Sunday, December 30, 2012

Going it Alone

There are times when you just need to get out of town. I've been in that position before. My solution? Off to Ireland I went, alone, for 9 days. I did not regret it and I had a great time regardless. I'm quite capable of entertaining myself without needing someone to talk to to keep me company. I'm awesome all on my own. =)

  I'm not ready to completely ditch my life and take off to a foreign country as of this minute, but as I have a huge imagination I got to thinking what if I could. What would I do? Where would I go? I like wine. I like beer. I like hard liquor, even though sometimes it doesn't necessarily like me.. ha ha. So I guess I would go on a solo gal vacation, but since the world has so much cool stuff to offer how can this be a bad thing?

First stop, Tuscany. Home of the Chianti region, that lovely deep and mellow red wine synonymous with Italian dinners everywhere. I would take a few days to stay at the Valdonica Winery, which has accommodations. In the mornings I can wake up to sweeping views of the vineyards and Tuscan countryside. Valdonica offers a simple Tuscan breakfast of fruit, some cheeses and juice. After this I would grab some goodies and drive into the countryside looking for the perfect place to picnic and lay among the acres of sunflowers that grow all over this area. I can already smell the rich soil, and taste the wine in my glass, as I sit in the warm sun eating enormous green olives, some simple peasant bread, peccorino and maybe a little proscuitto. Afterward I would drive to one of the many medieval towns that still dot the hills all over Tuscany and Umbria, and do a little shopping while indulging in some cioccolato fondante e fragola gelato. Only  need the cuppa piccola, this stuff is rich and you only need a little bit.

Photos of Valdonica Winery & Vineyard Residence, Sassofortino
This photo of Valdonica Winery & Vineyard Residence is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Next stop, the Greek Island of Santorini and to the town of Kamari, which is one of the black sand beaches this island has. I'll be staying at the Alesahne Beach Hotel, right on the beach, where I can watch the sunrise. The Greeks aren't big on breakfast, but I can find a little shop where I can get decadent strong Greek coffee, and a croissant filled with nutella. Breakfast of champions! On Santorini I will rent a Vespa and tour the island, which thankfully, you can get around in about an hour. Off to the town of Oia I go, where I can lunch on tomato and zucchini croquettes, marinated and spiced eggplant spread, and bread, while I drink the white wine only made in Santorini. The Assyrtiko grapes are bushes, not vines, and they only grow in the volcanic soil of the island. From these grapes, they can make a variety if dry whites to vinsanto style dessert wines. After my excellent lunch, I'm off the see the remains of civilization thought to be the seed of the legend of Atlantis. Santorini has two important sites, Ancient Thira and Akrotiri. Ancient Thira can be accessed from only from the Kamari side of the large bluff that sits between Kamari and Perissa. You can take a bus up the many switchbacks or attempt to hike it yourself. I'll be driving it. Bring your camera as there are spectacular views from each one. I'm pleasantly tired from my running around ancient ruins. After cleaning up, I hop back on my Vespa and head to Imerovigli to La Maison Restaurant for dinner. This restaurant not only has great food but an excellent view of the sunset, as it sits on the sunset side of the island along the rim of the caldera. Tonight I'll have saganaki over tomato, souvlaki, and a lot more wine. No Greek dinner would be complete without bahklava and some shots of ouzo. Why not live it up a little? Bring on the raki! To those of you not familiar with Greek liquor, it would be like starting with a good port and asking for the vodka chaser. Both are strong, clear, and brutal. Giammas!
tasty Greek lunch

Alesahne Beach Hotel

After many days in the warm sun, I head to cooler weather. Specifically, to Ireland. It's whiskey and Guinness time! The Irish were the first to distill a grain alcohol, way back in the mid-12th century and in the native Gaelic language was called "uisge beatha", or water of life. And boy is it ever! I'm not talking about that Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey crap that Americans think its real whiskey. Get with the program, people. Dublin has two of the best alcohol distilleries in the world: Guinness and Jameson's. I'm not generally a whiskey drinker, but that stuff goes down smooth in your coffee or your soda of choice. Since this is a travel fantasy piece and I can "go" wherever I want, I would stay at the Shelbourne. Classic Georgian architecture overlooking St. Stephen's Green, and walking distance to Temple Bar (re: lots and lots of pubs), and the Guinness Distillery. This hotel holds its own in the history of the Irish Republic, as it's here that Michael Collins drafted the Constitution in 1922. Surprisingly Ireland has some great beef, since it has many cattle farms in the north. After a tasty burger and topped fries, I settle in with my pint of Guinness. Smooth, sweet, dark as a bottomless lake, its the perfect drink for this meal which I'm most likely having in a pub. I head out into the city, which is very easy for walking. The blocks are short, if winding, and easily navigated. I hit Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, then on to the National Archeology Museum to view their collection of bog people and Viking Artifacts. I cruise down cobble stoned Grafton Street, peering into the designer shop windows, before running into Molly Malone and her cart ("cockles and muscles, alive-ho, alive-ho"). Here I swing a left, walking back along Dame Street, to the Old City Hall so I can see the awesome brightly tiled and painted cupola ceiling. I note the bullet holes in the marble statues inside and marvel how recent the Irish struggle for independence was. All this walking in the cool air, where its most likely to be sprinkling outside (this is Ireland after all), has put me in the mood for some Irish fare for dinner. I tuck myself into another pub for some Irish stew, potatoes and another Guinness. I finish my meal with some coffee with whiskey in it. Perfect for a cool evening! I head off into Temple Bar to hear some live music into the early morning hours, before finally crashing into my very overstuffed bed back at the Shelbourne. Dublin holds me in its grasp for a few more days, exploring O'Connell Street, Kilmainham Gaol, and venturing onto the tram to see the rest of Dublin Bay.

