Torino – Italian with a hint of Swiss mixed in

(updated 30 August 2020)

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://ristoranteconsorzio.it/?lang=en30). 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.

Another 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 my latest find, although not “new” by any stretch of the imagination is Al Gatto Nero in Torino. From the outside, the restaurant is pretty non-descript and really quite easy to miss. But on the inside is a world of classic piemontese cuisine with lovely staff and even better food.  And given that it was, once again, white truffle (tartuffi bianchi) time, I had to try and honestly, it was the best I had this time around and, perhaps, near the top of ever.

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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Delhi was more than I expected to be honest. The vibrancy and “controlled” chaos is unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere.

(updated 30 August 2020)

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.

I took this opportunity on this trip to try somewhere new and I can honestly say that the Le Meridien (https://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/delmd-le-meridien-new-delhi/)  on Windsor Place is a keeper.  Just like the Shangri-La above, it is located within about a 45 minute stroll to the Gate of India and 15 minutes or so to Connaught Place.  But the hotel itself if stunning, with ample space and an amazing sense of calmness for such a large hotel.  If you can have access to the lounge on the top floor, do it: dining, or having an evening cocktail in tranquility is such a lovely approach before your day or to end your day before venturing out to dinner.

But reader beware: as lovely as Windsor Place is, or anywhere in Delhi for that matter, the streets are broken up with round-abouts.  Why beware?  Because these round-abouts mean that you can’t walk in a straight line without having to cross traffic and if you are not of a strong disposition, and perhaps a bit of daredevil, this is a crazy thing to navigate.  So, if this freaks you out, call an Uber (SIM cards are only about 600INR for great service and coverage), a taxi, or take a tuc-tuc.

Bites

Hands down, this is my favourite experience, ever, in New Delhi and would be the only place I’d go if I had just one night: Indian Accent (http://indianaccent.com/newdelhi/) at the Le Parker Meridien.  There is an a la cart menu, and there are only 2 seatings each night (19.00 and 21.45) but go for the chef’s tasting menu!  It is a visual parade that tingles your senses with each subsequent course.  And for what amounts to less than $100, it is so worth the adventure.    (And FYI: there is a New York restaurant that I have got to try!)

If I had 2 nights 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 third 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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Burano – the colours, the solitude, and the tranquility calm me and inevitably bring a smile to this sometimes-hardened face.

(updated 30 August 2020)

A trip to Venice is never a trip without an excursion to Burano, probably my favourite island (yes, even more so than Venezia), only because the colours, the solitude, and the tranquility calm me and inevitably bring a smile to this sometimes-hardened face.

Nites

In my next iteration, I will build a small, boutique hotel on Burano so that a lucky few can enjoy the wonders of this magical island.  Why, you ask?  Because there are no hotels on this island!  But thanks to the folks at Venissa (http://www.venissa.it/ospitalita/wine-resort-camere/) they’ve begun buying individual flats at both the restaurant location on Mazzorbo as well as around Burano.  I must admit that I have not had the pleasure of staying here but it won’t be long.  Trust me!

Bites

Venissa (http://www.venissa.it/) is three parts, not equal but each divine in their own right.  Il Vino is a lovely wine tasting venue of their outstanding local wine.  Il Ristorante is their Michelin starred restaurant that serves haute italiana cuisine, if I can say that.  They specialize in either 5-, 7-, or 9- course menus, and none are cheap, but I would argue that each is worth the experience.  They also offer a la carte but don’t expect the prices at the local trattoria.  And then there is the Osteria, which is my favourite, simply because I love the décor, the staff are outstanding, and the food divine.  It’s still not nona’s cooking at the local osteria, so the prices are a little higher, but my goodness it is worth it.

And if you’re on Burano during the day, and you need a bite to eat, the Trattoria al Gatto Nero is just as wonderful, and just as difficult to get a table at.  So, make a reservation in advance or be prepared to wait in line for up to an hour or more https://www.gattonero.com/.

There are of course pizzerias along the main tourist area, and scattered along the numerous canals but it is the above that I would gravitate too without hesitation.

Sites

There aren’t specific places that one must seek out while in Burano, or Mazzorbo, but, instead, walk.  Just walk, and walk, and walk, and when you find a canal that looks intriguing, take it.  It’s an island after all, and a small as well, so you really can’t get lost except for getting lost in the stunning colours of the city.

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Pavia, Italy – an amazing college town in Northern Italy with so much to see, and amazing places to dine, all while only be an hour outside of Milano.

Like so many cities in Italy, Pavia is filled with unparalleled history: from the likes of famous scientists to artists like DaVinci who spent time in this gorgeous city and contributed to the design of the stunning Duomo (or should I say, lay out).  But it is also home to a world-famous university which is part of what brings this little city such charm: it is a college town but it is also a humble town of amazing and kind people who welcome these tourists with open arms.

Nites

Without a doubt, the Arnaboldi Palace hotel (https://arnaboldipalace.com) (https://antychecase.com/) must be one of the most exquisite places I have ever stayed or seen.  A new hotel in a stunning old building that has recently been renovated, the spaces are large, the lounge where you have breakfast in the morning is large enough for a party for that special occasion, and the rooms decorated with care and stunning alacrity. 

The folks at Antyche Place (https://antychecase.com/) have a dependence not too far from the Arnaboldi Palace that is the perfect place for families as, at least the room that I stayed in, the rooms have small kitchenette areas where food and things can be prepared and lovely views over the Duomo Square.

Bites

If I only had one night in Pavia, I would head straight to Ristorante Lino (http://www.ristorantelino.com/).  Stunning in its art deco design and attention to detail, the food is outstanding and the wine list exhaustive.  But most impressive was the attentive staff who were never intrusive but always helpful and ensured that everything was perfect.

And if I had a second night – because you really should have a second night in this amazing town – head straight to Locanda del Carmine (http://www.locandadelcarmine.com/).   Located in the piazza in front of the chiesa del Carmine, this little restaurant is fantastic!  The staff were outstanding and the owner, who was my own personal savior, divine!  Why the shout out to the owner?  Because like much of the winter cuisine in norther Italy, the food is heavy and there is a reliance on risotto and gnocchi, both of which I find heavy and neither particularly appealing.  And as luck would have it, gnocchi were the only vegetarian option on the menu but thanks to the owner, I was served an amazing pasta with fresh vedge and beans, almost like a play on minestrone (and I devoured it!).

Sites

No visit to Pavia would be complete without visiting the stunning churches that, although appearing rather rough from the outside, are absolutely stunning on the interior.  The Duomo is a must-stop, as are S. Michele Maggiore and Santa Maria del Carmine. 

Also of note at the Duomo is the museum under the church that includes amazing artifacts from the church, as well as stunning mosaics from the church floor and other local churches that have been decommissioned.

A recent addition to the tourist scene is the Kosmos Museum (https://museokosmos.eu/), a stunning re-envisioned natural history museum that takes walks you through history as animals have migrated or been transported by humans, with the ultimate conclusion of what global warming and pollution have done to our environment and world.  The folks with the vision behind this museum are to be commended for their approach and unique outlook on making a museum actually fun and interesting.

And last, but arguably most importantly, there is the Certosa di Pavia.  The Certosa is a functioning monastery located just outside of Pavia and it is worth the effort to get there.  Not be forewarned: even if you take the local train from Pavia to the next step for the Certosa, you are still a few miles away from the actual monastery so plan carefully, and be sure to allow yourself time to enjoy the architecture and the relics inside this glorious place.  It’s been years since I first visited the Certosa and I still dream about returning, that’s how wonderful this place is.

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Mumbai is an incredible mix of old and new, upscale and slums, modernity and the way things have always been done… all of which should not be missed.

An incredible mix of old and new, upscale and slums, modernity and the way things have always been done… all of which should not be missed.

Nites

As this was my first time in Mumbai and I was here for work, it was important that I stay near the center and closer to hospitals and medical colleges so I chose the ITC Grand Central (https://www.itchotels.in/hotels/mumbai/itcgrandcentral.html), a truly stunning hotel that isolates you, and insolates you, from the insane traffic just outside the door.  The staff were amazing and the décor very calm and inviting.  And as part of the Marriott chain, it makes it just a tad more attractive.  (And if you can swing access to the Club Floor Lounge, do it; amazing breakfast in the morning, high tea in the afternoon, and cocktails before dinner.

If Marriott isn’t your thing, or you just want to try other options, the Oberoi chain in Asia is absolutely stunning!  Price can be a challenge here but if you consider what I mentioned in my earlier post (https://www.oberoihotels.com/hotels-in-mumbai/), you might get an affordable price that is just worth a few rupees more!

Bites

If I only had one night in Mumbai – and honestly, if I had two, I would choose the same place! – you must go to The Bombay Canteen (http://thebombaycanteen.com/).  Please, don’t be put off by the online pictures of the outside, and not get frightened when your car turns in to what appears to be a luxury mall; tucked in the back is this larger than expected restaurant with the most amazing staff, who are so helpful, and divine food!  The bar is wonderful as well and I can attest to their classic cocktail skills.  But it was the food: a slightly inventive take on Indian cuisine, but not so much of a take as to call it “nouveau” because, as you know, I don’t like pretentious anything.

I can also recommend Trishna (no website), another out of the way hotel that is truly an oasis on what appears to be a small side street, in a city of small side streets. The outside décor is all glitz and glamour – a bit over the top to be honest – whereas the inside is very small and minimalist.  My taxi driver said it was the best fish restaurant in the city and although I don’t eat fish, I can guarantee that the veg dishes were top notch.

Sites

Mumbai is an amazing and diverse city spread out over unknown miles and the only real way to see the sites is via a tour.  To be honest, my tour guide wasn’t the best – she was supposed to be with me 2 days but switched to another guide on the second day and neither really gave more detail than when a building was built – so I won’t provide any specifics here.  But I will tell you that you must see the Gate of India, the Taj Hotel near the Gate, and most importantly, you must visit Elephanta Island.  Every guide book will tell you this but, truly, it is imperative!  But reader beware: the boat trip to the island is painfully slow with nothing to see, and upon arrival at Elephanta, even if you don’t pay the few rupees extra for the “tram” to the base of the UNESCO site, you will have to walk some steep steps to visit the monument.  So bring plenty of bottled water!

And when you reach Elephanta Island, have your cameras ready: the monkeys are playing everywhere and they are too cute to describe.

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More than just gorgeous canals

I love Amsterdam.  Full stop.   The people are amazing and helpful, the food divine, and there is a tranquility about the city that keeps me coming back as often as I can.

Nites

If you want a truly wonderful and homey experience, you must try and book a room at the Hotel Seven Bridges (http://www.sevenbridgeshotel.nl/cms/).  I tried for years to get in here and when I finally did, I wasn’t disapointed.  The staff is great and the rooms really quite cool and filled with antiques.  (They even include information on the antiques in your room so you know what you are living with.)   The owners live on the ground floor and it’s really quite interesting in that the “reception” is closed at night so you pretty much come and go as you please, just as if it were your own house.

My other favourite hotel in Amsterdam is the Hotel Pullitzer (http://www.pulitzeramsterdam.com/) which is just amazing.  It’s a bit more upscale the Seven Bridges, but doesn’t have as much individual charm so take your pick.  Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Bites

Le Garage (http://www.restaurantlegarage.nl/), which is near the Rijksmuseum, is a funky cool place with incredible food!  I loved it and want to go back

De Vijff Vlieghen (https://www.vijffvlieghen.nl/en/) is a classic restaurant with out of this world food.  And it’s not pretensious, even if it is one of the standard restaurants in the city.

BIHP Art and Food (http://www.bihp.nl/) is also close to the Seven Bridges hotel and is a quaint little place.  The menu is small, but fantastic, and they even made something for me, the vegetarian.

Restaurant Bussia (http://www.bussia.nl/) I can’t go anywhere without finding good Italian food and this was it for me!

And if you want a truly interesting experience, take a taxi to the former Olympic Stadium and book a table at Vak Zuid (http://www.vakzuid.nl/nl/). This is a great place for drinks and people watching and the food is amazing!  It’s a little on the loud side, but worth it.  (and don’t worry, it doesn’t become a night club until around 11pm).

