Eating Prague Craft Beer & Food Tasting Tour


With Prague being one of the top beer destinations in Europe, one doesn’t need to go too far within the city walls to taste a beautiful pint of Pilsner. However, as it boasts more and more tourists each year, what can be difficult to find is a decent drinking hole that only locals know about.

There are countless beer and food tours in Prague, ranging from cheap pub crawls to multi-sensory foodie experiences. When I surprised my two friends with a trip to the “city of a hundred spires”, I wanted the right balance of beer education, delicious food and of course, some fun. Luckily, I stumbled upon Eating Prague Tours, Craft Beer and Food Tasting Tour (previously Brews with Views), and never looked back.

I had done my research before we set off, and was pleasantly surprised to visit a number of places I had already earmarked on my list. Without this tour though, I likely wouldn’t have visited them all simply because we might have deemed them ‘too far’ out of our way or sidetracked doing something else. Most importantly, we would have missed out on all the fascinating education we experienced being led around by our local, Jan!

Eating Prague Tours Guide Jan

Eating Prague Tours Guide Jan

Our meeting point was at 2:30 on Loď Pivovar. I had heard a lot about this craft brewery that’s literally situated on a boat, tanks and all! It’s an awesome place to spend the afternoon looking out onto the river, where the 3 of us enjoyed their standard 3 beers all varying in degrees (Legie 10 degrees, Republika 12 degrees, and Monarchie 13 degrees), the dark one (Monarchie) the most memorable with coffee and chocolate undertones. Rumor has it that the brewer was previously employed at the famous tourist spot U Fleku, was let go after years of loyalty, so stole the recipe for their famous dark beer and brought it over, and it tastes worlds better. But that just may be a tall tale. 😉

No tasting would be completed without a food pairing and the roasted barley served hot with butter and salt was the perfect beer snack. Goodbye popcorn and peanuts, hello barley. Secondly, we read a bit about pickled fish and cheese in advance, so when a jar with clear liquid, some vegetables and two big brown blobs were presented we weren’t quite sold initially yet were intrigued. But after trying one bite of the previously battered and fried pickled fish cake (meatballs) I was a convert. I would go back for more right now it was so darn delicious.

We spent the first hour or so getting to know Jan and the basics of the Czech beer world. The rise of craft beer is so steady that Jan claims that 1 new craft brewery opens a week in the Czech Republic, adding to the already 370 craft brewers in the country. This a warm welcome to contradict some of the big-name players likes Staropramen, who Jan depicts as officially the worst beer in the country, as they replaced yeast with syrup when they began to mass produce under Anheuser-Busch.

Maso A Kobliha

Maso A Kobliha

We were then taken to a more residential area where we stopped off at Maso A Kobliha, the home to a well-known British butcher to taste his Scotch eggs accompanied with an American Pale Ale, Matuška Apollo Galaxy, a brewery in Broumy, Czech Republic. This cute spot off the beaten path is a great place to also stop for brunch or a coffee, and are also specifically known for their donuts. It was here that I learned about three distinct tastes in beer and how they vary based on origin. For example, Czech and German beer favor malt, US and British beers favor hops, and Belgian beers favor yeast. Think about it and have a big long sip, and it’s evident!

Scotch eggs from Maso A Kobliha

Scotch eggs from Maso A Kobliha

Another one on my list was T-Anker, known for its great views over Old Town Prague, and its collaboration with the oldest brewery in the world, Brenvov. We each told Jan what style we preferred, Penny was sticking with dark, Sophie was going for sweet, and I was keen for a Permon Winter Ale. We had a long chat at that point about what it was like to brew under communism, and Jan shared some personal stories too about growing up in the 80s when they brewed under (and still do) decoction mash, something every super beer connoisseur should know, which means the process is not automated and water or heat isn’t added to the Mash Tun. The results are proven to be more flavorful.

Naše maso famous hotdogs

Naše maso famous hotdogs

Sister's open-faced sandwiches

Sister’s open-faced sandwiches

Our next stop off was to the celebrated Naše maso butchers for a world-famous hot dog accompanied with handmade ketchup and mustard. As Sophie is a vegetarian, we also popped across to Sister’s, a cheap and cute bistro serving the classic open-face sandwiches (herring all the way!), both places of which were on my list! As we walked, ate and talked we were advised that white Czech wine was safe to drink and reasonably good, but watch out for the red, which is known to be so bad it is usually mixed with coke.

On our way to what was our officially last stop on the tour, Jan popped into family-run Perníčkův sen (The Gingerbread man’s dream), to give us a personalized Prague Food Tour gingerbread cookie to celebrate the traditional food craft of the region, which I had no regrets of devouring on my way home in the early hours after a day full of pints.

Tiny mugs at PIPA, Beer Story, Prague

Tiny mugs at PIPA, Beer Story, Prague

We finished off at Beer Story, also known as PIPA, which was one of my favorite stops, so full of Czech and global beers. Jan led us through the history of Czech brewing, trying everything from wheat beer, to Bernard Dark, to pilsner, and Trautenberk APA, each served out of teeny tiny beer mugs. We definitely overstayed our tour allotment but Jan being the friendly and caring guide that he was continued to pour and pour till it just got too late. Before wishing us well he introduced us to Bonvivant cocktail bar, set to the tone of a 1920’s New York speakeasy, where young Michael took care of us until the early hours, providing great service and way too much absinthe.

Absinthe served at BonVivant, Prague

Absinthe served at BonVivant, Prague

For anyone in Prague interested in learning more about the huge influence beer has had in Prague, and the Czech Republic as a whole, I highly recommend Prague Food Tours and our guide Jan!

Nostravi, cheers to your health!

Nostravi, cheers to your health!

Nostravi, cheers to your health!

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Outstanding in the Field, Burgundy, France


Outstanding in the field is a foodie’s dream. Turning the notion of dining out on its head, instead of bringing the farm to a restaurant’s table, they bring the restaurant to the field. Their mission is to “re-connect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it.”

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

Outstanding in the Field, Burgundy, France

Starting out in 1999 in California by artist and chef Jim Denevan, Outstanding in the Field was one of the early pioneers to try a such a crazy idea before it was cool for pops ups and food trucks to roam the country. They’re now in their 14th year with 87 events alone this season and have held events in all 50 states as well as 14 countries. My friend Emily has been waiting years for them to come to Europe and I was lucky enough to join them for their first event in Burgundy, France.

Welcome to Outstanding in the Field

We were dropped off in the middle of the vines of Domaine Lebreuil where we were greeted by General Manager Eden before joining the other 80 guests for canapés and generous pours of third-generation winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lebreuil’s selection. I was keenly interested in finding out where everyone was from, there were a few French and English accents I could hear, but the event was overpowered by faithful advocates who traveled all the way over to Europe from the US. That’s some effort!

Canapes 
House-made marbled ham
Salmon gravlax with Fallot mustard
Vegetable tart with a mousse of Fromagerie Delin Delice de Pommard
Beetroot salad with Emmanuelle Bailard Farm back currants and crunchy peanuts
2013 Domaine Lebreuil “Dessus des Gollardes” Blanc
2013 Domaine Lebreuil “Aux Grands Liards” Rouge

Canapes at Outstanding in the field

After Eden shared the history of the program and why we were all standing in the middle of nowhere, 41-year-old Jean-Baptiste followed up with a humble and humorous welcome. “I am so happy we are all here in the earth of Burgundy,” he shared. He was clearly very excited to meet everyone and host his first of this kind, and “for the weather since harvest is next week!” It was a hot day for sure.