Photos of The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel, Dublin

This photo of The Shelbourne Dublin, A Renaissance Hotel is courtesy of TripAdvisor

That Guinness gives me a craving for more beer, so off I go to Belgium, home of the very potent Chimay which is brewed by Trappist monks. In fact, the Belgian abbey brews are so particular, that there is an actual certification for them to make sure commercial brews are not classifying themselves as religiously associated for marketing purposes. Beer made in Belgium goes back all the way to the first crusades so this would make them experts in their field. I sign up with for their Lonely Monks Trappist Beer Tour of Belgium and the Netherlands. I includes visits to the original 7 Trappist monasteries for tastings along with a few others, and a visit to the WWI museum at Flanders Field. I like this bit of history of how the monks not only perfected the recipes as a means to trade and raise money to support themselves, but also how much detail goes into making beer. It sort of puts our mass made American beers into perspective. After nine days of tasting so many kinds of Belgian beer, traipsing about the Flemish countryside, and hearing Dutch, French and Flemish being spoken, I'm ready for the next leg of the Cry in My Cheerios tour.

Flanders Field
Chimay Monastery Brewery, Belgium

"Ein Prosit, ein Prosit. Der Gem├╝tlichkeit. Ein Prosit, ein Prosit. Der Gem├╝tlichkeit. EINS ZWEI DREI! G'SUFFA!"
That's right folks, we are off to Bavaria. Home of the largest and longest running annual beer drinking party in the world, where legions of people go to try their hand at drinking an entire liter of Bavarian beer. I'm not that nuts. I'll do a half liter at a time, thank you very much. Having just had my half-mass of German wheat beer while sitting in Marienplatz in Munich in September, I think I'm ready for a repeat. While I sit with my weisswurst (that's veal for you non-German sausage eating people), and pretzel with sweet mustard, listening to the drinkers sing along in the Hofbrau, I'm reminded of how much fun just having a beer is. Not getting completely ripped, just enjoying the ambiance of a happy crowd. I happen to already be a big fan of unfiltered German wheat beer (hefeweissen, served with orange NOT lemon wedge), so this is right up my alley. I'm tried from all the singing and drinking so I decide to walk around Munich and check out the scenery, and the layout of the streets which you know has to go back hundreds of years. There is an archaeological dig going on in the middle of town, where they are unearthing the remains of part of the town that dates back to the 10th century. I head over to my hotel, the Bayerischer Hof, and indulge in a little spa pampering to relax my traveling away.  Since there are plenty of places to eat in this part of the city, I head over to Spatenhaus which is right across the road from the Opera House. Here I can have uniquely German specialties such as sauerbraten and scheinschnitzel. YUM! And more beer. Hello, its the Spatenhaus. What do you think they make there? Spaten beer! 

Photos of Spatenhaus, Munich

This photo of Spatenhaus is courtesy of TripAdvisor

After a couple of weeks running around Europe, I'm ready to come home. The adventure of being in so many different places and around so many different people has given me a new perspective and relaxed me. Of course, having some drinks every day has certainly lightened my mood! This little virtual trip has made me feel better already, and get psyched for my Spain trip this summer. I'll have to read up on my Spanish wines before I get there.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Scotland the Brave

