Category Archives: Europe

A Weekend in Cologne

Ever since reading this New York Times article on Cologne, I’ve wanted to go…despite friends who have been to the city and said there wasn’t anything to see beyond the cathedral. Well, having spent two nights in Cologne last weekend, I have to, unfortunately, agree. There really isn’t that much to see and the town probably only warrants one night, tops. Oh well. I’m glad to have gone and crossed it off my travel bucket list, and see a German city besides Berlin. Here’s a quick recap on where we visited and ate and drank at…which probably was the best part of the trip – experiencing all the breweries!

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

Love Locks on Hohenzollern Bridge

What to See & Do
The main reason to come to Cologne is the impressive Gothic Cologne Cathedral (Kolner Dom). Stepping off the train station, you immediately come across this. For a better understanding of the cathedral, take a 7 euro guided tour, which is what we did. Tours take place 10:30am and 2:30pm on Saturdays and at 3pm on Sundays, and you meet at the interior front entrance of the church. They’re about one hour long and end with a 20 minute video with shots of the Cathedral.

After your Cathedral tour, take the pedestrian walkway on Hohenzollern Bridge and pause to take a look at the multitude of “love locks” adorning the gates. Along the way, you’ll probably turn around to snap some photos of the Cathedral, but save your camera battery for KoelnTriangle. About five minutes from the bridge, take the elevator up to the top of the observation deck for commanding views of the Cathedral and Cologne. I think it costs about three euros.

If you’re looking to do some shopping and strolling, take a walk from the Old Quarter to Ehrenstrasse Street. From Crumpler to Kiehl’s, Ehrenstrasse Street has a ton of stores for you to spend some euros.
Rhine River at Koblenz

Church in Koblenz




Koblenz Mascot is the Rascal
After you’ve done all of this and realized you still have a whole Sunday to fill with something to do (like we did), perhaps take a side trip to Koblenz, a small German town (pictured above) along the Rhine River that’s about one hour away. Along the way, you’ll be able to see the small towns, castles and vineyards sitting alongside the river and upon arrival, take a stroll through the Old Town, ride up to the fort on the Cable Car, walk along the river and have an alfresco meal while watching the German families enjoy a sunny weekend. Oh, and be sure to take a look at the statue of Koblenz’s mascot – the rascal – and pose like him comme moi. You can stop by the modern-looking Tourism Office to purchase a 50 centime map of the town.
Lommerzheim Brewery

Fruh Brewery

Nougatpretzel Berliner Donut
Where to Eat & Drink
As I mentioned, the best part of the trip was experiencing the different breweries. We went to three breweries that had completely different atmospheres and although I didn’t care for the German food (have I mentioned, I don’t eat meat?), it was fun to people-watch, try the different brews and see the local custom of how to order a beer. Apparently, the bartender/waiter just comes over with the a small glass of beer (it’s the shape of a long shot bottle), continues to swap it out for a fresh new one when you’re done and makes a mark on a coaster to keep track of how much you’ve drank. If you don’t want to drink until oblivion, put your coaster on top of your glass, and the bartender will know you’re done.

The first brewery we went to was Fruh. Located right by the Cathedral, a friend had recommended it and it was a great introduction to the breweries in Cologne. This is a large brewhouse with several rooms providing different atmospheres depending on what you’re looking for. So just decide whether you’d want to sit in a rowdier room, a more intimate room or a restaurant-style dining room. The next day, after our tour at Cologne Cathedral and our visit up KolnTriangle, we took a walk to Lommerzheim. Unlike Fruh, which definitely had a tourist clientele, the smaller Lommerzheim was packed with locals. They also have an outdoor area, which would be a great spot to enjoy a local brew on a sunny day. On our last night, we decided to try the giant schnitzels I had read about at Bei Oma Kleinmann since they apparently had a vegetarian “cheese schnitzel” I could eat. Well, those schnitzels are deifnitely huge…whereas my cheese schnitzel was basically a huge mozzarella stick in square shape. It was a lively atmosphere though with really friendly bartenders, so I would definitely recommend this bar/restaurant.

For a sweet mid-day snack, I had read about the nougatpretzel (pictured above) at Merzenich, so made sure to stop by this bakery chain to try one of these caramel, chocolate and nut-covered pretzels. Umm, I did not like it and neither did Rio. Why on Earth do people recommend that thing? Blech. While at Merzenich though, we did buy a Berliner, which was a pretty good sugar-covered jelly donut.