Sites

(coming soon)

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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.

My favourite restaurant is 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 (https://www.facebook.com/wallflowervancouver/) 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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Piemonte is more than Barolo but that’s a good first reason to go!

(update 30 August 2020)

Piemonte (and Langhe) 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 may have stumbled upon the most amazing, and charming, and inviting hotel in the Langhe region that I am honestly afraid to share because I don’t want to be turned away: the Locanda Marchesi Alfieri (http://www.marchesialfieri.it/eng/) (closest to ASTI or ALBA).  I am literally in love with this hotel.  I didn’t want to leave and when I moved to another hotel that I wasn’t happy with, all I could say was that I wanted to return to the Marchesi Alfieri.

I read an article about the Hotel Castello di Sinio (http://www.hotelcastellodisinio.com/en/) (closest to BAROLO and MONFORTE D’ALBA) 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.)

In the small village of La Morra – and a short walk from what is arguably the best restaurant in Piemonte: Il Bovio – lies the lovely little Corte Gondina Hotel (https://www.cortegondina.it/en/) (LA MORRA).  There aren’t a lot or rooms but the rooms they have, are great: some are large with only a minimal view while others are a bit smaller with a balcony where you can see rows and rows of vineyards.  And not to be missed is the morning breakfast with wonderful pastries and divine cappuccini.

Another recent discover is the Relais Poderi Luigi Einaudi (https://www.relaiseinaudi.com/en/) a wonderfully small and pleasant B&B in the Dogliani area of Piemonte (CLOSEST TO DOGLIANI).  I counted 6 rooms – and the amazing opportunity to be the only guest for 2 nights which was perfect for this traveling introvert – and each was unique with homey and person touches.  The common spaces were warm and inviting and in the summer, an outdoor pool (which is also serves to manage the humidity in the cellars below!).

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.)  I have returned to this restaurant every year, for Thanksgiving, this being the 5th year as of this writing and it has not changed, and it remains special to this solo traveler

De Felicin (http://www.felicin.it/en/) is, without a doubt, my second favourite restaurant in the Piemonte region and I would insist that you spend two nights  in this part of Italy, just to enjoy.  The owner and chef, Nino, is amazing and so incredibly knowledgeable for all diners.  On my visit, he suggested that he make various antipasti and, if we were still hungry, to order a pasta dish.  We weren’t still hungry!   The antipasti were each unique, tasty, and not too big which can be a welcomed respite from the sometimes heavy pasta that you can find in the Piemonte region.  And not to be missed is the wine cellar: what a site  for both the wine aficionado and the newbie!  Put this one on your list!

If you have a third night, you really can’t skip Bovio Ristorante (https://www.ristorantebovio.it) 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.

A recent discovery thanks to the Slow Food movement so prominent in Italy was the Cantina del Cacciatori.  Absolutely lovely!

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 (Barolo)

GD Vajra (Barolo)

Massolino

Schiavenza

Paitin

Vietti (Barolo)

La Spinetta (Barbaresco) – my favourite

Cantina Vignaioli Elvio Pertinace (Barbaresco)

Azienda Agricola Sottimano (Barbaresco)

and new to the list – only because I can only visit so many wineries and taste so much wine:

Contratto (sparkling wine in a STUNNING winery, not to be missed!)

Ceretto

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.

And to note: most of the wineries have begun charging for their tasting.  The fact that they didn’t charge for so many years is one of the things that I found charming. But I understand, and given the tourism trade, it makes perfect sense so be prepared to pay between 10 and 25 euro for your tastings.

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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Ia (Santorini), Greece

Santorini is really made up of two splendid villages: Fira and Ia.  Fira is more of the metropolis and Ia is the village where all of the pictures “from Santorini” are taken.  Although I love Fira and recommend that you go, I would encourage you to only do a day trip (or walk there, see details later) and rather use Ia as your base.

Nights

There are so many gorgeous places to stay in Ia that I really don’t know what to tell you.  My go to place had always been Alexander’s Boutique Hotel Oia (www.alexandershotel.com/hotel) and it really is a lovely place.  Unfortunately, however, they seem to be expanding in to other properties and, as such, their attention to clients lacks much.  And the fact that a ring was stolen while I was there, with no attempt to replace it of even apologize, makes me still question whether to return or not.  So, be warned: this is a lovely hotel and the cave houses are amazing, but know that the service may be rude and unhelpful.

If you want to have some true peace and quiet, I would encourage you to stay at one of the beautiful hotels between Ia and Fira, all of which look out over the caldera and have pools to squelch the afternoon heat.

Bites

Eating is a bit of pastime in Ia and you really can’t go wrong.  And because you are on the end of the island, most every restaurant has a view.  So, in all honesty, the determining factor of where to go could depend on price (and what you pay for the view).

Papagalos restaurant (papagalosrestaurant.com) was an amazing find and the food perfect for both this vegetarian and my non-vegetarian friends.

Ambrosia & Nectar (www.ambrosia-nectar.com) is probably my favourite choice because the décor was soothing, the staff outstanding, and the food sheer perfection!  There wasn’t a view of the caldera, unfortunately, but we sat outside, under a lovely canopy and watched the crowds go by, the sun set, and relaxed as if we were at home.

And if you want to splurge, you must go to 1800 (www.oia-1800.com).  Talk about service with a view!   The restaurant is on the top floor of what appears to be a very old house and truly, the views cannot be beat.  And the food?!  The food is beyond divine and worth every penny that this upscale restaurant will charge.  If you only have one night, this would be my recommendation to you.

Sites

It may seem odd to include a bar and a wine shop under the sites section, but trust me when I tell you that you must go to both.

Meteor café (www.meteorcafe.gr) is a site to behold at the end of one of the pedestrian-only streets before the street starts to curve down to the caldera.  Okay, it’s not cheap here – you are paying for the view as you do in most places – but the view is incredible, the soft jazz playing is relaxing, and when you need to just sit down, relax, or even have a drink before dinner, this is the place to go.  Sure, you will find lots of other places – and I encourage you to try them all – but if you need a highly recommended place, this is where you need to go!

And if you want to check a few bottles of wine in your luggage before you go, you must visit the lama wine store (www.lamatrade.com).  The owners are incredibly knowledgeable about Greek wines and didn’t steer us wrong.  And, quite honestly, the prices are cheaper here than they are in the convenience stores where you will have to go for all of your other provisions.

But now on to the actual sites in Ia.  Although it is a bit of cliché, watching the sunset in Ia is a site to behold.   There are boats that cruise the caldera but if you don’t want to spend the money, or have the food that I believe is included, just go walk to the tip of the island, one hour before sunset, and you will see everyone standing around waiting.  Not only is it a great place to people watch, but it is also a great time to have a drink and watch a truly beautiful aspect of nature.

 

Another thing that you must see, although not a site per se, is to walk from Ia to Fira (or the other way if you prefer): the views to the caldera are stunning, the exercise a welcomed change from sunning by the pool or on the gravel beaches, and the chance to see nature not something that every visitor to Santorini has the chance to do.

Santorini is really a place to relax and enjoy life.  You won’t find museums and even venues for music, but you will find outstanding views, meet truly sweet people, and enjoy a relaxation in life that we are rarely allowed to experience.

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Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is an amazing, but small town, that invites all travelers with open arms and stunning views.

Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is an amazing, but small town, that invites all travelers with open arms and stunning views.

Nites

Tromsø doesn’t have boutique hotels, as far as I could tell, and seems to be populated with a couple of major Nordic chain hotels, so my typical effort to find unique places was a bit thwarted on this adventure.  But after reviewing the available options, and seeing what the best deal I could find would be, I decided upon the Clarion Hotel With (https://www.nordicchoicehotels.com/hotels/norway/tromso/clarion-collection-hotel-with/), part of the Clarion Choice chain.  The staff were incredibly helpful and the breakfast in the morning (included) fantastic with everything that you could hope for.  When booking, confirm a room with a water view.  But be forewarned: the rooms are small as you pay for the view, and not the space.

Pretty much next to the Hotel With is the Scandic Ishavshotel.  I didn’t stay here but as most of the tours either meet here or across the street at the Radisson Blu, either would undoubtedly be an excellent place to stay.

Bites

A note on dining in Tromsø: being this far north, and if you’re there in the winter, options become a bit smaller and for a vegetarian, the options even fewer.  But they will try so venture out.  And if you enjoy fish, you can’t go wrong!

If I only had one night in Tromsø, I would go to Bardus (http://www.bardus.no/).  Located right across from the library (a former swimming hall), a seat on the window will provide a stunning view of life passing by in a lovely and quaint environment.  Although they didn’t have many options for a vegetarian, the chef tried and they were able to offer a starter and an entrée.

Another option, albeit located in a hotel, is Marcus Samuelsson’s Kitchen and Table (http://www.kitchenandtable.se/).  I loved it, although my friend wasn’t quite as impressed as I was, but the setting was amazing and the staff so incredibly helpful.

And the last place that I have to recommend, simply because it was my favourite, even though I didn’t eat here: Campagniet Restaurant (http://www.compagniet.no/).  We went to the bar and it was fantastic.   It was crowded and the list of wines by the glass, along with the beers, was outstanding!  Located on the second floor of an old building in the centre, try for a window seat as watching the city walk and drive by is really mesmerizing.  I would love to sit there right now with a glass of wine and tired feet.

Sites

Most people go to Tromsø for the sites and, as such, guidebooks and websites will tell you the various options available to you.  And since we were no different, I can make the following recommendations.

If you only have one night – as some of the tour groups did – you’ll want to try and see the Northern Lights.  I chose Enjoy the Arctic (http://enjoythearctic.no/).  Andrei was very informative and was as determined as we were to see the Northern Lights.  It was slightly precarious with the incoming clouds but we saw them and it truly is everything that you think it will be.  And props to Andrei for accommodating us with vegetarian food by the fire.  Note to the reader: it is cold so put your pride aside and take Andrei up on his offer of a snow suit.   We didn’t and it got very uncomfortably cold quite quickly!

If you have a full day, the first thing that you really should do is just explore Tromsø.  It really is a stunning city and really fun to get lost and to find your way back.  But if you have a second day, consider doing a whale watching tour.  Sadly, because of global warming, the herring aren’t coming as far “south” as Tromsø and, as such, the whales aren’t coming this far “south” either.  We chose Fjordtours (https://www.fjordtours.com/).  So, a whale watching tour will inevitably require you to take a boat about 2.5 hours north.  But it is so worth it; we were fortunate to see roughly 100 orcas and although we couldn’t see the humpbacks – as they don’t really come out of the water – you could see them spew water in the air from their blowholes.  Stunning!

Polaria (https://polaria.no/en/) is amazing!  The architectural design of the outside will elicit either a love-it or hate-it reaction: personally, I loved it and the idea that the building is slipping in to the water!  But most of all, I loved Bella the bearded sea lion.  When I heard that she was “fickle” and “opinionated”, how could you not love her in all of her big-girlness.  But more than Bella, being able to see and learn about sea life above the Arctic Circle was amazing and, suffice it to say, informative.

And last but not least, you must take the Fjellheisen (https://fjellheisen.no/en/) to the top of the mountain on Tromsdalen, across the fjord from Tromsø.  You can take a taxi over or, if you pay attention to the stops, you can take a bus from the city centre for a lot less.  Note to the reader: the bus stop is past the entrance to the Fjellheisen.  But trust me when I say that the views are stunning, and with sturdy hiking shoes, you can really enjoy some truly stunning vistas that you won’t get to see anywhere else.

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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 (no website) 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

(updated 12 October 2018)

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 have one night in Santiago, I would go to La Bodeguita de Miguel Torres (https://www.labodeguitamigueltorres.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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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 (https://www.aiadisangiorgio.it/) 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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Rome, Italy – My home away from home

[updated 30 Aug 2020]

I will tell anyone who asks:  Rome is to me what the sun is to Superman.  It is my home, my love, and my return.

