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

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

street down from San VigilioNites

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

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

Bites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sites

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

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

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

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

Nights

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

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

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

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

Bites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sites

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

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

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

(updated 07 September 2015)

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

Nights

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

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

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

Bites

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

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

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

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

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

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

view from Ege Restaurant 02 Ege Restaurant mezzeSights

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

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

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

Pamukkale terrace 03

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

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

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Fethiye Turkey – The perfect place to relax and unwind

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

Nights

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

Yacht Classic Hotel view to pool

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

Bites

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

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

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

Sights

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

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

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

blue lagoon 02

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

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A college town with an attitude

[updated 07 October 2013]

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

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

Nites

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

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

Bites

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

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

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

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

Sites

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

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Sydney Australia – Beach town in a big city

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

Nights

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

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

Bites

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

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

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

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

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

Sites

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

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

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

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

Nites

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

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

Sites

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

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

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

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

Bites

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

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

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

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Worth the adventure

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

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

Nites

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

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

Bites

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

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

Sites

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

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

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

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Gorgeous islands and lovely people for a wonderful experience

Stockholm is probably one of the last remaining places on my “must do” list and I finally made it.  And the city did not let me down!  What amazing architecture – and I mean well beyond the stereotypical “Scandinavian minimalism” that you see everywhere – and the people were sweet, kind and helpful.  As I always do, I just wandered and wandered some more to take in the city as much as I could.  And I will return: perhaps next time, in the winter – although my friend says the winds off  the water are brutal and will chill you to the bone – as I suspect that city has fewer tourists and there will be a gorgeous blue light on everything (when the light is actually up!)

Nites

I chose to stay that at the Hotel Skeppshomnen (http://www.hotelskeppsholmen.com/) on the small island of Skeppshomen and I honestly can’t recommend this hotel enough!  The island is really quite quiet with few cars, apparently no residential housing, and no bars or restaurants except that in the hotel.  Upon my arrival, I was told that I had been upgraded to a larger room which, when I arrived, was quite lovely.   But something was amiss: after much searching – jetlag sure does take a few brain cells away doesn’t it! – I realized that I had booked a sea-view room.

And this is where the hotel received a failing mark.  Not only did they fail to tell me that the upgraded room didn’t have a sea view, but when I went to ask, they told me that “something was wrong with the room,” that they had no more sea view rooms available, and could move me later.  Subsequently, I wrote to the manager and, voila, a sea view room became available.  But I didn’t take it and I recommend that you don’t take it either: the sea view rooms are more expensive (and the one I was shown, the size of a large closet) and, until the trees either lose their leaves or you stay in the winter, you can’t see the water.   And because the island is so quiet and peaceful, the rooms that look to the park (and the Modern Art Museum, by the way), are equally as calming.

But the staff were lovely and the breakfast in the morning a wonderful way to begin the day.  I like to believe that the hiccup upon my arrival was simply due to the wedding that was scheduled later in the week and that you’re experience upon checking in will be hassle free.  It’s worth a try!

If you want to be about a 15 minute walk closer to the city centre, I can also recommend the Lydmar Hotel (http://www.lydmar.com/), a lovely small hotel close to the National Museum that appears absolutely stunning and is probably worth a try.

The other hotel that I would probably recommend is the Grand Hotel (http://www.grandhotel.se/en), one of the old “grande dames” of the city.  The lobby, itself, is stunning and their signature restaurant “Mathias Dahlgren” (more on this below) is beyond belief.

Bites

Food in Stockholm is really quite lovely and definitely centered around meat and fish.  In the summer months, going in to early fall, I suspect vegetarians can do all right.  But in the winter and early spring – before the vegetables start to show – you will have either slim pickings OR you will have very expensive imported food.  Just be warned.

One of the best meals I have ever had – truly an event and one that actually took in to consideration my eating habits – was at Mathias Dahlgren (http://www.mathiasdahlgren.com/).  The dining room is the upscale version where everything from the food, to the wine, to service is meticulously planned and choreographed.  If you want a meal to remember, and are ready to pay dearly for it, you must go!

There is also a “food bar,” which is just a lower end version of the dining room mentioned above so if you aren’t ready to pay that kind of coin, check out the food bar.

If you are wandering around in the Gamla Stan – as we all should at least once – check out Marten Trotzig (http://martentrotzig.se/).   I went here with a friend and it was absolutely lovely: very small dining area (so reservations are key on weekends) with a larger private space downstairs and views on to the cobble streets.  I would describe the food as upscale traditional which is exactly what I was looking for and would definitely put this on every visitors list.

Further afield from the city center, but easily walkable and a lovely walk as long as it’s not raining, is Trattorian (http://trattorian.se/).   The owner is Italian and prides himself on good quality Italian food.   And if I do say so myself, the mozzarella was divine and the homemade pasta made and cooked to perfection.  I would have returned again had I had more nights in Stockholm.

Sites

There is much to see and do in Stockholm and 2 days really doesn’t do it justice.  I could have walked and explored for days!

If time is short – or even if you have lots of time – you must make it to the Vasa Museet!  This is a ship that sank upon leaving the port back in the 1600s and sat there for 333 years before being found and excavated.  Now fully preserved, yet up close and personal, the ship and all its amazing craftsmanship is a wonderful display and a fantastic example of what modern technology can do to preserve such a wonderful piece of history.  Arrive early however – they open at 10 – as the tour groups start filing in shortly thereafter and it does become a challenge to get close and see the various details.

Another thing that I would recommend you do is to go past Gamla Stan to the island of Sodermalm.  Once you cross the bridge and are the island, turn left on to Katarinavagan and walk up the gently sloping hill: you will see some of the most amazing views of the city and get a real feel for the real, working, Stockholm as opposed to all of the tourist haunts.  Continue to wander around and ultimately, seek out Gotgatan (street).  My friend said it’s like Chelsea or the East Village in New York and it definitely is a great place to stroll.  And if you are in need of an original piece of Stockholm to take home, check out Galleri Hantverket (http://www.gallerihantverket.se/), a shop of artists with their designs that I just loved.

So there you: Stockholm in a couple of days.  I am certain that I will return and, if the Swedes ever decide to join the euro zone and prices drop, I’ll be back more time and much sooner.  But don’t let the prices scare you: we only live once and Stockholm is definitely a place that should be on everyone’s list!  Enjoy and I hope you love it as much as I did!

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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 (http://vijffvlieghen.nl/en/Home) 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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the best hotel in the world is in Alghero if you ask me

It’s a tough choice between Cagliari but if I have to choose, I’m going with Alghero.  (Sorry to some of Sardinian friends.)  There is something about this town that I just love: the centro storico, the strolls, the water, and the fact that it seems a bit removed from the rest of the island and tourist destinations.  And I must admit, the cross-cultural aspect with Spain is really quite cool in this lovely town!

Nites

If you ask me, there is only one place to stay in Alghero: the Villa Las Tronas (http://www.hotelvillalastronas.com/).  I first stayed here years ago, before they received their 5 star rating and since then, they have only improved.  The rooms are quiet – you feel like you have the place to yourself – and you don’t hear that traffic outside because the hotel is set on a promonitory.  If you can, splurge and experience the tranquility that this hotel offers!

Bites

This is probably my least favourite part of Alghero in that there aren’t a lot of truly outstanding restaurants to choose from.  The  restaurants aren’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but few really give you the “wow!” factor.

The restaurant that did give me the WOW! Factor is albisbe4 (no website).   The restaurant is situated in Piazza Teatro (no 4) which affords it a lovely, quiet, yet outdoor enjoyment.  The food was fantastic, the service impeccable, and the wines really quite lovely.  This is a must.