Jean-Baptiste Lebreuil

We walked straight through the Grand Cru vines to find a long table set in the middle of the vineyard. You were even welcomed to bring your own plate, but for those of us who hadn’t, we picked through the colorful stack before taking a seat to start our meal prepared by Michelin starred chef David Le Comte of Kook’In.

Domaine Lebreuil

Dinner
Club sandwich with tomato, hard-boiled egg, cocktail sauce, parmesan, bacon & Truites De L’ube GAEC trout

Club Sandwich

Bourguignon perch with espelette butter with grilled Eric Roy Farm seasonal vegetables
2015 Domaine Lebreuil Premiere Cru “Aux Clous” Blanc

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Ligny Farm poultry prepared in the style of Gaston Gerard with roasted Farmer Bruno Grenailles potatoes
2015 Domaine Lebreuil Premiere Cru “Aux Clous” Rouge

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Petite Louisette Charolais beef grilled in the style of Bourguignone with ratatouille
2014 Domaine Lebreuil “Les Boutieres” Rouge

Beef with ratatouille

Assortment of Burgundian cheeses with pain d’epices: Brillat Savarin, Epoisses, Comte, Mulot & Petit Jean
Cheesecake with Emmanuelle Baillard Farm black currents

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The wine pours were generous and Jean-Baptiste even brought out a magnum to share with his guests. He truly was a pleasure to meet and speak to.

Lisa & Jean-Baptiste

So what did I think? If I’m honest, I was disappointed with the food. It could have been the fact that it was nearly 90F degrees and therefore the fish was overcooked, the chicken undercooked, and steak so fatty I couldn’t even get it down.

But what I will praise is our friendly and fun waiter Percy; Jean-Baptiste and his wines; the carrots and vegetables which accompanied the fish were out of this world; and the cheese, OMG!!! Plus that fact that I was lucky to be in a beautiful vineyard in the middle of Cote de Beaune, Burgandy.

Lisa Vecchio Burgundy France

Lastly, the event was poorly organized from a logistics perspective (except for the excellent porter-loo facilities). When the meal ended at around 10 pm most guests made their way to an after party at Jean-Baptiste’s chateaux. We would have loved to join but weren’t quite sure if were invited, and therefore, stood in the pitch black dark in the field scrambling to figure out how to get the one taxi in town to come get us in the middle of a vineyard, literally. Finally one did, for the price of 30 Euro to go 3 kilometers down the road.

I would consider going again because who doesn’t love drinking copious amounts of wine in a beautiful setting while making new friends and tasting some fantastic local grub. But for the steep cost of $250 USD, I’d give it a proper consideration before forking over the cash again. Thanks Outstanding in the Field for a fun dining experience!

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Why Santorini Should Be On Your Bucketlist


Santorini, one of the most stunning Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, is an obvious choice for one to have on their bucket list. Whitewashed luxury hotels, infinity pools, and blue domed churches create what looks like a sandcastle drizzle cake on the side of volcanic mountain cliffs jetting over the deep blue ocean.

Firostefani, Santorini

Firostefani, Santorini

This alone is what makes this unique destination one of the most Instagrammed places in the world. On my bucket list for some time, when Steph and I rattled our brains for a sunny European destination neither of us has been to (which is more difficult than it sounds), Santorini was the obvious choice.

On the one side of the island you have small beaches made up of black, red and white lava pebbles. But the heart of Santorini is in the Caldera towns such as the capital Fira, and more picturesque villages of Imerovigli, Firostefani and Oia.

The Caldera, Oia, Santorini

The Caldera, Oia, Santorini

I had my heart set on staying in Fira, being the capital and all, it seemed the place to be. But one thing that became apparent very quickly is that Santorini is not an inexpensive getaway. After doing some initial research, we simply couldn’t afford to stay in any decent accommodation in Fira for our modest budget.

Oia was our next option. Noted for the best sunsets on the island and for those looking for a romantic corner of the earth, tourists flood through the narrow cobblestone streets to catch a glimpse of the red and orange hues over the sea while enjoying an upmarket meal perched deep in the Caldera. After sunset, the crowds flock to see the cliff-side Caldera lit up at night and to peruse the high-end shops before the streets become quiet.

Sunset, Aperanto Suites

Sunset, Aperanto Suites

Luckily we found Aperanto Suites, a brand new property in Finikia just a short 10-minute walk to Oia. There were minimal reviews which made us apprehensive, but after seeing how comfy the luxe blow up pool loungers looked in the photos, it was worth a gamble. And we have no regrets. The place was immaculate, with an infinity pool overlooking the dusty, barren earth below with the sea in the distance. Each morning we would wake to a knock at our door, with breakfast served poolside, accompanied with a glass of champagne (just don’t forget to complete the breakfast form the night before).

Poolside, Aperanto Suites

Poolside, Aperanto Suites

We spent our days lazing by the pool, getting the much-needed relaxation and Vitamin D we purposely escaped our jobs to achieve. At night, we’d walk into the town for a gorgeous Greek meal of moussaka and chicken souvlaki to catch up on our separate lives in London and Sydney. It was a hard balance to find somewhere moderately affordable, opting for modest tavernas like Pelekanos (watermelon, halloumi and fig salad, fresh sea bream, and chicken and cream cheese) and killer cocktails at Oia Gefsis over more renowned restaurants, but then what Greek food isn’t delicious (hint: check out the baklava at Melenio, trust me)! Just make sure wherever you go to book a reservation in advance, especially if you want a sunset view table.

Baklava, Melenio Bakery, Oia

Baklava, Melenio Bakery, Oia

The best part of the trip was hiking from Oia to Fira. Despite strong suggestions of wearing sturdy shoes, taking plenty of water and leaving before the day got too hot (all of which is common sense), we stupidly chose to start our expedition midday. The path entrance was conveniently just behind the bus stop across from our hotel, but immediately after starting off uphill in the scorching heat we quickly realized this would be no small feat. We climbed up steep, rugged hills on dry, rocky dirt paths, catching our breath as we passed tired donkeys and exclusive luxury villas that made us ooze with jealousy and happy that we didn’t go too cheap and cheerful. Santorini is not the type of place you want to cheap out and we found our accommodation to be perfect for what we needed. Otherwise, we’d only be even more envious of the stunning properties parading in our face.

Domed church, Santorini

Domed church, Santorini

We passed churches and hugged the rugged coastline, snapping pics of what you only see on postcards. The whole stretch was 9 miles and took about 3.5 hours. Getting closer to our finish, we stopped in the small, picturesque town of Imerovigli. If I would go again, I’d also suggest staying here. Lunch at Mezzo was one of the best meals we had, untraditionally Greek, the Tropical and Popeye’s salads were something I’d go back just to enjoy again, plus the ocean view over the Venetian Castle and the volcano wasn’t too shabby either. Luckily at this point on our trek, it was only another 45 minutes to Fira and a really enjoyable part of the journey. The uphill battle was long behind us and the remainder led us through the small village of Firostefani, with more whitewashed villas stacked on top of each other with aqua blue pools to contrast the white and make us rush to get our phones out for some more Instagram worthy snaps.