If you must, take a map but “flying blind” really is part of the fun of Rome: getting lost, finding little cafés, little shops, or just watching people go about their business.  There is so much that I can tell you and suggest for you, but below are my highlights and where I go every time I return to Rome.  I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.

Nites

The number of hotels opening in Roma are truly fascinating.  There are some old standbys that I still love, and some new players that have joined the scene.

The Hotel Ponte Sisto (http://www.hotelpontesisto.it/) has fond memories for me and is often a place I find myself drifting back to.  The staff have not changed in YEARS and given that the hotel is a short walk from either Trastevere on the other side of the river or the Campo dei Fiori, the Piazza Navona, and everything else you will want to see makes this a fantastic place to start and stop from!

Ponte Sisto at night

If, however, you are a fan of Roman history and architecture, you must stay at the Hotel Donna Camilla Savelli hotel (http://www.hoteldonnacamillasavelli.com/) at least once.  A former convent (or monastery depending on what you read) designed by the renowned Borromini, the architectural influences are stunning and some of the remaining religious touches are breathtaking (there’s a small set of steps with an alter by Borromini that is breathtaking).  Located in my favourite neighborhood of Trastevere, the hotel is relatively quiet but still close enough to everything that you could want to do.

Hotel De’Ricci (https://www.hoteldericci.com/) is a lovely new find located not far from the Piazza Farnessi (with the lovely tub fountains!) and within close walking distance of everything you could wish for.  Designed with a classy art deco feel, the staff are amazing and the rooms spacious.  Because the hotel is in a residential building there is no restaurant so breakfast is served in your room, with multiple add-ons if required (but rather expensive to be honest).  Reader beware: the outside lights that illuminate the façade of the building are rather bright and brighten the jr suites which are located on the first floor: if you can afford it, opt for something higher.  (Disclaimer: I can’t sleep in total darkness so closing the curtains is equally as disruptive as the light flooding in until the lights go off at 6am.)

Relatively new to the hotel scene is Chapter Rome (https://www.chapter-roma.com/).  Like many of the other new hotels that are taking former residential space and renovating it, the Chapter Rome is not really much different.  But what I loved about the hotel is that it is close to Campo dei Fiori, Piazza Argentina, and thus everything you could ever want.  The one recommendation I would make – at least until Chapter Rome double-glazes their windows and adds sound-proofed windows – is to request a room on the 3rd floor, the highest floor; you’ll still hear traffic and pedestrian noise at night but having stayed on the 3rd floor, I can only image how loud rooms on 1 and 2 might be.

And although I can’t vouch for the hotel, I can tell you that a new place has opened in the neighborhood where I lived: in fact, it is right down the street!  Horti 14 (https://www.horti14.com/) is tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of Trastevere.  You won’t roll out the door and have a restaurant at your feet, but none are so far away that the solitude may just be a welcomed respite.

Near Rome

If seeking a bit of calm and respite from what can seem like the constant cacophony of motorini (scooters), you should seek out the Castello Orsini Hotel in Nerola (https://www.castellorsini.it/it/home). The castello is a converted 10th century castle about 30 miles north of Rome and although a challenge to reach, I promise that, once you are there, you won’t want to leave!  (A spa has opened, but I haven’t tried it.)

Bites

Now, as it regards the food – the fun part of the trip –  I can make a couple of suggestions.  If you want to treat yourself just once, which I highly recommend, ask the hotel to make a reservation for you at “Ristorante Tullio” (http://www.tullioristorante.it/)  This is the restaurant that is known for their pasta with white truffles.  It’s not cheap, but worth every savory bite.  And if you like meat, you must get the Bistecca alla Fiorintina

My favourite restaurant and it’s been in Rome for ages, what some would call an institution!  Da Enzo (http://www.daenzoal29.com/ reservations imperative) is sheer perfection and unpretentious.  Indoors, there are less than 40 seats, all situated quite closely but don’t let that put you off; the food is outstanding, the service efficient but not rushed nor achingly slow, and wine selection not too shabby.  One of my favourite pasta dishses is cacio e pepe and this was, by far, the best cacio e pepe I have ever had.  I want to go back right now!Da Enzo interiorA close second to my new favourite restaurant is Flavio al Velavevodetto (http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/  reservations suggested) a 30 minute walk to Testaccio if you are staying in the center of Rome.  And I promise, it is worth the trek: the restaurant appears to be underground and the dining rooms look as though they are located in former wine vaults that have been painted white.  The service was immaculate and the food simply outstanding.  On the night I dined, I had a duo of carciofi – artichokes – one fried (carciofo alla giudia) and the other cooked in lemon and oil (carciofo alla romana) and they were outstanding.  The pasta was an amazing ricotta filled ravioli with salt and oregano and although I’m not normally a fan of oregano, this was delicious!

Da Cesare (https://www.trattoriadacesare.it), in the Casaletto neighborhood is a charming and affordable restaurant specializing in traditional Roman cuisine.  Easily reached via the 8 tram in Trastevere – it’s the last stop so you don’t even need to worry about missing your stop – the restaurant is understated with wonderful service.  And on the night that I was there, I heard locals, as well as English and German tourists so at least 3 languages are covered.

Another discover, albeit having existed for nearly 100 years, is Felice a Testaccio (http://feliceatestaccio.it).  Not too far in fact from one of my favourite restaurants, Flavio Velavevodetto, this is a larger restaurant that can accommodate many more guests than many of the restaurants listed above.  The presentation of their cacao e pepe is a bit of show – mixed at the table much like truffles are shaved table-side in Piemonte – and I could have done without it, but it was divine so overlook the flash.  But the real stand-out here was the Carciofi alla Romana – the steamed artichoke with garlic and lemon.  It was insanely good!  There was the taste of a bit of char, which I have never experienced before, yet the texture was firm and only lightly salted.  I would literally return there for the Carciofi (in season, of course) in a heartbeat.

Another small place that always puts a smile on my face is Trattoria de Gli Amici, also in Trastevere in Piazza Sant’Egidio. I have never been here for dinner but as a place to stop for lunch, especially on a sunny day looking at the piazza and everyone walking around, it is close to sheer perfection.   And why this restaurant as opposed to others in Trastevere? Because they employ people with special needs and the money goes toward the ongoing support of the Roman special needs community.

One of my other personal favourites is a restaurant called Piccola Roma (no website).  This is close to the Pantheon and a wonderful little restaurant up a flight of stairs.  Mimo, my favourite waiter of all time has sadly for me, but wonderfully for him, retired so I no longer have singing while I eat, or the trust of a man who knows what to eat, but I still love this restaurant.  Go, for old-world true Italian cooking.  (And note: I celebrated my 40th birthday here years ago!)

And right next to Piccola Roma is Giolitti (http://www.giolitti.it/), what I consider to be the best gelato place in Rome.

Another restaurant that I must mention, and am embarrassed that I have forgotten all these years, is Dar Poeta (http://www.darpoeta.com/), one of the best pizzerias in Rome, located just across the river in Trastevere.  If memory serves, and as the lines out the door will attest, Dar Poeta doesn’t take reservations but I assure you, it is worth the wait.

And if you seek an affordable, yet traditional Roman meal, you must seek out Trattoria da Lucia (http://www.trattoriadalucia.com/ reservations suggested).  Even smaller than Da Enzo, the atmosphere is typically Roman as is the food.  On the night was I was there, a table asked what was good and the waiter listed the classics like pasta arrabiata and tripa alla romana.  The staff aren’t known for the congenial demeanor, but the food and wine are worth the trek and when the restaurant is filled with non-tourists, you know you are at a good standard place.

And arguably my favourite, despite what I said above, is Sora Margherita (https://www.soramargherita.com/).  (Yes, my faves change every time!) Located near the Jewish Quarter and although very small, and somewhat rustic, is an absolute must!  I am embarrassed to say that it has taken me this long to find this outstanding restaurant with probably the best fettuccini, with cacio e pepe, that I have ever had!  If I only had two nights in Rome, this would be one of the restaurants that I would have to return to.

Sites

You will see the Coliseum, the Piazza Navona, the Palatine hills, and do many other picturesque things that I won’t repeat what your guide book tells you.  Instead, I will tell you my 3 favourite things that you must see on any trip to Rome.

First, you must go to San Luigi dei Francesci; here are 3 original Caravaggios painted on the walls of the church so they can never be removed.  This is how art was meant to be viewed and the solitude of the church, even though teeming with tourists, is sheer tranquility for me.

Caravaggio at San Luigi dei Francesi 02Secondly, if it is open or you can convince someone to let you know, go to the Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte (on the via Giulia near the Hotel Ponte Sisto) which is the oddest and most bizarre church in Rome: it is full of bones and skull that have been made in to crosses, light fixtures, etc.  And this is no stunt or shock-value church.  It is the real thing.

Thirdly, you must cross the river and go to Trastevere and wander and get lost and have a coffee and stop for lunch at an outdoor café.

And if you find yourself near the Colosseum (really?!), San Pietro in Vincoli is one of my favourite churches, due in many parts because it is hard to find, and thus the church is not overrun with tourists, but most importantly, because of the sculpture of Moses by Michaelangelo that is one of his greatest works.  And a bit of Trivia: the story goes that Michaelangelo was so consumed by this massive sculpture that when it was finished, he was certain that it was real and would come to life and thus threw his hammer at the knee of Moses to make it rise.  (It didn’t.)  And the horns on this head: they were meant to be rays of light but due to a translation issue (sic!) of “keren” for horns was used instead of the intended “karan” for rays.

And although not exactly a site, but I recently did a cooking class with Grano & Farina (https://www.grano-farina.com/), also in Trastevere and although also around the corner from where I used to live, my choosing this school was totally by chance.  Julia and Pino offer around 20 courses so look on their website and plan in advance: they only allow 6 guests per class so you don’t want to miss out.

And last but not least, allow me to encourage you to just stroll.  After all these years, and the various directions I have traveled, I still find new things, and new ways of reaching things, and new glorious wonders.  This truly is the eternal city and should be explored as often and as varied as possible.

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Just a hint of what Ireland has in store

Bring an umbrella and always carry it with you.  That is the best advice anyone can keep in mind when visiting Dublin.  It’s a gorgeous city but the words of a taxi driver hold true: “I can tell you the weather report for the next 6 months… cloudy, with bouts of sunshine, the occasional rain shower and a gusty wind or two.”   And how true it was!

Nights

The first place to look for availability must be Butler’s Townhouse (http://www.butlers-hotel.com/).  It’s a bit out of the way – but an absolutely lovely walk in to town or the convention center – but the hominess of the townhouse is unrivaled in all of my travels.  Cecilia, the lovely and accommodating manager was a literal breath of fresh air every day and went well out of her way to help in every way possible.  In fact, upon leaving Butler’s Townhouse, I felt a pang of sadness as though I was leaving a friend.

If Butler’s is full, or you want to spend more money, check out Number 31 (http://www.number31.ie/) my second choice for a place to stay in Dublin.  There are, of course, numerous chain hotels that you can frequent but none will give you the personal touch that either Butler’s or Number 31 can do.

Bites

Dublin has apparently really come in to its own in terms of the restaurant scene.  In fact, they have a Michelin Starred restaurant, L’Ecrivain (http://www.lecrivain.com/) which I wasn’t able to get in to but next time.

Brasserie Sixty6 is a brilliant and lively restaurant with a fresh take on Irish cuisine (http://www.brasseriesixty6.com/ may be closed).  The food was divine and the wine list really quite broad with a bit of something for everyone.

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I love farm to table restaurants and Dublin’s The Farm (http://www.thefarmrestaurant.ie/) hits the mark straight on the head!  You must go: pleasing for both the vegetarian and the carnivore alike, the staff where fun and informed and the food absolutely divine.  (The “beet me up” dinner was out of this world!)

The ely group has a number of restaurants around the city that I understand are some of the best in the city.  I can personally recommend ely Gastropub (http://www.elywinebar.ie/) for their fantastic food, great beer, and fantastic staff.  I can only assume that their other restaurants are equally as good.