Another restaurant that I quite enjoyed was Il Coralle (via f.lle Kennedy) which is simply half way between the Villa las Tronas and the centro storico.   What I loved about this restaurant was 2 things:  first, it was packed with locals and had no walk-ups available so be sure to book a table.  The other thing that I loved is that, because I’m vegetarian and I don’t eat fish, they went out of their way to make an antipasto and a primo for me and both were stellar.  The wine isn’t as good as those at albisbe4 (above), but that wouldn’t stop me from returning.

Sites

The centro storico is a lovely place to stroll in the morning and at night.  During the day, most everything is closed and, remember, it’s hotter than hades in the summer so who wants to be shopping any way.  Unlike other places in Sardegna, Alghero offers the requisit tourist shops but also “regular” shops should you forget something.

The churches in Alghero are some of my favourite on the island.  Please remember to be respectful when you’re in the church: some of them are still run by nuns who you will see in prayer when you enter.  They don’t mind you enjoying the beauty of the church, just be quiet and dress appropriately.

The towers of Alghero, along with the fortified wall, are all pretty cool to see but you won’t need to go out of your way to see them:  you can’t enter, so you’ll just see them during one of your inevitable passeggiata.

I hope that the above gives you a bit of insite in to the wonderful city of Alghero.  It’s such an amazing and lovely place, just like all of Sardegna, so go, wonder, and take in the various smells, sights, and even sounds of Alghero!

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Cala Gonone is THE place to go! Don’t miss it!

I have found a small slice of heaven in this hamlet along the eastern side of Sardegna.  It’s not the easiest to find (see note below) but I would suggest that you come here and stay for many days rather than Costa Rei or Villasmius; it’s cheaper, there is more to do, and the people are just lovely.

Note: Cala Gonone is hard to find and harder to get to.  If you decided to drive from Cagliari, I highly recommend renting the GPS from the rental car company AND coming with a printout of directions (don’t use Google Maps!!! They are horrible, they give you “rural route” numbers instead of streets which no one knows (when you are lost) and, heaven forbid, Google Mapps doesn’t even tell you in which direction to head!)  Why both you ask?  Because there are some parts where you may have no signal for the GPS and the old-fashioned printout route is the best way to be safe.

If you decide to fly to Sardegna and only stay at Cala Gonone, everyone offers car transfers to and from the airport.  Consider it!  It may seem expensive, but a car hire, to just sit there and gather dust – and there’s very little free parking in Cala Gonone so you’ll be feeding a meter – is really not the best use of your money.

Nites

There are vast majority of hotel types in Cala Gonone.  None have more than 4 stars and you can go down to a 2 star or even stay at one of the B&Bs peppered throughout this coastal community.  I chose the Costa Dorada (http://www.hotelcostadorada.it/) which was just lovely.  The staff spoke Italian with me, but they also appeared to be fluent in English, German, Spanish, and French (all heard while I was there).  I requested a sea-view room and although it didn’t have a balcony – there are shared spaced on each floor so it’s not the most private – it did have a lovely view of the sea when I opened the shutters each morning.  How better to start your day right?!

Sites

You come to Cala Gonone for one thing: the beach.  But unlike Costa Rei, there is more to do here to occupy your time.  There is a bit of shopping that can be done (all of it touristic, however), you can go hiking, and you even have a plethora or restaurants to choose from.

But if there is one thing that you must do, you must do a minicrociera along the coast!  This will be a day-long trip (mine lasted from 9 – 18.30 even though it was suggested I would be finished by 17.00) and will cost you about 45 euro, but it is worth every penny.  And rather than going to the Port and doing one of the large tour boats, ask your hotel to set up a smaller, more private outing.  In fact, the Costa Durada has their own boat and organizes this for their guests.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know about this and by the time I arrived, the boat was already booked for the days I was there.  But thankfully, the Hotel called a friend who did the same thing, they got me on to the boat tour (8 people total), and the owner of the hotel even drove me to the Port and introduced me to the guides.

The minicrociera is a sun-lovers paradise so if you don’t want to be in the sun, this isn’t the best thing for you.  But if you can stick it out – and most boats have a covered section and you can sleep on the boats as opposed to one of the beaches you will undoubtedly stop at for a couple of hours – do it.  Don’t think about it, just do it!

Bites

Not far from the Costa Durada is the Road House Blues (no website).  The food was pretty good and the service was excellent.  It was however, to be warned, incredibly hot!  Cala Gonone, when there is no wind, is warm well in to the evening and don’t think of asking about air conditioning (here or anywhere else!); it doesn’t happen.  What I liked most about Road House Blues was the classic jazz playing the entire time I was there.

I highly recommend La Poltrona (no website).  This place is phenomenal!  The first night I went here, I decided to walk the 2+ kilometers to the restaurant.  Unfortunately, it was hot – not to mention UP HILL which no one mentioned – and by the time I arrived, I was a sweaty mess!  But the staff was patient and once I cooled off, they said that they new I was vegetarian and the chef was offering a number of different options for me!  How cool?  My last night in Cala Gonone was to be at La Poltrona.  How could it not be?!  And the chef, once again, outdid himself with options and even accommodated my need – and yess, it was a need – to have a simple home-made pasta that was out of this world!

So, if you plan to go to Sardegna for a bit of sun and relaxation and aren’t sure where to go, without a doubt, I have to tell you to go to Cala Cogone.  It truly is heaven and there is enough to do there to keep yourself occupied and happy for quite some time!  Enjoy!

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Costa Rei has the charm that Villasmius doesn’t because it’s small and quaint

Most people come to Sardegna for the beaches.  I did!  And if you fly in to Cagliari, the best beaches to the east are Villasimius and on up the coast.  I chose not to go to Villasimius for 1 reason and then another became apparent on my way to Costa Rei; it is bumper to bumper cars – and people – in Villasmius and that would be just a bit too much for this introvert.  The primary reason I didn’t choose Villasimius is that everything is “all inclusive” resorts with a minimum stay of 7 days.  I love the beach as much as the next person but I want to see lots of different beaches and not be required to stay at the same one for 7 nights.  So with a little digging, I found that the next coastal town up from Villasimius is Costa Rei.  And although many places that I contacted said that they, too, had a 7 night minimum, a couple said they would do 5 nights for slightly more.  When you only have so many days to explore, sometimes a little more money is worth the pain to your bank account!

Nites

I chose to stay at the newish hotel Il Vaschello (www.ilvascellohotel.it) because they would allow me to stay only 5 nights AND they would guarantee me a sea view room.  In my walks, I’ve seen 3 other resorts in Costa Rei so if Il Vascello isn’t your thing or they don’t have availability – they only have about 20 rooms which I appreciate – you can find something else.

Whatever you choose, you should know in advance that no hotel is directly on the beach so don’t make that a criteria.  And don’t fall for the deceptive pictures!  Thankfully, however, each hotel has their own “private” part of the beach where you will have a sun bed and umbrella and access to the most gorgeous blue waters!

Bites

This is where Costa Rei falls way short and probably why more people go to Villasimius: there are few restaurants available.  This also explains why many hotels want to do the “all inclusive” rates but, as a vegetarian, I try and avoid these sorts of “deals.”

The “Pink Lady” is right next to Il Vascello and is an adequate pizzeria and ristorante.  On the night I went, it was packed and thankfully I had thought to make a reservation because they were turning people away.

In the little square that is home to the “Pink Lady” is also a Pizza al Taglio which is inexpensive and really quite good.  My favourite Italian pizza is pizza con patata e rosmarino and they had so I was quite the happy boy.

The other restaurant that I found is call Il Mirragio.  It’s up the hill from the beach community, but an easy walk, so if you want a change of scenery, although the food is basically the same as the Pink Lady and the same price, check this place out.

Sites

It’s the beach.  There really is nothing else to do in Costa Rei other than to spend the day at the beach, the night have cocktails, and then dinner.  In a word, relaxing!

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Lovely town that is probably the most “cosmopolitan” in Sardegna

Cagliari is probably the most metropolitan of the cities on Sardegna.  But don’t come here looking for fantastic shopping, an abundance of ruins, or anything else of that nature; it’s the capital, and a port, and that’s it.

