and hotels but everyone I know raved about renting bikes and riding around Vancouver Island so I’m adding this in even though I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy this play time.

So hop on that plane and get yourself to Vancouver!  And if you’re coming from the East Coast of the US as I did, you’ll probably need to stop over somewhere so maybe consider stopping over in Seattle – one of my favourite US cities – and make it a two-fer!  Enjoy and safe travels!

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Asolo – a small Italian town of calm reflection

I’m not sure what drew me to Asolo – as I could honestly spend the rest of my life in Venice or one of the smaller islands – but there was something about Asolo that brought me to this small town at the foot of the Dolomites and brought a calm over me that was much needed. Asolo is only about 1 hour away from Venice (by car or train) and for a short get away, you really can’t go wrong this tiny little hamlet.

Nites

The Albergo Al Sole (http://www.albergoalsoleasolo.com/en) is a stunning hotel just above the town square of Asolo with gorgeous views to the valley below. The lobby fireplace was a lovely respite from my rainy days in Asolo and the large balcony off the dining room was amazing: I would return just for the chance to dine on the balcony alone! The rooms are huge and the breakfast in the morning outstanding! And the staff! How fantastic were they?! Always willing to help, to advise, or just to make sure everything was to our liking. And given the size of Asolo, you truly can’t be more centrally located.

Albergo Al SoleAlthough I didn’t stay here, but the name alone will certainly give you a sense of what to expect, the other competing hotel in Asolo is the Villa Cipriani (http://www.villaciprianiasolo.com/en/) about a 3 minute walk from the town square. The Cipriani presents everything that you expect from this Italian brand: glamour, views, and the staff in crisp suits. As I said, I didn’t stay here but I can tell you that the bar area is classic hunting lodge design and I can only imagine what it would be like outdoors in the summer.

Bites

If I only had one night in Asolo, I would go back to the Locanda Baggio da Nona (http://www.locandabaggio.it/). Although the staff’s knowledge of English was somewhat limited, and the local dialect can be a challenge, I found the food outstanding! The pasta – not on the menu but kindly created for me as a vegetarian who doesn’t like risotto – was out of this world! And the interior design was just so welcoming and charming and the staff doing their best to help the table of foreigners.

pasta at Locanda Baggio da NonaI can also highly recommend Ristorante due Mori (http://www.2mori.it/). If you look at their website, you’ll see the most stunning views of the valley below: sadly, at night in the winter, that view isn’t available but in the summer with longer days and shorter nights, I can only image what that view holds and I will return. The wine list was small but well chosen and the food was akin to a bridge between classic and modern, which I loved.

We were also fortunate to happen upon a lovely little place that was absolutely fantastic for a leisurely lunch: Pane Vino e S. Daniele (http://www.panevinospa.it/). Located on via Robert Browning, under the curved arches that make this town so charming and memorable, is what appears to be a small café when, in reality, it is a lot larger and the food simple, classic, and wonderful. They also have wines by the class that, had I had more time, I would have returned just to try a few of their recommendations. This is a keeper!

Sites

There isn’t a lot to really go and see when in Asolo itself so a car really is important. But before leaving Asolo, I highly recommend walking up the hill to the castle that overlooks the village, and the Albergo Al Sole, for the views. When I was here, the castle was closed – open only the end of March through the end of October – but from what I could see just from the outside, the views are magnificent.

Right across the small street from the Albergo Al Sole is the former villa of Robert Browning. Sadly, it is not open to the public as it is privately owned by what appears to be 4 families, but the architecture and the grounds that slope down to the town square are out phenomenal. I so want to visit!

Robert Browning's villa 02But with a car, you can visit a number of stunning designs by the famed Italian architect, Andrea Palladio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Palladio). The Villa Elmo, which is roughly 25 minutes drive from Asolo (and a lovely drive at that!) is a stunning example of the work that, eventually, Thomas Jefferson became a fan of and became a reference for the US Capital building in Washington, DC.

Villa Emo fresco 05Asolo doesn’t have the big shops that Venice does, and the town doesn’t assume so much space that you can walk for hours and hours, but Asolo does bring peace and solitude that sometimes, in this crazy and fast-paced world, we need. I will return to Asolo and maybe I’ll even see you there too, having a prosecco while sitting outside watching the world, slowly, move by.

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St Petersburg – truly one of the most beautiful cities with truly lovely people that I have ever visited.

Everyone keeps asking me “why did you go to St Petersburg” and I honestly can’t answer that other than to say “why not”? But now that I’ve gone, and returned, it is truly one of the most beautiful cities with truly lovely people that I have ever visited.

Nites

My research for hotels for my short stay in St Petersburg were extensive and you can find all levels of accommodation if you look hard enough. But if money is no object, or, if the ruble is still week to the dollar and the euro, I wouldn’t consider any other place other than the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe (http://www.belmond.com/grand-hotel-europe-st-petersburg/). And for just a little extra, splurge for a room that overlooks the park and the Cathedral of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. This is truly a stunning hotel with perfect attention to detail, very comfortable rooms and beds, and centrally located to everything that you really must see.

Belmond Grand Hotel EuropeBites

If I only had one night in St Petersburg, I would go to Vincent Restaurant (http://vin-cent.ru/). The website is in Russian but you can find other reviews on different sites. A wonderful wine bar situated closed to the Mariinsky Theatre, this little restaurant was an absolute joy. The staff didn’t speak English that well – but then, I don’t speak any Russian – but the menu was in English and when I asked for vegetarian options, the waitress left, and out came a manager who spoke perfect English, asked me what I wanted, and a short time later, a lovely plate of pasta with winter vegetables.   And the wine list?! Hold on to your seat because the wine menu is extensive and covers wines from every region in the world!

vincent restaurant interior

For my vegetarian readers, I would recommend Botanika (www.cafebotanika.ru). Slightly off the beaten path, and not an interior designer’s best work, but an easy walk from the Belmond Grand Hotel, this was a wonderful with outstanding vegetarian and vegan options. And the staff! They were amazing and helpful to this goofy American!

Sites

The Hermitage (https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/?lng=en). When I knew I would have the chance to visit St Petersburg, this was the one place that I had to go. And trust me when I tell you it is worth the lines and the time. Some of the art is in sad shape and desperately needs to be restored, but the history of the building, and the grandeur of the entire place is so breathtaking that this shouldn’t stop you. We spent an entire day in the original building, seeking out old friends like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rubens, and then over to the adjacent building which will soon house all of the Impressionists work like their immense collections of Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh. With another day, we would have been blessed to see all of the other pieces that had to be skipped due to time constraints.

State Hermitage Museum

When in Russia, one must go to the ballet! The Mariinska theatre (http://www.mariinsky.ru/en/) is an amazing venue that really cannot be missed. I visited the New Mariinsky Theatre, so I can’t comment on the old (the original), but the new is out of this world with all modern features and architecture and what I would call cozy: the theatre really isn’t that large so unless you choose seats at the very top, I suspect everyone else has a good view of the stage. But a note to the reader: if you are there at any time when an outside coat is required (rain, cold, windy, etc), bring your patience. Leaving your coat at the coat check is exceptionally easy but retrieving your coat takes the patience of a monk! The lines are long, they aren’t that clearly defined, and it really is quite chaotic. But go! Book that ticket because I promise, you won’t be disappointed!

And the Cathedral of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is a must. This is quintessential Russian architecture and what this writer expected, and wasn’t disappointed. Absolutely stunning!

The Church of the Savior on Spilled BloodAnd although a departure from my other posts, please allow me to give a bit of insight in to getting to St Petersburg. You can fly, of course, but there’s really no fun in that. Instead, I would tell you to go to Helsinki, spend some time in this lovely city by the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea and then take the train to St Petersburg. It’s only 3.5 hours and when else will you get to see the countryside of both Finland and Russia? And trust me when I tell you that, when crossing the border, it is the weirdest feeling, knowing that you are going to a country where you just may not have the same rights as you do in Europe: so close, you so far!

train view to guard towerThis really was a magical experience for me and I can’t wait to return. The short visas offered by the Russian government make it a challenge to see and do everything but even if you only had one day, it is worth the effort (which can be quite extensive!), and the time, and even the cost. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed in this city on the Baltic!

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Piemonte is more than Barolo but that’s a good first reason to go!

Piemonte isn’t a city but rather a region of northern Italy. Arguably, it is one of the most elegant regions of Italy that also acts as a collective municipality overseeing the Barolo and Barbaresco wines. My heart has always been drawn to Venice and Rome but the tranquility of the Piemonte region could very well become my third home!

Nites

I read an article about the Hotel Castello di Sinio (http://www.hotelcastellodisinio.com/en/) and so I had to check it out. Located in the tiny village of Sinio, this converted castle is a real gem. Denise, the owner, is a hoot and full of information and advice. And the staff, they are a collective dream and literally made every return, and every departing adventure, a real joy.   You don’t stay here if you’re looking for cookie cutter hotels, but you stay here for peace and relaxation. (And, I suspect, the pool in the summer could be a wonderful afternoon reprieve, but I’ll have to report on that at another time.)

Bites

If I only had one night in the Piemonte region, I would go to Trattoria La Coccinella (http://www.trattoriacoccinella.com/). I literally fell in love with this restaurant: the décor so charming and real, the waiters outstanding and in no way intrusive, and the food absolutely divine! Of course, I was here during white truffle season (tartuffo bianco) but even so, I know that the food here year-round will make everyone content. (And, for what it’s worth, I was only the second of 2 tables where I heard English.)

If you have a second night, you really can’t skip Bovio Ristorante (http://www.ristorantebovio.it/ita/) which has a bit of history behind it. The short story is that it’s sister restaurant, now closed, was even higher up the hill in La Morra but the views are just as stunning and the wine cellar is rumoured to have over 1 million euro worth of wine. As for the food, it was delicious and the staff really very helpful and the views incredible! So why is this not at the top of my list? Simply because, the food and the interior were just a bit too stuffy, and a bit too showy, and anything where I find the people to be to try too hard, I find it unsettling and not the most enjoyable experience.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend eating at the Hotel Castello di Sinio. I had Thanksgiving dinner here and it was memorable and the wines outstanding. Although I thought it a bit overpriced for what it was, I would certainly come here again and give it a second chance.

Sites

One comes to the Piemonte region to see the wines, to taste the wines, and to hear about the wines. The latter, you say, is an odd thing to hear but I tell you, the stories that the vintners will tell you are mesmerizing and charming and will make the drive on these lovely curvy roads worth the endeavor.