Where (Not) to Stay
We stayed at Hotel Lyskerchin, which is about a 20 minute walk from the train station. Since this four-star hotel was close to the Old Quarter and a good price (158 euros for two nights), I thought this would be a good option. Although it was fine for a place to rest your head (although your back would probably hurt the next day since the beds sink in), this is certainly not a four-star hotel as advertised. It is probably a 3 star hotel for European standards – I think the only reason it’s listed as four stars is because they have a sauna and swimming pool. Besides the sunken-in beds, the hotel charges an exorbitant amount for WiFi (17 euros for one day) and charges you to use the Internet on the hotel lobby’s computer too. As for amenities, they provide a shampoo/body wash combo, body lotion, nail file, blow dryer and a bar of soap. No shower cap and no q-tips included. I imagine if we asked, they might have been able to provide this though? On a positive note, we had forgotten our adaptor, and the hotel was able to lend us one during our stay.

Location-wise, it’s about a 20 minute walk to the train station and the cathedral, which is why I chose this hotel. However, after having spent a weekend in Cologne, I would’ve preferred a hotel that was closer to the lively shopping area (Ehrenstrasse Street) with the bars/restaurants. If you want to just stick with being close to the Old Town though and not venture out to areas of Cologne, this is probably fine. Either way, a taxi ride to breweries in a livelier area are only about 8 euros. A taxi ride to the train station is also about 8 euros.

Finally, as for the staff, they were professional but not the friendliest bunch. I would say their responses to questions and the check-in experience were pretty much no fuss, no muss. When asking for ideas on where to go, they didn’t really have much advice. Your best bet for that is to ask the tourism office.

Overall, it was a decent hotel, but I probably wouldn’t stay here again if I visited Cologne.

Ok, c’est tout and “danke” for reading my recap of Cologne!

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Istanbul Vacation: In Video

I really wanted to post more photos and a day-by-day itinerary of our October trip to Istanbul, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So in the meantime, here’s a video Rio made of our trip to the city of domes and minarets.

Missed the one post I’ve done so far on Istanbul? Here’s the post.

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A Trip to Istanbul: Day 1

I have wanted to visit Turkey for several years now, so it was with much excitement that I was finally able to spend some time in this Euro-Asian country this past October. With five nights, we decided to not rush through the country and hunkered down in the country’s largest city: Istanbul. From the food and the hotel to all the sights and our day trip to Ephesus, I have so much to share about this trip. But for now, I’ll break it down by day, and then hopefully do a post that summarizes everything with a link to my itinerary. God – I feel like I also said that about so many other places we’ve traveled to, and never came through on. Umm, Sri Lanka, Corsica, Provence/Pyrenees, to name a few. Fingers crossed for Istanbul…

As I looked out of the taxi during the drive from the airport to our hotel, I couldn’t help but thinking how accurate it was that someone described Istanbul as a “city of domes and minarets”. Pretty much everywhere you look, you’ll see this – and there’s nothing like hearing the call for worship reverberating through the streets from these domed mosques. So after drinking in my first views of the city during the 30 minute taxi ride to the Beyoğlu neighborhood, we arrived at what is now one of my favorite hotels – Witt Istanbul Hotel – enjoyed a welcome drink, and headed out to explore.

By the time we finished our drink and took the requisite photos of our hotel room though, we didn’t head out until the early evening. Since it was the third day of  one of the most important holidays in the Muslim religion, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and it was raining, we didn’t expect to see or do much since a lot of sites would be closed. That was ok though – after many years, I’ve finally started to take it easy when it comes to travel and don’t jam-pack my schedule by the hour. So, off we went exploring! Our first stop was the Galata Bridge where we saw the fish market and all the men casting rods over the bridge in hopes of catching fish from the Bosphorus.

