Nov 25, 2011

Borough Markets

My 1st gastro tour - I wasn't sure what to expect.  Celia Brown was our tour guide.  She's been on tv & wrote her own cookbook.  She now has her own company, taking folks on tours of the markets around London.  Since the vendors know her & she brings them business - they are very kind to her.  We got private tastings, discounts & a little back story about the food we were trying.  I picked the Borough Market - it was started in the 13th century.  The London bridge was the only way to get over the Thames to get into the city of London, so that's where the traders set up shop. I had an amazing time - every 5 steps or so you were assulted with another wonderful smell.  We were there 3 hours and it was definitely not enough time - I could of easily spent a few more hours wandering around.  I held an ostrich egg, tasted sheeps cheese & ate boar jerky.  I tasted butter with sea salt (yum), pumpkin seed oil & marinated onions.  My favorites (which I bought) was white balsalmic vinegar (oh my - like a party in your mouth it's so good, oak roasted tomato's, mushroom pate & Lord London cheese.   We did a wine tasting - I liked the chardonnay-semillon (foxgrove).  We had fresh beef right off the grill  (melted in your mouth).  We had crusty bread, tons of different cheese & tried rows of olive oils.  Needless to say - I can't wait to go back! 

Nov 21, 2011

Meditteranean cruise - Liberty of the Seas RCCL

My husband & I have been on quite a few cruises but this the 1st one for my girls (ages 7 & 9).  They gave it two thumbs up.  Some favorite things on the ship - rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, broadway shows, swimming/water park, dream works parade and the self serve ice cream machine.  I'm not a big fan of cruise ship food but this was the best to date :)  Our 1st stop was Provence, France - we decided to take a tour to Cassis, an ancient fishing port.  The harbor was pretty & the shops quaint.  We stopped & had a croissant at an outside cafe - super yummy!  We walked down to the beach - it was rocky but beautiful. As we sat there a 3 men rose out of the sea, dressed in full wet suits, spear guns in hand, fish & a giant squid hanging from their belts.  They came out of the water & walked down to the fish market to drop off the days catch - very James Bond, very cool!  The 2nd stop was Ville Franche a very small medieval village - with quaint colorful buildings & a picturesque marina. From there we took a 20 minute train ride to Monte Carlo.  I loved Monte Carlo - everything is carved in the side of the mountain.  We got to see some of the Grand Prix course. The cars outside the casino, the yachts in the marina - everything said money, lots & lots of money.  Our 3rd stop was Livorno - basically a pit, so we only drove thru on our way to Pisa.  The Tower of Pisa is in the middle of no where but definitely worth the drive.  Then we continued on to Florence - we saw lots of statues (a naked David, Perseus holding Medusa's severed head). A few cathedrals, the doors of paradise, The Baptistery of John the Baptist, from the 11th century.  We ate lunch by the Ponte Veccio (1345 bridge). If you like red wine - I recommend you try Brunello, it was exquisite (and I don't even like red wine).  Our 4th stop was Rome, our agenda was the Coliseum, the Vatican & St Peter's Basilica. The Pope was in town & giving a blessing in the square so what should of been a 1 hour trip into town took 3. We did get to see everything but it was so crowded you couldn't walk, you had to shuffle.  Our 5th stop was Naples - we were supposed to take a boat tour to Capri, Sorrento & Pompeii but due weather they cancelled it.  We decided to spend a relaxing day on the boat. Our final stop was Barcelona, we walked up & down the streets - we found catherdrals, fun parks, buildings by Gaudi & great street performers.  It as the perfect ending to a great trip. 

