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

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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!

Coliseum at sunset

“When in Rome”…for 48 hours


They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to explore the best of the ‘eternal city’ in the same amount of time.

You see, I haven’t been back to Rome since I was 15. Well, that’s not entirely true. There were those 24 hours in Vatican City before jumping the Euro Rail to Spain in 2003, but that’s a story for another day. So why has it been so long?

Even more significant, I’ve held an Italian passport for 8 years and it was still lacking that big bold ‘Italia’ stamp. And I was nervous too. I mean, what if they started talking to me in Italian at passport control and if they asked where I’ve been all this time…London, Melbourne, New York. Everywhere, but Italy!

Partially, I think my memories are jaded. I looked back and pictured a big antiquated city, dirty streets, being approached by pushy men and gipsies handing out roses every second minute to make a quick buck. Oh, but I was so wrong. Rome, in the offseason, was overwhelmingly beautiful, delicious and all around awesomely welcoming!

You could spend a week in this city and still not uncover all of its gems. But, if you’ve only got a short amount of time, here’s a taster of the best of Rome.

Stay on the other side of the Tiber River:

The narrow cobblestone streets, colourful graffiti, local trattorias and apertivo bars are what makes the once working-class neighbourhood of Trastevere one of the hottest areas in Rome today. It’s perfectly picturesque, a healthy mix of students and tourists taking advantage of the too many ivy-covered bars and trattorias by night, while the quiet streets are equally as Instagram-worthy to explore during the day. Even better, the Vatican is a 20-minute walk North, the Coliseum a 25-minute walk East, and the Trevi Foundation a 20-minute walk Northeast. Win-Win.

Streets of Trastevere

Streets of Trastevere

Hotel Santa-Maria: The Trip Advisor ratings are so through the roof, considering they have been awarded one of the top 10 places to stay in Rome, so there is no way I couldn’t book us in. Set in a quiet cloister with blooming orange trees, the service is beyond friendly, location super convenient, and the great breakfast and apertivos are a bonus.

Orange Trees, Hotel Santa Maria, Trastevere

Orange Trees, Hotel Santa Maria, Trastevere

La Tavernetta 29: This is where the locals eat and the obvious choice when in Rome is the carbonara of course, but I also chose to try the truffle ravioli which was out of this world. Service was spot on, with complimentary lemon sorbet and limoncello to close, at a shockingly affordable 25 Euro with wine for two.

La Tavernetta 29, Trastevere

La Tavernetta 29, Trastevere

Babylon Café: A local street artist I purchased an awesome photograph from recommended this hip gem, a casual place to enjoy an apertivo with the locals, plus there’s live music on the weekends. We would have never walked in if it wasn’t for the recommendation. In fact, we went for 1 but stayed for hours and the waiter was very patient with my poor stab speaking Italian after too many Campari Spritz.

Live music at Babylon Café, Trastevere

Live music at Babylon Café, Trastevere

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa: Craft beer is taking Italy over by storm and this low key beer bar has a suite of regular changing taps. We were even lucky enough to meet a few brewers while socializing at the bar.

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa

Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa

Eggs: While traditional trattorias are rumoured to have the best carbonara in the city, tiny and modern Eggs takes the Roman classic and gives it a contemporary twist. Organic eggs are at the heart of this varied menu.

Eggs, Trastevere

Eggs, Trastevere

Prosciutteria Cantina dei Papi: Modestly priced, this cute prosciutteria is an amazing stop for a grazing platter, with aged meats hanging from the ceiling to add to the ambience and the house wine a perfect accompaniment.

Prosciutteria Cantina dei Papi

Prosciutteria Cantina dei Papi

Time to get touring:

Rome is smaller than one may imagine. In fact, if you’re reasonably fit, getting yourself in front of all of the major ‘must see’ sites isn’t as difficult as you may think.

No stop in Rome is complete without going by to the see the big man in Vatican City. Plus, you’ll also get bragging rights of hopping between two countries. There’s even a post office you can send mail from!

