Sorrento Food Tours


Sorrento is the ideal base for exploring greater Naples and the Amalfi Coast. With beach clubs, transport links, shopping and a thriving food and nightlife scene, there’s no reason to miss out. Even better, let’s highlight the fact that it’s flat so it’s super accessible compared to the cliffs of Positano and Capri, so take advantage and give your feet a rest after a day exploring the nearby coastal towns and islands.

Beach clubs, Sorrento

Beach clubs, Sorrento

As we only had one night and two days to spend in Sorrento, I decided to optimize it with a food tour. This gave us the opportunity to explore the town, learn some history and importantly, uncover the best places for local food and drink. Our goal was to consume as many Italian delicacies as we could in a short amount of time.

Chiesa di Carmine

Chiesa di Carmine

We joined Tamara on Sorrento Food Tours walking food tour for 3 hours of pure indulgence. We met on the steps of Chiesa di Carmine (Carmine Church) in Piazza Tasso (main square) to begin our tasting experience and I was initially shocked to hear her American accent, slightly disappointed we weren’t being led around by a local. We quickly learned that she’s a lady of the world, an ex-flight attendant originally from San Diego. She’s been running tours across Italy and has called Sorrento her home for many years after meeting her love Michele at Michelin starred Il Buco.

Sfogliatelle from Bar Pasticceria Monica

Sfogliatelle from Bar Pasticceria Monica

Our first taste was a traditional Neapolitan pastry, Santa Rosa cream custard and wild cherry sfogliatelle from Bar Pasticceria Monica. With a quick sugar rush from the delicate filling and a great start of what’s to come, I was ready to see where the afternoon would lead us.

Arancini, The Join

Arancini, The Join

Arancini at The Join, Sorrento

Arancini at The Join, Sorrento

Join, a casual tapas and wine bar is recommended for aperitivo and live music. Here we met Serena who shared around homemade arancini. We laughed to ourselves at the different country flags stuck into the arancini to show the diversity of our group, but then again, most of us were American. Jamie showed his support for the EU of course!

 

Pizzeria Da Franco is one of the most popular spots in town, not only because their pizza is out of this world good, cooked in their famous wood-burning oven 8ft deep 500 celsius, but they’re also open from lunch to 1 am which is appealing. We shared saltimbocca, which means jumping around, a traditional Italian dish of veal wrapped with prosciutto and sage. We then had their delicious thin and crisp pizza, the prosciutto di Parma DOP was salty and dry, the thick legs hung from the ceiling as they go through 1-2 legs a day. The mozzarella was moist and delicious and of course, their friendly staff is what gives this place its reputation as it has been around for nearly 70 years. In fact, we couldn’t help popping by later that evening after a few negronis for a late night pizza and a few more beers.

Giardini di Cataldo

Giardini di Cataldo

Just around the corner is Fondo L’Arguminato (a citrus garden right in the center of Sorrento). Unfortunately, if the gates are shut you can’t enter, which was the case for us during our tour but we came back for a peek into the beautiful lemon haven the next day. Normally open to the public during the day, when the gates are open you are free to explore the 300-year-old lemon grove which harvests 3 times a year.

 

Luckily around the corner is the Giardini di Cataldo (limoncello factory) where you can buy an assortment of products grown in the citrus grove. This was a great spot to hear from Luigi about how limoncello is made using only the peel (surprising!), as well as to taste it, some lemon sorbet, boozy baba cake and liquorice liquor. Importantly, if you see limoncello spelt with an ‘e’ (lemoncillo), that’s how you know it’s fake so if you’re looking for authentic gifts this is the spot!

il Bocconcino

il Bocconcino

We then stopped at a small delicatessen and food market, il Bocconcino, to try some charcuterie. Salami with cow’s milk cheese, speck which is salt-cured like prosciutto but smoked and provolone del Monaco (semi-hard cheese local to the area produced by monks). If I was staying for a few days I would definitely do my local shopping here, or as Tamara recommends go for a simple panini.

Charcuterie from il Bocconcino

Charcuterie from il Bocconcino

We finally sat down for our main course at Da Gigino Ristorante, another local place Tamara recommends to try for pizza or pasta after the food tour. We had a lovely buffalo mozzarella starter followed by gnocchi Sorrentino. I can say it was tasty, but the free-flowing Calabrian white wine was a nice treat too!

Jonathan, Nino & Friends

Jonathan, Nino & Friends

Following, we sampled some chocolates from Nino & Friends, a great place to pick up some treats such as candied lemon and orange rinds and other delectable gifts to bring back home. Jonathan did a great job of sharing coffee beans coated in chocolate, sugared almonds, and stuffed pralines. But we favored the dog Margo who hangs out front a bit too.

And finally, we closed off the tour with gelato from Davide Gelateria and a glimpse at Mt Vesuvius in the distance.

Sunset at Sky Bar, Hotel Plaza, Sorrento

Sunset at Sky Bar, Hotel Plaza, Sorrento

After an afternoon of filling up on delicious food, we were ready for a drink. Tamara recommended the following and even joined us for a few at Sky Bar at Hotel Plaza, which has great cocktails and amazing sunset views over the sea and Mt Vesuvius.

Other bars in Sorrento

  • Fauno Bar – perfect for people watching in the heart of Piazza Tasso
  • Fuoro 51 – Wine bar
  • La Bottega della Birra – Tamara suggests asking for Nuzio in this craft beer hot spot

Still hungry? Here’s where to eat in Sorrento (Thanks Sorrento Food Tours for the recommendations!)

  • Il Buco
  • Accento Restaurant
  • Inn Bufalito
  • La Basilica
  • Porta Marina Seafood
  • Hotel continental “Terrazza Vittoria”
  • Bagni Delfino
  • Ristorante O’Puledrone
  • L’Antica Trattoria
  • A’Marenna

Note: getting to Pompeii or Mt. Vesuvius from Sorrento is easy by Circumvesuviana train in about 30 minutes. This train has many stops and is very busy with tourists but is the most direct route if you don’t have a private car. It is also riddled with pickpockets so be very careful with your belongings. I witnessed someone get their phone taken out of their front pocket without evening feeling it. There are also lockers for a small fee at the Pompeii train station.

Thanks Tamara for a great day exploring Sorrento, we enjoyed all your recommendations and company over too many negronis!

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Get in the know, Positano


I’ve never met a single person who would say no to a trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast. In fact, for many, it’s the ultimate wedding or honeymoon destination – also now popular with backpackers, and rightfully so. Situated to the east of Naples, the Amalfi Coast is a 50-kilometer stretch that runs along the edge of Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula.

Amalfi Coastline

Amalfi Coastline

Jamie had gifted us a flight to Naples as my Christmas present. To set things straight, he became keenly more interested in a trip to Naples following a boxset binge of the Sopranos. But I’m not complaining. It was the perfect opportunity for me to introduce us to the Amalfi Coast for the first time and so it was a win-win.  

Lisa Vecchio, Positano

Lisa Vecchio, Positano

Jamie Synan, Positano

Jamie Synan, Positano

While only a short trip, 3 nights and 4.5 days, we prioritized the cliffs of Positano and a food tour in Sorrento, then a quick stop to the ruins in Pompeii and a traditional Napolese pizza at the famous L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in downtown Naples on our way home. If we had more time, I would have loved to spend it in Amalfi, Ravello, and the islands of Ischia and Capri – but there’s always a next time. So, let me tell you about Positano…

Positano from above

Positano from above

Getting to Positano is half the fun. If you’re in no rush, I highly recommend taking an open-air ferry, just make sure you check the schedules in advance. The highlight of my trip was taking the ferry from Salerno to Positano, sun beaming on our faces as we passed the tiny cliffside towns from the sea. It appeared as if the clouds could touch the tips of the churches, we saw old stone fortresses built into rocks and antiquated houses set amongst vineyards. It was all so peaceful, the sound of waves and the sun overhead made me feel lucky to finally be in the much-in-demand Amalfi Coast.

Ferry Salerno to Positano

Ferry Salerno to Positano

After arriving in Positano by ferry we were greeted by a porter who offered to take our luggage to our hotel. “No!” We sneered, we’ll manage fine. Oh, how naive we were. Has anyone told you about the stairs?!

Climbing the steps of Positano

Climbing the steps of Positano

With luggage in tow, we schlepped it up further and further, hoping the next set of steps would be the end, when in fact it was still only the beginning. Stopping to catch our breaths, we received words of encouragement from those passing by, they’d done this already and didn’t envy us. But it was worth it, to stop and look out at the blue ocean and beautifully weathered Italian houses, colorful B&Bs and the rugged mountainous setting around us.

Classic Alfa Romeo, Positano

Classic Alfa Romeo, Positano

View looking down at Positano

View looking down at Positano

We quickly discovered that the multilayers of Positano are beautiful looking up, and just as stunning looking down at the town and the sea below. It’s charming in its own right, it is the Italian med after all. But it’s not for those unfit or very accessible, the stairs definitely make it even more memorable. As do the hordes of tourists and day-trippers from Sorrento.

Vespa cliffside in Positano

Vespa cliffside in Positano

For a day and a half, we ate fresh seafood like kings, drank our fair share of local Calabrian wine and explored the gelaterias, art galleries, souvenir shops, and restaurants, taking a new set of stairs each time to uncover different places. The weather gods weren’t in our favor though, so there was no sun bedding to be had. However, an afternoon sipping 10 Euro Spritz’s (trust me, that’s a steal) and people watching at seafront Blu Bar was the perfect way to spend it.

Spritz o'Clock at Blu Bar, Positano

Spritz o’Clock at Blu Bar, Positano

Cocktails at Blu Bar, Positano

Cocktails at Blu Bar, Positano

Blu Bar, Positano

Blu Bar, Positano

For sunset, we made our way cliffside to Franco’s Bar, an Instagrammer’s dream, with lemon trees set against deep blues and limoncello yellow decor, upmarket cocktails and chilled out beats. You pay for the view and the price to be seen in this crowd, but hey, it’s worth 20 Euro for at least one drink for the sunset alone.

Franco's Bar, Positano

Franco’s Bar, Positano

Franco's Bar, Positano

Franco’s Bar, Positano

Another great spot is tucked around the corner from the main beach, a short walk brings you to Hotel Pupetto, with ocean views away from the crowds and a quieter and smaller beach to spend the afternoon.

Hotel Pupetto, Positano

Hotel Pupetto, Positano

Where to eat in Positano

Chez Black was a top favorite. Reasonably priced for being beachfront, they also honored my reservation and gave us an ocean facing table. Their signature dish is the sea urchin, but we came for the vongole. Simple al dente pasta and the sweetest clams I’ve ever had. We were impressed by their wine list as well as their 8 Euro cocktails. Jamie was most excited with their wall of fame, it appeared to be Denzel Washington’s favorite restaurant, amongst other celebrities.

Famous Chez Black, Positano

Famous Chez Black, Positano

Dinner at Chez Black, Positano

Dinner at Chez Black, Positano

Even better, the staff were excellent too. They recommended Fly Bar for a drink post dinner, built into the cliff with seaside views, jazz, and a banging 20 Euro coffee negroni. Situated above Music on the Rocks, which also comes highly recommended by a friend for a big night out as it’s the only club in town. They own these venues too, hence the recommendation.

La Tagliata was the one I was looking forward to the most. A family restaurant set in the town of Montepertuso high above Positano, they’ll arrange a private transfer for free – the views are outstanding as you wind up and up the mountainside, it’s a bit nerve-wracking but fun. Or you can go physical and take the thousands of steps up and work hard for your dinner. Served family style, there’s no menu and you get what’s grown from the garden with their own brand of wine all for 45 Euros, cash only. You are treated like one of the family, even visiting mama’s kitchen to snap photos with the staff.