Istanbul - Galata Bridge

With the sun quickly setting, we crossed Galata Bridge, being careful not to get hit by anyone swinging a fish rod, and walked to Süleymaniye Mosque. Sitting atop the third hill in Istanbul (there are seven), Süleymaniye Mosque is the largest mosque in the city and after centuries of earthquakes, doesn’t have a single crack from them. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, Süleymaniye was already closed to the public for the night so we just walked around the exterior and took in the gorgeous golden lights.Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque
After strolling around Süleymaniye, we decided to head back in the direction we came from and search for dinner back on our side of the Bosphorus. Right before crossing Galata Bridge, we passed by the 400 year old New Mosque (Yeni Cami) in the Eminönü neighborhood and people-watched in the courtyard for a bit.
New Mosque

New Mosque
After our New Mosque break, we were getting pretty hungry at this point…and therefore cranky, so we went off in search of some dinner. Surprisingly, two of the restaurants we tried to go to were fully booked (apparently, reservations are a must in Istanbul!), so the crankiness quotient quickly increased. After more wandering around, we finally decided to head uphill in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, passing by a lit-up Galata Tower on the way, and see if we could get a table at Refik – a popular meze spot the hotel had recommended. Luckily, they were able to squeeze us in and once we were both sipping on an Efes beer, all hunger pains quickly dissipated.
Galata Bridge Galata Tower

Efes Beer

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A Weekend in Berlin

For the Toussaint holiday weekend a couple of weeks ago, we decided to take a trip to Berlin with Rio’s brother Roel in tow. Below are some photos and recommendations from our stay in the capital of Germany – a city I surprisingly found myself liking despite the teeth-chattering weather and scores of construction zone sites.

While in Berlin, you get the sense that something big is about to happen in this historic, tumultuous city. And perhaps that’s why many people compare Berlin to a younger New York. There’s a youthful, energy in the air that’s subtle, but undoubtedly growing with each passing day. Soon enough, Berlin will have to shed its “Poor, But Sexy” status as more tech companies and startups take root there and transform it to what’s already being touted as Europe’s Silicon Valley.
Berlin Collage

Walking Tour
Above: Ready for a 4 hour+ walking tour! Below: Berlin Cathedral.

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral View

Heinrich Heine
Rough Translation: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.” – Heinrich Heine. Below: Holocaust Memorial, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Holocaust Memorial

Holocaust Memorial

Berlin Wall

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

Berlin Collage 2 Berlin Collage 3

Brandenburg Gate

Where to Stay
Hands down, The Circus Apartments! With Rio’s brother Roel traveling with us, it made more financial sense to book an apartment instead of two hotel rooms. I had heard great things about The Circus Hotel, so I decided to book us a two-bedroom, two bath apartment at their sister property – The Circus Apartments. Wow – what a freaking apartment! The concierge is located in The Kitchen Cafe on the main floor of the building and were extremely helpful. Prior to the trip, they had also contacted us with detailed directions, a list of their favorite local spots to check out and welcomed us with a goodie bag of drinks (non-alcoholic) and snacks. Loved this place and highly recommend it for families, friends and couples traveling together.

What to See & Do
Consider buying the Berlin Welcome Card for discounts at many of the city’s sights, as well as unlimited transportation on the metro and buses. We ended up saving about 10 euros with the card.

Climb up the easy 200+ steps to the dome of the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom). Four euros gains you entry into Berlin’s largest church and views of the city.

Sign up for a “Discover Berlin” guided walking tour with Original Berlin Walks. 12 euros for four hours (9 euros if you have the Berlin Welcome Card) was more than worth it.

If you only have time to visit two museums (or only that much patience), be sure to visit the comprehensive German Historical Museum. Housed in the oldest building on Unter den Linden, this museum shares the country’s checkered history over the last 2,000 years. After spending half a day here, visiting the Topography of Terror won’t seem that interesting. And the two-part The Holocaust Memorial, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a moving, powerful memorial that every Berlin visitor must see. Aboveground, walk through the field of stelae and come to your own conclusion on what it means. Below ground, the museum details the personal lives of the 6 million Jewish people who were murdered during WWII.

Walk along the East Side Gallery. When you reach the end of the wall, you’ll see a photo exhibit showcasing other places in the world that are separated by walls. Afterwards, cross the Mitte River and keep a look out for the various street art in the hip neighborhood of Kreuzberg – the equivalent of Shoreditch in London or Williamsburg in New York.

Pass through what many others couldn’t nearly 25 years ago: Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor). Berlin’s former city gate  stands as a symbol of what was a once-divided city. While there, don’t be surprised to see a variety of tourist acts like humans in bear costumes (the symbol of Berlin) and people dressed up in old military uniforms.

In Berlin on a Sunday? Head to the Mauerpark Flea Market for karaoke, boozing and shopping.

