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Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a pretty snazzy handful of hamlets. These five towns are built (rather impressively) into the cliff sides of the Italian Riviera. Wine, beaches, ancient Italian villages, what’s not to love? It’s romantic (hence the visiting of Cinque Terre after Kenny’s departure), beautiful and relaxing.

We stayed in the town of Vernazza. This is touted as the poster child of Cinque Terre, and for good reason. It’s a tiny town with a main strip that’s barely more than one block. The main piazza is on the harbor and surrounded by restaurants with al fresco dining seats where you can watch the swimmers float about in the clear cerulean sea and the boats come in. The one downside to Vernazza: due to its tiny size, it cannot accommodate the number of tourists it receives during the day (at least during the peak month of September) and as such, it becomes overrun. Each time a train or a boat taxi arrives, there is a literal outpouring of people, and if you are trying to walk against the flow, it’s a mob scene. That said, I think it makes it an even better option for your home base while visiting Cinque Terre. That way you can escape the tourists (somewhat, there will still be loads everywhere) by visiting the other towns during the day, and returning to your more peaceful version of Vernazza for the mornings and evenings.

We spent our nights savoring some Italian food and wine, including a bottle of a beautiful Super Tuscan we’d bought in Tuscany, and even a bit of the Cinque Terre wines. Picnicking with some takeout pizza and pasta to enjoy with our wine was a fantastic way to watch the sunset. And we dined at a restaurant with an epic location up on the cliff one night. Had we had the place to ourselves, I might’ve thought I was on the Bachelorette.

I do have to state, however, that (quite disappointingly) the food is markedly less amazing here than in other parts of Italy we visited. With that said, we didn’t do tons of research or go to the most highly recommended restaurants. But on the other hand, you don’t really have to do that elsewhere in Italy to get amazing eats. It wasn’t bad, but don’t expect homemade fresh pasta to be de rigeur.

Perhaps one of the coolest things about Cinque Terre is the fact that the towns are all connected via hiking trails. Often visitors walk from one end to the other, opting to take a boat taxi or train at the end to cut some of the walk off. We were staying at the second or fourth town, depending on which direction you’re starting from. Since we’d heard lovely things about the two towns on either side of us (which are also the two longest distances between towns), we walked back and forth to each on either of our days in town.

Our first day we walked to Monterosso. We started a bit early to avoid the worst of the heat and crowds. It was pretty cool that the trail was literally outside the door of our hotel (they run through alleyways in the town and then become more rugged as you walk through undeveloped land). The views were spectacular, and it’s pretty incredible to be walking through vines of grapes and looking out at the vast ocean and steep landscape dotted with these colorful towns. Plus, it was really good to get some exercise in after all the consumption.

On arrival, we sucked it up and paid the exorbitant price for a pair of loungers and an umbrella, because this was our first time soaking up the sun in one of those picturesque umbrella-dotted Italian oases.

I was also kind of digging these pedal boats with water slides! Must try these somewhere. Monterosso itself was a bit bigger town, though it seemed to absorb the crowds a little better because of this. The beach is larger here, and you can rent the loungers, which isn’t an option over in Vernazza.

On the walk back we happened to arrive during what appeared to be an in-water concert. As in, the band was standing knee-deep in the water, and several tipsy beach goers were dancing alongside them. We watched from above and then hurried down to enjoy the last of the entertainment seaside.

Here’s a quick video, too:

On our last day we walked the opposite direction, to the town of Corniglia, which is set up on the hill and thus doesn’t offer direct beach access. It’s definitely less crowded than Vernazza and Monterosso, but I would probably not recommend this as a place for visitors to stay unless you really want to escape the tourists (at the expense of having direct water access).

Practical Info

Cinque Terre is a gorgeous section of the Italian Riviera, with five towns built on or into the mountains meeting the Ligurian Sea. The water is beautiful and clear, and the cliffs are steeply terraced. From south to north, the five towns are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. I think the two on the end are the largest, Corniglia may be the least visited, and Vernazza is the cover girl. Corniglia sits atop a cliff with no direct access to the sea. Vernazza has a natural harbor and tiny town beach.

We stayed in Vernazza and one day hiked to Monterosso and another day hiked to Corniglia. The whole area seems at once authentic and overrun with tourists. Folks have inhabited some of these towns since medieval times, and you will see no chain hotels and hardly a hotel or corporate sign anywhere. But it is firmly on travelers’ radar (especially Americans), and at its worst (like a Saturday afternoon in September) can feel uncomfortably crowded.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Bologna. Most of the drive was on highways, with the last several miles past La Spezia on extremely hilly, narrow and windy roads. There is official parking about 1km above town for €12/day, so I dropped off Jenni and the bags at the post office/Il Pirata restaurant, drove back up and then walked about 10 minutes down. There is a shuttle bus that I think costs €2. I’m not sure about the other towns, but in general the main town areas have no cars or only locals’ cars.

I believe most visitors arrive by train. Each of the five towns has its own station, and some trains stop only in certain towns. To get here, you would probably have to connect via Genoa/Sestri Levante (from the north/west) or La Spezia (from the south/east). The towns themselves are very small and walking is your only option, though some are quite vertical.

You have three main options for getting between the towns. Trains, boats and hiking. Many opt to hike one way and take a train or boat back. We did return hikes both times.

We departed by rental car for Cassis (via Monaco). One of the small roads was still closed from the 2011 flood, but the scenery made the detour more pleasant. Man, are tolls expensive in these parts. The highway from near Levanto to the French border cost >€26!

Accommodation: We stayed at Vernazza Rooms, right in the middle of town. The first two nights we had Roma 4, then we moved to Roma 1 (higher floor, has a terrace, WiFi doesn’t work as well up there). It is fairly basic, but the staff is helpful and it is convenient. You can hear the train often, but it’s not too bad with the windows closed.

There are not that many hotels in Cinque Terre, so a lot of the inventory is more like rooms in a house or quasi-B&B. Overall, we were surprised by how poor the options seemed. We considered staying at La Torretta in Manarola but didn’t want to spend the money. We walked past Hotel Porto Roca, which is on a cliff overlooking Monterosso and has a pool.

Food and Drinks: The specialties of the area are seafood (including anchovies), pesto and white wine. In general, we found the food here to be less good and more expensive than Rome, Tuscany or Bologna. There are several proper restaurants plus pizzerias/focaccerias, etc. Twice we got take out from Pizzeria Baia Saracena. The pasta was so-so but the pizza was good. Our one proper meal was dinner at Ristorante Belforte, which has a terrific setting perched above Vernazza’s square and harbor. The squid ink tagliolini was great, the rest of it was good. Portions are ample and the service was better than average. Gambero Rosso is well-reviewed.

Activities: There are very few sights here like museums or fountains. The main activities are relaxing, town-hopping, hiking and some water-based options. There are trails going higher up the mountains, but most tourists stick to the red and white marked trail that hugs the cliffside and connects all the five towns. We did the section from Vernazza to Monterosso one day and from Vernazza to Corniglia the next. I think these are the two longest stretches, and each took 60-90 minutes (one-way) and induced substantial sweating. One downer is that you have to pay to use the trails. It costs €7.50/person/day. There are options that encompass train and/or boat passes, too. I was a little put off by having to spend €30 to hike a few hours on two days.

We did not do much else except some swimming. The water is cool but comfortable and refreshing. Monterosso has the biggest beach, including a pay section where it costs €25/day for side-by-side loungers with an umbrella plus access to changing rooms and toilets.

September 13-16, 2014 (Saturday-Tuesday)

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Good Eating in the E-R

One of the aspects of Italian food that I hadn’t really appreciated before coming to Italy is that the cuisine is very local. Such that the restaurants in each city have super similar menus, which vary slightly from the menus in the next area (which are also super similar to each other). For example, everywhere in Montepulciano there were truffles, bistecca fiorentina and pici (the local pasta shape). Everywhere in Rome there was pasta carbonara and cacio e pepe. And everywhere in Bologna there is tortellini and Bolognese (ragu).

We came to Bologna largely for the food. Emilia-Romagna, Bologna’s home region, is widely respected for its cuisine. A number of quintessential Italian staples hail from this region, and we took a wonderful tour to learn more about how they are made (and of course to taste them!).

