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Month: December 2016

Travel Superlatives of 2016

Travel Superlatives of 2016

As I reflect back on this past year in travel, there are so many memories that bubble up. Unexpected adventures, delicious meals, and shared laughter with friends. And of course, also rushing through airports, lost luggage, or barely making the last train. About half my trips were with friends or family, and the other half as a solo traveler.

Travel is definitely not all rainbows and unicorns, but as someone told me once about travel: It’s either a great experience . . . or a great story! I end this year with quite a few of both, and heaps of gratitude for all of the adventures I was privileged to experience – the good, the bad, and the random.

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Most New Countries in a Year: 11! (and a full passport to boot)

I didn’t set out this year to visit a ton of new countries, it just sort of happened. Looking back, the new countries I made it to in Europe in 2016 – 6 – is actually quite similar to the 5 new European countries I explored last year (this year it was Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Liechtenstein, Romania, & Sweden for those of you keeping track). Ditto for Asia. Last year, I went to 2 new countries, and this year the same: Indonesia & Singapore. What really put me over the top was making it to Costa Rica for the first time on my family vacation back in August, and also getting a chance to explore 2 new countries in the Middle East with my sister this December: Oman & United Arab Emirates. Thanks, family!!

FYI, my American readers, the US phased out adding extra pages to passports at the end of 2015, so if your passport becomes full like mine, you’ll have to renew it to travel even if it’s not expiring yet. The good news is that when you renew, you can choose the longer length for no additional cost. Obviously something on my immediate to-do list in the new year 😉

Hardest Time Finding a Restaurant: Berat, Albania

When you’re traveling in Albania, you seek out Berat. Its old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is known as The Town of a Thousand Windows for the beautifully window-filled view you get of the hillside from the river. Many people stay in Berat overnight, but it can also be visited as a day trip during a weekend in Tirana like I did with friends back in May. We got an early start, and spent a good part of the morning hiking uphill and exploring the Berat Castle. Well after noon, we felt that we had taken in the sights, but had not been particularly inspired by the food choices inside the castle walls. And we saw one place right outside the walls, but it was a giant eatery with tour buses parked outside, so didn’t seem like our style either. Instead we found the restaurant that everyone had been raving about online as being the spot locals prefer, and started to make our way in that direction.

There were four of us including me, and with several people consulting the maps on their phone, we thought that surely we could find our way to this nearby spot quite quickly, as we were starting to get quite hungry. We started down the one hill connecting the castle entrance to town and it kept looking like a wiggle down the next side street would lead us to the restaurant entrance. I would pop down one alleyway, certain it was finally the right one, and then reappear a minute later dejected that there was no eatery present. Eventually, we made it to the bottom of the hill to town and close to the car, but let’s be real – we were committed to finding the restaurant at this stage! We drove a bit to side streets where an alternate online map placed the taverna. Then we returned to the bottom of the hill where we had started, and asked some locals passing by if they knew how to get there. Finally, after what was probably *way* too much time floundering on our own, we called the restaurant. The owner, being so gracious at what was now probably around 2pm, actually came to fetch us.

We were able to follow him in his car on a meandering path that brought us . . . to a restaurant right at the top of the path right by the castle! I think it had been hidden by the hilltop and the large restaurant with the tourist buses, but of course we had been right there at the beginning. Fortunately all of our efforts were rewarded, with a massive, delectable feast of Albanian food with a Greek twist at Taverna Lazaro.

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Place I Made the Most Friends on the Road: Waiting in Line for a Kebab in Berlin

I usually make the most friends on the road when I am traveling solo, and this year is no exception. In the end, I actually had relatively few trips when I was in a hostel-type accommodation, which is where I would normally meet other travelers. And although I did walking tours and other group activities on my own, it was actually in a quest for food that I found the most kindred spirits. Nothing brings people together quite like shared queuing, and on this particular night in Berlin, I was set on getting what is probably the city’s most famous kebab. The line was moving along at a decent clip, but then the stand ran out of supplies (!) and had to re-stock. So what was looking like a 20-minute wait became closer to an hour, and I had a chance to gain some insight on the city from two other expats: a Spaniard living and working in Berlin and a Taiwanese student studying there. More proof that you never know who’ll you meet on the road.

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Best Wine Tasting: Argiolas in Cagliari (Sardinia, Italy)

One of the best parts of living in Europe is the wine. Grapes tend to be very local, and grown and processed in a way to complement the typical food of a region. I’ve done my fair share of wine tasting all over Europe in 2016 (and even a bit in Australia this year), but there was one experience that was especially memorable and stands out from the rest – doing a tour and tasting at Argiolas Winery in Sardinia, a bit outside of Cagliari. Although I’ve gone on many wine tours, I felt like I actually learned about their specific techniques and how they differ from other wineries. And the tasting itself was just fabulous. My friend and I had one person talking us through the wines, accompanied by a bit of local food. All of the staff was so friendly and knowledgeable, and the wines were so delicious, that we didn’t even realize until we had finished the last wine that we had taken so long our tasting had gone past the winery’s opening hours. Which really, is just a testament to the level of Italian hospitality we received.

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Craziest Hotel Check-in: Nessebar, Bulgaria

We’ve all been there. The crazy frustration of trying to find your hotel. It should be just around the corner. Or the GPS sends you one direction, but it just doesn’t like the correct route. Or in this case, sends you down a precarious gravel path. “No,” you think, “this can’t be right.” So you try an alternate route – which also turns out to be another gravel path. Finally you give up, and just park the corner in a random corner of the Bulgarian gravel road. And look up. And your friend says, “Hey, doesn’t that look like the picture of our hotel?”