I know what you're thinking. You're sitting here reading my blog with images of a half naked Mel Gibson wearing blue face paint and cruising around on a horse, bellowing about "freedom", aren't you? Don't lie! Don't feel bad, though, because I did the same thing before I went there and boy were my eyes opened! Scotland is so much more than a movie made by an Australian who fiddled with the facts just a bit to make a blockbuster. Thinking about going there? Well, read on!
Donaldson's College
The first thing I noticed about Caledonia, as the Romans called it, was its schizophrenic weather. I figured it was like Ireland so I packed accordingly. (The key here is layering!) I chose the first two weeks of July to visit, since Scotland is so far north on the globe I was afraid it would be too cold and anyone who knows me knows I just don't do cold weather. The day I arrived, July 1, it was close to 80 outside. My cousin and I nearly sweated right through our clothes as we lugged our suitcases down the sidewalk to the 170 year old house that we were staying in, as a bed and breakfast. (If you're interested in staying at a B&B in Scotland instead of a hotel, check out this link: Scottish Accommodation Index) Our B&B was across the street from Donaldson's College, which was once a school for the hearing impaired and almost purchased by Queen Victoria.
The entrance to get your tickets for Holyrood House
We quickly took the bus over to the bridge, near the beautiful garden at the base of the hill where Edinburgh Castle is located. We were still technically in the "New Town" section of the city, which is filled with pretty Georgian buildings on perfectly laid out street grids. While figuring out where to catch the Edinburgh Hop-On bus, we noticed at the end of the bridge something called the Edinburgh Dungeon. Oh heck yeah! I had gone to the one in London, and it was a lot of fun. Sort of like the Halloween Haunt at Knott's, for all you Southern California readers. Basically its a bunch of scary stuff about the violent, haunted history of the city. After that we rode the Hop-On bus, which conveniently takes you all around to the city sites without you having to do taxis and walking. Hooray! First stop, the Palace of Holyrood House, which since the time of King James VI of Scotland (son of Mary Queen of Scots and the first monarch to rule both countries) has been the official residence of the Royal Family, and before that the Scottish kings and queens. We were smart to go that day since Prince Charles arrived two days after we did and they closed it down for the week. Buy the ticket, folks, its worth it. You get to see the throne room, and the private apartments of the tragic Mary Queen of Scots, including the room where her trusted advisor Rizzio was murdered in front of her when she was 8 months pregnant.
Abbey and grounds
Inner courtyard of the Palace
The palace was originally built as housing for royals and peers who came to make pilgrimage to the Abbey King David built here in 1128. The palace/guesthouse was started in the 15th century. All that is left now are the remains of the outer supports. It now  consists of a dirt floor with burial slabs of people buried beneath the floors, too weathered by the elements to read the inscriptions. I learned that many of the structures I saw with roofs missing, originally had wooden roofs that just didn't stand the test of time or war. The Palace and Abbey are set within beautiful grounds and there is a path you can walk through to see it all. If you're thinking about traveling in July, make sure you check the Royal calendar here so you can actually visit and aren't blocked by the Queen's residence time.

Edinburgh Castle
St. Margaret's Chapel
Moving on, we next visited Edinburgh Castle. Militarily speaking, it's a perfect spot for a castle. On top of the core of an ancient volcano, it has a 365 degree viewing off all the land surrounding it. The base of the castle sits on volcanic basalt and cannot be burrowed under. The walls of the castle rise up making it nearly impossible to scale the walls, leaving the only entrance to defend coming from the Royal Mile (the one road leading to the castle) and the main gate. The Castle itself contains many buildings, including a military history museum (which was AWESOME by the way), a large church, a garrison of soldiers and St. Margaret's chapel, which is the oldest building in the complex. St. Margaret, back then she was Queen Margaret wife of King Malcolm and mother of King David, was a very devout woman. During one of the many wars that plagued Scotland in the Middle Ages, her beloved husband was killed in battle. Legend has it that the Queen died of a broken heart upon learning the news, and her loyal guards managed to smuggle her body over the side of the castle walls so it wouldn't be desecrated by the attacking enemies. They were able to get her across the river Forth, to the kingdom of Fife, where the Queen had set up an Abbey in Dunfermline. There she is buried to this day.
Robert the Bruce
The day we went to Dunfermline was perfect. Gloriously sunny and warm. We explored the ruins of the Abbey and palace, where I almost fell on my face due to the moss on the worn stone. HA. We walked over to the church, which is beautiful and oddly segmented into two parts. One portion is empty, with huge columns supporting the ceiling. I've recognized this part of the church in many movies. Going through the door takes you into a functioning parish church. We weren't here for that, though. We came for the crowning jewel of this church and it was under the pastor's pulpit: the actual burial place of one of Scotland's greatest heroes, Robert the Bruce. He is laid to rest under a shining red marble slab with a golden drawing of him, and Latin inscription around the edge letting you know whose crypt it is.

