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.

 

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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

 

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech


Splash…a silver bowl filled with water is thrown straight onto my face by a large woman dressed in black cotton. Splash, she grabs my hair and tilts my head back to make sure it’s fully wet and saturated. Splash, more water is thrown onto my body as the final step.

I’m sitting in a dark round room, my body completely bare aside from a disposable thong, ass slightly burning on the warm multi-coloured tiles heated from the steam. My friends and I anxiously laugh as if it’s not awkward at all to be in this situation in the same room together.

Penny gets called out first. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh and a few giggles is all I hear in return from the neighbouring alcove as Sophie and I exchange glances and sceptically await our turns. When I enter for the exfoliating full body scrub down, I lay face first on the already soap-slathered plastic mat reminiscent of a slip and slide. First the scrub, then lather of clay mud, another splash of water to rinse out the hair wash and then finally, my head and body were covered in argan oil. Despite all of the awkwardness, my first hammam experience was actually bliss, smooth skin and shiny hair to prove it.

Colourful dyes, Medina, Marrakech

We’re in the thick of the red city, the charismatic and tantalising medina of Marrakech, surrounded by mud brick walls, buzzing souks, cat calls from street vendors and frankincense oil wafting from all corners. I absolutely loved every second of it!

My first experience of Morocco was in the overwhelming port city of Tangier, busy and dirty, with lots of hawkers and children begging to the point of exhaustion and irritability, but I at least still have the handpainted clay ashtray to prove it. But Tangier is not Marrakesh.

It was the perfect girls’ long weekend away taken straight from Sex & the City (naturally since it was the location of the second film we learned). We dined at magnificent restaurants (full list below), sipped mint tea, received daily massages, and shopped until our bags were overflowing, giving Penny the opportunity to perfect haggling in French.

Pom Pom Shopping, Marrakesh, Morocco

The heart of the medina is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the big market square where it all happens. Street performers come out to play, while potion makers and storytellers gather crowds, snake charmers tease half-drugged cobra’s and belly dancers perform their art, albeit cross-dressed they rumour. Locals and tourists watch the spectacle, refreshed on fresh-squeezed orange juice from the many vendors, buzzing on the aroma’s wafting from the food stalls before getting lost in the over 3,000 derbs (winding alleys) of the souks just like Aladdin.

One of the favourite pastimes is to simply grab a tea or tagine in the many restaurants overlooking the square and watch life go by to the sounds of music ringing, horse hooves clanking, locals bargaining, taxis beeping and prayer blasting from the speakers of the local mosques while women in headdress haggle for juice, clothes and fresh veg; a weaver handcrafts towels, while old men slump over in robes like Yoda. Life is simple you could say.

Even better, it’s dirt cheap. We did the whole trip, including flights, accommodation in a stunning riad (traditional palace), plentiful food and shopping for about 500 pounds in total. With the exchange rate, it was an inside joke that if you divide by 10 you’re good, but it’s still even less. “It’s like $7 but less” was a common phrase, depending on the number, that helped us justify our bargain while haggling, a Moroccan tradition it would be rude not to.

It also wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I initially thought it would be. I had a getaway strategy in case a panic attack came soaring in after our first afternoon exploring in the colourful labyrinth in the souks, but we were absolutely fine in the shopper’s paradise. Once I mastered my haggling, my bags were full of tassels, pom poms, embroidery, crockery and more. A simple “no thank you” after being greeted with a heartwarming “Welcome!” was all I needed to say.

Pom Pom basket

No surprise that one of the best bits was the food. At each meal came the tough decision of tagine or cous cous? Chicken, lamb or veg? But no matter what the combination the result was always without fail, delicious. Seasoned with raisins, prunes, lemons, olives, spices and nuts the list goes on for the combinations of flavour explosion. Within the old town, there are a handful of amazing options, whether an up-market restaurant catering to westerners with a liquor licence (do your research in advance), a back garden hidden oasis, or looking out over the famous market square taking it all in.

Tagine at Le Jardin, Marrakech

As a treat, try the pigeon pastilla (sweet and salty pastry filled with pigeon, nuts and honey). And when you’re not sure where to go or what to do, just wander and get lost, taking photos of the ornate coloured doorways, or do like I did, and surprise yourself by purchasing a massive handwoven blanket with tassels included.