With no disrespect to the large wineries that you will find in this valley of two wines, I would avoid them and seek out the smaller producers. Personally, I can recommend the following but if you know of others, or just want to rely on your hotel, check them out:

Cavallotto Tenuta

GD Vajra

Massolino

Schiavenza

Paitin

But a word of advice: a GPS system for your car is imperative. Yes, it will nearly double the price of your rental car but some of these wineries are difficult to find and one of the wineries was surprised that I found them, on time, and when I told them about the GPS, they said that it must have been a great system as most people get lost.

So, the next time you come to Milano, go past Torino and head to Piemonte and unwind and check out from the daily craziness of internet and texts and get back to life and to the living of life.

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Easter Island – a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should NOT be missed

Easter Island (Isla de Pasqua) is an environment, a society, and a culture completely unto itself and should be visited by everyone at least once in their lifetime. Why? Many of the cars are old and beat up, but still running (what I expect Cuba to be like when I finally visit). Telephone service and the internet exist, albeit slow and somewhat circa 1990s (be warned you digital maniacs!). Housing is only what it needs to be: protective and safe but really nothing more. But it all works in a non-hurried, self-sufficient sort of way. Here’s a great example: I went in to the “more modern” supermarket (as described by my hotel, amongst the 3 options that were provided) and what I found were large but mostly bare shelves with one or two of each thing except for the staples: rice, sugar, and flour. Everything else, I would venture to guess, is provided by the land and that, ultimately, is what I found so wonderful about Easter Island.

And although I will rarely tell you how much time to allow for a visit, Easter Island is the exception: you need at least 2 full days on the Island to be able to see the numerous Moai and to learn about this amazing land, it’s history, and to meet its people. I flew in on a morning flight from Santiago so I had half a day to walk around the “centre” and left on day 4, in the afternoon, to allow myself the necessary time to explore. And the other tourists I spoke with agreed: 3 nights is the optimal time required.

Nites

In my research, there were three levels of accomodations on the island: the hostal/room in a house for about $60, the mid-range at about $200 – $300, and the all-inclusive for well over $600 – $1300 per night. When choosing your hotel, I would encourage you to choose something close to the “centre” of town as there isn’t much else happening on the island that you can see on your own.

I chose the Hotel Puku Vai (www.pukuvaihotel.com) which is a short 5 minute walk from the airport and one of the mid-level hotels. (Don’t worry: only LAN airlines flies in and out, once a day, so there is no airport noise.) Right off a main street and a 15 minute walk to the main street and “centre”, the staff are kind and helpful, the breakfast extensive, and the rooms clean and what I would guess to be traditional. I will be honest and say that I was nervous when I viewed the pictures on the web but there is something very important to keep in mind that will help you with everything on the island: remember that Santiago and Hawaii are both about 4000km away so everything on this island, if it’s not grown here, is imported. It’s all relative.

Another place that I saw, but was quite expensive when I initially made my inquiries, is the HangaRoa Eco Village situated right on the coast. The rooms look stunning and only a few minutes away from the “centre” so if money is less of an issue, you really should consider this hotel.

Bites

Keep in mind that if it’s not grown on the island, it’s been imported (via the daily LAN flights from Santiago!) which means that things can be expensive and food options somewhat limited. This is also important to keep in mind for lunch and dinner: you can’t just walk up and say “I’d like ___” like we normally do: they have enough food on hand for the planned meals; unplanned meals are more difficult to cater for so be prepared. And for my vegetarian readers, as well as those with food allergies, this won’t be a dining paradise I’m afraid. But you’ll survive and the food choices should not stop you from visiting this amazing place.

La Kaleta (http://www.lakaletarestaurant.com/servicios.html) is a lovely little restaurant in the centre of town, near the ocean. Its location, of course, makes for a lovely site for dinner with sunset views. The menu is mixed, focusing heavily on seafood of course, but there is also meat and pasta dishes, all written on a chalkboard for everyone to view. They also have a full-service bar which is not too expensive and the staff speak varying degrees of English so I would definitely put this on your list of places to dine.

The other place that I dined, and which would probably be my “if I only had one night on the island” choice, was Kaloa Pasta and Bistro at the HangaRoa Hotel. With stunning views over the ocean, which makes for a very special sunset dinner, the prices weren’t much more expensive than any other place on the island, the staff was great and spoke wonderful English, and the kitchen was willing to help this vegetarian with a lovely pasta primavera!

Sites

And organized tour is a must. If you can afford it, I would book a private tour as I am certain that you will learn of things that a larger, group, tour isn’t able to offer. Kia Koe Tours appears to be the largest on the island and that is who I used, based on recommendations from the hotel. The other that I saw, and which appeared to be doing the same route was Mahinatur and, from what I overheard, they seemed to be a bit more in to the history of the island so they might be worth a try but I don’t know the prices.

Rano Raraku Moai seventeen and eighteen

Other than the mandatory tours, there really isn’t much to be done on the island. I was here on a Friday and Saturday night and it was no different than the Sunday night: subdued, relatively quiet (except for the chickens, dogs, and occasional motorcycle), and no nightlife to be had.

sunset day 2 02

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Santiago – a unique blend of old, communist, and avant garde

Santiago de Chile is an interesting place to say the least: there are gorgeous examples of old architecture, remnants of hard times gone by but still in use, and modern buildings and streets that look forward to the future. For a brief stint – perhaps on your way to Patagonia, over to Easter Island, or in combination with Buenos Aires – this city has much to offer. For a longer stint, for which I must admit I was here on business, it can get a bit tough to keep yourself occupied I’m afraid. But don’t let that stop you as a lifetime is really not complete without a visit to Santiago and to experience the charm and friendliness of the Chilean people.

Nites

I had the great fortune to stay at two amazing hotels while in Santiago. In the Providencia neighborhood, and close to numerous forms of public transportation is the Le Reve Boutique Hotel (http://www.lerevehotel.cl/). The rooms are large and comfortable, the breakfast is ample and delicious, and the staff are amazing. And the gardens! Stunning and a welcomed respite from the craziness that can be just outside the front doors of the hotel.

The other hotel that I can recommend is The Aubrey (http://www.theaubrey.com/). More expensive than Le Reve, this lovely hotel with just 15 rooms is situated at the base of the Cerro San Cristobal in the Bellavista neighborhood. Fun, hip, restaurants are just around the corner and the staff is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered; I didn’t want to leave the room or the hotel.   And the bar! My god, the bar!

The Aubrey bar 02The Aubrey sitting room

Bites

Santiago, and Chile as a whole, is not really known for the culinary charm but I had the pleasure of visiting a few restaurants that I would gladly return to.

If you only had one night in Santiago, I would recommend Su at the Merced Boutique Hotel (http://www.sumercedhotel.com/#!restaurant/ca1m). The chef is an award winner for best young chef and the food was evident that this was a well-deserved accolade! The setting was calm and inviting and never was there pressure to finish or even leave the restaurant. I loved this restaurant, the food, and the service so much that I actually returned here on my last night in Santiago.

If you have a second evening, I would go to Miguel Torres (http://www.restaurantemigueltorres.cl/) located just off of Vitacura. A truly stunning restaurant with lovely ambiance and food, you will find a plethora of options that will even satisfy the vegetarian in the group.

For a slight change in food, or perhaps just something a bit more traditional(ish) is Los Cuates (http://www.restaurant-loscuates.cl/). There’s nothing overly special in the décor but the staff are amazing and the food (all Mexican) is outstanding!

If you stay at La Reve, there are a number of restaurants on the small street that the hotel shares. Luco’s Hamburgueseria is a charming place that only serves burgers but has great happy hour drinks and makes a mean pisco sour. And as of this writing, there’s a charming guy named Juan who will keep you happy all night long! And on the same street, just a few doors down, is El Huerto (http://www.elhuerto.cl/), a cool yet calm vegetarian restaurant that was a welcomed retreat from much of the heavier food

Sites

Sadly, I didn’t happen upon anything that I didn’t read about in guidebooks and articles about Santiago. But as I always do, the opportunity to just walk and get lost is an experience in and of itself and I encourage everyone to at least do that.

virgin mary atop cerro san cristobal detailed side

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Berlin – where old meets new and a fresh look forward

I love Berlin. You see that on shirts and mugs all over the city but I really do love it here; it’s vibrant, it’s old meets new, and the people really are some of the nicest people I’ve met in my travels. Or perhaps I should say “I love Berliners”.

Nites

I’m still on the look out for the perfect place to stay in Berlin. A while ago I found the hotel Ku’ Damm 101 (http://www.kudamm101.com/en/) which is a funky hotel in the Charlottenberg area of Berlin and I must admit that it is well located and the staff really are quite friendly. But reader beware: rooms on the lower level facing the Ku’ Damm can be quite loud so don’t accept the first room that you receive and if you aren’t happy, let them know because, speaking from experience, the traffic noise can be loud. But other than that, I like this hotel

Bites

I have found some really wonderful restaurants in Berlin and must say that the culinary scene is on the rise. But before I tell you about some of the nouveau approaches, let’s just acknowledge the tradition. Not far from the Ku’ Damm 101 hotel is this lovely husband and wife restaurant: “d31” (http://www.d31-das-restaurant.de/). It is small, and quaint, and just like eating at your parents’ house. When I went, all that I wanted was the spetzle and that’s just what Eduard made for me and it was perfection. But don’t forget Claudia: a lovely, lovely women who’s charm and excitement for the restaurant made me smile the entire night long. If you only have one night, and you are at the Ku’ Damm, please go here! Quickly!

Another recommendation that I can’t confirm, but I trust my friend so I include it here, is Weiner Beisl (http://www.wiener-beisl.de/), a charming, traditional German restaurant that if I only had one more day in Berlin, I would be trying myself.

Now, if you want what I can only describe as nouvaeu German cuisine, I would highly recommend that you go to Katz Orange (http://www.katzorange.com/en). It’s in the Mitte part of the city but you can easily get there via the U-bahn and the S-bahn, or just take a taxi. The décor is phenomenal, the staff truly helpful and informed, and the food divine. The traditional flavours of German cooking, in a more modern presentation and style. And oh so tasty!

And then there is Martha’s in the Schoenberg neighbourhood (http://marthas.berlin/english/) which was amazing and quirky and although they didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian options on the night I went, they went above and beyond to make some wonderful dishes that I thoroughly enjoyed.