Inside of the old part of Dunfermline's church
 Getting back on the bus we headed to the coast of Fife hitting Anstruther for lunch (and the BEST fish n' chips in the UK. I had them and it was glorious!) and then to St. Andrews. Since we were a week before the British Open, I didn't get to see the old golf course (golf was invented in Scotland, FYI) since it was covered in tents and bleacher seating in preparation. I had the bus driver drop me off at the West Sands section of town (of Chariots of Fire fame) where I got some great shots of the beach at low tide. I then walked the beach path through the university (Where Prince William and Princess Kate met, hurray!) and ended up at the old St. Andrews Castle. It actually has tunnels underneath you can walk though, and a dungeon. My walk ended at the ruined Cathedral, where I climbed about two hundred steps up a narrow medieval staircase of St. Rule's Towers for the view. WOW!. A beautiful, albeit very windy, view across all of Fife and St. Andrews. If you're not afraid of heights, I highly suggest you do it.
West Sands

St. Andrews cathedral and St. Rule's Tower
 We couldn't go all the way to Scotland and not see what it's famous for: the Highlands! It was a dark and stormy ride the day we went. Huge dark clouds, pouring rain, and gale force winds. We drove past Doune Castle, where Monty Python's Holy Grail was filmed, but really couldn't see because of the storm outside. We drove past so many lochs, the western edge of the Highlands, as there is really only two main roads going in and out. Except for Inverness, the area is still pretty rural. There were many little towns tucked away in the hills, and everything was SO green. My eyes almost hurt from it! We drove past Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK, and whose top was obscured by the low hanging mist. Our driver wore a kilt, and there was much joke making at his expense. And also at my cousin's since she's from South London, and the Scots aren't all that bff with the British.
Finally arriving at Loch Ness, it miraculously cleared up outside. Sunlight sparkled on the loch the wet stone of Urquhardt Castle. We climbed through the ruins as the weather went back to being schizophrenic. 10 minutes of sun, 10 minutes of storm. Back and forth it went while we waited to get on a boat and cruise down the loch in the hopes of seeing Nessie. We didn't get to see her but to our delight we discovered they serve alcohol on board. YAY!

Urquhardt Castle
Being the history geek that I am I just couldn't resist a tour to Roslyn Chapel (all you DaVinci Code readers out there, woot!), Melrose Abbey and the grand finale: Hadrian's Wall. Roslyn Chapel had some of the most intricate stonework I have ever seen in my life. Everything was hand carved, from the flowers in the ceiling, to the roses on the pillars, to the tiny little symbols within the carved "greenery" around the borders of the walls. I've never seen anything like it to this day. It's not a very big place, and you can't take pictures in there which is a huge bummer. On to Melrose Abbey, one of those four Abbeys in the borderlands which Henry VIII had destroyed during the "Rough Wooing", according to Scottish sarcasm. Henry VIII wanted to betrothe his daughter Mary to her distant cousin James, son of the Scottish king. The Scots said no, and true to Henry's notable temper, he set about destroying the Abbeys, which were never rebuilt.
Melrose Abbey is built in natural rose colored sandstone and didn't even need to be painted. Even hundreds of years later, the pretty color still shines through. I happened to climb one of the very narrow twisty staircases for a picture over the area. People are also still burying their dead in the consecrated grounds surrounding the abbey, so it has an very interesting mix of grave stones over the past few centuries.
Me at the top of the Abbey

Remains of Melrose Abbey
Jumping back into the bus we headed past the border into the Northumberland area of England. This area historically belonged to the Brigantes tribe who more or less treated with the Romans. The Picts, on the other hand, who lived a little bit north, scared the crap out of the Romans. Fierce fighters who tattooed their bodies and moved so silently the Romans called them the shadows of the forest, scared the Romans badly enough they build Hadrian's Wall to keep them out of Roman occupied Britain. That says a lot right there. The Romans never got too far into Scotland because the native tribes kept them out. To this day a good portion of the Wall survives. Dotted here and there with the remains of Roman forts that houses the soldiers who manned the Wall. If you're an outdoorsy person, you can actually walk or bike the length of the Wall through the countryside. This will take over a week and you'll probably need a tent and some provisions, but its an interesting trip! We arrived at the parking area for Housesteads, which sits at the very bottom of a hill rise. The Romans liked to carve these out below their Wall to force the enemy to run uphill and tire themselves before getting to attack the Romans. We trudged uphill for about 3/4 km before we got to the settlement. Housesteads is the best preserved Roman fort along the Wall. It really is amazing! You can see where the wall extends down both sides of the fort, and all the farmland surrounding you, and you can almost hear the clink of metal shields, the rattling of spears and the distant roar of oncoming battle.
Housteads, along Hadrian's Wall