Magnificent Santorini

Magnificent Santorini

We spent the evening in Fira, exploring the capital and taking advantage of the nightlife that doesn’t really exist anywhere else on the island. After seeing chains like McDonalds and Sephora next door to fish spas (the kind where they eat the dead skin off your toes) and ice cream stands, it made me so happy that we made the right choice in staying somewhere beautiful and quiet off the beaten path. The two old men who served us at the traditional tavern Camille Steffani were so friendly, and after devouring the stuffed cabbage and vine leaves, I can see why this place is still a hit after getting its start in the 70s, despite there is no sunset view.

View from Firostefani

View from Firostefani

Nightspots like Koo Club and Enigma are open to the early hours, but a few 12 Euro Aperol Spritz and some poppy dancing with the trendsetters in our hiking gear was all I needed before calling it a night. With apparently only 44 cabs on the whole island, I was more concerned with making sure we got a cab before the clubs let out and I was forced to scarf down an unnecessary gyro while queuing for one. Does this mean I’m getting old? Luckily, 2 am isn’t late enough to warrant such demand and 20 Euro later we were back in the outskirts of Oia, happy we did the hike in reverse and got the hard bit done first.

On our final day we joined Santorini Sailing on the catamaran Dream Catcher to take a dip in the sea and to witness the beaches we yet had time to visit. I thought I heard a familiar accent when boarding, as Captain Ted is a fellow New Jersian (Bergen County), and has been spending half the year in Santorini running his lucrative business and the other half with his family in the states for the last 20 years. Not a bad life.

Ammoudi Bay

Ammoudi Bay

The trip started in Ammoudi Bay, the one place I wish we had more time to explore as the Ammoudi Fish Tavern is meant to be pretty spectacular. We let the sun scorch our bodies as we sunbathed on the boat’s front ropes, then made a few stops to dip into the Aegean, including passing the volcano and stopping off to swim in the hot springs and at Red Beach. The best part of the trip (and what makes it worth the money) was not only the unlimited local Greek white wine I generously helped myself to, but the meal served while we watched the sunset. Fresh Greek salad, olive dip, and eggplant were to start, and I only wish I had more room in me (and wasn’t in a bikini) to further devour the chicken and pork served with fresh tzatziki that even now makes my mouth water thinking of it.

Under the Caldera, Oia

Under the Caldera, Oia

Santorini had been on my bucket list for years, and I had always put it off as somewhere overpriced and touristy. It’s true, you’ll find quieter Greek islands elsewhere where the hordes of tourists don’t exist and you don’t have to spend a pretty penny, but I would definitely go again, maybe for a future romantic getaway or to explore the ruins of Akrotiri Archaeological Site. And when I do go back, an infinity pool deep in the Caldera and a visit to the wineries is the only way to do it.

Lisa Vecchio, Santorini, Greece

Lisa Vecchio, Santorini, Greece

How To Fiesta In Alicante


Alicante isn’t a city that’s known for its looks; nor is it a place that I would call ‘pretty’. My anticipation for a picturesque, cute Spanish old town was quickly let down once I realized it was run amok with nightclubs, drunken hen do’s and ugly, decrepit buildings. In fact, you might be wondering what’s so great about this typical English holiday destination with little to see aside from the sea. A fiesta with the locals of course!

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

Alicante is a small city on the Costa Blanca with a great foodie scene at a fraction of the cost of the larger tourist cities like Barcelona and Madrid. While aside from the monstrous Moorish Castillo de Santa Barbara that towers over the popular beach Playa del Postiguet, there aren’t many massive tourist sites to see (although I do recommend making the time for this one and it’s stunning coastal views). That’s okay though when it’s sunny year-round, there’s plenty of paellas to keep you full (try Dársena on the waterfront) and there’s, of course, a party around every corner.

Where to fiesta in Alicante:

Hogueras de San Juan: We witnessed the start of the summer’s most important festival, the celebration of the arrival of the summer solstice. We were lucky to see the Artistic Fiesta Lights in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and the parade of natives dressed in traditional garments, impressively some sporting large paper mâché heads whilst on stilts. Unfortunately, we missed the best bit of the festival, on the 24th of June is the Night of Burning or “Noche de la Cremà”, when 200 large satirical paper mâché statues are lit on fire.

Hogueras de San Juan

Hogueras de San Juan

Mercado Central: On a Saturday afternoon locals gather around midday at the epicenter of the city, the central market. After roaming the meat, cheese, fruit, veg, and fish stalls, a common shopping place for regulars (don’t forget to hold your nose from the stench), everyone orders a small plate of pre-cut Iberico Jamon from one of the vendors, grabs an unlabeled beer from the booze stall, and stands in the sun outside catching up with friends before starting their Saturday night. We too took part in the tradition which was one of the highlights of our trip, chatting with amicable locals to the sound of chants for the forthcoming football match and trying different varieties of Spanish ham and cheese…and of course, beer.

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Carrer Castanos: If you like generously free poured gin and tonics in large round glasses, shisha’s and salsa dancing at any hour of the day, this is your spot. Bar Ten10 offers all of the above, and we couldn’t help ourselves to a midafternoon boogie after indulging a few too many beers outside Mercado Central. For a safer option, take a turn on Calle San Francisco for a variety of cute tapas restaurants, sit alfresco and enjoy fresh squid, fried green peppers and so much more. El Rebujito Taperia was highly recommended, although the squid didn’t live up to its expectations.

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Football: The Champions League Final 2017 took place whilst we were in town, Real Madrid vs. Juventus, and without a question, the city supported their famous neighbor Madrid. Pubs and tabernas put their TV’s outside, as everyone under the sun gathered to witness the epic match. We were lucky to find a spot to sip Aperol spritz perched on the ledge outside Amapola Pub, to observe the locals go nuts in the frenzy watching Real Madrid defend their UEFA Champions League title. Even better, next door, Taberna San Pascual served the best aubergine lasagna and Spanish meatballs; one of our best meals in the city.

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Il Barrio: If you’re 18 and want to party, Il Barrio on a Friday and Saturday night is where it happens. Who would have thought we were too old for it? The youngins poured onto the streets out from upbeat discotheques to rock metal clubs. Instead, we chose to dance our hearts out at Havana Club, one of the few places that played both Spanish and Top 20 English-speaking dance beats. For a few hours, we were the only ones on the dance floor, sangria in hand, rocking out as if we were anywhere in the world. Plus, if you venture during the day there’s always spots like La Tasca del Barrio to keep you busy with their killer tapas and wine selection.

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

So there you have it! If it’s simply the sun, sangria and tapas you are seeking, shared with friendly locals and a stunning coastline, leave your tourist map at home because you’re still in for a treat. In fact, there are no hawkers to chase you down, some even need to go find their English speaking friend to help. And whilst we were slightly off season, I can’t comment on the mega beach and pool parties that sculpt the classic summer sesh. So would I go back? Likely not, but for a quick and cheap holiday in the sun I certainly don’t regret going either.

Languedoc wine region

A Rosé Holiday in Montpellier


The student-centric city of Montpellier is not what one assumes when you say you’re jetting off to the south of France. Typically, the exotic beaches of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez fit the bill but for me and my crew, a short jaunt to the 8th largest city in France to sip rosé in the sun is just what the doctor ordered.

To start, Montpellier is perfectly located to get a quick taste of the fabulous Languedoc wine route. We started off with a half-day tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable Karina from Montpellier Wine Tours to visit two medieval, family-owned estates.

Montpellier Wine TourSet at the base of Pic Saint-Loup, Château La Roque’s entire biodynamic selection was perfect on the palate and we couldn’t escape without two bottles of Château La Roque Rosé 2015 in tow. Followed by Château de Lascaux, sitting amongst the dated stone walls in an old monastery, set the scene perfectly for our second tasting.