Our tour took us first to Modena, where we visited a family of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese makers (Nuova Martignana). The process is remarkably more involved than I’d realized. I also didn’t appreciate that Parmigiano-Reggiano is a controlled name, much in the way Champagne is a regulated term. So that “parmesan” cheese you’re used to eating, likely ain’t no Parmigiano-Reggiano, folks.

This cheese making process has been refined for 800 years, when it was first invented by Benedictine monks. It takes a whopping 1200 liters of milk to produce two wheels. Granted, these are some big cheese wheels, but that’s a lot of dairy. We got to see a lot of the steps in action. Most impressive, we watched them lift a really heavy (100kg!) hunk of cheese curd out of a giant copper vat of whey. We also marveled the “Hollywood movie set” of beautiful cheese in their aging room. I doubt I will ever see this much Parmigiano-Reggiano in one place again. Not so long ago, all these cheese wheels had to be flipped by hand weekly. Now there is a machine for that. It was tempting to stock up because the 30 month old cheese costs only €15/kg onsite, but there are too many meat and cheese shops everywhere.

Next stop was a 4th generation family run maker of balsamico tradizionale (named Boni). All of their balsamic vinegar is aged a minimum of 12 years (they have a family cask that is 144 years old). The process was somewhat confusing, since they use a multiple barrel system that involves transferring some of the aged grape juice from the larger barrels into the smaller ones each year. I was pretty surprised to learn that they use a white grape to make the stuff, and the color comes solely from the wood barrels. The variety of woods used was also surprising, i.e. different barrels are made of cherry, oak, chestnut, apple, etc. I was more impressed that it tasted so good atop ricotta cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and gelato (separately, but all together probably works too!). Apparently, whenever a child is born in this region, the family starts a balsamic barrel so it’s ready at his/her wedding. The balsamico tradizionale is very expensive and intensely flavored, so this is the kind of stuff where you use a few drops, and it is very different from the balsamic vinegar you typically find in the States.

In between the food stops, our guide surprised us with a quick photo op outside the Ferrari factory where all the men drooled over the Renzo Piano-designed wind tunnel and the dozens of roaring cars being test driven around us. From there we went on to more food, and ate a full multi course lunch at La Ca Bianca. I kind of lost count, but I think we tried four different pastas. And then they came out with Acqua di Cedro (like limoncello) and a mascarpone and “chocolate sausage” for dessert. (Anyone who has been doubting how much we ate in Italy, take note.)

Our last stop had us landing at what appeared on the outside to be an apartment building. Upon entering, however, we discovered that it’s much more of a serial killer’s fantasy, which in a way, is what it is. A serial killer of pigs, who uses only the rear legs. Row after row after row of metal shelves held leg after leg after leg of prosciutto in various stages of the aging process. We had our final tasting of the day (with more Lambrusco…I neglected to mention above that Lambrusco, another Emilia-Romagna staple, accompanied each and every eating stop on this tour!) and promptly fell into a food coma/Lambrusco induced sleep on the drive home.

I was so disgusted with myself by the end of this day that I skipped dinner at the nice restaurant we had made a reservation for, because I knew that if I didn’t there was a serious chance I could eat enough to require medical attention. Alan and Kenny, however, ventured out. They passed through Piazza Verdi, which is filled with local university students drinking and mingling. In general, it was impressive how many people were hanging out and partying the whole walk to Piazza Maggiore. A never-ending stream of porticoed, cobblestone streets with abundant cafes and bars.

Our one free day in town we set off on foot to explore the city. Our neighborhood was a cool one, just a block away from Via dei Falegnami, where there were lots of lovely restaurants with outdoor seating and Bolognese dishes. We tried the Bolognese sauce at two, and they were not disappointing in the slightest. Though I should note there is much less tomato in the sauce than most of the Bolognese you are served in the States; here it’s almost pure meat. And it’s often served over a meat stuffed tortellini. I have to note that here (as well as in Rome, and I would presume Florence) there are often men walking around to al fresco diners trying to sell their wares by flashing green lasers on your table and showing you kitschy items like toilet shaped lighters. It was such a peculiar sight to us since the wares they peddled and the potential customers they targeted seemed so incongruous. Case in point: the guy that came by multiple times trying to sell a singing, dancing stuffed animal to a group of six women aged 50+. I have to wonder how many sales they successfully make.

Right by Trattoria dal Biassanot there is a very random and very cool “peep hole” with views to a hidden canal. Neato.

Just across the street from all this wonderful pasta is the Piazza VIII Agosto, which turned into a market for the days we were there. We did a little shopping and I caved and bought a pair of Italian shoes. Oh, and after a wine-y lunch the three of us bought matching sunnies from a street vendor. Tripletsies!

The main square, Piazza Maggiore, and the surrounding area was also lots of fun to walk around.

This city has a very young, liberal and “Occupy” vibe. There is a ton of graffiti, and even more college-aged people.

Though for some reason, all of the younger boys here look like Justin Bieber.

The boys climbed up the taller and straighter standing of the Two Towers of Bologna for some sweet views of the red rooftops, and we all shared a ridiculously good slice of pizza just outside.

I tried, I really tried to do my body some good and eat a salad one night, but you guys, this was what I got when I ordered the insalate:

To be fair, there was a sprig of parsley, so I did eat some greens while in Italy.

Practical Info

Bologna is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region many assert has Italy’s best cuisine. And certainly its finest motor-works. Among other things, this area is home to Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, Balsamic Vinegar Tradizionale di Modena, Bolognese sauce (ragu), Lambrusco, Ducati, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani (maker of the $1.3MM Huayra) and Ferrari.

The city also holds Europe’s oldest university and is famous for its extensive porticoes. While Bologna can’t match Rome, Florence or Venice for big-name attractions, this also means that it’s far less touristy. The vibe is part professorial, part art student, part Occupy Wall Street and all epicurean delight. I have never seen more cured meat and cheese shops.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Florence, and getting out of there was a nightmare. Once here, we parked in the underground lot at Piazza VIII Agosto (€20/day) and didn’t touch our car until we departed for Cinque Terre. We walked around the city, and our day tour included transportation.

Accommodation: We stayed at an Airbnb apartment on Via Galliera near Piazza VIII Agosto. You might want to be closer to Piazza Maggiore, but if you don’t mind walking then our area is more than sufficient. There are more than enough bars and restaurants nearby, and every Friday and Saturday Piazza VIII Agosto is filled with a market.

Food and Drinks: The main reason we came to Bologna, and we were not disappointed. In addition to items mentioned above, Bologna is known for its stuffed pasta (mainly tortellini or tortelloni, sometimes in broth). Via Pescherie Vecchie and surrounding streets have a particularly high concentration of meat, cheese and wine shops.

We liked Trattoria dal Biassanot a lot, especially since it has an option to create your own plate with three different types of pasta. Lunch at Caffe/Trattoria del Rosso was very good. Pizzeria Due Torri has excellent slices. Dinner at Twinside was good though the pasta was maybe not as good as others. Its burger was delicious.

Kenny and I had a more high-end meal at Trattoria Battibecco, which was excellent. I had never heard of canocchie (the same as mantis shrimp?), but they sure imparted a rich shellfish flavor to the broth coating our rigatoni. It was nice to take a break from wine and enjoy a Laphroaig 15 year and Mortlach 10 year, both cask strength and from Wilson & Morgan (independent bottlers based in Italy). The meal was quite reasonable at €102, including fancy whisky, a foie gras starter, that canocchie pasta and some monkfish in bread crumbs with bacon.

Afterwards we bought a bottle of wine (only €12) at some bar on Vicolo Ranocchi and enjoyed it at a table outside. This little alley and many others hold plenty of revelers. There were also some places with outdoor live music in this central area.

A crepe filled with mascarpone, nutella and strawberries was about as good as street sweets get. Find it at Bombocrep. We tried to go to Ristorante Donatello for dinner but it was full; it looked like the place to be.

Activities: The highlight was definitely our all day Amazing Italy food tour (€120 each, covered above). In the city, we walked around and enjoyed the architecture, never-ending food shops, Via Zamboni (where the college kids hang), Piazza Maggiore, etc. Kenny and I climbed the 498 steps of the Tower of Asinelli (€3 each) for great views. The Portico of San Luca, leading up to the Madonna of San Luca Sanctuary, is reportedly one of the longest arcades in the world.