End of story, right? If only… After confirmation from a nearby shop owner that we had indeed arrived at the correct destination, we walk into the building lobby. And there’s no reception. Hmmm….surely there must be staff somewhere, right? A quick pop to the salon downstairs finds it deserted. We call the phone number in the booking confirmation, and no reply. Then the waitress at the on-site restaurant is trying to be helpful, but speaks no English (and we speak no Bulgarian). Finally she directs us to one of the men sunbathing at the pool. My first thought is that it’s because he speaks English, but he actually turns out to be the building’s owner. “Great!” was my first – and misplaced – reaction. After studying the booking confirmation, the owner declares that there is no rental in his building under that description.

Ah, every frequent traveler’s nightmare. They gave away the last room, or the booking never existed in the first place. Images of curling up in the tiny car’s backseat for the night flash through my head, when the owner takes a moment to call the phone number we have on speakerphone. I catch a glance at his phone screen and realize that when he clicked “Send” a name popped up from his phone’s Contact List. As I wonder whether this is a good or bad sign, he quickly hangs up before someone has a chance to answer. He makes another call. This time it finally sounds promising, and I hear what sounds like “Italien” and I start gesturing saying, yes, I have an Italian phone number I used for my booking, it’s us. Does that mean we finally have a place to stay?? And yes, we have a room! He knows this person, and she is going to come and show us to our rooms. Imagine our relief when the room is just as expected, and even has a complimentary bottle of Bulgarian wine to greet us. As the door clicks behind her, out comes the joint, palpable, audible sigh. We’re finally checked in.

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Most People Visited in a Country I’ve Never Lived: 8 in Singapore

I visit friends in my travels often, and in fact, having a friend living in a foreign country is the best reason to get there for a visit! It’s great having a reason to explore a new, unexpected destination, and was how I picked several of my travel destinations this past year. Usually I travel to visit a single friend or family, with London as my usual exception, although most of my friends who live there I met in Milan. So it was quite random when I realized as I planned my November travel that I actually know quite a few people living in Singapore and there was never a better time to go.

There is the close Milan friend and previous around-the-corner neighbor who lives there with her husband and daughter, but may not be staying in Singapore much longer. The Singaporean college friend who I had seen relatively recently when she came to visit Milan during the World Expo last year, but whose days in Singapore are probably numbered as well. And then there’s the high school friend and her Singaporean husband and two children who only recently moved to Singapore. Several of these friends are now what I like to call 3-continent friends – people I’ve spent time with on three different continents. And for me it’s definitely notable to have so many different people from different stages of my life who just happen to all live in the same tiny island nation. While I didn’t know much about Singapore before visiting (other than having a ton of friends to visit), I became obsessed with the Singaporean style of breakfast and Singapore was one of my favorite destinations this year!

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Craziest Adventurous Things I Did:

Pemberton Climbing Trees (Australia) & Walking to Al Sawadi Island and Fort (Oman)

For me being adventurous doesn’t mean having no fear. Being adventurous is being confronted with something scary and/or dangerous, and then going outside of your comfort zone to do it anyway. There were two things in 2016 that really got my adrenaline pumping, both for being ostensibly dangerous, as well as me not really knowing what to expect ahead of time. First, was scaling the Pemberton climbing trees, which involved some incredibly tall trees and not much of a safety net. It was a bit terrifying, but also quite rewarding to reach the tops and take in the expansive views. Read more about the full experience in my post linked above and here.

The second pretty crazy thing I did was on my recent Oman trip with my sister. On the coast north of Muscat, there is a spot called Al Sawadi, with a nearby island and fort not too far off the beach. While there are boats you can pay to take you across, I had read something about being able to *walk* to the island during low tide. We arrived around 4pm and the water was looking quite low, but there was no one else walking across or anyone to ask. After a little bit of a walk when the water reached just up to knee level, we decided to go for it. This is only slightly complicated in Oman by the fact that it is a modest Muslim country where your shoulders and knees should be covered at all times in public. So you’re not just stripping down to your bikini and going for it. But venturing out into the unknown was great – the thrill and exhilaration of not knowing whether we’d be able to make it across, or if we did, how high the water level would rise before we reached the shore. In the end, my zip-off pants only got a little wet, and then we arrived and had the island entirely to ourselves! We hiked in our sport sandals to the top of the fort, took lots of pictures with the cell phones we were brave enough to carry for the journey, and had an even-lower tide for the walk back to where we had left the car, making it back across just as the sun set. An incredible and memorable experience, I’m reliving the excitement just typing about it.

Time Most Worth it to Trust a Stranger: Heading to the Cave at Wadi Khalid, Oman

I’m from New York, so it’s sort of second nature that when a stranger offers to help me out of the blue, my radar goes off and I become super skeptical of everything the person says and suggests. Perhaps it’s not the most open and loving way to live, but that is always my knee-jerk reaction: caution. Fortunately, the day exploring Wadi Khalid in Oman (a series of interconnected water pools and caves in the desert) came far enough into the week-long road trip that I already knew how hospitable Omanis were. Plus, they are so excited to see tourists – especially American ones – that they want you to have an amazing experience so you inspire others to visit when you go home.

As my sister and I were following the vague arrows pointing toward the Wadi’s famous cave, a man in traditional Omani dress fell into step beside us. He told us that he was heading to the cave as well, and as a local, knew the way quite well. My mind at this point was racing with possibilities, but we were just walking in that direction and were outside with plenty of other visitors. At one point I did inquire as to why he was so interested in showing us around, and he revealed that he was a police officer in Muscat and wanted to practice his English. It sounded legit, and again, we were not alone, but it was quite interesting crouching into a dark cave with no signs or directions, blindly following the instincts of a local who had been many times before. Our new Omani friend Said was a great guide, showing us the water source of the wadi, pointing out bats that were hanging from the ceiling just above our heads, and giving us the full experience of the cave. There’s no way my sister and I would have ventured that far alone, and it was just incredible to see the caverns and crevices inside.