Château La Roque VineyardA short train ride from the city is the unpretentious colorful port town of Sète. Narrow canals create a maze around the old town, surprisingly busy for a Sunday when the rest of France shuts down. Families enjoyed ice-creams, as we parked ourselves in front of the foodie mecca Les Halles, to sip more rosé in the sun to the sound of locals playing music in the street out front.

Languedoc coastAfter a scenic walk along the Languedoc coast, we discovered a small, quiet beach. It was an ideal and unsuspecting place to grab a baguette, some cured ham and cheese to picnic, coupled with a light, refreshing rosé in the scorching heat. On our way back to town, it was only necessary to sit along the canal to soak up the last of the day’s sun and try the big fat locally farmed oysters, king prawns and mussels.

Seafood platter in SèteThe best part of Montpellier is not only the short 14k proximity to a stunning coastline but cycling there! A paved path with fit runners, wild horses and fishermen hug the lush green river Lez, topped with Lilly pads and flamingos and lined with bright purple, yellow and white flowers mixed with bright red poppies. We let our skirts flow with the wind as we rode hired bikes along the pathway to its mouth Palavas-les-Flots, and stopped along the way for yet again another indulging picnic and bottle of rosé to reward ourselves for the day’s efforts.

Cycling to Palavas-les-Flots

Montpellier wild horsesMontpellier is an interesting city for sure. A friend asked why go? There’s nothing there, he said. But if you like great wine, fresh seafood and fantastic weather, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a quirky and charming place, tattoo and piercing shops nestle up next to century-old buildings; student friendly cheap eats, kabab and bagel shops rival Michelin recommended bistros while street performers, hippies and homeless dogs roam the streets.

Place de la Comédie“Summer is for tourists, wine country is for locals,” Karina said. And I’d like to pretend just for a weekend I was both. Even better, Montpellier turned Sophie from a rosé sceptic to a convert. Nothing beats a rosé holiday!

We loved:
Glouglou: A cute wine bar with a large range of taste-to-pour varietals. The glouglou platter of oysters, salmon, cured ham, cheese and foie gras was a perfect snack to share post-wine tasting.

glouglouThym Et Romarin: An awesome recommendation from Karina, we had our favorite meal in town here with excellent service by Jean. The confit duck and baked camembert were a dream.

The Beehive Pub: Set in a charming square where local townsfolk enjoy a beer at any time of day, the selection of over 40 whiskies gave us no reason to apologize for enjoying a few post-dinner aperitifs at an English pub in France (gasp!).

Le Pré Vert: This beautiful brunch location has the most enormous, delicious salads. Think goat cheese on toast with orange slices and almonds; smoked salmon and trout with mixed vegetables; or pesto chicken and fresh mozzarella.

Grand Hotel du Midi:  Just on the cusp of the old town, this funky contemporary hotel was perfectly situated in buzzing Place de la Comédie in the heart of the city. Service was great, free-Wi-Fi, a friendly bar with a great selection and small balconies to enjoy the morning sun.

Grand Hotel du Midi

 

Champagne Tasting in Epernay, Champagne


Champers, bubbly, the good stuff – everyone has their preference for a nickname but no matter what you call it, one thing is plain as day, Champagne is one of the most sophisticated drinks in the world. Luckily for me, getting to Champagne from London isn’t as difficult as one may think.

Keep calm and drink champagne!

Keep calm and drink champagne!

My friend Emily sold it to me very easily. She said it’s as simple as hopping on the one-hour and ten-minute train from Gare de Est in Paris to Epernay, the heart of Champagne production. From there it’s easy enough to spend the afternoon roaming up and down picturesque Avenue de Champagne for a few tastings in the handful of Champagne houses that line the street. After that, it’s a quick cab into the countryside for a multi-course fine dining experience at gastronomic Chateau Etoges, and back onto the train home the next day. As the French would say, walla!

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

To break up the trip, the girls and I modified the plan slightly. We took a late Friday afternoon Eurostar into Paris and spent the short evening in town. It gave us just enough time to chow down at the trendy Moroccan restaurant 404 before a quick cocktail at neighboring Andy Wahloo, easily confused for Andy Warhol with its funky vibe. We went to bed early enough that a croquet monsieur for breakfast did just the trick on the morning train northwest up to the Champagne province.

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Aside from the famed Avenue, Epernay itself seemed a bit dated. Historically, Epernay was where the Champagne was produced and up-market Reims was where it was sold. Besides an old-school CD and photocopier shop and a market sourcing fresh fish, meat, vegetables, cheese, and flowers, there wasn’t much else to do. That only meant one thing, we better do what this town does best and get our Champagne tasting on!

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moët & Chandon is massive, but it’s one of those places that has to be done at least once. The stark white interior and polished gift shop said it all, but then again the brands are owned by Louis Vuitton, the largest luxury producer in the world. In fact, 10% of Champagne production in the region comes from the Moët & Chandon house.

What’s great about a guided tour is that you really do learn a lot, and it’s even a nice refresher on what you may already know. Yes, sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s actually from the region itself, but I always thought it was just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. There is actually a third grape that sneaks in too, Pinot Meunier.

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Even more fascinating is that there is a labyrinth of over 110 kilometers of cellars in Epernay, all running underground the city, some going multiple layers deep. It’s the clay in the terroir which is why Champagne can truly only be called as such if produced in this region alone.

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

There are 3 types of tastings offered at the end of the tour, Traditional (one glass of Moët Impérial, Impérial (one glass of Impérial and one glass of Rosé Impérial), and Grand Vintage (one glass of Vintage 2008 and one glass of Rosé Vintage 2008). We only had the Traditional however I’m so grateful to my friend Jaime who gave me a bottle of their latest, Vintage 2008, for my birthday this year.

Gates of Collard-Picard

Gates of Collard-Picard

The courtyard of Collard-Picard was one of our favorite stops. We were so lucky that the sun was shining and it wasn’t too brisk being the end of October. In fact, the Prestige bottle we shared over gossip and giggles was the best of the day and the only one that made the journey back to London with me. Maybe it’s because the grapes were all derived from prestigious Grand-Cru classified terroirs.

The most special of all was the VIP private tour at de Castellane courtesy of Grape Escapes. Taking a short detour off of the famed Avenue, when I caught sight of the magnificent tower that trademarks the town my mouth did a big drop and I let out a huge “wow.”  Even better, our fast-talking guide Paulina was the best and took us to the top at the close of the tour. She taught us all about the game of champagne making, from deciding when to keep a vintage which you should keep from 10 years onward, or when to blend it into a non-vintage if the taste starts to turn for the worse over time.

If planning a visit to de Castellane, I would recommend doing a guided tour during the week, where you can see the live production line in action. For the four of us however, the underground museum was still very educational and built further on what we learned earlier in the day. What made the tour so special was the visit to the private offices, which housed over 7,000 champagne labels – a marketers dream.

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

We then relaxed in big brown leather chairs for our private tasting of both the Brut and Rosé. We definitely overstayed our welcome but it was the perfect environment to unwind and ask Paulina countless questions about champagne and wine production. In fact, we stayed so long we finished both bottles and Soph left with the hiccups!