Nites

In all of my research, there doesn’t appear to be a plethora of hotels from which to choose in Cagliari.  In fact, I think I could only find about 5 four-star hotels and no five-star.  And there were only a few three-stars that I recall.  But if your travels take you to Cagliari and you want to spend a day – which I highly recommend just so you can get a flavor of the capital – I would highly recommend the T Hotel (www.thotel.it).  It’s a bit removed from the “center” but a lovely walk all the same.  (Public transport isn’t high on the Sardinian programme so be prepared to walk.)  And the hotel is a bit big for my preferences but I must admit, the staff is outstanding and the rooms huge and creatively decorated.  There was also something about the rotating art installation in the lobby (that’s how big the hotel is!) that changed during the 2 days I was there that I really liked.  But most of all, the T Hotel has the best breakfast I have ever experienced in any hotel in the world.  Full stop!  The fresh squeezed blood orange juice each morning was the epitome of sweet nectar: I nearly made myself sick each day because I couldn’t get enough!  And just about anything else you could want to start off your day was available.

Bites

I chose to be in Cagliari near Ferre Agosta – a national holiday in Italy and the start of the Italian holidays – so most restaurants in the city were closed.  So, my only proper meal – my first meal in Italy is always buffala mozzarella, bread, tomatoes, olives, and wine, in my room, something I started when I first came to Italy in 1992 – was at the T Hotel.  It’s a lovely restaurant and if you don’t mind having dinner in your hotel, check it out.  For me, my next trip to Cagliari will involve greater adventures in the culinary persuits!

Sites

The one thing that most people come to Cagliari to see is the Roman Amphitheatre.  Regrettably, the Amphitheatre is closed indefinitely because of erosion and they are desperately trying to preserve this landmark.

A walk along the port – which runs parallel to Via Roma, the main shopping street – is a lovely way to end the day or even relax in the afternoon soon.  Thankfully, even though it’s a port, there are not huge container ships there so don’t be afraid.

And if you have the chance, seek out the Cattedrale do Santa Maria.  It really is a stunning basilica – and nearly the highest point in Cagliari (which happens to be the Arsenale, just up the street) – and given it’s location and the craftsmanship that is evident there, it’s well worth the hike.

And finally, and although not a site, per se, I highly recommend that you seek out this little shop called Sini on via Baylle (off of Via Roma near the port).  Sini specializes in all sorts of knives (coltelli) and thanks to the advice of Mauro at the T Hotel, the famous Pattada and Arbus knives that are still handmade to this day.  The man who owns the shop doesn’t speak English, but if you come with the name of what you want written on a piece of paper, and use a bit of pantomime, he’ll show you the knives he has in dusty little boxes behind him.  These knives aren’t cheap, so making a decision is difficult, but you really shouldn’t leave Sardegna without one!

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Rome, Italy – My home away from home

[updated 01 December 2016]

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

There is only one place in Rome that I stay: the Hotel Ponte Sisto (http://www.hotelpontesisto.it/).  I have considered other places, but this is where I go.  The staff have not changed in YEARS and the manager, Riitta, is the most lovely, helpful and attentive person at any hotel I have ever stayed at.  There are others, and you can certainly try those, but for me it all begins and ends at the Hotel Ponte Sisto.   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.

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 (http://www.castelloorsini.it/en/). 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!

Closer to the Hotel Ponte Sisto is La Carbonara located in the Campo dei Fiori.  This is a bit on the touristy side but the antipasto options are outstanding and in a pinch, it will do.

On the Trastevere side of the river is Ristorante Il Miraggio (no website).  This is, apparently, a chain but I have never seen any of the other restaurants.  The prices are very reasonable and they have an incredible ravioli alla noci which is basically ravioli with a cream walnut sauce.  To die for!

I am ashamed to admit that I forgot one of my friends favourite restaurants: Ristorante – Pizzeria “La Fraschetta (www.lafrascetta.com) in Trastevere. The carcioffi are, literally, to die for and if you want a real taste of garlic, this is the place for you! And don’t go for the house wine but, instead, ask for a bottle of wine that fits your needs; their selection of wines is outstanding and it won’t break your bank!

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.  If you get a waiter named Mimo he will most likely sing periodically through the night.  He is great and I love Mimo!  If you are a trusting soul, tell Mimo that you want meat or fish and he will bring you what he thinks is best.  I do this all the time with friends and have never been shocked by the price of the bill.  Again, the antipasti here are fantastic.

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

Another, newer endeavor, is renato e luisa (http://www.renatoeluisa.it/) a wonderful find that a friend took me to.  Absolutely stunning, unpretentious, and the food divine.

I can also recommend La Quercia (http://www.laquerciaosteria.com/) another little restraurant that a friend took me too.   I found this restaurant a bit touristy for my taste – I ended up translating for a couple next to me, which I normally don’t mind, but when they started with the “I don’t want butter,” “dressing on the side,” and “can you change the potato al forno for something else” – I got annoyed.  But don’t let that scare you: the food is worth the tourists!

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.

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 although not a site, but a feast for the eyes, you should seek out Passamaneria (www.passamanerieroma.com) for all of those little home-items that you won’t find elsewhere.  The owners are lovely, and the daughter (I think), speaks English so you must go!

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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/).  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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As a stop-over, it’s not that bad

What an interesting place!  This little city on a port really is just a stop-over for other locations on the island.  It’s a shame as the people really are lovely and helpful but there isn’t a whole lot to do here.  So, as a point of suggestion, if you come to Menorca for the beaches – which means you will have to fly in to Mahon – book an early flight to Mahon and book a late flight out of Mahon: that late flight will allow you to get from your beach resort to the airport in plenty of time, even if you take the bus!

If, however, you decide to stroll around Mahon for a bit, nothing more than an afternoon and night is all that’s needed.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a nice place not something that requires a lot of time.

Nights

The Hotel San Miguel (http://www.hotelsanmiguel-menorca.com/) is an absolute dream hotel that deserves far better than its 3 star rating!  After finally locating the hotel – 2 blocks off of Placa Reial in a residential neighborhood – I was a bit concerned by the outside.  In fact, I wondered “what have I gotten myself in to?”  But once inside and you are greeted by the staff, it all changes.  The décor is very mideval in style but once in the room… what a pleasant surprise.  The rooms are large and gorgeously decorated (not by Ikea).  The bathrooms are equally large and even have a whirlpool tub to help ease the aches and pains of walking around the hilly city!  And the breakfast a far cry better than I ever expected and to sit in the lovely inner courtyard just a wonderful way to start the day.  I will return!

If you want something a bit more posh with a bit of a view, try the Hotel Port Mahon.  I thought of staying here – and am glad that I didn’t because I loved the Hotel San Miguel – but I did go here to pick something up and it does look lovely and the staff seemed really quite nice.  But, be warned: they say they have a view of the port which is what they have.  They are not ON the port, they are on a hill overlooking the port.  It is gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but I was expecting it to be down on the port.

Bites

I only spent one night in Mahon so I can only recommend one restaurant:  Wepi (Moll de Llevant 227 (+34) 971 354818; no website).  Wepi describes themselves as a mediterranean restaurant and I would describe their food as eclectic fun!  And it’s not Spanish inspired which, after a while, was a welcomed departure.  And for this vegetarian, they had some wonderful vegetarian options that didn’t involve a salad and actually had some protein in it!  The restaurant is on the port, where most of the restaurants are located, so go for a stroll and find this restaurant.  It’s amazing.

Sites

Well, I must admit that I didn’t find a whole lot of actual sites to take in while in Mao.  I walked everywhere, and had fun people watching and see some of the various neighborhoods, but other than that, there’s not a lot.  Most people seem to take a boat tour around the harbor but that wasn’t my thing.  You can, however, and it will cost 11 euro per person.  And that was it.