Family pics at La Tagliata

Family pics at La Tagliata

We started with antipasta of Serrano ham, local cheese and pickled veg, arancini, and eggplant parmigiana. Wow, that’s a lot to start! This was followed by 4 kinds of pasta: ravioli, gnocchi, ricotta cheese cannelloni and zucchini over cortege – a pasta we’ve never had before. Take your time because as soon as your plate is empty, out comes the next course. It was a mixed grill of chicken, beef, pork, rabbit, lamb with fresh skin-on fries and salad, but this changes all the time. Finally, for dessert, we were served fresh fruit, a variety of cakes and limoncello. Stuffed.

The multiple courses upon courses were impressive, as was the warmness of the family such as Renato, the self-proclaimed black sheep of the family and Letizia who waited on us. But I just wasn’t that overly keen on the meal itself. Good, but not great. If you come here, it’s for the experience and I would still recommend it for that alone.

La Cambusa is another one that seems like it’s made for tourists as it’s right on the seafront, but the quality of the fresh seafood is excellent. The view from upstairs is fantastic, and we were blown away with our seafood scampi and lobster linguini. Mama mia it was good!

Scampi at La Cambusa, Positano

Scampi at La Cambusa, Positano

Lobster at La Cambusa, Positano

Lobster at La Cambusa, Positano

Highly recommended restaurants in Positano (that we didn’t try)

Negroni, olives and espresso

Negroni, olives and espresso

Da Vicenzo – If I had time for one more this is where I would have gone but we couldn’t get in without a reservation. A lively family-run restaurant with an emphasis on fresh fish, about halfway up the steep steps, reserve for an outside table with ocean views.

Ristorante da Bruno – Cliffside pavement tables overlooking the town, known for their quality of produce.

Casa e Bottega – For a light, healthy meal for breakfast or lunch (from 12); don’t take reservations.

Next 2 – Very trendy and glamorous wine bar, but traditional in its roots. It’s expensive but we heard good things from Canadians we met that it was worth it for a ‘special’ experience.

Ristorante Max – Where locals go for pizza and super fresh seafood, also part of an art gallery. The stuffed zucchini (courgette) flowers come recommended

Collina Bakery – The only takeaway coffee in town, also baked goods, desserts, pizza, and gelato.

Gelato in Positano

Gelato in Positano

How to get to Positano from Naples Airport

As I mentioned above, getting to Positano is half the fun.

By car is by far the quickest (if not in tourist season when the roads can be backed up) and most efficient, if you can handle the tight turns, drops and narrow passes on the windy roads. But they say the amazing views of the ocean below are worth it. Private hire transfers go from 60-100 Euro or you can book the Positano Shuttle in advance for 28 per person each way.

Alternatively, the bus from the airport makes two stops, Naples Central Station (15 minutes) or the Port (Molo) (30 minutes).

If getting off at Naples Central, you can then take a train to Salerno (40 mins) and then catch the Travel Mar Ferry to Positano. This is what we did because it was our only sunny day and we wanted to maximize the views from the sea. We didn’t regret it one bit! The train hugs Mt Vesuvius nearly the whole way, plus the cliffside towns from the ferry are breathtaking. Just make sure you check the ferry times. There are also many restaurants outside the port in Salerno to grab lunch. Keep your eyes peeled for the old leathered guy with the sunburned bald head and splitting Speedo, he’s friendly!

It’s also recommended to hire a boat to visit these smaller towns, as no boating license is required, and Salerno has some pretty reasonably priced rentals compared to the more touristy towns, so a local colleague tells me.

If taking the airport bus to the port, you can take the Alilauro Ferry to Sorrento (40 minutes). There are also plenty of hotels and restaurants near the waterfront in Naples if you need to kill time. Once in Sorrento, you can catch another ferry to Positano, or the local Sita bus. Note, you can also catch the train direct from Naples to Sorrento – it is slow, will be packed and you will likely stand for about an hour and it is riddled with pickpocketers – I witnessed this myself. The ferry is much more enjoyable.

Overall, a lovely time in Positano. I just can’t wait to go back when the sun is out!

Quay Street, Galway

Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Galway


When it comes to national festivities, nothing beats celebrating in the originating country. Think about eating a homemade Thanksgiving dinner in the US, participating in Carnival in Rio or Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos) in Mexico. So when I was on deck to plan a surprise getaway in mid-March, the obvious choice was Ireland for St. Patricks Day. An ultimate bucket list tick for all.

Quay Street, Galway

Quay Street, Galway

To switch things up and keep the surprises coming, and in aligning with the destination theme, I wrote short rhymes (not quite official Limericks) containing clues which were revealed leading up to and throughout our whole weekend away.  

I gave each of the girls a gold envelope with a clue inside when we met up for dinner about a month before the big trip. This would be all they’d have to spark some excitement before setting off for the weekend. They had no idea where they were heading…

This isn’t your average getaway, this much is true
Keep alert and be ready to solve all the clues

It’s March already and we all want some sun
But sometimes you need to sacrifice it, for a bit of traditional fun

There’s more to where this is going, you’re getting the gist
Take some time to prepare the ultimate Spotify playlist

There will be loads to learn and beauty to see
After all, for many, it’s a new country

You think you’ve figured it out but you’ll have to wait and see
It’s not exactly what your thinking, but it really is a goodie

This got the reaction I was hoping for. Cryptic clues… Spotify playlists, what could that have to do with it?  A country many hadn’t been to before with no sun!? And what exactly do you mean by ‘traditional’ fun? The fact that we were travelling over St. Patrick’s Day weekend didn’t quite click yet despite me assuming they would have guessed it.

But typically early in the week before we head away for our secret adventures, the group is given a snapshot of the weather and some indication of what to pack. Rhyming this too was the only option, obviously.

The trip is approaching, in fact, it’s very near
That’s why you’ll be expecting me to tell you what to wear

It’s time to pack so I’ll start with the weather
It’s not looking so great though so I’d bring a puffer and hat if I knew better

Yikes, it’s saying rain for days – oh it’s just looking drab
So don’t forget to throw your umbrella in your bag

We will be outside, so I’d def pack your trainers
It’s not that fancy though so I’ll be dressed a bit plainer

Jeans and leggings will do the trick
There’s no need for your swimming costume as there’s nowhere to take a dip

Bring your carry-on wheelie as we’re flying Ryan Air
Don’t overstuff it as they’re strict, I wouldn’t even dare

9 am from Stansted, what was I thinking?
Let’s grab the 7:07 train from Tottenham Hale, I def won’t be drinking!

That’s it for now, there are lots more clues to come
Oh, and throw in some green, to join in on the fun

The green might have been too obvious of a giveaway so to throw them off the night before we left I sent them this…

A last-minute request, the last clues were a trick
Chuck that bather in, you just might take a dip

I had been to Ireland before, Dublin a handful of times and Cork as well, so while planning this trip I did some research on some of the best Irish cities to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in. Dublin was an obvious choice, but it was a bit over our typical budget and I wanted to try something new. I had my heart set on Galway as I’ve heard so many lovely things and it was top of my list, but the challenge was that transport is limited so you need to rent a car – something the 3 of us typically had blacklisted from our trips as we rarely ever drive.

So, when we got to the gate at Stansted Airport earmarked for Shannon, Ireland I handed over 4 new gold envelopes with some fresh clues.

For this special weekend, I wouldn’t have it any other way
You guessed it right, we’re going to Ireland for St Patrick’s day!

But wait up girls, I need a volunteer
Drinking on the plane this early I wouldn’t even dare

You think you know where we’re headed but that isn’t the case
This Limerick will guide you to our final destination as part of the chase

So who will it be, who wants to drive
You’ll get the best views, and a big high five

Oooh, the excitement was building. What do you mean we’re not staying in Shannon? And we’re driving?! They never expected that. Both Penny and I haven’t properly driven for nearly 12 years, so keeping safety in mind, Sophie took one for the team and offered to drive under the condition that Penny navigates. Good news for me, because after the car was hired…

Shamrock welcome at Shannon Airport

Shamrock welcome at Shannon Airport

Before we get there we’ll need to stop off
I promise this view will have you say ‘oh my gosh’

In fact, it’s your first time to Ireland and so there’s lots to explore
That’s why the first stop, of course, are the Cliffs of Moher

I was excited about this one. Sure it was raining, but they say in Ireland if you let the rain stop you from doing anything you’ll never get around to doing anything at all.

So there we were 3 girls setting off to enjoy the beauty of the famed 2,500km coastal road the Wild Atlantic Way. We didn’t do the whole thing, of course, that would take days but we thoroughly enjoyed our stretch of the Cliff Coast, from County Clare to County Galway.

Enjoying the View - Cliffs of Moher

Enjoying the View – Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

Sunny Cliffs of Moher

Sunny Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most visited natural attractions. Stretching for 8km along the Atlantic Coast, you can see the Aran Islands and the beautiful cliffs from varying, yet treacherous vantage points. In fact, it was well worth the visit for some amazing snaps, but it’s somewhere that’s hot on the tourist trail so can be quite busy at times, and many people go off the protected path for the ultimate selfie. It’s also known to be a place where a lot of (deliberate and accidental) deaths take place.

After heading North from there we had a lovely drive through lush green country roads that hugged the coast, getting glimpses from time to time of the deep blue ocean. Houses would come sparsely, and cows and horses were our new friends. The landscape drastically changed as we moved away from the coast into the Burren, getting dizzy on Corkscrew Hill it was like a roller coaster – we didn’t know what was going to be around the next turn. We had our windows down and the music on, cautiously going through deep puddles flooded from the rain. Overall, it was the perfect road trip getting a feel for the Irish countryside and well worth taking the ‘long way’ to our final destination.

We can’t go much further till we eat some grub
A thatched roof and fresh oysters, it’s one of the best seaside pubs

Just off of the highway before entering Galway is Moran’s Oyster Cottage, one of the most famous oyster shacks in the world as rated by Travel & Leisure. With its picturesque thatched roof, it’s over 250 years old. After a full day of exploring, we were reading to dig into some local grub and have our first pint of Guinness of the trip.

Moran's Oyster Cottage

Moran’s Oyster Cottage

Oysters and Guinness, Moran's Oyster Cottage

Oysters and Guinness, Moran’s Oyster Cottage

Garlic Crab Claws, Moran's Oyster Cottage

Garlic Crab Claws, Moran’s Oyster Cottage

The first bite of traditional sweet brown soda bread was so good we gobbled it up in seconds, followed by the oyster platter consisting of both Giga (rock oysters) and wild oysters (known as ‘Galway Flat’). The seven-generation old recipe of homemade fresh chowder with generous chunks of seafood was a must eat but I could have gone without the warm garlic crab claws as the garlic butter took away the flavour of the crab. All the portions were massive, even Sophie’s vegetarian goat’s cheese salad and wild mushroom risotto. I couldn’t help but dip my fork in for a few extra bites, despite my bulging jeans, everything was so yum I’ll definitely be going back.

Queue Ed Sheeran once back in the car… “You’re my pretty little Galway Girl…nah nah nah nah nah.”

One more clue before we get on our way
If you haven’t guessed yet… we’re on our way to Galway!

There’s a reason why everyone loves Galway, it’s even pretty in the rain. This harbour city on Ireland’s west coast is known for friendly locals, winding lanes which still retain portions of the medieval city walls from back in the day and traditional pubs with live music. And we were ready to take it all in!

Best pubs in Galway (That we’ve been to…)

  • Tigh Neachtain – by far our favourite, a cozy wooden pub with quiet snooks and all around good atmosphere of a traditional Irish pub where there’s always someone to chat with
Tigh Neachtain, Galway

Tigh Neachtain, Galway

  • Tig Coili – walked in to see locals playing the fiddle over our first pint, great traditional pub with live music throughout the day and night in the heart of the Latin Quarter
Tig Coili, Galway

Tig Coili, Galway

  • The Crane Bar – full of locals with live music upstairs in the evenings, good craic
The Crane Bar, Galway

The Crane Bar, Galway

  • The Salt House – dive bar with over 120 craft bottled beer and even more on tap, a bit pretentious about their taps but good to see Ireland is trying their hand in the craft beer scene
  • Bierhous – a modern bar with regular DJs, cocktails and craft beer, offers a nice classy atmosphere and menu
  • John Keogh’s – a West End gastropub with a great soundtrack known for its food, shame there was no live music but really enjoyable atmosphere with cosy snugs

Rest up girls let’s call it a day
Here’s a little something to dress in your best, for the St Patrick’s Parade

The Parade starts at 11:30 and ends at 1
The theme is ‘diversity’, OMG it’s going to be fun!