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

After a day long of Champagne tasting there was only one thing left to do, find the perfect bottle from the experts at 520 Champagne et Vins D’auteurs and enjoy it over a classic French meal. La Table Kobus was spot on, Michelin recommended and the menu made our mouths begin to drool before any food was even served. The fois gras was like butter and beautifully presented. The steak and cod were perfectly prepared. Restaurants in town can be limited so book in advance and take advantage of their BYOB policy (corkage fee applies on weekends).

Only one question still remains, should I have tried the frog legs?

Taste Porto


If there’s one thing you must do in Porto it’s Taste Porto downtown food walking tour. One of the best ways to truly understand a city and the cultural drivers is through food. Food is cultural expression.

Besties Lisa Vecchio & Nidya Bellido in Proto.

Besties Lisa Vecchio & Nidya Bellido in Porto.

We met our guide André near Mercado do Bolhão in Porto’s city center. “I can promise you food, wine and caffeine,” he boasted, gearing us up for the next 3.5 hours of indulgence. We were guaranteed some of the best food in Porto, all from local producers. As many tourists would expect to have tripe (intestines) and port; André made sure we tried a few things off the beaten path.

André co-founded Taste Porto with his high school mate Miguel and his wife Carly. Although he trained at university as an engineer, his passion of Portuguese food is what brought this little tour together. Early on we were given a big thank you for our involvement, as a portion of our fee went to the AMI charity.

Pasteis de Chaves

Pasteis de Chaves

From our first stop trying the light, flaky pastries of Chaves, a small city in Northern Portugal, I knew it was going to be good. Only half of the normal sized portion, we tasted savory minced veal with parsley and a dark chocolate filling as our second. To be called such a pastry you must pass the designation of origin, similar to how Champagne can only be called when made in Champagne and Port similarly. Luckily the brother and sister owners of A loja dos Pasteis de Chaves been approved by the city of origin itself.

Andre demonstrating the sardines at Bolhão Wine House

Andre demonstrating the sardines at Bolhão Wine House

My favorite stop was Bolhão Wine House in Mercado do Bolhão. This was not only because owners Patricia and Hugo have transformed their grandmother’s old flower shop into a cute wine bar, but also because the market itself is a must see for any visitor. It has a little bit of everything; from a hair dresser to a butcher to the freshest food, veg and fish you can find in the city. Even the local hotels and restaurants source from there. Luckily for us it was the perfect time of year for fresh, fat sardines so we tried a few samples of tinned sardines, olive oil from the Douro Valley, a traditional cheese pastry (queijadinha) and some muscat wine at the market’s wine house. We were also lucky to try some paio-de lombo, or smoked pork loin, from the neighboring butcher as well. What’s a shame is the market will be shut down while undergoing a 2-year renovation from March. André and the regulars fear the worst during this time for the local economy.

Salsicharia Leandro (sausage factory) in Mercado Bolhao, Porto

Salsicharia Leandro (sausage factory) in Mercado do Bolhao, Porto

We moved on to what can only be described as a flavor explosion. At Flor dos Congregados we were served a double-decker sandwich, Sandes Terylene, warm crusty bread on the outside soaked with the gravy of juicy pork and sweet cured ham on the soft inside. Slow cooked, the famed sandwich takes 24-hours to prepare at this 164-year-old restaurant. Upon being served the sandwich, one of the 8-year-old twins who joined their parents on our tour cried out in excitement,“that looks crazy!” before devouring it.

Being served Sandes Terylene at Flor dos Congregados

Being served Sandes Terylene at Flor dos Congregados

Quite aching in the belly at that point, our next stop was for “an espresso in a teacup, well, because this place is fancy” at the historical Café Guarany, followed by sweet eclairs at Leitaria Da Quinta Do Paco. We finished off the tour, having moved on from strangers to friends over the last few hours, to share charcuterie and wine at the small wine bar Taberna Do Largo. Nidya and I stayed on well after the tour ended and shared a few more yellow bean lupins and wine from the small local producers.

I couldn’t applaud André enough. His affable personality coupled with his passion for showcasing food made the entire tour a pleasure. In fact, I was even so surprised at how well he handled the small children on the tour as well, always making them feel welcome by offering them ‘grape juice’ while us adults had wine and he watched them closely on the busy streets.

What I like most about Taste Porto is their general regard for just having a good time with food. They’ll even run the tour with just 1 person, and never more than 10. Even better, we were given a sheet with full details of where we went and what we ate, followed by recommendations for some other great spots in town; and an email summarizing our day to follow it up.

Knocking to enter the townhouse of Rosa Et Al to attend Secret Garden Supper Club

Knocking to enter the townhouse of Rosa Et Al to attend Secret Garden Supper Club

When Taste Porto invited us to the Secret Garden Supper Club 5-course degustation the following weekend how could we refuse? Set in a townhouse in the art district, Rosa Et Al is also where Taste Porto host their equally well-regarded cooking classes. Just 4 other pairs joined us along with André, Taste Porto marketing guru Marisa, Italian coffee roaster turned bartender Geo, and the brother and sister owners and chefs Patricia and Emanuel.

The table setting of Secret Garden Supper Club at Rosa Et Al

The table setting of Secret Garden Supper Club at Rosa Et Al

Candles lit in the back garden, it was such a warming atmosphere getting to know the couples from Melbourne and the US as we casually made small talk over our first cocktail. Unfortunately before the first course was finished being served, the heavens opened up and the rain poured down. It made for a cozy evening sitting around the table inside, going from lobster tail to beef cheek and finally endless cheese and dessert. The best part was having Patricia and Emanuel join us at different points in the meal so we could learn more about their passion for food, Portuguese architecture and entrepreneurship.

Traditional Portuguese Cheese Boards; Black Mission Figs, Walnuts, Wild Flowers Honey and Cinnamon Bread Toasts at Secret Garden Dinner Club

Traditional Portuguese Cheese Boards; Black Mission Figs, Walnuts, Wild Flowers Honey and Cinnamon Bread Toasts

You’re probably wondering about the port though, but that’s a story for another day. When next in Porto and hungry, you know who to call…Taste Porto.

Pintxos Fever in San Sebastián ​


I must have gained 10 lbs at least. Pintxos for breakfast, pintxos for lunch and more pintxos for dinner. I’m not complaining though. I certainly would call my first visit to San Sebastián in Basque Country Spain a success.

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos are sort of a form of tapas, bite-sized snacks typically served on a small piece of crusty bread in northern Spain. It’s common ground for both locals and tourists to stand at the bar, napkins thrown on the floor, as you help yourself from wooden boards sitting out on the countertop with everything from Jamon (cured Spanish ham), gambas (shrimp), anchovies, croquettes, imitation crab meat and goats cheese to some really interesting and unique ones, each place having its own specialty and recipes. They are best paired with a local vino tinto (red wine) from neighboring Rioja or a garagardo (Basque for beer).

Some places are really good at the honor system and keep track of what you’ve taken while you munch away, while others you must first show your plate to the bartender then pay before taking a seat. Once we finally arrived in the pintxos capital of the world San Sebastián it was non-stop snacking.

I met my Australian bestie Nidya in the industrial port city of Bilbao, as it was an easy place to sync up. I was just a short flight from London but Nidya made the long journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Zurich then finally Bilbao. Hotel Abando was perfectly situated for our one night stop off. It gave us an opportunity to catch up and get our first taste of the famed Basque delicacy of pintxos at notorious Café Iruña, then a few others along Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea, a foodie’s dream street, before making the hour journey north the following morning.