Where to Eat & Drink
Monsieur Vuong
– the spring rolls at this no-reservations Vietnamese restaurant were beyond delicious! Perfect ratio of crispiness, and shrimpy goodness on the inside. And it wasn’t too oily.

Grab a drink amongst the hipsters at Mein Haus Am See, and try to avert your eyes from the couples sucking face in the smoking room. There’s a club downstairs too if that’s your thing.

If you’re in the Gendarmenmarkt area, pop in Bavarian beer house Augustiner for sausages and a liter of beer…all to yourself.

Don’t Forget to Download (For Free!)
Berlin is home to more street art than I’ve ever seen. If you want some insight into the artists and graffiti you discover while wandering the city, then download the Street Art Berlin app.

Listen to the Berlin podcasts on the Rick Steve’s Audio Europe app to learn about what it was like to be in Berlin during the fall of the wall, and what it’s like to live in Berlin today. Sadly, there isn’t a walking tour for this city, but, it’s still a good listen anyway.

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A Weekend in Amsterdam: In Video

This is about four months late, but here’s a video Rio put together of our weekend in Amsterdam back in July. If you’ve ever seen our Sri Lanka, Nice or Rome videos, then you can tell his videos have really improved. He may not be a professional, but considering he’s taught himself Final Cut Pro via random online tutorials and does this for fun, I think he’s done an amazing job!

For more Amsterdam photos and tips, click here, here and here. And for a recommendation on where to stay, here’s what I thought of Vondelview B&B.

Next video coming up? Istanbul!

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Recently on Instagram

I know I don’t post nearly enough about Paris. The simple fact is I don’t visit any tourist sights unless guests are in town, and I don’t necessarily feel comfortable looking like a tourist or snap-happy blogger by whipping out a huge DSLR camera (or even a regular point-and-shoot camera for that matter) when I’m out trying a new bar or restaurant. I’ll occasionally sneak in an iPhone photo, but even then, those aren’t the best quality since I’m trying to be pseudo-discreet. I’m also just not the kind of person that simply wanders around the city for hours with a camera taking photos of beautiful everyday activities and sights. I really wish I was, but I’m not. In fact, I’m afraid that if I ever leave this beloved city of mine, that I’ll regret I didn’t do that. All this is to say that this is the reason most of my photos tend to be of my recent travels (apparently, I don’t have any qualms about looking like a tourist then), with an occasional Paris shot in between. Oh, and a shot of Tyler too, of course.

However, since I did have guests in town recently and even got to visit Barcelona and Madrid again after nearly 10 years, here are a few things I managed to capture on Instagram, Paris sights included.
Après New York on Instagram
Clockwise from Top Left:

  • This is actually an Instagram video. I know it’s cheesy to say this, but there’s something about a French flag waving in the wind that really resonates with me. Yes, I know I’m American, but I can’t help but feel some sort of heavy connection when I see a French flag. Rio thinks I’m nuts. My friend Alan says I’m a romantic.
  • We’ve been lucky with the weather in Paris lately (I know I just jinxed this now), so for the second night of my friends’ visit, I took them to En Attendant Rosa on Les Berges by the Seine for evening al fresco drinks and apéros. This is the view we took in – my favorite bridge Pont Alexandre III. If you’re ever visiting Paris and the weather is nice, then I recommend settling in at one of the few riverside bars or restaurants on Les Berges and doing the same.
  • On the last day of my friends’ visit, I took them to one of my favorite sights: Sacré-Coeur. Did you know the reason Sacré-Coeur always stays so white is because it’s made of a type of limestone called travertine that constantly self-cleans because it exudes calcite when it rains – kind of giving it a fresh coat of white paint? I always love sharing this fun fact with guests when playing a “Paris Fact: True or False” game with them. And oui, I actually do this because I am a nerd.
  • My parents also visited this past week. Before arriving, my dad said to me, “I’ve already been to Paris, I want to see another city and country”. Um, ok. What am I, chopped liver? So with that in mind, I took them to Spain for the week. For our last day in Madrid, we visited El Retiro Park, which is where this pond is located.
  • We also managed to take a day trip from Madrid to Segovia. This is a shot of the impressive Cathedral of Segovia, located right by the main square Plaza Mayor.
  • After literally two weeks straight of traveling and entertaining guests, I was one exhausted lady. Coupled with the fact that I ended up catching the cold my visiting friend Brian had, I decided to stay in and rest all weekend. Tyler did the same.
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A Tuscan Holiday: Days 4 & 5