Biggest Travel Injury: Stubbed Toe in Abu Dhabi

Anyone who knows me knows that I can be quite clumsy, so an injured toe as my biggest injury of the year is a major accomplishment. Interestingly enough, if I am doing a potentially dangerous activity like rock climbing or cliff diving, I’m quite attentive and tend to emerge unscathed. My biggest injuries ever? Both my broken collarbone and severely injured finger resulted from what was essentially me tripping over my own feet.

Stubbing my toe in Abu Dhabi doesn’t sound serious, but it was quite a wound. Basically, I was walking back to bed after a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom, and didn’t realize that one of the stylish chairs with metal legs reached out almost to the edge of the bed. I thought I would have cleared it by a mile, but instead I walked quite decisively forward and essentially sliced my second toe open. So it was more serious (and bloody) than your typical stubbed toe, and it hurt to walk for the next 10 days, as in it was painful taking e-v-e-r-y s-i-n-g-l-e s-t-e-p. But for a year of travel and adventure (and given my lifelong tendency to injure myself weirdly and quite seriously), not too bad at all.

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Travel First: Getting Put Up in a Hotel

Lost luggage? Yes, many times, sometimes for up to several days.

Missed a connecting flight? Of course, but usually with good, alternate options to still get there within a few hours.

Been on an overbooked flight offering vouchers? Plenty of times, but usually when I was in the US traveling for work and had to be somewhere by a certain time, so I’d never taken advantage.

Slept in an airport? Sure, most memorably at the Dallas airport in a snowstorm when I was trying to be there for the first flight back to New York for New Year’s Eve & at the Kuala Lumpur budget terminal (never again!)

Missing a connection and needing to stay in a hotel overnight? That had never happened to me before – until a week ago, so just under the wire to be part of my 2016 travel superlatives. I had just over an hour of transit time at London’s Heathrow Airport, which is cutting it quite close to begin with. Then, as we were lining up to board the bus that would take us to the plane in Milan, the snow started to fall. What?!? It almost never snows in Milan, because it’s usually not quite cold enough. And snow certainly had not been part of the forecast. When the captain announced that there was a long line to de-ice the plane and we would likely be delayed at least 30 minutes, I flagged over a flight attendant to ask about my connection. When he informed me that you need to scan through the transfer desk at Heathrow 35 minutes before your departure time to be allowed on the plane, I knew I was in trouble. In the US, they would likely send information up to the plane about the connecting flight, or at least the crew would be able to phone and request it. For this London connection, I had the sinking feeling that I would be out of luck, which was confirmed when we touched down an hour late.

By the time someone was available to help me at the re-booking desk, the best option was just to take the same early afternoon flight the following day. Spend an unexpected 24 hours in London, catching up with friends and soaking up the holiday atmosphere? If I must…

Most Times Crossing Paths with a Friend – and half the time accidentally!

It’s one thing to plan a lot of travel with a good friend, it’s quite another to have the one person you keep running into at unplanned moments in unexpected cities. Of the 6 times I’ve crossed paths with this one particular friend, our run-ins have spanned 4 cities on 2 continents – and only 2 were arranged in advance! We had planned to be in Bucharest, Romania (where she is from) over the same weekend in early June so she could show me around and we could hang out. Then a few weeks beforehand when her schedule was too busy on a business trip to Milan, a work dinner fell through and she messaged me last minute so we met up for a meal. In August when I was in New York, she messaged me about a last-minute work trip that had also brought her to the city, so we had another unplanned meal together. And then, the very next night on the way to meet another friend, I walked into another restaurant in a completely different part of town. And the first person I see? This same friend! Our 5th meeting of the year was arranged in advance, when I came to London to see the American football (NFL) game with my home team playing. And then on my recent missed connection in London, I messaged this friend to see if she was possibly around. It turned out that about an hour after my message she was actually coming to the same terminal of Heathrow Airport where I was stranded! So we met up for a coffee, and our last in a string of prolific, unexpected run-ins throughout 2016.

 

What were the stand-out moments of your 2016 travel??

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Best Things to Eat & Drink in Milan for the Holidays

Best Things to Eat & Drink in Milan for the Holidays

Europe overall is quite festive for the holidays, especially with the prevalence of Christmas markets, each with a different flavor depending on the country you’re in. I’ve already written about how to enjoy Milan for the holidays, covering the concerts and markets and special events that extend from early December into January. But of course, you’ll need plenty of snacks and drinks to keep you going through the hours on your feet in the cold, winter air as you do your holiday shopping.

There is plenty of stick-to-your-ribs comfort food that is part of everyday Milanese cuisine, from polenta to meat stews to risotto. But for me, it’s the hot beverages and seasonal desserts of Milan and its outdoor markets that really nurture the soul at holiday time. Here are the foods and drinks I always seek out to get into the holiday spirit:

Just in case you weren't sure at the first three names...

Vin Brulé

This is what the Italians call mulled wine, which I always found interesting because while the name sounds French, the French actually refer to it as vin chaud (hot wine). In any case, the best spot to find vin brulé is at one of Milan’s many holiday markets, where the hot wine will have had time to steep in the many spices that give it such a holiday aroma. There is no shortage of stands selling vin brulé, so follow your nose.