Rome, Italy

My 2nd international trip with my best friend, I have to say after Belgium we were feeling a little more confident.  We arrived by plane & had the hotel send a car to pick us up.  We were staying at the Residenza Frattina - a great hotel (fab continental breakfast), great location (no elevator).  When we made the reservation, we asked for a double room. When we walked into the room - it had a huge round bed in the middle.  The guy must of seen my face because he said - it's a double room, it's just round because of the shape/size of the room.  The room was big & sqaure - so I wasn't sure what that had to do with a round bed but he seemed to think that was explanation enough & left.  We busted up laughing - welcome to Italy!  Rome is a huge city, with an overwhelming amount of people. Public transportation is the quickest way to get around, that is if you can fit on the train, bus, trolly etc... We are standing on the platform, the train comes (it's full) & you are fighting the old lady next to you to get the last spot - I felt like I was in a Seinfeld episode.  The 1st couple times the old lady beat me but after a while I caught on. I pulled out some old basketball moves - I'd post up, throw some elbows & before I knew it I was on the train :)   We saw the Coliseum (stood where the gladiators had stood), St Peters Basilica (touched the tomb of St Peter) (they had some past Pope's on display (this was disturbing), Vatican (we sat in the Sisten Chapel for a long time, just soaking it all in), Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain, Palatine, Arch of Titus.   I wasn't impressed by the food with the exception of the gelato at San Crispino (no cones or toppings, just yummy gelato).  Seeing all these places in person was amazing - they just don't translate in pictures & videos. With that said - I don't know that I would want to go back, like I said the amount of people is overwhelming - I guess I'm just a small town girl at heart :)

Bruges & Brussels

My 1st international trip without my husband (a world traveler). I was a little nervous but excited to explore a new country with one of my best friends.  Our plan was to spend 1 day in Bruges & 1 day in Brussels. We took the Eurostar train from London St Pancreas to Brussels Midi - it's about a 2 hour train ride, which was uneventful (with the exception of snorting myself awake & everyone having a good laugh).  When we got off the Eurostar in Brussels - we had to connect to the local train that would take us to Bruges (another hour ride away). We had a 25 minute connection time - which I thought would be fine but I didn't take into account that everything was in french and that there would be long lines for tickets. We got our tickets & found our platform with about 5 minutes to spare.  That's when it hit me - we needed to exchange money -  hmmm miss the train (and take a later one) or jump on the train & exchange our money at the train station in Bruges.  We decided we would take the train & exchange our money in Bruges.  I'm sure you can guess - they don't have an exchange desk there, the closest place was a 20 minute walk - so bags in hand we start out.  We find the bank, exchange our money & head back to the train station to store our bags. Unfortuately, we couldn't figure out how to make the lockers work (as the instructions were in french).  Eventually, we found someone who took pity on us & explained what to do in English.  Bags stored, map in hand, Euro's in pocket, camera around neck - we were ready to explore.   Bruges is one of the most pictureque places I've ever seen - it was like a movie set.  Every place you looked was more beautiful than the next.  For someone like me who loves to take pictures - it couldn't of been more perfect.  We had a 3 hour lunch at a little restaurant overlooking the main square - the flemish stew was amazing, the mint tea outstanding!  Yes - I did say a 3 hour lunch, I personally think the waiters were making bets about how long the Americans would sit there but as I would come to find out - the Europeans take their time while eating & if you want your bill or the next course you have to signal them.   We spent the rest of the day wondering around the streets, taking pictures in a magnificent setting before setting off to Brussels.  In Brussels - we stayed at the Royal Windsor hotel, a great hotel, in a great location. Brussels definitely has a city feel - it's bigger & busier than Bruges but still beautiful. The architecture was outstanding. The food - stew (Brasserie Rou d 'or), waffles, chocolate (chocolateirs on every corner), french fries (eaten with mayo) ....all amazing.  The streets are like a maze & we found ourself looking at the map quite a bite.  We must of looked lost & confused because every time we pulled the map out - someone would stop & ask us if they could help :)  They would actually go out of their way to help us - definitely some of the nicest people I've met so far.    I have to say - I love Belgium (the food, the people, the sights).  I can't wait to go back & visit again. 

Aug 12, 2011

Vienna, Austria

I've been to Paris but otherwise I've never been out of the United States (with the exception of Canada, Mexico & the Caribbean but those don't count).  What made me pick an Eastern European country for my 1st trip abroad I'll never know.  Vienna Austria is on the border, a short drive from Hungary & Slovakia.  I would have loved to explore those two places but I had only realized how close we were when the cab driver was giving us a geography lesson on the way to the airport to catch our flight home.  Lesson learned - look at a map before venturing to a new place :)