For our last full day in Tuscany, we decided to take it easy. Instead of rushing to a winery first thing in the morning, as we did the previous two days, we finally explored the agriturismo we were staying at – Casa Rondini. It really amazes me how much work is put into this working farm – not only does the owner Franco cook dinner three times a week for his guests, but he also tends a garden that’s brimming with everything from peppers to basil to eggplant, takes care of his farm animals, and even makes his own wine. Unbelievable.
So after a tranquil morning consisting of feeding Gilda the Donkey and the chickens on the farm, and tasting some of Franco’s wine grapes, it was time to head to Perugia for a little sightseeing, lunch and views over the city (seen above). As the capital of the Umbrian region, what will stay with me the most about Perugia is the underground portion of the city. After taking a funicular into town (about 2 euros, roundtrip), you embark on a series of escalators within the lower town that leads you through the remains of the 16th century fortress Rocco Paolina. Approximately three long escalator rides later, you finally see sunlight again in the living city that lies above these medieval ruins. While making our slow ascent, I couldn’t help but wonder why so many cities are built upon old cities (i.e. Rome). After all, why didn’t people just clear the rubbish (although, large) and build from there instead of on top of it? If someone has an answer to this, as well as insight into other buried cities with functioning cities above it, please let me know! I really am curious about it.
Lake Trasimeno
After lunch in Perugia, we drove to the Italian peninsula’s largest lake – Lake Trasimeno. Once called the Lake of Perugia, Lake Trasimeno is not a manmade lake (ahem, Kristen). It’s actually an endorheic body of water, which means it’s a confined lake that receives water, but doesn’t have an outlet. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at Lake Trasimeno, we had just missed the ferry that would take us to Isola Maggiore, the second largest island on the lake, and had to wait over an hour for the next one. Considering we didn’t have much to do anyway, we decided it was time for some Italian gelato while we watched the local boys fish. Well, I hate to say this, but it was not worth the wait. Although the 30-minute boat ride was pleasant enough, we only had either 15 minutes or nearly 2 hours on the island before the next scheduled return boat ride, and trust me, there is not much to see on this island. Really, nothing. Rien de tout. Luckily, there was a little café open so after hiking around this ghost island that probably has more rabbit inhabitants than humans, we nursed our boredom with a bottle of vino while watching the sunset, lakeside, and then had dinner on mainland. For future Lake Trasimeno visitors, be sure to consult the ferry schedule next time so you don’t make the same mistake. Here’s a link I found to the latest timetable (valid from September 23 to October 26, 2013).
Lake Trasimeno Ferry

Lake Trasimeno Sunset

Steve, Kristen & Me at Lake Trasimeno
We started our last day with a quick visit to Orvieto, as it was on our way to Rome. Located just north of Italy’s capital, this hillside town is known as the “CIty of the Cliff” because it sits on a big chunk of volcanic rock called tuff. Most famous for its cathedral’s ornate façade and a blood-stained cloth relic, the Orvieto Duomo was built over several centuries (13th to 17th) and is the centerpiece of the town. Honestly, after having seen a number of old, impressive churches in my 32 years, what stood out to me was the interesting black-and-white geometric side.
Orvieto Duomo
Post-Orvieto, we continued our drive to Rome where Kristen, Steve and I would part ways as I headed back to Paris and they continued their Italian adventure. Before saying ciao, we had our final meal together where I was able to indulge in one of my favorite Italian dishes (cacio e pepe – delicious!). Then I was off to kill a few hours in Rome tout seul since Kristen and Steve had reservations to visit the Vatican and there was no way i was going to torture myself with the mass of tourists being herded through the museum. I was honestly so hot and perhaps in a bit of a food coma at this point though, that I didn’t really feel like doing much and decided to stay fairly close to Termini Train Station so I could easily grab the train to the airport. So I decided to take a leisure 30-minute walk to San Pietro in Vincoli (AKA the church of Saint Peter in Chains) to see Michaelangelo’s famous Moses statue and the chains that bound Saint Peter. After taking the requisite photos, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I might’ve taken a nap there. Oui, c’est vrai. Like I said, it was hot and I was recovering from a food coma. So after my little power nap, I took one final stroll by the Colosseum before cooling off with one last gelato (food coma was gone by then) and began my journey home to Paris.
San Pietro in Vintroli
Colosseum Gelato
If you missed my other posts about Tuscany, here’s a post about days 1 through 3, and some additional Instagram photos. Overall, it was a wonderful way to catch up with friends and see a new part of Italy I hadn’t ever experienced. There aren’t many friends you can easily travel with and enjoy, but I’m glad to say that Kristen and Steve are definitely two of them.Tuscany Collage - 3