On my return, I hope to go to eins44 (http://www.eins44.com/). I am literally obsessed by this restaurant based on the website and the menu alone. More when I return!

If you are looking for a break from what can sometimes be heavy food, I can heartily recommend Satyam (no website but the address is Grohlmanstrasse 22, 10623 Berlin-Charlottenburg; tel: 030 312 30 29) which isn’t too far from the Ku’Damm hotel and, even if it were, it is worth checking out.

Sites

I love Berlin and I love walking everywhere, and to as many things and sites as I can. Beyond what every run of the mill guidebook tells you to see, I can’t add to that other to say that this is a phenomenal people-watching city and you must take advantage of it.

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Delhi was more than I expected to be honest.

Delhi was more than I expected to be honest.   I knew that I would find poverty, immense poverty, and I suspected that I would harassed by men seeing the foreigner and by young children desperate to sell me pretty much anything that they could get their hands on. But what I didn’t expect was the intense kindness that nearly every Indian that I came in to contact with, even those on the streets of Delhi still trying to “help the foreigner.” I’m not sure I would choose to return to India of my own volition, but if given the opportunity to return for work, I would certainly take that opportunity to learn more, explore more, and experience more as I think this conflicted country – between the rich and the poor, the educated and the not, the happy and the sad – has so much more to offer.

monkeys on the roofNites

Being that this was my first time in Delhi, I don’t have a lot to offer but what I can, I am confident of. Hotels near Connaught place are definitely the safer place to stay. I was fortunate to stay at the Shangri-La Hotel (http://www.shangri-la.com/newdelhi/erosshangrila/) which I really quite liked: the rooms were large, the bed was conformtable, the staff were great, and the breakfast was fantastic!

My dream hotel (for my next visit) has got to be The Imperial (http://www.theimperialindia.com/). Oh my goodness this hotel is stunning! The night I was there, there was a reception outside with the hotel awash in lavender and the scent of jasmine everywhere. I truly didn’t want to leave!

The other hotel that I am dying to try – so I guess I need to go back at least twice – is the Claridges hotel (http://www.claridges.com/index.asp), the grounds look amazing and truly removed from everything that you see outside of the hotel gates.

Bites

If I only had one night in Delhi, I would choose to dine at The Spice Route (http://www.theimperialindia.com/the_spice_route/). This was truly an experience worth every penny! The interior design was like nothing I have every seen, the food exquisite, and the overall mood of the hotel (The Imperial) breathtaking.

If I had a second night, I would go to Dhaba (http://www.claridges.com/the-claridges-newdelhi/dining-daba.asp) in the Claridges hotel. I had read about this restaurant and was so not disappointed! The idea was to give you the feel of being in a rickshaw with oustanding food to act as a counterpoint.

Sites

If you have the time, and the money, you must go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It may sound touristy, and it’s a long drive, but trust me when I tell you it is worth every second.

In Delhi itself, and if you have the stamina for some jostling and some haggling and a lot of horn-honking, you must experience Old Delhi. Everyone told me to try the street food – I couldn’t and I’m not sure you should unless you have a handy dose of antibiotic treatments and a lot of hand-sanitizer – but everything else about Old Delhi is amazing. It makes the soukes of Morocco seem quaint and calming!

Taj Mahal closerDelhi is an amazing place full of joy and sadness, and riches and destitution, and not something that is easily explained or enthusiastically promoted, but I don’t regret going and I sincerely hope that I will be able to return sometime soon and share more of my findings with you.

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Torino – Italian with a hint of Swiss mixed in

(updated 12 December 2015)

When I think of how to describe Torino, I constantly think of it as a hybrid between Italy and the Swiss: the locals have all of the traits that I love in an Italian but there is something a bit more Alpine – I truly don’t mean that offensively – about them that really does make this place absolutely unique. And the Alps in the distance don’t hurt things either!

the alps from TorinoNites

I love the TownHouse mini-hotel chain in Italy and, thankfully, Torino has the only one outside of Milano: TownHouse 70 (http://www.townhouse.it/th70) which is centrally located to everything that you could ever want to see, and eat!, and is a short walk from the Porta Nuova train station so you don’t even need to take a taxi! TownHouse 70, like the others, offers a communal breakfast but, unlike the others that I’ve stayed in th70 has taken feedback to heart and now offers BOTH the communal option as well as a separate room with individual tables. So, if you don’t feel like sitting with strangers, you can now sit alone.

Bites

The food in Torino, and I suspect all of the Piemonte region, is quite heavier than that of central and southern Italy and, I must admit, took a bit of getting used to. Honestly, I didn’t see a salad on any menu. Granted, this could be because of the time of year, which I respect, but when walking through the Saturday and Sunday outdoor markets, I did see various lettuces and other vegetables so they were coming from somewhere.

But I digress… if you only have one night in Torino, I would encourage you to go to Le Vitel Etonne (http://www.leviteletonne.com/). This was probably the cheapest restaurant that I had the pleasure of visiting and, by far, the best, the most charming, and the most “at home”. When I arrived – as I learned to do when in Venice and being told that they couldn’t serve a vegetarian – I asked if it was a problem and they said “not at all.” And then came this lovely fresh ricotta with a pistachio sauce that was amazing and simply followed by a cross between a soufflé and a round omelet of eggs, cheese, and spinach. And that was just the appetizer! But for the main course, I had asked if I could just have a pasta with some vegetables because there is only so much gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce that one can eat. (Like I said above, it’s heavy food.) And then before me was a lovely plate of homemade pasta with a bit of butter and fresh artichokes. Add a bit of parmigiano cheese and I was a very happy man. Oh, and before I forget: they have amazing glasses of wine by the glass – how to end a trip to Torino without yet another glass of Barolo?! – as well as a wine cellar that you can pick and choose from. When I left, they asked how the food was and I could say was “I am so very happy”.

If simple and small places aren’t you’re thing and you want to splurge, I can suggest two other restaurants on opposite ends of the spectrum. For a traditional, and lovely, meal, go to Tre Galline (www.3galline.it). Don’t mind the area of the walk to the restaurant because I promise, the food is divine and this late in the year, I was still able to have an appetizer with black truffles. This is a very traditional Piemontese restaurant, with a heavy emphasis on meats and meat-filled pasta, but it is worth the journey and definitely the experience.

Tre Galline insideThe other restaurant that I can highly recommend is Consorzio (http://www.ristoranteconsorzio.it/). I read some unflattering things on various sites so I was prepared but I tell you, the guys that ran the restaurant were a delight! Once again, I asked if my being a vegetarian was a problem and my guy – there are only 3 plus the chef – shook his head yes and said “it’s not a problem” – and it wasn’t. The wine was great – if you’ve not tried a Ruché before, ask for it here – and the food outstanding, if not traditional Piemontese: the plates are smaller, the food a bit more “nouveau” and perhaps even moving toward the refined and perhaps even French scale of cooking. But I loved it and I will return.

A new addition to my list of recommendations is L’Agrifoglio (http://www.lagrifoglioristorante.com/). Although not near the “centre” which is also where the Townhouse 70 hotel is, you can reach it by walking, just allow yourself a leisurely 30 minutes to get there but I promise, it will be worth it: the food is simple and traditional, which is what I search for in a restaurant, the staff was outstanding and amazingly helpful to this vegetarian, and the prices were so affordable that I did a double-take at the bill to make sure that they didn’t forget something!

And because I found this “fornai” (bread shop and more) and wandered in desperate search of it the following day, I encourage everyone to find Perino Vesco (http://www.perinovesco.it/it/). It is amazing! The staff was sweet (and remembered me on only the second day), the pannini, the sweets, and the coffee were outstanding! Honestly, the things they had on display here made it difficult for me not to buy everything in the entire store! And the fact that it was crowded both times I went in tells you lots. (And I was the only tourist that I could hear!)

Sites

Beyond the standard guide book things to do, I can’t honestly suggest other sites that one needs to visit. The first Eataly and the Olympic stadium are well outside of the centre and a serious hike – Eataly took me 45 minutes to walk to from the centre and the Olympic Stadium further AND there was a Juventus game so I couldn’t tour that day anyway – but as I always do, don’t worry about what a guidebook says you have to do, but just wander and take in this lovely city.

I want to return to Torino as I have visions of truffles dancing in my head but even if you can’t come in the fall, for whatever reason, Torino really should be on your bucket list of places to visit and explore. It really is a different version of Italy than you are probably used to.

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Taormina may be a tourist mecca but it really can’t be missed.

Taormina is an interesting place for me, and also a bit of a quandary: it is incredibly touristy, and you are often overrun by tour groups but at the end of the day, both literally and figuratively, I do love this city and its people and think that everyone should visit at least once in their life.

Nites

Finding anything other than tour-group overrun and typical is pretty difficult in this hill-top town, if not impossible. Although it’s not the most unique hotel, I did enjoy the Hotel Monte Tauro (http://www.hotelmontetauro.it/eng/index.html). The breakfast was lovely and if you are patient and wait until the inevitable tour group that has overrun the hotel have departed – typically after 9am – you can enjoy a peaceful breakfast looking over the sea. And despite the tourists, I must admit that the rooms, and more specifically their balconies, are worth the price (although I suspect every hotel in the city has balconies with views).

Bites

Despite all its restaurants, Taormina only has one slow food movement restaurant and trust me when I tell you, it is worth the trek and you really must find it: Tischi Toschi (no website). The inside restaurant has only a few tables and the outside just as few so be sure to book in advance because it is so worth it.   Thankfully, the restaurant had vegetarian options for me but the food that passed my table, regardless of what it was, smelled and looked absolutely divine.   And if you only have one night in Taormina, and you go here of course, you must have the “Sicilian pesto”: a wonderful combination of oil, garlic, almonds or pistachio, and a bit more garlic. Mmmmmm.

Another find that was actually recommended by the hotel was A’Zammara (http://www.zammara.it/lang1/) which truly was fantastic.   Situated on a small side street, with its own garden, the food was lovely and expertly prepared, the staff really quite sweet, and solace of being away from the hustle and bustle of the tourists a welcomed respite from it all.

Sites

I’m not sure there are really sites that can be recommended besides those that are in every possible guide book. I would, however, strongly encourage you to take a day trip to Etna, even though it is touristy, as you can, for the most part, do whatever you want, and take as much time or as little to explore and see one of the largest and most active volcanoes in Europe.