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

In Basque they speak their own language Euskal Herria so Nidya’s native Spanish from growing up in Peru didn’t necessarily always get us far. She even admitted it’s not what it used to be as it’s now more of a form of Span-glish, but it still was a big help which defaulted her the role of interpreter at times.

Pension Goiko, in the heart of the compact streets of Old Town (Parte Viaje), San Sebastian was a cross between a hostel and budget hotel suitable for both backpackers and couples. The location was unquestionable. The beach was just a short stroll away as well. One thing that didn’t go unnoticed is the noise from the alcohol-fuelled night owls who filled the streets till the early morning. I’d argue however that you would likely get the same problem anywhere in Old Town so just bring ear plugs and enjoy being in the thick of it.

Unfortunately it rained all weekend but we still managed a walk along the beach and through the picturesque port. We were delighted to come across  fresh oysters in the middle of yet another rain storm, but we weren’t too fussed as it was a great excuse to escape the cold, wet weather. I can only imagine how beautiful the sea would look on a sunny day as the town is known as a surfer’s paradise.

The city was a lot larger than I imagined, with Old Town, two beaches, and the local neighborhoods, there was plenty to do. Known for it’s Michelin starred restaurants, we couldn’t get in so last minute so we stuck to the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town. My favorite pintxos bars were La Cepa for their melt in your mouth Jamon – seriously it was the most magical and sensory thing I’ve ever eaten; Casa Alcalde for their house vino tinto, and Nagusia Lau for their great pintxos selection including morcilla and fresh octopus. Other popular spots include Taberna Gandarias, La Cuchara de San Telmo, and Bar Nestor although we were so caught up we never made it to those.

San Sebastián Old Town

San Sebastián Old Town

Atari was the real deal when it came to a more formal dinner. Ordering off their raciones (small portions) menu we stuffed ourselves with beef cheek, local fish of hake, and squid with black squid ink. All the tables were fully booked ahead but we were lucky one came free just as we arrived. Even better, the bar turns into one of the hottest after dinner spots in town, as both locals and tourists take their Aperol spritz on to the steps of neighboring church Iglesia de Santa Maria to mingle under the stars.

When the rain finally cleared the following day we stumbled across Mercado de la Bretxa on the cusp of Old Town. On Saturdays the fruit and produce vendors are out, replaced by craftsman on Sundays. Luckily for us, there was a fundraiser taking place for a few hours that we passed by with just chance. We watched a gastronomic cook-off on one side of the market, amateur chefs competing on who makes the best salsa-verde. On the other side, they were dishing out local beer Keller accompanied by merluza (fresh hake fish, lightly battered and fried). A local informed us this was the real deal in terms of authenticity, as two seconds later a small marching band formed, strumming and blowing their horns to traditional Basque songs. 

 

As the San Sebastián Film Festival was on that weekend it made for some interesting additional fun. Later that afternoon our noses lead us to the Japanese pop up Cinema Caravan. We sat out on the wet stone steps of a schoolyard sipping sake and eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) while watching a video installation against the old walls and jamming along to the DJ set. Later that night while sipping Basque craft beer we chatted to Bertrand from Bordeaux. He was in town for the film festival and gave Nidya some insider tips for her next stop in Barcelona while I sat trying to make sense of his broken english, Spanish with a french accent, and Nidya’s translations.

Port of San Sebastian

Port of San Sebastian

Our luck would have it that on our final day the sun finally came out! It gave us the perfect reason to walk off all our pintxos calories as we hiked to the top of Monte Urgell to witness the famed Statue of Jesus, and stunning views over the sea.

So the biggest question remains, when can I go back?

 

Reconnecting with Madrid 


The last time I was in Madrid was April 2003. I was a 19-year-old study abroad student living in London and had just spent the last few weeks backpacking around Europe with a few other American students. We started in Italy and went from Rome to Pisa then to the picturesque seaside towns in Cinque Terre. Shortly after a few of us split off after spending time in the south of France and took an overnight train from Nice on into Spain. I remember sleeping on the bottom bunk of a sleeper car for just a few hours after staying up most of the night drinking beers and playing cards.

We hadn’t really thought the itinerary very well through. I don’t think we ever even looked at a map to quantify the distance. This was still when we were early adopters of the Internet and needed to pay at an Internet cafe to use it. We did not have cell phones and solely relied on word of mouth advice and guide books. All I knew was that I had to get to Madrid by a certain date as that’s where my flight back to London was booked.

At some point in the long journey our train stopped. “Everyone out!” Completely confused, myself and my travel companions got up and tried to urge the conductor that we must continue on! Our train tickets clearly stated that we were booked all the way through. We were told the next free train from Barcelona was in three DAYS!!!

Laura was expected to fly out from Madrid (623km away) that night. If she missed her flight she would surely miss her connection back to the US the following day. But it was Easter weekend. We were too clueless to know that everything shut down for Easter in a holy city. Laura unfortunately had to call her parents to get some money for an emergency flight from Barcelona back to London. Unplanned yet unphased, Kari and I stayed back.

We stood in the middle of Barcelona Sants railway station perplexed but still casually agreed to throw in the towel and make the most out of the unexpected stopover. A new city at least! As we began brainstorming our options two male backpackers who were next to us overheard our situation. “You’re stuck here too? We’ve been here for days.” We got chatting and they suggested we try a cheap hostel in the city center which they had stayed at earlier in the week. Weary, yet considering we had no other option, we went along.

One was a pilot for British Airways. He validated it and all and so with my passion for travel we agreed they couldn’t be all that bad. In fact, they were true gentleman. For the next three days they gave us a personal tour of the whole city. They knew what to do and where to go. We dined along touristy Las Ramblas, learned the history of the famed church La Sagrada Familia, and roamed the parks sipping sangria from giant juice boxes with straws. On the last day they walked our heavy duffle bags to the train, we said goodbye, and that was that. Just simple pleasantries of genuine strangers with no funny business.

As soon as we arrived in Madrid Kari headed straight to the airport. I was left alone. This was my first time traveling truly by myself and I must admit I was a bit scared. I had some confidence from roaming around Europe the past few weeks to give me a boost, but I was also just ready to go home to London.

I remember being very hungry but I was too nervous to attempt to speak Spanish to buy anything. With some remaining credit left on a calling card I had, I went to a pay phone on a street corner and called my mom. Really I just wanted to chat to a familiar voice and pass the time. I was a wuss. Instead of enjoying the city I went to the established Prado Museum. If I’m honest, it wasn’t because I was into art. I don’t even particularly enjoy museums but I just wanted somewhere that felt safe to go.

I remember being ecstatic to come across mega stores Top Shop and Zara. Despite being too broke to buy anything, the familiarity of the stores and the appeal of something I could relate to calmed me. Shortly afterwards my day was done and I was off to the airport and back in London. It felt forever those hours alone on the streets of Madrid but as soon as they were done I looked back proud of myself for staying street smart and learning more about my personal strengths. I had really challenged myself that day.

13 years later I visited Madrid again, but oh how much had changed since that first visit. Both with myself and my confidence to travel as well as what I get enjoyment from when exploring a city. I was lucky this time though, as I wasn’t alone. I joined Alex on his journey driving roundtrip from London to Madrid and we met up at his halfway point.

Having been turned off by Spain since that first journey many years ago I’m now a converted woman. Glorious weather, fabulous architecture, and most importantly, the amazing food. Sure, it’s been a while since I’ve last been in Spain so it took me a couple of hours to feel comfortable speaking broken Spanish and ordering food but my gosh what we ate was out of this world!