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Une Petite Pause

Between traveling to Spain last week with my parents, hosting two sets of guests back-to-back, working and being mildly obsessed with watching all the seasons of Breaking Bad, I’ve been a bit on a blog hiatus. However, with one week to myself before my next set of visitors arrive, I hope I’ll be able to share and post some of my recent adventures soon.

In the meantime, here are two pictures of recent travels. The first one is the Pont du Gard, which is 25 minutes west of Avignon in Provence. I still have to do a full write-up about this two-week road trip Rio and I took in August! The second one is of the Aqueduct in Segovia, which I saw during a day trip from Madrid with my parents. Don’t they look a bit similar?
Pont du Gard

Aqueduct of Segovia

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Eating at…Akelaŕe

So about a year ago, I posted that I would “fly back to San Sebastián just to eat at Akelaŕe“. Well, I didn’t fly…but during the last leg of our Provence, Pyrenees and Pays-Basque trip, we stayed in Saint Jean De Luz, which is a mere 30 kilometers and 30 minute drive from this foodie town. So return to San Sebastián for Akelaŕe is exactly what I did.
Having dined at Akelaŕe twice now, I can honestly say that the food truly is amazing, the service is impeccable and the view of the Bay of Biscay while you indulge in eight courses can’t be beat. And it’s a nice touch when friendly, handlebar-mustachioed chef Pedro Subijana comes out and chats with each table (we might’ve hogged his attention for a bit.) However, if I make it back to San Sebastián for a third time, I think it’ll be time for me to try the other buzzed-about Michelin restaurant Arzak. That’s not to say that Akelaŕe’s food wasn’t as good as our first dining experience – but instead of saying “Wow” repeatedly after each dish like I did last year, this time I kept saying things like “Oh, I think I had this pasta dish last year. Remember our waiter who kind of looked like a better-looking Fabio last year? I remember this vegetable sea garden starter!”, and so on and so on. And honestly, when San Sebastián has more Michelin stars per square meter in the world (that’s 16, folks), then it’s probably a good idea to see what else is out there. But if you’ve never eaten at Akelaŕe, go!! You absolutely will not regret it, it’ll probably be one of your most memorable dining experiences, and honestly, you just can’t go to San Sebastián without ever having tried this restaurant. I highly recommend it.

Since I only posted one photo from Akelaŕe last year, here are a whole lot more. So I apologize for the following food porn…and to Rio for taking photos of every dish before letting him eat it.
Akelare Vegetable Sea Garde
Akelare - Gambas

Akelare - Gambas

Akelare - Gazpacho

Akelare - 2
Akelare Dessert


San Sebastián
Pasao Padre Orcoloaga, 56
20008 San Sebastián
Tél: 34-943-311-209
**Three prix fixe menus at 155 euros each. I had the Anorani menu (with some pescatarian adjustments) and Rio had the Bekarki menu.

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A Tuscan Holiday: Days 1, 2 & 3

View from Cortona
As mentioned, I recently traveled to Tuscany with my best friend Kristen and her husband Steve. it was a fairly relaxing trip which mostly consisted of visiting different Tuscan towns to sample local wines and indulge in pasta, pizza and gelato. It’s amazing I didn’t gain five kilos while away!

Our trip itinerary essentially consisted of arriving in Florence and wandering around for a few hours before heading to Tuscany for four nights, and then finally driving to Rome where I would then fly back to Paris and Kristen and Steve would continue their Italian adventure. Here’s a brief synopsis of our itinerary, with links and addresses at the end of the post. A grand merci to Kristen for organizing this trip!