There are other places to visit in Scotland. We did take the train to Glasgow and enjoyed a day of site seeing. It has a beautiful old Cathedral and a pretty cool shopping district. Scotland also has many chains of islands, including the Hebrides and the Shetlands. Fancy a celebration of Scotland's Viking heritage? Then head up to the Shetlands at the end of January for the Up Helly Aa fire festival which culminates in the burning of a mock Viking long ship. Bring your down jackets and long johns, folks, because part of the Shetlands sit right below the Arctic Circle, making it extremely frosty in winter!
Scotland offers a lot of things to do for a wide range of travelers. Family friendly, adventurous, cozy cottages for romantic holidays, and lots of things for the history geeks. Did I mention they also have great burgers since its the home of Angus beef? YAY! I recommend also doing a tasting at a Scotch distillery (This I have done even though I hate whiskey), and try the local Scottish beers. Cruise down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and check out all the street performers from bagpipers to the Guinness record holder of the most tattoos and piercings. For those, like me, who like a good scare and creepy fun, take a tour of Mary King's Close or the Covenanter's Prison in Greyfriar's Kirkyard. They're both haunted, and having been to both, I can say the Convenanter's Prison creeped me out more since there was an incident there and a few of us were locked in. Now how much is this going to cost you? Well, the UK's currency (GBP pound sterling) is worth both more than the euro and the US dollar. I would suggest staying in the one of the B&B's since they're a little less expensive. Food isn't that expensive, but some of the tours are. You'll most likely be flying through Heathrow in London from the US because Edinburgh's airport isn't that big.
Remember, bring your jackets and sweaters. ALWAYS bring an umbrella, since it rains quite often. And most of all, bring a sense of humor. The Scots are wickedly sarcastic with a low ball mockery that will make you laugh your butt off! 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Pomegranate

Or rather, in Spanish, Granada.
One of the historic jewels of Andalusia, Granada was under Caliphate/Moorish rule for nearly 800 years until the Emir there gave it up to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. Even after all these years, the Albayzin district in Granada has preserved all the Moorish buildings, including the crown of them all, the Alhambra.
Photos of The Alhambra, Granada

This photo of The Alhambra is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The Alhambra was once a walled in fortress of the Nasrid sultans who ruled this area during the Caliphate years. Eventually, after they were booted from the Iberian peninsula and the Reconquista fully commenced, the Catholic monarchs appropriated much of the property. There were some changes, as one of the Holy Roman Emporers decided he was going to tear down some of it, but it still stands gloriously on a hilltop at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Granada also has a cathedral in the center of town.
Photos of Cathedral and Royal Chapel (Capilla Real), Granada
This photo of Cathedral and Royal Chapel (Capilla Real) is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The cathedral is actually built right on top of a mosque. Nothing says conquered like building a religious house on top of your vanquished enemy's, no? The outside facade is Spanish Renaissance which looks markedly different than the baroque cathedrals elsewhere in Europe from the same time period. The inside of the church features five (count 'em!) naves instead of a fairly standard three. This cathedral had an outstanding seven architects (!) who each brought different elements to the building, including the Capilla Real (royal chapel) where the mausoleums of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are located. The inside of the church has the many of the same elements you can find if you've ever been to churches in France or Italy. Very ornate gilded decoration inside the cupolas, soaring columns to dramatic ceilings almost as high as the sky, and beautiful stained glass windows. This church was built as a power symbol of the Reconquista and its dominance over the local skyline is pretty recognizable.
Photos of Cathedral and Royal Chapel (Capilla Real), Granada

This photo of Cathedral and Royal Chapel (Capilla Real) is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Another nifty place to visit in Granada is the Abadia del Sacrmonte. According to local lore, in the 16th century locals found some caves in the hillside with some remains inside that were very old. Legend has it these remains were of St. Cecilio, who is the patron saint of Granada, and who was sent to Spain by St. Peter to evangelize it. So the local bishop built an abbey on top of this holy place, in honor of their saint. One of the things that will quickly become apparent to you is the six sided star that is repeated all over the abbey in decoration. Many people mistake this for the Star of David in the Jewish faith, but its not. This symbol was once use as a mark of intelligence or knowledge during Roman times, so keeping with the theme the bishop who built the abbey decided to keep on using it.
Photos of Abadia del Sacromonte (Sacromonte Abbey), Granada

This photo of Abadia del Sacromonte (Sacromonte Abbey) is courtesy of TripAdvisor

After a day of site seeing, relax at the Carmen Mirador de Aixa, with a full view of the Alhambra while you drink your tasty Spanish sangria and trying jamon, which is pretty a Spanish obsession. Lunch might be a cheaper option for you, as the view is going to bring your costs up. The food is good and the service is great but prepare to bust out that wallet at the end.
Photos of Carmen Mirador de Aixa, Granada

This photo of Carmen Mirador de Aixa is courtesy of TripAdvisor

 For a little bit of ethnic fun, make sure to visit the Alcaiceria, which is the old Moorish silk market. Now its a jumble of market stalls invoking thoughts of a sook in Morocco, where you can buy bargain goods from Arab traders.
If you're not quite sure what to do here in Granada, there are many guided tours you can do. Make sure to check Trip Advisor and Viator to read reviews before you book. Tours cover everything from walking tours through Albayzin, to olive oil tours throughout the countryside. Bike tours, paragliding and segways...your adventure awaits!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Costa del Sol's Marbella