Dyers District, Marrakech

On our last day I watched a local man dye cotton in a massive vat, mixing steaming water with dry pigments from plants as part of the tradition. His neighbouring street vendor showed me his freshly dyed cotton shawls, draped one around my head and face like a local woman would and said, “See, you’re now Fatima Cous Cous” or maybe he said I’m fat because I ate too much cous cous. I’ll never know.

La Fatima Cous Cous

Where we ate:

Le Foundouk: One of my favourite meals, I still can taste the chicken tagine with lemon and olives, but also the lamb tagine with prunes and almonds was the sweetest, most rich and moreish we found anywhere. In the summer, ask for a table on the roof terrace and enjoy the extensive wine list.

Chez Chegrouni: The food is simple and cheap but you come here for the view. Simply write your order on a piece of paper and hand it to the waiter and watch the world go by in the buzzing Jemaa el-Fnaa market square below. No reservations or liquor license.

Le Salema: Just off of Jemaa el-Fnaa, this colonial style restaurant has rooftop views, although the service was average, made up by the best pigeon pastilla and offering of mini salads (13!). Plus the waiter serves your food and wine whilst wearing a fez hat so you can’t argue with that picture perfect opportunity.

Waiter at La Salama with Fez

Le Jardin: Known as the secret garden of the medina, it’s the perfect place to escape the crowds. One of our best meals in the whole city, note no alcohol, try the vegetarian tagine for a flavorful veg option and the monkfish tagine was out of this world.

Nomad: Book in advance as it’s one of the hottest places in town, traditional Morrocan with a modern twist, but the best part is the views overlooking the souk and the Atlas Mountains.

Rooftop at Nomad, Marrakech

Cafe Arabe: Albeit a mix of Italian and traditional Morrocan, the reason to come here is to sip cocktails in the sun on the rooftop terrace whilst escaping the narrow streets below. The food is worth it too, especially as any cous cous dish comes with a side au jus to pour over the top until your heart is content.

Kosybar: A great place for a rooftop cocktail, Japanese and Moroccan decor come together in ‘cosy’ environment to just relax, a popular place for expats. Use this stop off as an excuse to spot the stork’s nest in the distance.

Where we stayed:

Palais Calipau: Nestled in the backstreets of the Old Jewish quarter, we settled into a magnificent suite in this old family run mansion. Free breakfast, wifi, swimming pool and rooftop terrace included.

 

Where we relaxed:
Hammam de-la Rose: A modern hammam and spa with excellent facilities. We opted for the Tour of Morocco (2h)……………………800DHS (that’s like 80 pounds but less; realistically 65 pounds). Royal Hammam 60 minutes plus massage of your choice 60 minutes (Sublime Moroccan massage, Herbal massage, Relaxing Oriental massage).

Le Bain Bleu: Finding this place down a rabbit hole of alleyways is half the fun. Less posh than the above but the tonic massage was the way to go, a firm, deep massage to properly de-stress before leaving town. 

I love Morocco 

5 Things I learned on Planet Iceland


Not-coincidentally timed with it being the hottest destination aside from Cuba (figuratively certainly not temperature-wise), this past New Year’s I treated myself to my all-time bucket list destination, Iceland. Deemed as such from that first layover in 2003 when I bought Renee an overpriced shot glass and could afford nothing else. Tourism is on the rise which made it an interesting time as ever to explore the land of ice and sea and to put myself into deep debt.

One thing I hadn’t done was mentally prepare for the lack of light, extreme cold, shortage of vegetables or the draining expense. My biggest dilemma of all while packing was whether I bring snow boots or hiking boots; and I had no regrets of leaving anything luxury behind and bringing both!

In our 5 days exploring trendy downtown Reykjavik, the famed natural beauty of the Golden Circle and the Black Sand Beach of coastal Vik, there were a few things I was surprised to learn along the way.

Downtown Reykjavik

Downtown Reykjavik

1. Weather
They say weather in Iceland is unpredictable, snowing one minute and dry hours later. Yes, it is Iceland after all but I’ve never before experienced the fury of mother nature as I did at her best there. A snowstorm of fluffy snowflakes on our first day made it feel like Christmas, contrasted against heavy rain and hail with wind so strong an umbrella was useless on our second.