With only a few hours in Florence before driving to the Umbria part of Tuscany, our first stop was to visit the centerpiece of the city – the Duomo. Unfortunately, the tour we had planned on taking wasn’t occurring that day and the long lines that wrapped around the Duomo weren’t conducive to an interior visit. So after taking a few photos, we headed to the Mercato Centrale market for lunch. I have to say – this was the worst meal of our trip. Talk about dry sandwiches! Ugh – what a waste of calories. So on that untasty note, off we went to Umbria to check into our agriturismo (a working farm that rents out rooms/homes) Casa Rondini in the small hillside town of Montegabbione.
Casa Rondini
As you can see in the photos above, Casa Rondini is definitely a farm, complete with an adorable donkey named Gilda, a noisy rooster and a flock of chickens who supplied us with fresh eggs each morning. It’s no easy feat taking care of this farm and every morning you can see Sicilian owner Franco tending to the animals, his garden or working the land on his tractor. Oh – and did I mention he even makes his own wine AND is the chef for different dinner-themed nights? Incroyable! The night we arrived, we signed up for “pasta night” where we got to learn how to make fresh pasta – ravioli and tagliatelle – and then headed to the outdoor dining table to enjoy prosecco, Franco’s homemade wine, delicious fresh sides like tomato garlic salad and artichokes, and then four courses of pasta. Four courses! As if that weren’t enough, Franco then served us homemade panna cotta, followed by a shot of limoncello. This was all for a mere 18 euros and was well worth it.

After a filling first pasta night, the next day we woke up bright and early to drive to a wine tour and tasting at Avignonesi Winery…at 10am. It’s never too early to drink wine, right?? About two hours later, we headed to the classic Tuscan hill town of Cortona, which was made famous from the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. All that wine had made us pretty hungry, so our first call-to-action was to find a spot for lunch. Off the main Piazza della Repubblica, we ended up lunching at Trattoria La Grotta‘s courtyard and I have to say…that might have been my favorite pasta dish during the entire vacation! Newly reenergized, we followed Rick Steve’s Cortona walking tour, did a little shopping and then visited Montepulciano and had a delicious pizza dinner there. (I can’t remember the restaurant’s name – désolée!)
Tuscany Collage - 2
Shoe Planters in Montepulciano

Montepulciano at Sunset
The next day, we decided to continue the trend of drinking first thing in the morning and drove to Castello Banfi in Montalcino. This winery was incredibly hard to find and what should’ve probably taken an hour and a half, took more than two hours. Let’s just say our chauffeur and our human GPS were not happy campers. With literally only 15 minutes to wine taste, we chugged three glasses of Brunello wine before rushing to our next destination: lunch at a small organic farm called Podere II Casale. The view of the Tuscan hills during lunch were wonderful, the salads delicious, the pasta decent and the cheeses “meh”. (And no, I’m not being a cheese snob because I am surrounded by heavenly French cheeses every day, as I was not the only one that felt this way.) My favorite part about this place though was being able to head to the farm right below the dining area and pet the donkeys. What can I say? I have a soft spot for asses.
View at Lunch Lunch Salads Donkey!
After getting my donkey petting fix, we headed to the small Renaissance town of Pienza where we took in the breathtaking views of Val d’Orcia, which is listed on UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes. Well-known for having the best pecorino cheese, we ended up only tasting some cheeses at one shop before settling down for some wine and sweet snacks. One of the snacks we sampled were “ossi dei morti” cookies AKA “bones of the dead” cookies that were basically crispy, light sugar cookies. After a full day of wining, eating and driving, we capped the night with…you guessed it, more eating! At least this time, we took advantage of our apartment’s fully-equipped kitchen and made a homemade meal of mushroom risotto and store-bought hazelnut gelato. Delizioso!
Tuscany days 4 and 5 to come this week!

Des Addresses Pour Vous

Trattoria La Grotta
Piazza Baldelli 3
52044 Cortona Arezzo
**I loved the simple pasta dish with tomato sauce and ricotta salata.

Casa Rondini
Plan di Faiolo 28
05010 Montegabbione
**Our two-floor apartment with two bedrooms and two bathrooms (one shower) = 95 euros per night.
**Dinner theme nights include pasta, saffron and pizza.

Avignonesi Winery
Fattoria Le Capezzine, Via Colonica, 1
53045 Valiano di Montepulciano
**Wine tour and tasting = 15 euros

Castello Banfi
Castello di Poggio alle Mura s.n.c.
53024 Montalcino
**Basic wine tasting = 15 euros

Podere II Casale
Podere II Casale 64
53026 Pienza
GPS Coordinates: N 43° 04’51” E 11° 42’41”
**Lunch = 25 euros

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