St Patrick's Day Parade, Galway

St Patrick’s Day Parade, Galway

Lisa Vecchio, St Patricks Day Galway

Lisa Vecchio, St Patricks Day Galway

St Patrick's Day - Parade Ready

St Patrick’s Day – Parade Ready

The parade itself was a nice local affair to watch, with various clubs, bands and organizations marching throughout the city to celebrate their own traditions. Families and tourists got involved, dressed in green wigs, hats, and glasses. But it was right back to the pub after to celebrate over Guinness and traditional Irish music that made the day so memorable. In fact, we met so many lovely, chatty people from all over Ireland who came specifically to Galway to celebrate. But even then the small city was was still manageable and it wasn’t overcrowded or too difficult to find a seat in a pub. Much different than I would expect from Temple Bar in Dublin.

We had our first pint at 12 pm, hit the pub, had a lovely Guinness stew at one of the best restaurants in Galway Quay Street Kitchen…and 12 hours later were in bed.

You’re in bits after last night and assume the fun is done
But don’t think we’ve forgotten about a special someone

Hurry, get your stuff together it’s time to pack
I’ve booked a special treat to get rid of this hangover and to relax

Since it was Sophie’s birthday the coming week and I knew we’d be suffering a bit on our final day, I booked us into the spa at 5-star Hotel Meyrick. It was a great deal, two services for 60 Euro and we also got to use the spa, including the outdoor ‘Canadian hot tub’ which had views over Galway Bay. Maybe we can afford to stay here next time instead of the budget Imperial Hotel (big rooms and great location in Erie Square to be fair).

It was the perfect end to a great trip. After that, it was only a 1 hour straight shot back down to Shannon on the highway.

Fun Fact! Claddagh, an area close to Galway city, is where the famous Claddagh ring comes from. It is a traditional Irish ring which represents love, loyalty, and friendship.

Claddagh Rings, Quay Street

Other recommended pubs in Galway

  • O’Connor’s Famous Pub
  • The Front Door
  • Busker Brownes

Drinking Kölsch in Cologne


Cologne (Köln) has long been on my list of places to visit, but I can’t exactly point my finger to why. I don’t have much experience travelling in Germany, bar debauchery during Oktoberfest 2006 and an all-night bender in Berlin the same year. But something about Cologne must have grabbed me to put it on my bucket list a few years back.

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Perhaps because the colourful, pastel houses that line the Rhine River are beautiful, despite that fact that about 75% of Cologne was destroyed by bombs during WWII and much of the city had to be rebuilt. Or the fact that it’s a university town, one of the oldest and largest in Europe, so it’s young at heart. But after spending a weekend in this abruptly charming city, I’ve learned so much more than anticipated.

Going in with no expectations was the trick. For both me and my Aussie travelling companion Hannah, our goals were quite simple – eat hearty German food, drink delicious Kölsch beer and surprise ourselves with who we might meet or what we might learn by wandering aimlessly throughout the small, 2,000-year-old city.

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We positioned ourselves at the recently launched 25 Hour Circle Hotel. It’s in the northwest corner of the city centre, just on the edge of the trendy Belgian Quarter, and easily walkable to any of the main sites such as the famous Cologne Cathedral, Old Town and the student bars on Zülpicher Strasse.

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Ultra-hip is a start to begin to describe this unique and futuristic, Berlin-designed hotel. Robots roam the lobby (for-real!), rooms are fitted with retro gadgets and the rooftop Monkey Bar screams urban chic, with cathedral views and amazing cocktails to support its claim. Plus, staff were super nice and helpful, bikes are available to rent, and there’s even a sauna for guest usage.

I’m also a huge fan of tours when it comes to getting to know the more intimate details of a city, and so we booked with The Kölsch Guys when we arrived, one of the few tours running in winter as well as English speaking. Our host Ariane, a local university student, spoke impeccable English (thanks to her Canadian mother) and was very useful in teaching us about Cologne culture, Kölsch beer and local history and architecture.

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Kölsch Beer & Brewhouse Facts:

  • The first rule of a brauhaus, put your coaster down in front of you to indicate you would like a Kölsch.
  • When you want them to stop coming (and they will keep on bringing them!), place your coaster on the top of your glass to indicate you’re finished.
  • The koebes (waiter) will keep track of how many Kölsch you drink by marking a tick on your coaster for each drink.
  • They’ll also be deliberately rude until you’ve ordered your fill; it’s part of the tradition.
  • Each brauhaus has its own Kölsch or family recipe. This comes from a barrel (not a keg, as the carbon dioxide would change its unique taste). It has to follow a proven formula, a similar concept to the French DOC for Champagne, to officially be called Kölsch.
  • “Prost” is the way you say cheers before taking your first sip.
  • 4.8% ABV is the average for Kölsch, served in a 200ml skinny glass and distributed from a wreath holding 11 Kölsch glasses.

The Kölsch Guys Beer Tour:

We learned quite quickly that Cologne has its own arrogance about it, but balances it with a dry sense of humour that really is a teddy bear at heart. Koebe’s want your service, they want to speak English and they appreciate your patronage but they’ll act like they’re doing you a favour at the same time. It’s part of the charm and their mentality to be rude and up front, and notably more forward than other German cities.

Kölsch in itself is unique. It’s a light, easy drinking beer that’s part of the local life and culture. Residents grow up drinking Kölsch quite young, and people decide where they are going to hang out based on the brewhouse whose Kölsch is to their preferred taste.

It was at our first stop Brauerei zur Malzmühle where we had our first Mühlen Kölsch and learned the basics about how to approach this local beer (see above).

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Our second stop, Gilden im Zims, is an original brauhaus built before the war, with antiqued Roman remains stored behind glass windows in the floor. This is also an exception to Kölsch predominately being family owned, as this one is a franchise.

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I personally found the Sünner Kölsch at our third stop Sünner im Walfisch a bit more flat tasting than the others, but the overall atmosphere very cosy. It was on our way here that we learned about the importance the number 11 has to the city, with their traditional Carnival (fifth season) starting at 11 am on the 11th of November, and even the beer wreaths holding 11 Kölsch.

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Finally, at Brauhaus Sion, a 700-year-old brewhouse, we saw our first example of how the locals dress for Carnival, from fancy dress to sophisticated traditional garments.

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For a quick way to get your head around how important Kölsch is to those from Cologne, this tour was friendly, affordable and worth it. How else would we have learned not to take locals too seriously? As Adriane said, “Cologne humour is only funny to Cologne.”

Where to eat in Cologne:

Peters Brauhaus

Peters Brauhaus is one of the more famous “must go” to for traditional Kölsch, and equally for some satisfying local grub. The same can be said for many of the other traditional brewhouses. But we came to Peters for one thing, pork knuckle! Crispy, juicy and cooked to perfection, with savoy cabbage and fried bacon-potatoes, it was out of this world massive and delicious.

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Plus, we loved our waitress. She optimised the quintessential Cologne wait staff, even before we really knew what it was about. With bright red lipstick and short curly grey hair, for a woman in her 60s, she had all the sass I would expect. She was beautiful, acted fed up, with a brisk, no-nonsense attitude that was charming at that same time. I liked her and didn’t want to do the wrong thing by her.

She perfected the dry sarcastic humour we were told about. “Can we please order food?,” I asked politely. “Why not?” was her abrupt reply. I desperately wanted a photo but was too intimidated that she wouldn’t have stood for it.

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More importantly, though, can you imagine devouring a pork knuckle hungover? The dream for any fried and grease loving meat eater.

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Bei Oma Kleinmann

Next up is known as the best schnitzel in Cologne, you don’t have to ask me twice. Bei Oma Kleinmann, situated in the buzzing student area, is a must stop when visiting. I recommend to book ahead or join the queue for when they open at 5 pm daily to try and snag a seat at the bar while you wait for a table. I have no regrets about our “early bird special”.

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The staff are great and speak English, the Sünner Kölsch is free-flowing and even the wine list was above average compared to what we found in other brewhouses. The whole restaurant has so much character, the walls covered floor to ceiling in photos, both real as well as wallpaper that they had custom made with original photos after being fed up with them coming down all the time. My favourite was one of Carnival dating back to 77’.

When it came to the schnitzel though, I bow down. You have options of traditional veal or pork as it is, or can choose from one of the ten or so sauces on the side, from mushroom to pineapple curry. Honestly, they’re not needed as the veal was fried to such perfection, each bite was followed with “OMG it’s soooooo good.”

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The homemade potato salad was a great accompaniment, as were the fries, and it worked well to order one of each to share between us. I didn’t think we’d manage, but both smashed our whole plates till not a bite was left. There’s always the children’s option (only 1 cutlet instead of two) for those less inclined, but my suggestion is to come hungry and enjoy! There’s a reason they’re number 1.

Salon Schmitz

Rated as a place “to be seen” in the trendy Belgian Quarter, Salon Schmitz is a laid back cafe, bar and salon wrapped into 3 separate buildings offering regional food with their own Kölsch on tap. It was a bit of a strange concept to have to place your order through the window next door, but order your drink seated at a table from the waiter in the 60’s themed bar, but we were satisfied none of the less. Their English was friendly, the menu more of a guess!

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Cafe Waschsalon

Cafe Waschsalon was a great spot to stop in for lunch. This concept cafe is a converted old laundromat, eccentric and friendly, despite minimal English speaking, they tried really hard – in a good way. They specialise in light fare, coffees and juices during the day and are known to have good cocktails in the evening. I was in love with the goat cheese and walnut salad and would happily return.

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All Kölsch’ed out? Here is where to drink cocktails in Cologne:

Monkey Bar

The rooftop bar at the 25 Hour Circle Hotel is one of the hottest new cocktail bars in town. In fact, when we arrived at 7 pm expecting it to be quiet (as were the other bars in the neighbourhood at that time), we were surprised to find it pumping. The Negronis were strong and on point as well as their own version of a pisco sour was impressive. “It’s the best Negroni I’ve ever had,” said Hannah. 112 Euro later, and her hangover the next morning would beg to differ.

Cafè Restaurant Feynsinn

Just down the street from the best schnitzel in Cologne (Bei Oma Kleinmann), this casual restaurant is a hot spot for dinner, as well as, they produce a great cocktail menu.  In the heart of the student area overflowing with bars, this place stands out as a more sophisticated, healthy option to schnitzel and Kölsch.

Shepheard

Hidden down a few steps with a foggy glass door with Shepheard clear across its surface, this is one of the most popular cocktail bars in the city. Despite being hard to find, it was a pleasure to sit at the bar chatting to the friendly bartender Adrian as we worked our way through their music-themed menu.

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The Grid Bar

Based on a recommendation from our friends at Shepheard, this is where bartenders in Cologne come to drink.  We rang the bell to be let into this sophisticated speakeasy, situated next to an amateur night club with music pumping and a long line out front, I wouldn’t have known it was here with our referral. In the end, it was another win for a great spot to try interesting cocktails with a good vibe.

In fact, we met a friendly local who talked us through his two cents on what makes Cologne so unique. “Cologne is not beautiful but a great place to live, if you want beauty go to France.” He also shared that the local “politeness” could be offensive even to other Germans who aren’t local.

“In normal places, you order your next beer, here we tell them to stop bringing it.” Thanks Tilly, great to make your acquaintance.

Time to relax…naked?

On our last day, we have had our fill of beer and schnitzel. Theoretically, many are still staying strong to their post-Christmas diets and dry-January obligations, which don’t seem to exist in Cologne. So, we thought what better way to reward ourselves and come back to London more refreshed than ever with a nice relaxing spa.