September 10-13, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)

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Toscana

Ah, Tuscany. The place romantic dreams are made of. Sweet visions of holding hands and sipping Sangiovese. Or, more accurately for us, devouring pasta and gnawing on bistecca fiorentina bones.

Tuscany is full of picturesque hill towns to savor. On our drive from Rome we stopped in Orvieto (which is actually in Umbria), a quaint one for sure. Meandering around these quiet streets you would never expect to turn the corner and discover the incredibly intricate and beautiful Duomo that’s tucked into the town’s piazza. The colors on this façade are just stunning. Not to mention the optical illusion created by its construction, making it appear even larger than it is. I was very impressed with this church, more so even than St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. To be fair, it’s much less crowded (practically empty even), and they were playing the most beautiful music while we were inside, which made it easier for me to experience the grandiose feelings that such buildings can elicit.

On the way out of Tuscany headed for Bologna, we took the scenic route, which allowed us to see a few more of these adorable old towns. We poked around Castellina and Greve, where we were able to sample lots of Chiantis. Not bad, but our verdict is that the Montepulciano terroir wins.

And we feel we can opine sufficiently on the quality of Montepulciano wines because the idyllic town we decided to settle down in for our five nights of Tuscan relaxation was none other than Montepulciano. It’s a looker, this one, sitting up atop a big ole’ hill. And it sure tastes good. We had many lovely meals here, tons of impressive house Montepulciano Rossos and Vino Nobiles, and loads of those (cheap!) Tuscan truffles. Our villa was situated on its own separate, smaller hill, just at the base of the town hill. This afforded us some pretty nice views of the San Biagio church and that beautiful Tuscan landscape.

We celebrated Alan’s birthday while in Montepulciano, and we spoiled him a bit. Kenny and I walked down to the local supermarket in the morning to pick up preparations for a special breakfast. The birthday boy was craving an American style brunch, so Kenny cooked him up a good ole’ egg, bacon and potato special, with a bit of an Italian twist. We used fresh buffalo mozzarella and some crazy pancetta. And we whipped up our take on a Tuscan mimosa: blood orange and prosecco, with a little umbrella on the side. Because nothing makes a party like drink umbrellas. We feasted on the spread outside, under the Tuscan sun. A great start to the day.

We explored the town more fully all afternoon. It’s situated atop a rather steep hill, and full of the classic Italian narrow roads and alleyways. We perused the tempting selections of Italian leather shoes and handbags, snacked on some café and dolcetti on Caffé Poliziano’s terrace (phenomenal views), and stopped in a few wine shops and cellars for some tastings of Montepulciano’s legendary Sangiovese wines.

In the evening of A’s day, we celebrated with some of the Lagavulin Distiller’s Edition Scotch whisky we’d bought him as an early birthday gift in Scotland, and I surprised him with a water dropper so he can appropriately open up the aromas and flavors. (It sounds like a weird and lame gift, but trust me, this made him very happy. If only you could see how excited he’s gotten about Scotch since our visit to Scotland!) We also surprised him with a smoky whisky cake I purchased on the sly in Scotland, which we filled with candles to serenade him with the birthday song.

Then we went up to dinner for the grand finale: bistecca fiorentina at Montepulciano’s most famous restaurant, Osteria Acquacheta. What an experience. It’s certainly not white tablecloths and snooty waiters. It’s family style seating, where Giulio, the chef and head of the house chops the steaks within view, comes over to show it to you before cooking, and then brings it back in all its sizzling beauty. (Bonus, they put it back on the grill for a few minutes mid-meal as it was starting to turn cold!) In true Italian family style, you are given only one glass, which you use for both water and wine. And our steak, oh, our steak. We were given a hunk of meat that weighed in at just under 2kg. For those of you not familiar with the metric system, that’s about 4.25 POUNDS of beef! Most impressive, though, is that I only ate one bite (was much too rare for me, plus I was all about the pasta we ordered on the “side”) and the two boys devoured all. of. it. Along with the meat, we had pici (a local pasta) al ragu, divine. So good I ordered my own serving after eating half of the first one. Perhaps the most shocking part of this meal, the whole thing cost €109 (for that hunka hunka steak, 2 pastas, liver pate, a truffle covered melty cheese, salad, 2 desserts, 1.5 liters of wine, 2 grappas (and when Alan spilled his, Giulio poured another gratis for Alan, Kenny and the guy sitting next to us). A steal for sure. And you can’t buy the good company. Check out this awesome Italian woman sitting next to Kenny who really enjoyed gnawing her bones as well. Awesome way to celebrate my husband and travel buddy extraordinaire.

While I savored some alone time at the villa the next day, Alan and Kenny paid a visit to the nearby town of Pienza. It happened to be the Fiera del Cacio, a celebration largely centered around pecorino cheese. There were award ceremonies and flag waiving parades, but naturally their focus was eye-boning the meats and cheeses and sampling a large selection. Lucky for me, they came home with a fantastic assortment (sopressata, lonza and coppa, and pecorino con tartufo, sheep’s milk blue, and two other award winning pecorinos) for our lunch the next day.

These fantastic meats and cheeses were thoroughly enjoyed, over many occasions. I also have to mention that the tomatoes here are positively delectable!

We didn’t just enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labor, however. We tried our own hand at making some of this fine food. Our cooking class was a smashing success, if I do say so myself. We made a pecorino soufflé, followed by hand-rolled pici pasta with a pomodoro sauce for primi piatti, a pancetta wrapped herbed pork tenderloin for secondi piatti, and a pear and apricot tart for dessert. We’re still talking about how good our pici was!

Montepulciano had a couple cute animals, too. One night when we were up in town, we checked out the little church on the main piazza. I’m thinking I acquired some good karma, because I helped the church keeper lead a cat out of the church once he saw me sitting on the floor and petting it. Then I sat outside of the church with my cat.

Also, we stumbled upon these adorable little puppies in the park on the way up! OK, sorry I’ll stop talking about the animals and get back to the food and wine.

This being Tuscany, we of course did some proper wine tasting. We tasted at a few rooms in the town of Montepulciano and we also went out to two vineyards for wine tours and tasting. Dei was probably the fanciest wine cellar I’ve ever seen. The entire place is made of travertine marble. So all the aging casks are lined up in a beautifully done room of marble, the hallways are made of marble, the rooms housing the big vats and the bottling and labeling machine, all marble. I can’t help but wonder if the cost of all that marble is factored into the price you pay for the wines, but they do make a few nice ones. We really enjoyed the ‘08 Bossona Nobile Riserva and the Sancta Catharina ’09 Super Tuscan, and decided to buy a bottle of the latter. I’m maybe a broken recording of my dad, but really feeling the blends lately. Later in the day we checked out Avignonesi. While their more traditional Montepulcianos and Super Tuscan were lovely (and we got to sample a freshly fallen from the vine Sangiovese grape that was quite tasty), we were really wowed by their Vin Santo. This sweeter dessert wine made from dried grapes is done in a super special way here at Avignonesi. I won’t get into the details, but it’s aged extra long, and they call it liquid gold for good reason. We ponied up extra to taste the vin santo, and it was (per my tasting notes) “AMAZE BALLS.” Tastes kind of like maple syrup and burnt caramel, and it is so thick! We were given permission to stick our fingers in the glass and lick them to get the rest of that amazing pseudo-liquid. And so we did.

On the drive from Tuscany to Bologna we stopped in Florence. While most people would stay at least a few days, we had only a couple of hours in the city of Firenze. For this reason, we really only saw the tiniest bit of it, and what we did see was perhaps the most touristy bits. I’m generally not a fan of the most touristy bits of cities, and so it would be unfair for me to really pass judgment. With that said, we weren’t wowed with what we saw. It felt much more overridden with tourists than Rome did, but again, we also saw some much less touristy parts of Rome.

Anyhow, the Duomo is really pretty. I couldn’t go inside because my shorts were too skanky and my attempts to fashion a raincoat around my knees were futile, but from the pictures the boys took, I’m maintaining that it’s most impressive on the outside.

Mercato Centrale was a fun place to walk around. They have tons of vendors selling meat, cheeses, pasta, pizza, beer and wine, etc. Even an entire mozzarella section. The Italiano usual. Though it had a strong hipster vibe, oddly. I started thinking that it felt very Eataly-esque just as I noticed there actually is an Eataly inside.