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Siracusa – a peaceful and relaxing get-away from the craziness that can be Sicily

Siracusa has such fond memories for me and my latest return did not let me down. The city is old, and there are parts that are falling down and in desperate need of repair, and then there are parts that are charming and inviting and, inevitably, the whole place puts a smile on my face.

Nites

In trying to find hotels that I could recommend, I happened upon the Charme Hotel Henry’s House (http://www.hotelhenryshouse.com/en) which I recommend whole-heartedly. Henry’s House is not your cookie cutter hotel so if you are looking for bland rooms and uniformed staff, this is not the place for you. But if you want the most amazing and helpful owners – the brothers were simply the best – the funkiest rooms, and some of the most amazing and stunning rooms, this is the hotel for you. I loved this hotel and can’t wait to try another room now that I’ve stayed in what I believe is affectionately called “the boat”.

If you want something that isn’t quite as funky as Henry’s House, but is still a total charmer, I would highly recommend the Algila Ortigia Charme Hotel. This is true stunner of a hotel in Ortigia and there is something about this hotel that reminds me of Alacati and the hotels and the town combined.

Bites

There are currently only two slow food movement restaurants in Siracusa (and arguably a third, but more on that in a moment). And as a fan of the slow food movement and what it is that they promote and are trying to do with their food, I am so very pleased to say that neither disappointed.

The Taberna Sveva (no website) is not far from Henry’s House and is absolutely divine! Even in late October, Siracusa is still warm so al fresco dining is possible, and encouraged, and I was fortunate enough to sit outside, gaze upon the up lit buildings and enjoy the most amazing gnocchi with pistachio cream sauce I have ever had. And as someone who really doesn’t enjoy gnocchi (I find it a tad too heavy), and on a warm night even less enjoyable, Teberna Sveva changed my mind! And kudos to the staff for, when I saw that they only had wine by the bottle and I wanted to have a glass with my dinner, they opened a bottle and gave me a glass. Thank you Taberna Sveva.

The other slow food restaurant in Siracusa that I loved and cannot stop thinking about is La Gazza Ladra (http://www.gazzaladrasiracusa.com/).  Situated right in the heart of Ortigia, on the primary shopping street, this little restaurant (of 30 or so seats?) is an absolute oasis. The restaurant is adorned with kitschy photos and paintings and you won’t sit down to china and crystal stemware.   But you will sit down to amazing food, much like nonna would make, that is simple, classic, and truly mouthwatering.

The third restaurant that I tried, which should arguably be a slow food restaurant was Osteria del Vecchio Ponte (no website). I honestly don’t remember how I found this restaurant, and the guys at Henry’s House had no idea about this restaurant, but it’s a short walk over the bridge from Ortigia and located on a small side street. When I arrived for my reservation, there was only one other table occupied which made me nervous. And then when I looked at the menu and everything was fish, I was more nervous. But then the owner (and chef) came over, I asked if it was a problem that I was vegetarian and he said no. But, better yet, as we were figuring out what to make, his daughter (I think), came over said she didn’t like to eat too much meat and suggested one of the pastas just without the pancetta. And it was absolutely divine: pasta, with tomatoes, zucchini, onion, garlic, and hidden beneath the pasta, the softest, most delicious soft cheese that when combined created the most amazing cream sauce I have ever had. (Yes, my mouth is watering!)

And before I forget… after dinner, as you take that lovely stroll, whether it be to your hotel or just to take in this lovely city, be sure to stop at Bel Bon.  It’s a chain of gelaterie around the city but they are amazing.  And if you can’t make up your mind, go with riccotta gelato.  I salivate just thinking about it!

Sites

For me, the primary thing to do in Siracusa is to walk. To just stroll, people watch, and take numerous photos. But I must admit that a trip to the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis really should be on everyone’s list. When I first went to Siracusa, the park wasn’t opened so I walked the perimeter and just peered through the fences. This time, it was open and although some parts were still closed, and others not clearly marked so that I got yelled at for being somewhere that I shouldn’t have been, it was truly such an amazing experience. And yes, you must see the Ear of Dionysius (and hear everyone trying to sing and experience the echoes) but the rest of the park is just stunning and enchanting and literally takes you back to years gone by and a completely different civilization.

 

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London – trouble waiting to happen in this inviting and charming city

You can get in to any number of types of trouble when you visit London: lord knows I do every time! That trouble could be shopping, over-eating, drinking, or even just wondering and getting lost. But that’s part of the charm to London so come prepared – and leave that credit card in the room if you have no self-control (note to self) – and start exploring this truly wonderful city!

Nites

The number of options in London is truly staggering and I am still trying to find the cool, funky, non-cookie-cutter options, all without spending a fortune (the latter may not be possible I fear!).

Blakes Hotel (http://www.blakeshotels.com/) in South Kensington is definitely a charmer and as part of the “Design Hotels” group, it gets added points for style and creativity. The hotel is located in a small residential area, but easily walkable to everywhere so I really do love this hotel. But affordability is a relative terms so be prepared (and stalk those sale sites!)

Another option that I just tried was the Andaz London (http://www.london.liverpoolstreet.andaz.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html) which, although part of the Hyatt chain, was really quite nice.   The hotel itself is a bit cookie-cutter – and although I love minimalist designs, the rooms were just plain which didn’t exactly scream “come and stay again” – but it’s proximity to the Liverpool tube stop makes it a great place from which to navigate most of the city so that gets plusses from me.

Bites

The Gate Restaurant (http://thegaterestaurants.com) was a fantastic suggestion from a friend and although it’s a vegetarian restaurant, be prepared to make a reservation and don’t be late. (We were 15 minutes late and nearly lost our table!) The food was amazing and the wine list, although small, was brilliant and, for the most part, affordable. The décor isn’t much to write home about but I must admit that the large windows that look out over rooftops was a smart touch.

Another find, this time over near Covent Garden, is Nopi London (http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/locations). Part of the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants, this restaurant has a formal dining room, that I loved and can’t stop thinking about, and a more “family style” environment downstairs that, the night I was there, was actually fitted for a formal and private banquet. The food was divine and the options for every food type extensive, and I bet, amazing.   Big kudos to the restaurant for the following: we ordered desert but it was late in arriving. Because we were sitting there just chatting and not eating, and they explicitly say you have 1.5 hours to eat (not something I like and find somewhat offensive), the manager came over and politely asked how we were doing. When we said that we were just waiting on desert, he disappeared and quickly returned with our desert. Cool. He then followed up and when we raved about the desert, he took us to meet the pastry chef who then gave us the recipe for his chocolate confection. I’d return just because of this.

Sites

I’m still in search of those sites and experiences that you can find outside of your typical guidebook so stay tuned…

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Sanremo, on the Ligurian coast: an era of days gone by

Sanremo is an interesting town along the Ligurian coast that I had always wanted to visit. For a short visit, it’s a lovely place. For anything longer than 4 days, I would tell you to visit other places with more to do, and more to see. In a perfect world, and if you are the daring type, I’d tell you to rent a car and spend a couple of weeks just driving along the Ligurian coast and stopping along the way; it really is that stunning!

Nites

There are handful of 4-star hotels in Sanremo but none have direct beach access. (Until 10 years ago, the train tracks were between the beach and the hotels but with the relocation of the trains in the mountains, there is now a wonderful bike and pedestrian track between the hotels and the beach.) I chose the Hotel de Paris Sanremo (www.hoteldeparissanremo.it) and loved it. As I always recommend, it is best to write to the hotel directly – rather than through hotel aggregator sites – and describe what you want and see what they offer. Case in point: although I couldn’t afford the direct sea view rooms, I was offered a room with a partial view. When I arrived, I was given a room with no sea view, I showed my reservation, and voila, I was given a room with a partial sea view that made me happy every day! The hotel is very old school with modern touches like the TVs and the bathrooms. And for that added little start to the day, the breakfast buffet was actually quite a lovely start to the day.

Hotel de ParisHotel de Paris view with sun 02

Bites

For pizza, one of the staff at the Hotel de Paris recommended Pizzeria Spaccanapoli (wwwpizzeriaspaccanapoli.it) which was phenomenal. You won’t find anything other than pizza here, but the numbers that they offer are staggering!

Another find that a staff member at the Hotel de Paris suggested was Osteria Camelot (osteriacamelot.it) which is in the old town, but not hiking up to the Pigna and the gardens. The food is simple and the décor equally as simple but I really liked the food here. There is a house wine that, I have to tell you, is nothing more than bottled wine from Coop, a chain supermarket in Italy. They do have wine by the bottle, and a wine list as well, so if you can afford it, I would recommend that you ask for the wine list. But don’t let the supermarket wine as the house wine stop you from going here.

But if you only have one night in Sanremo, you absolutely must go to Taverna al 29 (www.tavernaal29.com). This a small restaurant, that is closed on Sundays and Wednesdays, and is a bit of show (more on that soon), but the food was absolutely divine, the bread incredible, the wine list small but spectacular, and the house-made “grappa” a sweet touch. The owner of the restaurant is very sweet and I heard him speak Italian, French, German, and of course Italian. He is the showman and likes to toast with his guests when they first sit down and are offered a house-made “spritz” of prosecco and lavender syrup. (I saw him sip from the same glass for the first part of the night but, I suppose, if he was drinking along with everyone, he would be drunk by the end of the evening!) I would definitely go out of my way to return to Taverna al 29!

Sites

There really aren’t many sites that you need to seek and find: most people come to Sanremo for the sea. The number of “beach clubs” along the coast is truly staggering! They pretty much all offer the same thing: a combination of entrance fee, beach bed, umbrella, and maybe a chair. Why there is a difference in price, I can’t really say so just find the “beach club” that speaks to you and go with it. And whatever you do, be sure to watch for signs that say “no picnic”; they won’t tolerate you bring water or even fruit on to their beach because they want you to buy their food. I found Euro Nettuno Beach and for only 10.50 euro, I had entrance and a beach bed and no hassle for bringing my own water. (14.00 euro if you want to add an umbrella.)

Walking up and through the Pigna is a wonderful trip and the views from the top are amazing. But what I enjoyed most about this endeavor was the opportunity to see how people live, and the walk that they do on a daily basis (regardless of where they have parked their car in the periphery).

la pigna street down 03

As mentioned above, the former train tracks along the coast have now been transformed to a bike and pedestrian path and had I had more time, I may have actually taken a ride along the coast. The Hotel de Paris offers bike rentals and right across from the hotel is a little outfit that also offers bike rentals by the hour or half day. If you’re feeling athletic, or you need to justify that extra gelato the day before, this is the activity for you.