Los Gatos, Madrid

Los Gatos, Madrid

Our first night we stumbled across Los Gatos cervecerias and were blown away by the voluptuous olives, smoked sardines and stuffed octopus. The goat cheese salad was sweet with balsamic but warm and perfect with apple and walnuts. The decor, the simple tapas and the cute location on Calle de Jesús made it the perfect first stop. And we might have thought cervecerias was short for ceviche but we were just silly and naive as it, of course, means brewery or more or less a bar.

El Rasto, Madrid

El Rasto, Madrid

I’m glad I took the time to explore Madrid on foot. I did some basic research in advance and ‘starred’ some hot spots on Google Maps. Luckily for us Sunday is market day at El Rasto, a local flea market selling everything from shoes, hats and clothes to simple tourist nicknacks. We grabbed empanadas from the side of the market to keep us going. Where the market ends we found a slew of local cervercerias. Unlike most European cities where Sunday finds the whole city shut down and quiet, the streets of Madrid were alive with both locals and tourists, and each tapas bar we visited was busy with regulars having a Sunday afternoon snack with an accompanying beer.

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Garden and view at Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande

A short walk on we uncovered Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, which despite being closed still had spectacular views. From here it was only a few minutes to my favorite building at the heart of Madrid, Palacio Real de Madrid – the royal palace. We sat on the steps of Catedral de la Almudena listening to an accordion player serenade us as we overlooked the magnificent structure.

Palacio Real de Madrid

Palacio Real de Madrid

Walking to the enormous outdoor park Casa de Campo was worth the distance to witness the massive public grounds. Surprised by how much dry dirt rather then greenery was present, the best part was stumbling across the beautiful recreational lake. Families and couples rented row boats and we sat observing in the shade at La Bicicleta taking an escape from the heat. Although there was a huge family celebrating with spurts of laughter and champagne being shared, I was still weary to eat the crabs and octupus sat out in the heat, but the complimentary potato chips standard at most cafes was still appreciated.

La Vuelta, Via Grande, Madrid

La Vuelta, Gran Via, Madrid

Our accommodation was centrally located on the busy shopping artery of Gran Via, which made getting around the city on foot amazingly accessible. The famed cycling race La Vuelta came right past us on Sunday evening and it was incredible to see in person how fast and talented they truly are. Tapas Tapas on neighboring Calle de la Montera may have been a chain but was still delicious and perfect for people watching. The true gem however was Viandas de Salamanca jamon bar that served out of this world cured ham on baguettes, freshly sliced meat to go and more.

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Viandas de Salamanca, Madrid

Another popular tourist stop is the El Teleférico cable car that overlooks the city. Unfortunately we found out the hard way that it was shut, but that didn’t stop us from walking through some amazing gardens and witnessing another spectacular view of the royal palace. Even better, the hard-earned walk gave us an excuse to go to San Gines, the most popular stop for churros in the city.

 

San Gines Chocolateria

San Gines Chocolateria

Clearly my appreciation for Spain has matured from apprehension to pure love for all things Spanish. Luckily, I’m off to Michelin Star haven and pintxos capital San Sebastian tomorrow.

My Norway in a Nutshell Itinerary


Welcome to the land of a million waterfalls, trolls, and Vikings. Where every corner you turn the dramatic landscape changes within the blink of an eye. Where seafood is fresh and abundant and your pocket is constantly empty from the astronomical cost of EVERYTHING.

Huge troll at Voss train station, Norway

Huge troll at Voss train station, Norway

Clever Norway tourism coupled the best bits of the region’s most popular sites and made hopping around to them very easy through their Norway in a Nutshell itineraries. Simple and effective, anyone, all ages can easily book online and craft an itinerary through breathtaking landscapes and (no longer) hidden secret places either on their own or as part of a guided group.

Jamie and I decided however that we would go rogue and take the best of Norway in a Nutshell and craft our own agenda while booking independently. We worked out that albeit slightly more expensive since the box-set tours book the cheapest train times, which aren’t always convenient, this gave us more flexibility to stay where we wanted on our own clock.

Even better, budget airline Norwegian Air run flights daily from London Gatwick. Flights can be reasonably priced and include free Wi-Fi on board.

Lisa & Jaime’s Norway in a Nutshell itinerary:

Day 1: Bergen

Bryggen, Bergen

Bryggen, Bergen

Known to be the cutest and most picturesque in the country, I wish I had more than just one day to explore this coastal city. Apparently it’s also the happiest place in the country too. We rented an Air BnB from an attractive local, centrally located between the train station and the historic area of Bryygen.

Despite a down pouring of rain all afternoon, our efforts to explore were not tainted. I tried my first (of many) classic fish soups over lunch at Café Opera, a casual bar and restaurant situated in the heart of the city across from the Opera. In fact, I didn’t realize at the time how affordable the food truly was there. It was where I first learned how large portions in Norway can be, evidenced by Jaime’s huge salad, so you could argue the astronomical costs are value for money.

The wooden boardwalk streets and pointed houses of historic Bryggen are so cute they definitely visually ticked the box of classic Norway in my mind. The entire city, and country for that matter, plays the part and is dressed for the outdoors and the brisk summer cold. Yes, you read that right, 50 F degrees in August.  It reminded Jaime of a mini-Seattle, each shop selling lightweight puffers, wool, reindeer slippers and of course, the iconic country mascot – the troll.

To escape the rain we stopped in at Una, a modern bar serving a range of over 20 craft beers on tap plus a wide selection in bottles. It was there we met Skip, a 70-ish-year-old American from Virginia who had been traveling around Europe solo for the last five months. Looking like a hippie version of Santa Claus, we couldn’t help but be friendly and share a beer to hear about his wild stories of a 3-week rage in Greece; learn that Bergen is considered the Nashville of heavy metal deemed as such by Crazy Dennis who runs the nearby music venue The Garage, and politely excused ourselves after finishing up with the full history of his ex-wife and funeral home business.

The night ended walking through the quiet backstreets of the hillside above the city, then on to dinner in the heart of the fish market. King crab claws, lobster, mussels, and prawns at Fish Me. Some things in life are worth the splurge in cash.

Day 2: Voss

The view over Vangsvatnet, Voss

The view over Vangsvatnet, Voss

Known as the adventure capital of Norway and home to Extreme Sports Week, this was one stop on the Norway in a Nutshell’s standard itinerary we changed to accommodate a full day of adrenaline pumping fun. So we decided to go paragliding! If you aren’t familiar with the concept, we basically ran down a hill then off the side of the mountain. Then we safely floated over the amazing scenery of Vangsvatnet Lake, mountains and the small town, thanks to the large glider attached to my tandem pilot’s back.

Pargaliding over Voss, Norway

Pargaliding over Voss, Norway

It was totally awesome! I enjoyed it so much more than my skydiving experience in New Zealand (read here) as there is no free fall at all.  Basically, I hung out on a comfy seat floating about the world like Edward Cullen in Twilight for a quick five minutes before landing in a run on the ground. You start with a run, which I apparently still did for a long time once airborne, and land in a run as well. I also started screaming before I even left the ground but I must note that at no point did I ever feel unsafe.

The best part about Voss Tandem is that it’s all certified. The booking system is also super easy. I put in my contact details and date, and a few minutes later I had a text from Biorjan, my pilot, confirming I was booked. Almost too easy! Jaime referenced my booking in a second submission and the two pilots hooked up behind the scenes to ensure we could ‘fly’ together.