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Roasted Chestnuts

Growing up in America and listening to songs about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” it was one of those lyrics that just sounded good. Fast forward to living in Milan – people really do roast chestnuts, and this is one of the most common street vendors you’ll see at holiday time pretty much everywhere, and especially at any outdoor Christmas market. It is such a smoky, nutty taste of winter, and is a product you can’t usually find at other times of year, so take advantage while you can.

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Cioccolata Calda

Hot chocolate in Milan is closer to a solid than a liquid, with actual chocolate melted into a deliciously thick concoction usually “eaten” with a spoon and occasionally sipped. It’s a bit heavier than having a cup of vin brulé, but is a very satisfying way to warm you up and fulfill your craving for something sweet. Cioccolata calda is widely available at holiday markets, and also can be found at nearly every coffee bar. If you don’t see a sign advertising it, ask – they probably have it.

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Panettone/Pandoro

Panettone is a Milanese holiday dessert that you only see in December and early January. It’s like a much airier version of a fruitcake, with a soft, wispy, yeasty dough dotted with canditi – candied pieces of fruit. If you’re like me and don’t like the canditi, you can always opt for the Northern Italian cousin pandoro, which is minus the fruit and raisins.

A slice or whole loaf of panettone is widely available at any of the holiday markets, but ask any Milanese and they’ll tell you that the best version you’ll ever eat comes from Pasticcieria Marchesi. (It was the delectable Marchesi version that was happily devoured at the last holiday party I hosted, pictured above.) When you buy it whole, it comes with a packet of powdered sugar and a plastic bag so you can shake it yourself and coat the panettone or pandoro so it’s ready for serving.

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Gelato

Hear me out on this one. Gelato is made with seasonal ingredients, so you can get some excellent ones with holiday flavor profiles. I find after a minute or two inside a well-heated gelateria I am all ready to savor some winter concoctions, cold as they may be. Pictured here is my favorite winter flavor: zucca (or squash/pumpkin) from Milan’s Ciacco gelateria.

 

What foods get you into the holiday state of mind?  Are there any other holiday treats you’ve enjoyed in Milan that I should add to my list?  Let me know in the ‘Comments’!

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The Best Things to Eat & Drink in Milan Italy for the Holidays

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How this Wine Lover Got Into Tea Tasting: 11 Ways Tea is like Wine

How this Wine Lover Got Into Tea Tasting: 11 Ways Tea is like Wine

With how much I enjoy wine, you might ask how I came to become such a tea aficionado. The surprising but true answer: it all started in Milan, Italy.

Shortly after moving to Milan, I was immersed in language classes and looking for ways to practice and speak with Italians, so joined a language exchange. And it just so happened that one of the other members I befriended is affectionately known as “The Tea Lady” and hosts tea tastings at her home.

Once I attended my first tea tasting, I was hooked:

  • There were so many varieties of tea!
  • It could taste so different depending on the brewing method!
  • Even within a single, small category like Japanese green teas, there was such variety!

This excitement and continuing discovery is one of the reasons I got inspired tasting different wines, and my tea journey has gone through similar phases. Along the way, I realized how similar tea tasting and wine tasting can be:

Many Varieties

Just like wine is not one thing, tea isn’t either. You may have tried a single wine and didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll dislike all wine. The same goes for tea. Wine has red and white grapes of many varietals – like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, and syrah to name a few (and as I know from living in Italy, so many more!). With tea there are 6 categories to acquaint yourself with: black tea, green tea, white tea, yellow tea, oolong, and pu’er. I think prior to living in Milan I had only ever tried the first three types, but found out from doing lots of tastings that I quite like both oolong and pu’er as well.

Cape Naturaliste Vineyards, winner of some prestigious awards that we don't remember the name of...

Importance of Terroir

Prior to starting with tea tastings, I thought of terroir as that French word for soil that I can’t quite pronounce correctly and always gets thrown around by wine snobs. Of course, when it comes to wine-making, characteristics of the soil like minerality and salinity do impact how a grape will taste, along with things like the amount of sunshine and the altitude at which the grapes are grown. And for tea? The effect on the growing plant is so very similar, affecting the tea as it grows and also the taste of the final product. In Sri Lanka for example, the plantations and packaged tea are actually organized by the altitude of where they were grown because that will tell you so much about what taste to expect.

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Processing Method is Also Key

Did you know that black tea and green tea can be produced from the same tea leaf? Apparently it’s all in the processing method. Processing tea leaves usually involves some form of heating and/or drying, to go from the leaf on a live plant to the dry version you see loose or inside a tea bag. There is also typically some type of rolling or crushing involved, depending on the shape – loose tea tends to be in larger pieces, while the tea you find inside of tea bags has usually been crushed fairly small. What exact steps are part of the processing method depend on which category of tea is being produced. Wine also undergoes a variety of processing methods, depending on the type of grape and the quality of the harvest. Grapes for wine undergo fermentation possibly in steel tanks, concrete tanks, large wooden barrels, or the smaller barriques (or a combination of the above), which in turn affects the taste and color of the wine.

It Will Taste Best Served/Brewed at the Correct Temperature

I’ve been enjoying wine for long enough that I know that not only are whites and rosés typically served chilled, while reds are not, but there is actually a lot more nuance than that depending on the grape. Some reds are really meant to be served chilled, or at least slightly chilled. Some white wines have more prominent flavors when they’re a little less cold than usual. For tea, it’s really the brewing temperature (and time) that impacts the final flavor and strength of your cuppa. Growing up, my mom would always boil water on the stove for her tea, while I typically just heated a mug of water in the microwave before immersing my tea bag. I always thought it was just laziness on my part, and that it was a sign of adulthood when I finally bought a tea kettle for my kitchen. Only recently did I discover that not all teas are meant to be steeped at boiling temperatures, and each one will have an ideal brewing temperature ranging from 80 to 100 degrees Celsius or 170 to 212° Fahrenheit. Brewing tea at the correct temperature helps to avoid that bitter taste it can sometimes take on, so perhaps my microwave strategy was wise? Fortunately for all of us, this information is often helpfully printed on the package that tea comes in, so you can brew at the temperature and for the amount of time directed and then taste the tea at its best.