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Bern Switzerland – the capital of an amazing country that acts more like a welcoming village

I must admit that I have never visited Bern before, nor even thought about it.  I guess the largesse that is Zurich and Lausanne just overshadows what is truly an amazing town.  But if your travels give you the chance – whether from traveling around Switzerland or taking a side-trip from Northern Italy – you really should add this to your itinerary.  It will only require a few days, but I promise it will be a few days well-spent.

Nites

Although only my first trip to Bern, I would say that there are definite gaps between hotel ratings in this small yet charming city.  There are 2 five star hotels and if money is no object, I would tell you to stay at the Hotel Bellevue.  I didn’t stay here, so I can’t vouch for the rooms, but I did have drinks here and the décor is amazing and I probably wouldn’t want to leave.

The four star hotels are a step down from the five and I’m not just stating the obvious: the four stars tend to be a bit more rustic and “stereotypical” of what I would expect from a swiss hotel.  I stayed at the Belle Epoque (http://www.belle-epoque.ch/hotel-bern/en/) and although not cheap – nothing is in Bern, or Switzerland for that matter – I really liked it.  The rooms were big and the staff really quite kind.  The one thing I noticed, which you should be aware of if traveling in the summer, is that the hotel does not have air conditioning.  I don’t like AC myself, but the large fan in the room and the windows facing outward could make for a noisy night.  So, beware: if it’s hot, there’s no AC and if you go, ask for a room NOT facing the street.

Bites

As I said above, nothing in Bern is cheap but I certainly did enjoy the hospitality of my friends and can recommend a few places for a wonderful meal.

I loved Verdi (http://www.bindella.ch/gastronomie/ueberblick-ristoranti/restaurant/verdi-ristorante/26/show/) and although not Italian pasta like you get in Italy, it really was lovely.  What helps, without a doubt, is the décor which is charming, funky, and just incredibly inviting.  If you have only one night in Bern, this is where I would go.

If you are searching for something a bit more affordable, Restaurant Zunft zu Webern (http://www.restwebern.ch/).  The staff were incredibly kind and given that I was hankeringfor spaetzle, and the hotel kindly called and asked them to make it for me, how can you go wrong?  The restaurant didn’t really offer much in terms of décor, but it was packed with locals – I heard no English – so it had to have been good.

I was also fortunate enough to be taken to Jack’s Brasserie in the Hotel Schweizerhof (http://www.schweizerhof-bern.ch/).  The food was good and when served by waiters in white coats, how can you go wrong?  And for a Sunday brunch, I thought it was a perfect setting.

I didn’t eat here – but I hear it is amazing – but I did come here for a drink on my last night in Bern: the Kornhaus keller (http://www.bindella.ch/gastronomie/ueberblick-ristoranti/restaurant/kornhauskeller/4/show/).  This is just a stunning place and even if you don’t want a drink, or to have dinner, just pop in and take a look, or a picture, and it will be permanently etched in your memory.  What a stunning place!

Kornhaus kellerSites

I’m not typically one for guided tours but my friends arranged for a tour of the city through the Tourism Office.  It was a cold and rainy/snowy day, as it often is in Bern, and so, on a whim, my guide asked if I wanted to go in to the clock tower.  Yes, I enthusiastically replied.  Although large groups can’t go in, and those afraid of heights and small places might want to reconsider, I loved it and it was definitely a highlight of my tour.  So, if you have the chance, go up the clock tower.  You won’t regret it.

clock tower view down the street

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Cortona Italy – Cortona and the villa near it are truly one of the most amazing finds I have ever made.

The name “Cortona” brings a smile to my face every time I hear it.  And if anyone ever asks for a special place to visit, a place to unwind, or just a place to spend a night on their way to any other place  in Italy, I readily tell them to go here.  This is part of the Italy that I fell in love with and dream of nightly.  This is the Italy that everyone should truly visit at least once in their lives because it is not Rome, it is not Florence, and it is not Milano.  It is, quite simply, Cortona.   And this is the place where I first learned what a linden tree is, and how a scent can take me back to a special place instantly.

Nites

There really is only one place to stay: the Villa di Piazzano (http://www.villadipiazzano.com/en/).  Located close to Pergo and part of Cortona, this villa is a dream location.  The owners and staff our truly unmatched, the rooms fantastic, and the surrounding area and pool just phenomenal.  Really, look nowhere else!

Bites

One of the best meals I ever had was at the Villa di Piazzano: I arrived late, was too tired to drive up to Pergo and just wanted a small meal.  Kindly, the owners of the hotel  told me to take a seat outside – even though they were having a private dinner party with friends – and in a few minutes, a lovely plate of cheese, bread, pears, honey and white wine was before me.   To this day, I don’t think there is anything better to eat for dinner!

If pizza is what you seek, I highly recommend Birrificio Cortonese (http://www.birrificiocortonese.com/).  Located in Cortona and surrounded by shops, this was an unpretentious, but delicious find and my mouth drools just thinking about it now.  (And I think there is a gelato shop almost next door that is  ridiculous!)

Sites

I first went to Cortona to mountain bike and although there aren’t specific mountain biking trails, the fire roads leading through the countryside and around are fairly easy to navigate and worth renting bikes and exploring.  (And I have no sense of direction so if I can d it, you can do it.)  The same fire roads are the perfect place to go for a  stroll or a jog.

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Athens Greece – Athens is probably one of the top 10 places that everyone should visit once in their life.

I absolutely adore Athens and this city has fond memories despite the economic changes, and the troubles that the Greeks are experiencing.   I’ve heard people say that Athens – and Greece in general – is not safe.  I say you are wrong!  Never have I met a more welcoming and kind country and its people than I have in Athens and Greece as a whole.

Nites

When traveling to Athens, there are 2 hotels that I can highly recommend.  The first is the St George (http://www.sglycabettus.gr/default-en.html) on the Lycabettus hill.  The hotel is situated in a lovely residential area and only a short stroll downhill to everything that one must see while in Athens.  And best of all: the evening views from the rooftop to the Acropolis are breathtaking and magical.

view to the Acropolis from the New Museum 02The other hotel that I absolutely adore is the Ochre and Brown, now called O&B, (http://www.oandbhotel.com/) which is located in an up-and-coming part of Athens. Centrally located, although without the views that many hotels rely on, the rooms are outstanding, the staff incredible, and the shops and sites right outside your door are unparalleled.

Bites

(coming soon)

Sites

I was fortunate enough to visit Athens right after the Acropolis Museum (http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en) first opened.  And now it is the place that I immediately return to every time I am in Athens.  When approaching the entrance, you will walk on plexiglass that reveals ruins beneath your feet that are absolutely stunning and amazing.  The exhibit, itself, will leave your breathless but it is the outdoor patio you that you must be sure to visit before leaving: the views are incredible, from 360 degrees, and the architecture absolutely stunning.

ruins UNDER the New MuseumAnd although I know everyone comes to Athens to visit the Acropolis – which you must do, no matter how tired you are – the meandering streets up the hill are a site to behold as well.  Yes, you will be pestered to shop here, eat here, and drink here, but if you just ignore the harassment and take in the sites and daily life, it really is unlike anything else that you will ever see.  Literally, I could spend hours walking these streets and taking everything in.

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Porto Cervo – If money is no object, this is the place for you. But you should still go, if even on a budget!

I loved Porto Cervo.  The wealth and presumably complete disregard for the cost of anything is amazing and a true site to behold.   Would I live here?   Perhaps if I could afford it but there are also other places in Sardegna that I would probably choose first.  But, that said, you must go.  It really is a stunning and enchanting place that everyone should visit at least once in their lives.

Nites

If you aren’t staying on a yacht, there are plenty of hotels in and around Porto Cervo.  Le Ginestre Hotel (http://www.leginestrehotel.com/) is a lovely hotel laid out in various buildings within what I think is a gorgeous pine grove.   The rooms are fantastic, and all come with a balcony or patio and, if possible, request a patio: there is nothing like being able to walk outside and relax with nature.

Bites

(coming soon)

Sites

There really isn’t a lot to do in the Costa Smeralda unless you have a boat (really a yacht!).  But if relaxation and people watching are your cup of tea, this is the place for you.  And I must admit, I had a brilliant time people watching!  Nestled against the port for million dollar yachts to doc is a recently built mall.  But this is no ordinary mall and you won’t find a Gap or even a Macy’s-type store.  No, this is where all the high-end designers and jewelers congregate because, who doesn’t need another pair of heals or trousers for their next port of call?!

If catching rays in what you hope to do here, the Le Ginestre Hotel has a great pool, as do all hotels in the Costa Smeralda, but what I loved is that, after a 15 minute stroll through the “forest,” the hotel has their own private beach.   Few people wanted to walk “this far” so the beach was quiet, relaxing, and the perfect place to read and nap.

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Oxford UK – The tranquility that is Oxford

(updated 25 October 2014)

I love Oxford and although I work for a company based there, don’t let that fool you: the town is amazing, the people really quite kind, and the variety of restaurants truly outstanding.  And like Cambridge, it is a wonderful respite from London yet easily reached via public transport.

Nites

One of my top 5 hotels in the world to stay at has got to be the Feathers Hotel (http://www.feathers.co.uk/) just outside of Oxford in Woodstock.  It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once inside, you honestly won’t want to leave.   Not  only are you greeted by the calming smell of a fireplace, but the old homey wood paneling is breathtakingly stunning.

If you want to stay in “downtown” Oxford, there are a number of options, my favourite being The Old Bank Hotel (http://www.oldbank-hotel.co.uk/).   I love the boutique feel of this hotel and the rooms are outstanding!

Another cool and chic find is the Mailmaison Oxford (http://www.malmaison.com/locations/oxford/?gclid=CPGmzaP-5rsCFVLxOgodcRsAeA).  I’ve yet to actually stay here, but friends have, and they say that reuse of the old jail cells in to rooms is really quite stunning.   There is a modern wing but if you’re going to stay here, splurge for the jail cell rooms!  (And the restauran and outside bar are amazing and worth the trip alone!)

My favourite old school boutique hotel is the Old Parsonage Hotel (http://www.oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk/).  There is just something that says  home at this tony hotel.  I’ve actually been tempted not to leave and rather stay in and read, write, eat, and drink.