If, after a lovely dinner, you are in the need for a evening drink, I would recommend either the Palace bar (http://www.thepalacebardublin.com/) and Bowes pub (http://www.dublinpubscene.com/thepubs/bowes.html), the latter proudly stating that they have 130 some odd types of whiskey (I only had 3).  Of course there are lots of pubs and bars around so I just say, pop in and have a blast.

And lastly, and not exactly a “bite,” there is the Celtic Whiskey Shop (http://www.celticwhiskeyshop.com/).  This is a must and if you can speak with Michael, do so: according to three different bar tenders that I spoke to, Michael is probably the most knowledgeable person in all of Dublin when it comes to Whiskey.  (Suffice it to say that I left Dublin with two bottles of Yellow Spot, the big brother to the more typical Green Spot Whiskey!)

Sites

Regrettably, I didn’t have much of a chance to do much sightseeing but I can tell you that you must – must – visit the Book of Kels which is amazing but to this bibliophile, the library that is part of the tour is breathtaking and if they would have let me, I would have stood there for hours thinking about the books there, the people who used them daily, and the love that went in to their creation.

Christ Church is a must do when going to Dublin.  I’ve honestly seen better cathedrals in the world, but given that it is the oldest church in Europe, a trip to Dublin wouldn’t be complete without paying homage.

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Firenze, Italy

Florence is one of those places that I think the adjective “indifferent” best applies to how I feel about the city: I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it (like I do Rome and Venice) either, so it’s just there.  Don’t get me wrong: Florence is a beautiful city and has so much amazing art and architecture that one must visit at least once in their lives.  Whether you choose to return after that first visit, well, you’ll just have to tell me won’t you?

Nights

Like most hotels in Europe, there seems to be a lot on both ends of the spectrum and not a lot in the middle.  But don’t let that deter you.  And, whatever you do, don’t start thinking about the conversion rate of euro to your national currency: think of them as 1 to 1 if at all possible.  It honestly helps put things in perspective.

It is also important to keep my one most vital tip in mind: never book off of a website, but rather, write to the hotel directly asking for availability and the best available rate.  9 times out of 10, I get a great rate that is not available on the web.  And if you are staying for 3 nights or more, there is normally a better rate available.  Why waste money when a few minutes of time is all you need to write an email.

That said, my new favourite chain of hotels in Florence is the Lungarno Hotels group (www.lungarnohotels.com).  This is a relatively new chain of hotels in Florence, and part of the larger group of Design Hotels (www.designhotels.com) throughout Europe.  The Lungarno Hotels are all clumped together near the Ponte Vecchio (where you will, no doubt, want to go and explore).  The lower end of the hotes, I think, is the Gallery Art hotel and it is still quite stunning.  The common areas are akin to a library and personal art gallery and the rooms range from good-sized to suites.  My only complaint, if you will, is that each of the rooms has hardwood floors (a good thing) but when the lazy people above you can’t pick up a chair, but drag it – especially in the middle of the night – well, you can imagine.

Another hotel that I feel confident in recommending is the Borghese Palace Art Hotel (https://www.borghesepalace.it/contatti/).  I passed by this with a friend and then went back to have a look around and let me tell you: it looks stunning!  I will be staying here next time, just to have a look and advise my readers better.

If, by chance, you are in Florence for a conference or need to be near the train station, there is a 4 Star hotel called the Hotel Croce di Malta (www.crocedimaltaflorence.com) where I have stayed before.  In all honesty, it is pushing it to give this hotel 4 stars, but it is clean, the staff were great, and if you don’t have much time, its location really can’t be beat.

Bites

Until this visit, I had never been overly impressed with the restaurant scene in Florence.  Perhaps things have changed, or my sleuthing has gotten better, but I think that this time around I managed to avoid most of the overly-touristic restaurants.  My favourite, by far and away, was Buca dell’Orafo (www.bucadellorafo.com).  The staff were outstanding, the rigatoni with a smoked tomato sauce divine, and the atmosphere very non-touristy.  And the best part: although the staff does speak a bit of English, they are willing to let you speak in Italian.  Try it!  Italians prefer that you try rather than be lazy or, worst yet, purposefully butcher it like many of the young tourists walking around.

Another restaurant that I thoroughly enjoyed was Boccanegra (www.boccanegra.com).  There are 3 parts to this restaurant: the ristorante, the osteria, and the continetta.  I opted for the osteria because that is what I love about Italian cooking: I want to see what I am eating, taste what I am eating, and not be confused by what I am eating and tasting.  That’s what an osteria is to me.  The staff here were very friendly and not cloyingly attentive like many places can be.  And let me tell you: the caprese was the best that I’ve had in the city to date!  And I ate caprese every night!  And although I don’t eat meat, they are supposedly known for their bistecca fiorentina (which I heard was great) which means that their wine list is heavy on the reds.  For 29 euro, we had an outstanding, full-bodied red that was not a chianti and was the cheapest wine on the list.  And it was the waiter’s recommendation to us!  Oh yeah, before I forget: don’t be put off by what some of the reviews on those other sites say.  I didn’t read any of those before going and only know of their opinions the day after and I still loved it.

Il Latini (www.illatini.com) was recommended to me but I wasn’t able to go.  It’s listed on many of the sites out there and I hear it is good from a couple of friends so I would believe them and go.

Sites

I can’t really add much to the list of sites that one must visit when in Florence: the Uffizi Gallery, “il Gigante” (aka, David), and the ponte vecchio as well as those amazing things that you see and find along the way.  So, instead, I will encourage you to go to 2 places for a drink either before a late dinner or after dinner, because the views are spectacular.  The first is actually the rooftop bar at the Continentale hotel (part of the Lungaro Hotel group).  The banquettes around the rooftop are incredibly comfortable and the views over the city breathtaking!  What better way to wind down the evening.  (And not a lot of people know about this place so it really is quite calming.)

The other place I would recommend it to go to the Forte di Belvedere on the “other side” of the Arno river.  It’s a bit of a walk – nothing better than after a filling meal of pasta and meat right?! – but well worth it.  Just find an enoteca that appeals, sit down, have a drink, and be amazed at the views back over the Arno at Firenze.  This really is a sight that should not be missed!

And with that my friends, put on your walking shoes and explore one of the cities in the country that I love and affectionately refer to as home.

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Barcelona, Spain

(updated 04 August 2012)

I find it difficult to choose between Barcelona and Madrid as my favourite place in Spain.  Each offers such different things to enjoy, admire, and fall in love with that I’m not sure if I will ever have a favourite.  But for this writing, allow me to wax nostalgically about Barcelona, a true gem of Europe.

Nights

One of my favourite Spanish hotel chains is the Room Mate hotels.  Now, if you’ve read other posts, you will know that I am not a fan of chain hotels.  But this chain is great: they are funky, the staff are young, hip and knowledgeable, and the hotels are typically located in residential areas so you don’t feel as though you are among the throngs of tourists mulling about.  In Barcelona, there is Room Mate Emma (http://www.room-matehotels.com/eng/barcelonahotel/emmahotel/emmahotel.php).  It is just a short walk to everything – las Ramblas, the convention centre, and every conceivable restaurant option you could want – and I highly recommend it.

The next hotel that I suspect I will book is the Hotel Sixty Two (http://www.sixtytwohotel.com/).  I have finally had the chance to stay here are it is all that i hoped it would be!   Classy, minimalist design, and if you’re coming from the airport, you can take the train, get off in BCN, and it’s only a few blocks walk.  Absolutely stunning!

I’ve heard good things about the Hotel Montecarlo Barcelona, although I haven’t stayed here, so you’ll have to let me know what you think if you go.  (http://www.montecarlobcn.com/?gclid=CLGa06Hz1qwCFcV_5Qod1jirqw)

The U232 Hotel (http://www.u232hotel.com/default-en.html) is another option if you are traveling to BCN.   The hotel design is vintage Ralph Lauren in black, cherry, taupe and everything I hoped it would be.   The staff are amazing and very helpful and the location in a somewhat residential part of BCN is amazing.   For those business travels out there, just know: the internet connection in the hotel is dreadful.  Not only is it weak and kept cutting off, but even in the lobby – where I would work each morning –  the signal is pretty dim so just be prepared and be patient.  The hotel  is worth the stay, just not the free internet!

Bites

I love the food in Barcelona!  It’s not the easiest place for a vegetarian to eat, but I’ve yet to have a problem and I can say with all pride and admiration that every restaurant has gone  out of their way to make something for me, beyond the typical grilled vegetable platter.

Restaurant Gaig is a Michelin starred and worth every penny, but very expensive (http://www.restaurantgaig.com/).   It’s just down a small little alley/street from my personal favourite restaurant in Barcelona so if you can’t get in, or don’t have dosh to splurge, check out

Restaurant Tragaluz (http://www.grupotragaluz.com/tragaluz/).  Like I said, this is my favourite in the city!  If you can sit on the top floor, which is enclosed in glass, do it!  Note: if you arrive early, they won’t let you go to the restaurant as they want you to drink in the bar.  The bar is cool, but expensive so just be forewarned.  (The bar no longer exists and now it is an oyster bar but still, if you arrive early, they won’t seat you.  But still an amazing restaurant and still my favourite!)

Another favourite of mine in the city is the Casa Calvet (http://www.casacalvet.es/).  As you walk around Barcelona, you can’t help but notice the influence that Gaudi had on the city.  What makes this restaurant so special, besides the food, is that Casa Calvet was the first residence that Gaudi designed for a private client.  The restaurant is a tad on the posh side but it is such a lovely experience – almost like sitting in someone’s private home having dinner – that you really should try and go if you can.

And finally, and before I forget, you must seek out La Vinya del Senyor.  This is a lovely wine bar – among a plethora of wine bars – but this is truly the best with an amazing list of wines by the glass and some pretty tasty tapas as well.  It’s a walk from any of the hotels that I have mentioned, but that’s what you do: you walk and take in the sites of Barcelona all in anticipation of phenomenal wines (and perhaps a bit of cheese too!) before dinner.

Sites

I, personally, love La Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece and strongly encourage everyone to go.  But, whatever you do, don’t be rushed; take your time to look at the details and see all the different figures that are nearly hidden in the structure.   Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

I would also encourage you to stroll up the street (sorry, I can’t remember the name) that leads to Park Guell, another Gaudi masterpiece.  Yes, you can take the metro, a bus, or even a taxi but if you walk, will be greeted by more of Gaudi’s masterpieces along the street.  And once you are at Park Guell, stroll around and maybe even stop along your way to get some bread and cheese for a little picnic in the park.  You won’t regret the journey and you will love seeing all of the locals intermingled with the tourists admiring the beauty and vision of Gaudi and his park.

And if you have the time – or better yet, please, make the time – you must go to Montserrat, the hilltop religious center.  You won’t be disappointed, I promise.

Getting there is really quite easy: when in the metro station, you will see kiosks promoting Montserrat and telling you the options of how to get there so fear not, it really is easy.  When you get to Montserrat, just wonder.  And be sure to see the black virgin.

(Note: because Montserrat is on a hilltop, it can be quite cold up there so take a jacket, even if you are sweating from the heat in Barcelona.   You will need it!  And it will cover your shoulders when you go in the church.)

And with that, I encourage you to go and visit one of the most amazing cities  in Spain.  I think you will love it and want to return as soon as possible.  Enjoy!

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Milano – unlike much of Italy but still quintessentially Italian

(updated 29 Feb 2020)

Most people I know either love Milano or hate Milano: I’m still not sure why because I think it a fascinating, multi-cultural place with so much to see and do that I just can’t get enough.  But, perhaps, in retrospect, people don’t like Milano because it isn’t like the Italy we grew up with in our heads: little streets, little buildings, and lots of ruins.  But these are, in all honesty, what makes Milano such a fascinating destination.

Nights

Milano has every possible price point in terms of hotels.  And, needless to say, I haven’t stayed at all of them (!), but I do tend to stay at group of hotels, all of which I highly recommend.

If money is no object or you just want to splurge, you must stay at the Park Hyatt Milano (http://www.milan.park.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp?null).  The hotel is located right next to the Gelleria Vittorio Emanuele II (the famous stain-glass covered shopping arcade) and the Duomo.