Searching “Best Spas” in Cologne we came across a few that were central to the city. We had our eye set on Claudius Therme, but due to the rain and poor timing, we didn’t feel we could make it across the city. We also passed Bathhouse Babylon on our first day, only to learn it was one of the hottest gay spas in town – we dodged a bullet there. So, we were left with one final option, the Mauritius Hotel and Spa.

Aside from the service being quite curt and unhelpful, the bigger confusion came with a German custom we frankly weren’t aware of, nor prepared for. Shocked isn’t the word to describe our disbelief as we entered the spa area to find men and women in their 70s straight in the buff! It’s not every day an old grey-haired man enters the same swimming pool as you, slowly making his way down the stairs, bit by bit (literally). That was my cue to exit the pool, asap!

Before entering one of the many saunas, there was a clear sign stating it was nude only. We thought nothing of it and carefully entered one where we knew no one else was present and stripped down to our bathing suits. During a refreshing dip in the jacuzzi after, where we were politely asked to keep the volume of our voices down as it was echoing and distracting to guests who were sleeping, we were pretty sure the guard on duty had it out for us. That was proven just moments later as Hannah was called out for wearing her knickers in the ‘strictly nude’ sauna and was asked to refrain from future use.

It was easy for us to walk away at that point. What might be part of the local culture was frankly getting just a bit too weird. When is being dressed frowned up and nudity required? Someone only from their local customs can explain better than I can at this point.

So, clothed or naked, when is the ideal time to visit Cologne? So what if it rained the whole time we were there, any time is the right time! Carnival in February is their busiest season, but otherwise, there’s nothing stopping you for taking a weekend getaway to drink Kölsch, eat great food and mingle with the locals. They really are friendlier than then on first impressions! Plus, there are some great museums to try too (if you can find the time).

 

 

Christmas Markets in Bruges


Colourful guild house, Bruges market square

Colourful guild house, Bruges market square

Bruges is one of Europe’s most picturesque and romantic cities, with an irresistible charm all year round. But visiting Bruges in the lead up to Christmas makes it even more enchanting.

Christmas lights in Bruges

Furthermore, getting from London to Bruges on the Eurostar is easy as pie, which also means there is a very good chance you may return home with heavier suitcases than intended, thanks to some amazing Belgian beer at prices you only can get locally. Or at least that was the case (literally) for us as there are no alcohol restrictions on the Eurostar so it beats flying any day.

Bruges Christmas Markets at dusk

What makes Bruges so charming though is the pastel coloured medieval guild houses that line the market square. In fact, they were gorgeous in the sunlight but became even more mesmerising once dusk approached and the twinkly Christmas lights that covered them were lit. That, coupled with romantic canals, handmade chocolates, hearty meals in cosy pubs and a vast variety of quality beer, I’ve got nothing but praise.

Chocolatier in Bruges

Chocolatier in Bruges

Christmas Markets

Bruges Christmas Market Square

We spent some time in the Christmas Village (Kerstmarkt Brugge) in the Bruges Market Square (Grote Market), overdoing our selfie game to the picturesque backdrop and roaming through the stalls who were selling winter hats, Christmas decorations and lots of booze. Attempting to blend in with the locals, we tried our hand at the Chouffe Coffee Liqueur with whipped cream, it was very sweet but also felt pretty special at that moment considering the setting.

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Bratwurst with onions

The main square is also the heart of where the tourists roam. This is likely due to the beautiful backdrop of the Belfry of Bruges, made famous in the movie In Bruges (2008). Also on the Market Square, you will find the “Historium”, a historical experience which takes you back in time to medieval Bruges. There are also horse-drawn carriages, restaurants in colourful guild houses and an ice rink for the winter season. In fact, at the foot of the Belfry are the “world’s most famous chippies” known as frietkoten, something we discovered making our way home late at night after too many Belgian pints.

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There was also a second set of markets (Simon Stevinplein) – these stalls were selling more clothing and decorations, and it was there we befriended Mattias and his local friends who welcomed us to a game of “nails”.

Here’s the gist…you stand around a large tree stump and each take turns to hammer your 9-inch nail into the stump whilst in a circle. If your nail gets hammered in first, you must buy the next round of nails, if your nail goes in last, you buy the next round of beers. The first is definitely much more appealing to the latter considering the cost was 3 Euro to 20.

The markets on Saturday were also much busier than during the daytime on Friday – perhaps this was because this was the first weekend they were open and so the locals were very active in town as well. The Bruges Christmas markets run November 23, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Accommodation

La Maison Zenasni, Bruges

La Maison Zenasni, Bruges

We stayed at the adorable bed and breakfast La Maison Zenasni, which I highly recommend. A huge mansion set only a few blocks from the main square, you can’t help but ooh and ahhh as you enter. They even had our names on a welcome board when we arrived, a nice personal touch.

Welcoem to La Maison Zenasni

Welcome to La Maison Zenasni

There are only 3 rooms in this antiquated wooden palace, each decked out with their own theme – we had the blue room. We fell asleep staring at the large chandelier hanging from the high ceiling, bathed in an old cast iron bathtub and woke on Sunday morning to church bells outside our large open window, Jamie’s favourite part. The only downfall was the lack of toiletries and that there was no mounted shower head.

Breakfast Room, La Maison Zenasni, Bruges

Breakfast Room, La Maison Zenasni, Bruges

Breakfast was included and we dined along with the other guests on a huge wooden communal picnic table, the massive glass window showered us with natural light, as we devoured a spread of delectable cheeses and pastries, attempting to cure our hangovers.

But enough about the accommodation, let’s get onto the beer!

Pubs

Our first stop was Café Vlissinghe, the oldest bar in Bruges originally built in 1515. Hidden away from the market and the masses of tourists, this Flemish gem was super cosy, with an old stove keeping the small Inn very warm. In the summer months, the large garden in the back seems ideal for a delicious beer outside in the sun.

Jamie tried his hand at the guest beer which was a Julius Blonde, and I went with the Vlissinghe house beer. We snacked on chunky salami and tasty cheese before Jamie was told off for feeding the very adorable Jack Russell. I’m not going to say “I told you so.”

Bruges canals

We moved on from there to a sports pub called The Monk who have a pretty good array of beers on tap to try. Here we chatted to friendly James, an Englishman from Hastings trying to hide his accent behind his Flemish after 11 years in Bruges, about which beers we should try and what restaurants he favours in town. I couldn’t resist Chimay Blue’s dark rich flavour while Jamie went with his mate’s suggestion of Cherry Chouffe, a new favourite that made its way home with us.  

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La Corne

Everywhere we went we picked out a new beer which would come with its own glass custom from the brewery. It means you can literally choose your beer by the glass you want to drink from (like a horn for La Corne or an hourglass with a wooden holder for Kwak), that is, if you’re open to experimenting with new varieties and taking a risk. Jamie was shocked, on the other hand, to learn that most beers are at least 8% ABV but still taste delicious, something he admits isn’t the case ‘back home’ in England.

Talking beer at Cambrinus, Bruges

Talking beer at Cambrinus, Bruges

At Cambrinus, an old pub with over 400 beers, we met another English beer coinsurer, from Lincolnshire, who swears that Westvleteren, a brewery founded in 1838 at the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Vleteren, Belgium, is one of best beers in the world. They had it in the bottle there for about 19 Euro, so we booked in for lunch the next day to try carbonnade, the famous Flemish stew made with beef/lamb and beer and ordered a tasting paddle of their best draft beers. The portions were huge and hearty – we tried the fried cheese, carbonnade and homemade meatballs –  and the staff were very friendly. Just make sure you book ahead or expect to get turned away.

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Another option is to try the Bruges Beer Experience. Interactive and educational, you are taken through the history of brewing all the way through to learning about global beer varieties. For us, it was a great way to escape the rain. Using an iPad, you walk around the venue to either read or listen, and at various points you can quiz your knowledge or participate in multi-sensory learning by smelling hops, tasting notes or pairing foods. Entry is 9 Euro or 15 Euro including 3 beer tastings at the end, which is worth it!

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There are a few breweries right in the heart of Bruges, so we tried our hand at Bourgogne des Flandre. It’s located in a beautiful setting right on a canal, which I’d imagine provides wonderful views in the summer. We thought it wiser to stay warm inside and try a paddle tasting to sample all the Flemish beers. Luckily, Jamie and I have opposite tastes so we quickly split the beers in half after discovering our preferences.

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Christmas Beers

Christmas Beers

Finally, to our favourite pub T’bruges Beertje. The trick for this small tasting house is to skip the overcrowded front room, keep walking past the toilets, and you’ll find even more tables in the back. I loved the vibe of the whole place, covered in various beer logos and adverts. If it wasn’t full of tourists you’d want it to be your local. They have about 300 beers in bottles and are very friendly and open to discussing your tastes and finding the right beer. In fact, they had such a variety of Christmas beers that we decided to embrace the season and get stuck in.

Dinner

While scouring local reviews for a top-notch restaurant for our anniversary dinner, I settled on Park Restaurant. Their set menu of 70 Euros includes wines, so wasn’t too bad for the value. The reviews raved about owner Axel and the personal service offered. I couldn’t agree more. Set in a huge old townhouse down a quiet street away from the heaps of tourists, classically decorated, tall candle lights, white table clothes and all.  

Park Restaurant, Bruges

Park Restaurant, Bruges

With that said, there were some gaps that make it clear why they haven’t received their Michelin Star just yet…the menu never changes aside from small touches – the butter was served in paper rather than handmade, and the walls are filled with European celebrities who have visited over the years. But hey, it’s a model that works.

Dinner at Park Restaurant

Dinner at Park Restaurant

Overall it was a comforting, old-fashioned dining experience with great service, tasty food and a charming ambience but was it worth it for the hefty price tag? Maybe, just to meet Axel. He gave us good recommendations on where to go on from there (see Late Night).

But a cut above was Bistro Christophe. This contemporary Flemish restaurant was on many of the top foodie blogs of Bruges, so naturally also made it onto my shortlist. When James at The Monk also recommended it, I felt we had to give it a go, even if that meant two expensive meals back to back.

Chateaubriand at Bistro Christophe

Chateaubriand at Bistro Christophe

The service was excellent, but the food even more heavenly. We split the chateaubriand and were over the moon with the quality of the cut and the accompanying sauces with a bottle of Caruso & Minini Terre di Giumara Frappato – Nerello – Mascalese wine.

Late Night

Thanks to the recommendations of Axel land our friends from Surry who bumped into at the Bruges Beer Experience, we were in no shortfall of post-dinner options. In fact, there was a good mix of basement style bars catering to students and higher-end cocktail joints.

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Both evenings we ended up chatting away over a few whiskeys to the friendly staff at Comptoir Des Arts, a fun and casual basement bar where you can check out live jazz. Across the street at ‘t Poatersgat, things were a bit busier with a much more student vibe. Hidden behind a concealed hole in the wall, go down the stairs to enter this casual dive bar, with a big select of beers on draft, and easy place to lose the time. Some say it’s a must for Bruges!

With friends at BAR”N

BAR”N is a cute modern yet cosy cocktail bar near the main square. This was recommended by some friends, and a fun atmosphere to start or end the evening as it closes at 2.

And finally, there’s Groot Vlaenderen, a classy cocktail bar in a beautiful brick building, expect it to be crowded but with a vast array of cocktails – with the price tag to come with them. Service was slower than desired but the drinks made up for it.

Brussels

When taking the Eurostar to Bruges, you must change over in Brussels. That’s not necessarily a bad thing!

We left Bruges after checking out of our B&B and made our way over to Brussels for a few hours. This was a great call as there’s still tons to do.

  • Visit the Brussels Christmas Markets for lunch
  • Take a photo of the famous statue Manneken Pis
  • Wander around the Grand Palace
  • Taste a variety of beers in the massive Delirium Village, with 8 bars and fun atmosphere
  • Eat huge bowls of delicious Mussels at Chez Leon
Manneken Pis, Brussels

Manneken Pis, Brussels

Delirium Village, Brussels

Delirium Village, Brussels

We also made the right move of ignoring all the tourist beer shops like the Bottle Shop where prices are extremely inflated and stopped off at Carrefour grocery store to stock up on our Delirium and La Chouffe to take back to England, for literally a fraction of the cost.