A new hotel that I am literally salivating over and obsessed with trying is the Vanbrugh House Hotel (http://www.vanbrughhousehotel.co.uk/) in the heart of Oxford just off the main shopping street. The hotel is to be complimented on their photographer alone because their website has me hooked and I have only seen the hotel from the outside. Watch this space as I will be staying here and I will be posting on what I suspect is a hidden gem not much longer!

Bites

Shanghai 30s (http://www.shanghai30s.com/) is amazing! I loved the décor, the staff were amazing and did not interrupt my conversation and the food is, hands-down, outstanding! Truth be told: I didn’t finish my meal because I was talking so much and, as I walked home, I was kicking myself for not getting a take-away of meal… it would have been great cold, I am certain!

I may have truly fallen in love with a pub that actually is vegetarian only: The Gardner’s Arms (http://www.thegarden-oxford.co.uk/). The pub has a full bar which is fantastic and the fact that they offer veggie burgers, veggie dogs with veggie chili, and other wonderful treats made this an easy decision on 3 occasions when I was last in Oxford. It’s comfort food, at its best!

The Standard (http://www.standardoxford.com/) on Walton Street, not far from Oxford University Press was absolutely amazing! As a vegetarian, I seek out palak paneer and I must say, this restaurant had the best palak paneer ever. The “sauce” was perfect and not too greasy, the paneer cut in to perfectly sized pieces, and the spices sheer perfection. Truly, I would fly back to Oxford right now just to eat here again!

Outside of Oxford, in Headington (a short trip on the bus or a taxi), is the The Black Boy (http://www.theblackboy.uk.com/) which I went to years ago, loved, and can’t believe that I forgot about until now!   I love this restaurant and pub: the pub part is great for a pint with friends but then, you pass the bar and there is lovely dining area that is chic, delicious, and not anything remotely like a pub. And the food? Outstanding and definitely memorable! Head the the Black Boy as soon as you can!

Sites

(coming soon)

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Cambridge UK – The perfect escape from the insanity that is London

I love Cambridge and could easily spend days here just wondering and taking in all of the scenery. I also love Cambridge because it is the perfect escape from the insanity that I feel and find when in London.

Nites

When you go to Cambridge, and you need one of the best hotels I have ever stayed out, you must stay at Hotel Felix (http://www.hotelfelix.co.uk/).  The rooms are amazing, whatever “level” of room you choose, and given that it is within easy commute to all things that you want to see and do, choose nothing else.

Bites

(coming soon)

Sites

(coming soon)

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Bergamo Italy – A tranquility and joy of life that we should all aspire to

To say that I am enamored with Bergamo is an understatement.  There is tranquility, a vibrancy, a friendliness, and a peacefulness in this hilltop town that no one word can adequately describe.  Because a university is situated in the upper city – the città alta – the streets in the afternoon are often filled with joyful laughter and a love of life that is, quite simply, infectious.  But then, when school is out and the city returns to its familial center, the streets are a calm respite from the more cacophonous città bassa below that welcomes you to stroll, and meander and most importantly relax.  And don’t forget: if you don’t want to get too relaxed, Milano is only a 50 minute train ride away!

street down from San VigilioNites

A new edition to the Design Hotel group of hotels is the Gombithotel (http://www.gombithotel.it/en/) located just in the center of the città alta.  This lovely little hotel, that has a passion for all thing Vespa, only has 13 rooms which further adds to the tranquility of this city.  Although the windows aren’t the most sound-proofed windows I’ve ever had in a hotel room, the city is quiet enough – except for the tolling of the bells every hour – that I didn’t have a problem getting a restful night’s sleep every night I was there.

Gombithotel sitting areaIf a design hotel with a love of all things Vespa isn’t your style, I had a drink in the Relais San Lorenzo (http://www.relaisanlorenzo.com/) a member of the Small Luxury Hotel group and it looked gorgeous.  Whereas that Gombithotel is kind of funky and cool, the Relais is a more laid back, classic type of business hotel that some might prefer.  Either way, you can’t go wrong with great accommodations in Bergamo.

Bites

For such a small town, the number of options for dining is truly outstanding.

For a quick bite – whether that be a panino, a slice of pizza, or just a dolce – Il Fornaio on via Colleoni 3 was a dream come true for a hungry tummy.  Further down the “street” is another place that, around noon, will be slammed with hungry students.  I never got in the door, that’s how crowded it was, so I suspect their lunchtime options are just as good.

But it was the dinner I was after and I can recommend with overwhelming enthusiasm the follow three establishments.

Vineria Cozzi (www.vineriacozzi.it) was an absolute gem with the most lovely staff.  Decorated in what can best be described as “cottage-like” the pasta was superb and the recommendation of the truffled cheese and egg “soup” leaves my mouth watering as I write.

A second suggestion, and probably one of the most famous restaurants in the città alta is Da Mimmo (www.ristorantemimmo.com), also on Via B Colleoni.  Situated on 2 levels, with tables covered in white linen, the restaurant can have the appearance of being overly pretentious but don’t be fooled.  This is the home of the first pizzeria in città alta and has its own dedicated menu of pizzas so how pretentious can it be right?  Not at all!  The staff are outstanding and when the waitress suggested that I should try the house-made mozzarella, I nearly fell out of my chair.  (And, yes, once again I am salivating as I write!).   And that little welcome drink of prosecco goes miles in my book.

And if you are looking for something a little off the beaten path – but don’t worry, you won’t get lost – I enthusiastically endorse La Colombine (www.trattorialacolombina.it).  Upon being seated and after gazing out the huge plate-glass window down to the citta bassa – there’s an outdoor balcony that I can only imagine must be breathtaking in warmer weather! – the waitress asked if I wanted a menu in English or Italian.  Since we have only been speaking Italian I jokingly said, “Italian, of course” to which she replied that, because the restaurant specializes in traditional and typical Bergamo cuisine “Italians don’t always understand the menu.”   Love it!  And yes, the food was outstanding: I’m not a fan of gnocchi but the gnocchi with taleggio sauce was light, airy, and may possibly have made me a convert to the world of gnocchi!

Sites

Bergamo doesn’t exactly have the sort of sites that a Rome, an Athens, or an iStanbul has but the one thing that you must do is you must take the funicular up the mountain to San Vigilio.  The ruins of the castle are interesting but honestly won’t blow you away.  What will take your breath away, however, is the walk down.  Your inner billy goat may come out but it is worth the walk.

Santa Maria MaggioreAnd with that, I hope that you will plan that trip to Bergamo, if even for just a long weekend.  There is truly something medieval about this quiet, yet vibrant little town that has, overnight, endeared itself to me as a place I already want to return to.

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Vienna Austria – The sounds of kindness and warm-heartedness abound

I love Vienna.  (Yes, insert the Ultravox classic, if you must!)  The city is clean, the people are kind and helpful, the public transport is nearly perfect (the CAT train doesn’t quite run early enough for those early am flights out of Vienna), and the food really coming in to its own.  If you haven’t been, you must go.  And if you’ve been, please return: it is nearly Europe’s most perfect city!

Nights

A couple of years ago, the Hotel Daniel (http://www.hoteldaniel.com/en/vienna.html) took over an old office building and converted it in to a cool, funky urban retreat right next to the Beveldere gardens.  This isn’t your Turkish rug covered, “we have Frette sheets,” nor even “breakfast included” sort of place, but rather, a modern, industrial, and funky retreat that is also comfortable.  And if you can swing the hammock room, do it: it has a hammock in the room!

If old-world Vienna is more your style and money no object, I would stay at the Steigenberger Hotel Herrenhof (http://www.steigenberger.com/en/Wien?source=USSH0) as you can’t beat the location and the rooms are divine.  And the fact that Café Central is just around the corner, not to mention Café Demel, you truly can’t go wrong!

And if you are looking for something a bit more traditional, yet not in the same price range as the Steigenberger, check out the Hotel Alstadt Vienna (http://www.altstadt.at/en/) a tried and true hotel in the city.   The rooms are comfortable, if not over the top, and the staffs are fantastic and very helpful.

And although I haven’t stayed here, a friend suggested the Levante Laudon (http://www.thelevante.com/laudon/de/superior.html) which looks fantastic and a great place to make your home away from home.

Bites

Tian restaurant (http://www.tian-vienna.com/en) is one of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of dining in, in my entire life.  And the fact that it is vegetarian is gives it double points!   Vegetarian or not, you must go once in your life.  In my opinion, this restaurant deserves at least 1 Michelin Star!  The wait staff are outstanding – and everything dressed in shades of lavender add to the experience – the small but inviting room outstanding, and the food absolutely divine.   It won’t be the cheapest meal you’ll have in Vienna – that’s for the street-corner stands which shouldn’t be avoided either – but it will be one of the best meals you will have.  (Note: a wine bar is planned to open downstairs of Tian and if looks alone are enough to judge, this will be a smashing success!)

Another fantastic vegetarian restaurant, only a short ride on the u-bah is Hollered (http://www.hollerei.at/).   Hollered is in something of a residential neighborhood but when I went, it was filled with locals, and packed, and the food just sublime!   This restaurant is a bit more rustic and casual but makes the food no less delectable.

Near St Stephen’s cathedral, but not so near as to be a tourist haven, if Fabio’s (http://fabios.at/de/fabios-restaurant-bar-wien.html).   As anyone who follows this blog, they know that I can’t go a few days without pasta and this restaurant met my needs to the umpteenth degree!   The burrata was a special, not listed on the menu and the pasta pure perfection: the portions weren’t too large, it was perfectly al dente, and the arrabiata just spicy enough!   And if you want an after-dinner drink: the small bar scene was hoppin’!

Another restaurant in the city center that I adore is the Restaurant Ofenloch (http://www.restaurant-ofenloch.at/en/).  I went here with friends and had fantastic Austrian wines, brilliant food, and a non-rushed service which was perfect for catching up and just enjoying the meal.

For a bit of classic Vienna, I would suggest Pfarrwirt (http://www.pfarrwirt.com/).  You can easily take public transport out  of the city center to this wonderful old house with great, classic Austrian dishes.

And a trip to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without some sweets.  There is the classic Sachertorte at the Hotel Sacher but for me, a trip to Vienna isn’t complete without a trip to Café Central (see above) or Café Demel (http://www.demel.at/en/index_en_flash.htm).  Is there anything better than coffee and sweets under chandeliers served by men and women in starched coats?

Sites

Every guidebook will tell you about the major sites to see so I won’t repeat them.  But I will tell you that stroll through the Belvedere gardens should not be missed!  And if you wallet permits, a night at the opera is not to be missed.  The Stadthopper may be a bit smaller than some of the other classic opera houses in the world, but that doesn’t mean the performance is any the less.  And if you can follow the opera by a bit of Sachertorte and a drink, you have then experienced my perfect Vienna evening!