Ok, so I guess this next series of blog posts is going to be the planning of my next vacation, which I have already started. I'll be going on a girls trip next summer with two friends and my sister. Should be fun! I don't pick travel partners quickly or easily. If you're in a foreign country for two weeks you better make sure you can handle people. This past trip to Italy was a good mix. Boy Wonder is a total goof ball who brought a different brand of humor to the table. E and I pretty much run along the same humor and interests so that was good. Then my cousin L pretty much put Boy Wonder's humor on steroids. ha ha. It was complete laughter the whole trip.
So moving on, we're beginning our Spanish adventure in the Costa del Sol, in Marbella. Situated along the shoreline of the Mediterranean in the province of Malaga, Marbella has long been the playground of aristocrats, euro-riche and celebrities. With its gorgeous sparkling beaches, and many resorts we can see why!
Marbella Images
This photo of Marbella is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Besides the people watching, what brings us to Marbella? Quite simply, a little bit of decadence. We'll be getting VIP cards to one of the biggest beach resorts in the area: Nikki Beach. For two days we'll soak up the sun on huge sun beds, drink cava, and generally just enjoy the fabulousness that Marbella has to offer.
However, if you're going to be spending a little bit more time in the area, then this post is for you. What else does Marbella have to offer? Golf and sailing are pretty popular here and each sport boasts numerous clubs. You can go biking, see some great architecture (everyone knows this is one of my primary reasons for site seeing.. ha!), and learn how the Spaniards make olive oil. Did I mention wine? Spain is a huge producer of some great wines. Make sure that's at the top of your list!
Photos of D.OLIVA Marbella, Marbella
This photo of D.OLIVA Marbella is courtesy of TripAdvisor

If lounging on the beach is your gig, and we'll be doing plenty of that, try Nikki Beach for an upscale experience. It does cost to get in, and the cost for the sunbeds is extra. The upper level beds in the exclusive area will set you back about $300, prepaid, but they fit 3 people and come with a bottle of cava. They offer cocktails and food, and have dance parties at night. You can also stay at the Hotel Don Carlos which Nikki Beach shares property with. Estrella del Mar Beach Club comes with a day spa for those of you who really want a relaxing time, like say, a dip in this infinity pool?
Photos of Estrella del Mar Beach Club, Marbella
This photo of Estrella del Mar Beach Club is courtesy of TripAdvisor

So how do you get to Marbella? If you're flying into the Costa del Sol, the main airport is in Malaga from which you can take a 45 minute bus to Marbella. You can also fly into Gibraltar but will end up driving 1.5 hours north. US residents on the west coast can expect to pay $1130 for the last week of April if you want to avoid the summer crowds and uptick in prices. East coast residents are going to pay about $950 flying out of New York.
Aside from the obvious decadence of selecting a vacation in the Costa del Sol, tourism is one of the only industries offering employment in Spain which is unfortunately at 25% unemployment right now. Those from abroad who are choosing holidays on the Iberian peninsula are providing much needed revenue in the form of patronizing hotels and restaurants which keep people employed and put food on the table for their families. So yes, this is my way of rationalizing my traveling... lol.

Let's go stimulate the economy! (and drink lots of wine!)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Traveling and Culture

One of the things I most love about traveling is immersing myself in a different culture. I do not go into my trips expecting to like everything, or having it be like it is at home. Inherently, it isn't, or people wouldn't feel the need to go explore the world at all.
I notice things reading other websites and blogs, mostly in reviews, about people's expectations not being met. Whether it's poor service at a restaurant, a hotel not being up to par, or just generally not understanding the people to begin with. I think this comes down to poor preparation. Especially when traveling in a pre-packaged tour. There are very few I would do, and among those I respect would be the Rick Steves tours because I know at least he explains how things are where you're going. This is an important part of your trip and, in my opinion, can make or break your experience. Here's an example:
Recently, we had a temp co-worker in my office who overheard Boy Wonder and I discussing our trip to Italy. She made remarks about how her daughter went the year prior and had a horrific time, that it was the worst thing she'd ever done, and she'd never do it again. Now obviously I'm going to take this with a grain of salt. I'd been to Europe a few times, and not just to English speaking places, so I asked what it was that was so awful. It came down to, you guessed it, poor understanding and general ignorance. First off, this girl is in her early 20's, and old enough to do her own research, as is her mother. (Plus having this nifty internet thing now!) So the first thing she complains about to me is that they wouldn't take American money. I said, um, Europe has been on the euro for 10 years now, why would you assume that? She said well no one told us. I responded, but why wouldn't you look up basic things like money and weather? No answer. Second, she said her daughter and her boyfriend were "mugged". Well, safety and security are pretty important. Its one of the first things I research. Where are the danger zones? But really, just don't look flashy and wear huge jewelry. It's that simple. Then she complained about the hostels they stayed in. They were dormitory style. I said how do you think most students can afford to go?
The lesson here is this: do enough research so most things like that won't surprise you. For instance, when I read complaints about restaurant service in Italy, its mostly due to people not understanding how the eating experience is there. A great audio piece on the Rick Steves site (which you can also download the app Rick Steves Audio Europe for free and get it also) is on Italian food culture. The different between American restaurants and Italian is that they don't rush you. Eating is part of the bonding experience for them. The waiter isn't going to keep hounding you, or bringing you the check to get you out of there quicker. They savor the food, and the conversation. Relax! You're on holiday for Pete's sake!
Little things like learning a few words in their language is also appreciated. We received very good service due to that, even though my Italian is far from perfect. You're spending some significant money to go see these places. It's up to you to cover your bases and lessen your worry. Take the time to look things up and if you need some help, there are links on the right side of this blog.