Overall it was an amazing trip together. We tried many Christmas beers and old favourites like Delerium, Chimay and Kriek but also some new varieties that are now up in my books, such as La Chouffe and Trappist. Drinks aren’t that expensive either, expect to pay about 4 Euro for a very strong beer, however, dinner can put you out a bit more with starters between 10-15 Euro and mains 20-30.

I can’t wait to go back!

Lisa & Jamie in Bruges

Lisa & Jamie in Bruges

Nice is the Perfect October City Break


Nice, the 5th largest city in France, is a real city. What I mean by that is, it’s got more substance than just a beautiful coastline. Upmarket hotels like the historically famous 5-star La Negresco offer exquisite seaside views, yet the gritty streets of Old Town showcase it’s multi-century Italian past. Even better, the Nicois (those from Nice, not just a yummy tuna salad, so I’ve recently learned) get sun more or less year round.

Hotel Negresco

Hotel Negresco

My first time to Nice on the Cote d’Azure in the south of France was as a study abroad student at 19. I hadn’t really ever considered that I had a need to return to the sunny paradise, simply because I’d already been before. What a stupid way to look at travel.

In actuality what do I remember of that time? Mere glimpses of a whirlwind month of backpacking on the Eurorail across Europe. My Aussie friend Hannah had a similar experience during her gap-year at 18, spending one month learning a foreign language on the French Riviera. Looking back we were both nostalgic and recognised that we were two pretty darn lucky teenagers.

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So when I found flights for a measly £50 for mid-October and discovered that the temperature was a drooling 77F (25C), I thought what could be greater than to have a tour down memory lane. In fact, revisiting Nice over 15 years later was like a whole new world.

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Been there, done that is now a thing of the past. It’s all about revisiting as an adult where my priorities are a bit shifted away from late night raves (well…) and more focused on degustations and fine wine.

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Hannah and I have successfully travelled to France previously, to sip wine in Bordeaux a few months back, and therefore knew our priorities (see above re food and wine) are aligned. Our new tradition is to make our first night of arrival chilled out, and all about gluttony.

The Deck Hotel

The Deck Hotel

We arrived around 5pm after a midday flight, checked ourselves into ultra-chic and nautical themed The Deck Hotel located a block from the beach, and set ourselves on the prize of prosecco to celebrate our weekend escape. I accidentally spotted the rooftop bar on Hotel Aston La Scala while discovering the gardens of Promenade du Paillon, and our pre-dinner aperitif location was instantly sorted. Planespotting, live music and sunset views over both the sea and Old Town included.

View from Hotel Aston La Scala

View from Hotel Aston La Scala

We had booked ourselves for dinner at Les Agitateurs, which resulted in a lot of oohs and ahhs. Our menu came hidden in a brown envelope which we unwrapped to unveil an exquisite 5-course tasting menu, all in French of course, for an affordable 39 Euro. It was an obvious yes, even though we weren’t necessarily clear on what specifically we said yes to.

Tasting menu at Les Agitateurs,

Tasting menu at Les Agitateurs,

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We woke Saturday morning to sunshine, warmth and a need for the sea. The promenade lining the seafront is inundated with seafront restaurants with deck chairs for hire. As our hotel concierge explained, they are more or less all the same – bar the one he likely gets his kickback from – plus not all are open being the offseason, so we took his recommendation and popped less than a 2-minute walk from our hotel to Ruhl Plage.  

Deck chairs Ruhl Plage

Deck chairs Ruhl Plage

Rose on the beach

Rose on the beach

For a hefty 27 Euro each we got a sunbed, towel and umbrella for the whole day. And it was worth it!

The food and drink were overpriced so after treating ourselves to a bottle of rosé, we popped out to try what was described in a local blog as ‘the best fish in Nice’. Michelin Guide recommended, adorably trendy decor, fantastic service, generous sharing portions and mouthwatering ceviche, Peixes was hands down impressive.

Peixes, Nice

Peixes, Nice

Hannah at Peixes, Nice

Hannah at Peixes, Nice

Ceviche at Peixes, Nice

Ceviche at Peixes, Nice

The good news was, our lounge chairs were left waiting when we returned nice and full. Back to the rocky beach of Ruhl Plage to absorb the last of the day’s sun before freshening up for our next French delicacy.

Beau Rivage, Nice

Beau Rivage, Nice

The promenade, Nice

The promenade, Nice

We purposely didn’t reserve anywhere for Saturday night as we wanted to play it by ear. However, this wasn’t my first rodeo and as expected we had difficulty finding a decent spot initially. Despite having done our research, many of the more traditional places we had hoped to dine at didn’t take reservations and were surprisingly closed on Saturday.

Luckily, we stumbled on Lou Pilha Leva (famous for moules) which was on the top of our list, to try the local delicacy of socca. Similar to a crepe, it’s a traditional street food often enjoyed as a snack with a glass of rosé. Good news, because we like both those things. The way it works there is simple, you queue up, place your order for a very, very cheap price, and as politely as the French would, elbow your way into one of the long picnic benches on the pavement to enjoy.

Lou Pilha Leva

Lou Pilha Leva

After a few aperitifs, we finally found the gem we didn’t know we were looking for. Le Petit Lascaris, an authentic and local bistro with a regularly changing menu. We were instantly sold on the alfresco dining alone. But, uhum, does the menu say roasted qual asshole (see pic below)? Luckily the translation was off we later found out after befriending too American girls sitting next to us whose French was beyond this world impressive. We had major linguistic envy, swapped travel stories and even got in with the local bartenders at their sister bar next door, Coco Vin, a fantastic little wine bar to finish with an after dinner drink.

Petit Lascaris

Petit Lascaris

A popular thing to do while in Nice is the Cours Saleya market which is on daily, a great place for produce, a renowned flower market and souvenirs. Just around the corner is Cafe Marche, on the top list of brunch spots. We had our heart set on this farm to table setting but didn’t realise there too, you had to book ahead, as otherwise you will be greeted with a curt ‘no’. In fact, she said ‘it’s just so hard’ being that popular and when asked if she could recommend anywhere else she said she’d ‘rather not’. Fine, we had Italian in the Old Town. Also fine.

Cours Saleya market

Cours Saleya market

Cours Saleya market

Cours Saleya market

We missed the one thing to do, a hike to the castle for a magnificent view over Old Town and the sea but that’s okay. For a short mini-break, I’ll forgive myself for all the wine and sun in exchange.

Nice, it truly is for everyone and a perfect short city break. It’s for those seeking a vibrant artistic hub or the elite who fly from all over the world for high profile events such as the Grand Prix or the Cannes Film Festival. There’s so much going on, plus miles of rocky coastline I wish I had more time to come back and explore the mountains and seaside villages outside of the city.

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Kefalonia, Greece as you haven’t seen it yet


When I think of Greece I picture whitewashed stone walls, blue shutters and feta for days. So, when my childhood friend Renee came to meet me in Europe and said Greece was her number 1 priority, I was all hands down.

The problem was, going to Greece in mid-August is peak season. A flight might normally only cost me less than £50 but in summer most flights are well close to at least £250. Not to worry, I leaned on my trusty friend Skyscanner, typed in Greece and found myself starring Kefalonia in the face.

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Agia Efimia, Kefalonia, Greece

I didn’t know much about this part of Greece, and really, my holy grail was to visit Shipwreck Beach on Zakynthos (Zante), which is only the next island away. A quick glance at Google Maps gave me the idea that it would be easy enough to travel from one island to the other. So, on a quick Facetime call, we bit the bullet and bought a roundtrip ticket from London Gatwick to Kefalonia (despite it being a 6 am flight, eeek).

It was only after we bought our tickets that I did some research properly. Getting to Zante wasn’t as easy as it seems, and Kefalonia was quite a large island in the sense that getting to each major site was a drive away; renting a car was highly recommended in which neither of us was keen to do.

It was final – we were going to the Ionian Islands! The Ionian Islands lie off Greece’s west coast, in the Ionian Sea. They are traditionally called the Heptanese, i.e. “the Seven Islands” and Ithaca (just to the north) was the name of the island home of Odysseus in the epic Ancient Greek poem the Odyssey by Homer. Apparently, archaeological investigations have revealed interesting findings in both Kefalonia and Ithaca.

After scouring Hotels.com (you get your 10th night free!) and endless days of indecisiveness; I booked us into a 4-star hotel in the northeast part of the island in the upmarket port of Agia Efimia; and broke our trip up with our final night in the heart of the capital, Argostoli. Other popular spots on Kefalonia include Lassi, which has some nice beaches and is close to the airport, and the port of Fiskardo in the north, but we didn’t have time to do it all.

Here are my highlights of (what I like to refer to as) Kef:

It’s a lovely place where families come to relax and describe it as “beautiful”. It certainly isn’t the party of Mykonos or the whitewashed walls of Santorini but does offer its own calm bliss through quiet secluded beaches, friendly locals and fantastic food. Ahem, did someone say goat? You’ll find them both roaming the hills of the dry mountainsides and as your main course for dinner.

Agia Efimia

Map of Agia Efimia, Kefalonia

Map of Agia Efimia, Kefalonia

This upmarket, picturesque port which was a traditional fishing village is in the northeast part of the island, overlooking Ithaca. A handful of tavernas line the small port, where excursion boats wait to take tourists out during the day and various performers and live music are often on at night.

Port of Agia Efimia

Port of Agia Efimia

Around unsuspecting corners, you’ll find a set of rocky stairs taking you down to the sea, where locals splash around in coves and the water is such a clear blue you can’t help but feel delighted with yourself for escaping to such a gem.

Agia Efimia Beach

Agia Efimia Beach

What makes Agia Efimia so special is that while it’s touristy, it’s so small and the tourists are minimal to other places you would go in Greece, that it still has an authentic charm.

Odyssey Hotel

Odysessy Hotel, Agia Efimia, Kefalonia

Odysessy Hotel, Agia Efimia, Kefalonia

Odyssey Hotel was just what the doctor ordered. With an epic view from every room looking out to the sea and Ithaca in the distance; the sun loungers and the pool are worth it alone. Service was exceptional (so exceptional we got a very slow and detailed walkthrough of every minor hotel detail without necessity) and our booking also included a complimentary 20-minute massage. Did I mention no kids under the age of 16 allowed?

Renee challenged herself and even woke for sunset (or maybe it was just the jetlag), stumbling the whole two steps to our balcony to witness it rise over Ithaca. Our mornings were then spent enjoying our complimentary breakfast, including Greek yoghurt with honey, along with generous portions of whatever else we wanted, as you can pick anything from the menu, from eggs to pastries.

We’d lay by the pool all day, sipping Mythos and reading our books, then take a break from time to time to dive into the pool or cross the street to splash in the aqua blue sea to cool from the heat. The best part was, we were the only ones in the sea in the little cove we found just a few feet from the hotel. I couldn’t believe it! Mesmerized by how blue the water was, and how secluded we were, I’m fully relaxed now thinking back on it.

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Lisa Vecchio Agia Efimia

We also had fantastic meals in the port of Agia Efimia, including the local delicacy goat, baked feta, and souvlaki (with fries inside and all). We uncovered picturesque Taverna Pergola a block off the main tourist street, where Renee tried goat for the first time and I couldn’t refuse my first mousaka of the year. Local wine was generous everywhere we went, with carafes only costing on average 8 Euro.

Souvlaki in Kefalonia

Souvlaki in Kefalonia

Taverna Pergola, Agia Efimia

Taverna Pergola, Agia Efimia

On our second night, we met an expat from Coney Island who spends his summers in Kefalonia. We secured a table overlooking the port while enjoying our meals of goat (again) and roast pork to live Greek music in the background at To Steki Taverna.


Myrtos Beach

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Myrtos Beach, Kefalonia


Myrtos Beach is reputed as one of the best beaches in all of Greece! As we had no transport of our own, we took a cab for 15 Euro from the hotel and spent the afternoon mesmerised by its beauty and found refuge from the scorching heat in the cooling Ionian Sea.