Vienna is a beautiful city - most of the buildings are made of stone or marble and most have statues on them.  On the corner of the buildings, on the top of the buildings, in front of the buildings - pretty much statues everywhere.  The statues are mainly of people (some people had tails & wings).  I don't speak German (which all the signs were in) but I read Neptune - which in Roman mythology is the god of the sea so I guess the tails made sense.  Some of the people on top of the buildings were warriors, with their charriots & horses.  Anyway lots of people statues, no gargoles. The main square is amazing - with cobblestone walks & quaint shops.  Lots of street performers (which I thought were cheesy) but they kept the kids entertained for quite a while.  Their favorite was a man who put bowls on one foot, while standing on the other & flipped the bowls onto the top of his head - he got up to about 6 bowls,  then a cup onto the bowls, then a spoon into the cup.  He made quite a bit of money while we were standing there - our kids loved putting change into his tin cup :)  Back to the city - there were water fountains & outdoor cafe's.  We walked around the main square for hours and when we got tired.  We hired a horse and carriage to take us around.  It's fun to walk around the city on foot but it's amazing to see it by horse & carriage.  Some of our favorite sights were St Stephens Catherdral; the Rose Garden (400 different varities) & the Spanish Riding School.

That night we asked the concierge if she could recommend a great Italian restaurant - I know we were in Vienna but I was in the mood for Italian.  She recommended Da Capo - only a few blocks away from our hotel.  We decided to walk & enjoy the evening.  We walk into Da Capo & here is how the conversation goes: Can I help you.  Yes - table for 4 please. Do you have a reservation?  No. right here.  She goes & gets the manager.  Can I help you.  yes - table for 4 please.  Do you have a reservation.  No.  Oh...pause....he puts his finger on his lip, with a hmmming sound & actually looks us up & down.   Okay follow me (I guess we passed inspection).  He leads us down these dark steps into the basement & I'm starting to get a little nervous.  We get to the bottom of the steps & I am actually breathless - talk about ambiance.  You can see all the old wood beams in the ceiling, the walls are old stone.  To the right there are a few tables with flowers & candles on them.  To the left you can see people cooking.  It was amazing! I ordered lasagne, the girls ordered pizza & my husband ordered chicken parmiigana.  My Mom is Italian & she makes the best lasagne ever.  I love lasagne & I've ordered it at every Italian resturant I've been in for the last 25 years.  I've never found anything even remotely close to my Mom's but this OH MY WORD - it was an explosian of flavor in your mouth that you didn't want to stop.  I tried not to moan while I ate but it was impossible.   As we walked home that night - hand in hand, as the girls ran & jumped off the sides of buildings singing & laughing.  I felt really blessed!

Day two - we walked back through the square, had breakfast at an outdoor cafe  - did some people watching.  Did some souvenior shopping - the girls found these mozart violins that they adored. Of coarse, now they want to take violin lessons & give concerts :)  Music is big here - Mozart, Shubart, Hayda, Strauss & Mahler are all composers from Austria.   We saw were Mozart played his 1st concert.  The Opera house is pretty neat - on the outside the have statue heads of all the greats. We decided to go see the Imperial Palace (where the emperor & empress used to live).  We did the grand tour & it was interesting.  Maria Theresa was empress at one time - she was Marie Antoinette's mother.  Marie Antoinette was born there & married off at age 15.  There is a statue in the garden of a man holding a womens head - not sure if that has an relevance or not.  The had a restaurant there - so we stopped to get strudel - you can't go to Austria without getting strudel.  It was very yummy!  We decided to check out the garden while we were there. So glad we did - it was our favorite part. They had a zoo, 4 mazes, a flower garden, a pond & 2 different monuments (one of which was quite a hike). 

Day 3 -  it's a short day today, as we have to fly home so we decided to do some fun kid stuff.  We found a place that was a cross between a local carnival & a theme park.  The 1st ride we picked was a roller coaster - we strapped in & off we went.  As I came to the 1st corner & thought we were going to fly off to our deaths - I thought to myself....i wonder if they have the same safety rules as the US? maybe I should of checked that before I strapped in! I pretty much screamed the entire time.  My throat was raw by the time the ride was over.  From then on - we stuck to the ferris wheel, pony rides & candy floss (that's cotton candy to all you Americans :)   They did have Madam Tussads wax museum there and although I thought it would be boring we decided to go. We sat on Sigmund Freud's couch, we sat at Obama's desk, we got pictures with Will Smith - it ended up being a lot of fun.    As the day was coming to an end  we decided to go back to Da Capo one more time.  We got the same treatment by the same host & manager but they seated us just the same & I ordered the same thing & was awed by it a second time.  Perfect ending to a perfect trip. Gute Wien Bye! Danke fur ein tolles Wochenende!