So there you go.  If you go to Menorca for a bit of sun – which I do recommend – you can probably avoid a lay-over in Mahon if you plan your flights from Barcelona or Madrid correctly.  And if you can’t avoid the lay-over, or just want to say “I’ve been to Mao,” they stay at the Hotel San Miguel and eat at Wepi.  Enjoy!

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Sant Tomas a small bit of peace and relaxation

Menorca (also Minorca) is the smallest of the Ballaeric islands and the most tranquil.  The two primary tourist “attractions” would be Mahon (also Maó) and Ciutadella, the former capital.  But most people come to Menorca for their beaches.  And what stunning beaches they are!

There are tons of beach resorts to choose from and I chose Sant Tomas.  And let me tell you, the beaches are everything they are cracked up to be and the perfect place to relax and recharge.

Nights

There are 5 hotels in the tony hamlet of Sant Tomas.  The oldest is the Hotel Santo Tomas (built in the 1960s I think).  Although the hotel is a bit dated and looks circa 1970s (at least for the last renovation), it fulfills the typical beach resort requirements: it’s right on the beach, the rooms are small and minimal, and nearly everything is included in the price of your stay.  (See below for more.)

The negative to the Hotel Santo Tomas, I’m afraid is two-fold: they attract a LOT of tour groups so those of us not part of a tour are left with what’s left.  When I checked in, they tried to give me a room with a view of “the garden” which is really the street!  The second downside is that there are a LOT of children running around.  I love kids, so don’t get me wrong, but when you want to chill, read, or whatever, it’s kind of difficult to do when there is screaming and crying all around you.

If I were to return to Sant Tomas, I would recommend the Sol Melia (http://es.melia.com/hoteles/espana/menorca/sol-menorca/home.htm) a resort that is for adults only.  (And they have daily bocce tournaments!)

Another option that I would recommend is one of the numerous condo/house rentals in the village.  They are all owned by the various resorts, I suspect, but at least they have their own kitchens and you don’t have to eat as part of buffet.  (And I bet there are laundry facilities!)

Bites

Because Sant Tomas is a resort community, there really isn’t much in the way of restaurants.  And this is why each hotel property is all inclusive.  I’m not a fan of buffets, and I never will be, but here in Sant Tomas, you have to get over that!  The buffet at the Hotel Sant Tomas is average and the kindness of the staff definitely helps.  But eating in a large setting is not my idea of fun!  And given that they cater to the older crowd, few of whom are vegetarian (but should try it!), there isn’t much for the vegetarians in the crowd.  Thank god for the salad bar!

There are also 2 supermarkets in the village where you can also buy everything that you want.  On one trip, I saw a couple buying things for a barbecue so there are either places that you can barbecue or one of the rentals had facilities.  I’d take this option, even without tofu, any day over the buffet.

There are a couple of so-called restaurants in the village but they are small and don’t really offer anything overly gourmet.  In fact, I would guess that the upside to these “restaurants” is simply that they are not a buffet.

Sights

There really isn’t much to do in Sant Tomas other than to relax on the beach or poolside.

For those of you who get a bit antsy, there is an amazing trail that goes along the coast line in both directions from Sant Tomas and I highly recommend it.  You can go for as long, or as short, as you like and fear not: the paths is clearly marked throughout.

There is also a castle which although interesting to visit, isn’t really worth the trek.  So go back to the beach and get your tan on!

And there you have it: Sant Tomas in a nutshell.  It’s a beautiful place and there are lots of return guests – think the movie “Dirty Dancing” without baby in the corner – but I think that once you’ve been, that really is enough unless it’s easy for you to book a last minute trip.  If you have a long distance to travel to get here, I can recommend other parts of Spain.  So safe travels and enjoy!

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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.

Another find that I highly recommend is Restaurant Sauc (http://www.saucrestaurant.com/default.htm) which I think was voted the best restaurant in Barcelona a couple of years ago.   And I concur!

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 12 February 2017)

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.

And finally, if you are in Milano for a conference – and not interested in staying the centre but rather out near the fair grounds – I’ve stayed at the Regency Hotel Milano ( http://www.regency-milano.com/).  It’s probably a 3 star hotel but actually quite lovely and quirky in it’s decor.  If you don’t want to be at a conference hotel, I would stay here (if I couldn’t stay in the centre).

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 and TownHouse 12 (http://www.townhouse.it/th12/), near the convention center is one of the few cool place in that neighborhood.  I love the TownHouse chain and this hotel did not disappoint. If you will be in Milano for a conference – or the price of hotels in the “centro storico” are just too high, I highly recommend this hotel! Jesna and Nikki were amazing and a sincere joy to see every time I came and went. 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. I was in room 205 that had an amazing deck with a table and chairs that I still dream of as I write this. It also appears that a new extension of the M5 line will open with a stop near the hotel that will make getting to the hotel from Malpensa amazingly simple but, alas, probably add to the noise outside the hotel.

Bites

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

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!

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!

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!

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.

If you are in Milano for a conference, I can highly recommend Ristorante Controvento (www.ristorantecontrovento.com) (which is not far from TownHouse 12)! If I hadn’t been in search of multiple suggestions to add to this blog, I honestly would have eaten here every night. The staff are amazing, they speak about every language possible, and the food is absolutely divine! And the wine list, already outstanding as it is, but if you ask the owner, he may just suggest a few options that aren’t on the list.

Another place that is about a 30 minute walk from the Ferie area is Osteria Borsieri. It’s not swank like any of the other suggestions above but the pasta was classic – like “mama would make” – and the staff wonderful. The wine list has much to be desired but this is a neighborhood restaurant so they aren’t catering to people who eat there on business but, instead, to the locals who don’t want to cook at home. (And I think there is only one person there who speaks English, just so you know.)

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

[updated 06 March 2016]

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

For me, there is only one place to stay: the Hotel Flora (www.hotelflora.it/).

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.

The restaurant Ai Artisti (www.enotecaartisti.com) was a wonderful find and the food outstanding.   And the wine list?  Amazing!  Wines by the glass made this traveler a happy man because I was able to try different regions  and evaluate how the wine paired with the food. 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.

A new restaurant that I found, is Fiaschetteria Toscana (www.fiaschetteriatoscana.it – Cannaregio 5719, San G. Grisostomo).  Divine!  The various options for food are incredible, the service pure perfections, and although it isn’t that far from the Rialto bridge, you won’t be found in a tourist trap.  If you need it, our waiter spoke French, Dutch, German, and English (and apparently he is  taking classes in Mandarin!)

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.

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 in search of a souvenir that doesn’t involve a mask or a piece of glass, search out danghyra (http://danghyra.com/) which is near the Guggenheim museum on a little side street.  Really inventive, original stuff that my friends have loved and I enjoy having in my house.

If you need a little gift before you leave Venice, I have a couple of recommendations for you. My favourite blank-paper book and paper store is ArtigianCarta di Massimo Doretto (artcarta@tin.it). They don’t have a website and every time I am in Venice I become worried that I won’t find the shop so here’s the address: be sure to ask your hotel to find it on a map as it really is worth seeking out: San Marco 1797 Frezzeria, Tel 041 522 5606

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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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 (www.borghesepalacehotel.com).  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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Zagreb, Croatia

When you consider Zagreb in relation to the rest of Croatia, it really is quite large.  In the larger scheme of things, this population of 800K – 1million people is really quite small.  And nowhere is this more evident than in the city center and what has been divided as the old Zagreb and the new Zagreb.  As such, you really don’t need more than 2 days to see all that Zagreb has to offer: anything beyond this, you will honestly find yourself revisiting already-seen sights, and just wandering.  That said, it is still worth the visit and I encourage everyone to make it part of a larger tour of Croatia as a whole.