The views of Myrtos Beach from above are so breathtaking they are worth the visit alone, as now I understand why this is voted one of the best beaches in all of Greece. The white rocks exfoliate your feet, and the aqua blue sea was a dream, calmly tucked away in a giant cove carved between the feet of two mountains, Agia Dynati and Kalon Oros.

Cooling in the sea at Myrtos Beach

Cooling in the sea at Myrtos Beach

While there is the ability to rent sunbeds and umbrellas, they were all sold out, naturally. Luckily, there were other facilities such as a snack bar selling water, beer and ice creams as well as a working toilet, to find some shade from time to time when taking a dip in the sea still didn’t satisfy.

What was morning concerning was our cab driver, a young hip girl, who also thought the view was so fab she decided to Instagram her pic, scrolling through filters and hashtags, while we were winding up the massive mountain on our way out to Argostoli. It was so uncomfortable I had to tell her so. Maybe if you’re used to these windy roads it’s no big deal? I don’t think so.

Argostoli:

Sunset, port of Argostoli

Sunset, port of Argostoli


I felt we couldn’t visit an island without seeing its capital, not realising the closest beaches were in the neighbouring resort town Lassi. We stayed in a simple hotel, Mouikis Hotel, where we had a massive balcony overlooking the protected sea, it was so calm it almost looked like a massive lake. In walking distance to the pedestrian shopping street, main square, and port, in a short afternoon, we were able to see most of the town.

The highlight, however, was the sea turtles! While having a souvlaki pita for lunch, we had heard rumours that you can see the turtles from the promenade we were dining on. But I didn’t realise how huge they were going to be! To our surprise, during lunch that afternoon we saw a handful, (not before Renee slipped and fell on some fish scales), and took one more look in the morning before flying out, as its rumoured that the best time to see them is when the fisherman come in.

Sea turtles in Argostoli, Kefalonia

Sea turtles in Argostoli, Kefalonia

We spent the evening in Argostoli sipping wine in a beautiful spot near the port at a restaurant and wine bar called Cavo that overlooked the sea. We were the only ones there, but we didn’t mind at all as it was so peaceful, surprised by how quiet the island generally was despite it being peak season. Served by a local family, ‘Sexy Sweetheart’, as Renee called him due to his good looks and the fact he served us complimentary watermelon after our wine tasting, was the perfect way to chill before dinner.

Cavo Restaurant, Argostoli

Cavo Restaurant, Argostoli

Wine at Cavo, Argostoli

Wine at Cavo, Argostoli

We had our last meal at Ampelaki, not too far from the port and neighbour to the above restaurant. I had the meat pie, and Renee tried rabbit for the first time. Both were delicious, and of course, accompanied by another 8 Euro litre of local wine.

Overall the whole island was beautiful and very chilled. Its dry, mountainous landscape was an unexpected yet serene backdrop. Its quietness meant we could enjoy secluded swim holes and drinks overlooking amazing scenery without disruption. Of the few tourists we saw, I noticed many were Italian. Having looked at a map, Kefalonia is just across from southern Italy, and now it makes sense where the cruise ships were coming in from. In fact, at our last meal, we were asked if wanted the menu in Italian or English.

Overall, I would recommend Kefalonia if you are looking for a beautifully enjoyable holiday off the beaten path. Even though there were tourists, it definitely could have been far worse. Kefalonia is tranquillity at its best, with mountainside goats included.

Hiking the Cinque Terre with My Mom


Cinque Terre, the five lands situated on the Italian Riviera between Genoa and Pisa, is one of those really special places that words can’t describe. It truly is charming, rugged Italy. The gorgeous scenery is made of a stunning coastline dropping down to the Mediterranean, packed with pastel coastal villages and hiking trails between terraced vineyards, lemon trees and olive groves.

Hiking to CornigliaI found myself there for the first time in 2003, a backpacker in the sleepy town of Riomaggiore, my favourite of the five. We arrived and only then inquired about guest lodging and ended up in a tiny apartment fitted out with the basics. Most nights we bought pasta and local wine from the Co-Op (the only grocery in town) and it was enough to satisfy, sitting around talking about our travels in a charming Italian flat at night, after hiking between all five towns during the day.

Riomaggiore main street

I vividly remember meeting Aussie backpackers in their mid-twenties. They were old and brave in my eyes of just 19. I couldn’t believe they threw their cares of getting a big kid job out the window; that could wait. The world comes first.

So, when my Mom told me the one place she wanted to go in Europe whilst visiting me in the UK this past May was Cinque Terre, I couldn’t say no.

The thing was, I was nervous. In the twelve years since I was last there in 2006 for my second time, I’d heard rumours about how much had changed. Cinque Terre is no longer the quiet backpacker, hidden ‘old’ Italy that I experienced in my youth, it’s now on the tourist trail. It’s in magazines, guidebooks and caters to cruise ships. I was excited to relive my former footsteps but anxious that I may discover something I didn’t recognize.

In order to make Mom’s dream come true, we had a 4:30 am wake up to get to London Gatwick.  7 hours later we arrived in Riomaggiore from La Spezia, but it only took one look at the town to know all the travel was already worth it. I was back again in this amazing other world so different from home or anywhere else I’ve been, and a place that was one of my favourite backpacker spots as a teenager.

Vernazza

I was excited to show Mom all of the five towns, and how different they can be from each other. I could point out what’s changed and what new restaurants had arrived on the scene, places I used to sunbathe and sip wine along the coast. I was excited to get her into her sneakers so we could begin the famed hike, it’s so magical trekking from town-to-town and I wanted her to experience what I had before.

I even loved practising my (poor) Italian. “I wish I could speak French,” Mom said. “You mean as good as I speak Italian?” “Haha, something like that.” I think she was saying I could be better despite four years under my belt in High School.

The thing was, things had changed. A devastating rock slide had damaged the most famous part of the hiking trail, Via dell’Amore, which hugs the rocky coastline from Riomaggiore to Manarola. It used to be the most dramatic and breath-taking bit too. Also, because of the mass tourism, you now need to buy a hiking pass to use the trails. There are free trails, of course, but I was dead set on showing Mom the Cinque Terre I knew as a backpacker.

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Nowadays there’s no general store that’s not stuffed with souvenirs, or local wine without a Cinque Terre label slapped on to it to promote tourism. Being more or less cash only, the ATMs fail regularly and the demographic has gotten older.  It’s no longer a secret backpacker haven.

That was the most obvious thing, there were people everywhere. And I mean everywhere! Chinese tour groups, hiking enthusiasts, backpackers and day-trippers coming off of cruise ships in La Spezia. Luckily, we still had some pretty fantastic meals, enjoyed the picturesque scenery, and had some awesome mother-daughter bonding time too. Going in the offseason of May, I just can’t imagine things at full swing during summer, likely not my cup of tea at all.

Riomaggiore

Of the three times I’ve been to the Cinque Terre, I’ve always stayed in Riomaggiore. It holds a special place in my heart.

Lisa Vecchio in Riomaggiore

We stayed in an amazing refurbished apartment right in the middle of the marina, steps away from where I sunbathed on the rocks in my youth. A step up from the old granny flat on the main street, we were in the heart of one of the most scenic areas of town. With our window open at night, we woke up to the sound of Italian fisherman getting their boats out in the early am and to the sea lapping at the shore.

Riomaggiore Marina

Lydia, from our accommodation Allo Scalo dei Mille, greeted us from the train station to show us our immaculate apartment. She was super helpful also in recommending restaurants and giving us background on the locals i.e. her cousin is the priest at the only church in town which made Mom happy when we attended on Sunday. Denise, the owner of our flat was American, born to a Cinque Terre resident and came back after growing up in the States to renovate the building into apartments for rent. Smart lady.

Every morning we had a coffee on the main street at Hotel La Zorza, a simple eatery below a budget hotel but an easy place to grab a pastry and a cuppa before setting off for the day. There are so many new restaurants and cafes on the high street, finding a decent coffee or meal wasn’t always a guarantee.

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My favourite secret find thanks to Lydia was off of a small side street. Osteria Maite could have had better service but sitting out in their courtyard amongst the twinkling fairy lights at night with a wine and fresh pasta was all we could have asked for. I even tried the walnut sauce, which was to die for, a classic of the local Ligurian cuisine.

The best views in town were at cliffside A Piè de Mà. We reserved a table that overlooked the Med, the perfect place for sunset. They do good cheese boards and have an extensive wine cellar. Unfortunately, they are cash only and have no table service, meaning a very long and unnecessary queue to the bar.

Sunset at A Piè de Mà

We also had a fantastic meal at Enoteca Dau Cila, one of the two restaurants right in the marina across from our apartment. I was sceptical that it would be overpriced and poor quality for the location but the scampi (shrimps) were huge and fat, and the branzino (sea bass) was simple and light. We were even given a complimentary Lemoncello with our bill and left smiling from the great staff, wanting to come back again if we had more time.

Branazino at Enoteca Dau Cila

Manarola

Anybody who appreciates a good meal will tell you that Trattoria Dal Billy (Billy’s) in Manarola is the place to be. It’s well worth the climb up through the smallest of the five towns to get to this cheap and friendly eatery serving simple local dishes. Definitely reserve in advance as they have two seating’s, 7 and 9 pm, and try the specials of both land and sea.

It was also recommended to visit Valastro wineries. A shuttle bus from Manarola station will take you up the mountain into the neighbouring town of Valastro (not one of the five). Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to make a booking and try it.

Corniglia

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I’d recommend staying in Corniglia if you wanted somewhere less touristy and more serene. It’s definitely a town I’d like to stay in one day. Smack in the middle of the five, if you’re looking to do the famed hike, this is the closest starting point from Riomaggiore currently due to the path being closed up to this point. For those that don’t know, Corniglia is also famous for its 365 steps, one for each day of the year, up from the train station into the town.

Mom and I took the train to Corniglia to begin our hike on our second day. The ocean views from the steps are fantastic, as is getting a small glimpse of the adorable houses that line the cliffs sandwiched between the vineyards.

Vineyard in Corniglia, Cinque Terre

After getting to the top of stairs and wandering through town Mom stopped me and said, “how much longer do we have left?” That made me laugh, as we hadn’t even started onto the hiking trail yet. “3 more hours to go Mom!”

Within a few moments of entering the trail, I could tell she understood why this hike is so special. The smell of honeysuckle and the Mediterranean coming into view around tight corners was only the beginning. The best part was, she didn’t take me seriously when I said it was a hike. She thought I meant a light walk. When we finally got to the next town of Vernazza it was like finding gold at the end of a rainbow, a sight so sweet we had worked ourselves up for a well-deserved lunch and Spritz.

Hiking To Vernazza

Vernazza

Hiking into Vernazza, Italy

This was Mom’s favourite town. As you come from Corniglia, you weave into town down steep side streets before hitting its main central artery. Vernazza also has a lovely port lined with restaurants and it’s a great place for lunch, no matter how you find your way there.

Vernazza marina, Cinque Terre

The most famous place with the best views is Ristorante Belforte. Situated within the castle, this cliffside restaurant is stand out. You can’t book, but it’s well worth the wait to dine on the terrace next to the Med in this medieval setting with a stunning backdrop. Even better, they are known for their seafood and their scampi salad was out of this world. Overflowing with so much fresh seafood, I was definitely jealous of Mom’s dish despite my Lingurian squid ink pasta with fresh shellfish being pretty darn good too.

After lunch, we relaxed on the rocks in the harbour amongst the locals and tourists, before grabbing a few Spritzes at Ananasso Bar. While I’m a sucker for an Aperol, Mom was blown away by her Lemoncello Spritz. So much that we stayed for well more than one to enjoy the sun and people watching.

Sprtiz's at Ananasso Bar, Vernazza

The colour of Vernazza, Italy

We began the second half of our hike on day 2 from Vernazza, heading to the last town (or first depending on which way you start) of Monterosso. This trail was much busier, and with the amount of ‘traffic’ of tourists, there were definitely a few ‘hug your neighbour moments’ when the path was so narrow it was only 1 to 3 feet wide.