If you need something a little cheaper, but still close to the Duomo, go to the UNA Maison (http://www.unahotels.it/en/) which is about a block and half from the Duomo and a hotel of calm with a pallate of whites and beiges.  I love this hotel!

About a 15 minute walk further east (I think) is the Petite Palais Hotel ( http://www.petitpalais.it/).  This hotel has been hit and miss for me but the design, decor, and location make me keep coming back hoping for a good  room, as opposed to a corner room on the second floor that seems to invite all of the outside noise at all hours of the night.

Another more recent find is “the Yard” (http://www.theyardmilano.com/) a new endeavor by a truly lovely family.  This is not so much a hotel, as it is a bed and breakfast: the family is always there, their sun a sweatheart, and everyone just wants to help you.  The only downside, if there is one, is that you don’t exactly have privacy: the family is literally just down the hall so, I imagined anyway, that they can here everything that you are doing.  It was a strange feeling.  But all-in-all, I would stay again.

And if you are looking for something truly unique, I highly recommend the “TownHouse Collection” (http://www.townhouse.it/) of hotels.  Each is unique, close enough to everything that you want to see and do, and you don’t feel like you are staying in staid hotel.  I love TownHouse 33.  I love the TownHouse chain and this hotel did not disappoint.  The communal breakfast in the morning was more than the typical Italian breakfast but not quite the American smorgasbord breakfast that some may be used to. I loved it! And in terms of the rooms: some rooms look to an inner courtyard and these, I suspect, are quieter than those looking on to the street.

Bites

Finally, I have found places in Milano that I can recommend for the hungry traveler!

Ratana Ristorante (https://www.ratana.it/?lang=en) may just be my favourite restaurant in Milano.  As I write this, I literally cannot wait to return!  The food was outstanding, the wine divine, and the staff so incredibly helpful that I didn’t want to leave.  There was also something about the familial aspect of the restaurant: there was a feeling that family members of the staff were there, just as you would at someone’s house.  But it was the food.  I love the tradition of Italian cooking, and the simplicity of it all, but somehow the chef, Cesare Battisti, has managed to modernize the food while keeping to tradition and not making it “nouveau Italian”.  Sincerely, I say bravo chef.  And everyone must go here.

I have fallen in love with the Trattoria del Nuovo Macello (http://www.trattoriadelnuovomacello.it/)! I am literally dreaming about the staff, the food, and the wine list. I could go on and on about this restaurant but, instead, just take my word for it and go, but know that, like many restaurants in Italy, they are closed on Sundays. And when you do, be sure to get the saffron “rice pudding” with strawberries if it is available. Oh. My. God.

In the Navigli neighborhood, I was taken to one of the growing slow food establishments that I honestly cannot wait to return to: L’Osteria Grand Hotel (http://www.grandhotelosteria.it/). It’s not the easiest place to find – to say that it is tucked away off of a busy street is an understatement! – but with a good map and a bit of patience, it will be worth the trip! At first, I wasn’t sure if they spoke anything other than Italian but I am happy to say that I heard a bit of English and a bit of German the night I was here. The antipasti and the primi were truly mouthwatering and the dolci, which I don’t typically take, was incredible. Make this a stop on your tour of Milano!

My latest find is a keeper!  La Bettola di Piero (no website but on Facebook) is a quintessential Italian restaurant.  There is nothing fancy, the tables are covered in checked tablecloths (not to be kitschy but for real), and there are old pictures hanging on the walls.  But the food is absolutely divine, the owners are so genial and check on every diner, and the ambiance is so inviting and welcoming.  They do have an English menu available but I honestly can’t tell you if they speak English as everyone in the restaurant – except for yours truly – was Italian: I did not hear one word of English spoke then entire time!

And if you are in need of some great, classic, and unpretentious Italian food, head no further than La Cantina di Manuela, a 10 minute walk from TownHouse 33.  A small enoteca with wonderful wines by the glass, the food was outstanding and full of locals so you knew it would be good.  I will be back in August, if not sooner, and cannot wait!

If you are near the Duomo and are looking for great, yet affordable pizza – for either lunch or dinner – I can highly recommend Mozzarella e Basilco  (http://www.mozzarellaebasilico.com/).  Tucked away behind the Duomo, off of Corso Vittorio Emanuelle II, is some of the finest pizza from Napoli that I have found this far north. The restaurant is filled with everyone – young, old, local, and tourist – and the staff and managers are just outstanding!  It is so good that I am literally drooling as I write!  Be sure to put this on your list of places to visit.

And my latest find, as of 2020, is the sister restaurant to Felice a Testaccio in Milano (http://feliceatestaccio.it/en/milan/).  Cacio e pepe is a southern dish so this traveler was insanely happy to know that there is a place in the north that will meet with cacio e pepe cravings when I next travel through this stunning city.

Sites

A visit to Milano should not be considered complete without a visit to the Galleria, the Duomo, and the Last Supper.  (For the latter, be sure to book as far in advance as you can as they only allow a certainly number of people in at any one time.) (Click here for tickets http://www.vivaticket.it/?op=cenacoloVinciano. The page is in Italian but you can change to English in the upper right corner.)

And before you leave the Duomo, be sure to pay to go to the roof of the Duomo and walk on the roof.  The views are stunning and it’s something you can do that not everyone knows about.   And,  if the weather is not good, or you just need a break, be sure to go to La Rinascente department store, right next to the Duomo, and go to the cafe on the top floor; it has views of the Duomo from an angle that not everyone has the luxury or knowledge to view.

After you have done the requisite tourist things – all of which I love and recommend – be sure to allow some time to go to the Pinacoteca di Brera art gallery (http://www.brera.beniculturali.it/) something that I overlooked for the longest time and now is one of my favourite galleries in the world.

If you can get in, I highly recommend seeing an opera at La Scala.  It’s difficult to get tickets, but if you can, you won’t be disappointed: it is, after all, where Italian Operas began!

And finally, your trip to Milano would not be complete without a stroll down Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga and Via Sant’Andrea.  This is where the pretty people are – assuming you don’t think all Italians are “pretty” – and the clothes aren’t too bad either.  And if  you have the chutzpa (not meant negatively, I assure you), go in to the shops and see some truly outstanding craftsmanship.  I do it every time!

And with that, I will wish you great travels to a city that I adore and think of as a third home.  Buon viaggio!

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Craig’s 50th Grand Tour

For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that I would celebrate my 50th birthday, in Italy, and with my friends.  Over time, bits and pieces would form in my head and ultimately become reality: once I knew what I was going to do, it never changed. And once I realized, years ago, where it would be, I never wavered on the location or anything else.

It was a humbling experience, and a memorable one at that.  Those who were able to attend, along with those who couldn’t but were there in spirit, have had to hear me reminisce, and tell and retell long stories, and yes, still get verklempt at the fact that many people came a long way. For me.

So here’s my story.  And if you want to follow my path, and visit my special places, I hope you will and I hope you’ll let me know if I can help you as this really was unforgettable.

Nites

I started off the Grand Tour at a hotel that I’ve always wanted to stay at but never had the opportunity either because they were closed (they close in the winter) or they were fully booked (they only have 5 rooms!): the Locanda Cipriani (https://www.locandacipriani.com/en/).  I wanted a little time to myself, before everyone arrived, and I knew that this would be the perfect place.  The island of Torcello is perfection and the calm and solitude that you feel when walking on this island, after all of the day-trippers have left, is absolutely stunning!

I next moved to the Cima Rosa (https://cimarosavenezia.com/) in Venezia.  I’ve always wanted to stay on the Grande Canale in Venezia but never wanted to stay at one of the large touristy hotels.  When I first read about the Cima Rosa, I knew that this was more my style.  But reader be warned: staying on the Grande Canale, regardless of hotel type, is not cheap!  As this was my 50th birthday celebration, it was worth the splurge, but splurge it was.  And the hotel itself?  It’s a little quirky – I’m still not sure how I felt about the bathroom for my room being across the hall, even though it was private to just me – but you feel like family and the rooms really are comfortable.  (When we were there, they had also created another suite on the ground floor that looked divine.)  The staff are outstanding and the location really is gorgeous and pretty quiet (ie, no tourists walking under your window).

The site of the party for most of my friends was the La Gare Hotel Venezia, subsequently rebranded as the Hyatt Centric Murano (https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/italy/centric-hyatt-murano-venice/vcect).  I love this hotel for numerous reasons: the staff are fantastic, the location on Murano is great because it is close enough to Venezia to go as often as you want but far enough away that when the day-trippers leave, it is like living on an island as the Italians do, and the rooms are modern and large, something that you don’t often find in Venezia.

Bites

The food.  It was all about the food.  And having one belly laugh after another with my friends.

I’m not normally one for hotel restaurants but given the secluded nature of the Locanda Cipriani, and the fact that I was having a birthday luncheon there, I figured I should check it out.  Oh my lord, I am so happy that I did.  I’m certain that there is a menu – I may have even seen it but I can’t recall – but when I told the waiter that I was vegetarian, he made a few suggestions, spoke with the chef, and came back with other suggestions. Divine!  (And yes, the birthday luncheon of manicotti stuffed with cheese and vegetables was delectable!)

Next up was Venissa (http://www.venissa.it/), a restaurant I have been dying to try but could either never get a reservation for, or it was closed, or I couldn’t get there and back.  I am so pleased that I finally made it and literally sit here dreaming about the food, the staff, the location, and the décor.  There is the Ristorante which has a Michelin star and looks amazing.  I haven’t eater here, but I will: it will be a splurge, but one I suspect is worth it.  The other restaurant is the Osteria which, unlike your typical Italian osteria, is a bit on the pricey side and a little nouveau but it was outstanding.  And I must say that, even after all that food, and having no room for a bit of dolce, the wonderful staff brought a bit of lemon torte that was mind-blowing!  I don’t care if you are full, you must try their dolce!

After moving to Venezia to spend some special time with a dear friend and new friend before the start of my birthday festivities, the first restaurant that we tried was Da Fiore (http://www.dafiore.net/en/restaurant/).  As a group of three, we couldn’t do the one window table on the small canal but we were close and it was divine.  And the food?!  Absolute stunning!  And with an outstanding wine list, there was no way that we could not have a fantastic meal of pasta (for me) and shellfish for my friends (it is Venezia after all!).

Our last meal in Venezia, before moving on to Murano, was Anice Stellato (https://www.osterianicestellato.com/) which required a lovely walk through parts of Venezia to this wonderful, small, and not pretentious osteria.  Although the staff were a bit rushed – it had the feeling of being slightly short-handed that evening – the antipasti and primi were everything that we had hoped for after a long day of walking and talking.

And then Murano and the start of Craig’s birthday celebration.  The first night, that Friday the 6th, a bunch of us went to Corte Sconta (http://www.cortescontavenezia.com/).  If you’ve read my blog on Venezia, you’ll know that this is one of my favourite restaurants in Venezia: the staff are amazing, the food is always outstanding – especially because they happily accommodate this vegetarian – and the location which is off the beaten path is just perfect.  And it was no different for 16 people with a variety of preferences and dietary restrictions. After a bit of confusion, we ultimately decided on antipasti for vegetarians and antipasti of fish.  Insane!  I can’t even recall each of the platters of antipasti but I do recall that there were 3.  Yes, 3 platters of antipasti.  And we hadn’t even had the main course!  But fear not, the primi was everything that I knew it would be and we were not disappointed.  Oh, and of course, we had to have a bit of dolci of vin santo and cartucci (before the taxi ride back to Murano).

On Saturday the 7th, we all went to AcquaStanca (http://www.acquastanca.it/homepage-en/) run by the lovely and welcoming Giovanna, and not far from the La Gare Hotel in Murano.  Knowing that some friends came a very long distance, I wanted something close and welcoming and this is, in my opinion, pure perfection.  In my opinion, this was the restaurant that Murano long needed and it will forever hold a special place in my heart: not only is the restaurant amazing, and the staff so inviting and welcoming, but it was Giovanna who introduced me to one of my favourite antipasti combinations which is exactly what we had as a starter: mozzarella di bufala with artichokes.  And, as always, the pasta was amazing, the gnocchi with scampi that some friends orders pillow-like, and the fish perfection.  And the wine that never seemed to end?  Perfectly matched!