Remember, your holiday is what you make of it. Don't let it go sour because you didn't do your part!

Ciao and buon viaggio!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Last Day in Italy and Our Layover

We woke up to a beautifully sunny day in Napoli. Since its Sunday all the shops are closed and it was eerily quiet as we walked to the metro. Napoli sort of has a trash issue (/sarc) and it was like a garbage bin threw up all over the Piazza Bellini. There was trash everywhere from whatever party they had going last night.
By the time we got on the Circumvesuviana it was quarter to 11 and we still had to get to Sorrento for the ferry. We made our way through Sorrento to a very steep stairway down a gorge to get to the port. If you've never seen Sorrento on a sunny day, its absolutely stunning. The water is a dark sapphire blue that meets a sky that's robin's egg blue. White puffy clouds like cotton float randomly as a nice breeze blows through town. We had lunch at a place right next to boat dock #9. The reason I mention this specifically is you should NEVER EAT HERE EVER EVER EVER. The service was awful. The waiter called Boy Wonder "white boy" and then gave me attitude when I asked for the check. And they have the nerve to offer fast service menu items (which is what we ordered) because people who eat there are getting on the ferry! So do youself a favor and not go there. There's plenty of other places to eat around here.
Above the Port in Sorrento
We hopped on the ferry and were quickly underway to the island. Our plan was to see the Blue Grotto, but alas, fate was against us this day. As we approached the ticket window on the pier, I read it was suspended today. I asked the booth guy if the water wasn't good and he said it was too choppy to get a canoe in. We changed plans and jumped on a boat for a tour around the island instead. This place is beautiful. The water glows in some places like turquoise jewels just under the waterline. It's very apparent why the Roman emporers Tiberius and Augusts built palazzos here. The soaring cliffs make easily defensible forts. Anacapri is filled with fancy private villas where celebrities and the Euro-riche spend their visits. As you cruise around the island you can see the massive personal yachts anchored right off the shore. When I say massive, I can almost say ships. These things look like they're made to have a permanent crew of at least 10-15 people, and host huge parties.
The cliffs of Capri
The town of Capri, on Marina Grande, is filled with shops and eateries. You can also take the funiculare up to the top of the mountain for spectacular views of the island and the sea. You can even see all the way to Amalfi on a day like this, not to mention Sorrento and the island of Ischia. Capri is known for their ravioli, so we found a place to eat and sampled it. Very good! The cheese inside has a tangy flavor almost like a peccorino so it balances the tomato sauce nicely. Also, the house wine in every place we've eaten is so good we've never ordered anything else!  After eating, E and I went to buy a pair of custom made sandals that Capri is known for. They measure your foot, you pick the style of the straps and the color of the leather straps, and they make them while you wait! We ended up getting the same style but different colors of straps. I can't wait to take them for a spin.
Me on a Boat!

Blue waters of Capri

At the end of the day in the sun in sunny Southern Italy, it was time to go back on the Circumvesuviana to Napoli and pack. We said goodbye to our B&B owner, Luca, and he arranged a taxi for us for 5am the next morning. I'm still considering opinion of Napoli. There are parts of it I dearly love: the people, the buildings, the pizza! And others that I don't: the graffiti, the trash, the sort of "given up" state of things. I loved walking on the streets of Napoli and knowing it still used the original street plan developed by the Greeks when it was started as their port city. I did not like, however, attempting to figure out their subway system maps which make zero sense. Along with their traffic habits. Holy cow, more than once I had a close call. Red light? HA! They scoff at your red lights! Cross-walk? Huh? Do like the Napolitans do and cross when you can, where you can, light or no light.
The next morning came too fast and we found ourselves slugging off to the airport in the dark. After a short flight to Munich, we had a 7 hour layover. E and I decided to take the train to town and have lunch, walk around and the like. Munich is a really pretty city. Gothic buildings, twisting streets. The people are much different than the Italians. Not really outwardly friendly at all, the people working at least. Randon Germans on the train? Totally nice, which is sort of weird. After an 11 hour flight back to LA, I was pooped. Even through my fatigue, though, it was nice to get back home to my own bed, my pets, seeing my parents and my co-workers.
Soon I'll start the next summer's vacation destination: girls trip to Spain. Hollah!