Nights

The President Pantovcak hotel (http://www.president-zagreb.com/) is a wonderful 4 star hotel that I highly recommend.  Never, in all of my travels, have I honestly felt so attended to.  But first things first: don’t be put off by the splash screen of the hotel’s website; I was at first and am glad that I decided to stay here.

The hotel is small and consists of roughly 10 rooms, all of which (I think) look out over a park-like garden.  Depending on your room type, you will have varying types of decks/patios; I didn’t use mine too much because it was just too hot, even at night.  But, if nothing else, just having the deck made me feel better.

Breakfast in the morning is an absolute treat!  The fruit, the cheese, the juice and coffee all amazing.  And once the hotel found out that I am a vegetarian, they made me eggs, rather than a meat tray, for the remaining days.  Like I said, I’ve never felt so attended to. (Breakfast is not included in the price but definitely worth the extra money, and I never think this!)

If there is one downside to the President Pantovcak, it is that it is located just on the outskirts of the old town.  It only takes 5 minutes to walk to the center, so it’s not bad, but you can’t just step right outside your hotel… you have to take a few steps.

Now, if you want to stay elsewhere, I can make a few recommendations.  For all out glory, stay at the Regent Esplanade (http://www.regenthotels.com/zagreb-hotel-hr-10000/zagr1).  I went here for drinks and didn’t want to leave the lobby!  I can only imagine what the rooms are like!

Another interesting find, at least to me, was the Palace Hotel (http://www.palace.hr/): interesting because it is a stunning building very centrally located –although a tad close to the train tracks – and it only received 4 stars.  I didn’t stay here, so I can’t vouch for the rooms – or that of the Esplanade – but it looks like a viable option, especially if the President is booked.

And one last thing: I would not recommend staying at either the Westin or the Sheraton hotels.  Although both of these hotels are given 5 stars by the local tourism council, at least from the outside, I don’t know how this is possible.  And in addition to that, both hotels are quite a schlep to the old town.  You have better options.

Bites

I only went to one restaurant the 2 nights that I went to dinner: Nova.  This is a vegetarian restaurant located a short distance from the center on the main street, Ilica.  If you’re not a vegetarian, but are willing to try something a bit different, this is your place!  The restaurant is a bit hard to find because it’s not right on Ilica street, but if you pay attention, you will see the stairs leading to the first floor restaurant.  Okay, so it doesn’t have outdoor seating, but when you get tired of the fish and grilled meats every night, you have to make compromises.  Nova has nightly specials as well as a standard menu and if I do say so myself, the chick pea soup with oregano was incredible!  I was a bit hesitant at first, but with the sesame seeds (instead of salt!), phenomenal.  The smoked tofu, the setai, the quinoa, and everything else made this vegetarian one happy man.

Sights

As I said at the beginning, there isn’t a lot to do in Zagreb and it really can be done in 2 days.  You can try to divide your days in to upper old town and lower old town, but these only take about a half day each.  And that’s with lots of photos, coffee, and strolling.  But, whatever you do, do not miss out on meandering through the Dolac market.  Stunning!

You don’t need to buy anything – but if you want some fruit or veg to snack on in the parks, here’s your place – but the colours, the interactions, and the smells are incredible.  There is also a meat market under the outdoor market but buyer beware: I was having flashbacks of the souks in Marrakesh with the smells, the flies, and, well, you get the picture.

I am typically a big fan of museums but museums that were about ethnography, natural history, native arts, etc just didn’t do it for me.  The one museum that I did go to was the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters.  Whoever chose the name for this museum is a former marketer; there are 2 old masters in the museum, neither of which were the artists’ best works.  And if you must know, there is a Bruegel the elder and a Tintoretto that don’t have much fanfare surrounding them.  The cost to enter is only 10 kruna so it won’t break the bank, but if you plan to come here to get out of the heat, think again; the museum is not air conditioned and I can only image what it is like full of people!  When I commented to the nice ticket-taker how hot it was – as in, it can’t be good for the paintings – she simply said “I know” in a matter-of-fact tone.

The other thing that I do highly recommend is taking a stroll down Tkalciceva street.

This street is lined with bars and coffee shops and during the day, a wonderful place to relax and get out of the heat.  Although I didn’t venture here at night, I suspect it is crowded and packed with the locals.  The street isn’t far from the Dolac market and is listed on most maps so you should be fine.

Overall, I think Zagreb is a great place and I am chuffed that I finally did it: everyone questioned why I chose Zagreb, much less Croatia, but all that I know is that I am happy I did..  And if you can do it before it becomes a formal part of the European Union, do it; it’s one of the few easily accessible places that you can still go and pay 200 kruna for a bottle of wine!  I love monopoly money!

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Dubrovnik, Croatia

Nights

Dubrovnik is a tough town in terms of where to stay: you either have ridiculously expensive or 3-star or below.  I honestly don’t think that there is anything in between.  I chose to stay at the Hotel Excelsior and, in all honestly, I wouldn’t recommend you stay here unless you have a written guarantee of a sea-view room; don’t be fooled by a “garden view” room because there is no garden.  In fact, the hotel – like most things in Dubrovnik – is located on a hill sloping down to the Adriatic so there is no room for a garden and thus, no such thing as a garden-view room.

And thing before I forget: 2 other sites referred to the Excelsior as “art deco” in style.  Don’t believe them.  If you are looking for late 1980s Sheraton Hotel furniture, rugs, décor, and ambiance, the Excelsior is your place.  But quite honestly, it’s not a 5 star hotel and definitely not worth the price.

In my search for different accommodations after I couldn’t stand looking at a wall any longer (the so-called) “garden-view” room, I found 2 hotels that I would be willing try should my travels bring me back to Dubrovnik: the Hotel Grand Villa Argentina (www.hoteli.argentina.hr) or the Pucic Palace (www.thepucicpalace.com). I didn’t stay in either, but the Argentina is on the Adriatic and looks stunning whereas the Pucic Palac is inside the city wall and I thought it looked stunning.  But since I didn’t stay at either, your guess is as good as mine.

Bites

Most of the restaurants in Dubrovnik seem to be situated around the city wall.  Despite my best efforts to either obtain information, or find it on my own, I couldn’t find any restaurants more than a few city blocks from the city wall.  But all is not lost; you just have to be prepared to put up with all of the tourists that descend on the town.

My personal favourite restaurant was nishta (www.nishtarestaurant.com) which is completely vegetarian (with vegan options if you prefer).  Not only did I love the restaurant because it was vegetarian, but its selections from around the world were truly stunning.  Located on Prijeko street within the city walls, it can be a bit tricky to find, but search out the only restaurant with purple table covers and purple chairs, and you are there.  But be sure to make a reservation; people were constantly turned away both times that I ate here.

Another place that I enjoyed was Chihuahua (no website), a Mexican restaurant just outside the city walls.  I know: why go to Dubrovnik and have Mexican food.  Well, for starters, if you get tired of the grilled fish and meat all over the place, you might welcome a little bit of a change.  But Americans be warned: even though the food is really quite good, don’t come with a hankering for avocado.  They don’t really seem to have avocados here.  And, in fact, not one entrée listed avocado as being included and although they had guacamole listed as an available “side,” my bet was on light green stuff from a jar so I avoided that.  But, that said, the salads was fantastic and the enchiladas spicy and full of flavour.  And they had Mexican beers, local beers, and my favourite: Stella!

And finally, if you need one more suggestion, I would suggest Mimoza (no website) which is right across from the Hilton hotel.  The downside to the Mimoza is that, like most restaurants in Dubrovnik, there is a “hawker” outside inviting you in to their restaurant.  This is a huge turnoff for me and I typically turn away.  But Mimoza came highly recommended by the one person at the Excelsior who I liked and trusted and it wasn’t too bad.  For a vegetarian, like most places, the menu wasn’t very inventive, but the restaurant was full (and not all tourists) and everyone seemed to enjoy their meals.  And the fact that the waiters were great is a plus in my book.