We walked the main pedestrian way down through Piazza della Signoria (nice statues, fountains, souvenirs, tourists, yada yada yada) and onto Ponte Vecchio. This is basically a partly covered bridge lined with jewelry stores and absolutely laden with tourists trying to get their photographs. I had to make Alan and Kenny bend over the bridge to get a shot without any other people in it.

Also, driving in Firenze is heinous. I highly recommend not doing that. There is loads of traffic, the signs are weirdly confusing, and there are lots of restricted zones where you aren’t meant to drive unless you are a resident or something. I’m pretty sure they are monitored by camera and also that we will be seeing lots of unexpected charges when the rental car company catches wind of our transgressions. Whoopsie.

Practical Info

Tuscany is perhaps Italy’s most iconic region, with Florence the heavy-hitting Renaissance city and countless smaller cities and hill towns. It was difficult picking just one place to stay. We settled on Montepulciano based on some personal recs, ample wine and relative convenience to some other hill towns. We also considered places like Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Montalcino, etc. Not to mention various towns in Umbria.

In addition to picking a town/area, we struggled with whether we should stay at an agriturismo and, if not, should we stay in an old town area or just outside where we’d get more space and perhaps better views but sacrifice some walkability.

Transportation: We drove from Rome to Montepulciano, stopping in Orvieto for a few hours (where we drove up to the old town and parked right across from the funicular for a few Euros). It was easy getting out of Rome after picking up our rental car from Hertz on Via Sardegna. The A1 highway is fast, though tolls are pretty steep. I think we paid >€10 (which we later learned is small change for Italian tolls).

Our accommodation in Montepulciano was walking distance to the old town (see below), and it is easy to walk around the town if you don’t mind steep hills. There are probably some buses/shuttles between various hill towns in Tuscany, but having a car makes it much easier. It seems you can usually find a parking lot for ~€1.50/hr. Note that many towns do not allow cars within the historic center, so pay attention to signs.

We departed in our rental car headed for Bologna. We drove the scenic SR222 between Siena and Florence, taking in some of the classic Chianti views. In Florence, we parked underground at the main station. This is nice in the sense that you can walk from here to the major sights. The negative is that traffic was awful, and driving around here is confusing because there are lots of restricted roads. For this reason, most would suggest parking outside the city and taking public transport into the center. The drive from Florence to Bologna on the highway was quite scenic, if not the easiest driving. There are tons of large trucks, the road is pretty windy and hilly, and there are endless tunnels with fairly narrow lanes.

Accommodation: We stayed in the Sangallo 2BR apartment at Montorio, at the bottom of the hill on the western side of Montepulciano and very near the Madonna di San Biagio. Montorio represented a compromise in that we had a spacious apartment, some views, free parking, etc. but we could still walk to town. The catch being that the walk is 15 minutes up a steep hill. The WiFi was poor and the mosquitoes were a hindrance, but otherwise I’m a fan. Stefania is friendly and helpful, there is a free washing machine (and a dryer, which is a rarity, though it costs €2), the apartment is spacious and nicely decorated, and the location is convenient to many things.

Food and Drinks: Abundant consumption continued, as expected. My birthday dinner at Osteria dell’Acquacheta was quite an experience. This legendary steak spot does two family style seatings nightly, at 7:15 and then 9:15. We waited nearly an hour since we arrived early and were seated around 9:45, but I had the best seat in the house at the head of a table with a dead-on view of Giulio hacking away at the T-bone with his cleaver. He cut us a piece just under 2kg (it was 68 oz.!), brought it over raw for our approval, and our beef came back soon seared and rare. The steak was very good, perhaps great considering it was not drenched in butter and probably is grass-fed beef. We ate so much more than just steak, and the meal overall was extraordinarily good value. We had nearly 2kg of steak; a melted pecorino covered in shaved truffles; salad; liver pate; two pici with meat ragu; two desserts; water; two grappas; and 1.5 liters of red wine…for €109, all in. The steak alone, certainly with tax and tip, would have cost more in your typical nice US steakhouse. The pasta was amazing, they reheated the pieces of steak we hadn’t eaten late in the meal, and when I accidentally spilled my grappa Giulio poured another gratis for me, Kenny and our table-mate. At one point, Jenni told the girl across from her that she was so full she wanted to take her (own) pants off. Everyone leaves Acquacheta smiling.

Less of an event but other meals we enjoyed include Osteria del Conte, Osteria del Borgo and Pizzeria Linda. Many recommended La Grotta (by San Biagio church) for a nice meal.

Kenny and I spent an afternoon in Pienza that coincided with the annual Fiera del Cacio (cheese festival). I’m not sure if this is always the case (Pienza is famous for pecorino), but the tiny old town was loaded with stands selling and offering free tastes of cheeses and cured meats, plus porchetta everywhere. The soppressata here is loosely combined and so much better than at home. Coppa, lonza, truffle cheese…mmm.

Lunch in Orvieto at Trattoria La Grotta was quite good. Antica Macelleria Falorni is an impressive butcher/cured meat shop in Greve.

Activities: One day we hit a couple wineries. We visited Dei (~3km from Montepulciano, €10 tour and tasting), stopped for a quick look at Cortona (which seemed like quite a thriving hill town) and then visited Avignonesi (€15 tour and tasting, which included some pricy bottles, plus €10 extra to taste both Vin Santo varieties).

Our cooking class at Villa Poggiano (owned by the same family that owns Montorio and ~2km away) was a feast that included two bottles of wine, it was only the three of us, and it cost €90 each.

I won’t attempt to cover Florence in any detail here, except to mention that you can enter the Duomo for free but it costs to climb the dome itself, and you cannot enter if wearing short shorts or I think a tank-top. I believe you can reserve in advance to visit the Uffizi Gallery and avoid some of the wait.

September 5-10, 2014 (Friday-Wednesday)

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Roma, Eataliano

We’ve landed in Italy, folks. Brace yourselves, there’s about to be a lot of food on this here blog for the next several posts. Screw the Hunger Games, welcome to the Eating Games.

First of all, Italy is amaze-balls. The people are effusive and expressive and stylish and beautiful. The architecture is grand, ancient and impressive nearly everywhere. And, of course, the food is phenomenal. Also, we finally got some much-appreciated sun. So, basically, we’re in heaven.

While much of Rome is beautiful, it’s quite touristy in the places you’d expect. Our neighborhood, on the other hand, while still somewhat touristy, definitely had a lot of local flavor. We were often the only English-speaking patrons in local cafes and on the cobblestone streets, and we just adored it. I think it helped that we chose an Airbnb apartment off the main tourist attractions’ streets and tucked into the stylish alleyways near Piazza Navona. This didn’t mean we were far away from the good stuff, though. We were practically right above one of the great gelato spots: Gelato del Teatro. The fig, cheese and almond offering was the perfect treat to grab on the way in the door after a full meal of pasta.

Plus, Piazza Navona is definitely the best piazza. This can’t be beat.

As soon as we’d dropped our bags at our flat, we went out seeking our first tastes of that famous Italian food. We settled on a cozy restaurant a few blocks down the lane from our place. It was not a mistake. My cannelloni was divine, and the boys enjoyed their first tastes of the Roma carbonara (so different from – and better than – what you get in the States). This is also where we downed our first liter of Italian table wine (absurdly cheap, and oh so fine). Oh and fun fact: carbonara was invented as something to feed American soldiers during the war. The Italians thought, well, Americans like bacon and eggs, let’s put in on pasta!

We spent the better part of one day on a food tour in the Testaccio neighborhood, which was an epic feast, and super informative. Small world, our awesome guide, Tiana, grew up in the town next to me in Massachusetts! What made her even cooler, she knows her food, loves it and takes it seriously. And better yet, she taught us all about it. We started our day the way Italians do, taking our coffee and cornetto standing at the bar. Italians are not often in a rush, unless they are driving or eating breakfast. From there we moved onto a classic margherita pizza, pausing from the face-stuffing to take a photo with the master.