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Color

Color can tell you a whole lot about a wine. Is your white wine pale, golden or hay-colored? Is your red a bright claret or a deep opaque purple? (Yes, readers, I’ve done a lot of wine tasting, those color descriptions took me about 15 seconds to type off the top of my head.) Color may be something pretty to take in, but can also tell you about what to expect when you take a sip of a glass of wine. And yup, tea is oh-so-similar. If you’re a tea drinker, you probably already know that the darker the color, typically the stronger the brew. And as you saw from the first section that outlines the 6 categories of tea, many of the ‘categories’ are really colors – black, green, white, and yellow. Because the tea leaves and/or processing method vary to produce those different tea types, the taste you can expect from the color also varies. Next time you have tea or wine, take the moment to savor the color as well =)

Wine tasting "with" the Queen
Wine tasting “with” the Queen

Importance of Smell

Usually for me I can tell whether I think I’ll like a wine or not based solely on its aroma. Is it pleasant to sniff? Or do you have a cozy moment inhaling the perfume of a piping hot cup of tea before your first sip? They say that taste can be up to 80 or 90% smell, and it turns out to be quite true. If you’re raising something to your mouth and it doesn’t smell appealing, you may not even get to your first sip. Not only does the aroma of tea and wine give you some kind of indication of whether you’ll like what you’re about to drink, but it will also set a baseline of what flavors you can expect when you do.

Tasting Notes

They give you tasting notes at tea tastings too, something I was delighted to discover. Although I can tell from a sniff if I think I’ll like something or not, I don’t have the most developed sense of smell in terms of discerning particular aromas. So it’s nice when there is some specific fruit or aroma I can hunt for as I sip based on what someone else has sensed. Tasting notes help me to appreciate the wine in a new way, and has a similar effect when I’m tasting tea. I may not always agree, but it’s good to have a starting point, and a little guidance from the experts helps me develop my own expertise over time, no matter how slowly I progress.

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Taste in Order from Mild to Bold

At my first tea tasting, when it was explained that we would be tasting the teas in a particular order from mild to bold it was again something I hadn’t considered before but made complete sense. Of course for me, I also find it fun to sometimes jump back to an earlier tea or wine sip, as the taste will change a bit if you taste something milder after one of the bolder options. I’ll even do this sometimes if I have loaded up a plate of food at a buffet – start with the most delicate dish while my palate is clear so I can appreciate it properly, the move on to the more bold flavors of the other food. Speaking of which…

Used for Cooking

Wine and tea are both liquids that can be added to a meal as you cook to impart some additional flavor or note. The alcohol in wine boils off when exposed to heat, so you are just left with the flavor when adding wine to a risotto, sauce, or stew. Even boiling it off can be a sauce in itself, like a red wine reduction you might put on a steak. Of course, a liquid like tea (or the leaves themselves) can also impart flavor to food. And the same way that the grapes from wine-making can be used to infuse hard liqueur to create a grappa, tea leaves can be used to infuse liquids other than water. Many ‘cooking with tea’ recipes involve using tea to infuse the dairy used to make desserts, like ice cream or panna cotta, but tea can also be used in stocks, marinades, or poaching liquids. Since tea comes from leaves, it could also be part of a spice rub or used to infuse condiments like oils and vinegars. The nice part about cooking with wine or tea is that it gives people who wouldn’t normally consume them an alternate way to appreciate it.

Can Be Paired with Different Dishes

I doubt I had ever considered the possibility of pairing teas with different course of a meal, but when I heard the suggestion from my friend “The Tea Lady,” I was intrigued. Just as you would pair certain wines with particular dishes, either because they have similar notes that tie together, or because it poses an interesting contrast of tastes, the same principles apply to pairing tea with food. Some teas are more earthy while others are more floral or smoky, and can make your taste buds appreciate your bites of food that much more.

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When it’s good, take some home with you!

When you get a chance to taste a lot of different varieties, whether of tea or wine, you’ll know which ones you’d like to purchase instead of just guessing at a tea store or wine shop. While I often like teas and wines that are considered the “best,” sometimes it is the tea or wine a tier or two down from the top of the line that I enjoy the most. Plus for me, sipping a tea or wine when I’ve seen where the plants grow and procured it at the source is just another (very sensory) way of remembering my travels and bringing a smile to my face wherever I am when I enjoy it.

 

I’m not sure if it’s just a quirk of my personality or a love of food and drink, but I find both tea and wine tasting incredibly interesting (and delicious). Are you a wine aficionado? Take a chance and explore some new teas that you may have never even heard of before. Are you a daily tea drinker who doesn’t usually go for wine? Take a chance and venture into new wine territory. For example, you may find that if you like floral teas, there is an aromatic wine for you.

Really, there are so many varieties of tea and wine, there’s bound to be something for everyone even if you don’t consider yourself a “tea person” or a “wine drinker.” What do you like most about tasting different types of tea? Or doing a wine tasting?