Sites

Dubrovnik doesn’t really have much to offer apart from the Adriatic.  Don’t get me wrong: the Adriatic is stunning, the water crystal clear, and the temperature divine even in early July.  But if you are looking for more than sunning and eating/drinking at night, Dubrovnik may not be your place.

The above said, there are a few things that you can do that I certainly recommend very highly.  Although it sounds a bit trite, the walk around the city wall really is amazing and worth the price of admission.  (But don’t bother buying the booklet; it really doesn’t tell you much that you need to know.)  The views down in to the city with the walls are really spectacular as well as the views out to the sea and the rest of the surrounding island.

Another trip that I highly recommend is taking the cable car to top of the mountain to the original fort.

First of all, the views looking down upon the old city are breathtaking (literally and figuratively). Likewise, the views as you descend the mountain are equally amazing.  Note: it is possible to walk up and down from the fort.  The hike up is a doozie so I would recommend taking the cable car up and then walking back down the meandering path.  And once you are at the fort, be prepared for truly amazing views: not only can you see down to the fort but you can see so much more of Dubrovnik and the surrounding villages, as well as the mountain ranges beyond the fort that you cannot see from “down below” in the city center.  The remnants of the old fort are interesting but I honestly don’t think they were worth the price of admission.

And finally, a trip to Dubrovnik wouldn’t be a trip to Dubrovnik if you didn’t do the three island tour.  Okay, yes, it is a tourist trap bar none, but if you want something different and want to get away from the beach for a bit, do the trip: it’s an all day event (some with lunch, some without) and seeing the islands really is amazing, not to mention the views to the “mainland.”

One of the islands has about 150 inhabitants, another 300 and then the largest 600 all of which rely completely on tourism.  So, a word to the wise: bring your own food and water and don’t buy anything because you will pay 2 to 3 times the price in already expensive Dubrovnik.  One other note to the wise: the end of the tour is a 3+ hour “beach time” and if you are beached out (or sunburnt) and need to avoid the sun, bring a book and an ipod because there isn’t much to do once you’ve walked the promenade.

So, if your travels get you anywhere close – or you just want a little side trip from Italy – go to Dubrovnik; it really is a gorgeous place and something that you should experience at least once in your travels.

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Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal is a fascinating country that, unfortunately, has been hit by the economic crisis  resulting in high unemployment and fearful citizens.  But don’t let that stop you from going at least once in your life.  Lisbon, the most known city in Portugal really is a lovely place and the people are attentive and helpful.   But beware: there are areas that are not safe after sundown and never, ever, forget where you are and remain aware of your immediate surroundings.

Nights

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of hotels worth noting in Lisbon.  Of course, all of the chain hotels are here, but they are all located  near the zoo and relatively close to the airport, and really offer nothing that is Portuguese culture.  And,  most importantly, none of these hotels are anywhere near the things that you really must see when in Lisbon.  So I would suggest that you stay at the York House (http://www.yorkhouselisboa.com/).

The York House is a lovely boutique hotel within walking distance to the tram, the old town and even the convention center if you are there on business.  The rooms are like having your own apartment and vary in size, style, and ambiance.   When I checked in – quite early as I arrived from the States – they kindly gave me a room right away.   But being the workaholic  that I am, there was no desk.  When I went back to  the reception desk, the woman said “you don’t like the room?” to which I replied, “not really and I’d love to have a desk.”  In the States, I would have been met with attitude.  Here, the woman just said “come back in a few hours and I will have a new room for you.”  And boy  did she!  The room had a separate room with a desk, a sofa, and windows that looked out to the courtyard.  Stunning!  So stay here when you travels next take you to Lisbon!

Bites

Lisbon is peppered with little restaurants that are seemingly tucked in to alcoves on every street.  I must admit that I have never tried one of these restaurants, and probably never will, but if you go, I suspect it is typical Portuguese culture.   But fear not: I can definitely recommend a few restaurants that are well worth seeking out.

Roughly 10 years ago, I went to Al Cantara Cafe and loved it and was pleased to see that it still exists in all its glory (www.alcantaracafe.com).  Go here for a visual experience that can’t be beat!  And the food is divine, the cocktails outstanding, and the wine list fantastic (but don’t go for the local wines; they really aren’t worth it).

Relatively new to the scene is Kais (www.kais-k.com) which is another large, open venue much like the Al Cantara Cafe.  Absolutely stunning and fabulous food!

If you are in a bind, I would suggest Sacramento which is in the heart of the shopping area and a bit on the touristy side.  I don’t think they have a website, but every concierge that I asked for recommendations wanted to send me here so I think everyone knows this restaurant.  They have food for everyone, even this vegetarian, so you can’t go wrong and the prices won’t kill you.

And for those of you vegetarians, I found the most amazing restaurant run by the sweetest people: Jardim das Cerejas (www.jardimdascerejas.com).  According to their website, they are vegetarian  but I think they are vegan actually.  The food was amazing!   But be warned: it’s buffet style  which I personally don’t like, but when I saw a vegetarian restaurant in Lisbon, I had to try it.  Truly amazing food, with everything you could want (except desert which was extra), and it was ridiculously affordable.  Seek this restaurant out and enjoy this little hidden treasure.

Sights

Lisbon is a walking city.  Yes, there are trams that go everywhere and even a “subway” that appears to just go in one big circle (thus why it’s in quotes), but to really experience the city, just walk.  And  a great word  of advice that was shared with me: if you feel like you are getting lost, just follow the tram tracks.  If there is a tram line near your hotel – which there is near the York House – you will make it home.

The Bario Alto is an amazing place with gorgeous views over the city.  Although most Lisboans live outside the city center, this is the closest thing that you will get to old Lisbon.  I could wonder for hours here, just getting lost and people watching.

Another great experience is to traipse up to the Castle overlooking the city.  Its a hike: whether you walk up the stairs or follow the tram line up, it’s all uphill!   But the views, again, are stunning and quite honestly, you’ll feel good about yourself for doing this uphill hike!

If shopping is your thing, Lisbon really isn’t your place.  The glass and china that you can find can be a lovely addition to your travel mementos, but other than that, there really isn’t much worth saving room in your luggage for.  Well, perhaps you should save a little room for a non-traditional port wine from Oporto!  But I’ll leave  that up to you.

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Paris, France

When I was younger, I romantically believed that I would not go to Paris  until it was for my honeymoon.   When it became apparent that a honeymoon was not in the immediate future, and the desire to go to Paris, was too great, I went.  I love Paris!   Paris gets a lot of heat from the tourists who claim that the French – and especially the Parisians – are rude.  I find that if you try to speak French – learn a few words, people, it’s not that hard  – they are much more accommodating.   And even if they are rude to you, get over it; Paris is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.   So get on that plane and go!

My first visit to Paris was for the Tour de France in 2000-something.  It was short, it was rainy, and I was hooked!

Nights

Believe it or not, I’ve only stayed in 2 hotels  in all of my trips to Paris.

l’Hotel (http://www.l-hotel.com/) is a classic hotel that has this neoclassic air about it that I loved.  But be forewarned:  it’s not cheap but, then again, nothing in Paris is cheap.

The other Hotel that I found, which is my new favourite, is Hotel ‘adresse (http://www.ladresse-hotel.com/).  [Warning: be careful… there are 2 hotels with this name in Paris so choose this one.   The link is correct.]  If you are in Paris  for a convention, this hotel is ideally situated a few blocks  from the center.  But if you are in Paris  for pleasure, it is just a few blocks from the Champs-Elysees which is perfect: you are removed from the tourists, and the noise, but close  enough to do everything that you could ever want.   And if you are prone to taking the metro – I prefer  to walk everywhere – there is a metro stop nearby.

Bites

I must admit that I am not a fan of French cooking. It’s not personal, I just prefer simple food over overly complicated sauces and preparations.   But I still  love a number of restaurants in Paris and I encourage you, if at all possible, go to one if not all of these.