Local selling Lemoncello in Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

After a steep climb, we made our way down again and were relieved to spot a local selling handmade Lemoncello straight from his lemon trees in a small shack next to the trail. It was an awesome break to just stop and pause, have a chat with the friendly man and happily hand over some cash to support his likely well-lubricated business. As we continued on we stepped over small waterfalls and caught glimpses of Vernazza in our past. Another awesome hike under our belts.

Monterosso

Monterosso, Italy beach

Monterosso is the biggest of the five. In fact, it was a lot larger than I remember, it even has two beaches where the others really have none.  Many people stay in Monterosso as it has the only 4-star hotel amongst the group, and many other hotel-like lodgings compared to the small apartments you rent in the other towns. Being bigger also meant that it had more shops with a good variety and some better-quality souvenirs, like Fabbrica D’Arte where we both bought a special memento. But it really was just a gelato that we wanted after a long day of hiking, of course. And we left satisfied.

Gelato in Monterosso, Italy

We only had 2.5 days all up to explore all five towns and obviously would have welcomed one more day. But for my Mom, it was just enough and exactly what she’s always imagined it would be.  It’s like nowhere else, rustic Italy, with vineyards taking over the hills, steep climbs through narrow back streets, and old women sticking their head out of the window to hang their laundry and just watch the world go by.

Monterosso

Mom said the locals must be like goats to be able to trek these hills but also, she was really grateful. For some, being in your 60s would limit your ability to achieve such a great accomplishment of hiking to each town. If I’m on honest, I don’t know how I did the whole five in one go in my past, being 19 might have helped. But I also feel so lucky that we were able to do it this time around together as mother and daughter.

Lisa Vecchio & JoAnn Rose in Cinque Terre, Italy

Hand sculture, Venice

Making friends and eating cicchetti in Venice


My mission for my most recent visit to Venice was all about hunting down the best cicchetti (chi-ket-tee), small bite size appetizers and pieces of crusty bread topped with a variety of delicious goodness. In fact, the concept is not too dissimilar to my pintxos adventures in San Sebastian, Spain. But Venice, oh beautiful and so romantic Venice, was such an incredible experience my second time around; so rich with food, Campari Spritz and some new-found friends along the way.

Our first cicchetti stop at Cateolia

Our first cicchetti stop at Cateolia

This trip was very different from my first visit to Venice with my Italian class back in 1999 when I was just 15. My most vivid memory of then is of when Cara ordered the pesce (fish) on the one night we were given the freedom to explore the city and dine solo without our teacher. After finding a restaurant and proudly placing our order in our broken Italian accents, we all were aghast that Cara’s fish came fully intact; head, bones, eyes and all. That was one lesson learnt that still makes me laugh even to this day.

Gondola in the Grand Canal, Venice

Gondola in the Grand Canal, Venice

But what I’ve been most surprised about after doing some research close to 20 years later (OMG), was to stumble across the concept of cicchetti and it being unique to Venice. I think this is largely due to the general lack of awareness from other visitors too. When I told friends and family we were heading off to uncover all the secret cicchetti spots amongst Venice’s hidden corners, a typical response was a big fat “che cosa?”.

For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I think it’s time you head to Venice to get your cicchetti on!

Lisa & Jamie in Venice

Lisa and Jamie in Venice

Cicchetti aside for a moment, the greatest debate of all for Jamie and me as a couple on our first trip abroad together was deciding on how we would travel from the airport to our hotel. There are about four options (public ferry for the typical tourist, shared speedboat (shuttle) for those with a bit less patience, private speedboat for those with deep pockets, or the bus for those afraid of water), so it really was worth all the faff to finally agree on the shared speedboat for 25 euros each which we pre-booked on Venice Link. We felt like celebrities straight out of a Bond movie cruising through the Grand Canal. But this post is all about new friends and cicchetti, so back at it…

We met our first friend, Louisa, who greeted us at our lovely boutique hotel, Ca’Gottardi in Cannaregio, and who graciously gave us some tips on getting around (like how to score a 2 euro gondola ride across the Grand Canal to witness the recently famous hand sculpture). Her hotel is perfectly situated off of the main artery, Strada Nuova, running from the Rialto Bridge to the train station Santa Lucia. This road can be quite touristy at the best of times, but once off the beaten path toward the Jewish Ghetto, we came across some fantastic cicchetti and wine bars.

Crossing the Grand Canal

Crossing the Grand Canal

Hand sculture, Venice

Hand sculpture, Venice

On that point of Ca’Gottardi, another friend we can thank is the mysterious night manager on our first night’s stay. As we stumbled in after too many Campari Spritz, we were pleasantly surprised to find a drinks trolley in the lobby. His English was nonexistent you could say, but he simply wheeled it over to us as we fell into the couch and helped ourselves to some complimentary blended whiskey. This mysterious night manager wasn’t seen again, and on the two following nights when we inquired during the early hours about the drinks trolley, we were told there was no such thing. We still question if he even worked there in the first place!

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Our first day was a whirlwind overall, getting lost amongst the streets off of the Rialto Bridge and taking in the breathtaking beauty of the magnificent water world that is Venice. Our favourite cicchetti experience was that very first night at Osteria al Cicheto where a tall local gentleman, Alessandro, overheard Jamie and I trying to figure out how to order the bite-sized snacks, and before we knew it we were sharing wine and he was giving us suggestions on how to make the most of Venice. He was so nice and even helped us score a table for a more formal dinner at the very small and much in demand osteria. There we had the most authentic, delicious meal of the entire trip, including Venetian style cuttlefish, fresh octopus and duck pasta. We can’t thank Alessandro enough, but also, I would come back to Osteria al Cicheto in a heartbeat to dine on their three-course local cuisine for a steal at only 33 euro each. Our wine bill was a tad bit more…whoops.

On our second day, the rained had ceased enough that we assumed it was our one chance to head out to the famous islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. I recall a visit to Murano, famous for handblown glassmaking, from my youth trip and wasn’t that fussed to return. Burano, for another matter, has become an Instagram sensation over recent years, as tourists capture the magnificent coloured houses on this island known for lace craft. Starving, after taking too many snaps of the breathtaking backdrop (it’s just so cute!), we stopped off for lunch at Ai Cesendeli and were definitely pleasantly surprised with the gorgonzola and prosciutto pizza and pasta vongole.

Once back in Venice, we were in dire want to truly uncover all the hidden gems of the Jewish Ghetto, as that’s where all the cicchetti food tours take the tourists. Fondamenta Ormesini is the spot; a street in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto along a canal lined with small cicchetti and wine bars. Our favourite was Al Timon, one of liveliest and most popular of the street serving 1-euro cicchetti and some killer wines (and apparently steaks too if you book in for dinner). On our second time back, I overheard some young kids next to us with American accents chatting away and instinctively knew they must be studying abroad. It brought back memories of when I backpacked throughout Europe at a similar time in my life. So, after swapping a few tales of our travels with Carly and Eric from Long Island, Jamie and I decided to buy them their first Campari Spritz, something I know I would have greatly appreciated at the age of 19.

Campari Spritz Cheers!

Campari Spritz Cheers!

Our fun didn’t stop there. As our trip coincided with St. Patricks day, Jamie was hell-bent on getting himself a pint of Guinness, despite me sticking my nose up to the notion while in Venice. Late at night on the 17th of March, we coincidently stumbled across an Irish Pub (Irish Pub Santa Lucia) serving green beer. We quickly befriended Marco, who taught us how to translate phrases into Italian, as one does when having a few pints in a foreign land. The funniest part of the evening was trying to give Marco some context to the phrase ‘you’re hard’, as in ‘you’re a tough guy’, which he hysterically practised in English while we perfected its translation “uomo duro”.

On our third day, the rain was relentless. Take note, when you hear sirens going off from loudspeakers throughout the entire city, count the number of beeps as it signifies the anticipated water level the canals will rise. Or at least, that was our experience whilst befriending Nicola and Matteo, owners of uber cool Chet Bar in the university area of Campo Santa Margherita. We were instantly drawn in for their killer cocktails and a great soundtrack but left swigging new whiskies and learning the craft of rosemary gin (try their Vizio del Conte – rosemary-infused gin, cardamom-infused vermut, Campari bitter). Our fun got interrupted, however, by Nicola running outside to count the sirens, apologizing to us as he leapt out the door to run home in urgency to grab some higher wellies, and strongly advised that we make our way back to our hotel in no more than 1 hour, or we will enjoy the flooding on a much more personal level. Yikes, things just got fun!

We took their advice, but not before stopping off at their sister bar (it was on our way I swear!), the craft and sustainable Il Mercante. Alessandro (yes, everyone is called Alessandro) is co-owner with the boys over at Chet bar, and he happily gave us the inside scoop on what to eat (including their killer bacalao and duck breast cicchetti plates) whilst we sipped another cocktail and listened to Oasis in the background. “We don’t do it for the money, if we did we’d open a shit restaurant for tourists,” he told us. We were in our glory land. But wait…isn’t there a flood going on?

We didn’t make it in time, and before we knew it we were nearly ankle deep in water, tiptoeing our way across town. With barely any cash on us, we got swindled into buying two pairs of waterproof over the shoe wellies, which only leaked a few seconds later. As our hotel entrance was surrounded by water, we escaped across the street to the touristy Old Wild West, an American BBQ fast food joint. Luckily Stephano, an Italian/American/South American, interesting character to say the least, kindly served us wine and chicken fingers before telling us it was cash only and gave Jamie two trash bags to wear on his feet while he braved the flood to get cash out. He was since known as ‘that weirdo Stephano’.

For our final day, we had initially planned on heading out of town to Verona or Vincenza but Alessandro at Il Mercante made our minds for us. With a bit of a hangover, we caught the train an hour and eleven minutes out to the holy land of the Italian brandy, Grappa, in the city of Bassano del Grappa. It was here, after visiting the Poli Grappa Museum and trying a quick throwback of the stiff stuff, that we took a stroll over the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) for a breathtaking view of the Alps and met our final friend, the meat lady at the pub Al Saiso.

We were the only people there, and she didn’t speak very much English. We decided we needed something big and starchy for our hangovers, and Jaime thought he spotted the pasta on the menu under the heading ‘taglieri’. We even debated about the fact that we wanted the same one, so said who cares, let’s get two. When it came time to order, I asked for the burrata and prosciutto plate, but really pushed that it comes out primo (first). She looked confused because then we ordered two servings of the taglieri. We just nodded really, really enthusiastically, so she said okay.

After devouring a massive plate of meat and cheese “primo” as requested, to our surprise out came two huge cutting boards with more meat and cheese. We couldn’t keep our laughs in; come to find out, taglieri means cutting board. She must have thought we really were some meat loving weirdos since we ordered so much of it. It was so intense we barely touched it and felt bad but laughed all the way home about how we travelled all the way to Grappa to eat a whole heck of a lot of sliced meat.

Lisa Vecchio in front of Cafe Ponte Vecchio in Bassano del Grappa

Lisa Vecchio in front of Cafe Ponte Vecchio in Bassano del Grappa

Our final shout out goes to the Flyin Lion, the magnificent mascot of Venice. The Lion with Wings can be seen everywhere from flags to upholstery and building carvings in the likes of St. Mark’s Square. Jaime loved it and even bought a dorky t-shirt with the lion on it to commemorate the trip.

Thanks to all the friends and memories we made in Venice! I’ll definitely be back sooner than later for some more cicchetti.

 

Best of Prague Guide – A Surprise Trip


For 3 months they waited in anticipation, the only answers to the two clues they were allowed to ask didn’t give much of an indication of where we were headed. “What will we drink?” Sophie asked. “Beer,” was my response. “What sort of coat will we need?” Penny followed. “A lightweight or heavy puffer?” It was November after all, and the coat choice was a defining ask. Heavy puffer all the way.

It wasn’t until we got through the airport’s security gates (I even folded the boarding pass just so) and under the boarding sign that our first secret getaway destination was revealed, Prague!

We're going to Prague!

We’re going to Prague!