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Travel Checklists & Why Even the Most Experienced Traveler Needs Them

Travel Checklists & Why Even the Most Experienced Traveler Needs Them

We’ve all been there. You think you’ve packed everything, done a thorough check, and then ten minutes after you’ve left for the airport you remember – that key item you meant to bring, that will now sit at home for the duration of your time away. Sometimes for me it’s even hours later that I suddenly realize in a panic what it is that I’ve forgotten.

Fortunately it’s usually some non-essential item I can do without. And after that one time in Washington, DC that I forgot my passport at home (and very luckily had time to metro back, retrieve it, and still make my flight), I always do a final check walking out the door that at a minimum I have my passport and ATM/credit cards so I have a way to buy anything else I may have forgotten.

But the danger area for so many travelers – and especially us frequent travelers – is that you get complacent and have this false sense of security that you know what you’re doing when booking travel. Which is of course when you make the most egregious oversights and end up stuck with an inconvenient travel itinerary or miserable hotel booking. Checklists may seem elementary, but even experts get better results by using them, as many doctors can attest to.

This past summer, when in the course of a week I had inadvertently booked a smoking hotel room & a friend who’s also a frequent traveler booked a flight for 6am instead of 6pm, I knew that I had to put up some booking checklists on the website, both for me and also for all those other travelers out there. Before clicking that “confirm” button to commit to a flight booking or hotel reservation, run through the relevant checklist now in the Travel Savvy Gal ‘Travel Resources’ section:

Travel Checklist: Booking Flights

Before purchasing your next flight, do a quick check of these items, especially if you’re comparing the costs of multiple itineraries

Travel Checklist: Booking Accommodations

Things to check to ensure you don’t have any unpleasant surprises when you arrive on holiday

Travel Checklist: To Do List (Pre-Trip)

Things to check or look into *before* you take your next trip

Travel Checklist: Packing Must Haves (everything else you can buy in a pinch)

Your last reality check before you walk out the door

 

What is on *your* travel checklist??

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Top Aperitivo Spots in Milan

Top Aperitivo Spots in Milan

 

Whether you’re a visitor who’s looking to do some aperitivo hopping one of your nights in Milan, or you live in Milan and are looking to add some new aperitivo places to your repertoire, there are a wealth of options to choose from. If you’re not familiar, aperitivo is not only a pre-dinner drink to whet your appetite, but also includes some small snacks at a minimum. And in some cases, a full buffet of food that can substitute for dinner. Check out a previous blog post for more about aperitivo, what drinks are typical, and why you want to experience it first-hand.

In general, aperitivo lasts from around 6 to 9pm, although exact hours vary place to place. If you’d like to sit outside or arrive several hours in, you may want to make a reservation. Otherwise, your best bet can just be to show up early and snag a table then. Most drinks are in the 8-12 range, although the posher places will be a bit pricier. And at some – but not all – places, your second drink (seconda consumazione) will be at a slightly cheaper price.

Milan is the city where aperitivo originated, so there are seemingly endless options for where to go Two neighborhoods have clusters of places for aperitivo: Corso Sempione close to the Arch of Peace (Arco della Pace) and Milan’s canal zone called Navigli, close to the Porta Genova metro stop on the green line. If you’re going to do some aperitivo hopping, the Navigli area is probably the best place to go as it has the most variety and certainly the largest number of options. But there are great options all across the city, which I’ve listed in two different categories, based on how much food you’ll get along with your drink:

Drinks and Nibbles

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Aperol Terrace

Come early to snag a seat on their outdoor terrace overlooking the Duomo, Milan’s central cathedral. Aperol is one of the main spritz ingredients, and there cocktail list has an interesting variety of Aperol cocktails to choose from (as well as other drinks). Small bites will arrive with your drinks, and are great nibbles as you sip your drink and enjoy the view.

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Lacerba

Off the yellow line of the metro and several tram spots, there is a cocktail bar and sister restaurant next door, and the cocktails are exceptional. There are tons of options, all well-balanced and with some interesting flavor combinations. There is a fairly sizeable plate of snacks that will arrive with your drinks, which can even be made vegetarian – just ask your server.

Mag Cafe

Located in the Navigli canal zone, this is often a first stop for me on a night of aperitivo bar hopping because the cocktails are excellent and if the outdoor seating is full, it is equally fun in the quirky inside seating. And when your drink is served, in addition to a small plate of charcuterie and cheese, there is usually some kind of cute accompaniment. My most recent cocktail there came with its own custom postcard, which includes the recipe for the drink.

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Nottingham Forest

The only Milan spot to be voted as one of the World’s 50 Best Bars, the cocktails here are works of art and whimsy. It’s quite tiny, so either reserve or be waiting outside the door when the bar opens. And plan to spend a bit of time here, as it may take you the first half hour just to leaf through the book that serves as the menu and make your choice. The drinks are not only delicious, but fun – the one meant to be like a science experiment is bright blue and arrives in a beaker with what looks like soap suds up top. Another in a high heel. So yeah, it’s that kind of place, with small plates of nibbles to accompany your cocktails creations.

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Rita & Cocktails

This spot is a bit further up the Naviglio Grande in the canal zone from the main entry point, so it takes a bit longer to fill up and get busy, so it’s a great spot to seek out later in the evening. The cocktail list is interesting and vast, but presented in a manageable little booklet to help you decide based on what flavors you’d like. There are quite a few small snacks that come with the drinks, but there is also a full kitchen so if you stick around long enough you can also order a proper dinner dish, which is also tasty.

UGO

This is another spot in the Navigli zone, with small snacks so the focus is on the cocktails. There is a shorter set list of cocktails here, which makes deciding a bit easier than some of the other spots on this list. And since it is on a side street and not along the canal itself, it tends to be more relaxed while still lively. Even arriving later in the evening, I’ve never had to wait long for a seat.