At a fantastic meat and cheese shop (called Volpetti) we gnawed on some pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a wild boar salami and Prosciutto di San Daniele. In the Testaccio Market we made our own pomodoro bruschetta and a caprese salad. Lunch at Flavio Al Velavevodetto was the highlight for me, because we got to nosh on loads of pasta and wine. Their caccio e pepe (a Roman classic) was lovely, as was the unique yolk-only carbonara (talk about tasting like bacon and eggs!), but the best was the amatriciana. Divine. In Roma, they generally use tonnarelli (not spaghetti) for the cacio e pepe and often guanciale in place of bacon. It was also pretty cool that this restaurant is built into Monte Testaccio, a large hill made entirely of shards of terra cotta from discarded olive oil containers.

Lest you were worried we didn’t eat enough sweets on this tour, our last stop was at a gelato spot where we learned how to distinguish authentic gelato from the fake stuff.

In between all the calories we took quick digestion breaks while exploring a few cultural attractions like the non-Catholic cemetery where Keats is buried, and a former slaughterhouse turned contemporary art museum slash art school slash rec space.

Fortified from all the pasta, we did some serious walking around Roma’s must-sees. First up was the Pantheon. Cool, no? And it’s absolutely free. Worth the entry price, for sure.

Next up were the Coliseum, the Forum and Palatine Hill. It’s amazing how the city has just been built up seamlessly around these ancient ruins. To be honest, I found these bits a little less exciting since I have a hard time getting into the history when I’m just looking at ruins, but the sheer number and size of the ancient and intricate churches, buildings and statues in this city (and country, really) is just mind boggling.

The gigantic Victor Emmanuel Monument is huge beyond comprehension. Our guidebook said the guy’s mustache is wider than I am tall!? Insanity.

The Trevi Fountain, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome, was completely covered in scaffolding, and drained of water. Womp womp. So we walked to the Spanish Steps instead. And the fountain in that piazza was covered with plastic, as was the church at the top of the steps, including a big billboard advertisement in its stead. Total womp. So we took a picture that showed how we felt about it, and promptly left.

We woke early our last day to beat the crowds on our visit to Vatican City. Highly recommend this move, as the herd and queue were insane when we left. It’s a really, really big church. Again, not a big religion or history buff, so I’m not the best critic here, but…I was kind of more impressed with a few other churches we saw in Italy, especially one we’ll cover later in Tuscany.

That said, we walked up to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, and it was definitely worth it for the views of the city. The stairwell is extremely narrow in parts, though, and claustrophobia inducing.

A few other areas we perused were Campo de Fiori (a bit touristy, but fun to visit, just avoid most restaurants on the piazza), and Trastevere (Piazza di Santa Maria is beautiful, and its church is lovely) . The riverfront area on the walk to Trastevere was pretty cool as well. While it was in sleep mode when we walked by during the day, it looks set up for some cool restaurants and hang-out areas.

My favorite part of Roma was just meandering down the narrow roads enclosed by multi-story buildings. While there are no modern skyscrapers in the city (nothing may be built taller than St. Peter’s Basilica), most buildings are about five or six stories high, and they are old, old buildings with small windows, all connected to each other, so you feel kind of like a mouse walking through a giant maze, unable to see what is around the next corner until you discover another ancient church or spill out onto a dazzling piazza.

Also, these continuously running water fountains all over town are pretty cool.

And the food and drink places on all these adorable streets and alleyways are to die for. One random find that I have to give a shout out to is Giulio Passami L’Olio, where we stopped for a few pre-dinner drinks during their aperitivo. While we didn’t sample the foods, they looked and smelled amazing, and we enjoyed a phenomenal wine recommended by the waiter.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I have to give a bad shout out to Roscioli. It gets rave reviews, but it was the most offensive service I can ever remember having. I don’t know what was up with our waiter, but he was awful. The pasta was great, but surprisingly the burrata was underwhelming, and the wine he recommended was the complete opposite (oaky, buttery) of what we had asked for. (They have gigantic wine lists at these spots, so big they fit in books, so we put ourselves in the hands of our not-so-trusty waiter to help steer us towards a new Italian find.) Also, it’s pricey, and there are TONS of amazing Italian eats for much less money than they charge here. So, skip it. Anyhow, that’s my rant. I rarely go out of my way to talk about places I view negatively, but I was so offended by this experience, and our snooty, rude, and wine-clueless waiter, that I have to warn you guys. That is all, the rest of Roma was fantastico!

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived on an easyJet flight from Amsterdam, which was much less smooth (it was fine, just long lines for everything) than our first easyJet experience. From Rome’s airport (FCO) we took a taxi to our apartment. There is a flat rate of €48. I think this covers up to four people and luggage, but confirm and also be sure your taxi isn’t licensed elsewhere and not bound by the fixed fare. I think there is a bus into the city for ~€5 and an express train for ~€14.

We walked much of the city and also used taxis, which are not that expensive. For example, the fare between Piazza Navona and Piazza Testacci is €9-10. We departed for Tuscany with a rental car picked up from Hertz on Via Sardegna.

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb place on Via dei Coronari, a little northwest of Piazza Navona and a fairly easy walk to Campo de’ Fiori and to the Vatican. This is a great area full of piazzas and narrow cobblestones streets with plenty of shops, restaurants and bars. It is far from the subway, but we loved the location. Other popular areas to look include the Piazza Venezia/Forum/Colosseum area and the Spanish Steps. A friend of mine prefers to stay in Trastevere.

Food and Drinks: This was our first stop in Italy, and we were fired up for pasta et al. The cuisine differs by region in Italy. I think everywhere we visit will have ample pasta and gelato, though. Among other things, Rome is known for its cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and its carbonara pastas. These typically cost €7-10. It is a good idea to book a table at popular restaurants, even if only doing so in the afternoon for dinner that evening. The rumors of inexpensive and pretty good table wine seem to be true. We found bottle-size equivalents for €5-10 at many places.

Some places we particularly enjoyed include Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Ristorante Tre Archi da Loreto; Gelateria del Teatro; Cul de Sac. We had a pre-dinner bottle of wine at Giulio Passami L’Olio and loved the vibe and non-sweet Malvasia Bianca.

We were especially disappointed with Roscioli. Kenny said he could only think of one place where the hype to reality ratio was worse (The Hump in Santa Monica). The food was good but overpriced, and we did not like our waiter at all.

Other places we considered or couldn’t get into include Armando Al Pantheon, Pizzeria Da Baffetto, Pizzeria Ai Marmi, Forno Campo de’ Fiori, Il Gabriello, Cesare al Casaletto…

Here is a list of stops we made on our Eating Italy tour: Barberini; Volpetti Piu; Volpetti; Testaccio Market (Enzo e Lina stall, among others); Flavio Al Velavevodetto; Trapizzino; Giolitti.

I am obsessed with hydration, and therefore I am a huge fan of Rome’s abundant public water fountains. These are usually low to the ground and continuously stream water. They also have a neat feature where you can plug the spout with a digit and then water shoots out of a hole, facilitating drinking straight from the tap.

Activities: As with most places, we did not cram in as many museums and historically significant sights as possible. One could spend a whole lot of time on these in Rome. Consider research on buying tickets in advance and/or reserving time slots, as this may be required and/or save you a multi-hour line.

We did visit the Pantheon (free); the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill (€12 ticket gives access to all); Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican (basilica is free, the dome costs €5 to walk the whole way up or €7 to take the elevator part of the way, the museum is separate and we skipped it). Trevi Fountain was fully shut down and covered by construction, as was the fountain in Piazza di Spagna and the church at the top of the steps. :(

Our little walking with lots of eating tour (Eating Italy: Taste of Testaccio Food Tour, which costs €75/person and takes four hours) was very enjoyable. As was just strolling around the city’s many narrow lanes and piazzas.

September 2-5, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

::so many types of tulips::

Amsterdam

Within minutes of arriving, I had visions of myself living in Amsterdam. It’s such a pleasant city, full of cobblestone street flanked canals (many of which are lined with houseboats), row-houses with enormous windows, and quaint rounded bridges decorated with posted up bicycles. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a centrally located European city with easy access to its airport and train station (Centraal Station is walkable from most areas around town, and the airport is only a 15 minute ride from there!).

I’m particularly obsessed with the Jordaan neighborhood. I could totally live there for a few years, what with its impossibly cool shops and restaurants, yet mellow, casual vibe. The only glitch in this plan is that it’d be challenging for me to make friends because all the Dutch women are legit a foot plus taller than I am. How would we converse?