City Hall and Glockenspiel- Munich
Inside Munich's Cathedral

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Day Out in the Country with Family

AKA The Feast....
This morning I went over to nonno's to pick up the sfogliatelle to bring to my cousin's house. Anyone raised right knows not to come for a visit empty handed. I don't think that's expressly an Italian thing but its definitely important when you ARE Italian (and in Italy!). Of course nonno tried to feed me but I had to tell him we have a train to catch. Just in the nick of time too, we had four minutes to spare for the train out to Sessa Aurunca. Without googling, its north and a little inland from Napoli, and takes an hour to get there with all the stops.
My cousin Adele was waiting for us at the train station and she drove us to the little town where my great-grandfather is from. Let me tell you about Casale di Carinola. It sits in a fertile valley up against hills and its vineyards, farms and olive groves as far as the eye can see. The air smells like the rich soil, especially at night. The village itself is made up of buildings that are a couple hundred years old. There are only three main streets that meet in a piazza where there is a monument to those who died in WWI. I looked to see if there were any V's on there, which there was.
We parked and walked to my cousin's house. You can't call it a street or a sidewalk. Its an uphill twisty walkway that leads to other front doors. My cousin's mom Olga came to the door to let us in and it was a nice greeting. I've been writing to them for years but I am the first of our American family of V's to visit the village. So here's where it gets fun. I speak some Italian. My cousin speaks some English. Olga doesn't speak English or proper Italian, she speaks Casalesi or Napolitan. You see, southern Italy has a dialect for pretty much every town. They're all branched from Napolitan, which is identified by linguists as its own language. I can understand Italian but Casalesi is fast and the vowel sounds are cut off at the end of the words. My cousin L who was also with us can understand it, so she also did a little translating. We got through the day with a lot of laughter, hand gestures, Italian, Spanish and Casalesi. But I digress.
Adele went down into the cellar to get a bottle of wine. They make their own wine. Pretty much everyone there does. Olga set us out antipasti of bread, olives stored in oil, homemade salami, a mix of peppers and black olives, and small balls of smoked scimorza (a kind of mozzarella) with peppers in it. And a homemade apertif drink. The next course was pasta with a tasty meat sauce. The course after that was eggplant parmigiana,  which Olga knows is my favorite. The course after this was bistecca filetto, fried. Then there was the cheese course of bufala, which I love. Finally out came the tarts that Adele had made. One with apple, one with grapes, and one with cherries. I could barely move. But you better clean the plate or else mama is going to point at you, wave her hand and say "mang" (sounds like monge).
This is what it means being Italian. Food and family and welcome. I'm proud to carry the same bloodline as these people. Everywhere we walked after lunch it was "cugini Americani". Everyone knows Adele. And her cat Kika who followed us everywhere. Ha.
We went down to the little chapel of Santa Maria della Grazie where local belief is the Madonna appeared to a little girl who was washing clothes in a small river there. And the Madonna is all over town, on everything. In two weeks, when the vendemmia (when they harvest the grapes for wine) happens she'll probably be present too.
And the end of the day we said goodbye to Casale and my family and headed back to Napoli on the 10:30 train. We were all exhausted. We needed our sleep for tomorrow's adventure: Capri!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Adventures in Sorrento

Our first experience with the Circumvesuviana train was a car whose doors wouldn't shut. Everyone on the train had to get off and wait another 15 minutes. When we finally boarded it was like a cattle car and we had 30 stops before we got to Sorrento. That is not an exaggeration.  Its literally 30 stops. There was no room to sit until we got to Torre del Greco,  and we sat with a kindly old nun who told us in Italian the history as we went along. She also warned us about watching our purses. The first nun not to give us the stink eye! Yay! So about four stops away we were invaded by gypsies playing drums and tambourines, using their kids to beg for money. Ahhh, my ignore skills have sharpened to a steel edge in this place! I wonder what will happen when I go back to work and start accidentally ignoring annoying
We get to Sorrento and dark clouds began to roll in. We walked in the rain along the cliff walk until it started coming down so hard we had to duck into a restaurant to get out of it, into Ristorante Tasso. E and Boy Wonder both had a lemon risotto with shrimp and chives that was super tasty. I had carciotta cheese ravioli that was really good. All very light and we topped it off with wine, of course!
Unfortunately our site seeing was ruined by the rain. We ducked down a narrow alley and did some shopping to make up for it. So far I've bought wine, olive oil and balsamic to bring home. Yay! Also some lemon marmalade, chocolate with orange flavoring, and more Italian coffee.
Tonight we went back to Bar Fiorello on Piazza Bellini for dinner. The thing with this is you have to be ok letting "nonno" do all your decision making. You don't have choices here, you get what he gives you and you mangiare tutto whether you like it or not He won't let you leave hungry that's for damn in fact you're more likely to waddle out. I've probably gained ten pounds since coming here but I'm ok with that. Its was worth the good food! I ordered ten of the Napoli specialty sfogliatelle to pick up in the morning to take with me to my cousin's house in Casserta. YUM!