Drinks and Full Food Buffet

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Of this list of top aperitivo spots that include a full buffet, I like the cocktails here best, and you’ll pay a premium for them. Which I don’t mind, because there is a food buffet that rotates throughout the night and is also quite good. This is an especially coveted aperitivo spot when the weather is warm, as there is a vast outdoor garden with a lot of seating. It’s also a spot to dress on the nice side, officially “smart casual.”

Living

This is the only spot in this post that is along the Corso Sempione stretch I mentioned above, as I find it to be a cut above the other nearby spots I’ve frequented. Outdoor seating goes quickly, so come early or reserve, and enjoy the variety of their high-quality food buffet. And if you’d like to hop around I’d start here first, but there are many other places to check out nearby as well.

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Long Island & Manhattan

I’ve grouped these two Navigli locations together because they are sister bars that share a kitchen, and are only a few doors apart from one another. You’ll get to enjoy piping hot pizza by the slice and dessert options, things that are not part of your typical aperitivo buffet. I’ve probably been to these the most of any spots on the list, because if you’re going to hit up one spot for aperitivo, you’ll get fed well here and get to experience the nightlife of the canal area. And the names come from the cocktails I believe, not the locations, so you’ll see many different variations of a Long Island Iced Tea on the cocktail menu.

Spritz

This spot has a similar buffet to Long Island & Manhattan, and is also located in the Navigli area. Its cocktails are notable for the many variations they offer of the spritz, one of the typical aperitivo drinks. If you’re planning to reserve a spot, they usually organize into two seatings: one around 6pm and the second around 8:30pm. There is quite a lot of indoor seating as well, so it’s also a place you can probably just show up as long as it’s not too late in the evening.

 

Was your favorite aperitivo spot left off the list? Or which of the places above is your go-to for aperitivo? Let me know in the Comments below…

Top Aperitivo Spots in Milan

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How to Enjoy Milan for the Holidays

How to Enjoy Milan for the Holidays

The first week of December in Milan is essentially the start of the Christmas season. The Feast of Saint Ambrose, Milan’s patron saint, is a public holiday on December 7th, followed by the national holiday for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception the very next day. And then the Christmas season extends until Epiphany, which doesn’t take place until January 6th.

In a country where nearly 90% of the population is not just Christian, but Catholic, obviously these church holidays throughout Italy shape the month of December and into the new year. And as the weather chills, the smell of roasting chestnuts reaches you as you stroll down the central streets and there are stands selling a steaming cup of mulled wine, or vin brulee. Signs that it is time to get into the holiday spirit!

Here are some special events to experience in Milan during the holiday season:

Christmas Markets

The big square, or piazza, in front of Milan’s Duomo (the main cathedral) is filled with row after row of vendors selling Christmas-related items starting at the beginning of December, as are the public gardens, or Giardini Pubblici. A variety of crafts and foods are on sale to help you find gifts for the holidays, but there are also food items for immediate consumption to help keep your energy up as you shop. Christmas markets in Europe are a destination unto themselves!

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L’Artigiano in Fiera

Loosely meaning artisanal goods in a festival or fair, this is hands-down the favorite market I’ve been to in Europe. The first thing to know is that it is massive, beyond what you could imagine if you’ve never been to a large-scale convention on the continent. It completely takes over Milan’s newer convention center, which is so large that its footprint lies at the very end of the red metro line as it could not be accommodated in the city. And L’Artigiano in Fiera features handmade goods, crafts, furniture, scarves, trinkets, you-name-it from all over the world.

Giant convention halls are devoted to a single continent or region, with stalls as far as the eye can see, and of course there are tons of food stalls and restaurants intermixed, with the best examples of Italian and ethnic foods you could hope for. Giant baguette? Check. A black truffle for 10? Check. A fresh round of Tête de Moine cheese from Switzerland? Check. Candied ginger from Asia? Check. It’s a wonderland for the serious foodie, and boasts the best selection of holiday gift options you may ever come across. It runs during the first two weekends in December, including the weekdays in between, which will be the far less crowded times to visit.

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Feast of Saint Ambrose & Oh Bej! Oh Bej! Market

Not only is this the local Milan holiday for the city’s patron saint with associated religious celebrations, but there is also a giant market called Oh Bej! Oh Bej! that takes place in and around the Sforza Castle from December 7th (the Feast day) through the following Sunday. The curved road around the castle becomes pedestrian-only and fills with locals doing holiday shopping or simply coming to eat their way through the predominantly Italian snacks and street food available at the many stands. Even if you’re not looking for anything particular, there is such a variety of goods, from artwork to kitchenware to fresh spices to jewelry that even without making a purchase you’ll be entertained for several hours.

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Babbo Running

Babbo is the name affectionately given by the Italian to the man you may know better as Santa Claus. So yes, Babbo Running is just as fun to watch as you might imagine. Taking place in mid-late December, this run to benefit charity usually has its course around the same Sforza Castle area that hosts the Oh Bej! Oh Bej! market described above. And the runners? All dressed in Santa costumes!

Christmas Midnight Mass at the Duomo

Although many Milanesi will be on vacation over the holidays, those who remain in the city may opt for attending midnight mass at the iconic Gothic cathedral, the Duomo. If you plan to attend, be sure to arrive when the doors open at 10:30pm to secure a seat. The mass typically begins at 11:30pm on Christmas Eve, December 24th.