Driving back from Vik, the steering wheel would shake as heavy snow was blown across the arctic tundra onto the road, so fast and thick you couldn’t see in front without searching for the yellow marker on the side of the road. On that day it was so fierce I could barely open the car door to take a quick snap of Skogafoss waterfall but it was worth it!

Skogafoss

Skogafoss

Slippery, black, and constant, there is no shortage of ice and Iceland is well named for its surplus of frozen water in the winter months. Traveling to the arctic on budget-airline easyJet, I was frustrated my flight was delayed only to have learned by a friend who had already landed, the wind at Keflavik Airport was so strong she sat on the tarmac for 2-hours because it was too windy to bring the exit stairs to the plane door.

If heading to Iceland in the winter you will need a hooded lined jacket, snow and/or hiking boots, thermal layers, waterproof gloves and a good hat to keep the heat in. The lowest it got was -6C (21F) but the windchill was so unbearable at times I don’t want to dream of knowing what it actually was.

2 . Self-drive is the way to go
On the one side renting a car allows you the flexibility to choose your own adventure whilst maximizing the few hours of daylight you have. On the flipside, when two Australian’s volunteer to drive then only realize once it’s too late that neither has driven on the other side of the road or in the snow, we might either truly have a proper road trip or a serious problem.

Trying something different, we opted to try Carrenters, an Airbnb-style car rental company where locals rent out their cars to tourists, and insurance and such is legit. In fact, we found the locals so nice and accommodating it came as a bit of surprise especially when we were in the wrong. Our car rental was actually about a 15-minute drive outside of the city, but our rental gladly dropped it off and picked it up from the city center to make things easier for us clueless tourists.

The road signs aren’t the best so I advise using a GPS to read out the few turns in advance. As the roads can be very icy, even on popular routes of the Golden Circle or down the south coast to Vik, utilize daylight hours to the best of your ability, drive slow and be prepared for volatile weather.

In a place where the primary attraction is the natural beauty, it honestly looks as if you are on another planet, self-drive gives you the opportunity to go slow through the landscape as it so drastically changes at each turn; to pull over to pet wild Icelandic horses, or to arrive into your next destination witnessing majestic sunsets and sunrises.

Wind storm during sunrise on the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Wind storm during sunrise on the Black Sand Beach, Vik

It can be eery when setting off, being in the middle of nowhere in deep fog with few cars around, snow tornados dancing on the landscape, driving further into what feels like a white nowhereland, but it also means you can time your visits to the popular attractions when the masses of tour buses are elsewhere and you can chase the Northern Lights night after night.

Big applause and thank you to Jake who put in the tiring hours, kept us safe during crazy weather, and made it awesome!

3.  The great outdoors
It goes without saying that seeing the Northern Lights was my biggest goal for this trip and I’m sad to share that I never saw them, yet! The wild winter weather meant that most evenings the skies were cloudy, the opposite requirement for the dancing light spectacle.

The closest we got however was on a clear night in Vik. After a great meal and awesome service at Suður-Vík, we hiked up past the town’s cute little church on the top of the hill, albeit a bit buzzed with a local beer in hand, and stared into the night sky. The North Star shined so bright I finally got why it was such a big deal. A new discovery came as we stumbled upon the church’s cemetery. Illuminated crosses lit up the graveyard, a huge surprise but a totally cool experience, honoring Christmas tradition.

Not far from Vik is the magnificent, and ever melting Sólheimajökull glacier (a part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap). Icepicks and crampons were required for our 3-hour glacier hike with Arcanum Glacier Tours led by chatty Maya. More fascinating than the details of the glacier and the rate at which it’s melting was the fact that neighboring volcano Katla could blow this century and the emergency back up plans are so outdated that the farmhouse a few miles down the road could never cater for the 3,000ish tourists who climb the glacier each day.

Start to Sólheimajökull glacier hike

Start to Sólheimajökull glacier hike

The Golden Circle is a must drive for any visitor to do once. While it’s not a circle, it certainly is a loop of approx. 237k, typically starting at Þingvellir National Park where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are split apart creating deep fissures in the ground. Many go scuba diving or snorkeling in the fissure called Silfa which is full of freezing glacier water but that surely didn’t sound too appealing to me.

The next stop is Geysir in Haukadalur, where geothermal pools bubble and geysers erupt at the surprise of the masses of tourists who stand around to witness. The colors alone are spectacular in addition to the water shooting up to 100 feet from Strokkur every 15 minutes or so.