And with that, I hope you enjoy your trip to Vienna.   It really is an amazing city and one that should not be missed, but rather enjoyed often!  Safe travels!

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Yalikavak Turkey – It’s not Bodrum, but a better neighbor

(updated 07 September 2015)

If you are over the age of 25, Bodrum isn’t the place for you.  And by a happy misunderstanding, I happened upon Yalikavak, approximately 18 km over the hill and around the bend, for a relaxing and amazing holiday experience.

Nights

Okay, so I’m going to start off with my complaint, and that’s pretty much because I just looked at their website again (so that I can provide it to you) and remembered what my issue was.  The 4Reasons Hotel (http://www.4reasonshotel.com/) states on their website “a hip, small, luxury boutique hotel in Bodrum.”   Traveler beware: they are NOT in Bodrum.   They are in Yalikavak and it will take you about 40 minutes to arrive, and cost you 110 TL to get there and back if you don’t have a car.  So be forewarned.  But truly, if this is the only flaw that I can note – and it is! – then this is where you want to stay!

The above said, however, I loved this hotel!  The staff were amazing, the rooms lovely, and depending on what room type you choose – I had the Passionate, even though I was traveling alone, simply because I wanted a large room with a view to the sea – it can be the perfect vacation location.  Within 45 minutes you can walk down to the beach and rent the requisite sun bed and umbrella but, really, why?  The pool is amazing and peaceful!  And since the previous writing in 2014, the rooms have been updated with larger beds and a lovely banquet along the right-hand wall that is far more functional than the 2 wicker chairs that used to be in the room.

4Reasons Passionate Roomview to port from Four ReasonsP.S. If an all-inclusive place to stay is  what you want, there are a number lining the road to Bodrum.  I can’t vouch for any of these, but here are some options that you can investigate further: Club Blue Dreams, Rixos (looks like Vegas!), Golden Savoy (another that looks like Vegas!) and Kervanesse (I think that is the spelling).

Bites

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you will know that I prefer not to eat at hotel restaurants.  As luck would have it, my first night in Yalikavak, I didn’t have a reservation so I stayed at the hotel and ate at their restaurant.   What a joy!  The views to the sea were stunning, the soft jazz a perfect accompaniment, and the food truly outstanding!   By the time I arrived here, I had already started to go through pasta withdraw so how happy was I to see their version of pasta with 4 cheese sauce?  The pasta was cooked perfectly, and the different cheeses than what I was used to was a happy experience.

But don’t stay here every night (although you could).  Walk down to Yalikavak and you will find the “boardwalk” lined with all variety of restaurants.

Although I didn’t eat here, I met two fellow travelers who ate at Sofi’s and they said it was outstanding.  Apparently, there was a “show” of belly dancers and whatnot, which I wouldn’t have enjoyed, but if that’s your thing, I trust their judgment.

I opted to go to Elma Restaurant (regrettably, this restaurant is now closed due to the growth of Yalikavak with the new, large, Marina). I had heard that they had vegetarian options – they don’t, really, at least nothing that is different from every other restaurant in Turkey – but the mezzes were amazing and the Mediterranean salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and cheese the absolute highlight.  And the owner/manager, Ali, was a charmer and totally engaging with stories of Turkey, literature, and the books he’s read.  I would return just for the conversation!

1 new find, which I think is also new to the Yalikavak dining scene is Giggles (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Giggles/239981516202222) which was an absolute dream recommendation from the Four Reasons. The night of our reservation, there was some confusion about a rental car we arranged and, as we passed by, the staff asked if I was Mr Panner, I said I was, and he said that Ali from the Four Reasons (Ali is the best!) was coming to meet us, and that Giggles would hold our table until we were finished! 1 hour late, we returned and the mezze were phenomenal and the pasta and fish outstanding. And the staff?! They were so nice and attentive that, on subsequent nights when just passing the restaurant, they would wave and smile. Love it!

And very new to the restaurant scene in Yalikavak is Ege Restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/Egerestaurantbar) as it has only been open for a couple of months. Once again, Ali from the Four Reasons recommneded this (in place of another reservation we had) and it was incredible.   I tell you, make this the first restaurant you run to when you arrive in Yalikavak! Situated on the water front, with lovely views out to the sea, are reason enough to run to this restaurant.   But then the mezze selection is simply over-the-top incredible! My friend had the catch of the day and couldn’t stop raving about how tasty it was and utterly perfect.   And for this vegetarian… I was a very happy boy; they didn’t have anything on the menu for a vegetarian (other than more mezze) so the owner, Esat – an incredibily lovely and helpful man – said “leave it with me” and I did.   And up comes a lovely tomato and cucumber salad and although not much, I would have been fine with that. But then comes the most incredible pizza/flat bread type things that I have ever seen, nor eaten. I can’t really describe them, but I can tell you that I am drooling about them right now.   And still smiling!   Love. This. Restaurant.

view from Ege Restaurant 02 Ege Restaurant mezzeSights

I can’t comment on Bodrum and couldn’t even fathom to venture over there – crowds aren’t my thing I’m afraid – so I’ll leave it to you to venture out and explore.

The one thing that you must do is take a bus tour to Pamukkale.  Your hotel may try and arrange a private car service but, to be honest, it’s a long haul and you see a lot of villages  and nothing else, so why not take the cheaper route and do a bus tour?  Traveler be warned however: it takes about 4.5 hours to get to Pamukkale from Bodrum, and they stop along the way for a “break,” a carpet tour, and “lunch,” but as long as you know what you are getting in to, it’s worth it.

Since I’ve been to Pamukkale before, and absolutely loved it, and recommend that everyone go at least once in their lives, I now have more insight! On my second return, I opted for the rental car option with a GPS. You can do an organized tour as described above but I honestly thought the car option was better. But be warned: GPS in Turkey is not the best and we were often concerned that we were lost and it took a bit longer to drive than the tour bus did, but it was worth it. My recommendation: pay attention to how you arrive at your hotel – if I hadn’t, I may still be driving around! – print maps from home that you understand, and be prepared for an adventure!

Pamukkale terrace 03

Pamukkale and the ruins around it are absolutely stunning and even though it may be 105F/43C, the sheer beauty and natural wonder of the place will make it all worthwhile!  And for about $15, you can wade in an ancient pool that is supposed to cure some of our ailments.  (I didn’t do it because it looked overpriced and not worth the crowd!)

Hierapolis amphitheatre inside 02So Yalikavak isn’t in Bodrum.   And  so it may be a “suburb” albeit a hike away.   Don’t hold it against them and go here for further recharging.   And if you need a bit of culture, do the trip to Pamukkale: it’s worth your time and a numb butt!

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Fethiye Turkey – The perfect place to relax and unwind

I can’t really put my finger on what it was about Fethiye that I loved.  It may have been the peaceful, small-town vibe, or the lovely people, I really don’t know, but I want to return and wish that I had spent more than 3 days here.

Nights

I am obsessed  with the Yacht Classic Hotel (http://www.yachtclassichotel.com/).  This hotel is located a tad outside  of the “city centre” but given that Fethiye is so small, it really doesn’t matter.  Many of the rooms have sea views but to enjoy  the full experience, you must reserve a room facing the seah.   Oh my god it is gorgeous!  Going to bed and waking up to the sea is like no other experience if you ask me.  And the breakfast is absolutely amazing (and there’s no need to pay the extra for an ommelette.)

Yacht Classic Hotel view to pool

Nest door to the Yacht Classic Hotel is the Ece Saray Marina and Resort Hotel (http://www.ecesaray.net/).  This is the most expensive hotel in the city (and if you look at their homepage, on the right, to the right of the pool, you will see the Yacht Classic Hotel).  I took a peak inside one evening and it is stunning so for all out luxury, this is the place for you.

Bites

The only thing that prevents me from returning immediately and staying longer is that the food options in Fethiye are pretty dim.  The Yacht Classic recommended the roof top restaurant at their sister hotel, the Yacht Boutique Hotel (on the other side of the Ece Saray!) and I should have listened!  The restaurants that I went to on my first 2 nights don’t bear mentioning: everything was just uninspired and no different from anything that I could make on my own.   And many of the restaurants are crowded together so it’s hot, and sticky, and just not enjoyable.

But the rooftop restaurant at the Yacht Boutique is divine!  The views were amazing – but I had the view every morning and night – so that’s not what made it exceptional but it was the food.  They had Turkish, Indian, and I think even a bit of Italian and it was all just absolutely to die for!  I should have gone here every evening!

I did hear that  the restaurant at the Yacht Classic Hotel was quite good but since I was staying here, I wanted to go someplace different.  When I return, I will definitely try it out and let you know!

Sights

There really isn’t much to see or do in Fethiye to be honest.   But if you need to unwind, relax, and recharge, this is the place for you.

The boardwalk, if you will, along the sea  is lit at night with lots  of neon and displays it really is a lovely way to end your evening with a stroll and a breeze.

Nearly everything you read will tell you that you need to go to the blue lagoon.  Don’t.   It really isn’t worth it and is just a tourist trap.  You’ll need  to take an overcrowded  dolmus to the beach, then pay to enter the park (10TL I think), and then 15TL to rent a sun bed and umbrella.  And although I am not one for crowds, this place took it to a whole new level: the sun beds were so close  together that I could literally reach out and touch the couple next to me, that’s how jammed the beds were!  So stay at your hotel and  avoid  the crowds.

blue lagoon 02

And there  you go.  Like I said, I can’t really explain what it was about Fethiye that I loved but I did and I cant wait to return!  I hope you enjoy it too!

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A college town with an attitude

[updated 07 October 2013]

I will probably get grief for saying that Montreal is a college town with an attitude, but it is.   And I loved it here!  The mix of English and French, combines with their desire to be independent, makes this just an amazing place to visit for a long weekend (if you live on the East Coast of the US) or even longer!

My trip to Montreal was really quite brief so watch this space for more comments soon.

Nites

I don’t normally do this, but given how awful my experience was, I felt that I should share with my readers:  do not stay at the Hyatt Regency Montreal.   Although the lobby is gorgeous, and the bar quite the happening seen – and the staff are outstanding – the rooms are tired and I would actually say gross.  The Hyatt brand should be ashamed, as should the owners of this hotel: I would describe this as a 1990s Holiday Inn-inspired hotel.   Trust me, it’s not worth the ridiculous price for the Hyatt name.