Plus, if we lived here, I could reignite my middle school aged self’s passion for clogs.

Unlike the rest of the city, the red light district kind of made me cringe. We went over there largely because as a first time visitor to Amsterdam I felt compelled. Though it was early evening, late afternoon even by most people’s standards, and far from its prime (as I’m told), it was not my scene. We saw but one woman standing on offer in a crystal bedazzled thong in a window box, but that was enough for me. While I’ve heard the legends of the local sex shows, e.g. ping pong balls (or wait, is that Thailand!?) and the live sexing, I just couldn’t stomach it. We had a much tamer tourist experience and stuck to the Sex Museum, which offered somewhat PG versions of the red light world (using the term PG lightly because there were still pictures of fully nude people engaged in sexual acts and descriptions of and images of some fetishes that put 50 Shades readers to shame…that said, it’s a museum, so…).

I knew Amsterdam was a big biking city, but I hadn’t anticipated the full extent of it. There are bicyclists, and bikes, everywhere. And you really notice the lack of vehicular traffic, which is incredibly nice as a pedestrian.

Having arrived fairly late our first day, we wandered around until we found an enticing pizza shop, grabbed a pie to go, and sat outside on the side of a canal. So enjoying the moment, I looked at Alan and told him this is going to be one of the nights I look back and cherish, someday when I’m sitting in an office and missing this journey. This despite that I was sipping sparkling water and not wine! It helped also that the pizza was insanely delicious. Like, Italy good.

I hadn’t realized the Netherlands were so well known for their gouda. It’s damn good. We sampled many at the Cheese Museum. All were amazing, but steer clear of the florescent blue one. Not sure what happened there. If you’re up for another non-museum-y museum, check out the Tulip Museum next door. We just perused the gift shop and later the tulip selection at the Bloemenmarkt (floating flower market). They have some serious bulbs. Tulips are no joking matter here.

We got our culture in at the Van Gogh museum, which is perfect because it’s just the right amount of art to keep you entertained and not overwhelmed. We actually walked the entire museum, which has to be a first for us! (Hooray! Little gold stars for us!). Van Gogh’s work is, of course, amazing, and there are also a handful of pieces by other artists scattered among the exhibits. It’s done in a really nice way so that you can follow his evolution as a painter.

While fairs are generally awesome, I was really bummed that there was one set up in the Museumplein so that it blocked my shot of the IAmsterdam sign. I got over it pretty quickly when we tried mini Dutch pancakes with powdered sugar.

It was in Amsterdam that we met up with Alan’s brother, Kenny. He was on the tail-end of business school travels. We hung out with him and some of his Kellogg friends for a couple days in Amsterdam before the three of us headed to Italy. One of Kenny’s classmates is a Netherlands local, so she was able to guide us around to some great bars and a tasty Indonesian meal (aka rijsttafel). She also put us onto La Chouffe beer, which tastes almost as good as its logo is cute.

We ate well in Amsterdam. A romantic dinner at Restaurant Vlaming for just Alan and me was delightful, as well as the aforementioned pizza, pancakes, and Indo food. The highlight, though, was probably the late night Dutch fries. If you think putting mayo on your fries is gross, you are right, but you are also wrong. It is gross, but it’s amazing. And the garlic mayo is on point. We also happened upon this shrine to cured pig one day, and after ogling the hind legs we enjoyed a cone of Iberico ham. Nom nom nom.

Practical Info

Amsterdam is just a delightful city, and not only due to its liberal attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. It oozes cool, and yet it’s so accessible.

Transportation: We arrived on an easyJet flight from London Stansted. There are frequent trains from the airport (Schiphol) to Centraal Station; the ride costs €5 and takes about 15 minutes. From Centraal, you can walk, take a tram, take a taxi, etc. depending on where you’re going. It was a 15-20 minute walk from Centraal to our Airbnb spot on the far end of Lindengracht. We walked everywhere we went within the city. By the way, the score is definitely easyJet 1 : Ryanair 0. This was a much better experience than our flight from Cork to Liverpool. That said, I wrote this before onward travel on easyJet from Amsterdam to Rome, where it took an hour to drop our bags and clear security at Schiphol. I don’t know how much blame lies with the airport vs. the airline, but…

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb apartment on Lindengracht in the Jordaan district. This area has many boutique shops and nice restaurants, and it is quieter than some more touristy areas. We thought it was lovely for a stay, especially if you could find a place a little closer to Prinsengracht just to save the extra few minutes walk each way. We visited the nearby textiles market on Westerstraat and the Noordermarkt flea market, both on a Monday. If you want more action, you might prefer to stay closer to Leidseplein (Kenny and his classmates stayed at Dikker en Thijs Fenice Hotel), which has the added advantage of being much closer to the museums, or perhaps stay near Rembrantsplein.

Food and Drinks (and Smokes): Pizza our first night at Da Portare Via was solid. Dinner our last night at Restaurant Vlaming was great. Rijsttafel with Kenny and crew at Kantjil & De Tijger was very enjoyable, from what I remember. We had a relaxed breakfast at Café ‘t Smalle. If you love ham and will open up the wallet for it, don’t miss Ibericus. There are proper restaurants plus cafes or fast food type places all over the central areas. An Amsterdam staple is fries with mayo-based sauces. Fresh squeezed OJ is ubiquitous. Amsterdam knows what’s up…they give you the marijuana to enjoy, the coffee to help you stay awake and the OJ to aid your immune system. Among other places, we had drinks at Cafe Hoppe, which is a classic old Amsterdam pub.

And now, to coffee shops. These are where you can buy marijuana and related products. Cafes are places you drink coffee and maybe eat. You might have heard rumors that tourists may no longer buy weed here. Entirely unfounded. You can find countless articles online listing the best or most famous coffee shops. Some are mini-chains. I won’t offer reviews, except to say that Dampkring has an impressive selection and was my favorite in that sense.

Activities: Amsterdam is home to some great museums, especially now that the Rijksmuseum has reopened after an epic renovation. We visited the Van Gogh Museum, buying tickets online (€15 each) to skip the queue. Other popular and reputable stops include Rembrandthuis, the Anne Frank house and the Heineken tour. Then there is the cheese museum (more like a shop with some info, and tons of free samples) and the tulip museum.

On the less reputable front, there is the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum, and the sex museum (which we visited, costs €4) that is moderately entertaining but not that great. Just strolling the canals and shopping (the Nine Streets area is popular) is great. We perused the Bloemenmarkt (a floating flower market), which was nice, though there are more bulbs and seeds than grown plants. A boat tour always seems like a good idea, but I’ve never done one.

August 30 – September 2, 2014 (Saturday-Tuesday)

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Londontown

Believe it or not, this world traveler had never been to London until now. We came to rectify this situation and to visit friends. Also so we could see if I loved it so much that we would decide to move here (probably not since my phobia of large crowds is growing, but it’s a pretty impressive city).

While everyone swears that it never rains like it was when we arrived, well, it was raining like it was (vigorously, for hours straight). And I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the weather pattern in Europe: if you need to walk from public transportation to your place of resting, with luggage in tow, it will rain. And then if you want to walk long distances, or go for a hike, it will rain. This seems to be the case throughout the UK at least. But don’t worry about us. Despite the rain, we made it to London and used the opportunity to spend some good QT with old mates. (Also, I have like zero pictures except for when it is not raining, hence the near zero photos I have of spending QT with old mates.)

One reason London is awesome is that a lot of awesome people live here. Among them, our friend Billy, who graciously let us stay with him at his apartment that he had barely even moved into yet. And I mean barely, he still had no WiFi, nor hot water for the first few days! Luckily we are used to not showering (see: our entire six month backpacking trip through Asia). And one of the best parts of staying there was its location: Chelsea. What a beautiful area. On the walk from his flat to the nearest tube station, you pass these stunning city mansions that I would just die to live in. And I quickly learned that London is similar to Los Angeles in that it kind of feels like a massive collection of suburb-ish neighborhoods. Surely there’s at least one that’ll tickle your fancy.