The birthday day celebration was one for the memories: we started with a boat from Murano to Torcello to the Locanda Cipriani and a luncheon in the garden.  The weather was perfect with hardly a cloud in the sky and the manicotti stuffed with cheese and vegetables in a béchamel sauce ideal.  And given the heat of the day, the house made gelato with strawberries a perfect way to end that meal before heading back to Murano on our private boat.

And that evening, the penultimate celebratory meal was at one of my favourite restaurants – easily one of 2 or possibly 3 in all of Venezia – Vecio Fritolin (which, sadly, has suddenly closed as of 18 Jan 2020).  Perhaps we were a little loud, and perhaps we laughed a little too much, but it was exactly what I wanted thanks to Irina and everyone at the restaurant.  We started with lovely amuse-bouche that were appropriate for the meat eaters, the fish eaters, and the vegetarians, not to mention the amazing breadsticks that had a lattice-work of parmigiano (that no one knew if they could eat or not, that’s how pretty they were!).  And then the pasta, hand made in house, with the right sauce that was literally to die for.  It wasn’t so much so that you felt like you had overeaten but just the perfect portion to leave enough room for dessert: tiramisu!  It was my birthday so I had to have my favourite.

The Monday after my birthday was emotional as friends began to leave and I wanted to say goodbye to each (beginning at around 5am and about 3 hours of sleep).  But what softened the sadness that everything was over was seeing people who had not met before that weekend connecting on social media and sharing personal contact information.  As I write this, I am overwhelmed by the beauty of these friends, and the love that they have to give.

And thankfully, the food tour wasn’t quite over as a few of my friends who hadn’t left yet went to La Bitta (no website) a small, traditional restaurant near the train station that only seats in two waves: 19.00 and 21.00 (but best to check when making the much needed reservations).  The menu is small, and the wine list just as small but when you focus on such a few items, the food cannot help but be perfect, and it was.

From Venezia I traveled to my other happy place, Rome.  I knew that my Grand Tour could not conclude without a visit to Flavio al Velavevodetto (http://www.ristorantevelavevodetto.it/) which, hands down, has the best cacio e pepe in Rome. Hands.  Down.  But coming in a very close second is one of my new favourite restaurants that I, sadly, didn’t know about when I lived there: Sora Margherita (https://www.soramargherita.com/) a small little restaurant close to the Jewish Quarter.  Unlike any other place that I have visited, Sora Margherita lets you choose the fresh pasta that you want, and then the topping.  Of course, I had to choose cacio e pepe and, when I did, I then asked which pasta to have and the waitress quickly replied “you should only have the fettuccini”, so I did.

Sites

Anyone familiar with my blog knows that I always include those sites that are either off the beaten path and not included in the many guide books available, or that are so outstanding that I just have to mention them.  But for this event, the sites were the sound of laughter, the clinking of glasses, and the making of new friends as well as my favourite places, my favourite restaurants, and my favourite drinks.  I wanted everyone to see what it is about this place – this Venezia, this Murano, this Torcello, this Burano, and this Roma – that has a hold over my heart. It may have only been a small peek in to this happy place, but hopefully enough to make you want to return or to go for the very first time.

The deets

Sunday 01 April

18.05                     Depart JFK

AA Flt 198

Monday 02 April

8.20                        Arrive Milano

11.45                     Train to Venice

Staying at:

Locanda Cipriani (confirmed)

30142 Torcello

Linea 3 to Murano Faro – Linea 12 to Burano – Linea 9 to Torcello

Tuesday 03 April

19.30                     Venissa Osteria (confirmed)

Burano

Wednesday 04 April

Linea 9 to Burano (every 15 minutes) – Linea 12 to Murano Faro – Linea 3 to P.Le Roma – Linea 1 to San Stae

Staying at:           Cima Rosa Venezia (confirmed)

Brittany

20.00                     Da Fiore (http://www.dafiore.net/en/restaurant/) (confirmed)

Thursday 05 April

10.30 – 15.00     Go to Corte Sconta to leave deposit for Friday evening – Lucia Zambon

Aperativo Vino Vero or Timon on the fond. Misericordia

20.00                     Anice Stellato (https://www.osterianicestellato.com/)

Friday 06 April

Linea 1 to P.le Roma – Linea 3 to Murano

Staying at:

Le Gare Hotel Murano (confirmed)

Riva Longa 49,

30141 Murano Venezia

19.30                     Corte Sconta (confirmed)

Calle del Pestrin
Castello, 3886

Saturday 07 April

20.00                     Dinner at Acquastanca (confirmed)

Giovanna

Sunday 08 April

11.30                     Depart for Torcello

12.30 – 14.30     Lunch at Locanda Cipriani (confirmed)

15.00                     Return to Murano

19.00                     Depart for Venezia

20.00                     Dinner at Vecio Fritolin (confirmed)

Irina

22.30                     Bussola Cocktail Lab?

Near Ponte di Rialto

Monday 09 April

19.00                     La Bitta (Confirmed)

Tuesday 10 April

10.18                     Depart Murano Museo

10.47                     Arrive P.Le Roma

11.25                     Depart Venezia for Rome (4 nights in Rome)

Staying at:

The Corner Rome (confirmed at 162 euro per night)

Viale Aventino 121

Rome Italy

20.15                     Settimo al Pellegrino (confirmed)
Via del Pellegrino 117
06.688.01978

Wednesday 11 April

19.30                     Caroline and Tony

Da Enzo (confirmed)

Via dei Vascellari, 29
00153 Roma (Trastevere)

Thursday 12 April

13.00                     Meet Rita at the Ludovisi Palace hotel (via Veneto)

20.00                     Sora Margherita (confirmed)

Piazza delle Cinque Scole, 30

00186 Roma

Friday 13 April

20.00                     Flavio al Velavevodetto (confirmed)

Via di Monte Testaccio, 97

00153 Roma RM, Italia

Saturday 14 April

8.00                        (taxi to Ostiensa to Fiumicino)

11.05                     Depart Roma

AA Flight 721

15.50                     Arrive Charlotte

17.20                     Depart Charlotte

AA Flt 5276

19.02                     Arrive LGA

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All hotels, and their hotel rooms, are not created equal

Finding the right hotel, in the right location, as well as the right room, is a very important part of planning travel if you ask me.  I know that not everyone agrees with this: “It’s just a place to sleep” and “I want to save money for other things while I’m on vacation.”  I’ve heard them both and although I don’t particularly agree with the first one, I do understand the second.

To me, a hotel – and where it is located and what the room is – is part of the joy of travel.  It’s more than a place to lay your head at night but it’s a place to relax and to unwind even if you are only there for a short period of time.  And as obvious as it may sound, you do have to wake up in the morning and the feeling you have when you wake up, and what you see and the comfort you feel are key.

So how do you find the right hotel?  First and foremost, do you research.  Travel sites can be useful but to be honest, I’m not a fan simply because I’m suspicious and wonder what people are paid to post reviews or, on the flip side, annoyed by the rantings that happen because someone didn’t do their research.  Personally, I like to read travel blogs (not just because I write one) as well as magazines, newspapers, and even tour groups.  This gives me a starting point from which to seek out further insight on the hotels that strike my fancy.  Because, after all, if you don’t trust your instinct, what can you trust right?  If you’re not a fan of modernist and clean lines, don’t choose those hotels regardless of the price; you won’t be happy.  Likewise, if you don’t like brocade, and Turkish carpets, or florals like Laura Ashley threw up, don’t go there.  Trust your gut.

What about chains like Marriott, Hyatt, or even Holiday Inn or Best Western (which is great in Europe, for the record)?  I’m not a fan of chain hotels, especially when I am traveling outside of the United States but I will say that there is much to be said about hotel membership programmes so if your travels are in the US, find a chain that you like – those that are classic, those that are funky, or those that are cheap – and stick with them.  Remember: most hotel rates aren’t that drastically different once you’ve identified a category that your membership is in and that few-dollar difference can mean the difference between an upgrade and that room next to the service elevator.

Which brings up my next bit of advice: you DO NOT have to accept the first room you are given, regardless of it being a chain or a boutique hotel.  A friend told me a long time ago that “someone has to get the bad room… it just isn’t going to be me.”  I used to get a lot of ribbing from friends and colleagues for refusing the first room given and requesting another room.  But when they were annoyed by the ding of the elevator or the jangle of the ice machine while I comfortably relaxed and tuned out, well, they stopped ribbing me.

Be nice.  And smile.  The folks at reception, wherever you are staying, have to deal with lots of people day in and day out so a kind word, and an engaging smile is not only human decency, but it also may mean that the room you are given is just perfect.  But if it’s not, don’t disturb the room and head back to reception and request another room.  But be specific about what’s not to your liking.  “I don’t like it” really isn’t helpful and won’t lead to much whereas if you can say “I don’t like rooms facing east and the early sunrise”, that gives your host somewhere to start.

But remember, the above is useful except when you arrive early or arrive late, neither of which I ever plan to do.  When you think about it, it makes sense: arriving early means that there are few rooms available, if any, and once something becomes available – especially if you try the trick of lurking in the reception area which never works, I promise you – that’s what you get.  Likewise, arriving late means that there may be few, if no, alternate rooms from which to choose.  So, you know those “check-in times” listed on their website?  Try to adhere to them as you’ll have the best chance of scoring that perfect room.

So let’s return to the other aspect of travel that I often hear: “I want to save money for other things”.  You and me both.  I have made it a specialty to score the best place, at the best price, ever since I began traveling.

So we’ve done our research and identified hotels that look right.  And notice that I said “hotels” in the plural.  If you get your heart set on one particular location, you’re really not going to save any money by comparing prices and offers.  Try to identify a handful of properties that appeal to you, both in terms of what they look like but also where they are located.  And write to each one.  Yep, you read that correctly: write to each hotel, introduce yourself and your plans, and ask for their best available rate.  It should go without saying but just to be safe: you can’t wait until the last minute to write and hope for a great offer.  You. Have. To. Plan.

Once you’ve received replies from each hotel, then it comes down to comparing the offers and what works best for you.  Remember, just because one of the hotels is cheaper than all the others, consider where they are located and what that means for your travel plans – sites to visit and the bites to experience.  Return to their websites, and confirm that the hotel still gives you all the feels that you were hoping for.  Your gut was right when you first started but is it still correct?  Double-checking never hurt anyone and can only lead to the perfect vacation and holiday experience.  And once you’ve made a decision, do the right thing and write to the other hotels thanking them for their time but that you’ve chosen a different property and that you hope to visit their property soon (even if you aren’t, but you might).

Remember: someone has to get the “bad” room, it just doesn’t have to be you.  Take your time, do your research, write some emails and most of all, be polite and considerate when you check in and you’ll be on your way to the start of a memorable holiday.

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Alassio, Italy – a stunning town with the love of life approach that I find in much of Italy, and which makes me long to return on a daily basis.

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Nice, France – So much gorgeousness and stunning architecture along the French Riviera that you often don’t know where to look

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Bordighera, Italy – An amazing little town on the Ligurian coast, and close to the French boarder

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Venezia, Italy – a place of quiet and intrique around every corner

[updated 20 January 2019]

My heart will always belong to Rome, but my dream is to live in Venice.  There is a magic about Venice that is hard to explain and holds a very dear place in my heart.   If you have not been, go.  And if you have been, go again!  It has become a tradition for me to go to Venice in February when the tour groups are gone, there is a chill in the air, the aqua alta may be in residence, and the canals and “streets” and fogged over in the morning and night.

And before we go any further, there is one bit of advice that was given to me years ago and worth remembering: lose the map!  It’s an island so you can’t get too lost.  And that’s part of the charm and how you will see things that you will never read about in a guidebook or on this website.