Although I have not stayed at either of these hotels, I have had numerous meetings and meals at both so, hopefully, they will live up to their names better than the above and should be worth a try: the Westin Montreal and the InterContinental which are across the street from each other.

Bites

If you want cool and funky, with out of this world food – from one of the top restaurants in the city – you must go to Hotel Herman (http://hotelherman.com/).  First things first: this is not an actual hotel so don’t be surprised when you rock up to a small restaurant with a bar in the middle and the kitchen in the back.  But boy is  it worth it!   The wine list is pretty good, although a little pricey, but the food is incredible: classic, yet inventive, and every bite delectable.  Run here if you can!

If you are in search of probably one of the best vegetarian restaurants that I have ever been to, look no further than ChuChai (http://www.chuchai.com/).  There is a restaurant one  side of some residential steps and a bistro on the other.  Apparently, they have the exact same food, you just pay for the look.  Either way, get thee here and order the crispy vegetarian duck.  Oh. My. Word. Seriously, I wanted to cancel my dinner the following night just so I could return here.  That’s how good the food is!   And yes, they have wine!

Another cool place, if you decide not to go to ChuChai every night, is Aux Vivres (www.auxvivres.com).  The food is a bit more college level – good, but not overly inventive, and a value for the money – and the restaurant appears to be in a converted chain restaurant of some kind.  But the staff were great and the food really was tasty, it’s just the sort of thing that I tend to make on my own.

Recently opened is Invitation V (http://www.invitationv.com/) a lovely vegan restaurant in the Jewish quarter of Montreal.  Although the menu is somewhat small, the options that they offer are out of this world.  And if repititious thoughts are any sign of how much I enjoyed this restaurant, I cannot get the house-made seitan satay with peanut sauce out of my head!

Sites

I haven’t had much of an opportunity to explore Montreal (some day) but I can say that, without a doubt, the old quarter down near the water is amazing.  If even just for a stroll, I suggest you go here just to relax and get a feel for one part of what, no doubt, Montreal has to offer.

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Sydney Australia – Beach town in a big city

I love Sydney.  Not everyone does, or will, but I suspect that the love/hate relationship will be the same as  it is for San Francisco: you either love it or you hate it.  But whatever you do, give it a chance!   If you’ve gone all that way, don’t just say “I don’t want to go to Sydney” but, rather, suck it up and experience a truly multi-cultural – and wonderful – city!

Nights

I’m afraid that hotel recommendations are pretty hard to come by.  This is,  in part, due to the fact that Sydney – and Australia in general – are really quite pricey.   My best advice, until I find a place that I can unequivocally recommend, is to search online for the best deal and use your best judgment.

On my last trip, I stayed at the Grace Hotel.   It was okay but I honestly wouldn’t recommend you stay here.  The staff are great, but the price for what you get, is not worth it.

Bites

For a special night out – date, friends, family, or just your own personal celebration – I highly recommend Pendolino (http://www.pendolino.com.au/).   This newly opened restaurant is in The Strand shopping arcade but don’t let this put you off.  The food is amazing, the wine outstanding,  and the decor really nice.   While i was here, there were people on dates, family outings, a few business meals and a couple of people eating on their own.  Come one, come all I say!

Another outstanding restaurant in the CBD is pony bar and restaurant (http://www.ponydining.com.au/)  in the rocks.  Oh my, this place is amazing!   It is small, so be sure to book a table, and if the weather is nice, ask to sit outside.  But if you are inside, fear not: the open kitchen and smell of wood-fired grill will calm you and entice your senses.  I would return right now if  I could!

If you are in search of a vegetarian restaurant, I can recommend two.   The first that I would recommend which, I bet, would be amazing in the summer is Bodhi (http://www.bodhi.id.au/).   I found the service a little rushed but the food was amazing.  They had a bit of mock-meat and other delights that could keep you coming back day after day.

But, rather than keep returning to the same restaurant, hop on the train to Newtown.  (Ask at your hotel, it’s easy to get there and cheap!)  Newtown has the requisite cool factor: tats, piercings, galleries, and bars everywhere.  And an amazing vegetarian restaurant called the Green Gourmet (http://www.greengourmet.com.au/).  Don’t be put off by the website or even the look of the place – both are a bit tired – because the food  is amazing!  There is also buffet that you can pay by the weight for, but just order a la carte.   The only downside: they have no alcohol or green tea so turn a blind eye, have a soda or some fancy tea, sit back, and relax.  Oh yeah: and the staff are wonderful and really helpful with advice and suggestions.   Love this place!

And lastly, if you are in Sydney for a convention (although the convention center is being rebuilt and thus closed until 2015 I think), Zaaffran (http://www.zaaffran.com/) in Darling Harbour is probably some of the best Indian food I’ve had in a long time.  I won’t  tell you the number of times I was here but I can tell you that, it is easy to get a table at lunch but for dinner, be sure to have a ressie or you will be waiting!   And yes, the views of Darling Harbour at night are incredible!

Sites

Beyond the standard recommendations that any tour book will provide, I would encourage you to make your way to as many beaches along the coast as you can.   If you have a friend, buy them petrol and dinner and ask them to drive you around.  You will see things and people that you won’t see in the CBD.

And when you are out and about, make your way to the Vaucluse House (http://www.vauclusehousetearooms.com.au/our-venues/vaucluse-house/home).  What a gorgeous little park with an amazing tea room that serves brunch and lunch.   Even in the winter, there was a wedding and reception taking place so don’t be surprised if you need to wait a bit.  It is worth it!

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The “red city” should be on everyone’s bucket list

I loved Marakkech.  Even though it is a different way of life, and not something familiar to an american, there was something about this city that got to me and makes me want to return.

Nites

There are quite a few places to stay in Marakkech and I’ve read that there are some amazing riads within the medina, I opted to stay outside of the city walls at a resort where I could tan, relax, and unwind.

The Es Saadi (http://www.essaadi.com/) is amazing.  If you go only once, you must stay here!  The grounds are amazing, the pool divine, and the breakfast in the morning absolutely outstanding and enough to get this traveler through the day!  The rooms are gorgeous and all come with a balcony that looks over the grounds or the pool.  Stunning!  And if there is one negative to be shared, it is simply that the wireless internet connection is rather weak.   But really, when on holiday, one should not criticize an internet connection because they cannot work

Sites

The souqs are amazing and you really must go!  I spent a day wandering around and getting lost.  And yes, you will be harassed by people trying to get you to buy things but as long as you know it will happen, you should be fine.  And if you are interested in something, negotiate!   Apparently, shop owners are actually offended if you don’t try to negotiate with them.

If you can believe it, there is a hop-on, hop-off bus in Marakkech.  I did it because, to be honest, I spent one day too long in Marakkech and had run out of things to do and see.  And if you can believe it, the hop-on, hop-off bus went everywhere I had walked on my own.  So don’t do it.  It really isn’t worth the money or your time.

There are quite a few ruins outside of the medina and all can easily be reached on foot.  And be sure to have your camera ready: there are lots  of things to see and photograph along the way, wherever you are going!

Oh yeah, and beware of the snake charmers in the square outside of the souqs.  They are quite aggressive if they reveal the snake – they want money for this show – and not only might you be surprised by the snakes and a bit shaken up, but their aggressiveness won’t help!

Bites

The restaurant at Es Saadi is divine and although I’m not a fan of hotel restaurants, this one was absolutely amazing and should not be missed.

Another restaurant that I found and loved is that at the Red House Riad (http://www.theredhouse-marrakech.com/).   When I first went, this was just a restaurant but in the last few years, it appears that they are a small hotel now as well.  It might be worth a stay because if it’s anything like the food, you won’t be disappointed!

Marrakech is divine and a place that should be on everyone’s bucket list.  Like much or Morocco, the people are nice, the food amazing, and the sites just absolutely breathtaking.

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Worth the adventure

Getting to Fez can be a challenge but, at the same time, an adventure like few others.  If you have the time and opportunity, I highly suggest taking the train from Tangier to Fez (or anywhere else in Morocco for that matter) as you will see life in all its honest reality.  But the blue city, like the red (Marakesh) and the white (Rabat) are places that really must be seen.

A word of advice: do not eat anything that cannot be peeled, that has not been cooked, and do not drinking anything that you don’t open yourself.  Moroccans will try and be helpful and open your water for you: if you can’t break that plastic seal, don’t take it.  Gastrointestinal sickness is not fun!

Nites

When arriving in Fez, you have 2 options in terms of where to stay.  You can stay outside the city walls where you are bound to have more of a modern hotel with all of the amenities or you can stay in the city center, the medina, in a riad which is the closest that you will get to actually living in the city.  I would opt for the latter.

The Dar Seffarine (http://www.darseffarine.com/) is an amazing riad with the most lovely hosts.  The rooms are gorgeous and big, and they come with AC and fans so that you can be in maximum comfort.  Be aware, however, that riads don’t offer the most privacy: my room “opened” on to the inner courtyard which I think most of the rooms did.  But who cares?!  You’re there to experience life in the medina and the breakfast each morning  is amazing!

Bites

After heading the warning above, you can pretty much eat anywhere you want. No restaurant stood out and what I would categorize as not to be missed but ask  for advice and I’m sure you won’t go wrong.

There is a market outside of the medina where you can get everything you need for your time in Fez.  And if you want to do a picnic either for dinner or while you are walking around, this is the place to go: it’s a taxi ride away but even that added to the cost of your groceries will be cheaper than what you are going to pay within the medina walls.

Sites

There is no tourist sites to be seen in Fez.  But walk.  Walk everywhere.  The medina has 4 different gates and once you get comfortable with the location of your hotel, and have your trust map, you can’t go wrong.   And if you don’t feel comfortable doing it on your own, your hotel or riad can set up a tour guide for you.  I did both and although the tour guide took me out of the medina to see some of the potters that Fez is known for, it’s also an effort to get you to spend money.  Personally, I loved walking everywhere and anywhere I wanted.

The souq is really quite lovely and easy to navigate, especially compared to that in Marakesh.  Be warned that everyone will try and get you to come in to their shop and nearly harass you to buy something but it is their livelihood so you can’t blame them.  Just stay positive, be polite, and if you don’t want to be harassed, don’t make eye-contact.

So if you can, go.  Fez is amazing and you can relatively easily arrive from anywhere in Spain.  It’s small, the people really are lovely, and the experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

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