High on the list of awesome people now living in London: my oldest friend, Kaitlin, and her super Irish (and super awesome) husband-to-be. We spent lots of time reminiscing and partying like it was ’99. Because I actually did spend New Years Eve of Y2K with Kaitlin, though we spent that sober and most likely playing dress-up in her basement because we were just that cool at age 13. Anyhow, our rendezvouses were a perfect excuse to check out another, less touristy neighborhood in London: Chiswick. We visited her flat to love on her adorable fluffball of a cat, Holden, and walk the Chiswick high street. This ‘hood was much more my speed, and I imagine if I did live in London I’d opt for something with this calmer, less crowded, somewhat residential feel.

The hostess with the mostest, she also took us on a walking tour to Kensington Palace, Hyde Park and the surrounding area.

During our days on our own in Londontown we got out and did lots of walking around some of the city’s other more touristy bits. The scene at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey is insanely crowded, and since large crowds tend to give me the heebie-jeebies, we took our snap-snaps and headed on. Pushing our way through the masses of tourists (I know, I know, I’m one of them, but still, they are, and I am, annoying), to see Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and the fancy schmance ‘hood of Mayfair.

One of the highlights of our visit to London was high tea. As you may or may not know, I practically live and breathe for scones, and clotted cream is the peanut butter to my jelly, the butter to my cup, the knick to my knackered. I did a bit of research on hotels to visit for this uber-English tradition, and decided to go with the Athanaeum for two major reasons. First, they do not have a crazy dress code (I’m realizing more and more that I am good at packing for extended trips to Asia, not so much fancy Europe… but don’t worry I’ve been shopping to correct that. Stay tuned for (gasp!) an outfit change in the upcoming posts, including what may or may not be a red leather jacket I purchased at an Amsterdam flea market), and more important, they offer what is called the “Gentleman’s Tea,” so there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Kaitlin and I of course opted for the classic crustless finger sandwiches and cakes alongside our scones and champagne, while Alan got to savor his with a suet pastry crusted miniature beef steak and British Ale Pie, wild boar sausage roll, homemade seasonal terrine, chili cheese straws with decadent ‘Welsh Rarebit’ dipping sauce, warm wookey hole cave-aged mature cheddar and crispy bacon scones, hot and sticky mini toffee pudding, a wedge of whisky fruit cake, homemade whisky chocolate truffles, and a dram of Scotch whisky (but of course). The leisurely experience certainly doesn’t come in under budget, but it’s a boatload of food, which is essentially unlimited and of course worth it in my opinion (I think Alan’s also). We rolled out of there satiated and then some.

To walk off our “tea” (I’m embarrassed to say that we barely touched the tea!), we wandered over to Buckingham Palace, through Wellington Arch and Knightsbridge and into Harrod’s for a stroll. While we didn’t purchase anything due to aforementioned tea feast, that place is pretty amazing (if a bit hectic and pricey). I’d love to head back there one day for picnic supplies (and maybe a designer purse).

On another afternoon (where we got some sun for a change!), we walked along the South Bank of the Thames River. This area was fun and lively, filled with shops, restaurants, pubs, the occasional historical site and the coup de gras: Borough Market. This might be our favorite thing in London (surprise, surprise, it involves food!). I actually had to convince Alan to go here. When I told him it was a fresh foods and prepared foods market, his response was “we’ve seen a million of those.” (I know this is so out of character for Alan, so, in full disclosure, he was fighting a cold.) Ah, but we’ve seen a million markets because we love markets! And this was no exception. Yummy samples, fresh fruits and veggies, and tasty prepared foods. Win win, win.

And of course, we walked across the London Tower Bridge, stopping to take selfies in front of it. An obligatory act.

Another area we adored is Shoreditch. While we’re probably not hipster enough to live here, it was much fun to walk around and admire the street art. As you can probably guess, this part of town has a much younger, hipper (hipster) vibe, with loads of bars, graffiti, and even a food truck courtyard. The highlight involved… wait for it…food! No, but really, it was also the experience. Next time you’re in London, take a stroll round Shoreditch and then head over to Brick Lane for some bomb and cheap Bangladeshi/Indian food dinner. But don’t walk into the first restaurant you pass, walk up and down the street and let yourself be reminded of the crazy world that is India as you are accosted by men hawking their menus to you and offering you a deal should you choose their establishment for your Indian fix.

You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of many touristy things done here, most notably visiting any of the many (mostly free!) world renowned museums. Well, we weren’t feeling very arty or history-y. And to top it off, Alan (the make things happen-er of the pair) was sick most of our time here. And when you travel non-stop for a year plus, you give yourself permission to skip some of the “unskippable” things sometimes. We need reasons to come back, right?!

Last, but not least, of our reunions in London was an evening with Marie, Alan’s (well, really more Kenny’s) former French au pair, who now lives in London. We met up at the Science Museum for what they call “lates,” which is basically an event where regular activities like the zoo, or the science museum, turn into bars and interactive exhibits for the night. (Surely this counts as visiting a museum even if it’s not art or cultural!) It was great to meet Marie, and it’s hard to go wrong with a silent disco.

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived at King’s Cross on a train from Edinburgh. It took ~4.5 hours and cost £65 each. London is huge, and getting around could involve anything from walking, to multiple buses and trains or even boats. If you plan on using public transport more than once or twice, invest in an Oyster Card. It costs £5, which in theory you can get back, and then you top up and the rides cost way less than paying single fares each time.

We departed on an easyJet flight to Amsterdam from Stansted airport. London has several airports, and none that you’re likely to use is particularly convenient. Stansted involved a taxi ride to Victoria Coach Station followed by a two-hour bus ride (cost £21.50 for two tickets with fees). There is also an express train from Liverpool Station. The point is, do your research on all your options including where apparently cheap airline flights leave from and how the extra time and cost of getting there impacts the analysis vs. other flights or trains etc.

Accommodation: We stayed with Billy in Chelsea, a quieter area with many nice bars and restaurants and a wealthy clientele. Most visitors will want to stay some place a little more central. I am far from an expert, but here is my quick take: Knightsbridge is more central, loaded with wealthy Arabs and their super-cars. Mayfair is posh and maybe a little boring, but pretty central. Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus etc. are more crowded, in parts very touristy, but also the most central. We liked the South Bank walk (from the Royal Festival Hall to Tower Bridge) and perhaps you could stay there. If you like more of a hipster vibe, consider Shoreditch (there is an Ace Hotel there).

Food and Drinks: High tea at The Athenaeum was a lovely way to pass an afternoon. Jenni chose this place in part because it offers a gentleman’s tea, which includes lots of savory dishes with beef or bacon and a dram of whisky (the whisky selection at this hotel is legit). It is also pretty much all you can eat and does not have a strict dress code.

Dinner at Aqua Nueva with Kait and Sean was great, and there is a lovely patio for drinks with views. Gourmet Burger Kitchen is a chain, but quite good. Same for Carluccio’s. We had drinks at Babylon at the Kensington Roof Gardens, and I think maybe there is some part that wasn’t open for our visit and this part may have flamingoes?

A meal at one of Brick Lane’s several Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants is an experience. Prepare to be harassed by hawkers offering specials and discounts. Many are not so well-reviewed, but we chose Sheba and it was delicious. And London-cheap at £31 for three people.

Activities: London is home to several world-class attractions and museums, many of which are free and virtually none of which we visited. Two friends told me the Churchill War Rooms is their favorite. Two others picked the Victoria and Albert. I won’t try to list them all here. Several people said the Tower of London is a great experience. London is also known for somewhat reasonably priced theater.

I read good reviews and a friend recommended London Walks tours.

August 25-30, 2014 (Monday-Saturday)

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On The Fringe

Scotland continues to impress. A solid pseudo-country all the way through. Edinburgh is one of the most visually impactful cities we’ve ever seen. Walking around the downtown area is honestly mind-blowing. One might venture to say that it feels like walking through Gotham city. Gasp – did I just make a Batman reference? First the Scotch drinking, now this? Someone keep an eye on me before I start enjoying the Hobbit or Star Trek or some other retched thing (apologies to the large majority of you people in the world who actually enjoy action movies, manly drinks and/or fantasy).