Nights

The Ca’ Pisani hotel (http://capisanihotel.it/) and has definitely become one of my go-to hotels when I return to Venezia.  The art deco design is close to my heart and the rooms are amazing.  If you can get a room facing toward the Rio Terrà Foscarini, do it: watching life happen close to the Dorsoduro neighborhood is a part of Venezian life that not everyone gets to see. Breakfast is ample and although I’ve not dined at the hotel, there are options from wine and cheese to a full meal.  And given that it is footsteps away from the Ponte Academia and the vaporetto stop, you’re well connected to other wonderful restaurants in this stunning city.

If you are looking for an affordable place to stay that is so close to everything you must see, the Hotel Flora (www.hotelflora.it/) is a wonderful option.

For the longest time, I thought this was a 4-star hotel and only recently found out that it is actually a 3-star hotel.  That says it all!   And although the hotel has no canal views – I’ve stayed at one of those before and although a truly gorgeous view, you may also have the scents from the canal and the noise from people walking below your window – it is 5 minutes from Piazza San Marco, 2 minutes to La Fenice, and easily accessible to everything else!   The staff is outstanding and the improvements to the breakfast buffet a wise choice for the varied clientele!  Search for me in January/February at this hotel because I will return!

If you want the same level of hospitality as the Flora, but on a smaller scale, head straight to Hotel Novecento (http://www.novecento.biz/en/); it’s owned by the same family!  Comprised of only 9 rooms, the staff is amazing, the location a wonderful respite of solitude and relaxation, and yet still close enough to everything that you’ll never feel like you are missing anything!

If money is no object, the Ca’ Maria Adele (http://www.camariaadele.it/html/index.html) is an absolute gem of a hotel and if you have the opportunity to stay here, I highly recommend you do. When you first arrive, not only are you greated by some of the most amazing staff, but you are then walked to the lounge where a bit of prosecco and some biscotti are provided while your room is prepared and the luggage delivered. That’s a great start in my book! But more importantly, the location of the hotel, in the Dorsoduro neighborhood is close enough to everything that you want, yet far enough away that it is quiet and a true get-away. And the breakfast?! AMAZING. Every evening you select what you want for breakfast, and where you want to eat it – your room, an indoor “hall”, or an outdoor balcony – as well as what time you want to eat and the rest is taken care of for you. Truly, this is absolutely astounding and it was difficult not to be little piggy and order everything on the menu!

Ca' Maria Adele with flash Ca' Maria Adele breakfastBites

As long as you avoid the tourist traps located around Piazza San Marco, and any of the ponti, you really can’t go wrong.  The restaurants will be small, and there may be a wait, but if you plan in advance, your dining experience in Venice will leave you with many happy memories.

If I only had one night in Venezia, Ai Artisti (www.enotecaartisti.com) is where I would go! The food is always amazing and although they no longer have an extensive list of wines by the glass – something I was sad to see go with the recent remodel – they still offer some wonderful whites and reds by the glass. My last night in Venice is typically spent here and every time, I stroll the canals with a full belly and a smile on my face.  I want to return right now!

Another find was the Alle Testiere (no website but on Castello 5801 on the Calle del Mondo Novo).  Again, amazing food and a terrific wine list with wines by the glass.

And then there is Osteria doge Morosini (www.osteriadogemorosini.it).  This is a tried and true seafood restaurant and worth every penny.   Although I don’t eat fish, I can certainly appreciate the smells, the ingredients, and the words of praise from those around me.  And how did this vegetarian fare?   Just perfectly because there are always vegetables on the menu and most pastas if they aren’t vegetarian, can easily be made vegetarian by leaving the fish out of the sauce.

As much as I love Ai Artisti (still my favourite in Venice) and Alle Testiere (even though they look at me oddly when I say I’m vegetarian), I decided to expand my knowledge and am proud to say that I have two additional restaurants that I can highly suggest.

The first that I tried was Vecio Fritolin (http://veciofritolin.it/en/).  When the front desk of my hotel smiled when I asked for a reservation, I figured I was in for something good.  If you want a lovely experience, with the white table cloths, proper wine and water glasses, and the attention of a 5-star restaurant, you must go here.  And if they still have it, there is an appetizer that is something akin to a parmaggiano and polenta cube with balsamic vinegar that was out of this world.  (Honestly, I can’t remember my pasta dish, or wine, because all I can think of is the antipasto!)

Vecio Fritolin interior

The other restaurant that may very well become my second go-to place is Corte Sconta (http://www.cortescontavenezia.it/).  Trust me when I tell you to use this web address and no others; your fist hit will be another chain or restaurants with a similar name that, I recall, focus on pizza.  This Corte Sconta is no pizzeria!  The service was amazing, the options phenomenal, and the wine list outstanding.  And what gets this restaurant a special nod from me is that, even though it is a fish restaurant – that everyone was raving about (in English, Italian, German, and I think Russian!) – when I told my waiter I was vegetarian, he showed me the listed options and then started to offer some ideas of things not on the menu.  In the end, I had tagliolini with pesto that was plate-licking delicious!

Because of an unexpectedly closed restaurant upon my arrival in Venice, the hotel had to recommend an alternate. I’ll leave out the gory details but suffice it to say the staff was rude and when I said I was vegetarian, they said “no.” So I needed a new restaurant and returned to Al Ponte Storto (no website) who kindly directed me to the failed first restaurant. Al Ponte Storto is not fancy but I promise you that the staff is wonderful, the food classic home-cooked fair, and not expensive. So, if the prices of Venice get to you yet you want a lovely, and simple meal, go here. I would return.

And lastly, if you’re looking for something fairly inexpensive, Oké ristorante and pizzeria is a good alternative.  I went for the pizza – yes, even I need a break from the pasta once in a while – and it was delicious.  There are a lot of students and locals here, so it’s a safe bet and not overly touristy.

Sights

Venice is a wanderers paradise.   When I go to Venice, I walk for hours every day and just let my feet take me wherever they may go.  If an alley looks cool, I will take it.  If a cafe looks inviting, I will stop.   It really is all about the experience.

If you need specific places to go, there are a few that I highly recommend.  The Guggenheim museum (http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/) is worth seeking out not only because it is fun to get lost trying to find it, but the exhibit alone is truly outstanding for the modern artist in all of us.  And before you leave the museum, be sure to go out on to the veranda: you are as close to the Grande Canale as you will ever get in a former residence.

The Scuola Grande San Rocco (www.scuolagrandesanrocco.it) is an amazing gem that should not be missed.

After paying admission and walking up the stairs, look for the chairs dotted around the center of the floor: there should be mirrors that you can use to best view the ceiling above.  (Trust me, it will save your neck!)  The silence is amazing and the beauty of the frescoes  calming and haunting all at the same time.

I also recommend doing a self-guided tour of La Fenice (not to mention going to the opera if you can).

The restoration of La Fenice is stunning and the architecture over the top.  When I went, I was able to sneak in to one of the boxes and get a feel for what it would be like to sit in a box and watch one of the acclaimed performances.

And, of course, you can’t go to Venice without stopping in one – if not every one – of the churches throughout the city.  In the heat of summer, this is a lovely respite and a place to sit for just a minute.  And in the winter, it too provides shelter from the chill air or maybe even the aqua alta!

And, of  course, a trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t go to Murano.  (Sadly, the glass sculpture below no longer exists after many many years.  There still remains a blue sculpture – admittedly my least favourite of all the sculptures – but that is all.)

The glass is gorgeous and it is fun to watch a glass blowing demonstration.  And if you must buy something, don’t buy it near the vapporetto stop and be sure to haggle: most prices are negotiable.   But don’t stop a few hundred metres from the vapporetto stop: go further.  Murano truly is a wonderful island with some lovely restaurants, cute shops, and some amazing churches to just stop and investigate.

If time permits, don’t forget to Burano and even Torcello!  The colours of Burano are amazing and bring a smile to my face whenever I think of it.  And the pizza some of the best that I have ever had.

A German couple  in Venice recommended a lovely restaurant in Burano.   They raved so much about this restaurant that we had to try it.  If you go, make a reservation at al Gatto Nero (www.gattonero.com), definitely the best fish restaurant on the island!  And although there were definitely tourists there  – dining options on the island are fairly limited – the restaurant was also packed with locals for their Sunday brunch.   Amazing!

And Torcello?!  How quaint and lovely.  There is even a small Locanda on the island that I am dying to stay at (although they are closed in the winter when the tourists are gone!)

The first trip  that I ever took in my life was to Venice for one full week.  Everyone thought that I was insane and wondered how I could spend 7 days on such a small island.  Twenty years later, and I still go as frequently as I can and soak it all in.  Get lost: you won’t regret it.

And if you’re looking for some tapestry, fabric, or those lovely little tassles the best place is Mario Bevilacqua. There are 2 shops, both equdistant from Piazza San Marco but my favourite is the one at 337B, Fondamenta Canonica. It’s a little hard to find – being right behind the Basilica San Marco – but I find the staff there very approachable and absolutely lovely. But be forewarned: it’s hard to leave with just one thing and they are not cheap.

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Chennai, where the people are so incredibly kind, the city takes pride in itself, and the way that southern Indians meld and blend spices calms me, and takes my breath away.

I love southern India: the people are kind, the city is fairly clean, and the way that southern Indians meld and blend spices calms me, and takes my breath away.

Nites

Oh my goodness, I am in love!  The Leela Palace Chennai is absolutely stunning and peaceful and when you score a Bay of Bengal room, the tranquility is unmatched.  The rooms are spacious with sitting areas and desks, as well as a ginormous bathroom that you may not want to leave!

And if this isn’t your thing, and you want something perhaps a little more central, the ITC Grand Chola (https://www.itchotels.in/hotels/chennai/itcgrandchola.html) is a knockout!  It appears to take up an entire city block and although I haven’t seen the rooms or stayed here, the public spaces are truly breathtaking.

Bites

Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel hotel is incredible.  Tucked away in a far corner of the restaurant, the staff aptly suggests what to experience based on your preference.  And if you’re lucky, as I was the night that I went, the waiter suggested two half portions so that I could try different things.  And am I glad!  The paneer with ghee, ghost pepper, and 2 other peppers was lip-smacking, but soft on the palate and nowhere near as hot as I was expecting.  It’s a must try.

Likewise, Royal Vega at the ITC Grand Chola is a vegetarian’s dream!  Treated like a king, for not a lot of money, the menu is divided in to 3 sections: southern Indian, Northern Indian, and seasonal and each looked amazing!  My friend and I chose different sections and although the spice level has been toned down for the tourist clientele, the food was still outstanding.

And if you have three nights – because the above two would probably be my top-two choices – Pan Asia also at the ITC Grand Chola was a winner and great fun with friends.  As you’ll know by now, I am vegetarian but my friends raved over the Peking Duck and the various courses that it entailed.  And the curries for me were pretty outstanding as well!

Sites

I’ve been to Chennai before but never really had the chance to sightsee and boy am I glad that I did this time!  The monuments at Mahabalipuram are true wonders for the eye and deserve their UNESCO World Heritage designation.  The order in which I saw them, which appeared to be fairly important was first the Shore Temple, the only remaining temple (the others were previous further close to the sea and, probably due to rising ocean levels, destroyed);  then the Pancha Rathas (or 5 chariots) which was my favourite just because of their layout; and concluded with Krishna’s Butter Ball, a massive rock seemingly perched on sloping hill that the children try and push over.

Another lovely experience, especially for those of us who haven’t been invited to someone’s home, is the Dakshina Chitra museum, about an hour’s drive outside of Chennai.  Comprised of numerous example houses from Southern India, each gives a sense of homes before the crush of people and apartment buildings.  Scattered throughout are also hand-made goods that can make nice gifts for nominal cost.

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Kolkata is probably the most “melting pot” culture of all the cities that I’ve visited in India.

Kolkata is probably the most “melting pot” culture of all the cities that I’ve visited in India.  And, like New Delhi, you will encounter poverty right next to luxury and with very few exceptions, will one encroach on the other.  (Disclaimer: I don’t know what happened with the inhabitants who lived where the luxury hotels and high rises took life so there was probably horrible encroachment here and for that I apologize.)