Paraglider coming in for landing

Paraglider coming in for landing

Biorjan told me his whole story to calm my nerves. He’s been jumping off things such as this since 2005, is a carpenter by trade and does it for fun to help support his new born twins. I knew most of that though because I looked him up on Facebook in advance and the pictures of him gliding off of a mountain with a parachute wearing a pair of skies gave me the confidence I needed. I almost tried to trade Jamie though after learning that her pilot Oyvan is somewhat of a local legend, the ‘grandfather of paragliding’ they say.

Following our big success, it was straight down to the popular Tre Brør (Three Brothers) in town for a magnificently huge and delicious cheeseburger coupled with a beer from the Voss Brewery.

Day 3: Stalheim

View of Nærøy Valley from the Stalheim Hotel

View of Nærøy Valley from the Stalheim Hotel

If you ever wondered what a cross between the Grand Budapest Hotel and the hotel featured in the thriller The Shining would be like, then the Stalheim Hotel is worth a visit. Once the golden hotel of Norway in the 80s, it certainly has seen its day.  But what draws the tour buses and tourists stopping in off of on their Norway in a Nutshell adventures is simply, the view!

After finishing up in Voss it made sense to us to go the short distance to the hotel to relax for the night before carrying on. And I must urge, if you don’t stay in a room with a view you shouldn’t stay here at all. Sure, it’s cute with baby pink linen, a mint green bathtub with powder blue tiles and has a very weird charm to it and all but for the most expensive accommodation on our trip (again, we were paying for the view) you’d at least expect a working ice machine, an upgrade from paper cups, a step up from generic toiletries in the bathroom, and a functioning gift shop.

The lobby confused me, and maybe that was the point. Furniture from many different periods scattered between rooms set against fire places, cozy corners, and the huge windows that looked out to the famed ‘view’. But when there is nothing around but the great outdoors, confined to an overpriced, tired buffet attended by large Asian tour groups and a few honeymooners, dinner did the trick, but only just.  A sneaky hint of peanuts in the pesto sauce nearly set Jaime’s allergy off. Even scarier, this is a country that takes food allergies very seriously as signs with food contents and potential allergens are posted in nearly every eatery.

“Excuse me what type of deer is this? Rein?” At least we tried the country’s meal of choice, reindeer, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to ask without being awkward if it was the real thing. Good news though, she nodded back with a yes.

Despite waking up to rain in the morning, the second best part was then driving down from the top of the mountain through ‘the view’. A super-steep, windy road took us away from the hotel, further into the Nærøy Valley. Stunning waterfalls, 25 in the Valley alone to be precise, sprung from each corner as the countryside further presented itself.

Day 4:  Nærøyfjord

Rain has clear on Nærøyfjord

Rain has cleared on Nærøyfjord

On my bucket list for years has been to see the famed fjords of Norway. So here we were, boarding a vessel at Gudvangen to take us 2.5 hour through the most famed and picturesque fjords of the country, and it was pissing rain! Everyone knows everything looks better in the sun. Reduced visibility from the fog and clouds, I can still say that it was totally awesome.

Sure, the whole boat is full of tourists, but like anywhere else that’s what happens when you do the most touristy thing in a place. Yea, it was so cool. Waterfall, waterfall, waterfall…did you just see that waterfall? Oh, and the village of Undredal. Cutest thing I have ever seen!

Cutest town in Norway, Undredal

Cutest town in Norway, Undredal

People watching is also a favorite past time so we sipped a few beers, stayed warm and came out during the really good bits to take some photos and chat to a young couple from New Jersey who gave us tips on what to do in Iceland as I’ll be there this coming New Years. We were lucky there were a few breaks in the clouds and it didn’t rain the whole time. I must go back though! Sneaky tip – try the porthole in the loo to stay dry while also getting an amazing view.

Waterfall view from the loo

Waterfall view from the loo

Day 5: Flåm

The heart of Flam

The heart of Flam

What a name! Flåm. The final stop on the fjord cruise ends in the small village of Flåm. There’s nothing much there other then another stunning view of more waterfalls as the primary reason so many tourists and cruise ships stop in is to begin their journey on the scenic Flåm Railway.

View from Flam Marina & Apartments

View from Flam Marina & Apartments

Jaime and I stayed the night in town at the Flåm Marina & Apartments. It was very quant and the rooms were clean, with nice balconies overlooking the fjord. The village is so small it’s a short walk to the main bit, with a few restaurants and gift shops. The highlight however was the Ægir BrewPub. The food portions upstairs at Flåmsbrygga are huge and delicious and the beer sampling is what they do best. Set in an old stave church, the wood beam and stone Viking-looking interior and interesting shape made it an ideal place to spend the evening as the rain continued down.

Jaime is a viking!

Jaime is a Viking!

If traveling on the Flåm Railway (Flåmsbana) from Flåm you want a seat on the right hand side facing away from town. This showcases the most dramatic views of the landscape as the train travels across steep terrain. It makes a tourist stop on a viewing platform at Kjosfossen to view the massive waterfall 93m tall. Quite an eerie experience to view the overwhelming falls in the rain, as a woman with long hair in a red dress stood twirling on the edge of the mountain singing to the sound of spiritual music coming from what looked like an old abandoned shed.

Day 6: Geilo

Trekking around Geilo

Strong posing while trekking around Geilo.

When people describe taking the train across Norway from Bergen to Oslo they are not joking when they express how magnificent the journey really is. The stretch from Flåm to Geilo was straight out of something I only ever dreamed. Rivers and rapids, lakes, glaciers, snowcapped mountains, rock formations with a single fire-engine red house standing out in the distance. There’s a huge mountain biking culture here as well and many bring their bikes along to trek across this awesome terrain.

We stopped in Geilo, only to later learn that it’s an upmarket ski resort. In the summer, it’s a great place for hiking. We imagined we’d be a lot more physically active up until this point in the trip but due to the rain we swapped exercise for beers. Luckily for our stay in Geilo the weather was perfect for a 12K hike around the Ustedalsfjorden. It was pretty quiet, bar a few other hikers so it was just us and the massive valley to explore. We packed a picnic, with wine and cheese of course, and set out to do what Norwegians do best – explore the great outdoors.

Hiking through Geilo in style

Hiking through Geilo in style

We were massively disappointed to learn that the two best restaurants in town Hallingstuene and Ekte were fully booked. Even in off-season you must book well in advance. We ended up at Karma Spices of India, run by an Iranian family, and it was quite average.  I’ve never before seen cheeseburgers and fish soup on any other Indian restaurant menu.

Day 7: Oslo

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It’s about 4 hours from Geilo on the train to finish off in Oslo. Oslo has a reputation of being even more expensive, but also lacking in the tourism department. With just a half a day to spare we opted to go the Nobel Peace Center. It’s a great place to spend a free hour and really brought to light some of the applauding humanitarian efforts happening all across the world.

We finished with what could only be a perfect meal. Solsiden is rated one of the top seafood restaurants in the city and overlooks the Oslo Fjord and trendy Aker Brygge waterfront. We divulged in sashimi of scallops, halibut, octopus and salmon before each devouring a delicately prepared fish main course.

Sashimi starter at Solsiden

Sashimi starter at Solsiden

We sadly left Oslo with empty pockets and a bit fatter than when we arrived but with happy memories, great vibes of the local people, and amazing pictures, until our next adventure as traveling buddies presents itself again.