Part of the reason we hit up Edinburgh when we did was for the festival timing. Our visit coincided with the Edinburgh International Festival, the Military Tattoo (though we sadly didn’t act fast enough to get tickets), and – most important – the Fringe. The International Festival offers an impressive selection of shows through which you can enjoy the finer arts (e.g. dance, music, art). We attended one show of the International Festival variety. Having seen the movie Pina a while back and being obsessed with her work and the soundtrack ever since, we went to see the Pina Bausch directed and choreographed show, Sweet Mambo, at the Edinburgh Playhouse. While it was so artsy as to be on the verge of artsy-over-our-heads, it was absolute beauty and a complete steal at only £12 a ticket. If you’ve not heard of Pina or seen her work, rent the movie Pina immediately. What she does with the human body and the stage are just breathtaking.

The Fringe, on the other hand, is where things get weird. In a really good way (almost always). The Fringe is essentially a humongous collection of shows throughout the city. This ranges from street performers to comedy shows, to theater performances, burlesque shows, live music and more. A lot of shows are paid and require advance ticket purchases, but a huge number of them are absolutely free of charge. And while some may be worth their entry price, we visited many free shows that were a delight. In fact, I think we hit up a total of seven shows while at Fringe, five of which were free.

It feels like the city was practically built for this festival. The Old Town area is dotted with venues, ranging from bars and pubs, to a warehouse turned barnyard themed music venue, to these large multi-storied event halls with show rooms and pubs on each floor. I’m not sure if these venues are open year-round or how they are utilized outside of the Fringe, but they are some seriously cool event spaces. There are also outdoor areas with venue spaces set up in small pop-up style tents and buildings, with food trucks and bars spread out around them. One we checked out even had an astro-turf lawn for hanging out on.

We are big fans of comedy (I mean, who doesn’t enjoy laughing, right?), and so we attended many comedy shows in various forms. Highlights included what amounted to, essentially, an incredibly weird play. Comedy theater? I’m not entirely sure what to call it, but it was most certainly strange, and parts were hilarious. The show, called Grandees, was performed by three people in a small room with minimal props. One of my favorite comedy shows was Northern Ireland’s stand-up comedian, Luke McGibbon (#luketony). We were two of six guests in attendance. I couldn’t tell if his embarrassment at the small crowd was part of his act, but I literally cried from laughing at what he claimed was once reviewed as the worst part of his show. Check him out, though be warned I am a sucker for see-what-I-did-there kind of jokes and Alan often teases me that the worse a movie or TV show is, the more likely I am to enjoy it…that said, Alan enjoyed as well. And it’s pretty cool to chat with the comedian pre- and post-show. A Room With A Jew by Joe Bor was good entertainment as well, and Alan somehow got roped into an on-stage interactive bit during the performance, as well as getting called on a few times throughout the act. Ahir Shah’s show was also terrific, in a somewhat stand-up, spoken-word combo, or, as he calls himself, an incredibly funny lecturer.

We only saw one horrible show and it was at 11:30 pm in a bar quite far from the Old Town area. So, I guess our advice would be to steer clear of the free late night shows in sub-prime venues. We are almost certain that these two guys got up on stage as part of a dare or a fraternity-pledging related hazing. And I literally fell asleep in my chair to spare me from the pain.

We switched it up a bit for a blues and burlesque show called Hotter than Hell. Awesome. We did little music since the options were too overwhelming and unknown, but we did enjoy some time at the Cow Shed in between comedy shows one evening. Overall, we were blown away by this festival. Highly, highly recommend a visit to Edinburgh while the Fringe is on.

While we spent a large part of our time in Edinburgh enjoying the entertainment that the various festivals had on offer, we took a break to explore the rest of the city. The long walk to Leith is maybe not worth the journey (at least if you’re just meandering, as opposed to walking there to enjoy one of Leith’s many F&B options), but it was interesting to see all the “Yes” campaigners out to educate the Scots about why they should become an independent state.

The walk to (and up) Calton Hill was definitely worth the excursion, as it afforded some phenomenal views of this epic skyline. They even have a national monument up there that looks vaguely Parthenon-esque. Not for nothing is Edinburgh called “Athens of the North.”

On the way into Edinburgh we stopped in the town of Stirling to do the whole castle thing. I’ve never really been one for history, or tours, or ancient things in general, but this castle was next level crap. Well, the building itself, its historical significance (especially for Braveheart fans) and the location are great, but the castle is this gigantic impressive hunk of old stone set on a phenomenal site, and they’ve gone and plastered the walls inside and painted them with an interpretation of a medieval (also, how awesome is the British pronunciation of medieval?) castle that might be used to decorate a second grade classroom. What the funk?

Anyway, the town of Stirling was quite lovely, and we enjoyed a quick meander around the cobblestone streets and old gothic buildings before and after our tour of the fake-interior castle. For a sense of the castle’s historical significance, consider this quote on display there: “Over the course of 50 years Stirling Castle changed hands eight times between the Scots and the English. Because of its strategic position above the River Forth, where Scotland narrows between the Forth and the Clyde estuaries, Stirling Castle has always been fought over. But never more than in the 1300s when, during the Wars of Independence, the Scots were fighting for their freedom. If you held the castle you held the crossing. If you held the river, you could hold the realm.”

Practical Info

Edinburgh is a stunning city, at its most dramatic in and around Old Town. August is jam packed with festivals, most notably the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (billed as the largest arts festival in the world). If you like comedy, theater, cabaret and more, it is well worth going out of your way to attend. We found the festivals a little overwhelming at first. Note there are multiple contemporaneous festivals and their listings will appear in separate places. So e.g. the Pina Bausch dance we saw was part of the International Festival, while everything else was part of Festival Fringe. Fringe itself has an extraordinary number of shows, from early morning until the wee hours. I think I searched online for free comedy or cabaret for one single day and got 400+ results. There are street performers plus venues all over the city, with most of them in Old Town. Some of these venues are year-round brick and mortar, but might be regular theaters or pubs or instead might have five floors with rooms on each floor. Some are like pop-up areas created for the festival, perhaps with several little theaters and some F&B options. We found a book purporting to list four major companies/venues. These are Underbelly, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Pleasance. The Cow Shed is a covered space with bands and bales of hay. The Three (aka Free) Sisters was a fun venue. I would suggest a mix of free and paid shows to sample greater variety of talent and production expense; and I do not mean to suggest the paid shows are always better! Note that at all “free” shows they will pass a bucket or wait at the door, and you are expected to pay something if you enjoyed the show. If you only want to visit one city in Scotland, and leaving festivals out of the picture, we would say choose Edinburgh for sheer beauty and history, and choose Glasgow for partying and a more cutting edge vibe.

Transportation: We arrived by rental car from Dufftown, with a long stop in Stirling on the way. We returned our car on arrival, figuring it would be more hassle than help. We departed on a train to London King’s Cross (~4.5 hours). It seemed you could buy tickets online at the National Rail site or the Virgin site, among others. We walked everywhere in Edinburgh. There is no underground, but there are buses and trams.

Accommodation: We stayed at a gorgeous Airbnb apartment at the corner of Dundas Street and Henderson Row. I think this is on the edge of the Stockbridge neighborhood. It is residential and attractive, with a cluster of cafes and shops nearby. Most of the top sights are in/closer to Old Town, thus you might prefer to stay over there. Some places I came across that are well-located include The Balmoral, Motel One, Radisson Blu and Hotel du Vin. We didn’t mind our location because we enjoy walking and got to see more of the city.

Food and Drinks: Breakfast at Roamin Nose was great; at Cuckoo’s Bakery it was OK. Lunch at Soba was pretty good. The lasagna at Giuliano’s was tasty. There are tons of options in the Old Town, and outside there are many clusters of restaurants/bars, including: Rose Street; Hanover Street; Thistle Street; Broughton Street; Commercial Quay and Shore in Leith. Some places I wanted to try include the dogs, The Vintage and The Shore (the latter two are both in Leith). Many Fringe venues have restaurants or food trucks.

Activities: We spent most of our time attending festival shows and walking around. There are plenty of museums, the Edinburgh Castle and Royal Mile, Calton Hill, Holyrood Park, the Scotch Whisky Experience, the Royal Yacht Brittania, etc. On the way from Dufftown we spent a few hours in Stirling, a beautiful old town with cobblestone streets and home to Stirling Castle. While the castle’s location and historical significance are impressive, we found much of the inside rather bizarre in its cheap looking reconstruction. Tickets cost £14 each.

August 21-25, 2014 (Thursday-Monday)

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