Geothermal pool Geysir

Geothermal pool Geysir

Gulfoss waterfalls puts Niagara to shame! Very icy were the paths to get across both the upper and lower viewpoints to watch the Hvítá river viciously flow over various ravines and into the deep earth below.

Gullfoss waterfall

Gullfoss waterfall

Like something out of a movie, seeing the ice form lines in Kerið Crater Lake was beautiful and I only could imagine how piercing blue the water must be when not frozen. Despite an entry fee to maintain the grounds, it was totally worth walking the perimeter as the sunset over the neighboring mountains.

Kerið volcanic crater lake

Kerið volcanic crater lake

4. Food
There is a big divide between great food in Iceland, and things you don’t want to write home about. Then again, your budget alone may determine if you will eat well at all. In addition, there was strong evidence of a lack of green vegetables, compensated by really good potatoes with every meal, and unluckily for us the local fisherman were on strike.

In Reykjavik, new restaurants are popping up all over town to cater for the surplus of tourists thanks to Icelandair’s clever marketing and free layovers between the US and Europe. Of those we tried, I recommend:

Messin: On our first night the 3 of us shared the traditional Icelandic dish of fish stew. In our unexpected favor, cod was the only fish on offer due to the strike and bad weather. One giant pan was served with mashed fish, garlic, white wine and cream, dressed with potatoes (as is everything), lime and cherry tomatoes accompanied with customary sweet local rye bread. A very moreish meal indeed.

Ostabudin: This delicatessen and restaurant is one of the most popular in town and for good reason, the menu is limited but standout. We shared an over generous cheese board before devouring the arctic char and salted cod, ‘must-haves’ if you are in Iceland.

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur: I would have never imagined I would stand in a line for 45 minutes for a hot dog but let me tell you IT WAS WORTH IT! There’s a reason why The Guardian named it the best hot dog stand in Europe. Go with ‘the works’ and let them pile on all the toppings including ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish aka the special sauce. The combo of all of the above made me wish I got two!

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

There are other traditional Icelandic dishes to try like smoked trout (the smokiest I’ve ever tried anywhere), rye bread ice cream and Jake took one for the team and tried fermented shark followed by a shot of local liquor Brennin to remove the taste. “Tastes like feet and smells like rubbing alcohol,” he said. Your breath after is apparently the worst, and I was even still going to give it a shot until I saw Rob gag. If interested, touristy Café Loki across from Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja is your spot.

Iceland's largest church Hallgrímskirkja

Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja

Note that most cafes open late since it’s dark until about 11 am. That can make it a bit difficult to find a cafe for a good coffee or breakfast if heading off in the early am.

5. Drink
For one, I never expected Iceland to have such fantastic local brews. Even more surprising is the locals don’t know much about them. There were a lot of Christmas beers on tap, with a tradition for most local breweries to change them up each year. That meant that we were often asked which Christmas brew we wanted to try, but no one could actually explain how it tastes other than “Christmas”.

Common brews are Viking and Gull but our favorites were the numbered microbrews from Borg such as Leifur Nordic Saison NR. 32 and Garún Icelandic Stout NR.19 as well as a variety from Einstock. Happy hour does exist at most bars so take advantage of it and save yourself the ISK.

The overall lesson is, they like their beer and have some good ones, just don’t ask them what it tastes like or if you can have a try otherwise they will be dumbfounded.

If you like wine expect it to be overpriced and underrated, totally not worth it. For a great whisky selection, you could spend all day at relaxed rock bar Dillon on the main street Laugavegur.

And don’t be that tourist and buy bottled water. The local water is as fresh as it comes, although because of the sulfur the smell may have you guessing otherwise.

There were tons more interesting and fascinating elements to this trip but that simply means I’ll just have to return once my wallet replenishes. In the meantime, here are a few more snaps to enjoy:

Taken from the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Taken from the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Wedding photo NYE bonfire Reykjavik

Wedding photo NYE bonfire Reykjavik

Blue lagoon, Iceland

Blue lagoon, Iceland

The whitewashed town of Vik from the Black Sand Beach

The whitewashed town of Vik from the Black Sand Beach

Sólheimajökull glacier

Sólheimajökull glacier