Hands down, my favourite restaurant in Paris is Casa Olympe (http://www.casaolympe.com/).  I’ve been here on business and with friends and the owners are just lovely and helpful.  And the food: divine inspiration!  It’s a tiny restaurant, out of the way, and it just can’t be beat!

At the request of a friend, I’ve also been to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon. (http://www.joel-robuchon.net/).  This is one of those restaurants that, if you have the chance, you should go: the attention to detail incredible and the fact that there appears to be one wait staff for each diner astounding!  But have an expense account (if those still exist) because it is ridiculously expensive!

Near Hotel l’Adresse (see above) is a very rustic and hyper restaurant called Chez Georges (no website but the address is 273, Boulevard Péreire , 75017 Paris).  This is a fun, more affordable restaurant probably because it is off the Champs-Elysees.  Try it.

And for a truly original experience, go to L’Atelier du Marche (http://www.atelierdumarche.com/).   The owner is a former doctor who, when he retired, knew that he wanted to open his own restaurant.  His strength is wine, not food so when he buys his wine – and it’s not the run of the mill French wines, but original and hard  to find wines – he then goes  to the chef and they discuss what will pair well with the wine.  Inspired!  It’s small, and intimate, and best of all:  when walking down the street to this little restaurant, the Eiffel Tower is in front of you.  Trust me: there is nothing more romantic than exiting the restaurant after a divine meal to see the Eiffel Tower lit at night!

Sites

This is a tough one because just about everyone knows  what  you need to see when you are in Paris:  the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Musee Picasso and Notre Dame.  So I will just tell you to walk everywhere.  Really.   Don’t stop.  Just walk and you will see the beauty that is Paris  in all it inspired splendor.

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Melbourne, Australia

(Updated 03 August 2013)

The Australians are truly some of the nicest, most accommodating, and most giving people I have ever met in all of my travels.  Perhaps it’s just that large island in the middle of nowhere that is so hard to get to that makes them nice, I don’t know, but if you have the chance to go, and can handle the long flight, you must do it!

Nights

Most people stay in downtown Melbourne – also known as the CBD – and as well they should.   I first stayed at the Hotel Lindrum (http://www.hotellindrum.com.au/) shortly after they opened many years ago and I tell you, it is still worth the money and the “just on the edge of the CBD”: the staff are amazing, the rooms divine, and it’s not so noisy with clubs and restaurants right underneath you.  And if you happen to be going to the Australian Open, it’s a great location: Melbourne Park right across the park and an easy walk!

The CBD isn’t much different than any other downtown: you have the restaurants, the shops, and some really interesting touristic things to see and do.

Bites

taxi: one of my personal favourites is in Federation Square (aka Fed Square) and it is called taxi (http://www.fedsquare.com/index.cfm?pageID=122). The food is amazing, the views spectacular and the people watching in the restaurant alone aren’t too bad either!

Chocolate Buddha: if you want something a little less expensive than taxi (above), then go here (http://www.chocolatebuddha.com.au/).  I love this place and have been here many times, both for fun and even a relaxed business meeting.

For a special night out – date, friends, family, or just your own personal celebration – I highly recommend Becco (http://www.becco.com.au/) in the CBD.   The temptation to be rushed at this upscale Italian restaurant is pretty prevalent from the start but with a bit of patience, and maybe even a comment to the server, things slow down and you can enjoy the atmospher, the amazing wine list, and the outstanding food.  And if it’s on the menu: the buratta is amazing!

Also in the CBD is The Meatball and Wine Bar (http://www.meatballandwinebar.com.au/).  This place is funky and cool and, if you can believe it, they even make a vegetarian “meatball” that rocks!  The wine here is fantastic and although I’m not normally a fan of “family style tables” it works in the off-the-beaten path” restaurant.  Seek it out if you need a relaxing lunch some day or  maybe even a kick-back dinner.

And before I forget… if you are in the trendy Fitzroy area, you must go to the Trippy Taco.  Okay, it’s mostly vegetarian, I think, but trust me when I tell you have not had vegetarian mexican food like this before!  No beans and rice burrito here: it’s veg takes on the classics  and it will curl your toes.  And beware the hot sauce: they know how to do hotsauce right!

Sights

I am a huge fan of churches – the architecture, the peace, and the stained glass windows and St Patrick’s Cathedral does not disappoint.

Two other churches worth seeking out are the German Lutheran church and St Paul’s.  Neither are in the CBD, but both are worth a stroll and wander around this amazing city.

But while you are in the CBD, two worthy sites to see are the Old Melbourne Gaol (http://www.oldmelbournegaol.com.au/) and the Queen Victory Market (http://www.qvm.com.au/).  I opted to start with the Old Melbourne Gaol where Ned Kelly was imprisoned.  It’s a self-guided tour but really fascinating and really interesting.  The first time I went here, it was the Australian winter and I couldn’t get over how cold and damp it was in the Gaol.   It kind of put everything in to perspective.

After the Gaol, I headed over the Queen Vic market for a bit of a wander and a coffee.  You can find everything that you would ever want at the Queen Vic: fruit and veg beyond belief (made me wish I lived here just so I could shop here all the time), household goods, and yes, touristy things that you can take home to family and friends.

If you are in need of a break from the people, the cars, and all of the hazards of everyday life, you must go to the Fitzroy Gardens (located just a hop and a skip from the Hotel Lindrum).  The park is just the place for a bit of peace and relaxation.

Sights outside of Melbourne

Healesville Sactuary.  If you have a car or a friend with a car, you must go here just to see some koalas, kangaroos, and other native animals.  What an amazing place.   Unfortunately, you are no longer allowed to hold koalas but it was worth every penny and the sanctuary will appreciate the support

Great Ocean Road.  I know, it sounds touristy and perhaps it is, but you really must go.  To be honest, none of my Aussie friends wanted to do the drive, and I suspect yours won’t either, but there are tons of tour buses available so book in advance and do it.  Why do I say book in advance?   Because some of them book up quite quickly – there was one company that only took small groups and the bus had swivel chairs so you didn’t have to crane your neck! – and you don’t want to miss out.   But most of the tours offer the same thing: tea and coffee along the way, a stop for lunch in a beach town (I recommend bringing your own snacks, drinks and lunch so that you have more time for exploring), and stops at Bells Beach

Apollo Bay

Loch Ard Gorge

London Bridge

and the 12 Apostles

St Kilda

If you decide that you’ve had enough of the CBD and want a bit of relaxation and beach culture, head to the St Kilda neighborhood.  This is the funky cool area with bars, small shops, an amusement park and beach, beach, and more beach.

I can recommend two hotels, and suggest a third if you decide to go to St Kilda.  My favourite is the Urban Hotel (http://melbourne.hotelurban.com.au/) which is a very short walk from the beach.  The decor is funky minimalist and the staff are fantastic.  And the fact that they have a great coffee bar for brekkie in the morning doesn’t hurt things!

The other hotel that I can recommend, but only if the Hotel Urban is booked, is the Tolarno (http://www.hoteltolarno.com.au/). This hotel is funky and I loved the old hand-hewn wood floors.  But the hotel is a tad on the noisy side – both inside and outside – but I would certainly stay here again.

The third place that I can recommend, although I have not stayed here, is the Prince Hotel.  This is the classic, and famous, hotel in St Kilda.  Every time I’ve been to St Kilda, it’s been booked so getting in can be a challenge.  But even if you can’t get in, go to the bar which is one of the most happening scenes in St Kilda just for a drink.

Bites

If you decide not to have brekkie at the Hotel Urban, walk up the street, away from the ocean and go to Cacao (http://www.cacao.com.au/).  The brekkie here is amazing: the cappuccino, latte, or whatever is HUGE, the croissants amazing, and the chocolates that you can take home are pure butter (or chocolate in this case).  Cacao also has sandwiches that you can eat there or take away and papers to read so that you aren’t too far removed from the haps in the world.