Nites

The Grand Hyatt Kolkata (https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/india/hyatt-regency-kolkata/kolka) is located a little ways out of “downtown” but as it is situated right next to the football stadium, it buffers you from the outside noise and does provide a respite from the intense activity of daily life in Kolkata.  It is tried and true Hyatt so you know what you’ll get, and there are very few surprises.  To be honest, it lacked any feel of being in India but if you need to be confident in what you’ll get, this is the place for you.

The Oberoi Grand (https://www.oberoihotels.com/hotels-in-kolkata/) is stunning!  It is literally so stunning that when I walked in, I literally kicked myself for not staying there even though it cost quite a few more rupees.  Really, if you can swing it, there should be no second thoughts!

Bites

Knowing that, at this point, I would have been in India for over a week, I planned such that I would have a respite from Indian cuisine and go in a slightly different direction.  And my plans did not disappoint: Baan Thai at the Oberoi (see above for the link), is stunning!  And the Pad Thai – available both as vegetarian and traditionally with fish sauce – was perfection. 

Sites

Just as with Mumbai, a tour guide is imperative.  And just as with Mumbai, I didn’t have the best guide so there are no contact details to share.  But if you do your research, or contact your hotel, you’ll be able to see the sites, even if the guide isn’t great.

My experience has been that most guides ask “what do you want to see?” so be prepared.  And in my opinion, the first thing out of your mouth should be “Mother Theresa’s House”.  I must admit that I enjoyed having this as my last stop because it was humbling, and peaceful, and truly returned me to a centered disposition.  There really are no guides within the house, and some places are off limits as the Sisters still live there and practice, so watch for the signs and be sure to see the “museum” (hours vary) and Mother’s bedroom.  Truly, it puts all else in to perspective.

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This town, Thalpe, along with Galle Fort to the east, have made me fall in love with Sri Lanka.

Thalpe, along with Galle Fort to the East, have made me fall in love with Sri Lanka.  The people are so kind and the laid back beach culture that has taken over is a welcomed respite especially if you are traveling from other destinations that are a bit more chaotic.

Nites

Hands down, the perfect destination has been The Owl and the Pussycat hotel (https://www.otphotel.com/).  The staff are outstanding, the rooms lovely and each unique, and the food made me enjoy Sri Lankan cuisine just a little bit more.  But it is the view: set on Mihiripenna beach, and thus facing the Indian Ocean, the sound of the ocean calms a stressful day, the ocean breeze, although warm, is refreshing, and the lush garden that invites numerous birds is tranquil in a wind-swept sort of way.  Reader beware: there are a few rooms at the OtP that do not have ocean view rooms.  Those with a B after their room number, ie 1B,2B, are on the back side of the hotel.  Also note that rooms on the ground floor have little privacy as guests walk in front of your room to enter the building and climb the stairs.

If you can’t get in to the OtP – there are only 27 rooms or so – there are some other lovely looking hotels along the way.  In no particular order, consider the following.

Villa Barnes looks stunning.  I believe it is available via Airbnb.

Hotel Kabalan, at least from the outside looks worth looking in to.

Marriott Weligama which is further afield but looks stunning. Just plan accordingly to visit Galle Fort

Bites

After a lot of Sri Lankan food, I was ready for a change and I can highly recommend the pizza at Wijaya Beach Restaurant.  Located directly on the beach, this little place initially started as a restaurant but has recently added rooms.  They don’t reservations so getting a table on the beach is near-impossible but that’s okay: everything looks at the ocean and the constant sound of waves crashing is all you really need.

I can also recommend the Runcible Spoon at the OtP.  Just like the hotel, the restaurant (where you also have breakfast) is situated on the beach which makes an amazing setting for dinner and drinks.

Sites

Take a tuktuk.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.  You get the best views and the most incredible experience going to any destination.

Galle Fort is amazing.  It is very touristic with tons of shops and hotels and restaurants but if you look past these things, you can see an incredible town with stunning architecture and, more importantly, the interweaving of religions with churches, mosques, temples, and I’d bet a synagogue but I can’t promise! And although it’s not a site – and if you saw it, you might be scared – a massage at the OtP hotel is a must.  The massage hut is located in a corner of the grounds looking to the ocean.  And although it may be a little unsettling for some when asked to undress, completely – not only because there are people fishing in the ocean but also, well, we Americans are little conservative that way – it will be one of the most relaxing and peaceful experiences of your life.  Trust me

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Close enough to Yala National Park for the perfect safari

I would recommend 2 days max in Tissamaharama.  I’ve read that there is wonderful history to this little town but much of that has gone, or I couldn’t find it, such that it is a hustle and bustle little town.  With two nights, you arrive on night one, do a safari early the next day, take a hot shower to remove the red clay and dust from everywhere, sleep, and move on to your next destination after the second night.

Nites

This is a tough one to be honest.  If you are able to plan well in advance, there are some stunning hotels close to Yala National Park that I would love to stay at.  But since I didn’t, I will just say that Wild Coast Tented Lodge (http://www.resplendentceylon.com/wildcoastlodge-yala/) is where I so wanted to stay but even 6 month out, they were booked over the Christmas holiday.  On the other side of the small lake is the Una Huts by Uga Escapes, who were also booked out (https://www.ugaescapes.com/chenahuts/).  Both of these hotels are insanely expensive but I suspect worth every cent.  There is also an outpost of the Cinnamon hotel chain, the Cinnamon Wild Yala (http://www.cinnamonhotels.com/en/cinnamonwildyala/) which might be worth checking.  And as I write this in 2018, I’ve heard talk that there is another 5 star hotel going up on the beach about 15 km away from Tissamaharama so stay tuned.

If, like me, you can’t get in to the above, or they are just too expensive, there is the Thaulle Resort and Spa (http://thaulle.com/?lang=en).  Run by a German family and situated directly on lake Yoda, it is a calm and peaceful resort where each of the 27 rooms face the lake (beware the mosquitos friends!).  The rooms have a bit too much wood for my taste, making them very “Germanic” to be honest, but they are large and all have large bathrooms, and gorgeous balconies, and the staff are wonderful so for a couple of days, it does what it needs to do. 

Bites

I wish I had something to offer here but, sadly, there was a serious lack of restaurants that this intrepid travel was intrepid enough to try.  The Thaulle does offer half board dining option so you can try that or, if you have a car or they arrange a tuktuk, I suspect any of the 5 stars above under Nites would be amazing

Sites

Without a doubt, you will probably come to Tissamaharama, or one of the surrounding villages, to do a safari in Yala National Park.  There’s really not a lot else to do other than relax this far away from Colombo or Galle Fort.  I have no hesitation in saying that this is a trip worth taking!  And for me, I opted to do a full-day tour which, in the end turned out to be completely worth it. Immediately upon entering (once the sun rose as you do arrive in the dark), we saw water buffalo and shortly thereafter male and female peacocks, and deer.  But it took a while to see elephants and even far longer to see the elusive leopard.

 But given all the research that I did before the trip, and some of the things that I experienced in total contrast to what I read, I wanted to share some advice.

Reader beware:

  • It’s a safari, not the zoo: your driver will do his best, and communicate with other guides, to find both elephants and leopards if possible
  • The roads are rough so be prepared for a bumpy ride and hold on tight
  • You don’t need a hat as every jeep I saw was covered
  • A dust mask is a good idea; I had one but many people didn’t and were improvising with t-shirt and facial tissue (aka, Kleenex)
  • Mosquito repellant is a must; there is a LOT of standing water for the animals and, thus, for the mosquitos
  • You will be covered in red clay dust by the end
  • And if you do a full day tour, know that it is now a requirement in the park that all jeeps stop driving between 12 and 14.00 so you, and all of the other tourists doing a day tour will hang out near the beach for 2 hours.  (Most tours include lunch but I opted on the side of caution and ate a protein bar.)
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Colombo works in all of its magic and intertwined wonder.

Colombo is an interesting mix of cultures that it really makes this lovely country difficult to point to just one influence: there is the Indian influence, just to the north of this lovely little island; the British influence in its grand architecture; the Dutch and Portuguese influence from decades past; and the more recent Chinese influence who have been partnering with Sri Lanka to rebuild and develop this island country.  And it works, in all of its magic and intertwined wonder.

Nites

Oh my goodness, the Shangri-La hotel is stunning!  Located right across from the Indian Ocean, the lobby is breathtaking and the rooms spectacular.  Opt  to pay a little more, if even just for one night stay, to wake to the view of the ocean is so worth it.  Reader beware: there is a lot of development happening directly across from the hotel that appears to be either a marina or another luxury hotel so the stunning views you see on their website may soon disappear.

Closer to the centre of town is a Taj hotel which looks stunning and if you’d prefer to stay closer to the ocean but there is no availability at the Shangri-La, or it is price-restrictive, there is a Hilton just around the corner from the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury Colombo which looks old-school glamour.

Sites

Colombo is such an interesting place, with so many diverse influences that the only real way to see everything is a tour bus.  But reader beware: what appears to be a hop-on-hop-off bus is the antithesis of that: you can’t hop off.  But don’t let that deter you because the sites, and the architecture that makes Colombo so unique, will be covered in about a 4-hour drive.

And if the weather isn’t too hot – you have your choice between hot, hotter, and hottest – go for a walk and take in the lovely architecture that makes this city such an amalgamation of influences.

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Getting that best deal for that to-die-for hotel

When I begin planning a trip, one of the first things that I do is to investigate hotels.  I mean, I’ve gotta stay somewhere right and if you haven’t figured out from my blog posts, I’m a planner.  A serious planner! I also suspect that some would say I’m a picky traveler.  I like to simply believe that I know what I like: I don’t like large hotels, I really don’t like chain hotels, and I really don’t care about the amenities because I’m not there for room service and the swimming pool.  What I am looking for is cool, funky, and fun with some genuinely unique touches.

So how do I go about finding these hotels?  Word of mouth is key!  But given that I often go places that few of my friends have been too, that doesn’t always work.  So I do web searches and, yes, I even look at newspapers, and travel magazines, but I also like to look at blogs like mine.  If you bypass those first few web pages that have either paid for your views or are part of a conglomerate, you’ll start to find people like me who have a love of travel and want to share their insight.  And no disrespect to those travel review websites but, no, I don’t look at them.  If you like them, do it; do what works for you!

But here’s one of the important things in those early stages of discovery: identify as many hotels that you like.  Don’t focus on just one, unless you’re willing to pay whatever rate it is they offer.  The more hotels that fit your requirements, the more options you will have to choose from.

In addition to being a planner, I also like to get the best value for my money that I can.  Which leads me to my next bit of advice: write to the hotels directly.  Don’t be afraid and don’t be embarrassed.  Write to them.  Tell them when you are planning to come.  If it’s for a special occasion, or you are even a return guest, tell them.  And ask then what the best possible rate they can offer will be.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned – yeah, the hard way sometimes – that it’s best to be as specific as possible.  If you see a room that has a balcony that you’d like, or the décor is a specific colour or style that appeals to you, or whatever, ask for rates that reflect that room type.  If you just say that you’re looking for a “room for two and what’s the best possible rate that you can offer?”, that best possible rate could be an interior room with no windows (yep, that happened to me) or the room on the back side of the hotel with no views of the ocean but, instead, a view of the hill behind the hotel that had a path right in front of your window so strangers could look in (that one’s happened a couple of times!)

Some hotels won’t reply, and some may not offer anything better than what you find on their website, but very frequently I’ve found that the hotel will give me a better rate, they will recognize me when I arrive, and sometimes, there is even a very kind welcome drink waiting for me in my room.  I mean, seriously, what’s wrong with that?  For a few minutes of emailing the various hotels that you identified from the start, you may just end up at a gorgeous hotel, at a better rate than those who book last-minute, and a few additional bucks in your pocket for something else.

And last but not least, yes, go back to that social media feed and tag the hotel both when you confirm – it shows your excitement and appreciation and gives them a little free marketing – as well as when you arrive – all for the same reason!  It’s a two-way street: remember that!

Obviously, you can take all of the above with a grain of salt.  If you like a certain chain hotel, then stay there, by all means.  And if you want to accrue points on a hotel booking site, then do it!  It’s your vacation so do what’s right for you so that you have the best possible vacation!

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