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New Year’s Eve Concert in Piazza Duomo

While there are New Year’s Eve events all over town, one of the popular outdoor events is the several-hours long free concert in the giant square in front of the Duomo cathedral, leading up to the countdown at midnight. It’s also totally legal to have open bottles of alcohol with you on the street, which many people celebrating will bring along (do note however, that if you have any glass bottles you’ll need to stay outside the barricade – where you can still hear and enjoy the concert, of course).

TIP! If you spend New Year’s Eve in Milan, watch out for the people setting off fireworks in the streets if you’re doing any walking between parties or back at the end of the night.

And while you’re in Milan for the holidays…

Traditional Food & Drink

In addition to the mulled wine (vin brulee) and roasted chestnuts available from street vendors throughout the city, there is a typical Milanese holiday dessert that is not to be missed – panettone. Panettone is a large, airy, yellow bread studded with candied fruit. Markets will sometimes have them in miniature size, or you can even find panettone from the large loaf available by the slice. And if you’d like the version without the candied pieces inside, just ask for Pandoro.

       READ MORE: Best Things to Eat & Drink in Milan for the Holidays

 

What local traditions help you to get into the holiday spirit?  If you’ve been to Milan for the holidays, anything else I should have recommended?  Let me know in the ‘Comments’ below!

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How to Enjoy Milan Italy for the Holidays

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Reasons Skiing in Europe is Just Amazing

Reasons Skiing in Europe is Just Amazing

Skiing in Europe is on a whole other level from what I had become accustomed to back in the US.  It wows on every level, from the views to the cuisine to the exhilarating atmosphere.  As with life in Italy in general, you get the maximum enjoyment by behaving as the locals do, and embracing all aspects of the European ski experience.

Here are some of the happy surprises along the way:

It’s pretty standard for a single ski area to have hundreds of kilometers of ski runs.

Most places where I skied in the US (which includes several locations along the east coast and also out west in Idaho/Montana), you’ll have a few lifts going to a relatively small number of ski areas, with a couple of choices about which ski run you’ll descend. In Europe, getting to the “top” may involve a combination of several different chair lifts, and then there is a seemingly infinite number of ways to travel from top to bottom. You can stick to the same few runs if you’re building confidence, or ski all day without repeating a run.

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There is never a dull moment on the ski lifts.

When you look on a ski map, you’ll see the trails and the various locations of the ski lifts marked, but in Europe what constitutes a “ski lift” can vary quite widely. From skiing in the US, I was quite accustomed to the chair lift and gondola. I really had no idea there could be so many more choices. Not only are there chair lifts with different seating capacity, but there is also a gondola, a cable lift, a larger car that can fit from 12-50 people, and then the lifts I’m really terrible at: the “drag lifts.”

Basically “drag lifts” are a bunch of methods for dragging a person up the slope, with the dragging apparatus spaced at even intervals. It’s up to each person to hold on long enough to make it to the top, otherwise risk the embarrassment of falling off and having the lift come to an emergency stop. No matter how I position myself, I can never quite manage to relax while simultaneously holding on. There is what I lovingly call the “butt lift” (apparently more formally known as a button lift), and also a single or double t-bar one (like the one pictured above). I usually just find an awkward position I can hold for the whole way up, hopefully you have better luck than I do. But it’s all worth it, because . . .

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When you get to the top: the views!

Ski mountains in Europe reach dramatic heights, and are so clustered together you’ll get a stunning view of the other mountains and the valley below pretty much anywhere you ski. I’ll let the picture above – that I took from my table at lunch – speak for itself 😉

There are restaurants (really excellent ones) all across the slopes.

These restaurants are not just at the base, but there are many at the spots in between different lifts or ski runs. And it’s not just glorified fast food either, although there are certainly some basic soup and sandwich options, but you can also find pretty gourmet cuisine in the middle of the ski slope. With some excellent beers and wines to accompany the food and warm you up, and views to grab your attention. And when you’re done, you can ski off to your next run.

As I’m writing this post I’m remembering a Bon Appétit article about incredible restaurants along the ski slopes that a friend sent me back in 2013, which was one of the factors that influenced the decision to move from Australia to Italy. As the article notes about European skiing, “American skiers might need to recalibrate their idea of lunch.”

Après Ski!

This wonderful after ski tradition is more of a party scene in some locations, and more low-key in others (or there’s a mix of places). In any case, take a load off after a day on the slopes and celebrate another successful ski day with a drink, whether it’s something cold and refreshing or something hot and spiked with alcohol. Read more about the European tradition of Après Ski here, and why it is not to be missed!

There’s a sauna at pretty much every hotel or lodge.

The Europeans really know what they’re doing when it comes to relaxing tired muscles at the end of a ski-filled day. While you can seek out accommodations with a jacuzzi or hot tub, most hotels will at a minimum have a sauna available for use. When I am in the sauna, it never feels like it’s doing much, but you’ll notice the difference the next morning when you barely register any muscle soreness after the previous day’s exertion.

TIP! Europeans are not shy, and many will be nude in the sauna. You can keep your bathing suit on like I do, although you will likely be the odd person out.

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Pretty incredible cuisine at restaurants in town, too

Usually ski towns have a bunch of mediocre places and maybe one nice one, but I’ve found the restaurants in European ski towns to be surprisingly delicious across the board. You don’t have to put in much effort or research to eat exceptionally well. There will be more homey places with local cuisine, feeding the appetite you worked up all day on the slopes. And equally satisfying are the more formal dining establishments – some even Michelin recommended – with delicious food that is beautifully presented.

If you’re a skier of any level, and haven’t had a ski adventure in Europe yet, add it to your list. Not just for the skiing itself, which is quite wonderful, but also to enjoy the full European skiing experience, start to finish.

What do you love most about skiing in Europe?

Reasons Why Skiing in Europe is Just Amazing

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