Lisa Vecchio in Vatican City

Lisa Vecchio in Vatican City

You can easily spend a whole day in the Vatican Museums sandwiched between hordes of tourists. If you’re short on time, my friend Jen recommends doing the Livitaly Early Entrance Vatican Small Group Tour. As it offers early access, you’ll start the day at 7:30 am, avoiding the crowds and getting exclusive views of the Sistine Chapel and ancient Roman sculptures. The tour only takes max 6 people but lucky for her she had the guide to herself!

From Vatican City, it’s a short walk over Ponte Principe Amedeo Savoia Aosta heading straight toward Piazza Navona. Take a few snaps in front of the famous Baroque Roman architecture and the beautiful Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi

Gelato in Pizza Navona

Gelato in Pizza Navona

Continue on to the magnificent former Roman temple, the Pantheon. Entrance is free, they just insist that you remain quiet as you stare into the oculus (hole) in the ceiling of the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

Next onto the famous Trevi Foundation, always stunning, especially in the sunlight. Legend says if you throw a coin into the fountain with your right hand over your left shoulder you’ll return to Rome one day. I guess the coin I threw in when I was 15 worked, as I couldn’t believe how much I had overlooked the magnificence of this city previously.

Trevi Foundation, Roma

Trevi Foundation, Roma

Depending on how much time you have left in the day, head South where you’ll catch the sunset against the Coliseum. It’s breathtaking. You likely won’t have enough time to do a full tour of it now, but you’ll at least get some awesome shots while deciding when to come back later.

Coliseum at sunset

Coliseum at sunset

It’s likely you’ll be hungry at this point!

Eat in the heart of Rome

Figuratively, not literally.

I can’t recommend Eating Italy Food Tours enough, having also done a Craft Beer and Food Tasting Tour in Prague with them last November. Italian born, American bred Sebastiana led us through her local neighbourhood of Testaccio, the heart of Rome. This is not because it’s centrally located, but it is because it contains the old port where the bulk of Roman food entered the city back in the day, making it the epicentre for butchers and as a result, dishes made of offal.

Go out of your way to visit:

MASTO: This is a neighbourhood eatery at its best, serving only locally sourced meats and cheeses, so much that if the owner Rita and her husband don’t know where it’s from personally, they’re not supplying it. Having won two free glasses of wine on our tour, we knew that coming back to Masto on Sunday afternoon to eat our way out of the country before flying back to London was the only option as the prosciutto was the best Jen ever had! The polpetto (meatballs) were amazing as well.

Masto Testaccio

Masto Testaccio

Polpetto at Masto, Testaccio

Polpetto at Masto, Testaccio

Ristorante Angelina: The old slaughterhouse on the Tiber River, now converted into a cool community arts space, is the heart of this neighbourhood. Steps away is Ristorante Angelina, specializing in in Rome’s famous quinto quarto (offal). I tried the coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) and the trippa alla romana (tripe), an acquired taste to say the least. It’s an eccentric place none the less and the menu is balanced for those less adventurous.

Trapizzino: When it comes to street food Trapizzino is taking over by storm, they’ve even gone international to NYC’s Lower East Side. Picture a pizza crust triangle sandwich stuffed with the likes of your most savoury favourites. Couple your bite with their local craft beer and it’s a late-night muncher’s dream.

Trapizzino, Italian Street Food

Trapizzino, Italian Street Food

Giolitti: Hands down the best Gelato I ever tasted, and I’m not the first to say it. Serving since 1914, know how to handle the grumpy owner, always pick two flavours that complement each other, and if he asks if you want la panna (whipped cream), always respond with a “si”. We came back here twice!

Gelato served at Giolitti, Testaccio

Gelato served at Giolitti, Testaccio

So, those are my quick wins. Initially hesitant to go to Rome in January as it would be cold, I would highly recommend taking advantage of the offseason, escaping the hordes of tourists and experiencing Rome in its most authentic state. Just make sure you do yourself the courtesy and always get real gelato, not the powered fake stuff you’ll find on most corners.

Hint, you can tell by the colour, if it’s not natural (i.e. a banana is white, not yellow on the inside), it ain’t real!

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 officially our 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 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!

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?