And with that, enjoy!

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Canakkale, Turkey

Canakkale is really an interesting little village right on the Dardanelles whose major claim to fame is Troy.  As such, Canakkale is pretty much the only place to stay if you want to take a dolmus (really, a public mini van) to the ruins of Troy.  Although your primary reason for coming to Canakkale is to see Troy, don’t miss out on the village itself.

Nights

Because this is the closest place to Troy, there really are a number of hotels to choose from.  And all are within easy walking distance of the bus station.  My personal choice here is the Hotel Kervansaray (www.anzachotel.com).  The hotel comprises the original, old home, and the newer addition that has been added on to the back.   If possible, get a room in the old house; the ceilings are high, you have views to the garden or street, and it really is charming.  Although I did not see the new edition in the back, it looks modern from the outside so I would guess that it is quite modern (and staid!) on the inside.

Bites

In terms of restaurants, most of them are situated along the sea-front so they are, unfortunately, a bit on the touristy side.  As with most places, I am certain that there are better restaurants “inland” but since I was only there for a couple of days, I couldn’t tell you.  But fear not!  We did go to Yalova Restaurant which, yes, was on the sea front, but just a bit removed from the tourist traps.  The food was incredible – except for a vegetarian – the wine list about as good as we saw, and the views of the sea outstanding.  In fact, the night we were here, my friend said “my birthday would be perfect if I saw a dolphin” and, 2 minutes later, 3 dolphin were seen jumping in and out of the sea!  It really couldn’t get any more perfect than that

Sights

But, as I mentioned earlier, Canakkale is all about Troy.  In fact, the movie was filmed here and in the surroundings and, as a result of the filming, the film crew left a replica of the Trojan Horse used in the film for the tourists to marvel at.  (Yes, I did see it, and I did take a picture, but…)  If you need a souvenir of your visit, you will find it: every store, shop, and vendor has “trinkets” that you can take home so don’t worry.  But let’s get out to Troy.

If you aren’t part of a guided tour group, getting to Troy is interesting.  You have to buy your ticket in advance at a kiosk near the bus terminal and where the boats dock. But then, to get to Troy, you have to go to a different place that is a good 10 minute walk away.  And be forewarned: there is no “terminal,” there is no shelter (from sun or rain), and there isn’t much in terms of “grabbing a bite to eat” while you wait for the bus.  In fact, you get the bus under a bridge and the bus, is really a mini-van that goes back and forth.  But it’s all relatively civilized if you have the right frame of mind.

Once the dolmus drops you off at Troy, you need to walk about a km to get to the actual site.  It really is quite odd, but when your not part of a tour group – and why would you be – you are a bit second tier.  Once at Troy, let your feet guide you: there is no specific route, per se, and you can pretty much go wherever you want.  

Troy is one of those places that you have to go visit in your life.  And if you are in Turkey to see Efes, then Troy is a natural part of the trip to include.  Would I return to Troy?  No.  (I would Efes!)  Am I glad that I went?  Yes.

The ruins of Troy are really quite simple and I suspect that if the Turkish government had more money, or there were other groups interested in excavating the site, more treasures would be found.  Given that Troy comprises 6 different eras – all of which can be seen in one way or another – one can only imagine what has yet to be found.  But what I found most enchanting was the ability to wander wherever I wanted, almost like a young child exploring.

All in all, I think we spent about 3 hours at Troy exploring and this was plenty.  If you needed to do it faster, you could: some of the tour buses came in after us and left before us. It’s a shame and also a reality I am afraid.

And with that, enjoy!

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Selcuk, Turkey

Selcuk is an interesting place and one that is hard to recommend to be honest.  If it weren’t for its proximity to Efes (Ephesus), I wouldn’t even recommend it.  But because it is the closest place to stay for Efes, I have to mention it.  But here’s the deal: only stay in Selcuk for one night.  The best itinerary would be to arrive in Selcuk at night, go to dinner, get some rest, and then head to the ruins that are Efes the following morning.  And when you are finished with Efes, either get on a bus or take a flight out because you have now seen all that there is to see in Selcuk.

Nights

The sheer paucity of hotels in Selcuk is staggering.  Perhaps this is a result of nothing more to do than to visit Efes.  In Selcuk, we stayed at the Kalehan Hotel (http://www.kalehan.com/) which is one of the better hotels in Selcuk.  And thankfully, our hotel in Alacati knew the owners (see post on Alacati, Turkey) so we were upgraded to a bigger room that was, apparently, much quieter than others.

The hotel is not 5 star and really closer to 3 star, but the staff are kind and the rooms clean.  If you look at their website, they are true to the “allure” of the hotel: its all out kitsch.  And, interestingly enough, the only hotel in Selcuk that does not have a shuttle from the train station to the hotel or a shuttle to Efes.  But for one night, this will do.

Bites

Dining options in Selcuk are pretty limited and uninspired unfortunately.  On our first night in Selcuk, we took a walk in search of restaurants and when we found one we liked, that’s where we went: Eski Ev (Ataturk Mah 1005 sk, No 1).   The staff were really pleasant and although the food was uninspired and they never seemed to have the local beer in stock, it worked.  On our second night in Selcuk, we looked for another restaurant to try and, in the end, went back to Eski Ev.  (I told you one night was enough in Selcuk.)  Our waiter – the same from the night before – was really kind and after seeing us a second time, spent some time chatting with us and telling us about his life in the army and school.   It was sweet and added a bit of charm to a really rather bland town.

Sights

But we weren’t in Selcuk for the town.  We were in Selcuk for Efes.  And it did not disappoint! After the above description, I may have put you off of Selcuk as a whole.  Don’t.  I just want you to know what to expect before you head go.  Because you must go for the sole matter of seeing Efes.

The only way to describe Efes is breathtaking.  It really should be one of the sites on every person’s list of “things I must see before I die.” 

We walked the 5+km from Selcuk to Efes in the morning calm and it really was lovely.  If you have the energy and inclination to do so, I highly recommend it.  But remember, once you get to Efes, you will have another umpteen km to walk in the site so be ready.  Because we walked, we entered from the south entrance.  Most people enter from the north.  But by entering from the south, and because we were walking, that meant we walked all the way to the north gate and then had to walk back down past everything we already saw.  But if I do say so myself: it’s worth it.  By retracing your steps, and even going in different directions, you have the opportunity to see things again, in a different light, or something that you didn’t see because of the tour group in front of it.

I can’t really make a recommendation of what you HAVE TO SEE; everything is breathtaking and worth as much time as you can give.  The Church of the Virgin Mary was especially important for me and I will be forever chuffed that I was able to see this amazing ruin.  As the story goes, it was the first church in the world to take the Virgin’s name and was also the place where Mary went after Joseph died.  It is also rumoured that Mary’s house is at the top of a mountain overlooking Efes (but this is a LONG hike uphill and really only reached by taxi which is a scam, unfortunately).

Another thing who’s mere size is overwhelming is the Library of Celsus.  We’ve all seen pictures but until you see the sheer size in all its detail and grandeure, it really can’t be understood: from every angle you see something new, some detail, and some play of light and shadow.

And finally, and regardless of where you start from, don’t forget to go to the Great Theatre.  I am, and always will be, partial to the Colosseum in Rome, but this is definitely a very close second. So make the effort and hike to the very top of the Great Theatre and just have a think about the surrounding lands.  If you look straight out, way off in the distance, you will see the water.  And then think about this: Efes used to be a port.  One side of Efes was a port as well as a place to battle incoming combatants.

The other thing that I would recommend is to rent the headphones as you enter the site.  I don’t typically advocate this as I am always suspicious of the information that they actually tell, but in this instance, I was so chuffed that I did.  I leaned more from the audio guide than I did from the booklet and the free information that I received when I bought my ticket.

And with that, enjoy!

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