I’ve travelled with the same two friends once a quarter for the last two years, so these secret getaways are now our way of travelling with a new twist, each taking a turn to plan the unexpected. “I woke up this morning and have never been so excited,” Sophie said. “So good to just show up and not have to do any work,” Penny agreed as we made our way to the airport. Lucky ducks.

To no surprise, I was thoroughly prepared and even created a Prague guidebook of sorts for the girls to get a glimpse into what was planned as we flew over from London. This blog is a combination of the best of Prague from my guidebook, and some other new-found treasures mixed in.

Some light plane reading

Some light plane reading

Prague:

Prague is a beautiful, romantic city that can satisfy any beer aficionado. The “City of 100 Spires” isn’t too bad on the eyes either, with gothic churches and impressive gargoyles sprouting up on nearly every square. The bad news is that every tourist known to man can agree. In the summer, Charles Bridge can be so overwhelmed with tourists it can take up to 10 minutes to cross its 515 meters. Holidaying in November was bliss for us though. Mulled wine around every corner, we’d arrived just before the Christmas markets opened, so the city was still and quiet (and grey) as we drank its beer, got lost amongst the cobblestones and ate goulash in abundance while meeting friendly locals.

Tram car, Prague

Tramcar, Prague

Pastel streets of Prague

Pastel streets of Prague

Where we stayed:

Lokál Inn
Our huge family-sized suite set the standard at this 4-star hotel situated over a fun and social brewhouse. It’s cheap and the food here, an authentic menu that changes daily with breakfast included, is amazing, which made it an excellent stop before we set out exploring on our first day. As they have their own Pilsner Urquell tanks, my mouth dropped after taking my first sip of lager. I’ve been to Prague before, but I didn’t remember the beer being THIS good!

Lokal Inn, Prague

Lokal Inn, Prague

Also, a plus, they are conveniently situated at the base of Charles Bridge, making access to the Old Town super close, but just in case they also offer guests complimentary smartphones so you can navigate the city and book in reservations without roaming!

What we ate:

I’ll admit it without embarrassment, I ate goulash every single day. It’s likely because I created an obsession with the almighty potato pancake. Because I chose to favour this one meal, it meant that I really slacked in my Czech cuisine exploration as I didn’t even have pork knuckle or duck, standard Czech dishes. And as for my vegetarian friend Sophie, food options were tough at the best of times. While the common solution is to order dumplings filled with fruit, a simple serve of fried cheese was enough for Soph at nearly every stop.

Goulash
Hands down my favourite dish, this savoury stew made of meat and onions in a thick brown sauce with paprika is typically topped with dumplings (potato or bread), making this Czech staple (despite not originating in the Czech Republic) a must have at nearly every meal in town.

Goulash at V Kolkovně

Goulash at V Kolkovně

Pickled Cheese
Perfect with a glass of pivo (beer), camembert is typically fermented and pickled in oil, with garlic, chilli and other spices and served with crusty bread. Trust me, it’s way more delicious then my description makes out, worth trying at least!

Pickled Cheese at Strahov Monastic Brewery

Pickled Cheese at Strahov Monastic Brewery

Trdelník – Chimney Cake
You can’t cross a street in Prague without witnessing one of the biggest tourist knocks offs in the city. Not even traditionally Czech, these sweet treats of hot dough covered in sugar and filled with ice cream or Nutella, make the perfect Instagram. If you’re going to do it, look for ones with long lines as some can be left out for hours so be sure it’s fresh!

Trdelník

Trdelník

Where we ate:

Word of warning, if you’re keen to get in anywhere half decent, book in advance. On the plus side, credit cards are pretty much accepted everywhere and free Wi-Fi is plentiful.

Luckily, I had identified a few places in advance that I highlighted in my guidebook. Others we were able to visit on our Eating Prague Craft Beer and Food Tour which I highly recommend you check out.

V Kolkovně
Part of a chain of restaurants operated under the Pilsner Urquell brand, this casual brewpub was perfect for devouring goulash over a few pivos. Despite the restaurant looking fairly empty, we were told that no tables were available without a reservation. Thankfully bar tables were free, because the potato pancakes were so full of spice they were out of the world, awesome. A bit pricier than other places, but well worth a visit for traditional Czech grub and enough Kozul (dark beer) to keep you satisfied.

Velkopřevorský Mlýn (Priory Mill)
While this beautiful pub, referred to as the ‘flower pub’ throughout our trip, is pleasing on the eyes (in more ways than one) and makes for some great snaps, the food is overpriced as it’s very close to the tourist spot, the John Lennon Wall. Actually, dishes were nearly double some more authentic spots we visited, the goulash less than average and bread bowl quite small. It’s okay though, the fur seats, view overlooking the mill and hot waiter (and I mean like model HOT!) made it worthwhile.

Velkopřevorský Mlýn (Priory Mill)

Velkopřevorský Mlýn (Priory Mill)

Bredovský Dvůr
Uniquely, Pilsner Urquell is served from their own pipes on the premises, only 3 meters travelling from the tank to pour, ensuring the beer doesn’t make contact with any air to not damage its perfect flavour. Known for their large pork knuckle dishes and savoury duck, it can be described as authentic and reasonably priced, and a good excuse to escape the Old Town to experience a gem.

Also try: Lokal Inn, Sisters, Maso a kobliha, Nase Maso, Zvonice, Bistro No 19.

Where we drank:

There were two big takeaways from my drinking exploration of Prague. Firstly, there’s a lot to learn about Czech beer so definitely check out my review of the Prague Craft Beer Tour. Places like Lod’ Pivovar (a brewery on a boat!) and T-anker (amazing city views) are two beer spots you must Czech-out. (See what I did there?) Secondly, the cocktail bars were the biggest surprise of all! We somehow managed a cocktail crawl in this beer haven of a city.

Cocktail bars of Prague:

Bonvivant:
This 1920’s NYC themed speakeasy is a place you can comfortably stay for hours. We were lucky to meet Michael, who was the perfect host, talking us through absinthe to whisky based cocktails. We were there too late in the evening to try their food, but if you’re exploring the Old Town this is an absolute gem to settle in to for great service, cocktails and locals.

Absinthe served at BonVivant, Prague

Absinthe served at BonVivant, Prague

Black Angel
Centrally located in the basement of U Prince Hotel in the Old Town just across from the Astronomical Clock, this eclectic, gothic-themed cocktail bar was recommended by friends but was a big disappointment when compared to some of the other low key and sophisticated cocktail bars popping up all over the city. Book in advance, but we warned, no photos are allowed which is a crying shame. In a nutshell, it’s a bit touristy and gimmicky but a quirky stop off if you’re in the area.

Cash Only Bar
What a treat to find! Small setting upstairs, with an intimate, arty basement downstairs specializing in cocktails, hot dogs and surprisingly, amazing salted almonds. The vibe screamed all around “cool”. It was recommended to us by Michael at Bonvivant, the staff were friendly, talking us through an array of cocktails, Sophie specifically really enjoyed an absinthe and champagne combo, who knew! I loved the huge block of ice in my Old Fashioned with a $ embedded in it and we were even awarded a free shot called Bohemian Sluts (was that some sort of innuendo?)

Cash Only Bar, Prague

Cash Only Bar, Prague

The Alchemist Bar
One of the city’s newest cocktail bars, velvet red chairs, gothic tapestries and burning candles set the vibe for our last stop on our unplanned cocktail crawl. It was surprisingly quiet and friendly, despite it being in a big touristy hostel neighbourhood with lots of clubs. My favourite part was trying Becherovka, a local herbal liquor that to me tasted like the cinnamon bear candies I’d eat at my grandmother’s as a kid, or others like to call it the original Fire Ball. But I think the most special moment was ordering the ‘Choose Your Fate”, in which Sophie and Penny picked a tarot card out of the deck, and a robed and beak-masked man delivered their drinks in a smoking old chest. It was all a bit bizarre but in a good way.

Nearly every evening ended back at Lokal Inn, where it was very easy to settle in amongst the long benches and drink one more ‘oh so good’ pilsner with the locals.

For more cocktails try: Parlour, L’Fluer, Bugsy’s Bar, Anonymous Bar

For beer, also try: Riegrovy Sady, Letna Park Beer Garden, U Fleku, Pivovarsky Klub, Fat Cat

What we explored:

Prague Castle
Just like Ed Sheeran’s latest single, Prague also hosts a magnificent Castle on the Hill. We visited both at night and during the day, to get two very different perspectives of the city’s most popular tourist attraction. Entry to the grounds of the Castle is free but some buildings such as the St Vitus Cathedral, Basilica of St George and Golden Lane can only be visited with an entry ticket. Hot Tip: The statue of the boy with a golden penis is called “Youth” and it is located in the courtyard in front of the Toy Museum. People say rubbing the boy’s penis brings good luck so of course, we gave it a go.

Prague Castle grounds by day

Prague Castle grounds by day

Prague Castle grounds by night

Prague Castle grounds by night

While in this neighbourhood there are two other great finds. The first, Svatováclavská vinice (St. Wenceslas´ Vineyard) is literally a vineyard at the base of the Castle. It was closed while we visited and the vines were in hibernation for winter, but in summer I would totally nab a seat and enjoy the sunset for one of the arguably best views in Prague. Talk about romantic!

Strahov Monastic Brewery
When heading down from the Castle, another popular stop off is Strahov Monastic Brewery, dating back to the 17th century and still brews beer using traditional recipes from back in the day. Here you’ll find an overpriced brewpub, restaurant, and a lovely outdoor patio but also tour groups and unfriendly service. It’s an easy stop off to rest your legs but don’t make an afternoon out it.  If you do though, it’s also a great place to try the famed pickled cheese. 

Lennon Wall
Talk about a city made for Instagrammers. The John Lennon Wall is special to me, as 10 years before in 2007 I visited and took the exact same snap with a different group of friends while travelling throughout Europe. Strange to think a big puffy jacket lined with fur is still a requirement. As a symbol of peace, the graffiti-clad wall was first used to protest against communism in the 80s, and every day individuals and artists contribute to its powerful message with lyrics and images.

John Lennon Wall 2007

John Lennon Wall 2007

John Lennon Wall 2017

John Lennon Wall 2017

Old Town Square & Astronomical Clock
The tourist heart of the city, the Old Town Square has remained relatively untouched in terms of architecture since the 10th Century despite many invasions. The many outdoor cafes and restaurants that line the square give the hordes of tourists a reason to time their visit to watch the spectacle of the famous clock marking the turn of the hour. Definitely worth a walk by for a snap but then I recommend having a pivo in a quiet corner of the city.

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock

Street Art
I’m not referring to graffiti, but interesting and different art installations all over this pastel shaded city. Finding these unique and interesting representations is a fun way to explore some of the back streets, avoiding the marionettes and uncovering the uncommon treasure.

The most famous include:
Embryo Drain Pipe
A bit odd, a fetus is trying to get through a narrow pipe attached to the side of a building. Rumor suggests it refers to how difficult for artists it is to be understood by narrow-minded people.

Hanging Man by David Černý
The sculpture, installed in 1997, can easily be overlooked but if you find Husova Street and look up you’re in for a treat. Don’t worry, Sigmund Freud hanging above your head looks surprisingly realistic but is just a statue.

Hanging Man by David Černý

Hanging Man by David Černý

Giant Head of Franz Kafka
The sculpture is worth trekking across town for to witness 42 constantly rotating and moving layers of the famed writer Franz Kafka’s head. I recommend to video or even Boomerang this one, as it’s hard to describe otherwise. Hint: it’s just behind a shopping mall if you need to stop off while in the neighbourhood.

Giant Head of Franz Kafka

Giant Head of Franz Kafka

And of course, don’t forget to cross Charles Bridge, you won’t forget it!

Getting back to our secret getaways, the girls gave excellent feedback on the concept as we all really enjoyed our time in Prague. Now the biggest question is, where are we going next? And will I be able to stand the anticipation in much the same way when someone else is planning and I’m left in the dark? I’ll find out in only a few short days where I’m off to next!